The security team lead by Commander Parker marched down the oval hallway lit up by florescent lights that stretched down the length of the passage like a double set of glowing railroad tracks. Silver struts crawled up the wall and connected on the ceiling, glittering like mirrors. Their destination was a bulkhead door with “Mess Hall” emblazoned on the front in red stencil. When they came up to it, Ryan depressed the blue crystal switch. The phrase split down the center as the door rumbled open.
A small party of four people sat around one of the many blue plastic picnic tables lining the dinning room, huddled together talking in low murmuring tones. One of them with his back to the large window looked up in their direction. He mumbled something to the others and the rest turned to face him. The faces that he saw carried a mixture of hostility and relieved expressions.
Ryan cleared his throat. “I am Commander Ryan Parker of the Space Navy vessel Republic. We have quarantined this area until further notice.”
“Oh, finally,” growled a man with copper hair. His aqua eyes snapped in anger. “After half of us have been killed off already. Just wait a few more days and you space cowboys wouldn’t have to get off your lousy ship. We’d all be dead!”
“Mister…” Ryan started annoyed at the man’s words.
“Mathew Walters.” The scientist answered standing to his feet to face the Commander.
“Mr. Walters, you and this team are quite far from Earth. With the Space Navy battling the raiders all over the , how do you expect us to get here fast?” Ryan demanded with his arms folded.
Walters opened his mouth to answer, but an older gentlemen said, “Sit down and shut up, Mathew. You’re wasting air.”
Mathew glared down at the old man’s cool but serious face. He bit his lip as if to keep from saying something, then turned and left the room fuming. Ryan turned to a security guard and nodded to him to follow. The gray suited officer hurried out.
“I’m Dr. Adrian King,” the gentleman said answering the unspoken question. “I’m glad you’ve arrived. I was expecting it to take longer. Even with the standard hyper-drives it takes months for a ship to get out this far.”
“The Republic is equipped with the new Warp Drive system invented by Christopher McCully back on Earth. The Space Navy refit our ship first,” Ryan explained, glad to see a welcoming face.
“Warp?” Adrian said surprised. “I didn’t think they would start putting those on yet. Maybe when this is all over you can give me a tour of your engines.”
“Sure, once everything is back to normal,” Ryan answered. He chose his words with some care; he wanted to re-mind these people that he was there trying to keep them from dying by whatever was on the dark world.
He turned to the rest of the members. “Captain Smyth has assigned a security officer to each of you. They will be your constant companions until we find out what is going on. Please do not go anywhere without them.”
“Has the ECU any idea what is going on?” asked a hard voice behind Ryan. He turned to face the voice and saw a dark form in the shadows leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
“Uh…not at this time…may I ask who you are?” Ryan asked, looking at the shadowed face.
The man stepped forward with his arms still folded as he spoke. “I’m the Chief Geologist. My name is Velok.”
The commander stepped back horrified as his eyes took in the person in front of him. Velok was tall and built strong, his hair was pure black and his face was hard and cold. What stood out most about him was the color of his eyes. They were sparkling Burgundy.
“Your….your….” Ryan stuttered trying to get the words out of his mouth.
“I am Geminian.” Velok answered with a hint of an amused smile. “There are usually Gemininas this close to the Empire’s borders. You know of us?”
“I sure do!” Ryan hissed angrily. “We fought a war with you for seven bloody years! What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Velok is the in charge of Geology. He’s quite good at his job.” Adrian clarified unsure of the situation that was developing.
“And Commander, “ Velok said. “The war is over. It’s been over for 5 years. The Geminian Empire and the Earth Colonies United now get along peaceably.”
“I don’t call incursions on our border worlds peaceable.” Ryan muttered low under his breath.
Velok raised a black bushy eyebrow. Ryan felt guilty that he was reacting the wrong way. He was the Executive Officer of the Republic; he had a standard to set; treating the Geminian like he was demeaned that standard. The captain would not approve—even if he did not like the man’s race, common courtesy, not to mention professional rules of con-duct required him to treat the alien with respect. He mentally kicked himself.
“My apologies for my hasty comments, Mr. Velok.” Ryan said formally. “I regret the need, but there is a security guard assigned to you also. Do not stray to far from where help can get to you.”
“Fear not, Commander. I learned years ago to watch my back.”
Adrian cleared his throat. The Commander turned to him. “I—ah you need to know he’s not the only Geminian. His assistant, Feena, is here also.”
