The Dark Enemy Saga: Book 2
The hooded man stalked through the communications facility. Deserted. Just like the entire settlement. He adjusted the strap of the rifle on his shoulder and fingered his blaster apprehensively. No sound resonated through the corridors. No computer hummed with the charge of energy. The mask over his face provided the only light, the only sign of life aside from his own heavy breathing and beating heart that echoed in his eardrums.
He pushed on through the building until he came to the large, open canteen where the men, women, and children of the outpost would take their daily meals. Plates of food lay dotted around the hall, some half eaten on tables, others flung to the floor as if whoever had been here had fled in panic.
He stepped into the room and approached the nearest plate of food cautiously. Peeling a glove from his hand, he pressed a finger into the grey lump. Stale and cold. He grunted. Slipping his glove back on he pushed further through the building. His senses were on full alert, his eyes darted from bench to bench, table to table, piercing the gloom with the night vision provided by his full-face mask. His nose battled against a host of smells, each warring for supremacy. Cold, stagnant air and decaying food. And something else. Something that suggested death. His ears twitched, vigilant for any sound in the silence.
He wound his way through benches and tables when the clang of metal striking the ground made him stop. His heart thumped in his ears. His breath caught in his throat. Afraid even to exhale, he turned slowly. Seeing the cutlery that had been knocked on the floor by the butt of his rifle, he let out a slow steady sigh of relief. Confident he was still alone, the man made for the back of the mess hall. His unease grew with every step, as did the smell of wrongness. He reached a door and stopped, certain that something bad lay on the other side. He could taste it now, sour and metallic. A warning sounded in his mind. He ignored it.
Electricity had been cut off from the facility and the sliding door lay somewhere between a closed and open state. Wrapping his hands around the door, he pushed. His muscles strained, tendons rising to the top of his arms under the space suit and heavy cloak he wore. Just as he thought the door would never move, it began to slide. Half a foot, but it was enough. Angling his body sideways, he slipped through the doorway and stopped. Behind his night-vision, his eyes took a few moments to adjust to his new surroundings. The barracks.
As he looked around the room, barracks was too generous a word for the small enclosure lined with barely a dozen beds. Most of the mattresses lay on the floor or leaning against one half of the door in some sort of desperate barricade. But whatever had attacked this facility had ripped through the makeshift defences as easily as they had the rest of the facility. Pillows and blankets lay torn open, their fleecy innards a nauseating juxtaposition to the blood that covered the room. Behind the man’s helmet, gray eyes remained narrowed. They swept over the drying rust of human blood that coated the walls, the bunks, and even the ceiling.
Clenching his jaw, the man crept forward, his suits enhanced senses finding no bodies. No severed limbs or intestines. Every torso, every grim piece of guts and organs had been removed— or taken. But for what? And by who? He nudged a piece of bedding out the way with a booted foot.
Something on the floor caught his eye and he kneeled to inspect it. The blood on the floor had not pooled into a natural shape. He was staring at letters, he quickly realised. Only whatever the messenger had tried to say was now buried over an upturned bunk. Rising to his feet once more, he rested his blaster on a nearby mattress and gripped the fallen bed. Bending his knees he lifted, perhaps too hard as the double cot fell against a second with an almighty bang. The sound echoed through the room horrendously and the man cursed, grabbing for his blaster. He aimed it at the half-open door and waited.
Minutes passed, yet still, he did not move. He kept his body motionless, eyes fixed and arms steady. At last satisfied that nothing was coming for him, he returned to examine the mysterious letters marked in blood.
Aliens. Host — Whatever the writer had intended to say had been cut short by something horrific. He wondered at the note for a moment. Had host been its own word, or had it intended to read ‘hostile’? Or something else entirely? The man quickly filed the thought away. What had happened here was for the higher-ups to decide. His job was to find survivors. Of which, he was certain now, there were none.
He made his way back to the door and angled his way through. The same eerie stillness hung over the canteen, the same rotten smells making the air heavy. He retraced his steps slowly and carefully, senses as alert as ever. The silence of the place threatened to unnerve him and, as he saw the facility’s exit up ahead, he had to fight down the urge to run. He kept his steps steady, and chose his footing as carefully and noiselessly as possible. His mind began to play tricks on him, he could feel the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Was that a noise? No, just his imagination. He began to feel as if a hundred pairs of eyes were staring at him. They lined the walls, always hidden, always just on the edges of his vision.
