Darquin was at the nav, guiding the shuttle toward the orbital plates of the Dyson swarm. Beside him, Morgan drummed her fingers over the situation, the clatter of nails a counterpoint to the softer noises of console panels and power systems. A pair of Storm Squadron’s Thunderbolt Starfuries kept a tight formation with the shuttle.
“Approaching first rendezvous point.” His board let out a chirp. “We just got a homing signal…toward one of the orbital platforms out there.”
“No sign of hostiles,” Kriechbaum reported.
Morgan nodded, and then because Kriechbaum couldn’t see it, said, “Ie. I suppose we follow it.”
“On it, boss. Storm, we have a new course,” Darquin said into the comm. He punched the frequency in. “Stay sharp.”
“Right with you, boss.”
Darquin muted the comm. “We need to work out better nicknames,” he said to Morgan, “or we’re going to get confused.”
“I still am not used to ‘boss’,” she answered, wry.
“Roger that,” he said with a grin.
The flight group brought themselves around the nearest orbital platform, which was easily hundreds of miles across, like the verdant slice of a tin-plated world.
“The signal is leading us down to the surface,” Darquin said. “Oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.”
“Well, they will not try to kill us right off, then.” She bared her teeth, half a joke.
“Here’s hoping they’re not into practical jokes.” Darquin nudged the controls down. The shuttle gently followed suit.
Kriechbaum spoke over the comm. “Should we come in too, or stay up to watch?”
“Storm, give us a defensive screen. Storm One plus Three, continue escort.”
Below them, on the surface of the Dyson fragment, a wide metal platform with bright, eerily familiar markings came into view. Darquin copied the image to a monitor near Morgan’s seat. “Looks like a landing pad to me.”
“It does.” She nodded for him to proceed. “Phoenix, this is Shuttle Nuthorm commencing our landing spiral.”
The shuttle circled downward, touching down onto the landing platform with a final blast of its thrusters.
Darquin started to unbuckle his restraints. “Storm, we’re down and good so far. Keep up the patrol. We’re moving out.”
“Acknowledged. Good luck.”
Morgan did the same, uneasy.
Darquin checked his PPG, then hesitated. “Should I bring this along?”
After a moment, she nodded. “They did not specify.”
“I’ll strap it to my ankle,” Darquin said with a shrug, crouching. A tug of his pant leg and the weapon disappeared. “At least the fighting pikes aren’t as obvious.”
“Ie. Which has made me grateful in the past.”
He passed Morgan an earpiece mike and translator unit. “Time to meet the neighbors?”
Kim’s voice came over the open channel for the first time since they left the docking bay. “Leave the ship’s sensors running, would you? I’m getting some interesting localized readings off your signal.”
“We copy, Phoenix. Keeping our eyes and ears open.”
“Ie.” Morgan looked up briefly, adjusting the earpiece. “Wish us luck.”
Just beyond the landing platform, a surprisingly small alien crouched, apparently waiting for them, regarding them with four black, bead-like eyes. Morgan and Darquin watched it from the boarding hatch viewport. After an exchange of nervous glances, they opened the hatch and went down the boarding ramp. Their surroundings were Earthlike, in many ways resembling a cluster of cities under construction, shrouded in tall forests. The air shifted lightly, a lingering impact from their arrival, and it carried the scents of growing things. One could imagine a world under their feet if they didn’t look too far.
“I’ll take point,” Darquin muttered. He took a few steps ahead of Morgan.
The alien approached, moving fast on all four of its feet, slowing and stopping a little over two meters from them. It sat up on its haunches, and adjusted a unit attached to one of its broad, spadelike ears.
Darquin stayed where he was, looking around them.
Morgan closed most of the space between her and Darquin. Under her breath she said, “I think he, she, or it is fidgeting.”
“So would I, except for the whole one-false-move thing,” Darquin said.
As if to confirm this, the alien rubbed at its furry muzzle with its free hand, then spoke in a rapid, high-pitched voice. The words came through their translators: “You are called … humans? We are Uzael.”
Morgan cleared her throat a little. “We are.”
“I speak for the rest, for now. I am called Buel.”
“For now?” Something about the phrase got Darquin wondering what the rest of them were doing.
“If they are needed, they will speak.”
Darquin simply nodded, glancing to Morgan. He took the opportunity to study the trees and the few metal structures near the landing pad.
“I am Morgan. This is Darquin.”
“Understood.” The alien paused, combing its muzzle again. “We have many questions. One above all others. Why do you serve … Vorlons?”
The translators were not good with emotional nuance, but they could see the last word was spoken much like a curse. Darquin gave Morgan a shocked glance despite himself before setting his attention back to their surroundings.
Morgan just shook her head. “We do not serve them. We use their technology.”
Buel took several steps back, chattering. The translator finally rendered, “Impossible. If you use Vorlon gifts, you must serve. Or be killed.”
“If the Vorlons were still around, they’d say diff–” Darquin stopped himself, then sighed, clearly too late.
