Chapter 17: Another Mission
Rynah snapped the last metal plating back in place. “There,” she said. “I think that will do it. Solaris, power it up.”
The engines roared to life. Each of them stood back as Solaris checked her systems, causing a few bursts of flame to escape her rockets. After the check, she settled back down. “Systems seem restored. We should be able to make it to the nearest planet.”
“What planet is it?” asked Rynah, as she and the others reentered the ship.
“I do not know,” replied Solaris. “It has no name, but it seems habitable and… oh.”
“Oh? Why oh?” asked Tom not liking the sound of “oh” from Solaris.
“Rynah, you’ll want to get up here,” said Solaris.
Rynah scrambled out of her spacesuit and ran to the command center, with the others close behind.
“I think I have discovered where the next crystal is.”
Text popped up on the overhead screen.
A field of rock hovering alone
Jagged as a sharp stone.
Pass beyond to a gold sphere
where treasure looms far and near.
“And?” asked Rynah.
Solaris put a star chart on the screen. “This is the asteroid field we are in. And this is the gold sphere. The planet is a desert, but habitable. However, all of the dust storms on it are what cause it to have a yellow glow when viewed from space.”
“Are you certain?” asked Tom.
“Ninety percent,” replied Solaris.
“What about the other 10 percent?” asked Tom.
Smoke billowed from her engines.
“Okay! Okay! I was just asking.”
“It is worth investigating,” said Solon.
“What does the rest of the text say?” asked Brie.
Solaris read it aloud.
Buried twice deep in darkened hole
Is the stone whose touch is cold.
Be careful about what you seek
For you may well be deceived.
Brie frowned. Not only was this a poem, but it seemed to be a riddle as well, one with a warning.
“Are there fake crystals?” Brie asked.
“What?” asked Rynah. “There are a lot of crystals. My people have used them for decades.”
“No, I meant, are there crystals that get mistaken for the six in the poem, but aren’t them?”
Rynah considered what Brie had said. “Solaris, what do you think?’
“I think the girl has a point,” answered Solaris. “There have been instances of people selling magic crystals, but most were just bits of worthless rock. It is possible that there are two buried on that planet. One real, the other not.”
“How are we to tell the difference?” asked Tom.
“The gods will have placed their mark,” said Alfric.
All eyes turned to him.
“When Odin sends you a gift, he places his mark upon it so that you know to thank him. I am certain the same is true for the ones who left the crystals here.”
A thought raced through Rynah’s mind. “Stay here a moment.” She ran out of the flight deck and down to her quarters. Rynah hurried to the safe in her room and opened it, pulling out the crystal. She studied it. A mark rested on its bottom. Rynah sealed the gem back inside the confines of the safe before going back to the others.
“Alfric is right,” she said, breathless. “There is a mark on the crystal. That means the real one should have it also.”
“Does Klanor know about this?” asked Solon.
“I don’t know,” said Rynah.
Deciding they had no time to waste, Solaris set a course for the unnamed planet. They reached it within 30 minutes as the asteroid field they had hidden in circled the planet. Dots appeared on the screen as they entered the atmosphere.
“We have company,” said Rynah. She flicked on another screen near her chair and studied it. “Klanor is here. I don’t know how, but he beat us here. Solaris, is there a place nearby where we can land, but will mask our signal?”
“In that crater over there,” said Solaris.
Rynah maneuvered the ship to the crater and landed within it. “Solaris, stay in contact at all times. Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
A quick scan told Rynah that the air on the planet was breathable. “Come on,” she said to the others.
They followed her to the open rear hatch of the ship and stepped out. Rynah handed each of them a laser pistol before they left.
Arid, gritty air struck them the moment they ventured outside. A puff of wind blew trails of crystalline sand into their faces, while sand snakes meandered across the ground in front of them, forcing them to cover their heads, though particles still managed to get between their teeth. Taking the lead, Rynah set a quick pace. They made their way up the side of the crater, the sand making it difficult as it slid beneath their feet. Many times one of them slipped, forcing the others to slow down.
