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Excerpt for Alien Secrets (Flight of the Kestrel Book 2) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Alien Secrets

Flight of the Kestrel book 2


A M Thomas


Kestrel artwork by Brett Buckle

Cover design by Steve Jones


Published by Alina Publishing


Copyright © Ann Marie Thomas 2018

Ann Marie Thomas has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work


ISBN: 978-1-9996781-0-4


Smashwords Edition, Licence Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to the retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Dedication & Acknowledgements

About the Author

Intruders (Flight of the Kestrel book 1)





Chapter 1



Shom Reuel's wrists were secured to the table. Like most interrogation rooms, this room had only a table and two chairs. No decoration, no contrast of colour in the room at all. The stone walls and floor were grey-brown, even the table and chairs were grey-brown.

It was strange, they hadn't removed his hat. They seemed to assume he was human, like the men he’d been arrested with, despite his bright pink skin. Not that that gave him much advantage, since humans would be stronger and faster in the lower gravity here on Boka. But Reuel grew up in what humans called low gravity, for him this planet’s “low” gravity was normal. At least he didn't have to wear his back brace, an annoyance on board Kestrel and any other 1G planets they visited. On higher gravity planets he could barely function at all.

He understood only a little of the Bokan language, and his captors understood only a little Standard, so there was an uncomfortable wait for someone more fluent. He hated the waiting, not knowing what they were going to do to him was unnerving. He wished they would hurry up and get on with it. He was used to violence, that was part of everyday life in the poor region of his youth. He could defend himself or his family, stand up to bullies and thugs; but he hated waiting.

The two Bokan males who brought him in paced restlessly around the room. They didn't seem to like waiting either. The Bokans were reptilian humanoids with scaly skin, a wider jaw and a broad, solid physique. Their metre-long tails stood straight up their back through a hole in their trousers. They looked strong, even though their gravity was lighter than on Earth. Their planet was quite warm and they could regulate their body temperature, so they had no need for thick clothing like other reptilian species.

The interrogator arrived, a youngish Bokan in a smart black uniform. Reuel imagined he had just graduated from training school, and had to stifle a smile. Still, the thought eased his tension a bit.

The interrogator asked him the usual things: who he was, where he was from, why he was here, and made notes on a tablet screen. Reuel stuck to his cover story: his group were sociologists studying the Bokan culture. He acted as if he was a lowly ignorant assistant. He let some of his nerves show, since he thought a lowly assistant would be nervous. But he watched everything, trying to prepare for what might be to come.

His interrogator rose and left the room. Reuel tensed, every sense alert. He noticed now how clean the room was, and his mind rushed to the conclusion that it had needed cleaning after the last interrogation. What did they do? What bodily fluids had been spilled?

He watched the face of the man left to guard him - though he couldn't think what they expected him to do, with his wrists strapped to the table. The man, in a grey jacket and trousers without any badges, stood to attention near the door, staring at Reuel. No, not staring - studying. Bokan first contact was recent, so it was likely the man had never seen a non-Bokan before.

The idea that they were not alone in the universe was new to the Bokans. When they developed warp drive and were able to explore further than their own system, meeting other species was a shock. The Planetary Alliance for Cooperation and Trade (PACT) was an alliance between the species with warp drive technology, so when they were alerted to the Bokan emergence, a delegation was sent to invite them to join. Initially the Bokans were suspicious, and jealously guarded their technology, but they soon realised the other species were further advanced than they were. Negotiations for Boka to join PACT were proceeding with cautious optimism.

Reuel wondered how the guard would react if he lowered his head to his hands and took his hat off. Like all Altairians he had no hair, but a row of soft spines ran down the centre of his head. The spines moved in response to emotion, at that point Reuel was having trouble keeping them calm under his soft hat.

The thought of the guard seeing his spines writhe made him smile, which made the guard look away. That made Reuel smile even more. On reflection, he decided to keep his hat on, not introduce unnecessary complications. If the Bokans used violence against him, they would find out he wasn't human soon enough.

The guard, whose curiosity was getting the better of him, snapped to attention at the sound of the door opening. The interrogator entered and waved his tablet at Reuel.

'We have been unable to find any reference to your expedition,' he said, walking round the table to stand over Reuel.

Reuel refused to take the bait. 'I do not know about that,' he said, putting a worried look on his face. 'I was hired by Mr Parks directly. He does the paperwork, I do what I am told. As long as he pays me.'

The interrogator paused to consider. Reuel felt the tension gathering and his spines stirring. The man's sudden movement startled him.

'Very well,' he said, and turned to the guard. Reuel understood the gist of the Bokan instructions: 'Put him in a cell with the other one. We must speak to the leader.'

Reuel had been holding his breath and let go. He was relieved for himself, but concerned about Parks, though there was nothing he could do.

***

Reuel was put in a cell with Daniel Hoy, a crewmate, and he was glad to see Hoy was unharmed. Hoy had a yellower cast to his skin compared with most humans Reuel had met, and his eyes were more pointed. This was because he came from "the East" on Earth.

The cell door clanged shut and the bolt shot home. Reuel looked around. The cell had dirty stone walls and floor. The ceiling was metal sheeting, with a fluorescent light in a cage in the centre. There were no windows. Hoy signalled Reuel to check the room for monitoring devices. It didn't take long.

'Clear.'

'So much for a covert mission,' said Hoy. 'Parks and his bright ideas, he had to rush into things.'

Reuel was relieved Hoy wasn't criticising him. This was the first clandestine mission he had been on since joining the crew of the Kestrel six months ago, and he wanted to do well. The three of them, Parks, Hoy and Reuel, had been sent to validate intelligence that the Bokans had developed a secret weapon.

Reuel watched as Hoy checked out the door. It was heavy metal, the hinges were on the outside, and there were no electronics, no key pads or hand print recognition systems. It seemed the security systems were mechanical and on the other side.

'We’re not going to get out of here in a hurry.'

