Worlds Apart, Book 1: Below
Disclaimers are in Part 1
Part 1 - Part 2 (final)
"So, you've dealt with our little... research problem?"
Hackyll barely suppressed a self-pleased grin. "By the time the cleanup squad gets there, there should be nothing left of the specimen except a glob of stinking, rotting goo."
"Getting a bit enthusiastic, are we," Aljye said sharply, and watched the head officer of the CMI cringe in a most satisfactory way.
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler, sorry, Esteemed Ruler."
"The specimen is destroyed, then? What about contamination?"
"The UVS should have taken care of that, Esteemed Ruler. We emitted a double dose."
Aljye rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Just to be sure... flood the room with hydrogen cyanide, before the squad enters. And I want any remains of the body dissolved in an acid bath."
"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 red under the pale skin.
"Not very much, Esteemed Ruler." 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 realm 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 her 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 - any cave-in during the tunnelling into new territory was instantly sealed off and the workers quarantined. She personally saw to that, carrying on as her numerous predecessors had in the last centuries. It kept 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 for his kind. 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 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 on 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, blue orbs moved about while her head remained strangely still. Flax had never seen eyes that moved in their sockets. His own, like all those of his species, were rigidly set for maximum performance. Some said the eyeballs were too large for the skull to accommodate their motion - offering superb vision but needing the constant, ever so slight shifting of the head in order to create a visible image that the brain could render. As they had learned as soon as they were weaned, an eye in an immobile head was effectively blind. He 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 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.
"Step away from her." It was Nexia's voice in a whisper. Flax glanced at the girl 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, she might relax. It must be a natural Abover instinct for protection."
"For Aljye's sake, stop postulating and move back," Gabba squeaked, catching on to Nexia's thinking. She desperately wished she could move her head so she could get a close look at Laddie, but fear of the scalpel kept her stiller than stone.
Slowly, Flax and Nexia backed up a pace. It seemed as if the researcher was right in her observations, as Laddie's grip seemed to loosen just a fraction.
"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 thing off me!" Gabba shrieked, her ears ringing with the force of the vocalisation from the Abover. It had been harsh and guttural; Gabba was certain her own hearing had been damaged by it. What made matters worse was that she was effectively blind, being unable to move her head, so the horrid noises, combined with her precarious position, both served to heighten her fear.
Flax' mouth gaped open in astonishment; he had never heard Gabba talk like that before about anything, let alone a specimen. But truly, 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 the lab as all of her specimens were dead...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. Why was she being held? Obviously the Abover felt threatened by them. They must be able to do something to counteract that fear.
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 are harmless."
"We are harmless," Flax cut in, only to receive a withering look from Nexia.
"She doesn't know that! Come on, over here!" Nexia encouraged, sliding along the wall away from the Abover. Those frightening blue and white eyes never left her even though the figure stood stock-still.
Flax emulated Nexia's small movements and backed up into the researcher 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 sound 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 Alpha One." Her heart sank even further if that was possible. 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 lipless, pointed mouths, she was reminded of owls - rather ugly, featherless ones at that.
The creature in her grasp spoke. It was a soft, hissing sound, barely audible - and in a completely alien language.
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. "Gabrielle, 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 Tartarus is this place?" She stepped forward slowly, wondering if there was any way these... things ... would understand what she was saying. Wondering what they were, in the first place. Not vampires, that much she knew now. That body had 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 bard? 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. He took the full force of a raggedly covered pair of feet 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 coloured 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 dreadful 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 into the audience chamber only to be stopped by a pair of crossed 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 but was soon grovelling on the floor before the Esteemed Ruler.
"Who dares intrude on our privacy?!" The Esteemed Ruler sounded 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, to tell me the remains of the creature are destroyed?"
"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, I said do it, Gantar, 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 whispered harshly, trying 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 blue orbs stared back at her, shifting strangely in their sockets between Flax and her 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.
"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. "And 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.
"Sh!" Gabba spat 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.
Gently, 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 blue 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.
"Nghubwee-yell?" 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, "Guh-be-ell," she imitated.
