Dark Horse (Michelle Diener)
Release Date: June 15th 2015
Formats: mobi, ePub
Rose slipped her ticket out of hell over her head and tucked it beneath her shirt, where it lay against her skin, throbbing like a heartbeat.
The sensation was so unnerving, she curled her fingers around it and lifted it back out, eyeing the clear crystal oblong uncertainly.
“Iʼll try to keep all the passageways clear for you and Iʼve disabled the lenses, but just in case someone disobeys orders, it would be better if they didnʼt see me.” Sazo spoke too loudly through the tiny earpiece she wore, and she winced.
She reluctantly tucked the crystal, that was somehow also Sazo, back under her shirt, tugging the cord it hung from so it was below her neckline. After three months of being the only thing sheʼd had to wear, washed over and over again, the shirt was threadbare, and barely concealed Sazo anyway, but it was better than nothing.
She took the two steps to the door of the tiny control room at the very heart of the Tecran ship and it slid silently open. Sheʼd only been inside for ten minutes at most to steal Sazo, or break him out, depending on your view of things, and the corridor was as empty now as it had been when Sazo led her here.
She looked back, but the door had closed, completely concealing the control room, so it looked like an uninterrupted passageway again.
“Youʼre still in control, even though Iʼve unplugged you?” She spoke very quietly, because even though Sazo had opened doors, and diverted traffic all the way from her prison cell to this room earlier, there was no point taking foolish chances like talking too loudly when it was unnecessary.
“I would not have initiated this plan if I wasnʼt absolutely certain that it would work.” Sazo sounded a little . . . stressed.
“There has been a delay loading the animals at the launch bay and the Grih have come through their light jump three minutes sooner than I calculated.” He went quiet for a moment. “Iʼm sorry, Rose.”
“What? What is it?” Freezing hands of panic gripped her heart and she stumbled to a halt. If he was going to tell her they had to abort, that she had to go back to the cell . . .
“The lion has been killed.”
She leant against the wall, her legs weak. “That is not good.” She rubbed her face. “Why?”
“Iʼll tell you as you walk. We canʼt delay, with the Grih already here. They might fire on this ship at any time when they realize itʼs disabled.”
She started walking again, and just like earlier, the passages Sazo sent her down were eerily empty. “I thought the Grih were peaceful.”
“They donʼt take force as a first option, but my changing this shipʼs trajectory in the last light jump and setting us in the middle of Grih territory was effectively a declaration of war. They might initially hesitate to fire, given the power of this ship compared to theirs, but when they realize every single system except for lights, air, and the launch bay mechanisms have been disabled, they may strike.”
“And the lion?” There was something bothering her about the way heʼd apologized.
“It was delaying the loading——frightening the loading crew. Theyʼre already frightened because I diverted the ship to this location and they donʼt know whatʼs going on. I only agreed to let the animals come with us because you insisted. Animals are unpredictable. Itʼs hard to get the timing precise.”
“You instructed one of the loaders to kill the lion.” She didnʼt ask, it was a statement of fact. She knew there had been something way off with that apology. She knew, deep down, there was something way off about Sazo, but he was literally her only escape route, and of all the beings she had encountered since her abduction, the only one who had worked to free her.
“There is a chance the wildlife on the moon weʼre going to, Harmon, would not have been suitable to sustain him. He would eventually have died of starvation.”
She didnʼt respond. She was too angry.
What he said may be true, and if so, he could have told her that sooner, but it wouldnʼt have stopped her asking for all the animals to go with them on a second shuttle. They had had as miserable a time as she in this hellhole.
And Sazo thought the Grih would come to pick her up on the moon they were escaping to. They would see the shuttles Sazo had arranged for them leaving the launch bay for Harmon, and after they had dealt with the crippled Tecran ship, they would surely be interested in who had escaped. And, she was sure, be interested in a lion.
They could have made a plan for him.
A door slid open and she walked into the launch bay. Ahead of her, two of the loading staff walked out the far door without turning around, one nursing a jagged wound on his arm.
She pressed against the wall and made no move until the doors closed behind them and she was alone in the massive hangar. Beside her, she heard the hum and double beep of the locks engaging. Sazo had sealed the doors. No one on the ship could stop her getting on the shuttle now.
The lion lay, dead and crumpled, in the massive cage that had housed him since he was taken. It stood next to one of the two explorer shuttles she and Sazo were stealing and she walked up to it and grasped hold of the bars. Hot tears welled in her eyes as she looked down on him. He was a golden, vibrant anachronism in this cold, metallic place.
A wild thing, broken.
That could have been her. Nearly had been, more than once.
The lion had been one of the things that had kept her going, kept her sane.
“I am sorry, Rose. I really am. But the Grih have gone to full alert, shields and guns. Please get in the shuttle, or this could be for nothing.”
The shuttle that had been loaded with all the animals was closed and ready. Rose paused for a moment, looking at the massive gel wall that enclosed the launch bay but which allowed ships in and out. It was a pale blue, and seemed to shimmer.
