THE

LAST STOP



JEREMIAH DONALDSON




The Last Stop

by Jeremiah Donaldson


'Mural' cover copyright 2016

Print edition copyright 2013

Kindle ebook copyright 2012


Print ISBNs:

ISBN-13: 978-1490487564

ISBN-10: 1490487565


http://www.ephiroll.com

Jerry@ephiroll.com


All right reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the author.


Any resemblance to persons living or dead is a figment of your imagination caused by over population of the planet.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23




Chapter 1


Drim stomped snow from his boots as he stepped into the smoky tavern called The Crow’s Roost. The night had chilled him through his heavy wool clothing and the warmth made his fingers burn when he removed his gloves. One last empty table sat close to the roaring fire.

A foot appeared in his path, almost tripping him. He grabbed the dagger hilt underneath his cloak and followed the leg up to its owner, a shyster named Wilco Lancaster or ‘The Hand' to those aware of his reputation for lifting treasures off the most perceptive individuals. He’d gone out of his way whenever possible to give Drim some sort of grief since being embarrassed at a game of cards some months before, but stopped short of causing trouble with the law. Drim could send him back to The Rocks with the right words to certain people should he want to.

The Hand turned to a young man at his table. "See that? Wanting to stick us for a simple mistake. Told you to watch out for him."

The other person Drim didn't recognize had recently reached manhood and wouldn't enjoy adulthood if he spent too much time around The Hand. Along with his reputation as a pickpocket, The Hand had a gift for letting the fool riding with him go down in his place.

"What a jumpy squirt." The younger man put a dagger on the table. "I have one too."

Drim relaxed despite the steel being drawn. They knew better than to break the peace that Hans, the owner and barkeep, maintained. Hans required fights to be taken outside and backed his argument with a wrought-iron, spiked club behind the bar. Only one man had ever challenged the custom. In addition to loosing his privilege to enter The Crow's Roost, the cocky ex-soldier's right arm had been so badly mangled that amputation turned out to be the only option. No one dared to suggest fighting inside.

"Jumpy, no, I just know that when a dirty, craven dog is about," Drim nodded toward The Hand, "that trouble could be afoot." He winked at the young man. "Better watch your back or you could find yourself swinging a pick."

The Hand laughed. "Why would you spread such rumors?”

Drim kicked the foot in his path. "My stomach is out of patience."

The Hand pulled his leg back.

Once at the table, Drim realized why no one sat there already. The fire burned too hot so close. Heat radiated from the stone fireplace. He hung his wet cloak on the back of the chair and waited for the barmaid. The left side of his body roosted. Sweat drenched that part of his body. His hair felt as though it would burst into flames.

Marcia arrived. She wore a smile that went nicely with the low cut top she wore. "What can I get you today?"

"The special of the day and beer." Sweat dripped from his nose. "And maybe something more satisfying for later."

"Not tonight. Hans has extra chores for the bargirls tonight."

"I'll wait around."

Marcia frowned. "Maybe when you get a real house rather than that hole in the ground."

"I can make Regis give us some privacy."

That beer, piss water, right?”

Yeah, the weak stuff.”

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

He tried to turn so that the flames didn’t blister his left arm and his feet could dry but failed.

Finally, Marcia reappeared with a large wooden platter and a clay flagon. The steaming fowl had just been pulled from the spit. A chunk of bread sat alongside. His stomach growled. For the last several weeks he'd eaten once a day to conserve his meager savings.

Hey!” A man several tables over waved to Marcia.

She hurried off.

Drim washed the meal down with bad beer and cleaned the grease off his fingers with the bread that had been fresh sometime around lunch. He checked out the other patrons through the smoky room while finishing his, now warm, beer. Light from the fire and lamps created spots of deep shadow. The sound of rolling dice came from a far corner where men stood around a table. A card game took place next to them. Too bad he didn't have enough to gamble. Sweat ran down into his eyes, stinging enough to make him wince. About time to get moving.

He’d stood just as the door swung open into the wall. The freezing draft raced into the building, touching everyone before the bundled figure pushed the door shut. Stray snowflakes swirled in the warm air just long enough to be seen before melting away.

A vaguely familiar guardsman brushed his hood and hair back into place. “This man," he held up a sheet of parchment with a drawing, "is wanted for crimes against the king."

Did anyone catch his father’s murderer?” Someone yelled from a dark corner, drawing laughter.

Drim suppressed a grin. King Jarkonatak resided in Hectron, a few days inland to the west of Centros, whose father's murder at the beginning of winter had triggered a cleansing that went far beyond looking for conspirators. This was the second time the chase had led to Centros.

The guardsman continued after the laughter stopped. “He’s preferred alive for questioning, but his body will be enough to claim the reward of 500 silver discs from the Magistrate or Captain of the Guard.” He hung the parchment on the wall alongside similar, yet less rewarding, announcements for people whose trail had long gone cold. Another blast of freezing air whirled through the room as the guard made his way back outside.

Drim watched The Hand and his apprentice stand up to leave. They dallied for a moment to look at the poster before making their way out the door. He felt his chance at the payday slipping away. Soon, others would follow.

He dug through his nearly empty money purse until he found enough sliver to pay for his meal, trying to ignore the damp spots on his cloak that’d freeze once back outside. He hurried to the announcement board. The charcoal drawing depicted a man with a thin face, short hair, and a large nose that appeared to be many times broken. A name had been scrawled underneath: Mako.

Time to find help. Regis wouldn’t venture far from a warm fire, ale, and shelter on a night like this. That meant he could be found at The Red Wing Inn two streets over.

Drim eased the door open, fighting against the howling wind that tore his hood back before he could react to the gusts. Snow and ice peppered his face despite his efforts to pull the hood back up. The two street walk along the street lights to the imposing facade of the inn took many times longer than it should have. Four oil lamps marked the front door and steps. A globe of glass protected each flame from the elements. Shutters covered the ground floor windows for the night and only the door beckoned anyone foolish enough to be on the streets.

A blast of dizzying heat took his breath when he stepped through the door, reminding him of the dump he called home. He could never hang onto enough money to pay for such an expensive room. For some reason it slipped through his fingers. Rich food and drink. Bribes. Lost bets. There was never enough discs for everything.

Along the back wall of the bar area were meeting rooms that could be rented to make a special impression on a visiting dignitary. The kitchen, bar, and the small office where the owner, Fron Heckler, conducted the everyday business of running the inn were arranged around the remaining three walls. A staircase provided access to everything above while another led to the basement. In the center of the room, surrounded by twenty feet of table littered floor space in all directions, rose a massive fireplace. The ten foot square of stone continued up through all three stories. Four openings faced each direction here at the base where they fed the immense fire that burned during every winter night. The masonry released heat all along its length to kept the rented rooms above warm no matter how appalling the weather outside.

Regis sat at a small round table halfway between the fireplace and the bar. The only other person in sight happened to be Fron’s pimple faced, dimwitted son, who maintained the fire and freed Fron and his wife for everything that required thought.

A silver disc flashed in the firelight as it spun over the worn, scarred surface of the table, stumbling over some of the deeper marks until reaching one that knocked it over. Regis chuckled as Drim approached and shifted his considerable bulk in the chair. Menacing creaks foretold of a wrecked piece of furniture. “Trust for a saphead like you to roam about on a night like this."

Drim pulled a chair up opposite of him. “Say what you want, but you‘ll like it.”

Regis sighed and smirked.

There’s a man in the city wanted by the king. One of those spies, or agents, whatever you want to call them." Drim leaned close to Regis, looking over each shoulder before continuing. “Point is, he’s easy prey long as we can find him. The Hand is even searching.”

Regis snorted. "The Hand is a amateur, how he avoided having his neck stretched is beyond me." He held up the coin for Drim to see. “I won ten of these from a drunken messenger that got snowed in for a few days. I already had more then enough to live until spring. There’s no way I’m looking for someone in weather like this. For all you know, and I suspect, the guy’s innocent. Sanity isn’t the new King’s strong point.”

This is good."

How much?”

Five hundred discs.”

Regis licked his lips. “What’s the name?”

Mako.”


***


This isn’t one of your best ideas!” Drim’s voice fought through the wind.

Protest all you want,” Regis said. You normally do anyway. “Lorendo is our best chance tonight.”

We’ll have to walk all the way back across the district if he doesn’t know anything.” A slight decrease in the wind made the words come out loud.

Regis looked side to side for anyone who may have overheard. Only silent buildings--locked up tight--greeted stood behind the street lamps on either side of the street. “What if everything else turned up dry holes? We’d go see Lorendo. There wouldn't be a reward if Mako hung around in the open.”

But Lorendo has never turned anyone over,” Drim said. “What makes your favor worth it?”