A strangled sound came from the dark haired woman, 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 handed 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 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 useless. He glanced about him, desperate to secure his release. With almost weanling-like wonderment, his 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 whispered. She could tell 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.
"It's all right," she soothed, her voice low.
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 were like her, then no wonder their species 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.
"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 gingerly 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, he 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.
Carefully, Gabba placed the marker on the paper and prayed that it would yield enough ink. To her relief, a dark green 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.
"This is good, Gabba," Flax said quietly. "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 long 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 round object into her own effigy's hand. That must be the metallic circular device they had discovered with the body.
She proceeded to draw a line that went straight from the circle 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. "We've got problems."
"Operation requires clearance level thirteen. Please reissue in ninety seconds."
As he had planned, 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, they would have just over eleven minutes to save themselves.
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, Xena watched the reaction of her new companions to the strange sounds that seemed to come from the unconscious one's hand, 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 - she was calling them owl-men in her mind by now. 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 Gabrielle was. She had thought the older female had mentioned the bard'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 the bard 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 looked around the room for anything she could use to tie up the prisoner. She wished there was more light in this place.
The owl-men 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 barely audible to her ears.
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 Tartarus 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 eyebrow she got in response that she was failing miserably.
Hackyll was out; 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 be enough 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 woken 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 squished 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 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, that 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.
Outside, the footfalls of the approaching cleanup squad could be heard approaching.
"Quickly!" Flax whispered urgently.
Hackyll swallowed convulsively and draped himself over the prone Abover. Before relaxing into its role of a recently suffocated corpse, 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 tools to handle dangerous material, 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," Gabba 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 ate again...?
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? Wanna 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.
Aljye sat askew on a chair at the head of her conference table. Her foot tapped out an annoyed rhythm on the polished floor. She blinked a couple of times and drew her brows together. Where was that infernal Gantar? He had been gone long enough to complete his mission. She shifted, drumming her long fingers on the arm of the chair. If it had not been completely inappropriate for her as the Esteemed Ruler of Below, she would have carried out the task herself. She hated having to rely on others when the safety of her people was at stake. If she had any misgivings about having to dispose of a perfectly good officer and a couple of law-abiding - if somewhat too zesty - citizens, the knowledge that she was keeping harm from her world smothered any doubt. It was for the good of the community. Sacrifices had to be made.
But what in Earth was keeping Gantar?
Just when she was about to rise and pace with displeasure, there came a sharp rapping on the double doors to the audience chamber.
"Come!" the Esteemed Ruler ordered, and straightened in her chair. The doors swung inwards to reveal Gantar, flanked by two guards.
"Enter!" Aljye barked, and Gantar took a few steps into the room.
"The task has been performed, Esteemed Ruler," Gantar said slowly. He looked pale, and his hands were twitching. He was a bit squeamish at times, but not a bad hand otherwise.
"Excellent, you have done well." Aljye leaned forward on her chair, studying the slight figure before her, "You are certain they are all dead?"
"I set the program in operation myself, Esteemed Ruler." Gantar bowed to one knee and lowered his head in a pathetic show of devotion.
"There is no way they could have escaped?"
"None, Esteemed Ruler. On my life, I swear that the room was flooded with cyanide, nothing could have escaped it by human means."
Aljye's brows furrowed further. "By human means?" she asked, rising gracefully and gliding towards the prone figure. "What do you mean, 'by human means'?"
The man paled, and swallowed before speaking. "A...an expression, Esteemed Ruler. No living thing can survive exposure to cyanide gas."
"Hrmph!" Aljye snorted and turned away, pacing for a moment. She turned, "This you swear? For by all that is held sacred Below, your neck will be wrung if you are mistaken."
"I swear that the room was flooded, Esteemed Ruler." Gantar's fingers began to tremble.
Aljye noticed the slight movement and swung around, her robes billowing behind her. "Do you swear that they are dead, all of them, dead?"