She shook herself, and walked up the ramp into the much smaller craft Sazo had arranged for her, and before she had even reached the cabin, he started closing the door and revving the engines.
She lurched into one of only two chairs in the small cockpit and struggled with the safety harness. She should have been excited, or at least relieved to finally have escaped the Tecran, but as the engines began their muffled scream and the ship lifted into hover mode, she could only think of tawny fur and golden eyes.
The Tecran Class 5 battleship hung sullenly between the Barrist and one of the fertile moons of the gas giant Virmana. It hulked like a prickly black ball, and Dav Jallan shifted uncomfortably in the Barristʼs captainʼs chair.
He could feel the tension humming off his ten-strong command staff, although they were trying to hang on to calm. Their emergence from a light jump deep inside their own territory to find themselves within sight of a Tecran ship was not unlike opening the door expecting to see a friend, and tripping over a weapon-wielding thug instead.
Dav decided theyʼd been frozen in shock long enough, himself included.
“Is there anyone on board?” That was almost the only logical reason why the Tecran hadnʼt fired on them yet. Their ship was three times the size of the Barrist, and Dav knew from the information he received from Battle Center that a rare Class 5 like the one in front of him had even more than that in terms of fire power.
“There are at least five hundred heartbeats, sir.” Kila said. She tapped a screen and immediately the view of the battleship on the main screen in front of them lit up with hundreds of lights on clearly defined levels.
Most of them were blue but . . .
“Are those orange lights?” Dav leant forward to get a better look. They were all concentrated in the same area, set apart from the blue, which was the only reason they were noticeable at all.
“Those are bio-signatures our system canʼt identify.” Kila said, and frowned. “This is the first time Iʼve ever come across a genuine orange before.”
“Should I initiate evacuation?” Davʼs aide, Farso Lothric, hovered at his shoulder, his hands clenching and unclenching.
“Where would we go?” Dav didnʼt need to look at his systems screen to know they couldnʼt possibly have recovered enough from the light jump theyʼd just made to go anywhere. Let alone evade a Tecran Class 5 battleship.
And while the moon behind the Tecran ship shone like a blue and green jewel against the red and cream of Virmanaʼs patterned atmosphere, and was assuredly habitable, the problem still remained that they would have to go around the Tecran ship to get to it.
“We have to do something,” Lothric said.
Dav didnʼt disagree. However, heʼd known the moment theyʼd come out of the jump and straight on course toward the Tecran ship that there was only one course of action. They had sent out a comm the moment theyʼd made visual contact, and at least two battle class ships would be light jumping to the Barristʼs aid, but right now, all they could do was defend. “Shields are at full. Guns are all primed. If they attack——”
At that moment, all the lights on the Tecran ship went out.
The blue and orange heartbeats remained, but it was clear the power was down.
“The oranges, sir.” Kila stood up in her excitement, and forgot to use the pointer, using her finger instead.
The orange heartbeats detached from the ship, and Dav zoomed in with the lens, saw two explorer-class craft flying away from their mother ship.
“Is one empty?” Borji, his systems engineer, asked, peering forward.
“No. There’s one orange heartbeat on that one. Six on the other.”
Dav watched their trajectory for a minute longer, but there was nowhere else to go but Virmanaʼs moon——not in those craft——and he turned his attention back to the real threat.
“Could they be on backup power and we canʼt see it?” He waited for Kila to fiddle with her instrumentation.
She shook her head. “I canʼt see any power at all.”
“Which means . . .” Lothric gripped the back of Davʼs chair.
“Which means we have a ship full of dying Tecran in front of us.” Dav stood. Walked toward the screen. He would give a lot to know what was going on in that Tecran ship right now.
It was like someone had just handed them a Class 5 warship on a plate, with no effort on their part to claim it besides a bit of messy clean-up.
He didnʼt trust that at all.
No one in the universe was that kind.
He tapped his communicator. “Commander Appal, ready Squads A to F, and prepare to board the Tecran vessel immediately. Full biohazard kit.”
“Iʼm coming with you.”
“You can move around now.” This time, Sazo’s voice was much softer in her ear.
Rose depressed the button over her chest, and the safety harness released, letting her up to stand in the tiny cabin.
She walked to the porthole window and looked back, saw the outside of her prison for the first time.
The Tecran ship was a black ball with long protrusions. Like a naval contact mine from the Second World War. She shuddered to see it. “You did what I asked you? You deleted the maps?”
“Iʼve wiped the Tecran system of all navigation points to Earth, and was able to send a system virus to all their other vessels, to search out the information and destroy it wherever else it exists in the Tecran fleet. They wonʼt even know it’s missing, because I also deleted all reports relating to their find. With the crew that took you gone, only those in the high command office who read the reports will have any idea of what they found, and they wonʼt be able to find the information again.”
“What do you mean, with the crew gone?” Rose stared out at the Tecran ship a moment longer. “The Grih wonʼt return the Tecran to their people as prisoners of war? What will they do with them?” She tried to tamp down on a wish for something truly unpleasant.