Regis stopped and looked at him. “I saved his life. Most people consider that of some value.”

Drim pulled his cloak tighter. “When have I ever said I didn’t value your help?”

When have you ever said you did?”

They didn't speak again on the way to Lorendo's house. Shutters on the single story building had been drawn and inside flaps pulled tight so that not a single dot of light showed. A deep ridge of snow had built up under the edges of the roof where it’d slid off when heavy enough.

Regis rapped on the sturdy wooden door just within reach of the nearest lamp.

A gruff voice called out from inside. “Who‘s there?”

It’s Regis!”

Lorendo cracked the door so that his blue eye could peer out--the other was brown--then motioned for them to hurry inside as the wind blew sparks from the fireplace all over.

The main room of the house served as everything but bedroom, reached through an empty doorway to the left. Another led to the chamber pot room which held shelves full of supplies; Regis also knew a tiny space had been dug out underneath the chamber pot room to hide Lorendo’s customers. Sweet tobacco smoke from a pipe on the table made the air hazy. An iron pot hung over the fire with beans cooking within. They claimed two of the four chairs.

Lorendo latched the door. “I suspect this isn‘t a causal visit."

Regis shrugged. “You remember that favor?”

Lorendo’s sat and picked up the pipe that he lit with a burning stick from the fire. “I knew it’d be something to do with that incident when I heard the knock.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “And you want to know about Mako, right?”

Yeah.“ Regis hesitated, giving Lorendo time to take another puff from the pipe. “How did you know?”

Lorendo leaned back in the chair, taking another long draw from the pipe. “The Hand stopped in here claiming I had a duty to reveal a threat to our king. Scumbag should of known not to bother me.” He leaned over and tapped ashes into the fire.

Regis glanced at Drim and back at Lorendo. “I take it you know Mako.”

Why the sudden interest?”

The king put a price on his head.”

Lorendo nodded. “No wonder he's eager to leave.”

Regis raised an eyebrow. “You’ll help us?”

It’s bad business, but I owe you. Do you know where the storage warehouses are down at the harbor?”

"I've unloaded more than one cargo ship."

You may be too late. Mako paid good money for a boat to take him into Pahron. The storm has kept them in dock, but he’s getting desperate. He wants the captain to leave tonight. You can find him in the fourth warehouse from the end of the dock.”

Regis shook Lorendo’s hand. “Thanks. I consider us even no matter if he's there or not.”

Just don’t mention this to anyone. It'd hurt my trade for word to get around that I’m turning clients over.” Lorendo grinned. “And I’d hate to sell friends into slavery. Especially since Drim wouldn’t last a fortnight and cause more bad business.”

Regis laughed. “Don’t worry. No one knows anything."

Lorendo filled the pipe with fresh tobacco. “Do you know what he’s wanted for?”

Regis shook his head. “Could be anything."

Lorendo took a puff, holding it for a few seconds before releasing. “I rarely discuss such things with my clientele. Good hunting, let me know how it ends.”


***


Regis cursed another wrong turn and retraced their steps two streets back. The storm grew stronger. Snowfall reached whiteout conditions when they were but halfway to the harbor. Any captain willing to push off must be mad, or well paid, as if there existed a difference. He couldn't even see the buildings around them. The dirt lane shortcut didn’t have the luxury of street lamps to get them through the darkness.

They stopped in an alley between the first two warehouses and prepared for what lay came next. Their only weapons were his size and Drim's hidden dagger. Visible weapons at night would buy them an escorted walk home.

The wind pounded Regis when he stepped out of the alley, almost blowing him off his feet. Doing so could be grave. Snow and ice covered the walkway. Any mishap risked sending them into freezing water that'd suck life within the space of a few heartbeats.

A door slammed shut ahead of them. Darkness and snow concealed the source of the sound. Fearing that the ship was about to disembark, Regis ignored common sense and rushed into the gloom. Light from the last lamp lit the end of the dock, illuminating the thick rope he almost barreled into with heaving water beyond. No one. Regis turned to locate the warehouse they'd been told about.

Footsteps he ran past were just filling in snow and stopped at a warehouse door with a crescent of snow swept to one side. This warehouse measured about ten paces wide and thirty deep with a roof as high as three tall men. He’d helped fill it many times. Regis placed one ear against the cold wood and backed off after a few seconds of hearing nothing.

He’s quiet or there’s too much noise to hear."

Drim's dagger blade scraped on the leather sheath. “Let's go.”

Use it this time. I’m tired of doing all the dirty work." Regis turned his attention to opening the door.

It refused to open, even when he eased his weight back to pull it open, dreading the squeal that would alert anyone inside. Several gentle tugs failed to budge the door so he yanked on the handle with everything he had. Ice shattered when the door flew open and he landed on his back in the snow. Darkness greeted him from inside the building. He stepped through the doorway. The air was warmer than it should have been, as if heated, and melted the fresh snow around the door frame so that it could refreeze shut.

Regis dropped to one knee and pulled forth a foul smelling candle, flint and steel, and a tinder box from a pouch on his belt.

Drim’s hand grabbed his shoulder. “Look.”

Regis squinted. A feeble glow came from behind a pile of abandoned crates in the back of the building. He returned the stuff to the pouch and stood. Nothing moved. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Not a single floor board cried out when he tiptoed across the floor and jumped around the pile of crates into the circle of light. He almost tripped over a man on the floor with his head turned backwards.

Drim followed close. "I told him running with The Hand would shorten his life."

"What‘d I say about being useful?" Regis pointed to a body at the opposite edge of the light.

Blood spread from The Hand’s head, but he breathed, making him luckier than the other guy. Regis bent to search him just as something swished through where his head had been half a second before. He rolled to the left and came up facing his attacker who’s powerful kick spilled him from his perch in the rafters. Dust rose from the floorboards when the man hit the ground on his back.

Drim pinned the stranger to the ground. “It’s him, I got—” A boot toe caught Drim in the back of the head, sending his face into a wood crate.

Mako jumped to his feet and pulled a throwing axe from beneath his cloak. “Amateurs! Die like the others.”

Regis flung himself sideways to avoid the weapon whirling at his chest. He grabbed a support timber and used the momentum to whip himself around, driving his shoulder into the much smaller man’s chest. They careened into the crates and sent them across the floor. Regis hung onto the front of Mako’s tunic while raining blow after blow onto his unprotected face before pushing him away to get rid of the fingers clawing for his eyes. Maybe keeping him so close hadn’t been such a good idea.

You're pathetic.” Mako spat at Regis' feet. “I thought Jarkonatak’s henchmen would be better sport.”

Regis clinched his fists, waiting for an opening. “You’re just a payday. Give up. We don’t have to take you back alive.”

Of course not.” Mako sneered. “Your murdering king can't let the truth be told.”

That supposed to be new to me?”

Mako charged.

Regis tensed to swing, but the target turned to the exit at the last moment. He sprinted forward and drove Mako through the door and spilled them into the snow.

Give up.” Regis grappled for a front choke hold.

A half solid knee to the groin answered him.

Regis moaned and slapped a thumb from his eyes. He slammed one forearm into Mako's face, spraying blood into the salty air from a broken nose. Still, he couldn't shake off the smaller man clinging to his clothing and trying to blind him. Then he connected a short elbow with Mako's temple; he went limp for the briefest moment and Regis pushed him away long enough to stand.

Mako wobbled to his feet--the lower part of his face a crimson mask--and pulled a dagger from one boot. "I underestimated you."

Regis' instincts took over, automatically blocking the low stab aimed at his abdomen and striking Mako in the throat with his extended fingers.

Mako collapsed, wheezing and clutching his neck. His lips moved but no voice issued. Fewer sounds as he turned blue. Desperation made him claw at his neck so hard that he dug deep gouges in his skin. He struggled for almost another minute before being still.

Regis, weary of being tricked, checked the body. A purple face and bulging eyes were convincing enough to make him believe the night had ended. He tied Mako’s arms and legs together with leather lashes carried just for that purpose. Normally, his quarry lived, but the lashes made the corpse easier to carry.

With the body bound, Regis paused. Drim would ransack Mako’s pockets, no reason not to first. The search turned up little. Just a handful of various silver coins that he dropped into his own purse. He went inside to find Drim covered in blood and searching Mako‘s backpack.

"Where’s Mako?" Drim didn’t look up.

"I had to put him down."

"Easier for us."

"Depends. He could've had a lot to say. Anything interesting?"

"Just supplies." Drim held out a piece of parchment. "And that."


M. Jarkonatak is becoming a threat to our affairs. Proof of his demise is worth double your normal price. K


Regis folded the paper up. “Sounds like someone is tired of our fraudulent king.”

Who?”