He reached the exit with a low sigh of relief and stepped outside. The lifeless moon was barely more reassuring than the dead facility, but the wide-open space made him feel marginally less vulnerable. He was confident that if anything moved out here, he would be able to spot it.
His ship lay where he had left it, seemingly untouched. Part of him wanted nothing more than to make for it and leave this giant morgue behind. But his work was still not done. He began to scout around the facility, looking for any signs of disturbance in the soft dust of the moon. Any sign of the things that had attacked and killed a station of nearly fifty people. He found nothing.
With one last lingering look at the horizon, he returned to his small, one-man ship. Once inside he ripped the mask from his face, breathing deep and low. He leaned back, held out a shaking hand and focused on it. When his hand would not stop shaking, he cursed and gripped it to his chest with his other. A little blue light flashed on his control panel, but he ignored it.
“You’re getting too old for this.” His words were the only human voice he had heard for some time. The sound of them seemed unnatural in this hushed place, though the truth of them rang callously. There was a time he would have relished the mystery and savagery of a mission such as this one. But something had changed in him, he knew. Ever since Colm, he had felt a fear that seemed to accompany him everywhere he went. Perhaps it had been the explosion that took his eye, perhaps it had been seeing Isais again. Perhaps it had been losing Adrijana. This last one hurt most of all.
He pushed the fear away, let it linger in the back of his mind where it found rich soil in the decades of terror and pain that he had suppressed there. Turning to the blue light, he flicked a switch below it. “This is Kjeld.” His voice was gruff, still sounding harsh against ears.
There was a crackling sound at the other end and he waited a moment before a second voice joined him. “Kjeld, it’s Ras. Tell me what you found down there.”
“Nothing. Nobody. It’s as if everybody upped and left. If it wasn’t for the food and blood, I would have told you nobody had ever been here.”
“Blood?” came the short reply.
“The barracks. It was the only place I found evidence of a fight, though not much of one. Someone had tried to write a message before they were taken. It said they were attacked by aliens.”
There was a long pause at the other end before the voice crackled back into life. “Vruhr?”
“Do you know of any other alien species capable of doing this?” Sarcasm dripped from Kjeld’s voice and he took a deep voice to calm his rising anger, something he noticed he felt all too easily these days. “It had to be the Vruhr.”
There was another pause. “It doesn’t sound like the Vruhr’s M.O.”
“I’m just telling you what I found.”
“Very well, Kjeld. Report back here as soon as possible for a full debriefing.” With that, the communication was gone, cut off at the other end.
Silence flowed once more through the ship. Mumbling under his breath Kjeld fired up the engines. Without a backward glance, he lifted off from the small moon and headed back towards the rebel base to receive his next hopeless mission in a war they couldn’t win. As he piloted his small ship, he stared out into the bleakness of space. Somewhere out there, the woman he loved lay prisoner to an alien race.
Kjeld strode into the rebel HQ, unsurprised to find the meeting room already in uproar. The council of twelve as they liked to refer to themselves, though Kjeld had rarely seen more than five or six together at any one time, were arguing across the oval table that occupied most of the space. He recognised a few faces, Ras who was the appointed leader of the rebel force and Benay who had been on the ship from Colm. Xavier was there too, the son of Adrijana sporting a fresh wound, testament to the daring trips he had been flinging himself into ever since his mother’s capture.
Kjeld stared at the boy for a moment, ignoring the bleating of the councillors. Xavier’s features had hardened since Vermasse, muscle visible beneath his fitted shirt. He still kept his head shaved, the stubble only enhancing his warrior look. He had become an impressive if sullen figure and Kjeld narrowed his eyes and, not for the first time, found himself wondering at the boy’s origins. If it were not for his height, at least half a head shorter than Kjeld himself, he would have been positive that Xavier—
“Kjeld!” Ras’ great voice boomed through the small room. Immediately silence fell, the petty bickering falling away like a flock of small songbirds startled by a predator. “Finally, you have returned! Come, join us.” Ras beckoned to the seat at the great table that had been designated to Kjeld. It was a seat he avoided as much as possible, though it seemed now he was left little choice. With a deliberate show of reluctance, he took his chair.
“Now that our scout has returned, perhaps you can tell us first-hand what you saw at our outpost.” Ras leaned in expectantly and Kjeld took a minute to collect his thoughts. It seemed all eyes were on him then and Kjeld, a man who made a career out of going unnoticed, found the tension returning to his muscles.
