Chessec yelled, "Grab her arms and pull!", as she heaved the wounded girl bodily through the hatch. Blood was oozing through the human's shirt in several places. Jena flopped awkwardly, with no strength of her own, letting out a sharp gasp of pain as we dragged her behind the crew seats. Chessec stuck her head into the hatch a second time. "I'm going back for Dave!" ,she shouted over the din bullets bouncing off the side of the hull.
"I'll wait!" I yelled back.
She started to close the hatch, then stuck her head back in. "You will not! Count to ten, then blast out of here before they damage the ship." She slammed the hatch and sealed it.
I hit the main drive and lifted into the sky using full power, angling over the heads of the soldiers who were now advancing on foot up the hill. The ship accelerated initially at about two and a half gees. A stream of tracer stuttered up past my viewscreen. The moon was now up, and the troops were terribly exposed on the valley floor. I considered a strafing run, but a laser cannon is a lousy antipersonnel weapon. As the ship passed over Jena's cabin, I could see that there were several vehicles, including two more humvees parked around it. Soldiers were running toward their vehicles. I broke the speed of sound at 2,000 feet, flew out the length of the valley, then pointed the nose up and accelerated. Radar showed no suspicious aircraft, so I set up for a straight climb out to orbit.
As soon as I achieved orbit, I contacted the ship and set up a rendezvous over the south pole. The hard piloting complete, I unfastened my harness and turned to check Jena's condition. She was pale white and barely conscious, her lips moving slightly with each breath. Her midriff was red with blood, and the cabin floor was wet, but I could not see any arterial bleeding, and her lungs sounded uncongested. I spoke soothingly as I wrapped a pressure bandage around her waist. Given her dissimilar physiology, I wondered what more there was that Dr. Plaksa could do to help her.
The captain and doctor met me at the shuttle bay door with a stretcher. We dashed to the sickbay, but he stopped me outside the door.
"Let Plaksa do her job. Come with me. Tell me the situation on the ground." He led me to the galley and made me sit down with a cup of tea.
"We took fire. Dave and Roger covered Jena and Chessec's withdrawal. She went back for him. Told me to take off. I didn't see either one when I lifted, but I got the impression from her that maybe Dave was hit, too."
"We got some news over the radio while you were docking. Roger phoned Marie and she relayed his report to us. He says he made it to the ridge and has broken contact with the soldiers. He's afraid they've got Chessec. He said he saw no sign of Dave either after your ship lifted."
"We've got to go get them!"
"Just calm down. You need to rest, then check the shuttle for damage, then we'll make a plan with Marie and the humans. They aren't likely to her if she was captured alive, not if you got away to tell us. If we have to, we'll demand her back through diplomatic channels. Now, go take a shower and go to sleep. The doctor will tell you when we know something about the human female."
I shed my uniform in a trail across the floor as I entered my cabin, then stood under the hot water long enough to rinse Jena's blood off my paws. Without even drying my fur, I flopped down on my bunk. I woke with a sense of dislocation, with the pleasant sensation of someone grooming my back with their claws competing with the unconscious knowledge that something was wrong. The claws were attached to very large paws, each one completely spanning a side of my back. I stretched out my neck to allow her further range of motion.
"That is better, no?"
"Yes, H'raawl-Hrkh. Is better." I woke fully out of my haze of pleasure and remembered where I was. "Jena, how is she? How long have I been sleeping?" I turned to face her.
"You slept three hours. She is.. Not good. The doctor said you can come as soon as you wake." I started to push her arms aside and jump to my feet. She held me back. "Slowly. Plaksa says do not rush. There will be time."
We walked down the corridor to the sick bay, the big cat following me. I opened the door and we entered. Jena was on the table, several IV bottles laying on the pillow by her head. A blanket covered all but her head. Doctor Plaksa joined me at her bedside.
"I can't do any more for her. She has several major organs damaged, and we have no compatible human blood, just saline and glucose. She is unconscious, and I plan to keep her that way."
I looked at the Doctor. "Then I have to take her to the humans. I'll land at one of their hospitals." H'raawl-Hrkh put her paw gently on my shoulder from behind.
The Doctor raised her hand, and continued. "Mitzep. It was too late before you unloaded her from the shuttle. She wouldn't survive even under their care. But I have another plan." She shook her head. "If I keep doing this, the Corps' is going to pull my license. I did a complete neural scan here on the operating table. There is a chance I can transfer her into a clone body as we did with Marie. Not as good a chance, because of the damage, but I think it will work."
She gestured to Jena, "Say goodbye now, just in case, because I don't want you to see her new body fail too if this doesn't work. Remember her like this." I kissed her pale lips, noticing she was barely breathing. H'raawl-Hrkh led me out of the room.
"She says four more hours, maybe eight, before we know."
Chuck bounced the rental car up what should have been a four wheel drive only road, till we arrived at a small cabin. A tip off from the Major from back at the command post said they had found the alien craft, and something else besides. He wanted us to get there fast and try to bluff our way in. Several military vehicles were parked around the corral. We stopped and got out. A young soldier and an airman in camouflage fatigues were guarding the door to the cabin. The soldier twitched her rifle nervously to cover us as we approached.
"You can't go in there, Sir. Captain's orders." Chuck slowly pulled out a worn leather badge carrier from his breast pocket, showing the airman his identification, inserted conveniently, and illegally, beside his expired B's and C's. He spoke softly, but with authority, "Let's call whoever is in charge to the door so we can go in. That's why we're here. My partner and I, " he gestured to me, "are the ones who they are waiting for."
The Captain must have heard our conversation outside, because he opened the door as Chuck was finishing his speech. "You must be from AFSPACECOM. I'm Captain Decker from 2d CSAR. Major Baugher called from the command post to say you were coming. It's OK, Airman, let them in." Another guard stood to one side of the door inside. We walked into a well furnished one-room cabin. A small dining room table had been pushed away from the wall into the center of the room, and two chairs sat on opposite sides. A jug of water and two glasses sat on the table. Seated in the chair at the far side of the table was a dog.
Well, not a dog, exactly, but certainly a canine. And, to be exact, although I would never say it out loud, a furry fox. ET, ha! I suppressed a giggle, and let Chuck speak first.
"I'll ask the obvious question, what have we got here?"
"Your basic alien, sir. She was seen running from the ship before it took off. She placed her paws, er, hands over her head when our troops ordered her to 'halt'."
"Captain, does it talk?"
"Oh, certainly. She called me some names I've never heard in mixed company all the way down the canyon. Finally ran out of steam a few minutes ago, and has just been glaring at me ever since."
"OK, that makes things easier." He sat down in the chair opposite her, and gestured me to the couch behind her. He sat his microrecorder on the table. "Let's start at the beginning. What's your name." Chuck interrogated her steadily for about twenty minutes. She was not evasive, more angry than uncooperative, promptly told us her name, where she was from, and proceeded to explain at great length exactly what she thought of the army patrol that had opened fire on them.
Chuck interrupted her, and looked at the Captain, shrugged and replied, "The army says it was an accident. Somebody got an itchy trigger. But they also say she had at least three armed accomplices, and that one soldier was killed and five wounded."