Regis shrugged. “Who doesn’t want Jarkonatak dead for one reason or another. Rumors say he kidnaps children to molest, murdered his father for the crown, and hunted down members of the former leadership. Not to mention the war with Notom.”

Maybe the next guy will get him.”

Let’s get this over with. The thought that we helped that bastard is turning my stomach.”

Then you can buy us a nice dinner to calm it.” Drim tossed the backpack to the floor. “You can be mad all you want, but who would Jarkonatak put that kind of reward up for?” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped out the door.

Regis looked at his feet for a moment before following. He might get to put it up for me one day.




Chapter 2


Dedrik hurried down the cobbled street. Frigid wind tugged at his fur lined cloak and carried flakes into his face. Snow had been removed from the main streets but some whirled around his boots with each step. He didn’t want to be out on such a day. He should’ve been pulling his shift inside, but when the Magistrate gave the Captain an order, the closest guardsman ended up with extra work. Today, that turned out to be him.

Only the Magistrate, Captain, or one of their seconds got more information than necessary. When the Captain told him to find two men called Drim and Regis for a special job, Dedrik nodded and went to work, even though he wondered why a known rogue and mercenary were being called upon. At first he couldn’t find them. The needed information flowed only after convincing the Crow’s Roost owner that they wouldn't be arrested.

He stopped in front of a bakery and wondered if he'd been fooled. Like most local shops, Yargo Mellun’s Bakery operated off supplies squirreled away before the trading season closed for winter. Black smoke drifted from the stone chimney on the left side of the single story building. Smelling the freshly baked bread caused his stomach to rumble. He'd been a regular customer since Yargo had cut his illicit ties and become a honest business man. Surely, he hadn't turned back to his past.

He pushed the thick door of the bakery open. A blast of heat washed over his face, causing the exposed skin to tingle from the temperature difference. He closed the door and pulled off his leather gloves.

Two men sat at the work table in front of the oven. Mostly empty shelves filled the walls from top to bottom on either side of the bricks.

Yargo stood. “Dedrik, how is my favorite guardsman?” He brushed a loose strand of long salt and pepper hair back from his pudgy, pale face. Dry bits of dough and grain dust decorated the upper part of his apron.

The other man at the table looked familiar. He'd seen that patched cloak numerous times. Drim. The short, skinny man always had a solid alibi or someone to back him up.

I’m fine but for this trip in the cold." He paused and nodded to Drim. “The Magistrate sent me for you."

Drim crossed his arms. "What would he want me for?"

Dedrik ignored the remark, turning to Yargo. "Seems I’ve found him just by paying you a visit."

"Didn’t know I had such important friends," Yargo said.

"That makes two of us." Dedrik sat in an empty chair.

"What does the King’s lap dog want?" Drim leaned back in the chair.

Dedrik shrugged. "Some sort of special job. My business is to bring you to Targo Varnes so he can deliver the details."

Drim snorted. "What ‘special job’ could there possibly be for me?"

"Weren’t you listening? I don’t know, I’m just the messenger."

"You should just go find out," Yargo said. "Can’t hurt."

"It won’t hurt until I'm in The Rocks."

Dedrik shook his head. "Guess I’ll just tell the Magistrate he needs to find someone else." He stood. "Good business to you, Yargo, I’ll pay you a profitable visit later today." He pulled his gloves on, taking his time and watching Drim. "Someone will get what you passed up."

"Are you telling the truth?"

"I’d have backup if sent to arrest you."

Yargo laughed. "Good point."

Drim glared at them. "Okay, I’ll see what he wants."

Dedrik held up one finger. "Next, we have to find your friend Regis. I'm to return with both of you."

"This gets better and better."


***


Regis didn’t fight the Magistrate’s request. And why not? He had little reason to fear the highest law in the land. The crazy king had decided he should live already and no one would go against his will. Unless his will had changed.

He walked at Drim's left while Dedrik led them down the deserted streets. Snowfall and wind picked up from another storm blowing in from the Sea of Anomalies to the east. A new layer covered the street by the time they arrived at the town hall where four stories of wood planked walls rose into the air with all the window shutters closed. The roof had a thick cap of snow. Icicles hung down several feet and were thick enough to impale a man should someone be underneath when it fell. Nothing had changed since he'd claimed Mako's reward with Drim waiting outside for fear of having some crime, rightly, blamed on him. He followed Dedrik through the door with shoulders held high while Drim sulked behind him.

A guard greeted Dedrik in the foyer. "You found your prey." The guard winked at Drim. "Too bad there's no silver for this one today."

Drim smirked. "Yeah."

The guard spit a purple stream of defo juice onto the floor. "Bet it doesn’t happen twice in a row."

Dedrik waved them forward. "C’mon."

The guard laughed as they walked away.

Rows of oil lamps along the walls revealed wood planked doors. Some stood open to reveal clerk offices. Only two had occupants, neither looked up. At the end of the hall, a larger door led into the council chamber where town officials met once a month. Dedrik held the door open while all eyes in the room turned to watch them enter.

One man dressed in light brown leather and black twill spoke up. His hair hung in a long ponytail and pulled his face back so tightly it appeared to be a mask. Targo Varnes, King Jarkonatak’s magistrate and the real power in Centros. The town council could make suggestions, the malik could approve changes, but everyone answered to the king’s court no matter if they were a beggar or the highest of town officials. Two councilmen were present, along with the captain of the local garrison, the malik with his advisor, and several guards. The councilmen tried to comfort a woman who shook with grief and clung to a charred fur cloak. A dozen wounded men and women in ragged clothing sat at the tables eating or sleeping.

Worry lines ran across Varnes' forehead. "Regis, always a pleasure doing business with one of your abilities. And you." He frowned at Drim. "There’d better not be more 'rumor's about you. But never mind that now. We have need of your services."

Regis shook his head. "I don't need work till spring thanks to Mako's reward last week. I just—"

Varnes' waved a hand as to dismiss any objection. "I insist that you be compensated for your time."

The room fell silent. Even the sobbing woman paused in disbelief.

"Of course." Regis glanced at Drim. You've done it again.

Background chatter returned.

Varnes continued as though nothing had happened. "Refugees have arrived from the town of O'Loot Hole." He pointed to a pale, thin man in tattered clothing drinking broth from a wooden bowl at one of the tables. "This is Old Armess, head of mining production, and the only person who seen what happened."

The man looked up at mention of his name.

Regis had been in the tiny town of O'Loot Hole once and seen the effects of working in the silver mines. He was prepared for the pale, black spotted face that looked up at him with eyes better suited for a dead man, one being white with cataract and the other yellow and bloodshot.

Old Armess held out his hand.

Regis shook it--suppressing a shutter at the hot, damp flesh--and sat across from him. "What happened that's bad enough to scare miners?"

A twisted grin spread over Old Armess' face as he leaned in and whispered. "Fire from the sky, boy." He threw his head back and bayed laughter at the ceiling until he was paused by a coughing fit. "The gods punished the town for digging into the World's heart. What the rock didn't smash was burnt in the fire. I would have died if not in the mine to make sure everyone was out for the night." Another coughing fit paused the story. "But I lived and led the other survivors here."

Regis shrugged. "What are we supposed to do at a burned out town? The Families will fix it soon enough."

"There could be more survivors," Varnes said, "and we need the stockpile brought here. We sent a messenger to the Families, but their response will take time to reach us due to the storms."

Regis nodded. "How do you know the silver is still there?"

Varnes shrugged. "We don't, you're going to find out."

"How much is there?" Drim's eyes sparkled.

"Don't worry about that. You just find it and bring back proof it can be gotten to." He slid a worn piece of parchment across the table that had been written on and scraped clean many times. A crude map was drawn on it with the mine entrances and silver hoard labeled. "The vault is under a small shed; a staircase leads down to the door. The keys were lost, but I hear that's not a problem for you two."

"Up to four days round trip with proper rest stops." Regis sighed. "Why don't you send a larger party to collect the silver on one trip?"

Targo shrugged. "A group is being put together and will await your report."

Regis folded the map and tucked it into a pocket on the inside of his cloak. "We'll need horses." And a lot of luck.

Targo snapped his fingers and pointed. "Outfit them with whatever they need."

Dedrik jumped to attention. "Yes, sir." He turned to Regis. "Ready?"

Their eyes drifted to Old Armess who cackled, pulling a strip of dead skin off his neck.

Regis nodded. "As ever."


***


His horse didn't like the cold any more than he did. Regis prodded it along the covered road leading southwest from Centros, past the farmsteads, and into the Dark Forest where massive black barked Vein Wood conifers blocked sunlight.

