Characters: Yoshino Marina, Sinthann, Daanike, Manaar Rashid, Paul Maxwell
*** Reader discretion advised. It gets a bit gruesome from here. –jamie ***
Following the coordinates from Sinthann, Yoshino brought the Nuthorm down at a sharp angle, the ship’s trajectory an almost straight line from the jumpgate to atmosphere. It was an approach intended to draw as little attention as possible from any of the research stations on the planet. The expression on her face was set into a deep frown as the shuttle plunged into Tychola II’s atmosphere. As a Ranger, a little surreptitious entry was standard operating procedure; but she did not understand why their orders insisted on such circumspection now, on a rescue mission.
Why did they want the Anla’shok to come to the rescue in the first place, come to that, she thought. Something about this whole cursed business stinks.
A quick glance at her co-pilot suggested he was thinking much the same. “Ten thousand meters and descending,” he said. “The research station is directly below; we’re right on target. Well done.”
“Arigato,” she said, still too focused on piloting to deny the compliment. “Scan the station, please. Let’s see if there’s anyone around.”
“Roger that.” Max turned toward another section of the console, working it with short sweeps of his fingertips and softly murmured commands in Adronato. The shuttle had descended to barely two thousand meters when he said, without looking up, “No heat signatures. At least, nothing big enough to be a Tycholan, or a Minbari. I’ve gone two klicks out from target coordinates, and there’s nothing.”
“That’s not good,” Yoshino said. She could see the base clearly now, a large center building flanked by two smaller ones, surrounded by a ring of obelisk-like crystalline pylons, the whole set at the crest of a small hill.
She brought the shuttle down on flat patch of land just outside the ring. A small cloud of dust blew up as the Nuthorm settled to earth. Yoshino was up and out of her seat almost instantly, picking up her swords and tucking them firmly into her belt. From this moment, I’m a warrior, she thought. And in command. I have to act like it.
“Daanike, Chaplain Sinthann, please make yourselves ready to receive any wounded,” she said. “Also make sure the Nuthorm is ready for an immediate takeoff.”
“Understood,” Sinthann said.
Daanike nodded. “We will keep a communication channel open at all times.”
“Good. Let’s go,” Yoshino said, leading the way out. Carrying their plasma rifles, Rashid and Max followed. Hot, dry air surrounded them as they stepped off the shuttle.
“Gah! Something smells,” Max exclaimed.
“We’ll go round to the front,” Yoshino said. “Spread out, single file. Keep a look out. Just because we didn’t see anything on the scans, doesn’t mean there’s nothing here.”
The other two Rangers nodded, setting off one by one through the knee-high, yellowing grasses that covered the hilltop. The ring of crystalline pylons that marked the perimeter of the base were familiar enough. A standard piece of Minbari architecture, they generated a strong static energy field that served as a protective wall. But now, they were dark and silent, and it was clear to the Rangers that the field was down. Another bad sign.
The closer they got to the front, the more they saw the grass surrounding the perimeter crushed down, trampled by many feet. A few yards away from the front gate, Yoshino stopped short, turning sharply aside and trying to breathe through her mouth to ease sudden nausea.
Behind her, Max stopped short as well. “Oh God,” he said weakly.
A spear had been planted, butt end down, into the earth in front of the gate. Impaled on the spear’s point was the severed head of a Minbari. Bones, many still with bits of flesh and sinew attached, were piled around the spear’s base — more bones, they quickly realized, than could be accounted for by a single body.
For a long moment, Yoshino looked into the dead eyes of their worst-case scenario. Whatever happens now, she thought, I can’t afford to feel until it’s all over. We have a mission, and it’s up to me to make sure we complete it. Nothing else is important.
She spoke in a voice that was as firm — and as cold — as the others had ever heard from her. “Rashid, go back to the ship. Get Daanike. I want her to have a look at this, see what she can tell us.”
Rashid hesitated. “She won’t want to. The Minbari were ordered to stay on the shuttle.”
“Protect her, but get her here. I take responsibility — the Council wants to scold me about orders, they can, assuming we all make it back.”
Rashid nodded, turned and ran back toward the shuttle. Yoshino looked at Max. “You and I are going inside to search. Let’s see if we can find anyone the scanners missed, or any other clues.”
Max shifted the plasma rifle to hang on his back and pulled out his folded denn’bok, then nodded to Yoshino.
They went through the gate and straight on through the front door, which was hanging open, several hinges broken. The smooth paving of the foyer was spattered in blood. A large pool of blood, smeared and drying at its edges, covered the center of the room. Blood had been used to write symbols on the walls, and several sets of bloody footprints led back out through the door, while a clear trail of droplets led away down one corridor.
Max bent to look at the prints as Yoshino examined the writing. “No way these could be Minbari,” he said. “Must be the Tycholans.”
“These too,” Yoshino said. “I can’t read all of the Minbari scripts, but I recognize them all. These are completely different.”
“They must have had their … ascension ritual … right here,” Max said. “Most likely, that poor sod at the gate.”
Yoshino nodded, then activated her link. “Yoshino to Rashid.”
“Rashid here. Daanike is with me, we’re on our way to the gate.”
“After you check things out there, check the recorders focused on the perimeter, and meet us in the entryway. There will be … more for Daanike to look at.”
There was a brief pause before the reply came. “Copy that. Rashid out.”
“We’d better finish checking the building,” Yoshino said. Max nodded, and they moved on.
They searched the rest of the building, one room at a time, taking turns covering one another as they entered each one in case their scans had missed someone. There was no one to be found, and nothing that offered any obvious clue to where the other Minbari had gone, save for a hand-drawn map hanging on the wall of a room that should have housed the base’s data archive.
Max looked at the map as Yoshino checked the computer’s memory. “There’s nothing here,” she said after a moment.
“Nothing but the OS. It’s been wiped.”
“But why?” Max looked startled. “It’s not like the Tycholans would have any inkling of what a computer was, let alone how to get information out of one.”
“You were right,” Yoshino said. “The Minbari have been hiding something here. Something so awful they’d rather let themselves be carried off and butchered by the Tycholans than leave a clue for us.”
“But they did leave the map,” Max said. “It’s marked to show where the Tycholans’ closest villages are, and — I’m pretty sure — where the Seekers of Ascension are in power.”
Yoshino frowned. “So we know where to start looking. But what else were they hiding?”
“Any chance you can retrieve the deleted data?”
“Maybe. If I had a forensic computer lab, a few weeks — and a lot of luck.”
“Something to take home for later, then,” Max said. “What’s left to look at here?”
Yoshino paused, comparing the floorplan of the base in her mind’s eye to what they had searched so far. “One more corridor off the main entryway,” she said. “Should be living quarters. Bring the map.”