Chuck looked back at her. "Where are the other people you were with? You weren't alone."
"The owner of this cabin was with us; but she was shot by your soldiers. She was unarmed! My pilot took her with him when he took off. She needed medical treatment. There was no one else." She glared again, this time at Chuck. Time for my part.
"I can tell you're upset. Chessec, isn't it. Why don't you come over here and sit on the couch and calm down. There isn't any need to be angry. We admit mistakes were made." I patted the couch beside me. She stood and slowly came over. It was strange to watch her walk upright, settling decisively, I thought irrelevantly, the old digitigrade vs. plantigrade argument. "My name is Cindy. We have been hoping to meet you for years. Please tell me some more about your trip to earth." As good cop-bad cop routines go, it wasn't the best. Chuck and I usually used it on kooks who claimed they saw flying saucers. Somehow, I don't think she fit in that category. But, it got her talking to me while Chuck and the Captain spoke softly at the table.
Eventually, it was three AM, and everybody was starting to nod off. I caught their attention. "Why don't we wrap this up until morning. Captain, what are your instructions about her?"
"That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Nobody expected any survivors. I was kind of hoping your agency had some kind of contingency plan."
I started to laugh aloud, when Chuck smoothly interjected, "I thought they would have activated some other contingency, but I guess they plan to use our facility. We will need an armed escort to ride with us. How about one of your guards?" CPT Decker looked a little nonplused at the casual arrangements. "I'll arrange with the VEQ at Peterson for billeting, and you should have him back within 24 hours, or under fresh TDY orders."
"Captain," Chuck looked him straight in the eye, using the plain-spoken, this-is-no-bull tone of the old warrant officer he had once been. "If we delay this until morning, some asshole at the pentagon is going to decide to put us all in quarantine until we are old and gray, just because he saw it in an old movie once. Let's get this into normal Air Force scientific and intelligence channels as soon as possible, for all our sakes."
He considered Chuck's statement, then nodded. He turned to the guard. "Go get the chief." An Air Force NCO wearing a Special Ops boonie hat arrived less than a minute later. "Grab your bag, Chief, you're detached on permissive TDY effective immediately. Escort duty, with side arm. You'll be going with Mr. Hansen and Ms. Kruchensky. And, of course, out guest." He gestured to the fox. "That's all the details I can give you. Check in with the duty officer by phone back at Hurlbert Field when you get stopped tonight, and once a day until some better orders catch up with you. You've been there before, you know the drill."
He looked us both up and down, then nodded. "Right, boss. Give me a minute to grab my bag; get rid of this M-4 carbine; and tell Tech Sergeant Davis he's in charge. I'll be right back." He left.
"Ben Sanchez has been in SAR in every capacity from medic to winch man to door gunner to crew chief. He's solid as they come."
He was back almost before the Captain finished, carrying a B-bag, now wearing a survival vest with a .38 in a holster sewn to it. "All set. You want me to tie her up?" He held up a thick plastic cable tie.
I asked, "has anybody searched her yet?"
"Yes. We gave her back her shorts and vest, kept what looked suspiciously like a dart gun. And her purse. You want to take it with you tonight?"
"No. Let's leave something for the bright idea boys to handle tomorrow."
I turned to Chessec, who had been following the conversation silently from the couch. "If we leave you untied, will you try to escape?"
"Not at the moment."
"Well, then, I guess not. Anything else, Chuck?" With that, I exited the cabin, Chessec behind, and the Chief and Chuck in the rear. I held the sedan's back door for Chessec, and watched her while Chief dropped his bag in the truck, then climbed into the passenger seat. I joined her in the rear seat. We drove slowly back along the bumpy road in exhausted silence.
Once we were on the blacktop and had passed the Command Post, heading for Walsenberg, I asked Chuck, just out of curiosity, "Hey Chuck, we do have a plan, don't we?"
'I was wondering when you were going to ask. Yeah. I made it up while we were driving out there. We're going back to the 'Springs and set her up for a schedule of meetings with a few assorted military folks, scientists, and, I'm sure; politicians. How's that sound?"
Chief Sanchez interrupted, "You do work for the same government I do, right? You know, blue suits and all the rest?" His hand was sneaking toward his vest.
"Calm down, Chief. We are contractors, working for the Air Force. Our job is aliens. Just like in the movies, but without either rap music or the neat Vancouver scenery." Chuck laughed. "And I hope this won't be a John Carpenter movie, either.
I added, "We can't help it that she's the first one we've actually caught. We are going to have to wing this one." I smiled reassuringly. He relaxed.
Chessec spoke for the first time in an hour. "How about a bathroom break?"
"Five more minutes." We stopped at the motel room in Walsenberg and grabbed our stuff. I escorted her into the bathroom (sitting, how else?), and we were on the road ten minutes later.
When we arrived back in the 'Springs, sunrise was just beginning to light up the eastern sky. Chuck turned off at the freeway exit we normally took to the office, but immediately turned into one of the motel parking lots. He shut off the motor and turned to face both of us.
"I'm going to call the office at that pay phone. Cindy, go in and get us two connecting rooms. Chief, please watch our guest." The two of us got out and went on our errands. When I came back outside with the keys, Chuck was standing beside the car. We all went into one of our rooms. Chessec did not protest or struggle. Once we were inside, and the connecting doors were propped open, we held a short meeting. He said he had checked the answering machine at the office and the Major had left a message.
"I was right. The whole place became a madhouse less than an hour after we left. Some gentlemen from an unnamed and unknown agency descended on the site in an unmarked helicopter; gathered up all the physical evidence, and questioned your boss pretty heavily about where we went. They weren't happy we were already gone. Plus, a soldier and the humvee she was driving have disappeared."
I asked, "So what do we do now? Any orders from El hefe?"
"We sleep. He's going to find out where the Air Force wants her, and leave a message. Cindy, you take first shift, I'll wake you up in four hours. Chief, you drew the unlucky straw, You'll stay awake with me."
"Which shift do I get?" ,asked Chessec. He looked at her in surprise, taking a minute for the joke to sink in. When she had his attention, she continued, "I'm exhausted too, right now. Lock me and Cindy in this room, and you two rack out next door." She looked at him steadily.
"Good idea, but I've got a better one. Cindy, how about I handcuff your wrist to hers? Do you feel safe enough next to her?"
I looked Chessec over. She looked to be about half my size. I decided to ask, "What about that, Chessec. Do you plan to bite my throat or claw out my eyes while I'm asleep?"
"If I did, I would still want to finish my nap, afterwards. Like I said, I'm tired. Whatever you prefer. Remember, we wanted to meet you humans in the first place, and besides, you started shooting at us, not the other way around. I guess you're safe." She pointedly laid back on the bed, and extended her wrist.
Chuck continued, "That settles it. Wake up is in six hours; so come on Chief, let's go next door." He threw me the cuffs, but not the keys, and went into the next room. Holding the cuffs, I motioned her into the bathroom. "Just stand right there, and we'll put these things on later. Wash up if you want. I made my preparations, then we adjourned to bed. Once we decided who would sleep on which side, I fastened the cuffs and closed my eyes. I was asleep in seconds.