'Hanging about in the street was not a good idea either,' said Reuel. 'I think that man was already suspicious of us.'

'So Parks went and asked him for directions! It’s his fault we’re in this mess!' Hoy said.

Reuel's head snapped round. He wasn’t sure how to read Hoy’s reddened face. These humans with head hair instead of spines were still difficult for him to read. At home on Altair the nuances of someone's cranial spine quivers were there for all to see. None of his species would dream of speaking so harshly of a senior officer, such behaviour would be unthinkable.

'How is Commander Parks?' Reuel asked.

'Reuel!' Hoy snapped. 'No ranks. We're sociologists, remember? We've come to study a new alien society.'

'Sorry, sir. They took him away as soon as we were arrested, and that must have been an hour ago. Did they say anything when they questioned you?'

'No, they just asked questions. I said nothing, of course. What did you say when they questioned you?'

'I stuck to the story, told them I was the junior member of the team and did not know the details of our expedition.' He struck an exaggerated humble pose. 'I am here to fetch and carry. You should ask Mr Parks.' He stood straight again. 'Where is Parks?'

As if in answer to his own question, the bolt rattled and the door opened. Parks' face was a mess, his clothes crumpled and his knuckles bleeding. A knot clenched in Reuel's stomach as he feared the Bokans would probably do the same to him. A guard pushed Parks in the back and he stumbled forward, while the door was bolted behind him.

Nathaniel Parks was a human of, Reuel had been told, Scandinavian descent. He believed that meant Parks was from the north of the northern hemisphere of Earth. Tall, with blond hair, cut short, and blue eyes. A look of relief crossed his face as he saw his two crewmates unharmed.

'Are you two all right?' Parks asked, sitting on the floor. He ran a hand through his hair and then explored his bruised face with his fingers.

'Yes.' Hoy knelt beside him. 'Are you OK?'

'I’ll live.' Parks gave a wry chuckle and rubbed his knuckles. 'I gave as good as I got, but Bokan skulls are hard.'

'Can I recommend, sir, you concentrate on the lower chest in future?' Reuel said. 'Their ribs are not substantial. Also the eyes are a good target…' he paused, seeing their surprised faces. 'I looked it up in preparation for this mission.'

He went over to Parks with a container of water. 'I found this by the door, sir. It looks all right.' He bent to give Parks a drink and spoke in a low voice. 'I cannot find any cameras or microphones, the walls are solid. We might even be underground. There is nothing here but those mattresses along the wall.'

There were four of them, two either side, but to call them mattresses was a compliment. They were thin and lumpy, the dirt giving no hint of their original colour.

'It's a shame,' Parks whispered, 'because I thought we were doing quite well up to then. That contact we were given pointed us in the right direction, and there's definitely something going on. This building being partially underground explains the lack of obvious security measures from outside, which is where I made my mistake. If only you two hadn't joined in the fight, you might have escaped, to rescue me later. Still, it is what it is.'

'We'll have to hope our cover story holds,' Hoy muttered. 'Let's hope this secret weapon we're looking for isn't a new interrogation device.'

The door opened and two guards came in, all but dragging a prisoner who could hardly walk. When the guards let him go, the man, possibly a human, fell to his hands and knees, his head drooping, his face covered by his long dark hair. Hoy and Reuel moved to assist him.

One of the guards pointed at Parks. 'You! Come now.'

Hoy jumped between him and Parks.

'I'm in charge. Talk to me.'

'No,' said Parks, 'it’s my responsibility.'

Parks dragged himself to his feet and approached the guard. At two meters tall, Parks was taller than both guards, but the other drew his weapon, so there would be no arguments. The first guard grabbed Parks' arm and they took him away, and the door clanged shut behind them. Hoy and Reuel exchanged a worried look.

'There’s nothing we can do for him for the moment, let’s see to this guy,' Hoy said. 'Help me get him onto a mattress.'

The man had been badly beaten. His bare arms were covered in bruises and there was what looked like blue blood on the back of his tunic. They rolled him onto his side. His face was bruised and there was a lump in the centre of his forehead with fine red lines radiating from it that looked like a particularly nasty wound. They carried the man over to the nearest mattress. Reuel fetched the water while Hoy tried to make the man comfortable.

'Can you hear me? How do you feel?' Hoy asked.

The man groaned and opened his eyes. 'I can’t, I can’t.'

'It’s OK. We won’t hurt you. We’re prisoners too.'

Reuel lifted the man's head and helped him to drink. 'I am Shom Reuel, and this is Daniel Hoy. I am from Altair and he is from Earth. We did not intend to end up as a guest of the Bokans, but we spoke to the wrong person. How about you?'

'Tanu,' the man gasped, 'of the family of Pe'Rod. I’m… an explorer.' His voice was soft, speaking took a great effort.

'Well, there is little to explore in here,' said Reuel. He tore off the bottom of Tanu’s long tunic. Using the rag as a swab, Reuel pushed back the man's long dark hair and washed dirt, blood and sweat from his almost-white skin. His high cheekbones and grey eyes made him look fragile, and his arms and hands were so thin, they were skeletal. Reuel himself was slim, being from a lower-gravity planet, but he thought the man looked human enough.

'I suggest we all try to get some rest,' said Hoy. He pulled Reuel close and whispered. 'Don’t be so free with the introductions. We can’t trust anyone.'

'Sorry sir, I will be more careful.'

Hoy settled down on a mattress across the room. Reuel lay down on the adjacent mattress, but after only a few minutes, sat up again.

'Sir, how can you rest in this situation?' he whispered. 'What are they doing to Parks? If they do the same to him as they have done to this poor man, who knows what state he will be in when they bring him back. What will he tell them about us? We could be in even worse trouble!'

'Don’t be such a cry baby, and don’t underestimate Parks. He’s a hard nut to crack.' Hoy dropped his voice and leaned closer. 'He worked security in the past. Remember your training. What we need to be doing is planning how to get out of here and resting so we’re ready when the opportunity comes.'

