Out of the Frying Pan …
Characters: Margaret Morgan, Daanike
The two investigators left the Houses of the Growers and climbed back into Gahara’s scooter. “There is a small House of Traders, which operates outside of the Great Marketplace,” she explained. “Those Huka deal with many who grow offworld plants in our colonies outside the city.”
“That seems to be a good place to start, yes.”
The scooter traveled through the city, and on for several kilometers into the countryside — they passed through fields and orchards, and then on to another Huka colony settlement, a triad of longhouses surrounded by what looked to be warehouses. Inside the courtyard, Gahara stopped the scooter and stepped off to greet a red and brown furred Huka who came up to them.
When close enough, Morgan bowed politely, Minbari-fashion.
The Trader Huka chattered at Gahara for a moment, who replied quickly, then turned to Morgan. “Nauri does not speak Interlac, nor do any of her sisters here just now,” she explained. “Perhaps the best way to proceed would be for you to ask the questions, and I can act as translator.”
“That would be acceptable. Should we go in?”
Gahara nodded, and Nauri led the way into the nearest of the buildings. They were invited to sit in an open space, with cushions on the floor. Several other Huka were already sitting there. After a brief exchange, Gahara said, “Nauri and her sisters are ready for our questions.”
“Ask again about the Drazi first, I think. You know best how to phrase it.”
After a brief exchange, Gahara translated Nauri’s words directly. “We have at times traded with Drazi, but I have no memory of this specific person.”
“How about any Gaim?”
“Gaim? I do not know this name. Can you describe these beings?”
“Insectoid, but different than you.” She paused. “We do not know much about them, other than ambassadors and traders.”
The trader Huka spoke among themselves for a moment, then Nauri straightened up a little as she answered the question. “Yes, I know these people you speak of. We have traded with one of them, but it was a long time ago.”
That caught Morgan’s attention. “Yes? How long ago? For what?”
Gahara paused a moment before translating. “Between six months and a year, as your people reckon time,” she finally said. “Some precious gemstones were traded for a supply of power cells.”
“And nothing since then?”
“No, nothing. I think this is why I had such difficulty recognizing the species you described.”
“Gems for power cells.” Shrugging, Morgan directed her comments at Gahara only.
Gahara flexed the fingers on one hand. “Might I have a few moments to speak with Nauri directly? I will explain to you in a moment.”
The Ranger looked at her, but nodded. “As you need.”
A fairly brief exchange followed, then Gahara turned back to Morgan. “It seems that Nauri and her sisters know nothing that could help us,” she said, pronouncing the words in Interlac with exaggerated care. “I think we should be taking our leave.”
Morgan frowned at her, but then took the cue. “Ah, I had hoped to be done with this now. Thank them, would you?” She stood slowly, as if just going to stretch.
Gahara rose and said their farewells, and the pair made their way back toward the courtyard.
“What do you suggest now?” It was an innocent enough question, but Morgan was watching Gahara closely.
The tall Huka’s ears were twitching. “They are lying,” she said softly. “I do not know why, or what else their intent is. I need time to think.”
The Ranger nodded. Gut instinct had seen her through a lot herself, so she understood. “I shall follow your lead, as Terrans say,” she answered at the same volume.
Gahara’s scooter was where they had left it, in the courtyard, near one of the warehouse buildings. They were a few steps from it when Morgan picked an unmistakable sound out of the ominous silence: a heavy plasma rifle powering up.
It usually meant that someone was in trouble. She took it to mean them this time. Grabbing Gahara, she lengthened her stride and leaped over the scooter when they reached it, to use it as cover. Her PPG was in her hand immediately upon landing.
They came down hard, just as a plasma bolt struck the body of the scooter above their heads. Gahara hissed, and crept forward, heading for the step of the scooter. “Draw their fire,” she said to Morgan, “and I will get our escape powered up.”
“Ie.” Morgan lifted a little and squeezed off a few rounds, not aiming yet, just getting the shooter to duck. In the moment that provided, she ran to the corner of the building, hoping the shooter would think Gahara was with her.
The next shot burned through the air about ten centimeters from her shoulder. Looking toward the doorway of the warehouse, she could see the figure of the shooter clearly — the broad, squat figure of a Drazi.
She squinted a moment to get a good look at him before returning fire. As he lifted the rifle for another shot,she thought she could see another figure just behind him in the shadows, tall and blatantly insectoid.