My leg seemed to have regained full range of motion as I climbed deeper into the shaft. I could feel some pain, but was able to put my full weight on the ladder rungs. After about fifty feet, I reached a narrow platform, and felt along the wall with one hand. Is I hoped, there was a horizontal level off the shaft. I worked my way into the passage, feeling each foot placement for a drop-off before I took the next step. I kept one hand on the wall, and when I felt a side passage, I stepped into it. There I slid down to the floor and reached into my pocket for a chemlite. Using the dim blue phosphorescent glow, I rolled up my pant's leg and checked for damage. A bullet had pierced the meaty part of my shin, but had not struck bone. I squeezed some antibiotic ointment inside, and dressed the wound. I cleaned the rock cuts on my forehead, knees and palm, and then inventoried my supplies.
I lost my carbine when I was knocked down, so I was left armed only with my .45 pistol and a smoke grenade. My cargo pockets contained three candy bars, three six-foot lengths of parachute cord, a knife and a waterproof match case. I had a spare magazine for both the rifle and pistol. In my shirt pockets, I had a small compass and my radio. Around my neck, a can opener. On my wrist, an old watch with real radium numbers. Otherwise, no wallet and no identification, and, in about two hours when the chemlite gave out, no light. Still, I was dead tired, and had seen the ship lift with my own eyes. With the ship safely launched, there was time to sleep for a few hours and see what the morning brought. I curled up on the floor and was soon asleep.
I awoke stiff, sore, and in complete blackness. Baring my wrist, I examined my watch: nine A.M. I listened: Sounds of water dripping off the walls of the mine, otherwise silent.
I retraced my steps to the entrance. As I approached the shaft, The sunlight from outside gradually illuminated my path. I listened again behind the ladder, and as it seemed quiet, I began to climb. It the top of the shaft, I peered cautiously around in a full circle, then ducked back down.
The hillside was covered with small yellow marker flags, stuck in the ground in clusters. Barricades and warning tape surrounded the ruins of the engine shed. A black, unmarked Bell Long-Ranger helicopters sat at the base of the hill. The wreck of a burned-out humvee was still smoking. Two other humvees and an unmarked dark blue sedan were parked along the trail leading out of the valley. An interesting group of people were standing in front of one of the helicopters.
About twenty soldiers and airmen in BDU's stood at sling arms in a tight formation. Addressing them was a man wearing a civilian suit and a black flak jacket with the word "Agent" on the back. Several more similarly dressed civilians were loosely surrounding the soldiers, and two more were apparently searching the humvees. I began to move laterally down the hill at a crouch, dodging from bush to timber pile to rock. By the time I reached a position on the far side of the helicopter, he had finished addressing the soldiers. He climbed into the helicopter and it quickly lifted off and left.
A second lieutenant called out a command to the military contingent, as the other civilians climbed into their car and drove away, "You heard the man! Let's search the hillside again. Double-arm interval. Look for any scraps of flesh or blood spots. Move out!" I watched him and the rest of the military start back up the hill toward where we had first been hit. In one of the humvees, a female army specialist was sitting in the driver's seat, monitoring the radio. There was no one else around the vehicles, so I decided to appropriate one. The direct approach is always best.
I waited until the searchers were a hundred yards up the mountain, then walked up to the humvee and climbed into the passenger seat. Drawing my .45 left handed, I placed it against her midsection. "Good morning, Specialist. Start the vehicle and start driving down that trail. I don't want to hurt you, but this pistol might accidentally go off if you struggle." She took the point, and ground the starter. Were quickly out of sight around the first bend in the trail.
"You can't do this, you're breaking the law! You can't hide a humvee. Why don't you give up now, to the army? We'll just put you in jail, not like those fed creeps up the road ahead of us!" She nearly spat the last sentence.
"Tell me about them, what did they do?" I looked at her curiously. I felt pretty safe, since I had the only radio-equipped humvee. They might chase us, but they wouldn't be able to phone ahead. Time to collect any information I could get.
"They sure ripped the LT a new one, claimed he was going to Leavenworth for letting the ship get away, and because the Air Force took the alien away from the site without permission."
"I ain't supposed to say, but, being as you got the gun an' all…" She lost a little of her fear and anger and grinned crookedly. "It was a big red wolf-lookin' thing. Cussed like a sailor! In English, too."
By now we were almost a mile down the trail. I decided to prevent pursuit, and give the car in front of us a little more time. Picking a spot where the road couldn't be bypassed, I told her to stop and shut off the engine. I listened for a few seconds. All quiet. "OK, Specialist, what's your name, anyway?"
OK, Angie. We're going to stop for a few minutes. I want you to get out and lay face down on the ground ten yards in front of the humvee. I won't hurt you if you do what I say. Now, move!" She did. Her M-16 was in a rack behind the driver's seat. I removed the magazine and took out one round, replacing the magazine. Stepping behind the humvee, I prepared a booby trap.
Taking two pieces of parachute cord and the smoke grenade out of my pocket, I stuck the round into the hole in the base of the grenade, then tied the grenade to the base of a bush. Pulling the individual strands of nylon cord out of the other piece, I knotted them together, tied one end to the grenade pin, and threaded the other up the stem of the first bush, then across the trail waist-high. I tied it off to another bush I first bent across the trail. I wanted them to see the trigger. I checked to make sure Angie was still on the ground, then I kneeled down and covered the grenade except for the spoon and pin with dirt. I scuffed the dirt in the trail under the trigger, then conspicuously mounded several piles of dirt in the trail.
Two minutes, thirty seconds elapsed time. I called Angie back to the humvee and she drove off. "That ought to scare them, and take quite some time to clear. Has your sergeant done any peacekeeping duty? Balkans, maybe? I know the LT's too young."
"He was in Congo before he came here."
"Good. That means he won't accidentally drive right though. Hard to stop somebody with a smoke grenade, unless they believe it might just blow up."
We drove a while longer. "Sir? Why are you doing this? What's that wolf -alien to you?"
"That fox is my wife. She's just a person, like you are. She doesn't deserve to be in a cage someplace, and I'm going to get her back, no matter what it takes."
"I guess you got a point. You are gonna let me go, though, aren't you?"
"Sure. Like you said, It's hard to hide a humvee." We got to the end of the brush and came out into the pasture by Jena's cabin. The door was sealed with yellow tape, but no one was around. We continued past toward the highway. I started looking for the sedan in front of us, as I didn't want to outrun it. We timed it well, because the car was just turning onto the pavement as we spotted the gate. "Slow down. We're going to follow that car, but let him get out in front, almost out of sight."
They drove fast, and I was worried they would leave us behind. They would have outrun my old jeep, but the humvee kept right up there. I expected them to stop in at the command post, but they continued straight past. Fifteen minutes later, the radio squawked to life, as the humvee behind us arrived at the CP and reported my theft. Time to say goodbye to Angie. We were coming into the outskirts of town, an area of five to ten acre mini ranches. I had her pull into a driveway, one where the garage door was open.