Gantar's fingers trembled harder, "That I cannot swear to until I have seen the bodies, Esteemed Ruler. Perhaps I should return to the cleanup squad and examine them now? I attended your presence immediately, Esteemed Ruler, to make my report on the flooding. I have not had the opportunity to view the remains."
"You are babbling, Gantar."
"I am sorry, Esteemed Ruler, I merely wish to please." Gantar lowered himself still further, ingratiatingly. Then there was a muffled crackle.
"What was that?" Aljye demanded.
Gantar took a deep breath, "My communicator, Esteemed Ruler."
"Then get up and answer it, fool, it is most likely a report from the squad? You do wish to know the outcome, do you not?" Aljye's hand movements belied her excitement at the prospect of hearing about the elimination of the Abover threat.
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler." He slowly rose to his feet and nearly dropped the communicator as he fumbled to lift it from its position on his belt.
"Gantar, report!" he barked his name into the device.
There was the crackle of static for a moment before a thin, reedy voice echoed through the throne room. "Clean up squad wishes to report the removal of contaminated corpses from the laboratory to a secure location by biohazard technicians. Your orders have been carried out."
Gantar's shoulders sagged and he half lowered his communicator. It was only after a few moments that he seemed to remember that he was expected to respond.
"Thank you," he muttered, "Gantar out." He replaced the communicator on his belt and glanced at the Esteemed Ruler, "Now you have your answer."
Aljye's head jittered from side to side in excitement, but then, aware that Gantar was looking at her rather curiously, she caught herself. "Of course you realise this is a matter of public security. I expect all involved to forget anything out of the ordinary has ever happened."
"You have done the community a great service by taking care if this biohazard incident. But I expect you to be discrete. Am I understood?"
Gantar bowed hesitantly. "Yes, Esteemed Ruler."
"Now, for poor Hackyll..." She paced slowly. "We will put out word that he was with the party that went to fight a new invasion of tunnel wyrms to the north. Unfortunately, they have not returned from their mission, although I hear that they managed to put out enough poisoned bait to take care of the threat."
She rubbed her chin. "There will be a service and feast in their honour, and Hackyll's in particular. I expect you to attend. In fact, I will make you my escort!"
Gantar gaped - and well he should. This was a rare honour indeed, one until now reserved for Hackyll - but Hackyll was gone. The loss of Hackyll was regrettable, but she could not afford to let dismay or grief distract her from her duties. Politics were cruel, sometimes.
When the man before her did not reply for several moments, she wiggled her index finger in subtle question.
Gantar seemed to come out of a momentary trance with a start. "Yes, Esteemed Ruler, it will be my pleasure."
"Good," Aljye said crisply. "Make sure to wear your dress uniform to the ceremony, it will make a good impression and compliment me."
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler." Visibly shaken but trying to hide it, Gantar turned and walked out. Aljye chuckled softly to herself. He might be squeamish, but he had good head on his shoulders, that one.
"Well, so far it's been a breeze," Flax murmured after they had rounded a corner and passed through a set of automatic doors that led them out of Section 2a and into 1a. Immediately as they entered the section that was beyond the evacuation area, the corridors became more populated.
"Hang on a moment!" Nexia pulled on his sleeve to slow him down as they were passing a student lab. "Come with me."
They disappeared into the lab, after Nexia had told Gabba to keep their cargo out of sight.
When the emerged again, they were huffing and puffing under the weight of a heavy sack, similar to the sheet that covered the "corpses" on the cart.
"What's that?" said Gabba, as her hands motioned them to hang back until a passer-by had walked past on an intersecting corridor.
Nexia smirked. "Well, we said we had to burn a body, I figure it would be a good idea to have something to burn for real. I know the biology students have been dissecting lupides in there; no-one will miss this little beauty until they go back to class two Cycles from now. Hold your breath, Hackyll, he's a bit rotten."
With a joint effort, they lugged their burden on top of the two figures on the cart. A loud "Ooomph!" escaped from under the sheet. "Heavy, too," Hackyll wheezed.
"Hush, you're dead," Gabba said, and shared a wicked grin with Nexia.
Flax fidgeted. "Okay, let's hurry. The cleanup people won't be dumbfounded forever."