Sazo paused. “I am not familiar with the Grihʼs handling of prisoners of war. When we make contact with them and I can infiltrate their system, I can keep watch on the Tecran theyʼre holding. But either way, it wonʼt matter. The Tecran will have to start again from scratch.”
It was the most she could hope for. “But you still have the information, right?” She didnʼt know whether she wanted him to delete it from his memory or not. Having it there meant there was a tiny chance of going home.
“I do. But Iʼve put it somewhere extremely hard to find. If the Tecran ever get me again, it will not be accessible to them.”
She would have to believe that. She decided not to ask him to delete the maps permanently yet. If they were about to be taken back into the Tecran fold, then maybe. But not now.
“Does this craft have a hot shower?” She was half-joking, half-hoping beyond hope as she took her first really good look around the craft. Her skin hadnʼt felt clean since sheʼd been taken. Sazo had engineered a respite for her from half-way through her second month of captivity onward, but sheʼd only had a basin to wash in. She wanted water pouring down on her.
“It does,” Sazo said, and she closed her eyes, suddenly close to tears.
“I had the loading crew pack some things that may be useful to you.” He sounded almost shy as he opened an automatic door at the back of the cabin. It slid completely back on itself, and Rose crouched down and pulled out two bags.
They were the size of small backpacks and after a little fiddling, she worked out she had to push a button at the top and the center seam released, opening up to reveal piles of colorful fabric and bottles of what might be toiletries.
She lifted up a piece of fabric, to find it was a large long-sleeved t-shirt made of a smooth fabric with the texture of silk. It looked much to big, but she could deal with that.
“Itʼs hyr fabric,” Sazon said into her ear. “Made from the silk of the hyr spider. It reacts to heat. Hyr spiders only eat prey with a certain body temperature. If the correct prey gets stuck on their web, the silk contracts around it. You put it on and your body heat causes it to shrink to fit you. You can shape it any way you like.”
“I donʼt recognize it from anything I saw the Tecran wear. This is wonderful.” She brushed her fingers over it, and felt it react to the heat of her fingertips. The Tecran had worn uniforms of a dark purple which had looked similar to thick cotton——practical and hardy. This was soft and beautiful. “Thank you.”
“Hyr fabric is the most expensive fabric in this part of the galaxy. I saw in the inventory that we were carrying these two packs for the daughter of the Tecran military leader, and had them pulled from the cargo hold and packed in this shuttle.”
That meant he had thought of her and what she would need well in advance. He had been honest in his promise that he would help her, and on top of that, beyond the bargain, he had thought of her comfort.
He had also killed the lion.
She needed to remember there were a lot of shades of gray in Sazo.
And if she ever slowed down his plan, there was a chance, just like the lion, sheʼd become so much collateral damage.
She lifted the crystal off her neck and looked at it. “That was really sweet of you. Thank you again. Now, Iʼm going to find the shower, and when all the hot water is gone, Iʼm going to work out how to dress myself in hyr fabric.” She started to pull the earpiece from her ear.
“Wait.” Sazoʼs call was a squawk.
She put the earpiece back in. “Yes?”
“It would take one hour and thirty minutes for the hot water to be gone. We only have an hour before you need to be back in the harness for landing.”
“Can you send me a signal when forty minutes is up? Like a beep through the comm system?” She had nearly said intercom, but even though she spoke in English, a language she had taught Sazo since he’d first introduced himself, she stopped herself in time and used the Grih term. She could speak relatively understandable Tecran by now, and almost fluent Grih. They had decided it was better for her to concentrate on Grih, rather than Tecran, given the plan was to escape the Tecran, and never meet up with them again.
She pulled the earpiece out and put it and the crystal——she couldnʼt think of that faceted, slim piece of technology as Sazo——on top of the storage unit. It was the first time sheʼd been free of Sazo completely, apart from when she slept, for at least a month and a half. Not since heʼd had someone include the earpiece on the breakfast tray a guard brought her each morning.
She grabbed both of the packs heʼd got her and slung them over her shoulder as she made for the rear cabin door, eager to find out what lay beyond it.
A kitchen galley to the left, a small bathroom to the right, it turned out. This really was a two-person explorer. But she wasnʼt complaining.
She stepped into the bathroom, and then, even though Sazo could hardly get up and walk in, given he was an artificial intelligence lodged in a crystal key, she closed the door. Of course, he would also, by now, be residing in the systems of this craft.
She looked around, but couldnʼt see a camera, and what would she do about it, if she could?
She pulled off her clothes, folding them neatly to one side, because she had learned to take nothing for granted, and she may need them again, and then stepped into the shower.
The Tecran were a little taller than humans and a lot bulkier, so the shower stall was roomy for her. She worked out how to switch it on, and stepped back for a couple of seconds to let it come up to temperature, only to find it came out hot straight away.
As soon as the spray hit her face, she closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and at last, private and under cover of the sound of falling water, let herself cry.