The night was quiet as Cameron guarded the gate from the complex to the mining area. The space between the gate and the main tunnels was brightly lit, but the tunnels themselves were in deepest pitch. Cameron looked at his watch. Half past midnight. He had to check in every hour, and noting he still had half an hour, walked toward the entrance to the caves. Upon entering, he flipped the switch to the flashlight he always carried on night sifts like this. The yellow halogen beam illuminated the whole cave, but Cameron turned the aperture down to focus the light into a tight, narrow beam. He shined the light to the first cave that opened to the right, moved his light back and forth looking for… there! A piece of cloth… that must be what he had seen earlier. He bent over and picked it up. The cloth was stained a dark color in places, and was the same color as Cameron’s uniform. He panned the light further down this cave, and was rewarded by another lump of cloth about thirty yards down. He quickly walked over to it and scooped it up.
“Comsec 1 to Sgt. Baylor!” the radio crackled.
“Go ahead, over.” Cameron stepped back into the main cave, stuffing the two pieces of cloth into his left cargo pocket.
“We don’t see you on the screen, Sergeant. Where are you? Over.”
“I’m in the main cave… I thought I saw something in here, over.” A moment of silence.
“What is it, Sergeant? Over.”
“It was nothing. Just a trick of the shadows, I guess. Over.”
“All right. But you need to inform us before you go wandering off like that, over”
“Will comply,” Cameron said.
“Comsec 1 out.” Cameron walked back out to the gate to stand the rest of his shift, never making even a suggestion of a move toward the prizes he had stashed in his cargo pockets.
The rest of the night went on as uneventful as the air was dry. Cameron’s gaze constantly swept the area, his senses alert for any signs of movement or danger. His mind kept wandering, going through all of the events that had happened since his arrival on this arid rock in space, yet he was always aware of his surroundings. The strangest thing of all, he thought, was the idea that everybody seemed to know the dreaded secret of this place but him. Not that the fact that ALL of the former sentries chose the retirement option was any less strange. But the former consideration was of greater consideration to Cameron at the moment, especially since the secret seemed to pose a serious threat to Cameron’s life. Or so Keller had said. But, even Kendall had warned him of danger. Maybe these scraps of cloth would hold some answers.
Dawn came, the miners went to work, and Cameron went to his room.
“Mr. Polatti,” the old, shaky voice on the phone rattled, “What’s this I hear about one of your ‘workers’ trying to interfere with the project?”
“It’s not a problem, Lord Shaldor. The worker has been eliminated.” Polatti sat in front of the videophone, his face impassive, though he was seething with emotion. How did the Prince of the Wallingor Nebula always know when things went wrong on Albitus? No transmissions were ever sent out, he’d checked that out himself! Yet he sat again before the video screen, facing the belittling comments from the supreme commander of the galaxy. Again!
“Oh, but it IS, Marco. It is. How many people on that tiny moon are possible threats to the project?” The old man on the screen went into a coughing spell. Marco was totally repulsed by the sickly old man, but the nobleman’s rank was well above his own and he knew to offend the prince was tantamount to putting a repulsor gun to his own head and vaporizing it.
“You see, my dear Marco, Baylor may just be the one to show us how to handle our little… problem. He’s the best I’ve seen yet, and I think he can even give you a run for your money.” Polatti winced, a sight not unnoticed by the prince. Shaldor smiled contentedly to himself at Polatti’s reaction. “Just see to it that nothing, and I mean NOTHING gets in the way again!” The prince’s face hardened, and his voice was full of venom. “I’m sure Baylor can handle anything else like this, but he’s only a man. Even he can fall to a mistake. If anything does happen to him, I’ll have you strapped to my “surgical table” and I’ll make good on my promises to you if you fail. The only fate I want him to die from is the project itself! Do I make myself clear?” Polatti’s face was ashen.
“Crystal, my lord!”
Prince Shaldor’s “surgical table” was known throughout the galaxy. Shaldor had learned arts of torture that were gleaned from many different alien races, as well as the ancient Chinese and other ancient forms of torture. A more ignominious death for a warrior was not to be found.
“Good. I’m glad we’ve had this chat. Have a nice day, Marco.” With that, the screen went black, leaving a livid, Polatti staring at the blackness of the screen, eyes filled with murderous rage.