Reuel lay down, affronted at being called a baby. The hat he wore to hide his cranial spines was uncomfortable when they were writhing, so he tried to calm himself, but a thought occurred to him and he sat up again. 'So how are we going to escape from a solid room with no electronics in the door, and two guards outside?'

'Looks like we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way, and jump the guards next time they come in,' Hoy said. 'Now pipe down and try to get some rest.'

Reuel opened his mouth to speak, but Hoy got there first. 'That's an order.'

Reuel stared at the ceiling. He felt out of his depth, but he trusted Parks and Hoy. They were First and Second Officers on the Kestrel.

Part of PACT, a non-military organisation created to assist trade, research, and the sharing of culture and technology between the different species who had developed warp capability, the Kestrel was a Fast-Response ship with a crew of eleven. The Fast-Response Fleet was almost an independent police and diplomatic force, able to operate between planets, where jurisdiction may not be clear. They offered investigation and assistance wherever needed.

Reuel had been so proud when Captain Darrow picked him for this mission. There were not many low gravity planets in the Kestrel's region of responsibility, and his physical limitations meant he had to stay on board when they were at higher gravity planets. He wanted to do well, and reminded himself that he had been in bad situations before, growing up back home. He reflected that dreaming of adventures in space was not the same as being in one.

This was not what he had expected.

When he closed his eyes his senses concentrated on the rank smell of their cell. It reminded him of the changing room after an exercise session, with the added scent of mildew on neglected fruit boxes. Foul as it was, it also made him just a little homesick for the back alleys and cramped houses, though he was glad enough to escape when he joined the Academy. He lay there thinking of home.







Chapter 2



Reuel's mind wandered to his first ship, The Rart. It was an Altairian Fast-Response ship, and he had managed to upset someone. The first few months were fine, but one day he turned away from the food dispenser and bumped into a lieutenant, spilling hot stew all down the front of the officer’s uniform. Not only did it make a mess, but it burned the man’s chest, made worse by Reuel's vain attempts to mop it up.

It was a mistake anyone could make, and the lieutenant’s fault for standing too close. That was why the captain decided not to charge Reuel with assault, but the lieutenant would not accept the decision. Altairians are skilled at the art of feud-craft, making an enemy suffer without resorting to violence or even personal encounters. From then on, the lieutenant made Reuel's life a misery, though not a single incident could be traced to him. From missing personal items to double shifts, every day there was something.

Everyone knew who did it, but the lieutenant was skilled, and no official action could be taken. The lieutenant was skilled at his job too and the captain was reluctant to lose him, so Reuel had to go. He learned later that the man had started feud-craft against someone else in a spaceport, and been killed for it. Reuel felt vindicated, but sad it had come to that.

This vengeful, violent side of Altairians was not well known and rarely seen. Soft-spoken and graceful in their movements, Altairians appeared to be gentle people. They were courteous and kind, both among themselves and with other species. But push an Altairian too far, and the darker side will show.

The whole of Altair had once been violent, with warring overlords and roaming gangs. Eventually there was a devastating war and the victor had wiped out the leaders of every other clan and enforced peace. Somehow, it had worked, and modern Altairian society shows no trace of that deadly past.

Most of the Kestrel's missions consisted of settling disputes, transportating passengers or supplies, and giving emergency relief. Consequently Reuel's violent side had never been seen.

While less violent, Altairian society was not egalitarian. There were deprived areas, and people without work, without credits, and with time on their hands easily became violent, especially the young. Reuel grew up in such an area. His one parent died in an accident at work and he was raised by a lone grandparent. Money was short, but education was free, and Reuel excelled. That was his means of escape.

When he was offered the chance to join the Kestrel, Reuel was not only glad to escape the Rart, he was grateful for the chance to interact more closely with non-Altairians. He had always been interested in the other species, and almost went into research rather than joining the PACT Academy. He might still go into full time research in later life. But now he had the opportunity to travel, to help people, to research in his spare time, and to meet the other species in person.

Most of the Kestrel crew were human, but that was a species in which he was particularly interested, and there were two other species on board: the Zoan, Balitoth and the Kohathi, Nefar.

Reuel and Balitoth shared a cabin and discovered a shared interest in learning about humans and their culture. The human tribal ritual of "football" seemed a good subject of study, and they began watching recordings of matches together. They soon found it was indeed a bonding experience, and became good friends.

***

In the Bokan cell, their fitful rest was disturbed by the rattling of a flap at the bottom of the door. A plate of something that looked like bread and another flask of water were pushed in. Then the flap rattled shut again, waking Tanu.

He started thrashing about. 'Please, don’t, I can’t!'

'It is well,' Reuel tried to reassure him as he stretched, got up and fetched the water. 'Here, drink. Can you sit up?'

He helped the man sit and Hoy brought over the bread, which he divided in quarters, keeping some back for Parks. It was dry and tasted like fungus, they had to wash down every mouthful with sips of the water. Hoy took the water away from Reuel.

'Don’t drink it all, we don’t know how long it’ll be before we get more.'

With each mouthful Tanu became more aware. 'Who are you?' he asked at last.

'Fellow prisoners,' Hoy said, with a warning look to Reuel. 'We asked the wrong question of the wrong person. Why are you here?'

Tanu considered before answering. 'Because I refused… to cooperate.'

Reuel asked, 'How long have you been here?'

'I don't know, seems like weeks. They were nice to me at first, but then they lost patience.' He trembled at the thought and fell silent.

Reuel thought about the prospect of being here for weeks. Being locked up was bad enough, the bread was worse, but he dreaded to think what was happening to Parks. The Bokans might decide to interrogate himself and Hoy the way they had interrogated Parks, and apparently Tanu, to see if they would reveal more. He wasn't sure if he could withstand torture. He shuddered, his cranial spines writhed under his hat.

