An explosion in the distance sent violent shockwaves across the field that knocked Ana and Frederick to the ground. By the time Ana got back to her feet the riders had already remounted and were charging in the direction of a massive wall of flame on the horizon. Their recently freed brethren scattered, running away from the explosion and the previously camouflaged craft. Whatever technology had hidden it from view had apparently been affected by the explosion, and now its segmented cylindrical form flickered into existence, reminding Ana of a sleek silver train.
Frederick stood up beside her. “What in the hell was that?”
Ana pointed toward the distant wall of flame. “Judging by that, it was an extremely large explosion.”
Frederick grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to his side leveling his gun at one of the humanoids ambling toward him. “Looks like we’ve got company coming out of the train.” The creature’s eyes seemed unfocused, glazed over. Its left arm hung limply at its side, thick crimson blood soaking through the dusty jumpsuit. He fell to the ground face first a few feet in front of them.
Ana knelt beside him. She rolled him onto his back and felt his neck. “Seems to be dead.”
Her father nodded and pointed toward the train. “Here come his friends.”
Three more of the creatures stepped out of the opening on the side of the train. “I think you can put the gun away.” Ana said.
The others had the same glazed over look in their eyes. Not one of them made eye contact with Ana or Frederick as they walked to the body of their fallen comrade, lifted him off the ground and carried him back into the train.
“Maybe we should follow them.” Frederick said.
Ana looked back at the flames. They were less intense before, but still very visible in the evening light. “Do you think that thing is heading back toward the explosion?”
“And that doesn’t worry you?” Ana asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe a little, but these guys don’t even seem to notice we’re here, and this thing might be our best chance of finding our people.” He glanced back behind them. “Or a way to get off this planet.”
She hefted her backpack over her shoulder. “You’re probably right, and my curiosity has gotten the better of me.” She started walking toward the train. “I really want to know what that explosion was all about.”
Frederick laughed. “That’s my girl.”
Before they entered the door of the train, her father touched her arm, pointing toward the sea. “Looks like this thing might be gathering water.”
Ana watched as several of the ambling creatures pulled large black hoses out of the water. When the ends of the hoses were free of the sea, they pulled on the them in the opposite direction. The hoses slipped from their hands and retracted into receptacles in the side of the train. “That might come in handy considering where we’re headed.”
Frederick stepped in front of her, the gun still in his hand. He peeked inside the train and then waved her in.
The interior was dim and smelled a little musty. She wasn’t sure if it was coming from the large storage tanks running down the center of the train or the expressionless jump-suited creatures sitting on long benches up and down the sides.
Frederick tentatively touched one of the tanks with the heel of his hand. “Cool to the touch.”
“Do you think they’re holding tanks for the water?”
Frederick nodded. “Most likely.”
“I wonder why they don’t just pipe the water to where they need it?”
“Maybe the distance makes it cost prohibitive.” He looked up and down the train. “Maybe this thing is more efficient and gets it there quicker.”
Ana leaned over the nearest creature, studying the black band around his neck. There was no obvious means for removing it. “And I’m guessing the labor is free.”
“And well controlled.” Frederick agreed.
Ana took her gun from her pack. When her father noticed she said, “I don’t think I like the way these guys treat their workforce...plus, it never hurts to be prepared.”
“I’m with you, but let’s do our best to keep a low profile and learn as much as we can before picking a side.”
Ana nodded, but she had already made up her mind. Whoever had enslaved these creatures was not getting the benefit of the doubt from her. She was fairly certain by the look her father gave her that he knew that as well.
A shrill tone vibrated through the inside of the train. Frederick grabbed onto one of the support struts holding the tanks and held out his other hand to Ana. “I think we’re about to get underway.”
She tucked the gun into her waistband and took his hand just before the train lurched forward. Frederick held her hand tightly, but she was still propelled backward. She slammed into the side of the tank, dropping her pack to the floor. It raced toward the back of the train and slid under one of the tanks, disappearing from view. “Dammit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Most of the important stuff is in mine...and we might be able to retrieve it before we get off.”
She nodded. “How fast do you think this damn thing is going?”
He gestured toward the translucent door with a nod. “Pretty damn fast judging by the scenery out there.”
The forms she saw race past the door were blurred and featureless. Dark rocky plateaus, a sandy streak of color she imagined was grass, and a cloudless midnight sky. She looked to the figure sitting across from her. He stared straight through her, leaning slightly. She noticed for the first time that he was buckled in with a lap belt of some kind. All of them had the same blank expression. There were at least fifty of them by her estimation. She didn’t see any sign of the dead one.
Several times the interior of the train went almost completely dark. On the third instance, Ana realized they had been going in and out of tunnels. When the train changed course, arcing gently to the left, she saw that the train was passing straight through narrow openings in the rocky plateaus that seemed prevalent on this planet.
Just before they entered another tunnel, Ana thought she caught a brief glimpse of more of the strange riders.
She was about to comment on the sighting to her father when a stabbing pain pierced her skull. She instinctively put her hands to her temples and fell to her knees. Frederick lost his grip on her hand, but managed to grab hold of her shirt sleeve. She could hear him frantically calling her name, but was unable to respond.