“What? What does that mean?”
Morgan gave Darquin a look, but it wasn’t an angry one. “They have left.”
“Departed? Departed to where?” Buel had one hand to the unit in his ear and the other hand, hard against the other ear, as if trying to follow several conversations at once.
“Beyond the Rim, it is said.”
“They and the other First Ones were supposed to leave the galaxy,” Darquin said. “We didn’t exactly…agree on everything.”
Buel abruptly turned away and chattered a long stream of speech, some of it going into ultrasonic frequencies. It would require a transcript fed through the translator to even try to decipher them later. When he turned around again, Buel spoke a bit more slowly.
“This is hard for us to understand. Uzael used Vorlon gifts, then … we disagreed too. The Vorlons destroyed our homeworld.”
Darquin froze, then gulped. Suddenly the landing pad under their feet seemed more like a tombstone.
“I do not know how to answer you on that,” Morgan said honestly.
“Are you stronger than they? Wiser? Is that how they did not destroy you?”
“We were caught between the Vorlons and the Shadows. So we sought help from the other First Ones. It’s, uh, a long story.”
“Why did you come here?”
Morgan looked at Darquin while answering. “We were following a ship.”
“A ship attacked a planet under our protection,” Darquin said quickly. “We want the attacks to stop.”
Buel shook himself, sending ripples across his squat, furry body. “Regret,” he finally said. “Our hate belongs to the Vorlons, but some Uzael do more than hate. They strike out.”
“The Shadows did that to us too. It has to stop,” Morgan reiterated.
“They ‘struck out’ thousands of innocent lives,” Darquin said. “Nearly all of them were telepaths.”
The alien rocked back and forth on its haunches. “Telepaths? They killed telepaths?”
“They’re Vorlon technology too, it turns out,” Darquin grumbled.
“Wait. I must speak with the others. Wait — please.” Without itself waiting for an answer, Buel dropped to four feet, turned and ran, disappearing among the trees.
“Oh, hell….” she said under her breath. Morgan sighed and shook her head. “They will not let me do this again, I know it.”
Darquin turned his eyes to the trees. “If they have snipers, we’re vapor just standing out here.”
“Ie. But the shuttle is vulnerable too.”
Darquin reached into his duster for binoculars. “Screw it.” After scanning the area with a hard sweep of his lenses, he stopped. “I see five of them, on the ground. They might be talking.”
“We can wait a few moments.”
“I see guns higher up. They’re not trained on us. Man, we threw them a major curveball.”
Several minutes passed, and then Buel came back. “We had telepaths too. The Vorlons punished them worst. Most dead — some worse than dead.” The alien’s four eyes focused on Darquin for a moment. “Long story.”
He turned to Morgan for a moment, uncomfortable in the spotlight, however brief.
Morgan swallowed a snort. “The ship appeared to target the telepaths on the planet we spoke of,” she said bluntly.
“Great regret,” Buel said. “We offer … a proposal. This could be enough to sway those who have done the New Horrors. Enough for us to stop them.”
Darquin rankled, but held his tongue long enough to regain his composure. “Can’t you…stop them now?”
“Not yet. They have all the weapons. But even this news may change things.”
“We will listen.” She wasn’t about to promise anything else just yet.
“The Vorlons … made weapons in space. At the edges of our space. For protecting us. When we … rebelled, Vorlons turned them on us.” He paused, watched them and waited.
“Aw jeez,” Darquin breathed.
Morgan nodded for the Uzael to continue.
“They remain there. Destroy them, and we will believe you mean us well. We will stop the others, however we can.”
“Could we have a moment to talk privately?” Darquin said.
“Yes.” Buel turned his back and plucked the unit out of his ear.
Darquin tapped his earpiece and muted out the translator channel. “We might be able to pull it off. Grapple those things with Zen’thas fighters, once we find them….”
Morgan did the same quickly. “Perhaps. They might even be a danger to us now.”
“A weapon system made by the Vorlons? They wouldn’t make anything easy.”
“That does not make me comfortable,” she said drily. “You agree with a ‘yes’, then?”
“Well, someone’s gonna try it one of these days,” Darquin said. “And I trust us more than a tech-runner.”
“Ie.” She turned her translator back on, took a step forward.
Darquin nodded and tapped his earpiece.
Buel turned around, looked at them quickly then replaced his own ear unit, waiting for them to speak.
Morgan spoke into the translator mike. “We agree. How should we contact you after?”
“You may speak through the probe, as we arranged this meeting.”
“We will do that.”
“We will wait for word.”
“Time and a word,” Darquin said to himself, half amused.
The little alien took several steps backward, clearing the landing platform, but still watching.
After a moment, Morgan bowed to him, then turned back towards the shuttle. Darquin quickly followed after her. “I hope the Ranger archives have something for this.”
“You and me both. I am not quite omnipotent yet.”
“We’ll do that tomorrow.”
Copyright (c) 2006 Jamie Lawson, Joe Medina and Leslie McBride. All rights reserved.