Once at the crest of the crater’s lip, Rynah paused. Checking her guidance radar, she directed them to where Klanor was. Their feet sunk deep into the fine silt of the planet with each step—an occasional Mesquite tree, or tumbleweed crossed their path—giving Brie the sensation of wading through water. Heaving, they continued. Rynah maintained her brisk pace despite the strain it put on her tired muscles. She wanted that crystal and she wanted it before Klanor found it.
They came to the edge of a cliff. Rynah crouched behind a few milkweeds, putting a pair of binoculars up to her eyes to scan the area and memorizing where the guards stood, and how many. Men in bright orange suits, which covered them from head to toe, entered and exited what looked like a mine shaft. She spotted Klanor and Stein; both stood erect, monitoring the proceedings before Stein turned and entered the darkened tunnel.
Rynah scanned the cliff before her. There had to be a way down. She spotted something. Zooming in, she realized that it was a trail, though narrow, but it lead to the bottom. “This way.”
They made their way down the slippery slope, walking single file, their backs to the rock wall. Solon lost his footing. He slid downward until Alfric caught him in his bulky arms; bits of rock clacked as they fell down to the rocky ground below.
“Thanks,” Solon said as he regained his balance.
Rynah refused to slow her pace. She hiked downward at a breakneck speed, determined to reach the crystal. Soon they had reached the bottom, exhaustion wanting to overcome them.
They hunkered behind a mound of equipment wrapped in a tarp. Rynah pulled out her binoculars again and studied the situation. Her brain tried to think of a way to get past everyone and into the mine shaft, but nothing formed.
“Look,” said Solon, pointing at some abandoned suits.
Perfect, thought Rynah. She crept over to the suits, keeping close watch on the sentries and snatched them. Rynah hurried back to the others. “There’s only three,” she said. “Brie and Tom, you will come with me into the mine. Solon and Alfric, wait out here. If we’re not back in 20 minutes, come and get us.”
Brie didn’t argue with being volunteered to go into the well-guarded mine. She put on the suit and secured her helmet; it reminded her of a Hazmat suit back home.
“Ready?” asked Rynah.
“Yeah,” said Tom.
They crept out from behind the vehicle loaded with supplies. Rynah scooped up a bag of tools (containing hammers, chisels, and spades) she spotted along the way and slung them over her shoulder as though she was one of the workers. Brie and Tom copied her movements. They snuck past the guards and entered the dark hole of the mine, along with a few others. The low hum of the fluorescent lights trickled through the suits as their dull lights lit their way. Wood supports lined the walls and prevented the ceiling from caving in.
Rynah tapped both Brie and Tom on the shoulder, signaling them to follow her as she ducked around a corner. No one noticed them. They tiptoed through the tunnel past rail carts and piles of discarded rock; the plinking of chisels and hammers banging against the granite resonated around them, mixed with bits of conversation from the diggers.
None of them knew where the crystal could be. Brie and Tom trusted Rynah’s judgment. They followed her through the maze of tunnels delving deeper into the earth, looking around at the dimpled walls of compacted dirt and finding evidence of people having dug there before giving up and moving elsewhere.
Rynah paused. “Take off your helmets,” she said, as she unfastened hers.
“What about all of the dust in here?” asked Brie as she freed herself from her helmet.
“I think that is the least of our worries,” Rynah replied as two miners strolled by in a neighboring tunnel that branched onto theirs; their muffled voices echoed around them.
Brie watched as they rounded another corner. She agreed with Rynah. The pollution in the cave was the least of her worries.
Once freed from the constraints of the suits, they moved through the mine shaft. All three of them hugged the ragged wall, walking so as not to make any noise. Rynah’s swift movements forced Brie and Tom to jog just to keep up. She held up her hand. They stopped.
Hammering and the strike of pickaxes reverberated off the tunnel walls and to their ears. Rynah leaned forward. Several of Klanor’s men hacked away at the stone wall. They watched as bits of it flew away, revealing something white and shiny underneath. Brie threw her hands over her mouth to keep from squealing.