The door opened and one guard came in supporting Parks, the other stayed in the doorway, his weapon at the ready. The guard dropped Parks, grabbed Tanu and dragged him out, kicking and screaming.

Hoy and Reuel rushed to take care of Parks, thoughts of overpowering the guards forgotten. Parks' jacket was missing, and there was blood on the back of his shirt. He was shaking and could barely stand. As they helped him to a mattress, Tanu's cries echoed in the corridor until the other guard slammed the door.

'Take it easy, sit down and let me look at you,' Hoy said, stooping down with Parks. 'What did they do?'

Parks choked on the water Reuel was giving him and took a minute to recover.

'They used what they called the "pain-giver". I’ve never felt anything like it.' He started to shake.

'Take your time, sir,' said Reuel. 'Sip more water.' He helped Parks drink.

'I need to lie down,' Parks said, and sank back onto the mattress.

Reuel leant towards Hoy and whispered, 'He must have told them everything! They’ll execute us!'

Parks reached up and grabbed Reuel by the shirt. 'I’m stronger than that, keep it together.'

Reuel went a brighter pink than usual, sat back on his heels and pushed at his hat, which wriggled as his spines moved.

Parks dropped his head back on the mattress. 'We’re OK for now, but we’ve got to get out of here before they decide to do that again.'

'We’ve already worked out the only way out of here is to jump the guards,' said Hoy, cleaning the blood off Parks' face with the fabric ripped from the hem of Tanu's tunic. 'They’ve taken Tanu away, so our next chance is when they bring him back. You’re in no fit state to fight, so you’ll have to distract them, and Reuel and I will take one guard each.'

Parks reached for his right trouser pocket and winced. He beckoned to Reuel. 'There’s a small knife in my pocket. It’s not much, but every little helps. I managed to palm it when they were fitting the pain-giver.'

Reuel reached into Parks’ pocket and pulled out a scalpel.

'We must be careful, surely,' said Reuel, eyeing the scalpel. 'If we kill the guards it will cause an even greater diplomatic problem than our spying.'

Parks saw the darkness in Hoy’s eyes, reflecting his own distasteful reasoning. When Hoy spoke, Parks wasn’t surprised.

It’s true, becoming murderers won’t help us or our mission, but if we stay here how much of this -’ he pointed to Parks' injuries ‘- do you think we can withstand? We have to escape. If we only disable the guards, how long before they recover enough to raise the alarm? We don’t know. What we do know is knocking them out was extremely difficult when we were arrested. As abhorrent as the idea is, killing the guards is our only hope of actually getting out of here.'

Parks could see Reuel was shocked. His cranial spines jumped under the hat and he grabbed his head in pain.

Parks forced himself to raise his head again. 'I don't take this decision lightly, but to have Alliance people spying is a much bigger diplomatic incident than to have unknown individuals kill guards during an escape. Now, do you want the knife or not?'

Reuel sighed. 'I can kill better with my bare hands,' he said, handing the scalpel to Hoy.







Chapter 3



'What's this pain-giver?' Hoy asked Parks.

'Did you see the blood on the back of my shirt?' said Parks with a shudder. 'They fit a device over the top of your spine where it directly attacks the nervous system. The bastard just plays with a little button and the results are excruciating.'

Reuel gasped. 'Tanu had blood on his back too, they must have used it on him,' he said. 'We must take him with us, sir.'

Hoy shook his head. 'We’ll need to help Parks as it is. We can’t possibly take Tanu - who knows what state he'll be in when they bring him back?'

'I’m stronger than I look, I will carry him,' said Reuel.

Parks spoke up from the mattress. 'Who is this Tanu guy - did you learn anything about him? I wouldn’t be happy leaving anyone to the tender mercies of the Bokans.'

'He only said he was an explorer,' said Reuel. 'We really must help him, sir, if we can.'

Parks understood Reuel didn't want a life on his conscience.

Reuel looked around. 'This water container is quite flimsy, but the bread plate is metal. Maybe we can hit one of the guards with it while we stick the knife in the other one. If we put them out of action and take their weapons, then you can help Parks and I can carry Tanu.'

'Now you’re starting to think clearly,' said Hoy, 'but you're taller than me and I'm stronger. You help Parks and I'll carry Tanu.' He turned to Parks. 'Eat some of this disgusting bread and then get some rest. We need you as fit as possible for the escape. Reuel and I will sort out the details.'

'Listen,' said Parks, 'these Bokans may look humanoid, but they have different anatomy. Their rib cage is deep, so it's easier to reach the heart from the back, up under the rib cage and across in front of the spine.'

'Thanks, sir. Now will you rest? I’m hoping you can help Tanu while we’re dealing with the guards.'

Parks pulled a face and turned on his side, his back to the wall, while Hoy took Reuel to the other side of the cell to make plans.

As he watched them, Parks thought Hoy and Reuel made a strange looking pair. Hoy, from Earth, was slim, wiry and short, like his Asian ancestors. Reuel was born on Altair, where the lower gravity made people tall and slim. His skin and cranial spines were bright pink.

According to their files, their fighting styles were very different too. Hoy took great pride in mastering the martial arts of his ancestral heritage. He often took opponents by surprise, and the grace of his movements belied the power behind them. Unlike Hoy’s disciplined grace, Reuel learned to defend himself in the back streets where he grew up. He fought low and dirty, so he could be just as surprising in a fight - especially in low gravity.

At two metres tall, Nathaniel Parks towered over both of them, but he wasn’t going to do much towering in his present condition. Parks' stomach clenched with worry. He didn't know the Kestrel crew well, so he hoped Hoy and Reuel were good fighters, because he was too weakened by the torture.

The beating was bad enough, but the pain-giver had finished him. His nerves felt as if they were on fire, and he couldn't stop trembling. The mattress wasn't comfortable, but he closed his eyes and forced his tense muscles to relax. He needed to rest.