After working out for an hour, Cameron showered, ate breakfast, and went to his room. Kendall was nowhere to be seen, which Cameron pretty much expected. He went to his room, stripped down to his briefs, throwing the clothes in a haphazard pile next to the bed, and lay down. The lights dimmed themselves, and Cameron waited a few minutes. He seemed to be lying quietly, waiting for sleep to overtake him. He actually was looking at the ceiling and walls, scanning for any sign of monitoring devices. He was rewarded as the lights dimmed enough to show a slight discoloration in the wall. An obvious false wall that allowed a camera or observer to view the person inside the room, much like a one-way mirror. Cameron casually scanned the rest of the room, but found no other evidence of a camera. Commanding the lights to dim to complete blackness, Cameron peeked at the area of the camera through apparently closed eyelids. When the darkness was complete, he reached into the pile of clothes at the bedside, and grabbed his pants. His hands groped the cargo pockets until he found what he was looking for. He silently knelt up in bed, and stretched the piece of opaque plastic over the area hiding the camera, pushing the tacky backed patch firmly onto the site. Satisfied, he turned on the light, and pulled out the artifacts he had found in the mines.
The two pieces of cloth were from a uniform much like Cameron’s. He grunted as he examined the dark patches. They were crusty, brown spots. Blood! Cameron picked up the other piece of cloth and caught his breath. The cloth had been crumpled, but when he had opened it fully, the patch showed Cameron the first hint of what Albitus was about. He stared at the patch for a long time… stared at the name stitched there… the name was Mattock! Carlo “Bulldog” Mattock!!
“So’s you’re lookin’ to know more about the mining operation, huh?” The foreman grinned his toothless grin, visible through the clear plastic mask he wore to protect his lungs from the dry air of Albitus.
“Not really the mining operation, but of the mines themselves,” Cameron said impassively. The foreman’s smile vanished.
“Whaddya wantin’ to know? We mine the lithium trihalene ore, and send it out for processin’. What’s to know?” The foreman looked like an cornered animal.
“Well, for one thing, what could kill a soldier considered to be among the best of the best, and leave almost no clue as to his disappearance?” Cameron asked as casually as if he had been asking about the weather.
“I don’t know what yer talkin’ about, boy! I think…”
“You’re a liar!” Cameron barked at the foreman, getting in his face, their masks almost touching. The miners stopped working at the unexpected shouting, and looked on. The foreman bit his lower lip, looked around him briefly, and busted out in gales of laughter. The miners, totally confused, went back to work, figuring that the foreman was being told some sort of a joke or something. After a few moments, the foreman looked Cameron square in the eye.
“Ya’ know, if you’d have been anybody else, I’d a busted you in half. But there’s something about you. Something I like. Anybody else would be spendin’ six months in the infirmary for doin’ what ya just did! But I can’t bust ya’ up when I knows ya ain’t wrong! Yeah, I’m lyin’, but I can’t talk ‘bout it neither. I’ve got a family, and kids here. But I’ll tell ya’ what, kid. Ya’ better be stockin’ up on yer prayers, ’ cause yer in it deep.” Sorrow was more than obviously etched on the features of the foreman. That unnerved Cameron worse than facing the prospect of having to fight this monster of a man. “Watch yerself, kid. That’s all I can say. Now let me get back to work.” With that he turned back to the crews to supervise them.
Brian Kendall walked into the administrator’s office, nearly walking into a miner that stepped out in a hurry, oblivious to the lieutenant. Kendall watched the small man walk by, noting the scar that cut across his right cheek, over the bridge of his nose, and ending halfway up his forehead. Kendall was curious as to what such a person would be doing here. “Come on in and please shut the door behind you, Lieutenant,” Polatti’s voice ordered. Kendall obeyed immediately.
“We seem to have a problem, Lieutenant.” Kendall hated those words. They always spelled trouble.
“It seems our new sentry is getting too close to discovering “the project”. The miner you about ran over just told me Sgt. Baylor has been asking questions.”
“What kind of questions, sir?” Kendall asked uneasily.
“It seems Baylor is aware that the last sentry “retired” in a way fitting for one of his station. How could he know that, Lieutenant?” Polatti asked, staring almost through Kendall.
“I… I… uh, don’t have any idea, sir,” Kendall stammered.
“Well find out, Lieutenant, or you’ll join Baylor on sentry duty tonight.” Polatti’s eyes were fixed on Kendall, the jet-black orbs seemingly made of stone, which matched the heart of the man they belonged to. The blood drained from Kendall’s face.
“I’ll find out right away, sir!”
“Do that, Lieutenant. I expect to hear from you within two hours. Good day.” Polatti looked at some of the papers on his desk, not paying any mind to the young officer that quick saluted and turned on his heel to march swiftly out of his office.