As more bits and pieces dropped to the ground, the more the bit of white turned into a crystal.
“Stop,” ordered one of the men.
The others put down their tools.
The one in charge picked up the stone in his calloused hands and held it in front of the dim light above him. He gazed with admiration at it. “At last.”
“Stein,” said a gruff voice further down the tunnel, “you know that that goes to Klanor.”
Stein lowered the pale crystal. “And I will deliver it to him.”
The man who had spoken closed the distance between them. “Give it to me and I will take it to him.”
Stein’s grip on the crystal tightened until his knuckles turned white. “I said that I will deliver it.” Malice darkened his face. Brie did not like it; it chilled her.
The other man lowered his outstretched hand, flexing his biceps as he did so. “See to it that you do.”
Stein glowered at the man as he turned and walked away.
Tucked away in the shadows, Rynah and the others watched, perplexed about the heated conversation between the two men. Rynah motioned for them to stay silent. “I will take care of Stein. You two take care of the others.”
Brie looked at her with pleading eyes.
“Brie, I need you to be brave,” said Rynah.
“Don’t worry,” said Tom with a smile. “She’ll be fine.”
Rynah arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. She slunk away from them. Rynah crept up to Stein from behind and struck him on the back of the neck with the side of her hand. He slumped over, dazed. Rynah snatched the amber crystal and slammed her knee into his face.
Tom and Brie darted out of their hiding place and tackled the other two. One tossed Brie aside with ease. She slammed into the tunnel wall (jagged rocks poking her back) with a grunt as air escaped her lungs. Tom punched the man he had tackled. Seeing Brie’s plight, he jumped on the other that towered over her. They rolled across the dusty ground, sending billowing clouds of sand into the air. Brie dove out of the way as they crashed into the wall beside her, squeaking as they rolled towards her again.
Punching the man in the jaw, Tom sat up just as the second man smashed a board into his back. Stunned, he hunched over. Brie didn’t see Rynah. Knowing Tom was in trouble, she snatched an abandoned hammer and smacked the second man in the face with it and dropped her weapon when he fell to the ground.
Distracted by Brie’s sudden attack, the man on the ground never noticed Tom’s fist heading straight for him. His knuckles rammed into the man’s mouth—teeth grinding together—and that was immediately followed by a left hook. Before the man could react, Tom kneed him in the stomach and knocked him to the ground.
“Where’s Rynah?” he asked Brie.
“I think she went this way.”
Together they raced through the tunnel and rounded a corner, where they found Rynah standing over Stein as she gripped the crystal. “We need to leave,” said Tom.
“Agreed,” said Rynah.
They ran through the mine shaft past people who worked in the tunnels, not caring if anyone saw them. Hammers and chisels clinked as they raced by them.
Someone had noticed them. They looked behind at the guards with laser rifles who chased them. Rynah shoved someone out of her way as she sped past. Boots stomping the hard ground, they ran faster. Crates, overflowing with blasting caps, pickaxes, shovels, and power drills, tumbled over, blocking their path. Rynah and Tom leaped over them with ease, but Brie lost her footing and stumbled over them. A burning sensation struck her palms as she slid across the gravel, pebbles lodged underneath the skin. She sat up.
“Get them!” bellowed Stein, filling the mine shaft with his wrath. He stood yards away, rubbing his head and pointing at them. Men stopped their work and stared.
Tom yanked Brie to her feet, pushing her in their direction and forcing her to run. Rynah turned and took the lead. A burly man blocked her path. She ducked low, avoiding his swing as she brought the crystal up and punched him in the stomach. Doubled over, he ignored Brie and Tom.
Brie breathed hard as she ran. Her sore foot screamed at her to stop, but she refused. Someone jumped her from the side. He grabbed her ponytail and yanked it hard, rearing her head back. But Tom appeared, and with the skill of a boxer, he socked the man in the jaw with his right and followed it with his left.
“You okay?” he asked as he freed Brie.
“Yeah,” said Brie.
Amidst the shouts and yells, they chased after Rynah, who refused to slow her pace, even for them. They neared the exit of the mine. Five guards blocked their path. Rynah pushed harder.