“I see…” Ryan said glancing at Velok. The Geminian had gone back to staring out the window at the moving fog that slowly crept toward the glass-steel pane. Ryan looked close at the man’s back where he thought he could make out the form of a weapon resembling a laser pistol under the Geminian’s royal purple jumpsuit jacket.
“I will tell Captain Smyth of your situation,” Ryan said to the rest of the men.
“You do that.” Said Velok without turning around. The commander looked at the back of the Geminian’s head but did not say anything. The two knew what each other had meant. Ryan was going to make sure his captain knew that Ve-lok was there and the Geminian just challenged him to do it.
“It’s over here,” said Doctor Bellows as they walked inside the structure. Dry gray ground crunched under their boots. The whole area of two hundred feet by two hundred feet was encased in a larger dome. A breeze blew through the building, making a ghostly howl.
“Isn’t this place airtight?” Thomas asked as he listened to the hellish sound.
“Yes and no. Filters remove the outside stench. We keep the wind blowing through for air circulation,” Dr. Bellows explained as he looked around at the different holes in the ground.
Thomas glanced around himself and peered at the eerily moving shadows cast by the machinery, waving like phan-toms holding still in the dark areas of the room.
Bellows noticed his glance and said, “The shadows act that way because of the white dwarf’s light. Not much gets past the rubble in closer orbit. What does comes in different intensities and the changing lights make it wave like that.”
“I see,” Thomas said watching a waving shadow as if it were alive. He tripped over a rock and caught himself on a digging machine to keep from falling. “How much farther?”
The scientist stood in front of a big yawning pit filled with the phantasms. Thomas walked up to the edge, kneeled on one knee, and looked down in to the dark hole. Below, dark gray shadows incited a fear that slowly crept through the captain’s soul. ‘Lord, protect me from this evil that seems to be in this place.’
Thomas glanced around and found a flashlight lying on the ground beside an archeologist’s nearby toolbox. He picked it up and made to climb down in to the pit. Dr. Bellows grabbed his arm and jerked him back up.
“Are you insane?” he demanded. “You can’t go down there! That plaque does something to people. The curse will destroy you.”
Thomas wrenched himself out of the vice like grip and said, “My God will protect me, Doctor. You can stay up here, but I’m going to go find out what is killing your people.”
Captain Smyth climbed down the small iron ladder imbedded in the side of the dirt, the inky shadows swallowing him. He heard the doctor give a strangled cough. Thomas asked, “How deep is this?”
“Nine feet,” came the answer, echoing down the chamber, absorbed in to the soft dirt walls. Dr. Bellows continued to talk. “What if…what if you are right and there are spirits you can’t see? What if it is demons that are causing this trou-ble? Aren’t you worried that they’ll hurt you?”
“I am a Christian, Doctor.” Answer Thomas as his feet his solid ground. “My God the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross 2,021 years ago to save me from my sin. He took the keys of death from Satan and will protect me from all harm. You know Psalms 23 don’t you?”
“I…I haven’t heard it in years. Just a silly superstitious rhyme anyhow from a old book written years ago.”
Thomas glanced up at the light blue dome that he could see from the bottom of the pit. Dr. Bellows sounded as if he was trying to convince himself of that. The Captain popped his flashlight on and sent the shadows scurrying in the cor-ners. The beam fell on a stone plaque lying in the middle of the pit. He approached it slowly, keeping his electric torch focused on it, a block of dense stone, which, for it’s size, turned out to be quite heavy. He tried to roll it over with his foot and could not budge it. He again went on one knee and looked at the inscription. The fluid symbols flowed across the granite. Thomas traced them with his fingers.
“They’re written in Thraasian,” Said a voice right behind him.
Startled, Thomas jumped up and spun to face the voice, brandishing the flashlight as a weapon. Dr. Bellows stood there and the Captain lowered his impromptu weapon. “I didn’t think you had the courage to come down here.”
“Well, you’re down here and it hasn’t killed you yet.” Stanton said sheepishly.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. This plaque was not here originally?” Thomas asked.
“No, but there is a building underneath it. It seems to be an underground bunker that has been there for a very long time—I’d say a thousand at the most. We found writings in one of the tunnels that mention the Thraasian year 3444, about 1436 A. D. on Earth.”
“Tunnels? You found tunnels?” Thomas said.
“Yes, in the other parts of this dome and also in Dome 1 we have found entrances to tunnels that would have stretched for miles if they were still intact.”
“Why don’t you just enter the room that way?”
“Not all the tunnels are in good shape. Three quarters of them have collapsed,” Dr. Bellows said. He stomped on the ground. “The two tunnels that lead to this room are blocked. I will not risk using Plasma explosives to open them up. It won’t help destroying the writing on the walls.”