They made their way through Section 1a and over to Wing b through a maze of corridors and sliding doors. The crematorium, which was not so much for funeral ceremonies as for disposal of the remains of laboratory research, was situated on the outermost wall of Wing b, with an outlet into a maze of tunnels that could only be called a wilderness. This, of course, was by design rather than chance; it minimised the exposure of the inhabited areas to bio-organic waste.
Before long, Nexia stopped them again. "Wait!"
"What now?" panted Flax, who had been getting more and more nervous about hauling around a not-so-dead carcass that had been classified as highly dangerous, in plain sight of entirely too many people. A heavy one, at that!
"Surveillance cameras," Nexia said, slightly short-winded herself as she helped push the cart. "You don't come here often, do you?" she added wryly.
Flax mumbled something, but Nexia was going on already. "We should hide Hackyll and Laddie somewhere before we enter the crematorium. If we are caught leaving the place without having burned everything that we brought in, we'll draw more attention that we need." Flax barked a laugh, but she ignored him. "I know just the place."
Gabba gave her a level look. "You're very knowledgeable in these things," she remarked.
Nexia flashed her an uncertain grin. "I have many skills," she said enigmatically.
Without further ado, she led them along a less-frequented corridor that nonetheless was a direct route to their destination; a quick dip into what looked like an abandoned storage room, and they unloaded the live portion of their cargo.
As swiftly as possible, Gabba tried to make Laddie understand that she was to stay put until they returned for her. This actually proved easier than convincing Hackyll, despite the fact that he spoke their language. Gabba had to resort to another reminder of Laddie's ferociousness to persuade him. Laddie, with an acute grasp of the situation, grasped him by the collar to demonstrate, and he nodded fervent consent until she released him again.
"She's scary, Gabba," Flax said when they were back on course, having rearranged the lupide corpse to make it look more voluminous, to compensate for the lost cargo. "How could she have caught on so quickly?"
Gabba shrugged. "Animal instinct?" She looked insufferably pleased with herself for no reason Flax could fathom.
Alone in the dark storage room, the two reluctant allies appraised each other uncomfortably. That is, Hackyll was uneasy; there was no trace of alarm on the Abover's outlandish features, unless the creature's facial expressions were too subtle for him to catch. Its eyes darted this way and that in that disconcerting way they had.
He very much wanted to be somewhere else.
He took an experimental step towards the exit. The Abover made no move to stop him, just shook a warning finger at him. The gesture was enough to send flutters through his gut; the unpleasant kind. With a sigh of surrender, he sat down on a crate and propped his chin up on his hands.
Seeing that the funny looking man-creature was suitably subdued, Xena turned her attention to the room they were in. Anything she could find out about this strange place and the creatures that inhabited it was welcome; anything that kept her mind off the memories, off the terrible image of a loved face, blue-lipped and still, pale as porcelain.
She squeezed her eyes shut long enough to banish the vision. Then she scanned the room slowly, picking up more detail as her eyes grew more and more adjusted to the constant lack of light that seemed to be a peculiarity of this place.
Even so, this room was exceptionally dark. The little man was not much more than a shady outline in the faint backlight against the frame of the open doorway.
Crates and empty shelves lined the walls, covered with dust so thick in places that it was hard to tell the underlying material. Their entry had left marks in it, revealing a tiled grey floor. She wished she could communicate better with these beings, she wanted, needed to know what had happened to her, where she was, and how she could get away from here. She wanted peace, and time to mourn her loss. She did not know how she would go on; for now, she lived for the moment, more on instinct than anything else.
"Thrm bdf jdfhb dfjg, dfbn Hackyll."
The man spoke, his owl-like head shifting back an forth as it focused on her. Surely by now, he did not expect her to understand, but as soft as these beings' speech was, she thought she detected a hint of sarcasm in his words. She had half a mind to make him hurt, badly, for the way he had attacked her. However, the other three seemed to have an interest in keeping him around for whatever reason, and going by their judgement seemed a good course of action for now. After all, they belonged in this place. Maybe he was someone important.