Cameron was back in the library, trying to find as much information on Albitus Prime as he could. None of what he found was helpful. Population, the mining for lithium trihalene ore, quiet arid moon, and so on. Nothing about any kind of history that was worth noting. Any time he tried to access about history, the information offered was less than is normally given, and seemed to give him the run-around. Then he typed in a search for the science center on Albitus. “Restricted Access” flashed on the screen. He knew the research was of a military nature… Polatti gave him that much. But what could be so important? Cameron knew the answer would be the answer to many other questions as well. And, he thought, would probably help him survive whatever ordeal was waiting for him.
Cameron happened to look up from the computer screen in thought, and happened to notice the librarian suddenly turn her head to look in a different direction as if she’d been caught at something. At first he thought maybe she was interested in him, but then realized she was acting a little too nervous. He stood up, stretched and casually walked to her desk.
“Hi. I was wondering if you could help me with something,” he asked smoothly.
“S-Sure,” she stammered. “What do you need?”
“Well, I’ve been looking for some history of Albitus Prime, and can’t seem to find anything useful. Can you help direct me?” He smiled, that seldom done action looking odd on his stern face.
“Everything we have is on the discs you requested, sir,” she said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Oh.” He looked disappointed, like a child that couldn’t get a cookie when he wanted one. “I had a friend here once, a sentry like myself, that told me some of the stuff that had happened here in the past,… you know… history of the Caltaran rebels, the danger in the mines…” Cameron said this as nonchalant as if he were talking about the weather on Earth. The librarian paled. Cameron did not fail to note this.
“I-I-I’m very sorry, sir. But like I said… everything we have is on those discs.” Cameron thought she’d crawl in a corner and hide if she could.
“Thanks, ma’am. You’ve been very helpful.” Cameron went back to the desk, rounded up the discs, and returned them to her.
“Thank you, again!” he said cheerily as he walked out the front door of the library.
But as he turned the corner, he stopped and waited a moment. Then he cautiously stole a peak through the glass door of the library. The librarian’s back was toward him, and he could see the videophone screen clearly, and the face of Marco Polatti on the screen. Satisfied, he walked back to his room to pack for the night duty.
Brian Kendall ran down the hall, looking for the man he’d almost bumped into a scant few minutes before. He knew the administrator was serious about his threat. Knew he had to find something, ANYTHING for the hard cold-blooded man that ran the operations here on Albitus. But where would he find this man? Looking at his watch, he almost laughed at the obvious. It was time for supper! The man would most likely be in the mess hall!
Kendall swiftly walked to the dining area, fearing that he wouldn’t find him, fearing the fate that would be his if… wait! There he was, in the line. The scar was easily seen even across the room. The man kept to himself, looking at the floor. Just waiting to get his food. Kendall stood in line, waiting to get his meal. Waiting to get a chance to join this solitary man at his table. The fate that could be his would be altered if all went as he had hoped.
Cameron went to his post early, checking to make sure each man had come in from the mines safely. It was dusk and all names were checked on the list except for two: Silas Renquist and Ranford Harris. Ranford Harris, Cameron knew, was the foreman’s name, and his not being here for check in wasn’t unusual. He’d been told the foreman frequently had meetings with Polatti, or with supply, or even the science pod. So, often he would not be in the mines during check in. But the other, this
Silas Renquist. Cameron didn’t know many people, yet, so didn’t know who Silas was. He looked at the log entries. No, Silas never called in sick that day, and his name WAS on the check in list for the morning.
“Base, this is Alpha 1.”
“Alpha 1, this is Base.”
“Base, two miners didn’t check back in. One is Ranford Harris…”
“No problem there, Alpha 1. He usually doesn’t check in at least 3 times a week,” the base station replied.
“The other is Silas Renquist,” Cameron continued, ignoring the fact that the base operator had interrupted him.
“Roger, Alpha 1. Stand by.” Cameron stood patiently. After ten minutes, the base station called back.
“Alpha 1, Silas Renquist has been located. He was in his room.”
“Roger, Base. Tell him he needs to check in properly next time.”
“Uh, negative on that Alpha 1. Silas Renquist is dead. Apparent suicide.” Cameron winced. He knew that the desperation of those on such a planet as this were often driven to such an end, but killing ones self always seemed like the ultimate act of hopelessness… a permanent end to a temporary problem. Except in the case of giving one’s life to protect another. That was acceptable.
“How?” Cameron asked.
“Poison, Alpha 1.”
“Roger. Thanks, Base. Alpha 1 out.” Cameron was a little disgusted. What an unmanly way to go! Cameron snorted in derision.
Then a sound came to him. A sound from the mines. He froze, senses sharpened, listening for the source of the noise. There it was again! A low rumbling moan, coming from the right side of the main shaft!
“Base, this is Alpha 1.”