Thomas did not answer, but stood up and brushed off the gray dirt clinging to his knees.
“What are you going to do?” Bellows asked.
Before he could answer a chirp was heard. Stanton Bellows spun around frightened and ready to attack what ever it was.
“It’s here,” said Thomas showing the underside of his forearm. A thin piece of plastic molded to his skin and strapped in place glistened dully in the twilight. He pressed on it, activating the information display. Bellows looked at it in awe.
“What is it?”
“It’s a Comm-Pad. I can access ship information, track my people, and communicate with them using this device,” Thomas said tapping on the screen. It changed from graphics to text. “It seems Commander Parker has discovered Gemi-nians here.”
“Oh, yes,” Dr. Bellows said matter-a-factly. “That’s Velok and Feena. They work here. Velok used to be in the Geminian Imperial War Fleet. He reached the rank of Dagger-Colonel.”
Thomas nodded and then said, “Where did you put Dr. Dunbar’s body when he was killed?”
“We are keeping him in the freezers—ditto for all the bodies,” Bellows paused. “Well, all the intact bodies. We couldn’t do much for Dr. Nelson and his team.”
Thomas nodded, not wanting to think what the Plasma Generator had done to the team. “I’m going to have my Chief Medical officer come down and take a look at their remains. She may be able to help.”
“Who is she?” Bellows asked as he followed Thomas up the ladder.
“Shennandoah Roberts. She’s a good doctor; one of the best in the fleet.”
Thomas and Dr. Bellows made their way through the hallways back into the main room where they found Ryan sitting on the corner of the table staring at a Geminian leaning against the wall. They did not say a word, but looked at each other.
“Report, Commander,” Thomas ordered.
Ryan did without taking his eyes off Velok. “I have deployed all the security guards to each person as ordered, Sir.”
“Good,” Thomas said. He looked around to find that some of the remaining scientists and their bodyguards lin-gered—perhaps for the assurance of company. “Where’s Lieutenant Riley?”
“Right here, Sir,” said the shuttle pilot, running up and swinging his legs over a table. He landed on his feet directly in front of the captain and saluted.
“I need you to return to the Republic and bring Dr. Roberts back. Tell here we are investigating several suspected murders and she is to come prepared for such.”
“Yessah.” He said in his ever-present southern accent. When he got excited it seemed to come on thicker.
He took off out of the area on his mission and Thomas turned back to Dr. Bellows. “Can you show me the bodies?”
Commander Parker sat on the table as his commanding officer left, not sure what to do. Captain Smyth had not left any orders for him, but he could not sit around and do nothing. A piercing scream echoed through the room and hall-ways, forcing him explosively onto his feet.
Ryan drew his Laser pistol and flicked in on. The charging capacitor hummed as it powered up. Ryan ran through the room bowling over a Security officer who was trying to get his weapon off his shoulder. He kicked open that half-closed hatch to the adjoining kitchen and leaped in with this weapon ready. Ryan saw a young girl standing by the counter looking upset. She spun around as he had made his entrance. A blush crossed her face like wild fire as he stood there with the weapon and it’s hot red glowing tip ready to blast the danger.
“I…I’m sorry,” she said embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to scream. It’s just those stupid mole rats.”
“Huh?” said Ryan as he looked around the kitchen. It was small, with all appliances lined up in a neat row on one side of the wall. The other three sides were lined with metal counters reflecting the fluorescent light above. He was expecting some villain or space alien on the loose.
“Mole rats,” she said again, the flush deepening. “They get in to the food containers, no matter what we do. I was pouring some corn flakes when they came tumbling out. That’s why I screamed. I guess its stress.”
Ryan looked to the counter and saw a metal bowl with yellow flakes of corn in it Swimming gaily and squeak-ing in delight were fourteen or more small one-inch rodents. He walked over to it and stared at them. Their fur was dark gray like the surface of Lyra II and their pure white whiskers were longer then their bodies. They sensed his approach. A couple stood on their hind legs and sniffed the air in his direction.
“They dangerous?” Ryan asked.
“No, they are quite tame for wild animals,” she said coming up behind him, but keeping him between her and the animated balls of fur. “I’ve seen Velok feed them from his hand—they climb in and sit there while eating.”
Ryan laid his hand down next to the bowl and they crawled in to his palm searching for food. “Their tameness must be why they are such a problem.”
“Oh, yes. Feena just despises them. She goes around with her weapon and blasts them if they get to close to her. I hate them myself.”