He led the way, having been to O'Loot Hole before. Besides, Drim couldn't have kept them on the road. He kept his cloak pulled tight and his eyes sharp for any movement that signaled an attack. Bandits lay low during the cold months, but animal attacks increased as food disappeared. Dread wolves roamed the forest and could run down a horse across the top of snow. Tawny cats ambushed from overhanging branches and sea bears wandered inland when storms hammered them along the coast. Nothing the single bladed axe swinging at his side couldn't handle. Hopefully, that wouldn't be needed since Drim always ran to save his own skin stead of fighting to save everyone’s.

The forest grew darker once the sun slipped past noon and less light made it through the canopy. They stopped and lit lanterns; one on each side of their horses, letting them see the huge tree trunks they zigzagged between. Afternoon passed to evening, then to night with little change in the forest around them. The horses were strong cavalry mounts and only periodic rest stops were needed to keep them going on long marches.

Pushing the horses to exhaustion put them on a hill overlooking O'Loot Hole by next midday, or rather a burnt area scarring the ground where the town used to be. Not a single building stood. Only shattered remains--and not many of them--surrounded an oblong hole in the ground centered in the partially cleared valley. Traces of smoke rose from smoldering debris. The log palisade lay scattered like kindling.

Regis rubbed his eyes. They were in the right place.

Drim shifted on his horse. "What if we invoke a god's wrath by going into a place they wanted destroyed?"

"Don't be stupid. I've seen rocks fall from the sky before, but none so large." Regis started down the hill and looked back after a few steps. "Hurry up."

Snow and wind had cleansed the air of heavy smoke, but the smell of burnt wood and flesh wouldn't be so easily dissipated. The stench upset the horses, making them anxious and hard to control. Frustrated, they tethered the animals to a tree. Regis unfolded the map and tried to match its rough features with the devastated landscape before him.

This is ridiculous. I should already know where it is.

Finally, he spotted the dark mine entrance. He put the map away and pointed at a place just below the mines in the south wall of the valley. "Somewhere around there is the shed Old Armess was talking about."

Drim pointed. "Right there."

"Where?"

"Left and just down from the mine."

At least he's always good for something. Regis shielded his eyes. "Yeah…I see it."

"I'll beat you. " Drim jumped onto the nearest tree trunk and ran down the scorched hunk of wood. He bounded from one burnt trunk to another across the blackened landscape.

"We're not here to steal it!" Regis climbed over the tree in front of him. "You damn rat." He caught up several sweaty minutes latter.

Drim smirked. "I started to think you had lost interest."

"What interest could I lose? You mixed me up with Mako. Now we're going to be doing these idiotic favors every time we turn around."

"Yeah, but we'll be rich."

"I will. You won't with the way you piss coin away."

Drim shrugged. "Rich for a while." He kicked a tree laying over stairs that disappeared into the ground. "But not without your help."

"We're not moving that." Regis leaned against the tree to prove his point. "You slide past and go down yourself."

"No way, you‘re already dirty from crawling over everything to get here."

"How will you pull me up if you have to?"

Drim frowned as he removed his cloak and handed it to Regis. "You're buying me new clothes."

"A cheap price."

"Next time it's your turn."

"Not if you're with me. You need to start being useful on these outings." Regis looked down and couldn't see the bottom of the stairs. "How far?"

"Should be close enough for me to hang down and drop the rest of the way."

"Fine, your neck."

Drim sat down with his legs over the edge and spun to hold himself up with his arms. "Here I go." He lowered himself out of sight before dropping into the darkness. "I'm down."

"Can you find the door?"

"It's here." An iron pull rattled in the darkness below. "Locked."

"Need light?"

"I‘m not that feeble."

Clicking sounds indicated that Drim went to work. A loud clunk came from the darkness below when the bolt let go.

"I'm in."

"Don't pocket anything."

"Who? Me?"

"Get what we came for!"

Drim didn't answer, but returned to the stairs and lifted a brown bag.

The weight surprised Regis, causing him to almost drop the sack onto Drim's face who, with help, emerged from the hole. Soot marred his face and clothing, making the whites of his eyes look bright.

Drim opened the sack and dipped both hands into the rough minted discs ready for the press and sliver perforator. "This is just one. There're hundreds of bags like this down there."

"They're waiting for the thaw to move it all to Hectron."

"Well, let's hurry and get this one back. Maybe it'll be our reward.

Regis sneered. "Doubtful. We need to rest the horses until morning."

"Screw them, they aren't ours. I want to get back."

"We'd be walking within hours. They can‘t take another trip like that. We need rest and so do they. Besides, with a good amount of sleep we can get back to Centros by early morning after next."

Drim's hands shook visibly when he retied the bag of silver coin. "The sooner we get back, the sooner we're paid."

"And you waste it. We rest here." Regis led the way back to the horses. "Give me that so you aren't tempted."

"Tempted to do what?"

"You know what."

"Could be worth making sure some got lost to ’scavengers‘."

Regis shook his head. "Just keep your paws off."

Drim handed over the bag. "Want to find some firewood while I unload?"

Regis held out his axe. "Have fun."

"I said I'd unload."

"Did you? Better hurry so I can get a fire going."

"Damn you." Drim took the axe.

Regis made camp as he listened to the steady thump of the axe biting into a tree. By the time he'd finished unloading the horses, Drim had dragged a good sized tree branch back and cut it into manageable pieces. Regis broke up small branches for kindling and frayed some bark to light with his flint and steel. Flames soon leapt into the sky. His stomach rumbled, but he couldn't eat just yet. He stomped a small circle into the snow big enough for all three animals to get their noses into at once and filled it with corn. Finally, his time came to sit close to the fire, trying to soak up all the heat he could. The temperature fell quickly once the sun left the valley in darkness.

"You've been here before, right?" Drim had wrapped his blanket around him already.

"Once," Regis said. "Three winters ago I escorted some new miners when they needed replacements after an accident."

"Replacements?"

"Whenever someone dies, a replacement is found from the miner's family. Competition is fierce; they're hierarchal and the elder of each family has the final say on who goes. Since the share is so high for the miners and guards alike, the family can live off the work of a few dozen members." Regis leaned forward and poked holes into the base of the ashes with a branch. "Each family does whatever they can short of murder to have the most workers present." He threw the branch into the middle of the flames, causing sparks to swirl into the wind. "Everyone thinks the king controls them, but it's the other way around. They were sacrificing their people for wealth before Centros was founded. No one knows for sure, the families are known to exaggerate, but they've been digging silver out of this valley for at least fifteen generations."

"Yeah, right. Where're the graves?"

"The dead are kept underground to keep from killing the soil with the poison that seeped into their bones from the mines."

"Old Armess looked like he did because of poison?"

"If you stay here too long, sores form on your body. After that you aren't allowed to leave." Regis chuckled. "Varnes thinks he's slick by sending us to check things out so his men aren't exposed to this place so long."

"Why doesn't the king send his own men to mine the silver?"

"Even Jarkonatak isn't crazy enough to mess with the Families."

"You want first watch?" Drim stretched out on the ground before Regis could answer.

"Sure. I'm not tired, anyway."

"Good." Drim curled into a ball and started snoring.

With only the horses as company, Regis grew restless. He built the fire up to scare away any nosy animals. A few green branches filled the nearby area with irritating smoke. He pulled out a worn whetstone and began rubbing the nicks in the blade of his axe, watching the dark forest.

The rhythmic motion made him drift off after being up for a whole day.


***


The size of the fire told Regis that he hadn't slept too long but more then a few minutes. The wind had slackened and more snow danced through the air, but the weather change hadn't awakened him. He rolled his eyes to scan the campsite. Drim was wrapped so completely in his cloak that only his breathing revealed that he lived. The horses leaned against each other to keep warm. Their breath made lazy clouds in the air.

Regis started to sit up, but stopped as a branch snapped. His body tensed. Little roamed the forest at night and nothing so noisy.

"Na ake resonan!"

"Utup!"

The words sounded metallic and squeaky like nothing Regis had heard before. Images of something from deep underground rode a wave through his imagination. He held his breath and let his body relax, hoping to pinpoint the direction of whatever roamed in the darkness.

"Ita pro weap."

Regis heard the words clear enough to place their origin behind the tree he leaned against. Movement appeared in the far right of his peripheral vision. Two figures, clad in silver, skintight clothing walked toward them at the edge of the firelight. Black boots reached almost to their knees and gloves of the same material protected their hands. Helmets like nothing he’d ever seen covered their heads in a clear dome. Pale, bald heads turned from him to Drim as the figures walked closer to the fire, around it, and toward the supplies stacked in front of the horses. Each of them held a black rod with a blinking red light at the end. The left one appeared injured judging from the limp and sparks shooting from a rip in the strange clothing over one thigh. The two strange men stopped close to where the silver sat.

