by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.
Parker looked up and saw a manhole cover with a set of broken ladder rungs hanging from it. “I’d say that is our way out, but I don’t think that ladder would support both our weights.”
Qezbek climbed over the rubble and tested the ladder. True to Parker’s prediction, as soon as Qezbek touched the lowest rung, it broke off in the alien’s hand. He held up the piece and examined it. “Parker, this metal has been treated with a chemical to turn it brittle. I suspect that this situation was no accident.”
Parker shook his head. “Wonderful.” He picked up a fragment of concrete and flung it at he left wall. “Well, we have to do something soon. The air in this chamber can’t last us indefinitely.”
Qezbek pulled out his weapon and made an adjustment. He aimed it at the center exit and pressed the trigger. A pencil-thin beam of energy struck the pile of rubble blocking the exit, exploding the smaller rocks and causing the larger pieces to glow bright red. After a few minutes of this, the device beeped loudly and shut down. “My sidearm was never meant to be used as a cutting tool. Perhaps your weapon?”
Parker picked up his pistol. The weapon’s casing was broken and the charge indicator was glowing yellow with a caution indicator. He changed the gas cartridge inside it and aimed it at the pile of rubble. He got one shot off before the weapon made a loud screeching sound, forcing him to throw it away. The pistol clattered against the rubble before exploding in a bright flash, rewarding them with another shower of dust and debris. “That’s just great.”
Qezbek’s face darkened in thought for several minutes. When he looked up, he walked over to Parker. “Your plasma weapons use ionized gas as a beam intensifier, correct?”
Parker coughed and nodded, steadying himself. “Yeah, they do. A small amount of ionized hydrogen, why?”
Qezbek studied the rubble. “It occurs to me even the small amount of gas contained in your cartridges might be enough to clear this obstruction before we completely run out of oxygen.”
Parker fumbled with his gun belt and pulled out the four cartridges that remained. He did a quick inspection before handing them over. “They seem to be functional, but they’re useless unless we find a way to ignite the gas.”
Qezbek studied the insertion points on each cylinder before placing them near the center of the rubble pile. He removed a long straight piece of ladder and spit on it. “You may not want to watch this.”
Parker watched him stick a smaller piece of ladder material to the longer segment. “How?”
“Sristi saliva has an acidic compound in it.” Qezbek said. “Stand back.” He attacked the cylinders at the base and braced his creation on a raised group of rocks. He aimed his weapon at the insertion points on each cylinder and fired.
For several milliseconds, nothing happened. Then the makeshift missile shot across the gap and struck the blocked exit, burying itself deeply before punching through and disappearing beyond the hole.
Parker sighed. “Finally, something went right today.” He struggled to the top of the rubble and peered through the hole. He caught a glimpse of a small square box and grabbed it. “The rest of the tunnel ahead looks pretty clear.” He slipped and tried to brace himself as he slid down the rubble pile. “I think I need a doctor.”
“Perhaps I should go for help?”
Parker shook his head. “No, I want to see this to the end. I’ve got to get Dawes.”
Qezbek helped him up. “Your obsession will result in your early demise, Parker.”
“Look around you. My obsession is the least of our worries.” Parker turned the small box over. “Hmm, Q’alsda Mining Corporation.” He looked up at Qezbek. “This is a mining explosive detonator.”
“What are you inferring?”
“I’m not inferring shit.” Parker spat. “The slamming door, the security camera, the cave-in, and the sabotaged ladder are all connected. Someone wanted to get us here and they’re connected with the Sristi. I already know that your people want Dawes prosecuted for blowing up that silicon refinery on Srista, but why they would go to such lengths to keep me from bringing her in,” He coughed loudly and spat blood away. “Is what I haven’t figured out yet.”
“Finding a Sristi-made detonator hardly confirms my people’s involvement.” Qezbek said. “It may have been stolen and used here. You yourself saw the tunnel instability signs.”
Parker laughed. “There was never any true instability in these tunnels. Those signs were put up and the occasional collapse staged to keep people out of here.” He slipped the detonator into his pocket. “Whoever did this, Sristi or Human, did it deliberately. We must be getting close.” He grabbed a large rock and wrestled it away from the hole. “Would you like to help or are you busy?”