“Alpha 1, go ahead!”
“Base, there’s a noise coming from the mines. I’m going to investigate.”
“Roger, Alpha 1.”
Cameron put his plasma rifle on the vaporize setting, knowing that whatever may have killed Mattock was not to be trifled with. The gun hummed as energy was being generated. Cameron took a few silent steps toward the caves. He turned to look quickly behind him as the louder sound of the force field turned on, preventing him from entering the safety of the base. Cameron was on edge, now. The groaning sound emanated from the mines a second time. Cameron turned on the flashlight that he had fixed to the top of the plasma rifle, and aimed it into the main shaft. The sound again!! Cameron trained the weapon toward the source of the noise. A large bulk was lying on the floor, wiggling around like a giant worm. Cameron immediately dropped on his knees next to the supine form. Cameron pulled his knife out of the hiding place within his right boot, and cut the ropes that bound the hands and feet of Ranford Harris. Cameron noticed the wild gaze of the foreman as he removed the gag from the inside of his facemask.
“Get outta here! Run! We may still make it back safe!” Ranford was frantic. To see this big man so afraid only confirmed his suspicions that the mines held a very deadly secret in them.
“We can’t,” Cameron told him. “The force field’s on.” All color drained from Harris’ face.
“We’re screwed, then Bud! Let’s at least die in the open! I don’t want ta die in these mines.” The big man slowly stood up, his muscles trembling from being bound in the hog-tied position for so long. He stumbled a little, and let Cameron help him out of the cave, and toward the gate. The hum from the field was very loud in the overall still quiet of the night. Cameron looked over his shoulder frequently, expecting to see some kind of pursuit. Nothing. They reached the area before the gate, the force field preventing them from going any farther.
“Base, this is Alpha 1. I found Ranford Harris. He was in the mines. Can you let the force field down so I can get him inside?”
“Base, this is Alpha 1!”
“Ahhhh, it ain’t no use, bud. We’ve been slated to die, that’s all there is to it,” Harris said. “They ain’t gonna answer. It’s ALWAYS like that when they sacrifice one of us.” Cameron turned to look the foreman in the eye.
“Yeah… this is a penal planet, if ya’ haven’t figgered that out yet. This is the usual end to those who can’t live by the rules. And I broke the rules talking with ya’ like I did.”
“It’s also the usual method of “retirement” for the sentries, too, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so, bud. I’m afraid so.” The foreman sighed heavily.
“So how do they kill us?” Cameron asked.
“THEY don’t. THEY let the creature in the shafts do it. Ugly way to die.” Harris shuddered.
“Then we’ll have to kill it,” Cameron replied. The foreman laughed hard.
“Ain’t nobody figgered out how to do that yet, bud!” Many have tried, none have succeeded. Can’t even hurt the thing.” Cameron aimed at the mines and discharged his plasma rifle. The full charge hit the rock, but the unique properties of the lithium trihalene in the rock simply diffused the energy, branching through the rock like a network of veins of blue.
“Can’t touch trihalene with that. It only absorbs it,” the foreman said. Cameron cursed at himself. He KNEW that. After all, most armor was made from this ore so that most weapons would be useless against anyone wearing that type of armor. He aimed at the ground, which looked more like it was composed of sand. He discharged the weapon again, ripping a huge trench in the ground between him and the cave. He blasted it again, widening the trench to about six feet in width, and one foot deep. He blasted again, trying to make it deeper. Only a few more inches disappeared, the underlying ground veining blue. The foreman snorted in disgust.
“That figgers! I thought ya’ was onto somethin’ fer a moment.” Then, a noise issued from the caves. Both men froze. The sound was a scraping, shuffling sound. The foreman’s face was ghost white, and Cameron thought the man would pass out any moment. Cameron aimed the plasma rifle into the cave. The hum from the rifle was steady in pitch, indicating full charge. A few more seconds, and the two men could see a figure looming in the shadows.
Then the head came out into the open. It was big, and bulbous. The skin was black, and seemed to form plates on its head. It looked to Cameron like some kind of giant insect. The two huge orbs that the creature used to see with were at least three feet in diameter each, giving the creature the appearance of a giant preying mantis. Cameron immediately pulled the trigger and shot the plasma rifle full into the misshapen head of the monster. Blue veins of energy swarmed all over the skin of the creature’s head, then vanished.
“It’s composed of trihalene ore!” Cameron exclaimed. The behemoth lumbered out into the open. Its body was long like a worm’s, but plated with armor. And it had small legs that moved underneath, propelling it forward in an undulating motion. Its eyes were focused on Cameron, who pulled out a simple hand grenade from his belt. Cameron quickly pulled the pin, and threw it just in front of the creature. As it ambled over the grenade, the bomb went off, and the monster bellowed in several high pitched noises simultaneously.