Ryan turned to the girl and smiled. “Well, We’ll just clean them out. I’m Ryan Parker, executive officer of the Republic.”
“Cassandra Bellows,” the woman answered. “And I am sorry about screaming. I just get sick and tired of them. Two months ago four of them crawled in to my bed for warmth. Scared me silly. I kept screaming and screaming. Velok came bursting in just as you did with my father and Adrian behind him. That was before…this thing happened.”
She shivered and Ryan placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright, Ms. Bellows?”
“I’m cold and scared,” Cassandra said looking up at him with her chocolate brown eyes. “Everybody dying, daddy acting strange, people furtive, angry and scared. I want it all to go away.”
Ryan wished he could comfort her, but did not know how. She sniffed and then took a deep breath.
“I think I’m going nuts myself,” she said after a moment. “I’m seeing things.”
“What?” Ryan asked. “Like what?”
“I think I saw Dubar’s ghost when he died.”
Ryan knew strange things were going on, but he did not expect anything like what he just heard. “Tell me about it.”
“You’d just think I was crazy,” Cassandra said going over to the bowl and tapping it hard with the spoon to scare all the mole rats out. They scurried off in different directions squeaking and letting her know how upset they were. The girl did not say anything else, but threw the contents of the bowl in the trash receptacle and after checking another container, poured herself a new bowl of cereal.
“I won’t think your crazy,” Ryan said gently. “Everybody is having a hard time.”
“You won’t?” she said looking at him while she held the bowl and spoon poised in the air.
“Bring the milk, please.”
Ryan looked at her for a second and then after fishing through the refrigerator brought out a canister of milk and followed her as she went back in to the dinning room. Most of the people had wandered off to their respective groups; the ever-present security officers stood there and watched the charges like hawks.
“I eat a lot when I’m scared,” Cassandra said as she poured the milk over her Cornflakes. “It’s a habit I picked up when I was at boarding school. I was scared of the teachers who loved to make our lives miserable. When I could, I snacked on anything I could get my hands on…would you like a glass of milk?”
“No, thank you,” said Parker. He waved his hands in a negative gesture. Cassandra set the canister down and started eating. “Tell me about the ghost?” he prompted.
She stopped chewing and looked straight at him.
“I promised not to laugh or think your crazy,” Ryan reminded.
She sighed and set the spoon down. “It was the day Dr. Morgan died. He was looking over Dome 2 as my fa-ther probably already told you and that was when…something…killed him. My dad thinks it is the curse.”
“What do you think?”
Fear crossed her eyes and she said quivering, “I don’t know what to think!”
Ryan soothed her with a gentle pat to the forearm and asked her to continue.
“Well, I was the first one there really and I rushed in thinking maybe a machine got him or he burnt himself with a laser torch. I walked up to the pit and in those eerie shadows I saw a form slip out of those horrible shadows and glide swiftly away. I stood there paralyzed as it moved. It had to be a phantom, it moved without noise and you could not hear it. It was shrouded in the fog and…” she broke down and cried, “I just want to get off this rock! I want to go home back to Earth where the shadows don’t seem to be alive and people don’t die by some curse!”
Her crying attracted some attention from the little groups in the room and Velok, The Geminian, came over and put a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. “Everything will be okay.”
He seemed so confident to Ryan that it made him suspicious. The Commander looked up at Velok and both their gazes met in one long icy stare.
Thomas walked briskly down the hall with Riley ahead of him and Dr. Shennandoah Roberts beside him. She was a very pretty woman with emerald eyes and pale red hair, features inherited from her Irish father. She wore a jumpsuit like the rest of his crew, but with a green lab coat over it to hold all her doctor equipment.
Dr. Bellows led them to another part of the complex where the bodies were kept. It was the Kitchen storage room and seven large freezers lined the walls.
Shennandoah immediately went to work by simultaneously flipping the nearest freezer open, and removing her devices out of her pockets and setting them on the freezer beside her. She scanned the body while Thomas turned to con-tinue his conversation with Dr. Bellows. “You said that Dr. Morgan was doing his own detective work. Did he tell you anything about what he found?”
“No, not really. We were still sure that Dr. Dunbar’s death and the plasma reactor explosion were just accidents. He did mention some things, but I can’t remember what they were.”
“Can you try? Even the littlest bit may help,” Thomas pressed.
“All I know is that he is died because he hung around that plaque to much. He measured it, scanned it, even tried to lift it, but it didn’t help him.”