***

It was hard to tell how much time passed, but it seemed to Parks like quite a while later when the door bolt rattled. Instantly Hoy was on his feet and standing by the door, leaning casually against the wall on the side where the door opened. Reuel leaned down and helped Parks to sit up, holding the metal plate behind Parks' back.

The guards entered, carrying a barely conscious Tanu between them. As they came through the doorway, one guard became suspicious and let go of Tanu to reach for his weapon, putting the other guard off balance. At that moment Hoy jumped behind the guard nearest the door, grabbed his mouth shut, and slid the scalpel into the guard's back and up under his ribs.

Reuel swung round and caught the other guard in the throat with the edge of the plate. Reuel grabbed his opponent around the neck with one arm and covered his mouth with the other hand. He twisted the guard's head so hard they heard the crunch of his neck breaking. Both guards went down with barely a sound. Unfortunately, one guard fell on top of Tanu. Reuel dragged the guard off, grabbed the weapon and went to guard the door. Hoy was investigating outside.

Parks staggered to his feet and roused Tanu, who moaned and looked around wildly.

'It’s OK,' Parks reassured him, 'we're escaping, but I need you to get up.'

Parks tried to help Tanu up, but Tanu struggled. He trembled violently, and Parks couldn't get him to his feet.

Hoy came back into the cell. 'It's clear, and we’re not far from an exit. Come on!'

Hoy grabbed a security badge from the nearest guard and lifted Tanu over his shoulder. Parks went to Reuel, who slotted himself under Parks’ shoulder. Hoy closed the cell door behind them and pushed the bolt home.

The corridor was bare and dirty, of similar construction to the cell. Parks looked left and right. To the left were two more cell doors ending in a blank wall. To the right were a handful of doors on either side sloping up towards the rooms at the entrance where they had been brought in. That end of the corridor was closed off with swinging doors.

Hoy eased one door open and checked, the space beyond was empty. They pushed through and turned left into another corridor which also sloped up, towards a rear exit. This one was much better appointed, with a beige tiled floor and walls painted light green. It was strange to have offices and cells so close to each other.

As they moved along they heard voices as someone opened an office door but was still turned towards the person he was talking to. Hoy pushed open a door on the left and led them through, the door closing quietly behind them as the voices came out into the corridor.

They found themselves in a dark room. There was just enough light from the frosted glass window to see it was a kitchen, with ovens and hobs. Parks sat down with a soft groan and signalled to Hoy to put Tanu down.

'Looks like the kitchen is closed,' Parks hissed. 'See if you can find food and water. We don't know when we'll get more.'

Hoy moved to investigate.

Parks' mind raced with possibilities and unknowns. Stay here a while or go? How long before the guards are missed? Why is the kitchen dark? One of the voices in the corridor called out.

'They're saying "Goodbye,"' Parks whispered. 'If it's the end of the day, the building might soon be a lot emptier. If it's the end of a shift, there might be a whole lot of new people coming. Which is it?'

Parks couldn't focus his thoughts beyond questions.

Meanwhile, Tanu was flailing about on the floor, trying to get up. Reuel went to help him.

'No!' Tanu cried and pushed him away.

'Keep him quiet,' Parks whispered. 'Knock him out if you have to.'

Reuel leaned across Tanu, with his hand over his mouth, and looked into his eyes. 'It is me, Reuel, remember?'

Tanu was too far gone to think straight and was trying to scream behind Reuel's hand.

'I am sorry, my friend,' said Reuel, and hit him.

Hoy returned. 'Everything’s locked away, but I found some fruit and more fungus bread.' He pulled a face and handed it out. 'Put it in your pockets, we don't have time to eat now. There's nothing to carry water I'm afraid. We'll have to move you and Tanu to the tap.'

Reuel turned his body to show a large wet patch down his left side.

'What!?' Hoy exclaimed.

Reuel grinned and pulled the crumpled water container out of his jacket pocket. 'I thought we might need this. There was no way to stop it spilling, but there is quite a lot left.'

The three Kestral crew drank, then Reuel refilled the container and squeezed it back into his pocket.

Hoy looked at Parks and frowned. 'Are you fit to command, sir?'

Parks shook his head. 'Proceed.'

Hoy listened at the door and then opened it a crack. The corridor was silent. There was no way of knowing when the next person would pass. He closed the door and came back to pick up Tanu over his shoulder again.

'Now's as good a time as any. Let's go.'

Reuel helped Parks to his feet and ducked under his shoulder. With Hoy in the lead they slipped out and made for the exit, twenty metres away. The door opened at a touch of the security badge against the panel.







Chapter 4



They found themselves in an open parking area, with a few vehicles, most with wheels. Only one had hover capability, and it was in a specially-marked parking space. Unfortunately the car park was enclosed by a high chain link fence, but at least they could see there was no one about. They moved away from the lit doorway and crouched down between two vehicles parked close together.

They were surprised to find it was dark, and glad to see the lights were widely spaced, although the vehicles were too. Parks struggled to focus and keep his concentration on what was happening. He had come closer to breaking than he cared to admit. The temptation to stop, to let his mind and body shut down was strong, but it was vital he keep it together, not jeopardise their escape.

'Can we steal a vehicle?' said Reuel.

'It would take too long, and we’ve no tools,' said Hoy. 'Now, how are we going to get out of here?'

The car park exit was a heavy sliding gate with a card reader on a post, and an obvious security camera. Hoy and Reuel scanned the fence, looking for gaps. Reuel signalled to wait and slipped off to where the fence joined the building. He had found something.

'The fence has been damaged, and there is a small gap near the wall,' he reported when he returned.

It took some time to reach the side of the parking area. Parks was weak and suffered bouts of trembling.

'Sorry sir,' Reuel said, as he stopped to adjust his hold on Parks for the third time.

'Carry on, Ensign,' Parks said.

Hoy was also struggling carrying Tanu, because Tanu was taller than Hoy.