He cleared his throat. “It’s like I relayed in our message.” He began, searching for the next words. “The moon was deserted. Probably for at least two days. No sign of anyone, except for blood in the barracks.” This bought a few intakes of breath from the audience, Kjeld ignored it and continued. “If I had to guess, I would say an attack came at lunchtime two days ago. When the moon’s defences were understaffed and the people were all gathered into one place. Maybe 3 or 4 soldiers managed to retreat into the barracks and lock themselves in. But something was able to tear through the door. There was a fight. A quick fight. The rebels lost,” he finished. There was no emotion in his voice, each sentence spoken as simply as if he were stating the color of space.
It was Ras that broke the silence. “Tell us about the message.”
“It was written in the blood. A warning probably. Aliens Host.”
“Aliens host?” What does it mean, asked a man Kjeld did not recognize.
“I don’t know. Hostile, maybe. The writer was taken before he could finish his message.”
“Why would anyone bother to write hostile? Their last moments and the blood you found would have been enough evidence of that.”
“Well if I ever meet the man, I will ask him,” Kjeld responded sharply.
This brought a fresh wave of silence, the room reluctant to voice what Kjeld imagined everybody to be thinking.
“Vruhr!” Came a hiss and Kjeld turned to see Xavier step forward. The young soldier was yet to be given a chair on the council. “It was the Vruhr! They killed our people.” Kjeld could hear the anger in the man’s voice. Xavier seemed to be growing shorter of temper with each day. Something else that reinforced Kjeld’s suspicions of his parentage.
It was Benay that responded with characteristic calm. “We don’t know that Xavier. Besides, if it were the Vruhr, why not just write ‘Vruhr’? Why bother to write aliens? It makes no sense.”
“Who knows why a terrified man acted the way he did! Who cares! There is nothing else it could be. The Vruhr killed my people, they took my mom and now they attack our outposts! We have to do something!” The boy’s hands had balled into fists, Kjeld noticed, and for a moment he thought Xavier would lash out. But he saw the self-control as Xavier’s hands relaxed and his voice became calm again. “We have to do something, ” he repeated quietly.
“What would you have us do, Xavier? Our numbers are falling. I needn’t remind you how many ships we have lost to skirmishes with Union forces. Now you would have us go to war with the Vruhr—a war we simply can’t win— with very little evidence.” Ras rose in his chair as he spoke, his powerful frame dominating the room.
If it was meant to intimidate Xavier though, it clearly failed Kjeld noticed proudly. “We have to do something! I’ll take a ship…”
“No, Xavier.” There was no noticeable rise in volume from Ras, yet the word carried more weight than any he had previously spoken. It hung in the air as Ras returned to his lavish chair. “No,” he repeated. “We do not know it’s the Vruhr. Besides, there have been few reports of Vruhr ships venturing outside of their space ever since…” He stopped. The implications of what he was about to say stealing the voice from his throat.
Ever since they took Adrijana. Kjeld filled in the blanks mentally, watching Xavier’s face for any sign of the pain that lurked below. To his credit, the young soldier kept his expression impassive.
“So, what do you suggest?” It was Canisio that spoke, resting his thumb against his chin, his index finger on his temple. Like Xavier, the brash young captain had become more withdrawn ever since the incident on Colm.
“Our intel reports at least two more human colonies in the same area of space have been attacked.” Ras made an elaborate gesture with his hand, bringing up a holographic star map. “Here is our own settlement that went dark on us.” He stabbed a chubby finger at a small rock on the map. “And here and here—” two more stabs of his index finger “—are where Union colonies have reported missing settlers. Intel suggests they just up and vanished during the night, leaving those left behind at a loss.”
“And you want us to investigate?” Xavier’s voice was hard.
“How do you expect us to find anything if the Union themselves couldn’t?” Canisio this time.
Benay spoke up once more. Her fingers tapping lightly on the desk, punctuating each sentence. “Because the Union does not care about a few missing settlers on the edges of their space. Frankly, they only sent a ship to make it appear as if they care and calm the panicking populace.”
“Does it need to be said that these colonies are also bordering Vruhr space?” Xavier’s palms rested on the edge of the table, hovering over Canisio, his gaze was locked to the stat map. Kjeld knew what he was thinking, for he had been thinking it too; Adrijana could be on any one of those dozens of black planets. Those marked as containing Vruhr colonies.
Kjeld narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms, leaning back in his seat. His forehead ruffled in thought.
