By Glyn Collinson
 

Chapter Seven - Preparing for the storm


"I have been ready for this moment for several months now." The charismatic Alien said. "In fact I am fully equipped. I notice that you have no power for your weapons. Most unfortunate. Still, luckily I have borrowed some of the more modern weaponry from the Skaarj hall of pain." The hybrid yanked a control switch, fixed to the wall and pulled it down. The cave rumbled, and then a section of the wall in front of Mc Kinely lurched backwards a meter, and then slid to one side revealing a recessed metal room. Shelves lined the walls, and each shelf was loaded with enough weaponry to destroy an entire Skaarj garrison.

"So, Mc Kinely Sergeant, what can I interest you in? How about this little pet?" The creature stuck his hands into a large basin of water and drew out what looked like, and was a squid.

"Fa'liene, that is a squid."

"Not just and squid. The Archranis banshee squid fires a supersonic blast, as part of it's mating ritual. All you need to do is to sensitise the squid…." Fa'liene pressed a reddish gland on the side of the squid's head. The creature blinked owlishly at him, and wrapped its tentacles around Fa'liene. "And then, point at your target." He continued, pointing the head of the squid at a wooden packing crate. "Then press here for however long you want." Fa'liene dug his fingers into the reddish gland, and the top portion of the squid's head started to spin on its axis, it gained momentum, until all you could see of the brown eyes were a blur. The squid created a whine that got louder as the head span faster and faster. With his two free hands, over the deafening whine, Fa'liene indicated to the troopers to cover their ears. Then he placed his spare pair over his own, and released the gland.

There was no visual sign that anything had happened, but the explosion of sound was deafening, even with hands over ears. The wooden packing crate simply disappeared. It was shredded into splinters and those splinters rocketed over to the other side of the cave. Fa'liene smiled at the thing fondly.

"I really love this thing." Fa'liene looked at Mc Kinely's doubtful face with recognition.

"Hmm, maybe not your style."

The Alien dropped the squid back into its tank with a plop. The squid, quite dizzy now after the exertion, grasped the sides of the tank, obviously dizzy.

Fa'liene dropped a few live fish into the tank which the squid ate hungrily.

"You know you do eat an awful lot." Fa'liene said to the squid. "Maybe I should put you on a diet."

The alien turned back to the shelves, searching through the assortment of weapons.

"Ahh, how about a Pulse Blaster?" The Fa'liene said, taking down a long and alien looking device, that nether the less very clearly said 'gun'. The barrel was a black cylinder of energy that was half recessed into a black, light but very strong materiel. Sparks of silent yellow energy leapt along the length and breadth of it. The rest of the weapon looked simply like a normal rifle, apart from the fact that it had no trigger.

"Designed for use by Skaarj Warriors. They don't have the dexterity required to pull a trigger you see, all you need to do is to squeeze the place where it should be."

Fa'liene threw it to Mc Kinely who aimed it at a crate, testing the sight.

"To aim that you have to…"

The crate detonated, sending pieces of box flying to shower the room.

"I like it." Mc Kinely exclaimed. "What else should I know about it?"

"Well," the Alien continued, "you can take twenty five continuous shots, and then you have to leave it for a few seconds to cool down and re-charge. When you are out of shots, it will start beeping. If you ignore the beeping…" Fa'liene blew two of his hands apart to mimic an explosion, whilst with the other pair handing the Trooper a Pulse Blaster.

From far away there was the feint sound of a roar of some huge animal. It was terrifying, a scream from another world.

"I think that we had better start moving." Fa'liene said shuddering. "That was a Behemoth."

"What is a Behemoth?" Asked Mc Kinely.

"Believe me, you are far happier not knowing." Mumbled the alien, scooping an electronic data pad and what looked like a water flask and placing them on its desk. "You see that exit over there?" it asked, pointing with its right hands to a very thick and heavy metal hatch. "Pull the leaver by the side of it, and stand back. I will activate my foolproof security system."

Mc Kinely strode over to the switch and yanked on it. Whilst the hatch opened on mechanical rollers, very slowly, Fa'liene typed numerous commands into his system. All around the room, force fields shimmered into existence, and several devices slid down from the ceiling to rest at body height. With a clank, the door fell into its open position. Fa'liene pressed a few more buttons, and all his monitors went dead.

"Ok, everyone out. Now." It said, rushing for the door, pausing only to scoop up the datapad, the flask and to wrap his 'pet' around his neck and upper body.