“You can hurt it!” Harris yelled wildly, frantic hope burning in his eyes. “Ya’ got any more of those?” Cameron quickly tossed one of the last two he had brought to the foreman. Harris caught it and ran at the beast, pulling the pin out. He screamed obscenities at the creature, and ran toward its left side.
“No!” Cameron screamed. “Get back!” Too late, the foreman realized the folly of his actions. The creature heard the man running toward him. Faster than one could blink, a plate on the side of the creature, about three feet from its head, opened and a small appendage darted out and struck the foreman square in the chest. His eyes wide with surprise, the foreman managed to throw his grenade at the creature, hitting the small opening where the appendage came out. The blast made the creature scream, dropping Harris’ limp body.
It reared up, showing its underbelly. Cameron saw that the beast had smaller plates on its underside, and noted that a small wound had appeared where Cameron’s first grenade had gone off. But, to Cameron’s dismay, he only had one grenade left, and the creature seemed more angry than wounded. So while the monster was rearing up again, Cameron did the only thing he knew to do. He ran.
Darting past the monster, he ran into the cave and ran about fifteen feet into the blackness. The monster had moved most of its forty foot bulk into the lighted opening and was turning around to find the human that had caused it pain. Cameron ran behind the creature’s back end, and followed it back outside, hiding from the creature’s head. The creature ambled back toward the entrance to the mines, sure it had cornered its prey in its lair.
Cameron threw himself into the trench he’s made with the plasma rifle earlier, keeping himself against the side closest to the mines. The creature ambled back in. Cameron was breathing furiously, sweat pouring from every part of his body. He peered cautiously over the edge, and was relieved to see the creature still entering the cave. Looking down, Cameron switched a few switches, turned a couple of knobs, and knelt up in the trench. The plasma rifle started to make an ever-increasing whine.
“Hey! Ugly! Over here!” Cameron screamed. The giant insect-like creature stopped, turned its head to look behind it, then screamed in rage. Cameron was stunned at the speed the beast turned and came back at him. Now the creature had two appendages out and waving menacingly. Cameron threw his weapon on the ground in front of it, and threw himself into the trench, covering his head.
The plasma rifle screamed at a high pitch for a few more seconds, and then exploded. The creature had passed right over it, and the rifle, set on overload, ripped into the flesh of the creature. The detonation was a small nuclear blast, the force of which was caught between the beast and the ground. The force launched the creature twenty feet into the air, and into the rock face over the mines. It thumped back onto the ground with earthshaking force. The energy released from the blast rolled outward, caving in the mine opening. The wave of energy expanded outward, passing right over the trench and hitting the force field. The energy surge required to sustain the field against such a blast was too great for the energy cells of the complex to produce, and the force field faltered just as the blast had ended.
Cameron waited for the small nuclear blast to calm down, then saw the complex was in darkness. The creature was writhing in agony, uttering a series of high-pitched sounds. Cameron ran toward the complex, just as the energy cells came back on line, raising the force field once again. The complex was lighting up, as everyone woke up from the near devastation wreaked on them by the blast.
Cameron looked back one more time before entering the complex, to see the beast slamming into the force field trying to destroy the humans that lived there. Amazed at the incredible stamina of the monster, Cameron shook his head, and entered the building… in an entrance he’d never used before…
Marco Polatti watched in astonishment as the creature reared back in pain when Cameron threw the first grenade at it.
“Marvelous!” he exclaimed. “A simple grenade can harm it! And we’ve tried everything else!” Kendall looked on with amazement at the spectacle on the monitor. Marco Polatti turned to the computer on his left, pushed a few numbers on the keypad, and waited. A man in his sixties was soon filling the screen.
“Yes, Marco?” Bon Tarlo, senior scientist of the complex answered.
“Are you watching what’s happening by the mines?” he asked. He looked at the screen beside him for a second, just in time to see Harris getting stabbed.
“No, Marco. I was going to watch the tapes in the morning. I’ve seen enough people sacrificed on the altar of “scientific research” to suit me…”
“But THIS time, the sentry HURT the beast!” Marco interrupted.
“What!?” The older man turned to switch on the monitor next to him. Both men watched their monitors in silence. They watched Cameron run into the mines. Polatti was studying the screen with an interest beyond just fascination. He was studying the condemned man like an animal studies its nemesis. His eyes narrowed when Cameron dove back into the trench and then opened wide in surprise when he threw the weapon at the monster.