That didn't mean she had to like him. She scowled, and gave him a deliberately primitive growl. Whatever he thought she was, it was clear he did not see her as a friend. She doubted he even thought her very intelligent. Perhaps she could teach him a thing or two while they waited. It was better than thinking too much about other things.
"Well, then, little man, tell me where in Zeus' name I've ended up this time," she murmured as she fixed him with a fierce stare. "It doesn't look like anywhere in Greece to me, that's for sure. And I know it can't be Tartarus. Been there, liked it better."
He looked at her with obvious fright, his fingers twitching in agitation. Of course he had no clue what she was saying, and with her standing head and shoulders above him while being easily twice as massive, he must feel threatened to the extreme. It was perversely amusing. Also, she figured he deserved a bit of distress.
She repeated her words, slowly, emphasising them with hand gestures that encompassed their surroundings, then spreading her hands in a way that she hoped conveyed her question to him.
"Greece?" she inquired, articulating clearly, and watched him cringe as if she had shouted at him.
"Mheee-now. Thst jdoph eep frouth," he said softly, scowling.
It began to dawn on the warrior that these people might have more sensitive hearing than she did. That would explain their soft voices and their apparent discomfort at hearing her speak, even if her own volume seemed perfectly normal to her. Experimentally, she repeated her words at a near-whisper, using the same gestures.
The effect was remarkable. The man's eyes widened slightly, and his mouth hung open for a split second, before he collected himself. He gave a soft whistle through his teeth and muttered something under his breath.
He must have seen the smug half-grin on her face, because, reluctantly, he gave her a slight nod of the head. He realised she had figured something out! It was a start.
Without incident, the small party reached the complex that served as the research facility's crematorium, and slunk gratefully inside.
Of course, the next hurdle was now in front of them.
Routinely, there were two staff members here, one inside a small control room that overlooked the furnace room, and another to help with the loading and cleaning of the individual ovens. The latter was usually a studenttrying to earn some extra credit and not too squeamish about handling corpses in varying stages of decay.
Gabba's spirits rose when she saw that the man working the controls today was an old friend. She was not a regular here, being more at home with fossilised bones rather than decomposing flesh. However, she remembered Anthis from their time as paleontology students as a somewhat wild, but essentially good-natured man.
"Hello there, Anthis," she said, brightly. "I didn't know you were on duty here."
"Being a scholar doesn't pay as well as it used to, and with three kids, a fellow has to supplement his income... " He grinned briefly. "Hullo there, Gabba. What have we got?"
"Hazardous material, to be cremated without delay to prevent contamination," said Gabba.
"Is it sealed?"
"Ah... no, but it has been disinfected. However, there is danger of bacterial development if it's left too long."
Flax scratched his neck, looking ill. The jarring movement of his head as he looked back and forth between the scientist and Anthis chased jagged shadows across cheeks that suddenly seemed hollower than a moment before. Nexia had a death grip on the cart, as if afraid it would suddenly roll away of its own volition.
"I see. I will need the catalogue ID." Anthis went to a terminal and tapped some code onto the touch screen, to a series of beeps and blips. A low whooshing sound answered him from the furnace room as one of the heavy devices unlocked.
Of all the times for someone to go all bureaucrat on me! Gabba thought frantically. "Look, we discovered this thing on a dig, and it turned out rather more than we could handle. There was no chance to catalogue it properly." That much, anyway, was true, even though the subject she was talking about was tucked away in an old storage building. Safely, she hoped.
Anthis looked at her sharply. "No catalogue ID?"
Gabba spread her hands and tried an apologetic smile. Flax looked about to faint. He seemed to want to speak, but his mouth only opened and closed several times. No words came.
"Name your section, then."
"Two B," said Gabba, quickly deciding it was best to stick as close to the truth as they dared. She caught movement at the corner of her vision; Nexia had reached out to support a staggering Flax.
Anthis' head swivelled towards him, sharply. "Not feeling too well, are you?"
"Uh," said Flax.