"Up into the garage, park it, and shut off." She complied. I motioned her toward the inside door to the house. As I hoped, it was unlocked. I had her lay on the kitchen floor. No sooner was she down, when an elderly woman came into the room. I dove for her, fearing the proverbial twelve gauge. Another stereotype disproved. I tied them both to kitchen chairs, then went out into the garage and found a roll of tape to better secure them. Both watched me. "Ma'am I'm going to steal your car. I apologize. Ask this young soldier here why, once you get untied. If you aren't released by tonight, I promise to call the police myself. I'll try not to damage your car."
I went outside to see what wheels my latest felony had acquired. I was afraid it would be a Gremlin in mint condition, but was pleasantly surprised to find a five year-old Cadillac. Closing the garage door on the humvee, I drove away.
Heading northbound on I-25, I pushed my speed up to three miles over the speed limit and set the cruise control. Time for a little clever thinking, here. I probably had at least an hour and a half until the authorities discovered the two of them, and that would put me just north of Pueblo. They could do the math too, so I needed to exit and come in another route. I might catch the sedan if I stayed on the interstate, but they certainly had an almost insurmountable lead if I left it. Wait a minute. They didn't have Chessec! The Air Force did. And who did I know that might know where the Air Force kept aliens? My fellow contractor, Mr. Charles Hansen. And I knew his home and work addresses from our first visit to the 'Springs. It would be dark by the time I got to town, so I could probably catch him at home. I took the first exit south of Pueblo, and drove back roads all the way to my brother-in-law's house.
I was glad to see my jeep parked in his driveway. We compared notes on our way back from losing the Cadillac (I parked it in the city parking garage). It looked like there was no evidence linking him to the shooting at the mine, except for his rifle, which he had already buried on the hike out. I promised to repay him, which he graciously accepted. While I washed, shaved, dressed my wound and changed clothes, he watched the news to see if they found Angie and the old woman. When it didn't make the Pueblo station's coverage, I called it in to the local news, then hung up.
"Roger, I think you better pretend you haven't seen me since after Marie's funeral. I'll keep in touch, but I'd better give you some cover."
"Good luck, Dave. I hope you find Chessec OK. Hadn't you better call Marie and tell her you are all right?"
"From a pay phone. Take care, Roger." We shook hands, and I carried Chessec's and my suitcases out to the Jeep and drove away. I called Marie at our home phone number. The machine answered on the second ring.
"Hi, dear. It's me. Pick up, please." She fumbled with the receiver.
"Is it raining out there?" Our pass phrase to see if I was under duress.
"Pretty clear right now. Might rain later. Just wanted to call and tell you about the sales meeting." I could have said anything as long as the phrase "rain later" appeared. "You know pretty much what happened. I don't know about Chessec, yet. How about the others?"
"Jena was pretty bad. Plaksa said she will make it but there might be some side effects. She had to do the same procedure she did on me."
"Triplets, then?" I had a mental image of a heap of three identical naked vixens (sue me, it's how my mind works) that suddenly flashed through my head.
"No. She had some problems with that. I'll know more tomorrow. Are you going to call?"
"Sure, honey. I'd better go now. Love you." I broke the connection. Time to do a little breaking and entering.
Consciousness came gradually, like layers of cotton batting being unwrapped from around my face. First I became aware of sounds that became louder and more distinct, then sensations as if a light breeze was blowing across my face. Some of my muscles twitched, and I at first felt pain, and then decided it was just normal sensation, no; feeling. My nose tingled as if an ammonia capsule had been broken under it, but all the smells were normal ones, just more intense. Everything was still black. I had an uncertain recollection of being hurt badly. I was beginning to think that my eyes had been further damaged, when it sunk in that someone was speaking to me, and had been for several sentences.
"Jena, do you understand me? Can you hear what I am saying?" A female voice, unfamiliar. I tried to answer, but my throat was only making coughs and growls. "Can you feel this?" I felt a pinprick on my…. Where was that? At first it felt like someone poked me on the buttock, but another part of my brain told me it was a location at least four feet away, yet somehow connected.
"Why don't you uncover her eyes? Maybe she's just disoriented." Mitzep's voice. Now I began to remember what had happened. Being shot, then lying wounded on the floor of his ship. I tried to ask for water to clear my throat.
"warrr. I neeed warrr." My tongue was huge in my mouth, and I kept bumping it into my front teeth. Someone pushed a tube between my lips and lukewarm water flowed in. "'ank you. Waaa happened to me"
The woman spoke again. "You had been severely injured, shot, but it's OK now. I've already repaired your physical problems. I'm trying to test how well your mind is sending signals to your body. My name is Plaksa, and I'm a doctor. Mitzep brought you here to get you help. Your eyes should be better than before, but I don't want to send too many messages to your brain at once, so I'm keeping you blindfolded at present."
Mitzep spoke again, from someplace near one ear. "Jena, lover, I'm standing right beside your bed. Do what the doctor says, she's trying to help." Mitzep stroked the side of my head, and my ear twitched. Strange, I could never do that before. Also, my hair seemed shorter. Probably cut so the doctor could operate.
Plaksa spoke again. "OK. You are laying on your stomach on a stretcher. I would like you to do every movement I ask you to do slowly. Don't try to stand or make any sudden moves, and don't jump if someone pulls your tail." Tail? Tail!
"Wait a minute! What tail? What has she done to me, Mitzep?" I found I could lower both arms and legs over the sides of the stretcher, which must have been fairly low, because they all touched the floor. My nails scraped across the decking, loudly. They were normally chewed to nubs, how long had I been recovering?
"Let it rest for now, Jena. You've been through some pretty severe changes, but you would have died if she hadn't done what she did. Just let it wait for a few more minutes. We need to find out if you're all right."
I considered this, then decided to accept his partial explanation. I slumped back onto the small cot. Remembering how small he was, I assumed it was sized for one of his species. I clearly did not fit. The doctor and he spent several minutes massaging and flexing my limbs and joints, having me flex one muscle group at a time. I was much more aware, than I remembered being with Mitzep, of the feel of their fur-covered skin as they touched me. When everything seemed to move freely, albeit in sometimes unexpected directions, Plaksa had me sit up on the edge of the stretcher.
"You seem to have full use of you voluntary muscles, and my instruments tell me your automatic muscle controls are good. I would like to take your eye covering off now. Please close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you to open them." I complied.
"Mitzep, dim the lights."
I could feel her paws removing the bandage. I noticed that I could easily distinguish between her scent and Mitzep's sharper, more familiar one. When my eyes were uncovered, she had me open them. At first, it was still black. Then I saw the outlines of the room and equipment, and the two diminutive foxes standing on either side of me. The clarity of focus was about what I had before, but the room was in shades of gray. He turned up the rheostat on the lights. Color gradually seeped back into the room, and my vision became sharper by far than it had been since before my original eye injury.
"That's bright enough, now." She moved her paw back and forth in front of my face, and I tracked it. When she brought it closer than about three feet, it began to blur. I commented.
