~ Chapter 14 ~
A growing sense of urgency and trepidation filled the ship as they neared Bargo. The training activities had intensified, and each of the chosen ones had personal training programs in addition to the group sessions.
Each day they traversed the path, which now moved faster than before, seemingly sensing their movements and adjusting to counteract them. Aiden was pleased to be the first to navigate the path successfully, with the rest not far behind.
Performing Kydra’s logic puzzles in impossible timeframes while ear splitting, hair-raising screeches pierced the air was not fun. Aiden was sure the creatures were vicious predators.
“The ability to focus under pressure,” Kydra said, “is the most important skill a magwan can possess. If you cannot focus you cannot use your powers when they are needed most.”
Sarah-Jane, Amber and Osma were perfecting their seer powers. Goolee was still giving Aiden a wide berth, and would creep into the training room and try to catch the girls’ attention by waving his arms. Cosmo received a severe reprimand from Doctor Peasley when he created an illusion of Aiden right next to Goolee, making him screech in fright and scurry away on all fours.
Wearing a heavy leathery breastplate and a black domed helmet, they each had to navigate a maze that now took up most of the training room. Two Buwah in the maze struck anyone who came across them. The task was made even more difficult as they had to send and receive telepathic messages with Kydra. Eulo stood by observing, and stepping in frequently to mend broken arms, jaws and other injuries. After a number of sessions, their sensing powers had improved considerably. Hide-and-seek would never be the same.
Happy to have a break in the training they listened as Eulo spoke to them about their excellent progress. Despite Eulo’s enthusiasm, Aiden was not convinced that after a few days of preparation they would be ready for what lay ahead.
Cosmo leapt up. “ARKANT,” he shouted.
Eulo stopped mid-sentence. Everyone stared. A bewildered Cosmo stood as if waking from a dream.
“Forgive me, Cosmo,” said Eulo. “I thought it would be entertaining to demonstrate thought transference.”
A bewildered Cosmo slowly sat down.
“It is possible to plant a thought in another’s mind. The thought can take the form of an action such as shouting – as Cosmo did – or scratching your head. It is like a subliminal message.”
They all stopped scratching their heads. Aiden looked at his hand in amazement. Eulo nodded. “Unless a being is prepared and identifies the thought as not their own, they will accept it.”
Once Eulo had explained how to detect a foreign thought and how to implant one, they spent the next few hours practising. It did not take long before they could implant a thought. Cosmo slapped himself in the face as his attempt to have Sarah-Jane hug him was identified and appropriately dealt with. As Aiden laughed, he suddenly found himself with his finger up his nose. By the end of the session they could all identify invading thoughts before they acted them out.
The nights grew worse than the days as their minds turned to the gravity of the task ahead. Sarah-Jane’s prediction of his death consumed Aiden, and everyone treating him differently didn’t help. The nightly chats Cosmo and Aiden had with Surge did little to ease their minds. He offered little in practical advice, but emphasised the importance of the judicial use of their powers. Cosmo was still sceptical of Surge’s existence.
In addition to the falling-into-nothingness nightmare that he still could not reach the end of, Aiden was now dreaming of an oddly familiar alien planet. With a strong sense of foreboding he walked across it, observing barren mountains and black streams. He came to a cave hidden by fallen rocks. He clambered past them and down a long, eerie, dark winding tunnel that burrowed deep into the mountain. With each step his sense of danger increased. Though the tunnel twisted, turned and split into other tunnels, he knew the way he must go. Eventually it spilled out into a huge cavern lit by flaming torches. On a stone throne in the centre of the cavern, waiting for him, was a creature of immense power. Aiden could only make out his outline. The creature held a staff, the top of which emitted a hypnotic blue light that tinged everything blue. Aiden could see faint symbols etched into its shaft. As he approached the creature, he understood what they meant - the winds of power.
The creature looked down upon him and said, “Join me.” Aiden’s resistance faded as he fought his longing to surrender to the creature. He always woke from the dream feeling cold, sweaty and very alone.
