“Uh, Cap? This… looks like someone’s been here….”
Hale approached to stand with Darquin and for a moment there was nothing but silence. Equipment, some that was only vaguely recognizable as such, and bodies they now couldn’t help but assume were once sentient beings lay in a tangled mess that spoke of pain and panic. It looked like the one in the first room was lucky to get so far.
“Looks like a bunch of….” Darquin nodded to the leathery pile, “… these guys….got hit hard by something and took off ASAP.”
“If any at all escaped. Most look like they fell where they stood — floated, whatever,” Hale said, and then a bitter thought whispered out. I wish…. It was hardly a thought befitting a Ranger, but she couldn’t help the anger. If the Vorlons had been more careful about cleaning up after themselves, or at the least protected their old places, they would never have to be here. The whole conflict would have ended with the surgical finality that the Vorlons doled out when they were still here.
She wouldn’t be trying to get to sleep at night with the dead in her dreams.
“Whatever,” she repeated. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Visibility was to the end of the flashlight beam, the sensor readings stopped at the walls and they had no idea what they were walking into. Tactically, going into this was looking about as brilliant as repairing a loaded PPG. And in Margaret Morgan’s experience, when you took to staring down the barrel of a gun, odds were it’d go off in your face eventually.
And how’s the tunnel here for a little symbolism? she thought. This could get messy…
Turning from her inspection of the walls, Margaret glanced quickly at Kim, hoping her friend wasn’t hearing her grumbled thoughts. Kim had enough to absorb…
But then the beam of her flashlight caught the glitter of Kim’s Ranger pin, and in the light’s expanded edge Margaret saw the queer look on her friend’s face. There was that expression Margaret recognized as “listening”, but there was something both disturbing and alien to this half-trance. Worried, she closed the distance between them.
“What is it, Cyfeilles?” Margaret asked.
Kim answered as if her sense was working it’s way up from a fog. “There’s something… dead…. alive… dying… I’m not sure.”
“Everywhere… down.” Kim shook her head, trying to clear the impressions taking root in her mind. Margaret was about to question further when a light cut between them.
“I think we found what’s left of somebody’s base camp,” Darquin interrupted. “Some hardware and a few more of those creatures in here.”
“So, it appears they got in and began carting out equipment, but whatever they went for last looks like they triggered this,” Hale said to her small audience of listeners. Not a one was watching her, though, eyes gone to the walls in renewed wariness. “And then they were forced to run,” Hale concluded her hypothesis. “Doctor Brannon? Could you give us a reading on one of these things?”
As Helle stepped forward, Darquin spoke up. The longer the waiting stretched, the more he became uncomfortable. He kept flexing the fingers of his gun hand, throwing occasional rapid-fire glances at the dead creatures. “I need another set of eyes to watch these guys. I have to go over the rest of the place.”
Hale considered him a moment then nodded. “You and… Matsumoto, go ahead.” she decided.
Darquin looked back toward Kim at the mention of her name. It was a moment longer than that before Kim blinked and truly heard she’d been given instruction. Shaking clear of whatever preoccupation held her, she stepped forward to assist. Darquin didn’t ask just yet, but it gave him something else to keep an eye on. He went back to inspecting the cave for hidden exits or some better indication of battle damage.
“The room seems to be sloped down toward the next,” Kim said, thinking aloud. “I suppose if ground doesn’t matter to you….”
“That could explain why they chose this place, or built it this way.”
Kim nodded vaguely at Darquin and proceeded just inside the next room.
Just then Helle’s voice reached Darquin’s ears and he turned back to the examination taking place. He never saw Kim press on into the next cave alone.
“They’re all dead,” Helle pronounced. “Some as long as the one out in the first chamber, but three are no more than seven or eight hours dead. These are all estimations of course.”
“How did they die?” Hale asked.
“Without being able to do a full autopsy, I can’t declare it certain,” Helle proceeded cautiously, “but it looks like it was some kind of energy weapon that cut them down. If they can’t keep aloft and it’s only a matter of time before they die.”
“These creatures are very vulnerable to puncture wounds, as it’d break open the sacs that produce the gas they keep aloft with. Once on the ground, death is certain without outside help. They would suffocate under their own weight as the breathing sacs are compressed.”
“Yeah, gasses. So that’s the stink around here,” DeVries muttered in reply to T’rar’s very universal signing.
Helle shaped a rough globe in the air with her hands, the white of her examination gloves like a mime’s in the light. “Imagine a giant jellyfish, but airborne. Sacs in their body produce and hold the lighter gasses they need to keep aloft and process what they breathe, and the tentacles are prehensile enough to collect its food or perform simple tasks. If these are the beings that the White Star 24 encountered, it’s amazing that they have advanced enough to become a spacefaring race.”
Hale nodded, pensive. “Doctor, pick the most recent one by your guess. We should bring one back with us, for a full autopsy.”
“Find anything?” Darquin said, turning and expecting to speak with Kim, but there was only darkness in the next room. “Kim?”
No reply, but he thought he heard footsteps ahead, growing quieter with distance. Urgently Darquin waved for Hale and then rushed to catch up.
Hale looked up to see Darquin’s urgent gesture before he rushed into the next room. Before she could even open her mouth, he was gone from sight, and then suddenly Margaret was as well, after him. Rangers. Couldn’t wish for more dedicated people, but sometimes it seemed putting out a forest fire was easier than ordering these about.
“DeVries, T’rar, help the doctor bag one of these,” Hale ordered, and then jogged off after the others.
The shared glance between the three left behind really didn’t need translating.
Copyright (c) 1998 Denise Cox, Leslie McBride, Joe R. Medina, Alida Saxon and Smith Self. All rights reserved.