They moved from the shadow of one vehicle to another, and manhandled Parks and Tanu through the gap. They crossed the road and went into a side street. They had originally approached the security building from the front, so they were surprised to find it was in an urban area. Four-storey apartment blocks stretched in both directions along the road. Square, flat-roofed, and built of grey concrete blocks, they were ugly and looked to Parks like something out of Earth history.

Reuel turned to Hoy. 'Not very modern, are they? I know the Bokans have only just discovered warp drive, but it seems only the city centre has been developed. Perhaps these are accommodation for those working in the security centre. I would hate to live here.'

'But have you noticed how large the windows are?' said Hoy. 'They obviously like a lot of light. Let's hope they've all got their curtains closed, we don't want to be spotted.'

Lights were on in most windows but no one was about outside.

'Looks like early evening,' Hoy continued. 'Everyone’s home from work. We need to get away before people start going out for the evening - if that’s what they do here.'

'Which way?' asked Reuel.

Hoy shifted Tanu on his shoulder and looked up at the stars, trying to shade his eyes from the street lights' glare. 'We hid the shuttle south of the city. This way.' He set off to the left.

They made slow progress as Parks needed to rest every few minutes, and after a while Tanu began to come round again, and struggle in Hoy's grip. After turning a couple of corners they came to a small area of open land like a park, with trees and bushes and paths laid out. The plants looked spikey, but the spikes turned out to be soft.

Hoy hurried them in and ducked his head behind bushes growing against the wall of the neighbouring apartment block. He backed out again and signalled for Reuel to help Parks scramble in and sit down. Then Reuel came out to help Hoy to get Tanu in. Tanu cried out as they manhandled him behind the bushes, and Reuel ran back to the street to check for alarm or pursuit. Hoy was trying to calm Tanu when Reuel returned and climbed into the space.

'It is quiet here,' Reuel said, 'but there are lights and vehicles at the far end of the street. It could be a patrol or a search party.'

'I need some water,' said Parks, and Reuel passed him the container from his pocket.

Hoy spoke quickly. 'We’ll never make it like this. Sir, you rest here and look after Tanu. Reuel and I will be much quicker on our own. We’ll go for the shuttle and come back for you. Hopefully we’ll also draw them away from here, but you must keep Tanu quiet.'

Parks nodded and moved closer to Tanu. 'Go, go!'

Hoy and Reuel disappeared into the darkness. Parks lifted Tanu’s head and helped him to drink some of the water. He leaned close to Tanu’s ear and spoke softly.

'I know how you feel, but you’re going to be all right. My friends have gone for help. You must stay quiet.'

For the first time, Tanu managed to focus on him, and realise he was not a guard. Tanu frowned in confusion and paused for thought. Finally, he swallowed and said, 'Safe?'

'Very nearly, pal, just hang in there.'

The ground was hard and dry but under the bushes it was softened by a thick layer of fallen leaves and the soft spines. It smelled musty and woody. It reminded Parks of the forests back home. He adjusted their position to be sure they were out of sight.

Soon they heard the passing patrol. Parks covered Tanu’s mouth but smiled to reassure him. He could hardly breathe while he waited to see if they would enter the park. He strained his ears for sounds of tracker animals, but there were none, and the patrol passed by.

Once the noise faded, Tanu relaxed. He seemed to go to sleep. Parks checked he was breathing, just to be sure. He felt exhausted himself, but had to stay awake and on watch.

His thoughts turned to the mission. What a mess! He couldn't see anything they did wrong in their investigation since they arrived - up to the point where they asked a plain clothes policeman about the security building. That was a mistake and could have been better handled.

And now, they were hiding from the security services under a bush and no idea about the secret weapon they had come to investigate. Still, it looked as if they might escape after all, and the Bokans didn't know who they were. Thankfully.

***

When Hoy and Reuel slipped away from the park, Hoy cautioned Reuel to slow his walk.

'We mustn't run or look furtive, because it makes us look suspicious,' he said. 'Walk at a normal pace and chat, like friends out for a stroll. If anyone speaks to us, I'll reply - your Bokan isn’t good enough.'

'What should we talk about?' Reuel whispered.

'Reuel, whispering’s not normal,' Hoy said. 'Talk about anything.'

Reuel sighed. 'Well, suppose you explain to me what the plan is.'

They turned another corner into the shadow of a building, Hoy pointed to the sky. 'See that group of stars? They're in the south, so we follow them out of the city. I'm hoping we can circle round and pick up where we came in, that'll make it easier to find the shuttle.'

'Let us hope we did not camouflage it too well,' Reuel said with a grin.

Hoy pulled a small item out of his boot. 'Don't worry, I brought this. Once we reach the right area, this button will make the shuttle respond. It'll tell us where it is.'

There weren't many people about, but those who saw them, frowned and kept their distance. Then a vehicle passed them, turned round and came back. Three young Bokan men got out and approached them.

Hoy said, in Bokan, 'Can we help you gentleman?'

One of the men came forward and stood close, towering over Hoy. 'Who are you, what are you doing here, and what is that?' he said, pointing at Reuel.

Reuel saw the pointing but didn't understand all the words.

Hoy signalled to Reuel to stay calm and replied evenly, 'He’s my friend. We're part of a team of sociologists, come to study your culture.'

'You won't find much culture round here,' he said, laughing with his friends.

One of the friends said, 'Look, his hat is moving!' He made a lunge for Reuel's hat and Reuel reacted instinctively and parried the arm. The man yelled and cradled his arm. 'What did you do that for?'

While Reuel was distracted the third man reached out and pulled Reuel's hat off, revealing his cranial spines, moving. They all recoiled in horror.

Reuel said in broken Bokan, 'Do you want to see my powers?' and pointed his hands at them.

They decided they didn't want to, and hurried back to their vehicle, throwing Reuel's hat back to him. Hoy dragged Reuel round the nearest corner and burst out laughing.