With Qezbek’s assistance, they made a hole large enough to squeeze through. The tunnel stretched out ahead of them, lit in places by recessed lighting.
Parker stopped and sized them both up. “We’re quite a bedraggled sight.”
Qezbek made an effort at cleaning himself off. “I doubt we will earn any points in uniform inspections.”
Parker bent down and picked up a small silver medallion on the ground. “Well, what do we have here?” He studied the medallion and an inscription caught his eye. His eyes narrowed. “This was Dawes. She must have dropped it when they were bringing her through here. At least we know we’re on the right path.”
“Indeed you are, Inspector Parker.” Bright lights flared all around them. “I had hoped that between Morrissey and the cave-in, you would be convinced to turn back. Now, I see that I must take personal charge of stopping you.”
“Qezbek, I hope you have that gun of yours ready.” Parker turned around to see Qezbek holding the weapon on him. “If this is some kind of Sristi joke, it isn’t funny.”
“I am sorry, John.” Qezbek said. “Please don’t resist. I’m afraid that in your present state, it could be fatal.”
“It’s always the ones you don’t suspect.” Parker remarked, raising his hands.
A hood was pulled over Parker’s head and he felt himself being led from the tunnel. “Where are you taking me?” He asked.
Something hard struck him in the side, causing him to double over. “Quiet, Parker, you’ll find out when we get to our destination.”
The acoustics changed around Parker and he felt the ground move upward. I must be in a lift, he thought. But where?
A few minutes later, the upward movement stopped and Parker overheard the sound of a loudspeaker announcing arrival and departure times. Hands pushed and pulled him before laying him down on something soft. Straps were being buckled across his chest and he heard a hiss as something cold was pressed against his neck. “What are you doing to me?” He said.
“They should have brought him to us unconscious.” A voice stated.
“It does not matter.” Qezbek’s voice. “Repair his injuries and prepare him for the journey. Masdok has special plans for him when we arrive.”
“I don’t know why we should heal him. Masdok will probably just have him killed anyway.”
Parker squirmed, but the drug he had been injected with was making him drowsy. “I am an agent of the Office of Planetary Security. Stop what you are doing.”
Qezbek’s voice was close by his right ear. “If there was any other way, John. I will be sure to give your regards to your comrades.”
“You are dead, Qezbek, do you hear me? I will find a way out of this and then I will find you.”
Parker felt something cover his mouth.
When he awoke, Parker found that he was free of restraint. His vision was blurry, but he could see a window nearby that showed a violet sky and buildings the color of mauve. I’m on Srista, he thought, How did I get here? He looked down to see that he was resting on a crude wooden bed and a large gel pack containing a blue liquid was attached to his bare chest. Next to the bed was a small wooden night stand with a small decorative glass dish on it. He struggled to grab the dish and fling it toward the window. The glass tumbled through the air and bounced off the emptiness framed by the window with a metallic clang before falling to the floor.
The door to the room opened and a large Sristi male entered the room. This one shared many similarities to Qezbek with the exception of a small green spot on his left cheek. He bent over Parker. “Good Morning, Mr. Parker, my name is Masdok and I would imagine that you have many questions for me?”
Parker struggled to raise his arms, but couldn’t. “If I could get free “
“Yes, I would imagine that if you could get up, you would be a formidable threat to my well being.” Masdok said. He reached out and slapped Parker across the face. “I do not intend for you to be anything more than a temporary guest.”
Parker’s lips tightened. “Where am I and why did you bring me here?”
Masdok nodded. “Fair enough, Mr. Parker. You are currently on Star Station Marshall, a space station on the border between Earth and Sristi Space. Why did I bring you here? A simplistic question, but one that I would expect from a Human. Your friend, Dawes, asked me the same question when I brought her here.” He studied a small monitor built into the footboard of the bed. “My apologies for striking you in your condition. Sometimes, I underestimate the contamination that your people have introduced to mine.” He turned a knob on the monitor. “You are free to move now, but I would recommend against trying to do anything physically taxing. My men have orders to eliminate you with due haste.”
Parker sat up, then found himself slumping back down onto his pillow. “Okay, we’ve established that you are in charge here. Now, why am I here?”