Then the blast knocked out all the power in the complex.
“Get the auxiliary power on line and GET THE FORCE FIELD BACK UP NOW!!!!” Polatti screamed. Kendall frantically was pushing buttons trying to kick on the standby generators. The entire complex was in shadow.
“Kendall!!!” Polatti screamed.
“I’m trying!” Kendall screamed back. Polatti felt his way to Kendall’s side and pushed him. Kendall fell unceremoniously over a chair and crashed on the floor. Polatti felt the panel, pushed a sequence of buttons, and was rewarded with a flashing of lights on the console, and the monitor to the outside turned on. The lights at the gate flicked on, and Marco was stunned at what he saw.
The beast reared up and slammed its bulk against the newly restored force field. The creature still lived! But, for the first time that anyone at the complex knew, it was definitely injured. Black ichor oozed from a huge rift in its belly. Polatti looked for Cameron, but couldn’t see any sign of him. Then again, the blast completely obliterated any sign of the foreman’s body, so Cameron’s absence was not remarkable. Still…
“So you screwed this one up, didn’t you?” Lord Shaldor accused Polatti in his shaky, old voice.
“No, your Eminence,” Polatti said to the visage on his screen. “For the first time EVER, we have found a way to harm the creature! That’s what this is about! Right?” Marco was upset for having called him… for having accused him… for having known anything at all about what was going on. How did he know?
“There is also the matter of security, Marco,” the old man droned. “You can NOT leave any sign of the sentry to be found. This man is apparently all we hoped for, but that makes him dangerous… especially to you. I watched the whole affair, and happened to see that no body was found.”
“It was probably vaporized, your Eminence. It was a nuclear blast…”
“Look at this, Marco. Look at this and be dismayed.” The visage of the old man faded out to be replaced by a camera view that was different from his own. A camera view that didn’t go out with the power. In fact, it even had night vision capability. Marco watched as Cameron climbed out of the trench and ran into the protection of the grounds just as the force field kicked back on. He also watched Cameron enter in through one of the access doors into the kitchen. The scene faded, and the old man was back on screen.
“So you see, my dear Marco, that you may be in for a time of it. Pity… I wanted to be the one to ultimately finish you…” The old man’s face was twisted into a crude semblance of a grin. Then the screen faded out.
Marco spun to vent his anger on Kendall, but the young lieutenant was nowhere in sight. Just a trail of blood drops that lead out of the room. Anger filling him until his face was beet red and his legs shook with adrenaline, Marco Polatti left the room and ran toward the mess hall, his laser blaster in hand.
Marco noiselessly entered the mess hall through an entrance known only to him and maybe two others. He listened carefully, his every sense alert for signs of Cameron’s presence. His veins filled with adrenaline, Marco Polatti was almost giddy with the feel of “the hunt”. “It’s been too many years,” he thought to himself. He sniffed the air, straining to detect the faint smell of sweat that still lingered in the air. His eyes, those solid black orbs, looked around the darkest corners of the room, able to see the minutest detail as if the room was fully lit.
He looked at every possible hiding place, but realized after a few moments that Cameron was not in the area. Where then? He roamed the room, sniffing the air and finding the door his quarry had taken out. A small smile spread across Marco’s face. The hunt was on!
Cameron ducked out of sight of anyone that may have seen him. Being seen now would certainly mean his death. So many things didn’t make sense. His mind reeled with the happenings of the past few days. One thing he was certain of, though. Marco Polatti was behind all of it.
It really didn’t matter at this point. What mattered was getting to Polatti before he got to him. He wasn’t so foolish to assume that his escape from the monster would be unnoticed, or unpunished. He ran through the halls until he reached the engineering room. Looking around to make sure he wasn’t seen. Then he opened the door and quickly ducked inside. Once inside, he braced a chair against the door after locking it, just to make sure any pursuit would be hindered.
He walked to the far side of the room, to the air intake. The intake was gigantic, the duct entering its side. After a few adjustments on his laser gun’s controller, he aimed at the huge metal duct and fired a thin, red beam of light. He carefully cut three sides of a square, three feet each side, and pushed the metal inward. Putting his weapon back in its holster, he climbed through the hole, and pushed the metal back down, to seal the duct as much as was possible. The air pulled Cameron a little, toward the intake itself. He bent against the pull and crawled to the first vertical portion of the duct system. He braced his feet and hands against the sides, and worked his way slowly upward, the constant pull of the intake making his muscles work that much harder. The climb was slow, but still he pushed inexorably upward.
After several minutes, he reached the part of the intake that ran through the ceilings of the complex. Tired from his climb, Cameron rested a few moments, carefully listening for any sounds of discovery of what he had done.