Surge was of little help. “The dream could mean many things,” he offered unhelpfully. “It could represent your fears. It could be a warning, or it could be a prediction of something yet to happen. At best it should serve as a reminder to strengthen the protection of your mind.”
A week later Deep Space Discovery entered Bargo’s solar system, gliding cloaked past the patrolling ships. The patrols seemed to sense something as the craft slid swiftly past and went into a searching pattern, but they left the Horde ships searching in their wake.
Eulo spoke with them about the mission to be undertaken the next day. “You have trained well and I believe we are as prepared as we will ever be. Bargo is the home of the Horde’s queen and her nest. We must assume they are aware we are here. Once we land, there will be no way of avoiding contact. Whilst the Horde are a danger and their great numbers may overwhelm us, it is the magwans that present the greatest danger.”
The group exchanged worried glances. If this was a motivational speech, it wasn’t working.
“A small number of us will land on Bargo and execute a targeted strike at the place I believe our friends are held. I do not sense the Master’s presence on Bargo, so we need not be concerned with him at this time.”
Remembering the Master’s invasion of his mind, Aiden found this news uplifting.
“The seers will remain on the ship and help our efforts from here. We will land on Bargo in two pods. Each pod will carry a team of five. Matong will lead one team and I the other. Before we land, we must draw in as much power as we can. You will not be able to recharge on Bargo; it has an unusual magnetic field that blocks highly charged particles from entering its atmosphere.”
This was a serious limitation. Although Eulo had his staff and Aiden could absorb great amounts of energy, the others would have to be sparing.
They rested in the recreation room. It felt more like the night before exams. Amber was chewing her plait and asking questions. “What if I can’t see anything? What if I see something and I can’t send a message?”
“Don’t worry,” said Sarah-Jane, twisting strands of her hair around her finger. “With Goolee, Osma, and the two of us using our powers, one of us will see something that can help the rescue.”
“Yeah,” said Cosmo, reclined on a couch, chewing on a food bar. “And Eulo will be with us so we’ll be all right, as long as we avoid those bugs.” He stretched out, his feet pushing Aiden to the very end of the couch. Aiden whacked his legs.
“It’s all right for you, you’re with Eulo and Kydra – I’ve got Matong!” Aiden complained.
“But you have Kayeed, Feng and your buddy the prince. If the bugs come just toss them the prince. By the time they’ve finished chewing through him you’ll be long gone.”
“Ta.” He gave Cosmo’s legs another whack.
Sarah-Jane started pacing. “What worries me is if the Master turns up with that staff. It destroyed a whole planet. What are its limits?”
“It depends on who wields it,” said Aiden, before he could stop himself. Then he added. “A staff’s power can only be drawn upon to the degree of the holder’s abilities.”
“How do you know that?” challenged Cosmo.
Not knowing how he knew, but sure it was the truth, Aiden looked blank. “I just do,” he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
Cosmo’s brow furrowed. “When did you get the power of ‘just knowing’?”
“I wish I knew.”
They all tried to sense what tomorrow would bring, with no success. They retired early to record MDD messages. Aiden did not know what to say. He believed he would return safely, but thought he should say something just in case. He finally recorded a brief message about the impending landing on a planet with oversized bugs on it, as though it was part of normal training. He did not feel like revealing that Doctor Hudson and Gibber were prisoners, or the true danger. He decided not to speak with Surge or astral travel and hoped for a night of peaceful, undisturbed sleep.
He woke only once in the night. Only one nightmare: a good night’s sleep. He looked across at Cosmo. How he wished he could sleep that soundly. He woke him by tickling the end of his nose with a sock.
Aiden forced down a food bar while Cosmo wolfed down three, and they sipped on vitalise while they waited for the girls. The girls arrived and unexpectedly gave the boys a hug.
“It’s not even my birthday,” Cosmo quipped as Sarah-Jane embraced him.
“Bring Doctor Hudson and Gibber back and I might give you another one,” she replied.