"Poor fellow, corpses always do that to him," Nexia supplied. "He's a sub today. His regular job's working a Moto-Digger."
That received a brief, sympathetic nod from Anthis, and a silent promise by Gabba to treat Nexia to something big once they were out of this. Yet again the young student's quick thinking had proved invaluable.
"Anyway, I will have to clear this with the Section Supervisor. Won't be a minute."
Damn, was all Gabba could think. This was not going well at all! They would have to have someone here today who took this job way too seriously,old friend or not.
"Look, Anthis, this thing is fast decomposing, and we need to destroy it quickly," she urged. "You know how authorities are - if they have no ID, it will take forever to get this cleared. Do you want an epidemic on your conscience?"
"Them's the rules." Anthis shrugged. But he looked subtly uneasy.
"Come on, you know me. We've partied together after all. Remember the days?" Gabba tried her most winning smile.
"I do indeed," he murmured, and it suddenly occurred to Gabba that this might not be a good thing. From his tone and the flat look on his face, she was correct. There had been some rather wild parties, back in the days... She mentally shook herself. This was not the time for reminiscing. And Anthis hardly looked in the mood, either.
Instead, he punched some more buttons and peered intently at the screen, shooting Gabba's party a glance every now and then.
Time passed, during which an uncomfortable silence spread among the waiting party. Anthis was tapping a finger on the side of the keyboard, irritatingly.
"Is something wrong?" Gabba said finally, when she could stand it no longer.
Anthis fidgeted. "I'm not sure. They seem to... well, they say you violated an evacuation protocol. That you failed to clear an area that was about to be flooded with cyanide." He scratched his neck. "You have been reported deceased."
"What?" all three yelled at the same time. Gabba's voice was taking a hysterical pitch that she could not quite get under control. She glanced at Nexia, saw her gesture furtively with one hand: "We should get out of here". She could barely make out the message with the vocal component missing, but with her own thoughts going along the same lines, it was plain enough nonetheless.
"I believe I spoke clearly enough," Anthis said, suddenly diffident. There was not even a hint of old comradeship in his demeanour now.
"In that case, I guess we'll be going," Gabba said, backing into her friends and pushing them towards the exit.
Anthis cleared his throat loudly. "I'm afraid you won't be. I have orders to detain you."
"What, for not being dead?" Nexia said.
The man looked uncomfortable, but implacable. "Them's the orders," he told them, scratching his neck.
"Great," murmured Gabba, keeping her hands from emphasising the words as was natural - this time, she did not really mean to be understood. Aloud, she said, "You know we won't just stand here and let them arrest us."
Anthis grunted something to the effect that Gabba had never done any such thing in his memory.
Flax whimpered. At Nexia's stare, however, he pulled himself together visibly, and flexed his hands.
There really was no time for big plans - before Gabba could even signal her companions that she meant to offer some resistance, Nexia had taken the matter in hand, giving the cart with the cadavers a huge shove towards a completely unprepared Anthis, who stumbled backwards under its considerable weight with a surprised "oomph".
Things seemed to happen in slow motion after that; arms flailing, Anthis disappeared under the cart as it slammed into his desk and dislodged the terminal sitting there. As one, the three friends whirled and sprinted for the sliding doors at the exit. Gabba hoped fervently the man wasn't seriously hurt, but the thought was fleeting. Getting away was important.
From somewhere, an alarm blared; the doors they had entered by started sliding shut.
"Hurry!" Nexia, the quickest of them, had gained a substantial head start and was just slipping through the rapidly closing gap. With a sinking feeling, Gabba realised that neither Flax nor herself had any chance of making it.
Seeing their predicament, Nexia hesitated just outside the doors.
"Get out of here, Nex!" Gabba shouted, even as she made a desperate dash to reach the narrowing gap in time. "Make sure she's safe!"
She saw the younger woman whip around and take off into the distance, made a desperate dash for the doors herself; felt more than saw that Flax was right behind her.
She never knew if Nexia escaped or not; the doors snapped shut literally in her face, forcing her to brake against them with hastily thrown up arms. A door on the far end of the complex opened and a squad of armed guard came through, UVS guns at the ready.