Regis took a deep breath. They‘d never escape blame for silver disappearing. He pushed off the ground in one even motion and heaved his axe toward the Limper. The cutting side of the blade slammed into the clear bubble, not penetrating, but bouncing the hairless skull around in the helmet before spinning into the darkness. Blood spread on the inside of the clear material while the man fell.

"Fo th oveod! Tack! Tack! Tack!" The limper's companion screamed while he turned and raised the metal bar at Regis. The light at the end changed from red to yellow.

That can’t be good.

Regis jumped to the right before a yellow beam shot through the space he'd vacated. He grabbed the first thing he touched, a short stick, and threw it at the man's head before trying to untangle the dagger from his layers of clothing. A second beam struck him in the chest as he pulled the dagger free. His vision wavered, his whole body froze, and he crashed to the ground.

Hitting the ground released Regis from the paralysis. His muscles convulsed and spasms caused him to roll into the fire. He could only stare up at the trees while flames singed his legs and buttocks. Another convulsion sent him from the fire before major damage could occur. After what felt like ages, he twitched less and brought his body under control. The strange men were gone by the time he regained his feet, taking all proof of their existence with them except for footprints.

Regis walked to their equipment on shaky legs. The silver remained, as did their food and everything else. He scratched his head.

Were they just curious? But who?

The horses awakened and shuffled about, staring into the darkness. The men were still out there. Every flicker from the fire caused Regis to tense. A quick search with a burning stick found his axe.

Drim didn't stir when Regis kicked him in the small of the back, so he grabbed the edge of his cloak and spilled him into the snow.

Drim jumped to his feet. "The hopping hell did you do that for!"

"There're men out there. From the mines or the sky, either way we have to leave. I hurt one, but they got away." Regis dragged Drim over to the equipment and shoved a saddle into his hands.

"Right now?"

"Move it or get left behind."

"What happened to your clothes?"

Regis looked down at his still smoking breeches. "They knocked me into the fire."

Minutes later, they prodded their horses back the way they'd come. Nothing else moved in the frigid night.


1953

10.12.4100


Warrior 12, or WA-12 to the other Protectors, rubbed his smooth chin. Nothing had been heard from the scouts since the attempted landing four days earlier, but now a green light flashed in the upper right corner of his hologlasses screen. A message had been received on the channel he had been ordered to monitor.

"Print," he said, and waited for the hard copy already rolling out of wall unit.


Scout Report 1614

Ship time: 1953

Ship date: 10.12.4100

SC-7 reporting.


Initial Assessment: Planet is rich in natural resources and liquid water. Atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 18% oxygen, 1.5% argon, trace elements and a varying amount of water vapor, requiring little more then being filtered for us to breath. Temperature is low in the region to be investigated but well within the suits' safety margins. Gravity is confirmed at 96% Ship normal.

We completed several flyovers of the target area and tried landing to verify the existence of the radiation signature. A crosswind flipped the ship, causing us to crash. Our fuel tank ruptured and exploded, but the hardened crew compartment prevented us from being killed, although we had to remain inside until the fire subsided. We explored the area and discovered our crash had burned a large area around us. Ruined structures indicated we crashed into some sort of settlement. We explored a nearby mine and discovered it recently worked for the silver and not for the shallow pitchblende veins bisected by hand dug mines. Radiation levels are high, but not life threatening. Suits can protect against long term exposure.

We were interrupted by two humanoids on hairy, four-legged beasts of burden. They set up camp for the night after entering the lower level of a destroyed building. At night, we approached the camp and found them seemingly asleep. While we examined their belongings, one attacked SC-3 and knocked him unconscious before I could subdue our attacker with a shot from my tagger and remove SC-3 to safety.

Main communications were destroyed in the crash. Storms are interfering with the suit radios. This is the eighth attempt to report since crashing.

Nothing more can be learned without landing a larger party.

SC-3 has died of his head wound and his body awaits transport. I have enough supplies for five more days.


End.


He read it twice to make sure of the message.

WA-12 ran down the hallway with the news. They'd arrived at The Last Stop.




Chapter 3


0523

10.13.4100


The far wall stood two hundred meters across a floor sprouting holographic terrain. Men in black and gray skintight, military suits prowled among simulated trees and rocks. Red lights topped the helmets of those on the right and white on the others. Men on either side of the room tried to push across the simulated killing field only to be ‘killed' or ‘crippled’ if the suit's computer decided the wound wasn't fatal. Thuds from the low velocity rail cannon shots hitting the padded walls reminded everyone to look out since they were accelerated enough to sting through a combat suit.

The Director of the Military shook his bald head and watched Warrior-36 trip over his feet while trying to land from a long jump that was supposed to carry him into the middle of his ‘enemy'. Instead, the Warrior fell to the ground while receiving several direct hits across the back. The training program updated individual status on the DM’s heads up display.

"WATCH YOUR FEET!" The DM's voice squealed across the room from the external speaker in his suit. "TRIP ON THE GROUND AND YOU WON‘T COME BACK!" He decreased the speaker volume and turned to the Trainers watching with him.

Their three identically bald heads rotated toward him. TR-3 looked the oldest and--except for crow's-feet around his eyes--like TR-6's twin. TR-1, a young man with a square head and broad shoulders, towered so far over them that he required a specially fitted suit.

The DM glared at the Trainers. "You were supposed to have them ready for the reduced gravity. Instead, they're acting like New Growths on the first day out of the accretion tanks."

TR-3 cleared his throat. "The orders given to the Director of Repairs told to reduce the gravity by two percent instead of four. It's been corrected." He nodded toward one group of Warriors who broke cover and bounded across no-mans-land like people trying to learn how to run. "They're doing better than this morning."

The DM pointed at TR-6. "You were in charge of delivering those orders. What happened?"

TR-6 wilted. His face went blank. "I forgot to let the DR know when to reduce the cagnet field for the second time."

"You would've been removed from your position for such weakness before we arrived here. Instead, you get a warning. Fail me and you fail the Commander and our mission." The DM pulled his tagger. “Take off your helmet.”

TR-6 looked side to side. “Why?”

Now.”

TR-6 took it off, collapsing instantly when the tagger beam hit him in the face.

The DM turned to the other Trainers. "You two are responsible for the reduced gravity training. I trust nothing else will be forgotten."

TR-1 and TR-3 nodded in unison.

"I want a full report on all Warriors and their progress, as well as the opinions of all Unit Leaders after the end of the current training cycle. Carry on." The DM spun on his heel and hurried away as they whispered among themselves.

Let them, as long as they carried out his orders.


0545

10.13.4100


The torque driver whined as the last bolt holding the control panel tightened. Luck had been on their side. The sterile seals on the cargo doors held for centuries as designed and kept the vehicles in pristine condition. None needed more then a systems check before being powered up, even though every had been exhaustively gone over.

Warrior 92 smiled, knowing he had done his part to make the deadline. There would be celebrations soon. Maybe a bit of alcohol. Approaching footsteps ended his daydream. He stood up and brushed his white coveralls into place.

"You're the last one finished." The DM's face looked stern as ever. His hand always hovered over the tagger plugged into the wide, nylon utility belt around his waste from which multiple tools could be attached. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

WA-92 felt his smile fade without his consent. "I—I—We're finished by deadline. I had one of the Scouters added to my list because someone else had some delay."

"Indeed." The DM nodded. "Join everyone in lounge four. You have 12 hours leave. We’ve fallen behind and you have that time for R&R until your training cycle comes up."

The smile returned to WA-92’s face. "Yes, equal!"

"Get going. You get a zap if you're out here when I come back." The DM made a not so playful jab with the end of his tagger, laughed, and walked away.

WA-92 packed his tools. He knew the DM didn't joke.


0900

10.13.4100


The blue and white orb floating in space could have been Earth‘s lost sister. Only the land details distinguished them; landmasses had never looked as such on the Protectors terrestrial home world. A snaky continent ran along the equator with a jut of land turned north away from the main body until it disappeared under ice. The green of forests stood out most prominently alongside barren desert regions. Dark blue water lay to the north and south of the land. Ice caps reached halfway to the equator from both poles. Cloud cover hid half the globe, but radar filled in details missed with visible light.

They'd be landing soon.

Although, not as soon as the DM liked. He zoomed the view screen in on the planet with a few touches of the remote in his hand. Without the brilliance of the planet's sun, Yang Het, in the picture, the double moon system orbiting the planet stood out clearer. He vaguely knew that the star had been named for someone important and considered it a weak name, but kept such things to himself. That line of thinking neared mutiny.

A red dot appeared on the map that he used to block off a small section for magnification. Snow blanketed evergreens along a coastline wandering north could be seen after the screen readjusted. Green longitude and latitude lines appeared on the map along with two yellow circles with some curvy blue lines running from them. One encircled a dark patch labeled A. B indicated a large primitive town north of the burnt area.