"It's only what I expected. You're far-sighted, as I expected, but glasses will correct that. You'll find that your distance vision is better than the human norm. Mitzep, turn the lights up to full, now." The light got brighter, and as it did, my color vision began to wash out. Colors were paler, like a late summer day in Kansas. "That should be normal, for you now. You'll see best in dim light, anyway." She turned to Mitzep. "Help her over to the wall mirror, and show her what I've done. Jena," She looked back at me. "I had no other choice. I tried to repeat an experiment that has only worked once before, and I failed. This was my backup plan." I stood. Mitzep was so short beside me that his tug on my arm was more for moral support than need for any physical support. We walked across the room and I looked in the mirror.
I expected some scars or discolored skin grafts, things I would readily forgive for the wonderful eyes she had given me. I got something else, instead. Take a lioness, stand her upright on her hind legs, and give her fingers and thumbs. Cover it all with a dull, sandy-colored short coat, and that was basically what I now was. Mitzep stood beside me. With most of my height in my trunk, and my new legs relatively much shorter than my old ones, he still came only to my waist. That made me at least seven feet tall. I expected to feel some shock or even anger, but I knew that I had been in bad shape when the pushed me into the ship.
I asked, "Why a lioness, doctor? Why not another fox, like you did to Marie?"
"I tried saving your original human body, but it was apparent you were too badly hurt. So I conducted an emergency scan of your brain, before you died on my operating table. I had three female clones frozen in our medical stores. The first attempt, using Chessec's clone, was not viable. The forced growth process had not developed its brain stem properly. A second effort, with my own clone, failed because the recorded data did not capture enough of your mind's automatic process memories to take over their Diyim'yi counterpart roles. Your breathing reflex would not operate reliably, and you died again.
When I used our ship's engineer's clone for the third attempt, I dubbed your data tape over a copy of her original tape, made before the mission left home. I estimate there is a risk of up to a ten percent overlap between her memories and your own. In effect, you are not only her identical twin, but maybe ten percent actually her, as well."
A disturbing thought. I still felt like me, but was aware of an 'otherness', too. "Where is she. Does she know?"
"I thought it better for you to hear a familiar voice when you awoke. Plus Mitzep wouldn't hear of not being here with you. She is waiting in the galley. I'll ask her in, if you want." I nodded yes. She started toward the door. I interrupted.
"I don't know if I can face my twin right away. I want to talk to Mitzep in private, first. Maybe in a few minutes."
"Mitzep. Why don't you take her for a walk around the ship. You can talk, but while you do, I would like her to work on her coordination. Jena, I'd ask that you take it easy for a while, you'll get all the answers I'm sure you want, but let them come in conversation. We're looking for any memory losses, or, even more important, additional memory: Things you now remember that you shouldn't."
We went out into the hall and slowly walked around, touring the ship. He talked steadily, telling me about the shooting, his fears about what had happened to his half-sister and her husband, and his worries about the problems with my transformation. He kept reassuring me that he loved me, that he would help take care of me. I asked him questions, but it seemed hard to form complex sentences, and my ability to pronounce English had noticeably diminished. I knew that I knew what to say, but my mind kept trying to shorten the words and sentences into smaller bites, as it were. My feelings for him had changed, too, but in a way I could not yet articulate. Every once in a while I just looked at him, and thought, "If he would run, I could catch him. Then…" I still remembered all the things we had done together during the past month, and I felt great affection for him, but something key was different.
I began to grow more frustrated the more I concentrated on it. My mind just kept running into dead ends, and it annoyed me. He must have sensed my growing anger, because finally he stopped and faced me in a hatchway. "What's wrong, Jena?" You're tail is twitching back and forth and you have snarled the last three sentences. Are you all right?"
"I… I don't know. I think I need to see the doctor. Go get her, please. I'll rest here against…wall." I hissed the last words, sinking to the deck. As he turned to go, H'raawl-Hrkh, the big cat that had donated my new body, came running towards us. She growled at Mitzep in an unknown language. His eyes widened, and he took off quickly.
She lowered herself onto all fours and came towards me, examining me with care, keeping her eyes focused on my own, nostrils flared and breath chuffing as she took in my scent. She brought the broad pad of her nose right up to my own and inhaled. When she spoke, It took my completely by surprise. As I heard her words with my ears, I felt them in my head at the same time.
"Hssss. You will be all right." Formally, "Young sister, I name you mine. Clan 'Hrkh. I think I know what causes your head-pain. Come with me." She stood, pulling me to my feet. We entered her cabin and she sat me on the edge of her bunk. "Wait." She laid my hands (claws like meat-hooks, better) in my lap. Walking over to the basin, she drew a cup of water and got a pill out of a bottle. "For head pain. I will take also." She took her own, then waited until I followed her example.
It did help, almost immediately. She laid me down on the bed and massaged my back. I began to relax, and quickly felt more in control. It even seemed I could think more clearly. I asked, with half-closed eyes, "What was wrong with me, I feel much better now."
"Several things, mostly stress. We get more nervous than the foxes. It takes calm and quiet to relax us. Foxes, and humans, too, are jumpy, move too quick all the time. It helps to rest among familiar smells, sounds, with family and friends. Worse for us two: as twins we need to be closer." She softly stroked my flank.
"But what about how I was reacting to Mitzep? I love him, but I can't feel like I did before."
"You'll have to tell me. Your humans have emotions our kind do not. You are still 'software coded' to respond, lack the 'hard-wiring' anymore. But now, somewhat, I can feel what you mean, when you think about it, but I am not sure what it is. Chessec and her half-sister have something similar. This is not like I felt for Mitzep before, until you were changed." She laughed. "Before I felt what you felt earlier, in the hall. He was something like- have you ever caught a small prey animal, like a rabbit?" She shrugged, frustrated at being unable to find a good simile. "Not quite like that, I would never hurt him! But when you have a rabbit- you want to keep it, not let it escape far. It is too much fun to eat right away." She frowned, thoughtful. "That's still not right. But you know. Now I want him more, your way. Love, I guess you'd call it.
On a certain level I did know what she meant, although the rabbit metaphor (simile?) kept resurfacing. In graphic fashion. I shook my head. She caught my thought. "Is all right to think about it, but we are after all civilized. Think, but don't act. Diyim'yi are people too, no matter how tasty they look. Besides, Mitzep is fun in other ways!" We both simultaneously thought of past pleasures with the little fox. She sighed, and I smiled.
"But we both know we love him, each in our own way. What will we do?"
"We are sisters, same clan. Is tradition, share one, several mates. I see no problem." She held both my ears and licked my face. And, as I thought about it, a place in the back of my mind told me she was right. But still, there was a twinge of jealousy. She felt it too, because she continued, "Of course, he had better not stray outside the clan, sister." And I found myself agreeing, with a pure uncomplicated fierceness I had never felt before.
The buzz of the intercom woke us both from a sound sleep. Untangling herself from the tangled ball of tawny felines we two had become, H'raawl-Hrkh answered it. The Captain, summoning us both to a meeting in the wardroom. We cleaned ourselves in her small washroom, sharing her grooming tools, lotions and similar items, the occasion becoming an impromptu school for me in feline grooming etiquette. No time for a shower, not for a fur-covered person, but much brushing and subtle application of musk scent-reducing oil.