Reuel was puzzled. 'Did I not do well? I made them think I had strange powers.'

'Very strange indeed. Do you know what you said? "Do you want to see my electricity?"'

Reuel laughed. 'They went away, so it worked. Let us go before they find their courage.'

They picked up the pace, came to the end of the road and looked left and right.

'Does this look familiar to you?' Hoy asked.

Reuel looked again. 'This way,' he said, pointing right. 'I remember the broken gate over there.'

They turned right and found the road ended in open country. They crossed a field, over a gate and headed for a clump of trees. They were away from the street lights now and had only the light of the Bokan moon to see by. Luckily it was full and cast a ghostly light over everything. Hoy pressed his button and the shuttle beeped and flashed a light. They hurried over and began removing the branches covering the ship. Under the branches was a camouflage tarpaulin. They had just begun working on it when they were startled by a voice behind them and the beam of a torch.

'What are you doing?' A Bokan man with a small two-legged furry animal on a lead had been crossing the field, and was coming towards them.

Hoy thought quickly. 'Come and see what we've found,' he shouted. 'There's something hidden here.'

The man came over and tied his pet's lead to a tree. 'What is it?' he asked.

'It looks like a shuttle. Help us uncover it.'

Reuel kept his head down and moved away to help pull off the tarpaulin.

'This isn't one of ours,' the man said. 'We need to inform the authorities.'

Reuel picked up the word for "authorities" and looked at Hoy in alarm, but Hoy smiled.

'Definitely,' Hoy said, 'but there's no rush. After all, the people can't escape - we've got their shuttle. Let's see if we can open it.'

Hoy “found” the door release and the man rushed forward to look inside. At which point Hoy hit him with a broken tree branch and knocked him out.

'Quickly,' Hoy said to Reuel, 'help me move him out of the way.'

***

It seemed a long time before the sound Parks was waiting for reached his ears: the low hum of a shuttlecraft’s engines. He thought it got too loud as the shuttle came in to land. Parks was sure the noise would attract the neighbours, and probably the patrol.

He began to drag Tanu out of the bushes, but the man was unconscious and Parks was too weak to make much progress. Each time Parks fell his level of panic rose. The wind from the engines whipped the bushes and rattled the nearby windows. Parks had to pause and take a calming breath.

Keep it together, you're even more of a liability if you panic.

There was a shout and Parks looked up to see a figure running back into the adjacent building. They had come out to see what the noise was and were going to report it. Reuel appeared and heaved Tanu over his shoulder and disappeared with him back to the shuttle. Parks staggered to his feet as Reuel returned and ducked under his shoulder.

'Quickly, sir,' Reuel said. 'We could see the patrol lights in the next street as we came in to land. They will be here at any moment.'

'We've been spotted by a neighbour too,' said Parks.

Parks and Reuel reached the shuttle, where Hoy was trying to strap Tanu into a chair. Tanu had come round and Hoy tried to restrain him without frightening him any further. Tanu was too weak to do much about it. Hoy handed over to Reuel and ran for the controls, as a shot from a laser pistol grazed the doorframe. The patrol had arrived. Parks ducked and lost his balance, falling out onto the ground. With Hoy intent on the controls, the shuttle began to lift.

Reuel screamed, 'Wait! He is not in yet,' and leaped out after Parks. He threw himself down to cover Parks.

The shuttle settled again and Hoy appeared at the doorway giving covering fire. The patrol ducked and Reuel scrambled up, dragging Parks to his feet. As they struggled to the doorway, Parks cried out and stumbled.

'My arm! I'm hit.'

Hoy fired again and rushed to help. They almost fell into the shuttle. Hoy slammed his hand on the door control and ran for the controls. The shuttle took off, even before they found their seats. They stumbled about, and managed to get strapped in. Parks was distracted by pain, but saw Tanu was crying, and Hoy was concentrating on flying. Reuel had snatched off his hat to free his agitated cranial spines and ran his hands along them.

After a calming breath, Reuel reached over to the injured alien. 'Tanu, it is me, Reuel, you are safe, trust me.'

As they broke orbit, Tanu gave a watery smile.







Chapter 5



They were glad to be back in safety on the Kestrel. Doctor Sebu Nefar and Medic James Tomos entered the shuttle as soon as they were secure in the hanger. Bewhiskered Nefar was Kohathi, a lot younger than he looked. Young Tomas was human but born and raised on a cargo ship. Their uniforms were white rather than the standard dark green. Nefar took a quick biological scan of Tanu, who became hysterical, and had to be sedated.

'You’d think he'd be grateful,' said Hoy.

'Put yourself in his shoes for a moment,' said Parks, fumbling with his harness as Tomos began scanning him. 'He's been tortured at least twice, then dragged out through the streets, shoved under a bush, bundled into a shuttlecraft and strapped down. He probably thinks this is the next round of torture.'

Hoy looked shamefaced. 'I didn’t think of it like that, sir. He doesn’t really know who we are, does he?'

'I may have to keep him sedated until he is well enough to understand,' said Nefar. He continued to scan Tanu while he spoke. He turned to Parks. 'And what about you?'

Parks was reticent, so Hoy interrupted. 'He’s had a good dose of what Tanu’s had, and he's been shot in the arm. He’s barely able to stand.'

Tomos had been checking Parks over, and nodded in agreement in response to Nefar's questioning look.

'Right,' said Nefar, 'that one can wait, now he is sedated.’ He pointed to Parks. ‘You are having a full medscan, initial treatment, and then straight to bed.'

To everyone’s surprise Parks gave in without protest. Tomos and Nefar transferred Tanu to a hover stretcher outside the shuttle, while Hoy helped Parks onto a second stretcher. As they moved away from the shuttle the captain arrived.

Captain Joseph Darrow was unremarkable to look at. British, with average build, brown eyes and curly brown hair, in the standard dark green PACT uniform, he could be mistaken for one of the crew by those who didn't know the yellow armband colour that signified his rank. Only Hoy, Reuel and Tomos saluted, Nefar continued working and the others were on stretchers.