"Equals and Overlord." The DM nodded to the four others sitting at the table. The Commander--or Overlord depending on how formal the greeter wanted to be--and the other three directors waited patiently for the update. "We’re looking at a primitive civilization. We suspect beings living at Site B are the same as those encountered by our initial scouting party at site A. The blue lines mark what is thought to be a road between them. Mapping beyond our immediate vicinity will take longer but we already know a much larger settlement lies to the west across a frozen plain a couple days away with the tech level these beings are at." The DM took a sip of water from a squeeze bottle.

"How long before we attempt to establish contact with these beings? We must have one for examination." The Social Director leaned forward on the table with her hands clasped before her.

"We're as interested in that as you," the DM said. "These things managed to kill one of our scouts. The men will be ready to launch at 0800 tomorrow."

The Commander nodded. "Thank you, Director. The floor is yours, Old Man."

The eldest of them, the Director of Repairs, pushed to his feet in a suit that hung on his frail body. "As of 0600, all operational transports were reported loaded. The Repairmen traveling to Alpha Base have been hypno-trained for the last forty-eight hours on how to set the perimeter up followed by Operation buildings. Even though the atmosphere only requires filtering for microbes, radiation at Site A cautions against removing helmets. There will be a shortage of suits once the colony population increases. We'll need to situate the main settlement away from the contaminated soil at Site A. We only await orders." He sat down.

The Commander pointed towards Eyes, the Science Director.

Eyes pushed his glasses up on his nose. The frames were pitted, bare metal from a millennium of use and said to have come from Earth itself. "Small scale uranium extraction can begin within a week of landing, and in a month our power requirements will be exceeded. Spawning can commence after the accretion vats are set up, but that can't happen until we know we're staying." He paused. "We still haven't come to a decision."

"Report to me privately when you have time." The Commander clapped and stood up. "At 0700 we will meet in the launch bay and address any last concerns. Carry on, equals."

The DM couldn’t hide his surprise as the Commander exited the room. Never before had he addressed them as equals, everyone was apt to use it as a form of informal address, but not the Commander.

Just more proof he grew weak. They needed a stronger leader to make sure the colony survived. Especially with the oddities found.


1300

10.13.4100


The Scout’s video from The Last Stop played on the huge screen built into the wall. Eyes watched it, trying to notice something he hadn't seen before. Only a few seconds of the recording showed the attacker, but the few images of the assault perplexed the whole science team assembled in the laboratory meeting hall. All the bald men in the room had been trained in the various sciences. Decades of study, research, and memory implants had made them experts in all fields. But none of them could explain the creature on the vid screen before them. No one could explain why a creature light years from Earth appeared to be human. Everyone argued back and forth about a dozen different theories.

Scientist 23 stood. "Equals, we may be witnessing the answer to the oldest question humans have yet to answer. We must map its genome for comparison to terrestrial primates!"

A murmur rolled through the gathered scientists as everyone turned to ST-14 who rose from her seat in one corner of the room. "But if they’re intelligent, as they appear, we can't treat them like lab specimens."

"Now isn't the time for ethics." ST-23 slammed his fist on the plastic table. "That thing killed a Scout. They're as violent as they're intelligent. Our survival on this planet depends on what we know about them."

"They're primitive," ST-14 said. "What danger could they pose once a perimeter is around Alpha Base? We may as well keep things peaceful. Kidnapping them to cut up isn't going to gain friends. The scouts crashed while examining a settlement and with some luck we can get bodies on the ground."

ST-23 shrugged. "Only a living creature will answer all our questions."

Eyes raised a hand to silence them. "Are you finished acting like our foolish ancestors who doomed us to this fate? We'll capture a live specimen for examination and release it peacefully. Maybe we can get one to volunteer."

"Are we sending out the bio exploratory team?" All heads turned toward ST-67. He was a tall, lanky man with a head that hung from his thin neck like a tired sunflower. "Changes may be in order."

"I have to consult with the Commander after this meeting. The creature appears human, which is impossible, so I don't have any more to tell the Commander than I did the first time. The team members will be informed if they are to prep and disembark with the first launch at 0800." Eyes removed his glasses and wiped at the lenses until restless shuffling sounded throughout the room. One of the scientists coughed. "And by the way, I have permission to revoke privileges if orders aren't followed to the letter." Eyes scanned the room until his view centered on ST-23. "Especially, anyone whose behavior could taint our mission. Is that clear?"

ST-23 glared at him, nodding.


1320

10.13.4100


The Commander leaned back in the chair at his personal desk. He could feel indentions in the back of the seat, reminding him of what had happened to those who had lost sight of the Mission. No amount of filling and sanding could smooth out the stray rail cannon hits that had been added to the chair at irregular intervals for the last 1500 hundred years of holding the mission together.

One by one, pictures of past Commanders of the Ship flashed by on his hologlasses. A tear ran down his checks. They’d all dreamed of what he would do the next day. Stepping foot on The Last Stop had been the only thing any of them dreamed about. Now the mission that had seen gallons of blood spilt on the Ship would be complete. Not a drop had been in vain. The beauty of its rightness lay before him in the bravery of those who had made it possible for him to sit there. His vision blurred. A knock sounded from the door.

The Commander dabbed at his cheek and opened the door with a touch of a button. He turned one screen of the glasses transparent just as Eyes stepped into the room. "How did the meeting go?"

Eyes shook his head. "We need a specimen. They’re human based on the limited evidence so far, however far fetched that looks to be."

"Have you gotten the team ready?"

"I thought that needed to be discussed. There are dangers and we know to be cautious, but there's much to learn about this planet."

The Commander shook his head. "It has to be done for them."

A screen flashed to life in one gray wall and began flashing the same pictures as on his hologlasses. A thousand years worth of Commanders zipped across the screen within the span of a few seconds.

Eyes cleared his throat. "All is ready."

"We can't fail, Director." The Commander shifted his weight against the imperfections in the back of his seat. "Failure is intolerable."



Chapter 4


0801

10.14.4100


WA-92 tensed, as he always had on the simulated missions, when the Scouter detached from the magnetic moorings. For a few seconds, nothing but blackness speckled with faint stars could be seen out the front window. Then the planet filled the screen and vertigo washed over him. The computer could never duplicate the real thing. Thankfully, he only had to start the descent program and enjoy the ride. The real fun would begin after entry when he'd assume manual control.

Streaming plasma flowed across his view as the heat shields directed it over the Scouter's outer skin, protecting those inside from the heat generated when they entered the atmosphere. He got ready. The alarm sounded for him to take over just as the small craft burst out from the belly of high, wispy cloud. WA-92 forgot about flying for a few moments as he stared at the wooded coastline and snow covered land beyond. The computer drew a reference grid over the land and highlighted Site A a couple hills back from the ocean. Touches on the control panel set the Scouter on a course that’d follow the coastline north.

"Mission has commenced," WA-92 said. "Team leader can now take the co-pilots seat."

More boulder scattered coastline swept by before the door to the flight deck opened and ST-23 sat in the unoccupied seat. "Anything so far?"

WA-92 shrugged. "Water, trees, and snow."

"Then fly because you don't know what to look for." ST-23 pointed. "Those trees are some type of conifer, see how they're green under the snow? And that shoreline is young, see how ragged it is?" He paused for a moment. "You all getting this back there?"

"Loud and clear Team Leader," said a woman‘s voice.

"Start recording now, and remember the plan—" ST-23 narrowed his eyes and cut his voice feed to the intercom. He signaled for WA-92 to do the same.

"What?"

"Over there." ST-23 pointed. "Smoke."

The primeval landscape seemed to go forever. Snow covered evergreen tree tops untouched by human hand beckoned. WA-92 took a deep breath to still his excitement and tried to figure out what to pick out among the sights before him.

"Where?"

"Just remember what you were told and land when I tell you to."


0855

10.14.4100


The Scouter door opened and steps extended to the ground. ST-23 stepped onto the coastline, making sure not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface. He looked from side to side at the narrow, rocky beach. A camera on top of his helmet recorded everything in front of him. The rocks proved jagged and damp; a purple growth covered most of them. He cringed at the thought of the alien bacteria under his boots waiting to enter his blood stream and wreck havoc.Massive trees, weighed down with snow, made the forest dark; their roots grew out of the eroded embankment that marked the boundary of the water and forest. Nothing could be made out past the first few trunks. Some couldn’t have been encircled by the arms of all six Protectors present.

"This is…beautiful." ST-14 made her way onto the rocks.

ST-23 shrugged. "The whole shoreline looks like this. One place seemed as good as the next." He pretended to examine a rock that he tossed into the water‘s edge close enough to splash himself. "I'm going to take WA-92 with me and enter the forest. You're in command of everyone else. I want a Spectrochemical Analysis of the water, rocks, soil, and any other inanimate substances you can find. Samples of any organic life should be gathered for our database." He pointed at the water's edge. "Start with that purple organism growing on the rocks."