All the d'yimyi crew members were gathered, excepting only Lossp, who was on bridge watch. Captain Chopic made a point of welcoming me personally, complimenting me on my appearance. Plaksa remarked, "How did you know which one is Jena and which one is your Second Officer?"
"Posture." He gestured, indicating the two of us. "H'raawl-Hrkh always enters a room with assurance, knowing she can take anyone in the place. Look at Jena. When did you last see a M'raeenn hunch her shoulders?" He laughed, "Welcome to our little crew. You'll soon lose that reserve, I have a hunch." Looking around the room, he adopted a more businesslike tone, and proceeded. "It's been almost 24 hours since Mitzep lifted off from Earth. We have heard from Marie again, and she has mixed news: Dave is safe, for the moment, but Chessec has definitely been captured by the authorities. He will try to find out exactly where she is being held. We must begin making contingency plans."
"What do our orders say our options are?" Lossp interjected over the intercom. "We are, after all, a first contact team."
"A valid question. While her safety is our chief concern, there are two other considerations, one unique to dealing with the humans. First, our usual policy: We can't very well have the natives kidnapping our ambassadors. Which I'm sure she will explain once she speaks to someone in authority. So we have to at least allow them the opportunity to release her. Second, and added by the corps leadership only because of the high tech level of the humans," He paused briefly, making sure he remembered the wording, "We cannot allow the humans unlimited access to our scientific personnel, or equipment. This includes Chessec."
The doctor asked, "What exactly do you take that to mean, Chopic?"
"It means we can leave her in their hands if she is not under duress, not forced to tell them about our science. If they interrogate her about our ship's drive, or any military secrets, we have to ether rescue her or silence her. Is that clear enough?"
H'raawl-Hrkh, who had been silent to this point, spoke. "So what is the plan if the worst happens? I will of course lead the assault team." She stated it flatly, without consideration of challenge.
"You are correct. Two flight officers must stay aboard to operate the ship. Since only Mitzep can pilot the shuttle, Lossp and myself must therefore stay. You will rehearse Mitzep and Plaksa as your assault crew. Assume we have at least another eight hours to make ready."
"I will take my sister, also. She will fight." H'raawl-Hrkh mentally urged my silence.
Mitzep stood. "She is an artist! She doesn't know how to use weapons. It would be suicide." He looked at the Captain in appeal. I was touched by his concern, but my new sensibilities bristled.
H'raawl-Hrkh stated, flatly, "I will teach her to shoot. She can fight."
The Captain nodded, "Meet with me in four hours to report your team's status. Number Two, take over. You know what to do. Let's get moving."
The five floor apartment building gave the appearance of security, with a locked outside entrance covered by a camera. I disabled that first, bending the mount so it faced the ground, instead. Then I waited until no one was in sight, quickly pried the door jamb with my tire iron, pushed on the door, and slipped inside. I took the stairs, repeating my trick on his front door. Mr Hansen had an austere one bedroom, with the minimum essential furniture, most of it matching, and the requisite bachelor equipment: microwave, larger than necessary TV, and big stack of empty cardboard pizza boxes. I wondered a little at the kind of man that lived like this. Me, ten years ago, I decided.
He had a large cassagrain reflector telescope just inside the balcony door. Back in the bedroom, a cluttered table and two drawer metal file contained his household papers. On the wall above it was a certificate of achievement from AFOSI and a framed honorable discharge from the Air Force. An 80's vintage picture of a relatively young Master Sergeant Hansen, a woman and two small children sat on the night stand. Little else of interest was in the apartment. I verified his office address and found a home phone roster for his organization, but nothing else I could use. I was out of the building within fifteen minutes.
My next stop was his office on Garden of the Gods Road. It was evening and there were only half a dozen cars in the lot. Remembering which office block was his from our last visit, I looked into the windows of the glass cube building. Through my binoculars, three men in suits were visible, and they were familiar. I checked the cars in the lot again. Sure enough, one was the blue sedan, bits of sagebrush still stuck in the trim. I decided not to try to break in. Instead, I parked in another lot within view a quarter mile away, and settled in to wait.
They drove out of the lot an hour later. I followed, and thought I had been seen when they turned into a motel lot after less than ten blocks. I drove on past, and circled around as fast as I could. The sedan was empty, parked next to a dark colored van with no side windows. Both were on the far side of the lot from the nearest motel room, a strange place to park if you were staying the night. A brief glow of a blue light from inside the van's windshield told me that they, too were watching someone. I drove over to the nearest convenience store and bought some junk food and filled a thermos with coffee. Then I parked in the alley across the road, where I could see both the van and the motel. We all were going to have a long night.
My captors fed me in the room after we woke late that afternoon, sandwiches courtesy of room service. Their plan seemed to be that Cindy would take care of me directly, probably chosen because of her sex. Charles was constantly on the phone, setting up meetings and travel arrangements for the next day. Ben brooded in the corner, watching me and the door, back always to the wall. Otherwise, they were courteous and willing to let me do anything as long as I didn't try to leave the room.
While I talked quietly with the woman, the television was on with no sound in the background. I glanced at the set, surprised to see film of a reporter standing in front of Jena's cabin.
"Turn the sound up, quick! We're in the evening news, looks like."
Cindy thumbed the remote. "… and authorities have expressed concern that violent racist militias were trying to steal several unexploded bombs from the crash site. Again, this is Barbara Luis Rodriguez, Channel 4 Action News, live at the scene." The station cut back to the weather report. She flipped around the channels until she found more coverage. "… shoot out… injured soldiers…. kidnapped… "
Ben remarked, "Well, you somehow missed the news, yourself. I guess even talking foxes can't beat out a good fire fight for lead story." He settled back in his chair.
Charles spoke, one ear still to the phone. "Hold it down." He gestured, a wave, then listened some more. "Right, sir. Got it. Later." He hung up and come into the room with us. "The boss just got called into the general's office. Read the riot act. Patriotic duty. It never happened. There are no aliens. All tomorrow's meets are off. We hand her over to the Feds in the morning. We're to destroy any notes and pictures we've taken." He sat down and looked me over from head to foot. "So. Anything to add to this mass hallucination? It's off the record, I'm pretty sure."
"How can they do that?" Cindy demanded. "She's all the proof they need!"
"I'm a skeptic. I think there are no such thing as aliens. I do believe, however, that by this time tomorrow, the only way you'll be able to prove she exists is to pass a mental competency hearing. And then, probably not until you are released a few years from now from a psychiatric ward. That is, if you persist in these delusional statements."
He met my gaze. "Chessec, I feel sorry for you. This is not going to be an example of humanity at its best. I think you had better hope they don't just decide it's easier to 'disappear' you. As it is, you're probably going to a private cell someplace in the desert."
"You really should let me go. I won't tell. You can claim I escaped."
"I would do it, if I was alone, but both my compatriots here have families. I can't risk them never seeing them again."
"Even so, there are going to be some very severe consequences if I'm not allowed to contact my ship soon. Possibly lethal for a lot of people."
"I don't like being threatened. You were doing better being helpless and misunderstood."