As one, she and Flax turned and slowly spread their palms out in a sign of surrender.
Being idle had never been one of Xena's strong points, so waiting in the dark with a weird and alien-looking little man, not daring to show her face until she knew more, strained her nerves to near breaking point.
She stood pressed to the doorframe, listening for any noises outside, her pale eyes flitting this way and that in a manner that visibly unsettled her unwilling companion.
It was clear the other three had set out to dispose of a cadaver that they intended to pass for hers. Whatever had been done back in the room where she had originally woken up in, apparently she had not been meant to survive - and somehow, that woman who was the apparent leader had saved her life.
That one was the key - if Xena hoped to find out more, she needed to try and communicate, and there seemed to be a certain rapport there. On the other hand, the man in here loathed her, but apparently had grudgingly acknowledged her intelligence. In the meantime, she had ascertained that his name was Haggle, while he had considerable trouble pronouncing hers properly. But she could live with being called "Sheeng-wa" for now. It was much more personal than being grunted at.
Quick, furtive footfalls brought her attention back to the outside of the storehouse. Her hand went automatically to her sword hilt, but of course encountered emptiness. Mentally cursing, she instead made a grab for the curious, small blade she had salvaged earlier. It had been sufficient to impress the others, but she still had misgivings about its efficiency.
Assuming battle-stance, she cautiously peered outside, in time to see a slender form hurry towards her.
These beings looked more alike to her than a horde of Maenads in a blood-frenzy, but she could tell this one was female, and she believed it must be the younger of the two she had encountered. She hoped.
Relaxing marginally, she waited.
Breathless, the young woman stopped in front of her. She was momentarily at a loss, but it was easy to tell the woman was extremely agitated. Wisps of near-white, thin hair - they all had very thin hair! - teetered erratically as she shifted her head in that curious way they had.
Presently, she motioned Xena to go back inside. The warrior could hear commotion from the direction the three had originally gone, and so she needed no further urging. She complied, though not before giving the other a long, menacing stare just to remind her she was still dangerous, not to be trifled with. She was rewarded with a clearing of throat and a nervous grin.
"Tker dniui ong Gabba poth Flax," the girl said urgently once they were back inside. This caused Haggle to jump up, some of his energy restored. The girl gave him a dark look. An argument ensued with both of them gesturing and articulating wildly. In the end, the girl seemed to get the better of it, and Haggle subsided. As one, they turned to look at their monstrous charge, who by now was barely resisting the urge to tap a foot impatiently. As it was, she stood towering above them, arms crossed and one eyebrow raised in mild query. Mild for her, that is.
It took a while, but in time she gathered that something must have happened to the other two; Haggle's smug expression being more clue to that than any attempted communication. She felt a pang. The other female had helped her, after all. But from the dejected set of the other woman's shoulders - Nexia, she thought her name might be - they were beyond help, at least for the moment. Hopefully, they were still alive.
Nexia seemed to want them to run away and hide somewhere. Xena, too, thought that might be a good idea. Anything to get her out of this strange place, and back home.
She shook herself. No place would be home for her again, not any time soon. At the very least, she vowed to find Gabrielle's remains and give her soulmate a decent burial. Even this grim task was better than no goal at all; she set her jaw, ready for whatever the Fates chose to throw at her.
So it was that when Nexia led the tiny party out of the storehouse, through narrow back alleys and further away from the noises of civilisation, with Haggle muttering under his breath all the while, she followed, silent as a cat on the hunt.
Briefly, she had considered rushing towards where the clamour of conflict was, hoping to aid the others, but judging from the noise level they were facing overwhelming odds; odds that not even her own formidable presence could sway.
Run today, fight tomorrow. A warrior learned that lesson early, or not at all. And so she ran.
Despite their stealth - astonishingly, the huge Abover moved the most silently of them all! - before long Nexia could hear sounds of pursuit.