She looked around. "We could take hundreds of samples from right here, are you sure you don't want to gather data from the forest later?"

"I intend to get some preliminary samples to compare with what you find here on the shore."

She nodded. "Our training will not fail us, equal."

ST-23 turned to the others who had exited the Scouter behind her. "You all hear that?"

"Yes, equal," they all said in unison.


0920

10.14.4100


After walking ten yards into the forest, ST-23 had to turn on the suit's light to see in the darkness created by the forest canopy's artificial night. He looked back; the shoreline and the rest of his team had already disappeared behind the trees. He found his sample kit with one hand, pulling several test tubes from it and knelt on the forest floor.

At first, he didn't know where to start. The ground looked completely covered in a soft carpet of tree needles that had fallen. They were dead, but the thick, red shoots growing out of the ground weren‘t. ST-23 tried to pinch one off and found that the shoots were woody and tough. He pulled a pair of scissors from the utility belt and cut a sample. Black, viscous fluid oozed from the wound as it slid into a specimen tube. The dark soil ran white with tiny bugs where he‘d brushed away the debris. Several of them followed the dirt he scooped up into a second tube.

WA-92 returned from a short foray deeper into the woods. "I thought you wanted to hurry?"

"We will. I have to take back something if our target isn't acquired. Which, by the way, I hope you've located."

"They’re half a klick away on bearing two-nine-zero. As you can see for yourself."

ST-23 looked at the map that appeared on the HUD on the inside of his helmet and stood up. A pulsing red dot marked a spot not too far away. "Keep your transmitter off and follow me fast. Make sure to activate your defensive systems. I don‘t want to be ambushed like those idiots sent to recon Site A."

He started running, following an arrow on the projected map as he weaved between the trees. Despite his heavy footsteps, he ran silently. The noise canceling technology in his suit made sure no one heard him. He slowed down when the arrow began to flash.

WA-92's voice sounded in his helmet. "There's a small clearing with a building ahead. A path leads away on the other side."

"Did you see anyone?"

"At least two different figures walked past the window."

"Prepare yourself."

WA-92 nodded and pulled his tagger free, extending the weapon to its one meter length.

ST-23 led them out of the trees. Unlike the protected forest floor, the clearing had a deep cover of snow, hiding any vegetation present. He bent, scooping some of the snow into a vial and keeping watch on the building in front of him.

Nothing moved except a thin stream of smoke drifting from an opening at one end of the structure. He stood and walked closer, noticing cracks between the roughly shaped boards. They had been filled with a white substance that contrasted harshly with the brown, lengthwise veined wood. The roof reached high on the front and sloped down toward the back. The snow had been scraped off or melted from heat inside. Empty crates sat next to a four-wheeled wagon holding a load of large clay urns and several more crates lay next to the wall. Many footprints led from around the corner to steps in front. Their building techniques were as primitive as the beings caught on the video appeared to be.

ST-23 turned his attention to the thermal image displayed in one corner of his HUD. A figure moved behind the cloth that hung over the window, then moved to the side and out of his sight once the thickness of the wall blocked body heat. He glanced back at WA-92 and motioned toward the cleared steps leading up to the door.

WA-92 nodded, raised his tagger, and stood on the bottom step. He took hold of the door handle. "Are you sure?"

ST-23 nodded.

The door opened before either could make another move, hitting WA-92 in the side of his helmet and knocked him off balance. He fell off the steps to the ground and sprayed the biped with a burst from the rail cannon. The pellets cracked as they briefly surpassed the sound barrier before entering the body of the being that had opened the door. The being gasped and clutched at its chest, falling facedown in front of the steps.

ST-23 jumped backward and pointed his tagger at the doorway. Nothing moved. "Our mission isn't over, Warrior," he said. "Get to your feet."

"Our gravity training got cut short—"

"Enough excuses, we'll both be reported by Lady SoD if we let this opportunity escape us."

"We'll be reported anyway once Eyes finds out about this."

"Let me worry about that. The orders not to examine a living specimen came from Eyes, not the Commander. Lady SoD spoke to him in private about our mission, and she assured me that the Commander doesn't care one way or another about how we garner the information we want. I‘m also certain that the DM will be pleased that the blood of the Scout has been repaid."

"Then why the subterfuge? Wouldn't it have been best for the whole team to focus on this?"

"Your job is to protect and kill, not think, and it's a good thing. What would Eyes do if he'd seen or heard our telemetry feed during all this? He'd make sure we were labeled mutineers before we got to state our case. Like this, I can present the info to the Commander with Lady SoD before his capacity to focus on the big picture is threatened by those who…" He paused, staring at the empty doorway they were about to enter. "Who have been corrupted by impure logic."

"You are currently my commanding officer." WA-92’s smooth scalp wrinkled into a frown. "You are responsible for my actions should the Commander not be grateful. Remember that…equal."

"Do your mission well and…maybe…I'll let some of the glory flow your way. I know the risks and know they are worth it should things turn out as planned. As team leader, I bear full responsibility for the group’s actions."

WA-92 smiled. "Noted, equal."

"So just worry about a cracked skull and lead the way."

"Yes, equal."

ST-23 followed as the Warrior leapt through the door with his tagger brandished like a club. Nothing moved. His suit‘s light pushed back the shadows. Bunk beds lined one wall and a table filled the middle of the room. Crates lined the remaining walls, leaving a narrow strip to walk around. A lantern sat in the middle of the table; the only light source apart from the little sunlight entering from around the fabric nailed over the windows. A doorway to their left opened to another room. Thermal readings showed the presence of large heat sources. He checked his sensors. The inside temperature reached well above the freezing point of water. They would've been comfortable without suits on. He pointed toward the doorway.

WA-92 pushed the fabric that served as a door aside and they stepped into the next room. A rough stone fireplace with a blazing fire lit the windowless room from one wall. Dried meat hung close to the flames. Another door they hadn't noticed opened to the outside. Two animal stalls filled the wall across from the door. A small beast of burden stood tethered in each. Long, coarse hair flowed from their backs and touched the wood planked floor. They seemed to be sleeping.

"You said there were two beings in here," ST-23 said.

"The other one must have left when I went back for you."

"Find him before he finds us. I'll start the procedure and gather samples." ST-23 handed a vial to the Warrior. "Get a tissue sample when you find him."

"As you order, equal."


1000

10.14.4100


ST-23 knew there wouldn't be proper equipment available, but the table couldn‘t have been better: Long enough to keep the body from hanging over and high enough so the operation didn‘t strain his back.

He meditated, calling upon his self-hypno sequence that cleared his mind of everything but medical training and knowledge. Gone; the tremors in his knees from the initial encounter with the creature. Gone; the awe he felt at having the chance to dissect the enemy they faced on their new home. He smiled and sipped from a retractable straw, drawing from the water supply stored in the suit‘s detachable backpack. His hypno sequence always gave him a dry mouth.

The being before him seemed to be a fine specimen and but a smaller copy of the one that had killed the Scout. He cut the clothing away from the body, examining cloth that seemed to be the same coarse material that hung over the windows. The design looked surprisingly similar to the basic tunics produced onboard the Ship.

He brushed the thought aside. Of course they looked the same. Did they not both have two arms, two legs, and one head?

The undressed body added to the puzzle. Ugly. Hairy. Fat. But identical to a male human.

He rolled the body to one side to examine the back and reminded himself how glad he was that hair had been erased from the Protectors genome centuries before. The process had narrowly saved them from a mutated strain of Staphylococcus Aureus that attacked keratin proteins and caused skin to fall off in pieces until the Protector became a withering lump of muscle, living inside a medical suit full of a green slurry designed to act as a second skin and constantly pumped full pain killers. It’d always surprised him how long some lived in such a state if they survived the weeks of having their skin slough off. Most died of shock. The clones bred for the future colony would be as hairy as the being before him.

There weren't any wounds in the back. Projectiles from WA-92’s rail cannon shots had exploded as designed upon entering flesh. He let the body lay flat.

The specimen blade split bone and skin both with equal ease, opening a wound from crotch to sternum. He put the blade down and shoved his fingers into the opening, grunting as he pulled the chest open with a crack of broken ribs. His eyes widened. The lungs, although black from constant inhalation of wood smoke, looked the same as those of deceased Protectors used for student examination. One had an area of damaged tissue correlating with a shot taken from the rail cannon. The blade sliced through muscle tissue while his free hand dug through the organs. Heart, stomach, liver, and intestines looked as though they could have come from a Protector.

Sweat beaded on his face despite the computer controlled environment of the suit. He closed his eyes, calling forth his training once again to calm his racing heart. The thing before him couldn't be human, but all evidence said otherwise.