'How bad is he?' Darrow asked Nefar.

'I shall let you know in half an hour, sir. Report in your office or mine?'

'Yours - I want to know about this guy too.' He gestured at Tanu. 'And some answers from the rest of you.' He frowned at Hoy and Reuel. 'It's evening, ship's time, so we'll debrief tomorrow morning.'

'Make it an hour for the report then,' Nefar said. 'If you want to debrief the away team tomorrow, you should meet in Commander Parks’ cabin. That is, if I decide he is fit to talk at all.'

Parks sighed. 'No need to throw your weight around, Doc. I’ll be OK.'

'That is for me to decide. Let us not waste any more time.' He turned to Tomos. 'Help me get these two to sick bay.'

***

As soon as they reached sick bay, Nefar helped Parks to a bed and activated the privacy screen. 'Undress please - completely. But don’t stand until I return to help you.'

'What?' Parks protested. 'It's only my arm and my back.'

'I once had a patient with an unnoticed insect bite. We treated all the obvious injuries, he died from the bite which was found postmortem. I will examine all of your body, Commander.'

'When you put it like that…'

Nefar helped Tomos transfer the other man to a bed. 'Undress him and do some basic medscans while I treat Commander Parks.'

'Yes sir,' Tomos said, and activated the privacy screen when Nefar left.

Sick bay was an L-shaped room with the Doctor's cabin completing the rectangle. There were two treatment beds in the main part and a stasis unit, pressure cabinet and other equipment around the corner. The walls were lined with drawers of varying sizes, and scanners and regenerators hung from the ceiling on rails. Nefar and Tomos wore a badge on their uniforms which allowed them through the privacy screens. When Nefar turned back, Parks was undressed and lying on the bed under a sheet.

'Now,' Nefar said as he switched on the medscanner, 'lie still please. You said your main injuries are your arm and your back. What happened?'

'Laser shot to my arm. As for my back, the Bokans have a device they fit across the spine between the shoulder blades which causes intense pain through most of the body…' Parks choked and began to tremble. 'Sorry Doc.'

'That is quite all right. Do not distress yourself. We can make you well.' Nefar’s brow furrowed and he examined the medscan.

'This is incredible. I have never seen such…'

He realised he was mumbling to himself and glanced down at Parks to see if he had heard. Parks was still trembling and there were tears in his eyes. Nefar reached for and administered a relaxant to his suffering patient. He didn't want Parks unconscious, but he wanted to ease the pain, physical and emotional.

He treated and bandaged Parks' arm and worked on the lacerations and bruises from the beating. Then he turned him over and examined Parks’ back.

There were eight puncture wounds between the man’s shoulder blades: three on each side of his spine about a centimetre apart and two centimetres either side of the spine, and two straddling the vertebrae in the middle. It seemed the six outer wounds were where the device attached to his back, and the two in the centre actually went into the spinal column. The wounds themselves had bled, but were not serious. It was what he saw on the medscan that worried Nefar.

The stimulus or shock, whatever it was, had travelled through all the major nerves in Parks' body, and caused deterioration in some of the nerve sheaths. This would require bed rest and several intense regenerator sessions. Nefar had never seen anything like it. If that had been done to the other man, a less robust figure, the damage could be permanent. But then it was designed for the Bokans, and the intricacies of their nervous systems were not something Nefar was familiar with.

He used a hand-held regenerator to start healing the wounds on Parks' back and then checked his whole body. Finding nothing else, he helped Parks into a sleepsuit and positioned the tissue regenerator over the bed. He switched it on and set it, then went to see to the other patient.

'Sir, this scan can't be right, surely?' Tomos said. 'I don't know what I did wrong.'

Nefar examined the scan. There were the same signs as on Parks’ scan, only the condition was more advanced, and Tanu’s brain appeared to be affected. The patient was humanoid in most aspects, but the brain had some differences. It was hard to work out whether the differences were natural or injuries caused by the pain-giver device.

'Do not be concerned, Tomos,' said Nefar, 'your only error is in assuming this man is human. These readings, and his blue blood, prove he is not.'

Nefar examined the lump on Tanu's forehead. It was triangular in shape, raised half a centimetre, and a blotchy red in colour, not blue and purple as a normal bruise would be. Fine red lines radiated out from the lump like thread veins. There didn't appear to be any skull damage underneath, but it must have been quite a blow to raise that lump.

Tanu had also been beaten, and Tomos had started with a handheld regenerator on some of the bigger bruises. Nefar wasn't sure Tanu's more severe nerve damage would respond to a regenerator. Once Parks’ initial treatment was complete, he would try it on Tanu and see if he responded.

Nefar did a full-body examination and found no other injuries, but he was concerned at the lack of muscle tone. This man was tall and very slim, much like Reuel, he must be from a low gravity planet, but his body didn't show any of the low-grav adaptations. Nefar hoped Tanu would pull through, it would be interesting to discover more about him.







Chapter 6



Parks woke with a start at the sound of a red alert. He had been sent to his cabin but had only been in bed half an hour and was groggy. He struggled to consciousness, wondering if he was getting too old for this. He went to jump out of bed and his injuries reminded him he couldn't. At least his instincts were still sharp.

He carefully pulled on his uniform and shoes, grabbed his breather and tether, and went out into the corridor. John Blackwell was passing.

'Commander, wait!' Parks grabbed the engineer’s arm. 'What’s going on?'

'Pursuit,' Blackwell said as he hurried away, 'looks like you brought some company with you.'

Parks headed for the bridge. Unfortunately for him the way to the bridge led past sick bay, and the door was open.

'Commander Parks!'

The voice of Doctor Nefar came through the open door. 'You are not fit for duty. Return to your quarters, and I recommend you strap yourself into bed and keep your breather at hand. I do not want to treat any new injuries.'


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