Well, well, she thought briefly, before doing her best to head off the next shot.
The stink of burning wood filled her nostrils as the next shot burned almost completely through the wall she crouched behind. In front of her, the scooter lurched and screeched, as Gahara drove closer while trying to keep out of the Drazi’s line of sight. “Anla’shok!” she called.
Morgan fired a last barrage at the Drazi, then leapt aboard.
She was nearly knocked to the floor of the scooter as Gahara accelerated the screeching machine as fast as it would go. Over the din, she shouted, “It’s been hit. I do not know how far it will go before it breaks down completely.”
Instead of trying to stand, she merely hung on. “We are about to find out, ie?”
“Yes,” Gahara said, glancing over her shoulder to see if they were pursued. It didn’t appear so. Still, she pressed the machine hard, until it finally, with some almost unbearable grinding sounds, shut down. Gahara managed to stop without crashing. “We are still about eight kilometers from our Houses,” she said. “I fear we have a walk ahead of us.”
Morgan had been watching behind. She climbed off. “Ie. But they seem to have let us go.”
Gahara dusted herself down, and faced Morgan. Her ears were folded half back against her head. Morgan imagined if she had a tail, it would have been lashing back and forth. “I can only suppose they hoped to intimidate, rather than kill us outright. Or that they didn’t dare being seen killing us openly.”
“Either is possible. But we will not know yet.”
“One thing is certain, however,” Gahara said as she began walking. “They have revealed themselves beyond question.”
The Ranger kept pace with her. “Ie. We will be able to build a trail for them now.”
Gahara walked on, for several minutes in complete silence. Her ears seemed to be drooping, and Morgan thought she could hear a faint, sustained grumble from deep in the black-furred Huka’s throat.
Morgan tried, but couldn’t suppress a chuckle at the incongruity of it.
“What is it, Anla’shok?” Gahara asked, pausing in her walk and turning to face Morgan.
“I am sorry. There is a Terran animal who makes a noise such as that when put out. I have often thought it more expressive than whatever I could say, in the same position.”
Gahara stared for a moment, before beginning to laugh. “Yes,” she said at last. “I am put out, as you say. Still, I must admit that it has been a most eventful day.” She began walking again. “I hope your fellow Anla’shok have had better luck than we.”
“Ie, as do I.”
They walked on in companionable silence for almost two hours, until the Houses of the Guardians came into view. When several of the Huka there spotted Morgan and Gahara, they hurried up, almost carrying them into the largest of the buildings, where the Guardian’s queen was sitting on her cushion.
Beside her, face drawn and anxious, stood Daanike. “Valeria be praised, you are safe,” she murmured to Morgan.
“Ie, but a near thing. What has been happening here?”
“There were no shuttles available from the Phoenix,” Daanike said, “so I attempted to contact Mr. Kriechbaum. His link was not functioning. Soon afterward, a messenger brought this, along with a handwritten note, to me at the Growers’ Houses. I came here at once, hoping to find you.”
She opened her hand, revealing a small lock of hair, a knot tied in the middle. The hair looked human. It was bright red.
Morgan looked up, toward the sky. After a few moments, she asked in a tight voice, “What did the note say?”
“What you might expect. Cease our investigations at once, leave Rolui, or Mr. Kriechbaum will die.” She thought for a moment. “The writing is in Interlac, and done in a very, very precise hand. Far too precise, I think, for a Drazi to have written it.”
“Ie, that would be distinctive. We know a Gaim is involved.” She glanced at Gahara then. “I believe someone was trying to give us the same message, in a… different format.”
The Huka nodded, then turned to the queen, who was sitting up and watching the proceedings with bright amber eyes. “Mother,” Gahara said, “you have seen some of what faces us. Know that some of our own people, perhaps an entire House, are involved in this. They lied to us and some of the aliens in their compound tried to kill us. Should we heed these warnings and dismiss the Anla’shok?”
“Never,” the queen said firmly. “We are the Guardians. I think that is all I need tell you, Gahara. Do what you need to do in order to settle this. Keep me informed but do not wait, if you need to make a decision quickly.”
Gahara nodded again, turning back to the Rangers. “Anla’shok, I need a short time to explain to my Mother all that has happened. In time it is she who will be answerable to the other Houses. I assume you will need to contact your ship?”
“You assume correctly.” She bowed to the queen and stepped away.