“Rynah!” yelled Tom, noticing the blocked exit.
Rynah didn’t answer, determined to ram her way through. She plowed into one. The man crashed on his back with a grunt. Rynah sat up and punched him in the face with the crystal. Another guard attacked her. Rynah rolled sideways through the dirt, freeing her pistol and firing two shots at him. Brie and Tom ran past her.
Someone seized Rynah’s arms from behind. The crystal fell from her grip, landing in the sand with a thud. Struggling, Rynah thrust her heel back, kicking her attacker in the shin. His grip never loosened. She wrenched her body left and right, but he held firm.
A thunk sounded behind her. Just then, the man’s grip slackened. Seizing her chance, Rynah threw him off and snatched the crystal from the ground. When she stood straight, she saw Alfric a few feet away, swinging a steel cable with a weight on the end above his head before letting it loose on another unsuspecting victim.
“Go!” yelled Alfric.
Rynah obeyed. She dashed across the compound to where Solon remained hidden, motioning for all of them to hurry up. Brie and Tom reached him first. They squatted behind the overloaded hover vehicle, gasping for air. A laser beam struck the dirt by Rynah’s feet. She ran faster, swerved around the vehicle, and ducked behind cover. Rynah raised her pistol and fired two blasts at a pair of guards, each strike hitting its target.
“Come on, Alfric,” Rynah breathed as she watched the Viking take out three more of Klanor’s men with his sling. He dropped it. Turning in their direction, he sped towards them, ignoring the laser fire aimed at him, his cloak billowing behind him.
“Come on,” said Rynah, under her breath.
Alfric continued to flee from his pursuers. Brie noticed a man with a laser rifle taking careful aim at him. She pointed him out to Rynah, who raised her laser pistol and fired. The man fell, dead.
Alfric reached them at last.
“We need to get back to Solaris,” said Rynah.
More laser blasts struck near them.
“How?” said Tom. “I doubt they’re going to just let us go.”
“Is that thing full of gas?” asked Brie, referring to the truck, though it hovered instead of using wheels.
“Only one way to find out,” Rynah said as she opened the passenger door and crawled in. She started the engine. It whined at first before turning over with a loud roar. “Everyone in!”
The others jumped into the back of the hover truck. Another laser blast struck the ground nearby, firing bits of dirt at them. Rynah rammed it into gear and punched the accelerator. With a jolt, they sped off through the sandy desert and away from the compound. The others held onto anything they could find so as not to fly off.
A cloud of sand exploded before them as a laser cannon blast crashed into the ground; a shower of rock and pebbles bombarded their skins with stinging pinpricks. Rynah bulldozed through the cloud of grit. Another burst from a laser cannon sounded, forming an ear-splitting explosion that tormented them and deafening each of them for a moment.
Brie screamed. Her grip slipped, and she rolled towards the back of the truck bed, slamming into the tailgate and unhooking it. It flapped open, waving and bobbing with each movement of the vehicle. Brie clung to a rail. Her sweat-soaked palms refused to maintain their hold. She screamed again.
Noticing Brie’s plight, Alfric dove for her, his strong hands seizing her wrists and pulling her to safety. The hover truck bounced over a sand dune, which was more of a lump of sand when compared to the other building-sized dunes surrounding them. Brie’s body leapt into the air. Her heart stopped as weightlessness took hold of her before she crashed back down into the truck bed. Before she had time to regain her senses, a laser cannon’s pulse struck the ground near the hover vehicle. The impact jostled them, sending Brie over the side. Her ear piercing scream filled the air, but the chaos around them drowned it.
Alfric braced his feet against the side of the truck bed and gripped Brie’s left arm with both his hands, ignoring the strain on his muscles. She slipped. Knowing he would lose her, Alfric tightened his grasp. Two more pairs of hands appeared. Solon and Tom reached for Brie, each grabbing a shoulder, and yanked her back into the truck bed.
“Here,” said Tom, “hold onto this.” He put her arms around a rail near the cab that he had been clinging to.