No sooner had the party of three strangely mixed individuals cleared the door, when it swung back into place. From the outside the door looked like just another part of the dilapidated tunnel. Even the tunnels that Mc Kinely had seen on transport in were better than these ones. Gigantic cobwebs coated the walls, and the metal support beams were fractured and shattered. Lighting was minimal, but a few illuminators still functioned, flickering on and off, creating blinking shadows. The walls were covered with dripping moss and lichens, and the air was heavy with water droplets. Because of this, one could smell the bitter aroma of fear hanging perpetually in the air.

"This way." Fa'liene said, stroking the head of his squid to comfort it.

"So, where is our man being held?" asked the Trooper, as they crunched their way across the gravel of the abandoned tunnel. Fa'liene sighed.

"Very probably in The Fortress. And let me tell you, that is not a place that you want to go to."

"Why not?" Mc Kinley asked, pushing his way through a spider's web, and crushing the spider into a dark stain on the wall.

"Very simply, my dear Mc Kinley Sergeant, it is impregnable, and it is the most feared place on Achranis. They say that death is a constant presence there, and that it stalks anyone who should be foolish enough to enter." "Sounds cosy. So what is your plan?"

"My plan Mc Kinley Sergeant? I am sorry, but this is your fools mission, not mine."

"Fa'liene, I am not going to argue with you. I am simply going to say that capture and torture by the Skaarj, and all their demonic forces, will be nothing compared to five minutes with me when I am angry."

"I take your point."

"I am glad you do. So, what is your plan?"

"A direct assault would be impossible. Your would need either the Messiah, or a large army, and we have neither. However I think that we could get in the same way that I got out."

"What were you doing in The Fortress?"

"It is a long story, and one that will have to wait for later. Needless to say that I was under sentence of death, and I managed to escape."

"How?" The trooper asked, continuing down the long passage.

"I tunnelled out through the stone work and up into the grounds outside. From there it was a mad dash past Skaarj forces to safety, which I did not find, I may add, for a long distance afterwards."

"But Fa'liene, won't the Skaarj have gotten wise to this little move by now, and blocked the tunnel?"

"It depends. I did a bad job of blocking up the entrances behind me. There is a chance that as I wasn't in the cell, the Skaarj wouldn't have bothered to search it."

The haze here was intense, creating a blanketing fog, which blinded the trio after a few meters or so. Fa'liene was making guesses as to where the turning was. It hadn't come yet, and thoughts were racing through his mind. Had he taken a wrong turn? Had he missed the turning all together? But then, as a black maw opened up to the side of him, rimmed with yellowing stone teeth, covered in moss, and he saw immediately that it was the passage that led to the outside world. He stopped staring into the maw, a jolt of fear running through him as he remembered the outside, and all it had done to him. He remembered the pain, the suffering, and as a breath of fresh air blew gently onto his face, his collapsed onto the floor in convulsions. Mc Kinley knelt down at his side, holding his head steady against each spasm, until the fit subsided.

"Oh fantastic" the trooper said sarcastically. "Our only hope and entrusted guide is an agoraphobic."

"Give him time." Mc Kinley said "Look, he is getting better." Fa'liene struggled to form the words and gain the correct control of his breathing. "I... can't.....go...." was as far as he made it.

"Fa'liene, yes you can. Just do it." Mc Kinley pulled him onto his feet. With both Troopers supporting him, Fa'liene managed to make it into the dark sloping passage.

The tunnel into the outside world had no lighting, and was long with only a pinprick of light at the end, which might have been daylight. The darkness was penetrating, Mc Kinley's entire world was the crunching of three pairs of boots on the loose gravel, and the sound of trickling water, coming from all around him. Then he thought he heard, not a distinct sound, but maybe the barest perception of footfalls, as if the creator had padded feet, and was trying to move without making a sound. Predators did that. Whatever it was, was following them. Mc Kinley's mind saw a pair of gleaming eyes staring out at him through the darkness, a long reptilian snout, sniffing the air, searching for its prey. The Sergeant began walking faster, and faster and then broke into a breakneck plunge towards the lightness.

The three burst out into the daylight. The tunnel ended in a ring of white blocks of stone, set into a grassy hump, in the bottom of a valley. The sky was overcast, and in places, patches of dark cloud created black shapes in the sky. Although it was not raining yet, the clouds were threatening to break into a torrential downpour, and there was a strong wind, blowing leaves about in miniature cyclones. The valley into which the darkness had chased them was covered in patches of long feathery grasses, which were lying flat under the weight of the dew. Instead of muddy sides, the walls of this valley were composed of grey gravel. Looking at the sharp pieces, Mc Kinley got the impression that this valley was not natural. Small marsupial creatures hopped about gaily under the shrouded glare of double suns. All in all it was a forlorn sight which met their eyes, and even in the late afternoon gloom, the brightness made their eyes smart.