Marco was following the faint traces of Cameron’s scent, satisfied that this would be only too easy. He was moving silently along the hall from the chow hall toward the main barracks. The scent was getting stronger, which meant that Marco was gaining on his prey. Smiling, he walked a little quicker, to gain on his foe.
Then a door burst open just in front of him, and two bodies flew out, panic written all over their feces. When they saw the administrator, they rushed over to him, fear exuding from their bodies as tangible to Marco as if they were sweating fear out of every pore.
“The power!” one of them screamed. “What’s happened?! Did IT get inside?” one of the men screamed.
“We felt the earth rumble… did it get inside?” the other shrieked. Marco seethed inside as these two were panicking, but knew that the only way to deal with them was to remain calm.
“It’s fine,” he assured them. “The beast is not in the complex, I assure you…”
“Then why do you have your gun out?” the first one interrupted him. “It IS in here, isn’t it?” The second man wailed. They ran down the hall screaming. Marco, sighed and aimed his laser. Two quick pulls of the trigger vaporized both men. But not before Cameron’s scent was effectively masked by their fear. Marco cursed his luck, and continued on down the hall, walking past the engineering section towards the barracks.
Marco started back to his office. Cameron’s room was unoccupied. After losing the scent of his quarry, he figured that Cameron had fled back to his room to look for some way of defending himself. No sign of him. Marco cursed sulphurously, and tried to think of where Cameron may have gone. After a moment, he smiled an evil smile. If HE had been Cameron, where would HE have gone? To exact vengeance on the person responsible for setting him up. Marco laughed aloud.
Marco Polatti opened a secret panel that opened into his office. The door slid noiselessly to one side, revealing a tapestry. He sniffed the air and listened for any sound that would betray an attacker. He was disappointed. No scent, no noise. He skirted out from behind the tapestry, pushed a button hidden in the panel of the wall next to the door, and the door slid noiselessly closed. Marco sat at his desk, and patiently waited for his prey to come to him. Then he turned on a video recorder to record his greatest battle.
He set his laser on the desk, and folded his hands in front of him. ‘This will be almost fun,’ he thought to himself. ‘Fun and dangerous.’ Marco was no fool. He knew Cameron was to be respected. The fencing match, the manner he avoided assassination, the way he beat the creature. Yes, Cameron Baylor was to be respected, and never underestimated. He looked at the laser pistol on the desk. No doubt the young soldier would think it to far to grab and use. But Marco practiced that maneuver many hundreds of times, ever since the day he killed the last administrator on Albitus. That fool did the same thing, but he wasn’t nearly so fast as Marco. Polatti laughed to himself as he remembered that night. He laughed until a piercing red beam blew his laser apart in his face.
Cameron had waited in the intake for the past half-hour. He knew eventually that Polatti had to come back here. He almost gave away his position when the tapestry opened and Marco came out. He knew that the administrator’s senses, though keen, would not be able to pick up his scent with the intake continually sucking it away.
Cameron sat there for a few minutes, trying to figure out if Polatti had some method of harming him other than the laser pistol on the desk. After several more moments, he decided he had to face the man, but on his terms, not the administrator’s. He took careful aim, and fired through the holes of the intake. The laser exploded, sending shrapnel flying all over the room. Cameron took that moment to crash through the grill of the intake, landing on the floor like a cat. Polatti quickly shielded his face, and rolled out of the chair to face Cameron. The two men looked at each other, eyes locked. Polatti smiled his evil little smile and launched himself at Cameron. Surprised at the swiftness of Polatti’s actions, Cameron had time to get off one quick blast of his laser. But the shot missed, blowing a hole in the wall one-foot in diameter.
Then Polatti slammed into Cameron, knocking the laser blaster across the room to slide into the door of the room. Polatti caught Cameron by the throat with his left hand and slammed his right fist into Cameron’s groin. But Cameron had worn extra body armor. Polatti grunted in pain as he hit the protected area. His grip on Cameron’s neck loosened almost as soon as it had grabbed.
Cameron took the hit, and rolled with it instead of fighting against it. Polatti’s grip was like steel, and Cameron realized he was about to die. Then the grip loosened as soon it had started, and Cameron brought his left hand up and under his foe and grabbed his shirt. He rolled backward, allowing the momentum to work for him, and pushed very hard as he rolled back. Polatti was propelled into the air to slam into the wall.
Both men came up, chests heaving. They glared at each other. Cameron was surprised at the older man’s speed and strength, but knew Polatti was in superb shape. His senses were piqued. Polatti was surprised by Cameron’s ability to react so swiftly. Both men shared a newfound respect for the other.