"I don't mean to threaten. We have orders for things like this, too. I don't want anything bad to happen to anyone at all."
"We could make it look like she was snatched, "Ben interjected, calmly. "Just have to say, 'I'm so sorry!' When the feds come. I can keep a story straight. Done it before." Ben spoke slowly, and ran his fingers across a deep scar on the back of his opposite hand.
"Check the window in the other room. Too late for that. I suspect we're already being watched." He nodded and left.
He spoke just loud enough for us to hear him from the next room, "Van across the way, could be them. No back window, so they've got us bottled up. You got any more firepower in your gear?"
"No, your sidearm is it."
"We're shit out of luck, then." He came back into the room with us.
"You can say that again."
I thought, an idea tickling my brain. Marie! I concentrated on her, feeling that slight presence of her in my thoughts. I tried to build a stronger mental link, but her relief at my contacting her successfully swamped any finer detail. Telepathy isn't perfect, after all. Maybe a more conventional approach would work. "Can I make a phone call? I may be able to find some assistance." Cindy looked surprised at the concept, Chuck thoughtful and amused.
"That's right. This isn't your first visit to earth, is it?"
"My sister. She's a long way from here, but maybe she can find somebody close by."
"Give me the number, in case they're listening to the line." He dialed for an outside line. I started to give the area code, when he hung up. "Too late. The hotel operator says all lines are temporarily out of service." He pointed at the dirty dishes. "Leftovers for supper tonight, if any are left."
For the next four hours, we rehearsed possible situations we might encounter rescuing Chessec. Our goal was to quickly immobilize anyone nearby her, isolate the scene from outside interference, and do it with as few fatalities as possible. With Mitzep probably stuck at the controls of the shuttle, H'raawl-Hrkh and Jena would be the snatch team, while I would cover from a distance with a slug-thrower. No place to practice that on shipboard. So, while they rehearsed the close-in work, I played Chessec. Mitzep played various human thugs and guards. H'raawl-Hrkh had Jena practice throwing him around, and lifting and running with me. Even with padding, we were collecting bruises. The big cats were orders of magnitude stronger and faster than us. Even against humans, I thought, it would be no contest.
Mitzep went flying, again. "Be careful, there! See how your clawtips are caught in that padding? Without that, you would have ripped his arm off. Cup your hand, like you're wearing a glove. Claws in, unless you mean to use them. Delicate application of strength, that's what we need."
"Sorry. Are you OK, Mitzep?" Jena was apologetic. He picked himself off the padded floor, blew her a kiss with a wry expression on his face.
"I'll live. I'd say, 'you don't know your own strength', but I guess you don't yet. It's all right."
"We're going to set up again: Plaksa, you're in front. Mitzep, you're guard number one, I'll be guard number two. Stand two paces behind her with a pistol. I'll be beside her. What you do is," She walked us through it at half speed. "Hip-check the close guard to knock him down, then pivot and swing your claws, trapping his gun hand. If you break some fingers, that's all to the good. Now. You do it. Full contact on me this time, sister." And more in the same vein. Always, land the ship unnoticed, creep up on whoever had her, then a violent attack, relying on faster-than-human reflexes to win through. When we were good and tired, we adjourned to the galley, where we rehearsed on the table using models made of fruit and breadsticks. Finally, she called a halt.
"Let's get some rest. No telling how long we have. We just have to wait for Marie or Dave to call and tell us where they are. I'm going to the showers. Jena, do you want to come?" H'raawl-Hrkh started out the door.
"No, sister. I'll stay here for a while." Jena seemed subdued.
"You're a bit quiet," I cautiously began. "Anything I can do?" She shook her head.
"It just has been so much change. I'm not the person I was the day before yesterday. I do things that worry me; I scare myself." She nervously peeled an orange.
"You'll be fine. You're different, but you're still you. The experiences you've had make as much of your personality as anything biological. It's just that we don't have the leisure to help you adjust. Things will be better, once we're through this crisis." She ate one of the orange wedges, then wrinkled her lips in distaste.
"I used to love oranges. Now, that tasted awful!"
"You're almost a pure carnivore now. I'd be surprised if you can eat fruit at all."
"That's another thing. I didn't eat much meat before. Now, I feel like I'm about half a step from being a mass murderer! Even Mitzep could feel it. Part of me liked hitting him." She wrung her hands, looked at them, then wiped the fruit pulp off with a napkin. He walked over to her, and touched her cheek.
"You're all right. Here. Why don't we go and talk together. I still feel the same way I did for you two days ago. That hasn't changed at all."
"But this mess!"
"I won't mind cleaning up. Go with Mitzep. Talk together." They left. I cleaned the galley, made some fast energy food for later, then went back to my own cabin for a shower and some rest.
After what seemed less than an hour of sleep, but which the clock called four hours, the intercom buzzed. Chopic's voice sounded throughout the ship. "You've got about an hour to get ready. Marie called, said Dave has the place she's being held under surveillance. He'll call himself, once he knows exactly where she is. The shuttle leaves in one hour."
I dressed in a grey camouflaged jumpsuit and boots. Distributing a first aid kit among my cargo pockets, I went to the galley for a light meal. Plaksa was there when I arrived.
"Captain's moving us into near earth orbit right now. If nothing else changes, you're going in right at dawn, local time. Dave's supposed to call direct when it's time." Mitzep and both lionesses came in together. Jena was smiling more, still a bit hesitant, though. He looked like he hadn't slept.
"Looks like you ironed things out. Everybody happy?"
H'raawl-Hrkh answered, surprisingly. "Yes, they are back in love. Is different, when I hear what she's thinking. Might as well enjoy the show." If you looked closely, you could see Jena's blush around her nose. "Mitzep, you take plenty of vitamins, you need strength." She coughed out a laugh.
Plaksa brought us up to date. "Chopic is on the bridge. You launch in thirty minutes, unless we get an 'abort' call. Mitzep, you should be unopposed coming in. Dave says that airborne anti-ballistic missile laser is home based down in New Mexico, and will probably take an hour to launch. The nearest armed fighters are at Buckley Field in Denver. Say, two planes, fifteen minute alert status. F-16s, so no radar missiles. Sidewinder only, short shooters. Could be a transient or two at Peterson Air Force Base, but they won't be armed. Hour to arm, easy. Depending on where Chessec is, you shouldn't have any problems going in. De-orbit east-bound over Salt Lake City, drop into the mountains until you reach the front range and then pop up to 10,000 feet for a clear radio line-of-sight. Dave will call on 160.35 MHz with landing directions." He handed Mitzep an aerial photo from our original planet survey. "Here's where they are now, roughly. This picture's four years old, so watch for new construction. If you land behind this treeline, here, you shouldn't be able to be seen or heard from the motel."
"What about security on the ground?" H'raawl-Hrkh asked.
Plaksa laid down a sketch map. "He thinks six. Three in the room and three outside, watching. Dave says he'll get the ones outside, if everything goes as planned."
"That'd be nice. Anything else?"
"Marie gave her read on Chessec's mental state. She says that Chessec was angry when she was first caught, then calmed down, was almost enjoying herself. Something changed a few hours ago: Now she's afraid more than anything else."