“Thanks,” gasped Brie.
Two hover bikes appeared alongside them. One pulled out a laser pistol. Alfric stood to his full height and leaned over, snatching the man. He yanked him off the bike and threw him over his head into the other hover bike next to them. The two spun until they crashed into the ground in a pile of dust.
More hover bikes appeared with well-armed riders. One fired at them. Its blast barely missed Solon. He grabbed a wrench and chucked it at the man, striking him in the head and forcing him to spin out.
“Excellent shot!” yelled Tom.
One of the bikes rammed into the side of the hover craft. He crashed into it again, trying to force Rynah into an approaching pile of boulders. Rynah pushed the throttle forward, bringing them to an abrupt halt, before thrusting it back and twisting the wheel, missing the rock. She slammed the accelerator again, increasing their speed.
A man jumped into the truck bed. Alfric picked him up and threw him off. Another pulled up alongside on his hover bike, aiming his pistol at the Viking. Alfric unsheathed his sword and brought it down, slicing off his opponent’s arm. Gripped by pain, the man turned his bike and crashed to the ground, taking out two of his friends. Indifferent, Alfric watched as they disappeared into the sand and lay unmoving.
The roar of a hover bike filled their ears. A bike headed straight for them from behind at an alarming speed. Alfric grabbed the others and pushed them down into the truck bed, flattening himself out as well, just as the hover bike sailed over them. It dented the top of the cab before tumbling over the windshield and front bumper. The hover craft bounced and jerked as it ran over the man.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” mumbled Rynah. She slammed the brakes, forcing the hover truck into a 180-degree turn and sped off. “Solaris!”
“I am here.”
“We’ve got the crystal, but are being chased.”
“Can you outrun them?” asked Solaris.
“Negative! I need you to come to us!”
“I have your coordinates,” said Solaris.
“I need you to fire upon them!”
“You disabled my ability to fire my weapons without someone telepathically linked.”
Rynah cursed. She had forgotten about that part.
“But I can empty an already empty torpedo tube.”
“What good will that do?” demanded Rynah as a man on a hover bike pulled up alongside her. She turned the wheel, banging him with the side of her vehicle.
“It will release pressurized air, which could cause some damage.”
“At this point, I’ll take anything! Do it!”
Rynah pushed the hover truck faster. She turned and twisted the wheel (skidding, as only a hover craft can, across the lumpy surface, sending piles of dust into the air and covering them) in an effort to shake their persistent pursuers. A gap appeared before them. Judging by its size, she figured she could jump it—at least, she hoped she could.
“Hang on!” she yelled at the others in the back.
Tom looked ahead and spotted the same gap. “Oh, crud,” he whispered to himself. “Alfric,” he shouted at the Viking who was locked in battle with another on a hover bike, “hang onto something!”
Alfric turned and saw the gap. He clocked the man in his arms on the head with his elbow and dropped him to the ground. He gripped the metal bar with one hand and wrapped his other arm around Brie.
Rynah pushed the vehicle as fast as it would go. Hoping that the universe, and luck, were with her, she soared over the edge as plumes of grit trailed behind. The hover craft sailed through the air in a perfect arc before crashing into the other side. It twisted and turned, sending mounds of dust everywhere. Desperate, Rynah struggled with the wheel to keep them from spinning out.
Laser fire scorched the side of the hover vehicle. Rynah glanced behind. Some of their pursuers managed to jump the gap as well. Rynah raised her weapon and fired, striking one of the helmeted riders. The sound of engines filled her ears. Looking up, Rynah spotted Solaris heading straight for them.
“It’s about time!” she said.
“Continue on your current course,” said Solaris.
Rynah did so, punching the throttle as much as she could.
Solaris aimed her empty torpedo tubes at Klanor’s men. She fired. A blast of highly pressurized air blasted the hover bikes, knocking their riders off; they rolled across the sandy expanse amid dust clouds and piles of grit. Not wasting a moment, Solaris lowered to the ground and opened the rear hatch.