Aiden found his face unexpectedly reddening as Amber hugged him. He hoped she wouldn’t notice.
Doctor Peasley strode in soon after and gave the boys another unexpected hug. “Boys, promise me you will do whatever Eulo and Matong ask, and stay close by them.”
“It will be a breeze,” said Cosmo. “We have our seers, and Eulo.”
Kayeed escorted Aiden, Cosmo, Prince Orka and Otha to the landing bay. Aiden could not help thinking they did not look like a crack rescue squad. He noticed Cosmo had put his lucky silver eyebrow stud back in. He gave Cosmo a thumbs-up gesture as he disappeared into the other pod with Eulo, Kydra, Otha and a Buwah Aiden had not seen before.
With hands glowing orange and his body humming from the energy he had absorbed, Aiden followed Prince Orka, Kayeed and Feng onto his pod. Matong hissed behind him. The pods glided out of the landing bay and shot towards Bargo. Aiden was pleased everyone’s breakfast stayed where it should.
The trip was painfully short. There was little said, and Aiden was sure there needed to be some sort of rallying speech from Matong, but he knew better than to expect one. They studied Bargo through the viewer. It was a harsh-looking planet with little greenery. The air and ground swarmed with huge bugs. Thankfully, Aiden noticed tall thick brown foliage that would provide partial cover.
The cloaked pod glided silently and unnoticed to a secluded rocky area. They landed with a light bump. Before Aiden could unbuckle, the sliding door to the energy chamber opened. Amber strode out with a guilty smile.
“Are we there?” she asked innocently.
“Amber,” spluttered Aiden. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Matong glared. “You will not slow us down seer, we are here to fight!”
Amber ignored Matong and smiled at Aiden. “It’s okay, I just knew this is where I needed to be.”
Kayeed disembarked first. He strode down the ramp carrying a massive barbed club and with a small handgun tucked in his breastplate. Matong was close behind. His breastplate was well worn. Aiden guessed it had seen many battles. The scrub stretched into the distance, ending at the base of a massive, bare brown mountain riddled with holes. Eulo’s pod was nowhere in sight.
Matong swept past Aiden and turned to face the group. “Our task is to create a distraction whilst Eulo’s team completes the rescue.”
He handed out tinted visors. “You are to wear these at all times,” hissed Matong. “They will protect you from making direct eye contact with any of the Horde.”
Amber spoke before Aiden had a chance to. “What happens if we make eye contact?”
Matong glared at her. “If a member of the Horde locks eyes with another being as it dies, it transmits an image of that being and the essence of their life force to the rest of the Horde. That being is then marked, and every member of the Horde will be attracted to its life force. Driven to destroy it. Once marked, there is no rest from pursuit. We are one visor short. So you, seer, will go without!”
Aiden felt ill. “Matong... when the Horde was attacking Toora, I, um, killed one of them... and I think we may have locked eyes.”
Matong stood motionless as a buzzing sound grew louder and louder around them. “You fool,” spat Matong, “you tell me this now!”
As if on cue, scores of huge hideous bugs appeared above the scrub with their dark eyes focused on Aiden, their jaws gleaming. As one, they dove at him, long pincered arms stretching towards him. Other bugs crashed through the scrub, snapping the wiry branches that blocked their way. They looked strong enough to carry a car.
Aiden threw his visor to Amber and fired white balls of energy at the bugs. Kayeed launched himself, swinging his club to deadly effect.
Matong pushed Prince Orka aside as the prince was about to hurl an energy ball. “Do not waste your energy!” he snapped.
Feng joined the fray, shooting bolts of yellow energy from his handgun.
The bugs kept coming, ignoring their many fallen. Matong sent a message to head for the nest. The mountain was a nest? Aiden was sure this must be the worst place to be heading - bug central! They ran in close formation, Kayeed leading and Feng in the rear, both swinging their clubs and battering the bugs to the ground. Aiden fired bolts of energy at bugs that got too close overhead, and threw up an energy shield. The bugs crashed into the invisible barrier, stunning and confusing them.