"I guess that's it. Everybody, let's go to the arms locker. Time to move." As per our plan, Mitzep and I drew long-range slug-throwers, mine with a telescopic sight. H'raawl-Hrkh and Jena both armed themselves with tranquilizer dart pistols. A final equipment check, and we climbed through the docking tunnel into the shuttle. A faint scent of Jena's blood still permeated the cushions.
"Everybody strapped in? Here we go." The launch was smooth, and as soon as the shuttle cleared the ship, Mitzep rolled, exposing the huge expanse of the Earth to view. The sunrise line was over the Midwest. While we slept, Chopic had shifted the ship into an eccentric orbit that released us less than a hundred miles above the nighttime sky of the western US. The easy part of the flight gave way to rough bouncing as Mitzep forced us into thicker air. He dropped speed rapidly, sending shock waves bouncing across the Utah desert and Great Salt lake. We were still at a significant Mach number when he pulled out into level flight, just above the Wasatch Range. They might not know what we were, but somebody would sure know we were there. Mitzep flew with a sure touch, passing between the higher peaks, riding a contour that did not require sudden course corrections. Fifteen minutes later, fifty miles west of our target, he dropped subsonic and turned on the radar for the first time.
"Looks clear. Airliners at high altitude, nothing else on the 'scope. H'rall-hrk, why don't you see if you can raise Dave on the radio."
"Good morning, Dave. Do you hear me?" She repeated this twice, then switched the radio to speaker. His voice answered, loud and clear.
"Good morning to you! Always good to hear a familiar voice. Everything looks quiet here. Nobody's moved for at least two hours."
"We'll set down, then. We should be with you in five minutes." Mitzep placed us almost noiselessly on the ground using thrusters, main drive off. The three of us climbed out, leaving him in the doorway. Running through weed-covered vacant lots, we came up behind Dave's Jeep.
"Hey! I'm over here, by the dumpster." Dave whispered. We joined him lying prone on the pavement. "Glad to see you all. Jena, you look good in your new skin."
"What's your plan?" H'raawl-Hrkh hissed. Her voice was not made for quiet. "What order do you want to take them?"
"The three in the van do not go to the room, and visa-versa. Let's take the van first. See that sedan? It belongs to them, but the driver is in the van right now. If we move up behind it, they can't see us from the van windows until we're right outside. I figure we hit the side and rear doors simultaneously. Show some firepower, tell them to surrender."
"And if they don't? "
"Ventilate they whole thing, hope the folks in the room are more reasonable. I figure seven rounds from my .45 will discourage most of them. Besides, two of them are probably asleep." I shuddered at the mental image of the damage that would do in a small space.
"We have dart pistols. Why don't Jena and I shoot, instead?"
"I like that even better. Silent. Then we duct-tape their mouths and limbs, and go to the motel rooms."
"Do we know which one Chessec's in?"
"No. It's 105 or 107. We'll have to hit both. I recommend you and Jena each just dive through the front windows. I'll follow Jena."
"What about me?" I interrupted.
"You've got the rifle. Crawl under that cedar bush over there, cover the parking lot. Anybody comes up with a gun, or any reinforcements show up before we get clear, shoot them." I nodded.
"OK. Lets start as soon as Plaksa gets in place." I ran along the curb and dove into the island of landscaping, which was thick and reeked of a rabbit burrow. I got comfortable and uncovered my scope's eyepiece. I was fifty yards from the van, one hundred-fifty from the motel. The mercury vapor streetlights made vision bright, but threw up strange contrasting shadows. I watched the three of them rush the sedan and drop behind it. They waited for ten seconds, listening for signs of discovery.
Dave touched H'raawl-Hrkh's shoulder, pointed to the van's back door. He pointed to himself and Jena and then to the side door. They moved up to the back-right corner of the van. He held up three fingers, then pumped his hand twice. On the third count, he jerked the handle of the sliding door of the van open and thrust his other hand, holding his .45, inside, calling out, "I want to see everybody's hands right now! He reached in with the other hand and pulled a man out by the throat, thrusting him into Jena's arms.
"He said everybody!" H'raawl-Hrkh snarled. Her dart gun spat once, a quiet 'phhht'. She climbed inside and pulled another man out onto the ground. He held his hands wide from his body. "Face down on the ground."
Jena was having trouble with the first man, and Dave was inside the van out of sight, dealing with the one H'raawl-Hrkh had tranquilized. Her captive suddenly brought a knee up into her gut, breaking her hold and staggering her slightly. He stepped clear of her, and reached into his jacket. I began to line up my cross-hairs on his forehead. He had underestimated Jena's reach, because she shot out a roundhouse swing that caught him on the jaw with a 'crack' I could hear from my distant vantage. He went down as if pole-axed.
The three of them were placed face downward on the ground, and Dave taped them up. After a quick search of the van, the two lionesses started toward the motel. Dave followed, now holding a suppressed MP-5 submachinegun taken from the van. They took up positions beneath the front windows and listened for a minute. I could hear them whisper, but could not make out the words.
This time, Dave stayed down beneath the window, gesturing to H'raawl-Hrkh and Jena. They both stepped back several strides, spun and leaped through the glass, arms outstretched to protect their faces. Dave leaped in behind Jena. The curtains billowed as the glass blew inward, and all was lost to my sight. There was a single, loud gunshot, then silence. I saw a curtain twitch in room 117, but no other response. In less than five minutes, Two lionesses, a fox and a human came running out of the room.
"Let's go, Doc!" We ran to the jeep. Chessec and Dave climbed in. "Tell Chopic I'm going home with Dave. The rest of you need to take the shuttle ASAP. I'll call when we get home." He started the engine and backed down the alley, not turning his lights on until he reached the street. As we jogged back to the shuttle, the sound of sirens approaching got gradually louder and louder. Mitzep was crouched by the door, rifle held at the ready. He smiled as he recognized us.
"Dave warned me you were coming back on the radio. Climb in. He said H'raawl-Hrkh was injured, so Doctor, you and her climb into the back. Jena, sit next to me." Once we were settled, I looked her over while Mitzep did his pre-flight list. She was favoring one arm, cradling it against her side.
"What happened?' I cut back the sleeve of her jumpsuit.
"One of the guards inside the room was faster than I was. He got a shot off before I got to him. It wasn't a very big gun, I guess. Didn't even slow me down." I soaked the congealed blood away from the entry and exit holes with a gauze pad.
"It looks like you got lucky. This one went through muscle. That 'little gun' would have splintered your bone if it had been an inch over. I'm going to clean this up now, and that should keep you until we get back to the ship."
Takeoff was not fancy, just a straight drive to orbit at maximum thrust. Mitzep muttered, "We'd be dead if they had an active ABM defense. Every sensor out there got a good look at us this time."
"Well, it will certainly cover Dave and Chessec's retreat."
"It gets better. While we've been down on the surface, Chopic and Plaksa have been popping reconnaissance satellites with the laser. He's making a point about how expensive taking Chessec was. Might make them think twice."
"I wonder what the long term effect of this little disaster is going to be. It will certainly make the mission harder in the short-term."