ST-23 shook his head and ran his bloody fingers through the hair covering the being's head. The blade encountered resistance for the first time in the front of the skull; the bone gave way reluctantly. He pulled the top of the head off by the hair and set the piece aside. The brain quivered, then deformed as it slumped to the tabletop. He slide the blade inward and around the base of the skull, cupping the brain in his free hand when it came loose. All major areas associated with a human mind were represented, although, he'd never seen one devoid of implants except for the Protectors born on the ship. He let the brain drop to the table and wiped his hands on a piece of clothing.

"What are you?" He whispered to himself.

"What?"

WA-92's voice thundered in his head after the long silence, breaking his concentration. "Never mind."

"Okay."

"Have you found the other one?"

"I'm tracking him down."

"Hurry up. I'm about to run a field DNA test and need the other sample for comparison."

"What do they look like up close?"

"Too much like us."

"What?"

"You'll see, I need quiet." ST-23 cut all incoming radio transmissions.

He pulled his Life and Mineral Scanner out on its cord and pushed the tip against flesh on the inside of the body while a monotone voice called out a countdown. Anticipation knotted his stomach; he couldn't help but jump when the alarm sounded a complete test.

Homo sapiens.

The letters blurred in his vision as sweat ran down his forehead. How? A second alarm sounded from the scanner.

Extinct mitochondrial DNA present. Full sequence advised.

His hands shook while filling two sample vials with tissue from the body. Further examination would have to be done on the Ship. He had time to examine the beasts of burden while he waited for WA-92 to return.

He shot the animal in the head which dropped to a heap, but he held the trigger of the photon taser until he'd counted to five. A disaster would take place if the beast woke during the dissection process. He opened up their bodies for examination and put the scanner to their blood.

Extinct DNA. ‘Horse'. See Ship's computer for further information.

But he couldn't. A saboteur had damaged part of the computer during the Mutiny wars, resulting in the destruction of random information. No one really knew what went missing, but hints had been gathered from what remained of the information. References to horses and other mammals extinct after The Disturbance got corrupted. Sometimes pictures could be found without labels, but the DNA sequence and zoological information of most mammals were lost. Memories of them remained in the scanners.

He sighed and stepped away from the animal. His eyes drifted over the rest of the interior of the room, looking for something else to stick the scanner to. A crate and clay urn like those outside sat to one side of the fireplace and had gone unnoticed in favor of more interesting things.

The urn overflowed with what looked to be the purple growth from the coastline; water floated on top, running down the side. The crate contained dried pieces of what looked like the same stuff. Flat, wooden frames stained purple leaned against the wall. ST-23 calculated that the depth of the drying frames would’ve been enough to produce the chunks of dried substance in the crate. He pushed the end of the scanner into the urn.

DNA unknown. Unknown narcotic present. Full sequence advised.

He continued to collect samples.


1020

10.14.4100


The being moved fast--almost running--through the twilight under the forest canopy. WA-92 strained to keep him from getting away into the forest and leaving him to report his failure. He couldn't have that. He couldn't return with anything less than what he'd been sent for. Then the being stopped and disappeared from his infrared detectors.

WA-92 slowed, finding himself in full sight of any enemies at the edge of another clearing that he'd ran into unknowingly. The footprints curved along a crag that protruded from the side of a hill and disappeared into the forest on the other side. The base of the rock had a natural opening chipped larger to accommodate rough double wooden doors that were more than adequate to keep beasts at bay. Footprints covered the ground in front of the doors where an overhang blocked fresh snow from burying them; much of the ground had been smashed to mud.

"ST-23?".

Not even the crackle of static answered him. The Scientist must have cut his radio. Signal strength from those at the coastline looked good, but what would he say to them?

He approached the door, pausing with his hand on the latch to listen for any noises from inside. Cracks showed between the warped boards held together with a band of iron. Nothing. Wooden hinges screamed when he jerked it open and rushed inside only to be stopped by another door.

A face peered at him through a barred window in an even less sturdy door; they must not expect anything but animals to bother them. The pale face on the other side of the window didn't change when WA-92 raised his rail cannon and placed a circle of shots through the door under the window. Picking up speed, he hit the door with the heel of his right foot. The door exploded out of its frame and barreled into the dead being who had yet to fall to the ground. He jumped the obstacles as shouts came from the tunnel ahead.

Only flickering torches--placed too far apart to do more than guide the way--lit the interior, but the suit's light flooded the small space with blinding brilliance as four more beings approached in single file. Steel weapons rang as they bumped against the rock walls from being blinded by the light.

WA-92 waited until they were only meters away before unleashing a storm of magnetized carbon-iron bucky balls from the rail cannon. The first three fell, one after the other, giving the one in back time to run. He didn't get far and dropped to the floor in a pool of blood. WA-92 examined each body in turn, looking through the smelly clothing. None matched the saved picture of his prey.

He smiled at the ease with which he'd disposed of his attackers and moved deeper into the hillside, wanting to further test his training.


1040

10.14.4100


ST-23 paced back and forth in front of the building. A thousand questions whirled through his mind, but not one single answer.

He activated his communication channels and looked at the signal strengths. WA-92 didn't register. He stopped and looked around the clearing. Nothing moved.

Where could he be?

His pacing sped up. They’d been gone too long. Those on the coast would ponder why they hadn't attempted to establish communications since departing. Everything would be at risk if ST-14 and the others decided to investigate. He kicked at the snow and swung his tagger back and forth, deciding to take his frustration out on the creatures inside. What was the brain of the beasts of burden like? Only one way to find out.

ST-23 grinned on the way toward the steps, but he stopped when a flashing light lit up on the HUD; WA-92 reentered transmitting range. The signal fluctuated, but didn’t disappear. He opened the channel.

"…target…more…soon…"

He frowned. The tall forest hampered their communications more than expected. The signal lacked the strength for clear communication, but the faint sound of someone running across the forest floor came through when he turned up the external microphone’s sensitivity. The footsteps increased in volume until he had to normalize the input or go deaf. WA-92 showed up on his thermal scanner moments later and entered the clearing.

His voice came out as a scream before he could think. "Report now! How do you expect to return to the Scouter in that condition?"

WA-92 slowed to a stop and looked down at himself. Blood ran off his suit. "I ran into trouble. Here’s the specimen."

"No specimen you have is viable. Report!"

"I followed the being into a cave three klicks from here that they inhabited and guarded. A dozen of those beings were there, including my original target. Males and females. One young one. It seemed to be a gathering place where they traded goods and news—"

"Bah! Get yourself cleaned up. I don't care if there were a hundred! You've contaminated any sample you recovered and completely wasted your time. It's only fortunate that I recovered valuable information here or our escapade would be a complete failure."

"But, equal, how am I to clean—"

"The snow, idiot! Roll around in the snow before the blood dries on you."

"I don't think—"

ST-23 heaved a snowball at his chest. "Don't think, you don't have the brains of a New Growth. Hurry, hurry, hurry! How much longer do you think it'll be before someone comes looking for us?"

WA-92 dropped his eyes and began cleansing his suit of the blood with handfuls of snow.


1120

10.14.4100


ST-23 leaned back in his seat and watched the landscape drop below them during lift off. He had to contain himself. While ST-14 and the other Scientists pondered the source of the extreme weather, he thought of how humans could have gotten there already. The others had been speaking among themselves since he and WA-92 arrived back on the coast. No one noticed the time or their tension.

None of his scenarios seemed…probable, however. Sure, humans had enjoyed space flight for a few decades before The Disturbance put an end to such scholarly pursuits, but to land people on another planet? What few records survived The Disturbance were from such groups as NASA and ESA. Pages and pages of blunders. Entire volumes became dedicated to a single failure while man reached no farther then Earth‘s Moon. No one could have reached The Last Stop with such attitudes.

Mistakes were necessary. Dozens of rockets were said to have exploded on the pads before the technology developed into something workable, but it had to be done. The United Earth Federation put the first colony on Mars a mere twenty years after the first rocket launch. With the will and drive--not to mention lives lost as explorers jumped at the chance to climb aboard untested designs--space exploration jumped forward. Relics had been found. Thousands of satellites had orbited silently during the years that'd passed as society healed from the damage done to it by The Disturbance. Probes, garbage, and pieces of failed craft had been found on every planet capable of preserving such objects, but man had never set foot on any planet except Earth because the Lost Nations hadn't wanted to sacrifice any of their excessive population for the good of the species.

So he come down to even more improbable explanations. Either humans had evolved on another planet or had been seeded by…something. A God…perhaps…aliens?

ST-23 blinked and shook his head.

He had to get to the Ship's computers. Only an in-depth look at the samples would tell him more.