The nest was further than Aiden had judged. The buzzing of the never-ending bugs was now a deafening roar. As they neared the nest, they received a message from Sarah-Jane: “take the smallest tunnel.” The air grew thick, with massive bugs blocking out virtually all light. Aiden found their single-minded focus on him unnerving. He bitterly regretted blasting the bug outside the space room.
They found the small tunnel Sarah-Jane had shown them and dove in, with the Buwah having to crouch to fit. Feng clubbed the tunnel entrance walls, sealing them in and giving them a respite from the bug onslaught. Matong provided light and they hurried through the tunnel, two abreast, with Feng collapsing it behind them from time to time. Aiden’s eyes watered in the stale air and dust. He rubbed his hand against the tunnel wall. It wasn’t rock, as he expected. It had the texture of mud.
“It is made from their excrement and any other materials they can find,” noted Feng. Aiden wiped his hand vigorously on his outfit.
Amber travelled close at Aiden’s side. He was surprised she was not having an allergic reaction. He kept his senses on high alert, searching for any sign of danger. They had not travelled very far when Matong signalled for them to rest. Aiden was not sure what Matong’s plan was. He sent Cosmo a message of them huddled in a tunnel and got back a similar image of Cosmo’s group. Aiden hoped they had created the necessary distraction to allow Eulo’s group a chance of progressing undetected.
Then, through the flickering light, Aiden saw the mangy squirrel from Aunt Del’s front garden scurry up to Matong. He blinked twice in the half-light to check he was not seeing things.
“Matong,” he whispered. “That squirrel!”
The squirrel scurried ahead, diving down a tunnel to the left.
“We need to move,” Matong hissed with a glare.
They silently followed the squirrel as it led them from one tunnel to another. It seemed to have a special connection with Matong. Aiden couldn’t fathom how this squirrel from Aunt Del’s garden was now with them in space.
The sound of buzzing echoed through the tunnels, filling them with a sense of doom. Kayeed dispensed bug after bug that sprung from the side tunnels.
Matong stopped and banged his fist against the wall. “Eulo’s team has been caught,” he hissed.
Aiden tried to contact Cosmo, but couldn’t reach him. Sarah-Jane sent an image of Eulo’s team trapped inside a large power cell with Gibber, Doctor Hudson, and Neba.
“This way!” commanded Matong.
They stumbled through the maze of tunnels, encountering more and more bugs. Finally their tunnel ended, opening to a sheer drop at the top of a gigantic chamber. They observed the scene below. Embedded in two of the side walls of the chamber far below were the bars of a power cell. Prowling, snapping bugs paced around the cell. Inside, their friends sat on the ground as if they had not a care in the world.
Ogmore, a Mulgoa that Aiden guessed to be Mathorg and a large fat bug stood on a high protruding ledge on the other side of the chamber.
“You are trapped. Hand over the staff, Eulo,” hissed Mathorg, his voice ringing through the chamber, “and I will allow you and your company to return to your ship.”
Eulo went to the bars nearest Mathorg. “I think not, Mathorg. It gives me comfort to keep it close... Pooja, queen of the Horde, I am disappointed by the company you keep. They are not to be trusted.”
The fat bug standing with Ogmore and Mathorg flapped its wings and made a rapid clicking.
Eulo sighed. “If that is your decision, so be it. You are mistaken though. Your new allies will betray the Horde the moment you have served their needs.”
Pooja and the other bugs, as one, looked up at Aiden – they had sensed him. Matong shot a glare at him as the bugs rose into the air.
Ogmore strode to the edge of the platform. “Capture the humans and kill the rest!” he bellowed above the noise of the beating wings.
The buzzing in the tunnels behind them shook the ground and walls. Prince Orka and Matong fired shots at the flying bugs. Kayeed and Feng ran to the rear to protect the group from any attack from within the tunnel behind them.
Amber shook. “It’ll be all right,” said Aiden. “I need you to help me, though. I’m going to free Eulo. I need you to protect my body.”