The boundaries of the inhabited area were drawing close, but the unmistakable sound of the sirens proclaiming squads of police out on a search were everywhere. On her own, she might have flitted right past them - she had before. Luckily, Gabba had never inquired about the more shady side of her favourite student's existence. Suffice it to say Nexia knew the nooks and crannies of the city as well as anyone.
But slipping a party of three past watchful eyes, not to mention sensors, surveillance cameras and motion detectors - that was another matter. Especially when one member of said party towered head and shoulders above the others. Yet she had promised Gabba she'd see the Abover safe... and she could think of only one thing to do.
Hackyll was still struggling with the fact that his life meant little to the Esteemed ruler; she had, after all, issued a cyanide flooding when she must have known he was in that room. That stung, moreso because in fleeing with the creature and its liberators, however unwillingly, he was now effectively an outlaw.
Such thoughts were churning in his mind as they stole through the storage complex of the research facility, several squads of military police - his own men, Hells Above! - hot in pursuit. His musings were interrupted when the girl, Nexia, addressed him quietly.
"Do you know the layout of this area?"
He nodded. What was she up to?
"Do you think you can get her into the outer tunnels? I... there's a hideout there I can direct you to." She looked momentarily uncomfortable. "It's stocked with some dried food and reasonably safe from lupides and tunnel wyrms... well?"
Hackyll hesitated. "What...?"
Nexia looked around nervously. "Look, we've no time. Just get her there, and I'll try and find you, okay? Please! It's not like they'll be so very happy to see you again, you know."
He did know. So he shrugged, and listened to her directions. He would worry about how the girl knew about a hideout in the wilderness when he had found that hideout. When she was confident he'd find it on his own, and that he knew to avoid the surveillance instruments, she turned and sprinted into an alleyway, noisily.
The creature started after her, hesitated when Hackyll did not follow. He waved it - her, he reminded himself sourly - on urgently, hoping she'd get his meaning. For precious moments she stood, chewing her lip, considering.
In the distance, Nexia's overly loud footfalls faded, drawing a subtle change of direction from the sounds of pursuit. Only now did Hackyll fully realise the girl's sacrifice. He turned and slunk away towards where Nexia had directed, and was relieved to sense the Abover following him, quieter than his own shadow.
"I hope you're worth all this," he muttered under his breath. And, as an afterthought, "I hope you let me live long enough to find out!"
Aljye paced the length of her conference room; the only way to vent her frustration without actually exploding. The whole matter was slipping from her grasp, and there was nothing she could do about it.
She hated losing control!
Hardly aware of the two men standing anxiously by the entrance, she continued her pacing; let the miscreants wait, they'd caused her enough stress. Time to give some in return.
Gabba. Flax. Nexia. Three unremarkable individuals until today; certainly not the kind of people she as Ruler needed to be specifically aware of. Their misfortune lay in discovering what they should not have, but she could not concern herself with that. The greater good was more important.
The mystery remained of what had become of the Abover and Hackyll; fortunately that worker at the crematorium had shown such presence of mind! They'd been clever to try and cremate a substitute, but of course that must mean that they still lived, and that Hackyll was now either in league with them or their prisoner. She rather doubted the latter, knowing her head officer's capability. He could certainly deal with a handful of civilians and a prehistoric specimen. Surely, if the creature was humanoid, the reports were exaggerated. After all, how could it be as old as they claimed, if it was alive? Perhaps it was a... but that was impossible. It must be something else.
Whatever the thing was, it must be found!
Too bad this Nexia person was still on the run along with Hackyll, but at least she had the other two in custody. She had no doubt that threatening them with imprisonment or, better yet, with exile in the dread Above, would make them cooperative enough. Eventually, they'd tell her what she wanted to know.
Eventually, they all did.
And just for irritating her, she might exile them anyway. After what had happened this day, she was just in that kind of mood.
After pacing another length, she allowed the waiting men to lead her to the interrogation room.
End of Book One
Please note: Book 1 has been completed and will be rewritten with new characters for possible publication. I'm sorry to say that thus ends this adventure for Xena, but I'm sure Cair will prove a worthy replacement.
Comments? I'm at email@example.com