“We know,” Ras replied. “Just as I know this is hard for you Xavier. But I must remind you that, as of yet, the Vruhr have made no open move against us. We only have conjecture and speculation. From what I understand your mother was not kidnapped, but rather went willingly.”
Kjeld watched Xavier’s face darken and spoke up before the rash youngster said something to get himself into trouble. “I’ll go.”
Ras stared at him, tongue running across the front of his great white teeth in thought. “I had another mission in mind for you, Kjeld.”
“So send someone else.” Something flickered in Ras’ eyes then. Something that may have been anger but was quickly bought under control. He let out a low chuckle, but Kjeld was not convinced by it.
“Many are the plans of a man laid low by the recalcitrant,” Ras muttered. Kjeld scowled but kept his mouth shut. He had what he wanted and had no wish to engage in further conversation with a man he distrusted.
“I volunteer my ship,” Canisio spoke up. His unshaven face looked pale, purple bags marring his handsome face. He looked as if sleep had been hard to come by in the months since Colm.
“Canisio,” muttered Ras. “Always so quick to volunteer. And you, young man?” He directed his gaze to Xavier, who met Ras’ black eyes with his own of flint. Kjeld watched Xavier but saw no sign of fear in the youth.
Ras let out another chuckle, this time full of feeling. “Well, we find ourselves beset in a well of familiarity. The captain, the soldier and a member of the Albion family all too happy to embark on a dangerous mission. Truly the universe operates of its own design. Very well!” White teeth closed around his bottom lip as he sucked it in an elaborate display of thought. Kjeld found the whole display unashamedly bogus.
“Gentleman, collect your things. You leave after breakfast tomorrow.” The palm of his hand slapped down on the table as if to signal the end of the meeting and the men and women of the council slowly filed out of the room.
As the room emptied, Benay rose to her feet and made for a small porthole. She clasped her hands behind her back, her long grey robe flowing behind her elegantly. After some time, she turned to Ras who lounged back in his chair, watching her with a twinkle of mirth in his eyes.
“So you got what you wanted,” she said, a hint of bitterness in her voice.
Ras merely nodded in response, a slight smile at the corner of his lips.
“Is it wise to send our best and brightest off on this endeavour?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Do not play your games with me, Ras. You pull at people’s strings as if this were all a great game. You keep us all in the dark and tempt us with a glimmer of light. But now people are dying and yet you continue as if this was all nothing more than some performance for your own entertainment.”
“If you care so much, then why don’t you go with them?” He was leaning forward now, all trace of humour gone.
Benay let out a harsh laugh. “Still you try to move us around like pawns. I see through you Ras. Good night.” She flowed from the room, chin held high.
As the door closed behind her, Ras allowed the smile to return to his lips.
“Where are we going?” Xavier asked Canisio as they strode through the facility.
The taller man gave him a quick glance. “Any good venture needs a good pilot,” he said without breaking stride.
“Shura? But why do you need me to come with you?”
Canisio let out a laugh. It looked good on him, breaking through some of the strain he now carried on his face. For a moment Xavier saw the handsome pilot that had rescued him from Colm.
“Oh, Xavier! Our grizzled warrior! So innocent. So naïve.”
Xavier continued onwards, nonplussed at Canisio’s response. They reached the facility’s bar and stepped inside the smoke-filled room of tacky neon lights and depressed looking patrons. It had once been a storage hanger, Xavier guessed, taking in the room’s tall ceilings and cold interior. The thin walls left the room chilly, despite the owner’s best efforts to heat it with generators and fire towers. The towers were purely aesthetic, Xavier saw, holograms that merely added to the ambiance and the illusion of heat. He suppressed a shiver.
Canisio saw it and grinned at him. “Not quite what you were used to on the Space station, I’m sure. But we make do.”
Xavier waved a cloud of smoke from his face. “Are you sure Shura is here?”
“I’m half convinced Shura was born here. She has a knack of searching out the seediest part of any settlement. For this little moon, that seedy part would be here.” He finished his sentence with an elaborate wave of his arms as if to encompass the tall room.
The bar, Xavier saw, was almost devoid of customers. In the corner a couple of humans huddled, taking in great breaths of smoke from a beautifully decorated vase of some sort. A few others slunk over the bar, as if they wished for nothing more than to disappear into the heavily cushioned stools they sat upon.
“This is a depressing place,” Xavier observed.
“It’s been a depressing period for our side,” Canisio responded, eyeing the room.