“Just watch my body. There’s no time to explain.”
Using Kydra’s relaxation techniques he took a second to ready himself and projected to the power cell.
Surge appeared by his side. “This is dangerous. Projection is not an ability many would wish you to have.”
“Well, I couldn’t just blast my way here,” he whispered back as Surge disappeared again.
“Ah, Aiden,” said Eulo. “Ogmore has the remote control that will open the cell.” He gestured towards a ledge on the other side of the chamber.
Aiden smiled. Those on the ledge did not appear to have noticed him yet, focusing instead upon the battle at the top of the chamber. The bugs stopped mid-flight, hovering undecidedly. Aiden cursed – they had detected him already. He projected to the ledge, snatched the remote control from a startled Ogmore and projected back down to the power cell. In an instant Eulo and the others were free and Aiden returned to his body.
Ogmore and Mathorg made a hurried exit from the chamber as swarms of bugs flooded in behind them. Eulo held up his staff. A blinding light shot forth, knocking every bug to the ground. The chamber shuddered.
Matong looked astounded. “How did they escape?” he muttered to himself, then with a shake of his head he turned to face his team, “Return to the pod... I will deal with the traitors.”
Aiden grabbed Matong’s arm. Matong wheeled around with a hiss, baring his pointy fangs.
“Take this,” Aiden said, thrusting his pendant into Matong’s hand. “You may need it.” He also sent Matong a burst of energy to renew his stocks.
Matong turned and floated across the chamber towards the now vacant ledge. That’s what I call hovering, thought Aiden. With Matong’s squirrel leading, he ran with the rest of the group through the tunnels. Prince Orka provided light and blasted any bugs they encountered. Kayeed and Feng crushed those that attacked from the side tunnels.
Suddenly three bugs shot out of a side tunnel. One bug lunged past Feng and sank its jaws into Aiden’s leg. It was not deep enough to cause any real damage, but Aiden’s leg buckled under him and he felt like vomiting. Amber blasted the bug before it could get a second bite and Feng swung his club and dispatched the rest. It took only a moment for Aiden to steady himself and heal his leg. They moved on again through the tunnels, climbing over fallen bugs. Aiden was sure they were lost but the squirrel never hesitated as it navigated through the maze of tunnels.
Suddenly light pierced the darkness ahead. Kayeed pushed past Prince Orka and the squirrel and charged out. The rest followed, spilling out into the scrub as Feng collapsed the opening behind them. A host of bugs swarmed towards them.
Kayeed and Feng leapt forward.
WHOOMP. The whole mountainous nest collapsed and a blast of stale air flattened them into the dirt. The squirrel vanished.
Aiden gasped. The air was thick with dust and he could only see a few paces ahead. They picked themselves off the ground and followed Kayeed through the scrub. Aiden’s hopes that the dust would aid their escape vanished as the buzzing of the bugs sounded as if they were right above him. Not even the dust could mask his presence.
Prince Orka stopped abruptly, wheeled around, and faced Aiden. Aiden stood uneasily. In one fluid movement, the prince hurled an energy ball, blasting a bug inches from Aiden’s head. The charred bug fell on top of Aiden, pinning him to the ground. A shocked Amber stood covered in ash. Aiden mouthed a ‘thank you’ to the prince as he struggled to push the weighty remains off him. Seeing other bug heads appear through the dust, he created an energy shield around himself, Amber and the prince. They clasped hands against their mouths to block the dust. Visibility was almost non-existent and the others were nowhere in sight.
The extent of their predicament hit them at the same time. They were on their own. Aiden and the prince spun around and around, neither knowing which way to go. Amber grabbed their hands. “This way,” she mouthed. The energy shield was now holding back bugs at least five deep, so that surrounding them on all sides was a mass of big bug heads with dark demonic eyes, jaws and pincers snapping fiercely and legs clawing desperately. They tore each other to pieces trying to get to Aiden. The buzzing of their wings, the clicking and tearing of their jaws was maddening.
