Today’s regular articles have been pushed back until later so that I can share this new excerpt from Parallax, Chapter 18, in honor of breaking 80,000 words. Enjoy.
“My God.” Pratt said as they walked to the Command Center. “It’s even worse down here. What the hell happened?”
“I do not know.” Koren replied, his jaw clenched as his tail twitched behind him. “We have very strict protocols for clan conflicts, but we do not attack civilian population centers. The force fields are designed specifically to protect from such a thing. I believe that whoever attacked us was not a Locknar.”
“Not a Terran either.” Pratt replied. “Even one of our largest fusion bombs would have had trouble penetrating your force field. I’ve noticed that other than the force field perimeter, there was almost no damage or radiation to the surrounding environment. To me, that says that someone else fired on your people, Koren.”
Before Koren could continue, Zeoko ran up to him and gave a quick bow. “Koren, Thank the Universe that you weren’t attacked upon your approach.”
Koren accepted the bow. “Zeoko, what has happened here?”
Zeoko swallowed hard as she caught her breath. Once she had composed herself, she straightened her uniform cloak. “We were preparing for your arrival when these ships appeared in the sky and began firing on the compound. We had never seen such ships and initially thought they were the Terrans. However, the weapons they used were unlike anything the Terrans could have developed. The force fields were like nothing was there. Some sort of beam weapons with tremendous kinetic force potential. They targeted and fired on everything within the compound area. Males, females, younglings, no one was spared. The lucky ones were vaporized on contact. We lost over one hundred men, women, and younglings, before we could get them to shelter. For hours, this assault continued and we lost all of the surface scanners. They attempted to bore through to the underground, but then abruptly stopped and departed.”
Zeoko looked at Pratt. “Yes.”
“Shaped like spikes wrapped with curved stone?”
Her crest began to raise. “Yes, how do you know this?”
“The Signiferians.” Pratt said. “They must have gained access through your defensive network and attacked from orbit. This was a terror attack.”
“But how can you be sure?”
“They were looking for us.” Pratt said. “Or more specifically, for me. They knew I was heading here with Koren, but with the tracking device temporarily disabled, their timetable got screwed up. They may assume that I’m dead.” He sighed, his heart yearning toward the wounded. “But I wouldn’t make that assumption. Koren, this situation is spinning out of control.”
“I concur. We must assemble our forces and head to M’Tat at once.” Koren turned to Zeoko. “Have you brought support?”
Zeoko shook her head. “The Stellar Alliance has launched a new offensive based out of Zemna.” She looked at Pratt. “Your people call it Gorashto.” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “Yes, despite your excellent disguise, I figured out who you were within a few minutes.” She bowed. “Any friend of Koren’s is a friend of mine.”
Pratt returned the bow. “I am honored.”
“Our forces have been recalled to reinforce several key systems around Zemna is order to contain the Alliance advance. Koren, you and Mr. Pratt must be successful in bringing our conflict to an end. I have received reports that Alliance Forces are constructing several large scale Hyperspace Jump Stations in Gorashto. Once they are completed, they will be able to transport entire fleets into our territory as groups without warning.”
“I never thought I’d say this.” Pratt remarked. “But we need to resolve this issue before my people show up. A Terran battle fleet out for blood will be difficult to stop.”
“No time to lose.” Koren said. “We can’t take my ship because once we’re airborne we will be vulnerable. Zeoko, have you secured us ground transportation?”
She nodded. “I managed to offload one of our ground crawlers before my ships were called away. It’s going to be just the three of us going to M’Tat.”
“It will have to do.” Koren turned to Pratt. “Jack, I know you’ve been trained for this, but if you have the slightest hesitation about coming, I will understand.”
Pratt blinked. “Are you kidding? I didn’t come this far to stay behind. Let’s do this.”
The crawler lived up to its name. A matte green walker with six large legs protruding from a stout pod equipped with two bubble canopies at the front and a large turret in the center midsection, the vehicle was unlike anything Pratt had ever seen outside of ancient horror videos about monster Earth insects. The closer he walked to it, the larger it became until it dwarfed him by several feet. He reached out a hand and touched its scaly side armor. He jerked his hand back as he felt the vehicle’s skin move under his fingers.
“What is this thing made of?”
“It’s Locknar Reactive Armor.” Zeoko explained as she supervised the loading of several crates through the crawler’s open mouthed forward hatch. “It is designed to respond to most forms of force.”
Pratt gave the vehicle and light pat before allowing himself a slight shudder. “No wonder your ships were so hard to kill.”
“I wonder what you will do with the information you’ve learned once you return to your people.” Zeoko commented. “They will, of course, expect a full report.”
Pratt stared at her, open-mouthed. He took a deep breath to compose himself before closing his mouth. “Ms.
Zeoko, I can assure you that what I have learned here will never be divulged to my government. Military Intelligence only applies to the enemy and The Locknar most certainly are not my enemy.”
Zeoko nodded her approval and gestured to the open hatch as the workers departed. “Well then, Friend, shall we depart? The High Master of M’Tat is expecting our arrival and he is anxious to meet with you.”
“The High Master?”
“You’ll understand when you meet him.”