“You are to be commended for injuring the creature, Sgt. Baylor. No one has done that. Not even me.” There was a mixture of respect, envy, and bitterness in his voice.
“Why did you do this?” Cameron asked, not letting his guard down for even an instant.
“To find a way to hurt the creature was to find a way to control it. Once controllable, it would be…”
“The ultimate weapon!” Cameron finished. Polatti smiled.
“You catch on quickly, Sgt. Baylor,” Polatti remarked, then jumped toward Cameron. Cameron quickly rolled out of the way, then realized that was what Polatti had hoped for. Polatti landed on his desk, rolled over, and landed on the far side of it. He swiftly reached into a drawer and pulled out a Thalerian dagger, its three double-edged blades gleaming.
Cameron was already moving toward Polatti, but ducked as the cruel weapon was hurled at him. The blade just missed his sleeve, which was fortunate since the first thing the dagger hits causes it to spin back on the object it strikes, driving one of the other blades into it with a force that belies the force with which it was hurled. It struck the wall and immediately embedded itself into it, the third blade sticking out from the wall.
Marco, immediately after throwing the dagger, made a run for the door, to where the laser lie. Cameron had reached the desk, and grabbed at the only thing on the desk that looked promising … Polatti’s letter opener. Cameron grabbed the heavy metal blade and threw it at Polatti’s back. The blade sunk deeply into the man’s back, knocking him to the floor.
Still, Polatti reached for the weapon, intent on killing his enemy. Just before his hand closed on the weapon, the door opened, and a booted foot stepped on his hand, breaking some of Polatti’s fingers. The administrator looked up, pain screaming through his hand, yet no sound issued from his mouth. His eyes opened in shocked recognition, just as the newcomer blasted Polatti with his laser gun.
“Excellent show, Sgt. Baylor. Or should I say Cameron.” Lieutenant Brian Kendall stood over the body of Marco Polatti, a wild look in his eyes.
“Thanks, Brian,” Cameron said, uneasy.
“He really was very good, you know,” Kendall said, looking at the fallen man. “A real bastard, but a good man. Faithful to his duty. It’s almost a shame.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?” Cameron asked, still very uneasy at the uncharacteristic behavior of the young lieutenant.
“It was easy, Cameron. Where else would you go? I saw you sneak back in at the kitchen door. Only an idiot wouldn’t try to kill that which would kill him first.” Cameron noted that Kendall still held the laser weapon at the ready.
“Why don’t you put the weapon down, Sir?” Cameron asked. “Because I’m not through with it yet, Cameron. Unfortunately, you were even better than Polatti. And for that you must die.” Kendall smiled wildly.
“Before I die, then, may I ask one question?” Cameron asked.
“Sure. I’ll grant you last request,” Kendall replied.
“Why? I mean why kill your best soldiers off like this? There must have been a better way…”
“Because, my dear Cameron, the Federation can’t have such heroes as yourself running around. The common people look up to those such as yourself, and get delusions of freedom from the Federation. And such a leader as you or any of the others posted here as sentry could actually raise such a resistance. Polatti thought we used you to find a way to control the creature, which indeed was an alternate reason.”
“Then how come you didn’t kill Polatti sooner?” Cameron asked, trying to buy time. His mind was furiously trying to find a way out of this predicament.
“As I said, he was a good man. And faithful. He just outlived his usefulness. He only became administrator after killing the last one off. Just like you just did. The only difference is, Marco never knew I was also Kendall. So I am going to give you a choice, Cameron. You can be the next administrator, or you can die. Which will it be?”
“No disrespect intended, Sir, but who are you to offer me this. You were under Polatti’s command and…” Cameron trailed off at the odd chuckling coming from Kendall. Then Cameron’s mouth dropped open as the chuckling dropped in tone, to a dry cackling laugh. Kendall’s face was sagging, wrinkles rapidly forming, and the hair turning a frost white. Cameron stood aghast at the change. “Lord Shaldor?” The old man cackled his dry laugh.
“Yes, Cameron, it is true. I am a shape-shifter, content on acting my role out as the sniveling lieutenant. It allowed me to watch my pet project closely. It was a shame to let Polatti die, but he outlived his usefulness, especially after striking me. So what will it be, boy? Do you want the job as Administrator, or shall I exterminate you at my leisure. Be aware, though, that taking the job as Administrator is life-long with no possibility of leaving. So what will it be?”
Cameron thought long and hard about what he would do. On one hand, he’d die, and all would stay as it was. On the other, he’d live, but all would STILL stay as it was.Then, he knew what he must do.