The pain came in relentless waves until she thought she would black out. There was a voice...a presence in her head...and it was frantic...desperate for help.
Distress...power station alpha breached...distress...reactor failure imminent...emergency shutdown protocols initiated. Control chamber breached...security detail holding inner wall, severely outnumbered...calculating....one hundred to one ratio...request immediate assistance...
Ana pressed her hands to her head and screamed as loud as she could. The pain subsided, her ears popped, and the presence in her head seemed to recognize her. She was aware of a feeling of relief...still distressed, but hopeful. Ana reached out with her mind still pushing down the last waves of pain biting at her synapses. “Who is this? This is Anastasie Eloise Bertrand, Sixth of Seven.”
The presence spoke directly to her this time. Signature recognition incomplete. Identify, Protector. Your authority protocols are not located in my data. Sixth of Seven Crylla, Glaxenes, Vrillanova, Rierden, Bethel, Jupiter—
“Jupiter!” Ana shouted aloud.
Her father said something again, but she still couldn’t make out his words. She focused on the voice in her head.
Affirmative, Ona, Ambriel, Mission Commander Colony Terra. Mission status failed. There was a brief pause. Ana felt the presence leave and then return. Protocols suggest initiation of override Innova. Would you like to proceed, Commander Ona?
“What? Who is Ona, and what is Innova?”
You are Mission Commander Ambriel Ona, Order of the Seraph. Mission protocols suggest you initiate Innova...I have no further information...direct safety override from the Council.
“I am Ona?” She struggled to make sense of this new information. Was that my name here? Is this my home world?
Affirmative. Shall we proceed with override Innova, Commander Ona?
“No. I’d like to know more about it before I initiate anything.”
Affirmative. Innova protocols placed into standby.
“Where are we?”
Triangulating...your present position is south southwest of power station alpha--
“Which planet are we on?”
The second moon of Glaxenes.
“Can you transport us to Glaxenes?”
Affirmative. I will require your assistance in securing this facility.
“Fine, just tell me how to get to you.”
The collector you are currently traveling on will arrive in the unloading terminal shortly. That area has been compromised. You will need to proceed with caution to the third level of this facility and to the control chamber. I will inform the security detail of your impending arrival.
“Once we get to the terminal, where do I go to get to level three?”
I will guide you. Prepare yourself, Commander, you are approaching the terminal now.
The presence left her and the last of the pain subsided. She felt the train slowing and saw that they were now inside the terminal.
Her father tugged on her sleeve. “Ana, are you all right? What happened?”
She stood and drew the handgun from her waistband. “I’m fine now. I’ll explain the details as we go.”
He nodded and looked out the door that the creatures were filing out of, seemingly oblivious to the chaos unfolding around them. “Where are we?”
“An unloading terminal of some sort.” She saw the confused look on her father’s face. “One of the Eyes is in this facility.” She motioned for him to follow her. “She sent me a distress signal.”
The inside of the terminal looked like a giant empty warehouse. Three-story tanks towered above the platform next to the train. The massive outer doors of the facility appeared to have been blown inward, and a dozen or so of the riders streamed into the building wielding sling-like weapons which they twirled above their heads several times before releasing.
One of the projectiles hit a nearby tank. It stuck to the side, expanded momentarily and then exploded, sending hundreds of gallons of sea water gushing out over the platform. The miniature tsunami barreled over the first of the workers exiting the train.
Ana and Frederick waited for the water to subside and then pushed past the remaining workers to get to the platform. They hugged the wall and stayed behind the riders who continued throwing the explosive material at anything in their path.
Frederick shielded Ana as one of the projectiles splattered across the front of the train. It blew up a second later derailing it from the thick corded cable Ana assumed to be the track.
She pointed to the staircase that the riders were headed toward. “Unfortunately we need to go that way.”
Frederick didn’t look pleased. “How do you know that?”
She tapped her index finger against her temple. “The Eye is guiding me. We need to get to the third level.”
“It looks like our friends here are after the same thing,” he said.
She nodded. “I agree, but if we can get up that first landing behind them I think that side door there will take us up via an alternate route.”
He furrowed his brow. “What if we’re confronted by these guys...or whoever controls this place?”
“I don’t really want to kill any of these creatures. From what I’ve seen they’re freedom fighters looking to free their people, but we’ve got to get to the Eye.” She looked into his eyes. “As for the security detail, the Eye has already informed them of our arrival and has instructed them to let us pass...and to offer us assistance.” She smiled. “Apparently I have a pretty high rank around here.”
He smiled. “Figures. But what does the Eye want in return? Nothing’s free in this life...or any life for that matter.”
“She wants our assistance securing this facility.”
He held onto her arm as a few more of the workers picked themselves up and shuffled past them. “Are you willing to do that considering what might happen to these guys?”
“It’s not ideal, I’ll agree, but I think I might actually be able to spare more lives if I can take control of the Eye and get her off of this moon.”
“Oh, I forgot to mention, we’re on the second moon of Glaxenes.” She motioned toward the staircase. “Now come on, it looks like they’re already up to the second flight.”
Frederick shook his head. “As usual you’re just full of surprises.”