Thomas resisted the urge to throw up his arms, but turned instead to Shennandoah who stood to the side, listen-ing.
“They were quite right that there are no visible wounds on the body,” Shennandoah informed him in her soft melodic voice. “So, I scanned on the molecular level.”
“I found a patch of cellular disruption on his chest, the upper right side. The disruption has gone deep in to his body, tearing apart his heart and lungs at the membrane level. That’s what killed him.”
Thomas frowned. “What kind of weapon does that?”
Shennandoah shook her head as she reviewed the scans. “Our normal Laser pistols won’t. I cannot think of an-ything this place has that would.”
Thomas shook his head and rubbed his temples. “This is just getting more confusing. First he dies with no wound, now we find a wound, but we can’t figure out what caused it.”
“I would say it does solve one thing,” Shennandoah pointed out. “Whatever killed him, it’s not supernatural, but something physical.”
Bellows frowned. “What are you saying? That someone here is killing their friends?”
“No, I’m saying someone here wants everybody dead.”
Ryan walked down the hallway with Cassi on his right as she talked about her life here and how everything was happy before the curse. He listened, but also thought about Velok. Ryan was sure the tall Geminian had something to do with the curse.
“Cassi, Tell me about Velok,” Ryan asked when she took a breath. “What type a person is he?”
“Oh, he’s a nice person once you get to know him. Different from most people I have met.” Cassandra an-swered without breaking from her old conversation. “He’s very stern, but gentle at the same time—like when he feeds the mole rats.”
“Really? How long has he been here?”
Cassandra thought for a second and said, “For about 2 years. He came here after he got out of the Geminian Imperial War Fleet.”
Ryan looked at her hard and the pieces fell together in his mind. “He was in the military?”
“Oh, yes. He’s got a pretty uniform. He’s shown it to me before. One time about a year ago when a bunch of top brass had come to see the work we were doing—we had to put up with them because we get our grant money from them—and I convinced him to wear his uniform. He was so handsome in it. You should have seen the looks on those guys’ face.” She laughed at the memory.
“Did he have a lot of military training?”
Cassandra nodded. “I think so. He got all the way up to dagger-colonel.”
Ryan remained silent as they walked, but Cassandra continued to talk about the Geminian. As they were turning around a corner they heard the sound of weapons fire.
Ryan pushed Cassandra to the wall and drew his laser pistol. “Stay here.”
She nodded her scared face. He crept up to the passageway and peered around it. A woman wearing a royal purple form fitting jumpsuit was blasting at the ground with a weapon. The yellow beam struck the dirt. He heard her say something in another language. She sounded frustrated.
Ryan jumped out and shouted, “Drop the weapon!”
She spun to face him and he locked gazes with a pair of large beautiful eyes the color of crystal. They sparkled when the hallway light hit them. Her long glistening mane of black hair was split into three parts, with two intricate braids on the sides and the center flowing straight down her back. The woman’s face had a beauty that hinted of a dangerous creature. He tried not to look awed.
“Well, hello there,” she said in a very low a seductive voice. “You must be the Space Navy people that Velok has told me about.”
“I…uh…I’m Commander Ryan Parker…of the Republic.” He stuttered.
She put the weapon into her jump suits belt and gave him a cute smile. “Sorry about the weapon. I was getting rid of those dumb mole rats.”
“Uh…no problem. Just want to make sure no one was hurt,” he said, feeling uncomfortable with her as close as she was to him. “I need to go back to Cassandra and—”
“I’m right here Ryan,” said Cassi, stepping around the corner. “When I didn’t hear any laser fire I thought maybe it was a false alarm.”
“I’m Feena,” said the woman who stepped closer to him and extended her hand. Ryan put his pistol back into its holster and wiped his sweaty hand on his leg before taking her hand. It was soft and very smooth. He could smell an exotic fragrance about her.
“You’re the…the other Geminian?” he asked still stuttering slightly. He felt foolish and he tried to keep down the crimson blush.
“Yes, I am,” She answered, “but I wish I was human so you would like me better.”
He could not keep the blush away this time and Cassi tugged on his shoulder. “Aren’t we supposed to go see your captain?”
“Uh…yeah.” He said, confused. He turned to say goodbye to Feena when a scream shattered the quiet. It rose high in pitch of agony. Ryan took off running through the hallways, He came up to an open bulkhead hatch. Lying across the threshold was Adrian King. Wrapped around his leg was a thin red creature long as a snake, with sharp one-inch thorns covering it. Yellow eyes the size of teardrops sat on top of its head and stared straight at Ryan.
Doctor King…was dead.