On that, Xavier could agree. Ever since Colm, it seemed the Union had always been one step ahead of the rebels. It was whispered in the corridors that the rebels had a mole hidden amongst their ranks. Xavier was inclined to agree. He fingered the wound above his eye idly, recalling the firefight only a few days before when a meeting with a rebel informant had been ambushed by Union forces. Despite Ras and the council’s best efforts to keep the news hidden, it hadn’t taken long for news of the fallen outpost to spread through the rebel ranks and whispers that the Vruhr had turned against them had already begun.
“There she is.” Canisio put an arm on Xavier’s shoulder and directed him to the solitary figure occupying a booth in the corner of the room. Despite their surroundings, despite the war and death happening every day, Xavier still found his breath caught a little each time he saw Shura. Her heavy black hair fell over her light brown skin and rested on her shoulder. Dark eyes looked up from the glass she had been nursing, watching as he and Canisio approached.
Canisio took a seat opposite, a smile falling easily into place. Xavier envied the taller man then, as he stood awkwardly, unsure where to place his hands or arrange his legs. For her part, Shura did a very good job of ignoring him.
“Canisio,” she spoke, her voice soft.
“Shura.” Canisio picked up the bottle that lay before him and took a big swig. With a swallow, he set the bottle back down. “Schnapps!” He burped.
“Once again your impressive powers of observation make my knees weak.” Shura smirked.
“Well, I am an impressive man.” Canisio winked back.
“Could have fooled me. You look awful.”
Canisio rubbed at the stubble growing along his chin. A smile broke his face, but it was forced, Xavier knew. No humour reached his eyes.
“Enough flirting. We have a new mission.”
Shura picked up the bottle and downed the rest of its contents. Xavier watched with barely disguised amazement as the liquid disappeared.
“I knew that as soon as you turned up with him.” She threw a thumb in his direction but her eyes remained on Canisio.
Xavier cleared his throat. “I have a name. It’s Xavier.”
Shura looked at him, for a moment light struck her dark eyes and Xavier saw that she had been baiting him. He cursed himself for taking it. If the Vruhr could ambush a man half as well as she could, we would all be in trouble he thought to himself.
She picked up the bottle again as if hoping for some previously unseen liquid hidden in the bottom. When she saw there was none, she threw it to the table. It rolled, the jinking of glass on metal the only sound between them for a moment. As it fell, Canisio shot out a hand and caught it before it could shatter on the filthy floor. He returned the bottle to the table carefully.
“Ok, Xavier.” It seemed to Xavier that Shura put some hidden emphasis on is name then. Some meaning that he did not quite understand. “So, what’s the mission? We finally going to give the Union a little payback for the hundreds of colleagues we’ve lost.” There was an edge to her voice as she spoke, her eyes lingering on the empty bottle.
“Not quite. It’s a recon mission. We need intel,” Canisio responded.
Shura sighed. “Of course it is. More intel. More recon…ing.” She finished with a slight slur.
“One of our stations has fallen. And now Union settlements in the area are disappearing. We’re to investigate.”
“You want us to help the Union? Let them disappear.” Despite the weight of the words, they were hollow and spoken without feeling.
“You know we cannot, Shura. These are men, women, and children. Not military. And the Union military has done little to help them.”
She burped. “Sounds about right. When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow,” answered Xavier.
She looked up at him then. “Great! Then we have time for another drink! Join us, soldier boy.” She patted the cushion beside her and Xavier sat uncertainly. After he was seated, Shura waved over a server. “Another bottle of Schnapps!”
As the man scurried away, she turned to Xavier. “You know, your mother loved this stuff. Loves,” she quickly corrected herself.
Xavier tried unsuccessfully to hide his shock at that. “Mom? Really?” He was genuinely surprised and had to fight back the desire to ask more questions about his mom’s stay with the rebels.
Shura laughed. “Children are always the last to know about their parents. Drink!” she said as the server returned carrying a bottle of the same red-orange liquid Shura had already polished off. With a shrug, Xavier did so. The drink was sweet and harsh and burned his throat as it went down. He coughed as it reached his lungs, spluttering wildly. Canisio and Shura both laughed then, the sound loud and hearty. A strong hand slapped him on the back. “This is Martian schnapps, soldier boy. You’ll get used to it!”
She poured out three glasses of the liquid and raised her own into the air. Xavier and Canisio followed suit. “To getting drunk,” she said
Xavier echoed her words with feeling and lifted the glass to his lips. Arching his head back, he drank until the glass was empty. He slammed it on the table and Shura refilled it. The trio drank in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.