They followed Amber towards the pod. Prince Orka held a small red energy ball at the ready, obviously one of his last. The dust in the air was thinning, and through the press of bugs they glimpsed the pod a short distance ahead. Kayeed, and Feng who sported a bloodied arm and chest, advanced on the bugs around the energy shield. Matong stood by the pod’s ramp.
Aiden stared in amazement. He had thought Matong lay buried in the nest or at the very least, that he was a long way behind.
Aiden released the energy shield and sent a wave of energy that repelled the bugs backwards into a heap of bodies, leaving their wings, legs and jaws flapping wildly as they tried to right themselves. The three scrambled into the pod and lay on the floor gasping as the ramp rose.
Amber tried to clean her glasses on her filthy top. She looked like a wild tribeswoman with her face encrusted in brown dust and her hair a jumbled mess of knots. He wasn’t sure if the rank smell of the nest was coming from him or her, or from them both.
“I think you need a wash,” he said cheekily.
“You think?” she said smiling.
With everyone accounted for, the pod took off with the swarming bugs on the outside still crashing into it.
Matong tossed the pendant into Aiden’s lap, turned, and glided off to Kayeed.
“You’re welcome,” Aiden muttered.
“Ogmore is dead,” Matong said to Kayeed.
Kayeed displayed no emotion. “And Mathorg and Pooja?” he grunted.
“Mathorg escaped and Pooja lives, but not for long. The destruction of the nest injured her. The Horde will kill her and select a new queen. Eulo and the others are safely on their way.”
During the brief trip, Aiden healed his own, and everyone else’s, injuries. With all the pincers and jaws that had snapped at them, Aiden was surprised no one was more seriously hurt.
The two pods docked at the same time on Deep Space Discovery. Kayeed left immediately for the bridge.
Cosmo, leapt from his pod beaming, and gave Aiden and Amber a thumbs-up as he approached. Sarah-Jane was jumping with joy and came running to embrace them.
Amber pulled Aiden’s arm, and whispered in his ear. “Doctor Peasley isn’t wearing her wedding ring.” Aiden saw the white band of skin on her ring finger as she walked over.
Doctor Peasley confronted Amber. “You must not sneak off like that.” Then she hugged the girl tightly, before brushing vigorously at the dirt that had transferred to her clothes.
Prince Orka strode over to Neba and tapped him on the shoulder. This was probably as warm a greeting as Neba had ever experienced from the prince.
They sat in the recreation room well past curfew, talking about the events on Bargo. Eulo’s explanation for the squirrel had them talking. It was Matong’s alter form, a part of his consciousness he has split off to become another set of eyes and ears – a scout. Aiden wanted to know why Matong had been spying on him at Aunt Del’s.
Cosmo recounted how he had created an illusion of Pooja, the queen of the Horde, to distract the wall-to-wall bugs they had encountered. Sarah-Jane told how Eulo had ignored her warning about the power cell trap. Cosmo was sure Eulo had everything under control. None of Eulo’s group had suffered even a minor scratch.
“Perhaps he could see further into the future than you, Sare,” commented Amber. “I mean, everything did work out all right, didn’t it?”
The doctors walked in together. Doctor Hudson had some colour in his cheeks and a glass of red wine in his hand. He placed it on a table. “I wish to thank you for everything you have done. Not only in saving me, for which I am eternally grateful, but also in how you have represented Earth. I deeply regret your exposure to such dangers. I have never been more proud of anyone than I am of you four.”
He looked fondly towards Doctor Peasley. “Anna and I have discussed this, and we cannot have your safety risked again. We will be returning to Sanctuary, have a short exploration, and then return home. We have achieved our objectives. You have all developed your powers. We have made a number of significant medical breakthroughs and will make more on the trip home, I expect. You have all displayed good character and service to the Alliance.”
Aiden could see the relief this news brought to the others. He would have expected this news to fill him with happiness also, but it didn’t. He was anxious to use his new powers on Earth, even in their reduced capacity, and to see Drew and Aunt Del again; but he knew it was not time for him to go home - not yet!
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