Pratt followed them to the mouth of the vehicle and climbed up a set of small steps made up the floor of the pivoting lower hatch jaw. The crawler’s interior was larger and wider than he expected and as he passed between the two control stations that Koren and Zeoko took their places in, he noted several transparent sections along the floor. In many ways, the inside of the crawler reminded him of Terran Lifter craft he had flown back on Earth. Same compact instrument clusters along the wall, same emphasis on space economy. He allowed himself a moment to explore further to the rear to discover a cargo area piled high to the top with boxes. Several equipment racks with weapons lined both sides of the rear walls while intricately packed equipment cases rested in shelves built into the ceiling area. He saw no evidence of the drive mechanism as he made his way forward, climbing up a small ladder into the upper turret. At least here, he felt useful.
“Jack, if you are finished your inspection, I would like to get going while we still have stealth on our side.”
Pratt familiarized himself with the turret controls and tapped a small white crystal that glowed when Koren spoke. “Just getting the lay of the land.” He settled into the too-big chair that wrapped itself around him with restraining tendrils that gave him more than the usual share of The Creeps. “Your restraint system leaves much to be desired.”
“You will become accustomed to it.” Koren chuckled before he signed off.
The Crawler rose up on its thick mechanical legs and moved out of the compound.
Pratt didn’t expect such a smooth ride as they traveled along a well-worn paved road past rolling green hills toward a mountain range in the distance. The rolling green soon changed to a mottled purple color as the crawler passed beyond Koren’s territory and passed the borders into M’Tat. He made a note to learn the regional names as long as he was here.
He touched the intercom crystal. “How long until we reach M’Tat?”
“A few hours at our present speed.” Koren replied. “I would take advantage of the time to get some rest. The High Master is known for testing all who seek his knowledge. Have you taken your injection?”
Pratt blinked. “Has it been 24 hours already?”
“You of all people should know that even with Hyperspace, there is a small amount of time dilation.” Koren said.
“Best to be safe and take it.”
Pratt nodded, unseen, and reached for the injector. He pressed it against his neck and gave it a squeeze, fighting off the urge to cringe from the device’s texture against his skin. “Okay, done.”
“Good, now rest. I doubt we will need to use the defensive turret here.”
“I hope you’re right.” Pratt leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. His stomach rumbled an hour later, waking him and prompting the turret’s built in food dispenser to issue him an appropriate snack. He opened the packet and found a substance not unlike a corn husk, but with a flavor similar to that of chicken. Why does everything unfamiliar seem to taste like chicken? He shrugged and ate, feeling his meal slowly expand to fill him. Locknar food was unusual, but at least it was compatible. He disposed of the packet and turned his attention outside.
M’Tat’s slate gray mountains rose in the distance over a purple plateau where the town’s geodesic domes and tall treelike spires could be seen. Pratt wasn’t accustomed to so much time on the ground, but he was learning to appreciate the unique vistas that could be seen planetside. They clanked along for several miles past rolling prairie grass that gradually transformed into thicker foilage before flattening out at the base of M’Tat’s plateau.
Koren brought the crawler to a stop and vehicle’s jaw lowered to the ground. As they stepped out, the cool mountain air of M’Tat filled the cabin as they stepped out onto the ground. The air smelled sweet from the fragrance of some unknown Mitalum flower. The gray soil crunched beneath their boots as they crossed a purple forest of bulb topped trees that bordered their stopping point. They walked toward a crowd of Locknar that were assembling nearby to listen to another speak on a floating platform. No one turned to notice them as they walked past, heading toward a tall gray temple with ornate markings adorning a large bronze colored set of double doors with heavy knockers on either side.
“The High Master does well for himself.” Pratt said.
“Don’t be disrespectful, Jack.” Koren admonished him. “This is a sacred place among my people. The High Master has counseled many of our leaders for centuries.”
“That is no exaggeration. It is said that the High Master’s lineage is blessed with extremely long life. It has often speculated that he himself was around during the time of The Great Exodus.”
“That sounds like an exaggeration to me.”
“Silence yourself until spoken to and then speak with the utmost respect.” Koren said as he reached for both knockers and gave them a shake against the doors. They heard an echo from the other side of the door.
“Maybe they’re out to Lunch?”
“Jack.” Koren warned.
“Okay, okay, I’ll behave.” Pratt noticed Zeoko stifling a grin in his direction as she watched the exchange. He turned away and studied the town behind them, pausing to watch a few mottled clouds migrate across the sky.
The Temple doors without a sound and a Locknar barely Pratt’s height appeared in the wide doorway. The purple-robed man appeared older, more ancient than any that Pratt had seen up to now. A large medallion hung around his neck on a thick chain, yet its weight stooped him over not a bit. He bowed to Koren and then turned to Pratt.
“It is good to see you again, Young Warrior. My many thanks to you for your efforts.”
“My efforts?” Pratt asked. “I think you may have me confused with someone else. I don’t believe we’ve ever met before.” He thought for a moment. “You must be whom they call The High Master.”
“We have met before.” The High Master spoke with such certainty that Pratt was tempted to believe him. “But not yet.” He gestured inward. “Please come inside. We have much to talk about and Mr. Pratt, you may turn off your projector. Locknar power sources have long lives, but even they will run down when used for extended periods.”
Koren turned to him. “He is The High Master. His knowledge can transcend much of our understanding.”
“Transcend my-” Pratt caught a glance from the priest and switched off the projector after following the others through the doorway. The heavy doors closed behind them with authority. “Of course, after you.”