"Where are we?" The trooper asked.

"This trench in the ground was cut out by Nali slaves to provide stone for The Fortress. Our objective is just over that ridge."

The rescue team scrabbled up the side of the valley, sending miniature avalanches of grey pebbles down the slope with every footstep. They reached the ridge and flattened down, letting only their eyes peep over the top out to where they could be seen. The sight that filled Mc Kinley's vision did not inspire his confidence.

Towering over the landscape were two tall towers, separated by a high stone wall with red banners hung across it fluttering in the strong breeze. Something was moving near the top, a mass of white and red. It was a half-dead Nali, face contorted in perpetual agony, nailed through all four hands and both feet to a crucifix suspended some hundred meters in the air. Fa'liene was raising his Squid to apply mercy, but the Trooper pulled his head down. Killing the Nali would put it out of its misery, but it would alert The Fortress to their presence. Below the Nali was a pair of wooden doors, studded with nails, and for all Mc Kinley knew, armoured against energy weapon fire as well. The rest of The Fortress was a mass of twisted spires, blackened walls and dark menacing gun emplacements. Mc Kinley considered that if ever death appeared in solid form, it would look like this. The team ducked back down to whisper a final plan of attack.

"Last chance" Fa'liene warned. "We can still get out of this if you want."

"We came this far, we might as well finish the job."

"Very well" The hybrid sighed, and the three peeked over the protective grey shield again. "The entrance is, or was, down there behind that bush, hidden from sight. This is not going to be easy." He added, almost as an after thought. "Look down there." The hybrid pointed at the dark green shape of a Skaarj Warrior, busily eating its way through a half-dead Nali slave. It was preoccupied, and had wandered away, in clear view of a dark face protruding from the left tower of the entrance building.

"What we need" the Trooper said "is a diversion."

"Got any ideas?" Mc Kinley asked.

"I am fresh out, sir."

"Well, this will have to do then." Mc Kinley said, and without a further word, launched himself over the top of the ridge, screaming out an insane death wail, and firing his Pulse Blaster wildly in the direction of the Skaarj Warrior. The first shot went wide, blowing out a large chunk of masonry that came cascading down into the foliage. However, the second took the Warrior right in the chest, and it span around, most of it's upper torso missing. Dark blood cascaded all over the landscape, and the flies that had been dining on the Nali flew into the air to alight on the fresher meal. Mc Kinely aimed at the dark face in the tower, but missed, the shot hitting the window ledge. However the hail of detonated masonry was equal to the task. Fa'liene and the Trooper had made it to the old forgotten entrance down into the dungeons, and had used Fa'liene's squid to re-open the hole. Now they were sliding down into the deep and dark maze of passages buried deep within The Fortress.

The couple reached the bottom and tumbled out, falling into a knee-high pool of foul smelling liquid. Fighting the urge to vomit, they blew the metal bars open with a huge barrage of fire. The door open, they hurtled out into the passageway and began a frantic search of all the cells.

Mc Kinely was confused. He had killed two Skaarj, and done some serious damage to The Fortress. But no one had come out to fight him. The gun emplacements remained still, the Skaarj on the ramparts were still marching back and forth, mindlessly. He continued to fire, making large holes in masonry, disabling gun platforms, but no one was trying to stop him. What in the world was happening?

An idea flashed into his mind.

"Oh no." was all he could say. He turned on his heels, and sped down towards the passage. He had to warn which of the two whom hadn't betrayed them that they were heading into a trap. Without a second thought he hurtled down into the darkness. It did not even occur to him to remember his nightmare, and its hellish occupants. He had no time to consider, that he could have been the cause of it all.

*****

"This has to be the one" the Trooper said, resting against the metal grate door and panting "we have checked all of the others."

"I agree" said Fa'liene, in a way that seemed to the Trooper to be a little mysterious. "Open it, why don't you." The Trooper paused for a second, and then flapped a hand at the wooden control switch. The gate creaked open, to reveal a black shapeless interior.

"After you" said Fa'liene, gesturing to the maw.

The Trooper stepped in, through the mouth, closely followed by Fa'liene. Too late Mc Kinley rounded the corner and shouted out in warning. He skidded to a halt in front of the darkness, and without a second thought leapt through.

The door slammed shut behind them, and the lights came on in a flash. Multi-teethed death glistened all around them.

"Lower your weapons." Mc Kinley said to the other two, and exhaled slowly. "They have us."


Move on to Chapter Eight

STARFIRE is copyright Glyn Collinson.

UNREAL is copyright to Epic Games.

Please do not plagarise this story! I have done hours of work on it, and to copy it and say it is yours would just show how un-imaginative and illiterate you are. I am sure you agree.