Rynah pulled the hover truck to a stop. “Everyone on Solaris now!” She bolted from the driver’s seat and for her ship.
Solon, Brie, Tom, and Alfric jumped from the truck bed to the ground. They raced across the sand to Solaris’ open hatch as laser fire pelted the ground near their feet.
“Hurry!” yelled Rynah from the back of the ship. She reached out, grasped Solon’s outstretched hand, and heaved him aboard. Tom was next.
Brie’s feet entangled themselves, forcing her to trip. The grating of gravel across her exposed skin burned. Before she had time to regain her composure, Alfric picked her up and slung her over his shoulder as he ran for the ship. More laser fire hounded them.
Solaris rose into the air some. “Is everyone aboard?”
“Not yet!” shouted Rynah.
“I cannot stay like this for much longer,” said Solaris.
“Yes, you will!” came Rynah’s reply.
Despite his size, Alfric’s swift movements made him appear to fly across the ground as he raced for the open hatch. When he reached it, he lifted Brie up into Tom’s and Rynah’s arms. More laser fire struck the ground near his feet. Ignoring it, Alfric judged the distance between him and the open hatch, which now hung above him. Summoning all of his strength, he leaped, grasping the metal ledge with his hands. Tom and Solon dove for him. Together, they helped Alfric into the safety of the ship.
“Everyone’s aboard! Let’s go!” said Rynah.
“Acknowledged,” replied Solaris. The hatch hummed to a close as Solaris steered them upward into the planet’s atmosphere, igniting her engines and speeding away, disappearing among the stars.
“Did we get it?” asked Solon, referring to the crystal.
“Yes,” said Rynah. She pulled it out and weighed it in her hands.
“But are you sure it is the right one?” asked Brie.
“What do you mean?”
“The poem warned that there were two: one fake, one real.”
Rynah had forgotten about that. They didn’t have time to look for the supposed second crystal on the planet. She placed the crystal on a scanning bed. “Solaris, scan this crystal. Does it match the other one we’ve retrieved?”
Beams of light emitted around the crystal with a high-pitched hum as Solaris scanned it. She traced every inch of the rock before shutting off her scanners. Several minutes passed as she brought up images on a holoscreen of the crystal and the one in Rynah’s safe.
“Well?” asked an impatient Rynah.
“I am sorry,” replied Solaris. “They are not the same.”
“What!” Rynah’s anger exploded in her voice. How could this be? “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” said Solaris. “There are markings on each crystal that are easily missed by people, but not computer scanners. The original crystals’ marks have a little hook here, which this one does not.” She flashed up images of what she talked about.
“But the markings are almost identical,” said Brie.
“Yes, except for this part here,” said Solaris, showing them what she meant. “I am sorry, but it appears you ended up with the fake.”
“So who has the real one?” asked Tom.
“Who do you think,” hissed Rynah. She snatched the crystal from the scanning bed and chucked it across the room. It clinked and bounced until it stopped underneath a low hanging grate. “All that for nothing. What a waste.”
Rynah stormed out of the cargo bay, muttering to herself.
Though disappointed, Brie didn’t think it had been a complete disappointment. She meandered over to where the crystal had landed and picked it up. She studied it. Upon closer inspection, she saw what Solaris meant by the markings being almost identical, but only almost.
“Though a fake, it looks real to me,” said Solon, “as fakes always do.”
“I think we should keep it,” said Brie.
“As a reminder?”
“No, just a feeling I have. It might come in handy. Here,” Brie handed Solon the crystal.
“You should keep it,” said Solon.
“No,” said Brie, “I think it would be best if you did. I’m liable to lose it with all of my freaking out.”
Solon agreed to keep it. He placed the palm-sized crystal in his pocket. “It is here when you want it.”
Brie smiled and walked away.
Back at the mine shaft, Klanor held another crystal in the sunlight, illuminating it. His fingers caressed the edges and the markings. Pure joy filled his face. “Are you sure this is it?” he asked.
“Yes,” said one of his minions.
Stein approached with hurried, yet purposeful steps. “They got away.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Klanor. “We’ve got what we came for.”