Masdok offered Parker some water. When it was refused, he set it down on the night stand. “Mr. Parker, you have managed to create a large number of difficulties to me and my organization over the past three years. When you were pursuing Madelyne Dawes around the Known Worlds, did you ever once consider that there may have been other interested parties out there with an interest in keeping you from your goal?”
Parker watched the gel pack turn red as an unpleasant warmth began entering his body. “I was working to recapture an escaped criminal.” He winced. “Something is wrong with your healing machine.”
Masdok checked the monitor. “No, the machine is working properly. You see, Mr. Parker, you have been a thorn in my side for three years and I mean to relieve myself of your interference.” He studied Parker’s eyes. “But don’t worry, you won’t die alone.” He turned and yelled something in Sristi. Two smaller Sristi females brought Madelyne Dawes and shoved her to the floor. He looked at the prone Dawes, then back to Parker. “It’s a simple equation, Mr. Parker. Ms. Dawes has something of mine that I intend to recover and you are an annoyance that I wish removed.”
“You haven’t answered my question.” Parker said, feeling weaker by the minute. “Why? My Government and yours have been working toward the same goals.”
“By the Goddess, you honestly believe that, don’t you?” Masdok said. “Ms. Dawes, would you like to enlighten your friend as to his current situation?”
Dawes’ face was bruised and battered as she spoke. “I’m sorry that I got you involved in this, John. The truth is that the Sristi were never our friends. They’ve only been exploiting our situation because we have something they desperately want.”
She nodded, her eyes blazing at Masdok with unconcealed hatred. “They aren’t just addicted to it; our grade of silicon can fuel their ships and industry. They need ours and they are willing to do anything to get it.”
“Crude, but essentially correct.” Masdok said. “But that’s not all, is it?”
Dawes shook her head. “No, I found evidence that the Gemini Catastrophe wasn’t accidental. They sent the asteroids to Earth to soften us up for eventual conquest. They couldn’t do it militarily because we have the means to fight back so they’re doing it one step at a time.” She scowled. “Once our stored resources have failed, they will move in and take over.”
Parker reached up and touched the gel pack, recoiling as he felt an electric shock. The room began to spin. “This is all over sand?”
Masdok shook his head. “No, this is about economics and the survival of my people. We’ve tolerated your species for far too long. If my people are to survive, we must secure a new source. Your people are just in the way.” He looked down at Parker. “Do be careful of the protective field surrounding the machine.”
Parker fished in his pocket and found the medallion from the tunnel. He slipped it from his pocket and held it close to his body. Dawes spotted the movement and spoke up. “Masdok, this isn’t necessary. I’ll give you what you want. Just stop what you’re doing to John.”
“Humans are so predictable.” Masdok turned and fired his weapon at Dawes. “I’ve wasted much too much time on these pleasantries.” After Dawes fell to the floor, he turned back to Parker. “Now, Mr. Parker, it is your turn.”
Parker brought up the medallion to Masdok’s face. The Sristi’s face began to bubble where the silver plating touched. When the alien fell away, he shorted out the healing machine’s field and ripped the device from his chest, taking a layer of skin and hair with it. “Madelyne?”
Dawes twitched for several seconds as she fought to rise. She grabbed Masdok’s fallen weapon and fired at the Sristi guards. The two aliens shimmered and collapsed in upon themselves, leaving a small pile of yellow slag behind. She crawled over to Parker. “John, I’m so sorry.”
Parker looked at her. “Madelyne, what the hell is going on? Sand-addicted Sristi, guided asteroids, this is more than I signed on for.”
Dawes nodded. “John, three and a half years ago, I was approached by Senator McKeen to go on an undercover mission for the Committee. There are those who never believed that the Sristi just happened along when they did, so soon after the Geminis hit Earth. The problem was that no one could prove anything.”
“So, this whole terrorist thing was just a big ruse?”
“Not exactly.” She replied. “I did blow up that refinery on Srista, but it wasn’t a terrorist act. What looked like a silicon refinery on the outside was a command and control site for their asteroid mining network. I found records dating back to before First Contact that implicated the Sristi. So, I copied the files and blew up the place to set them back. You happened to catch me before I could get to McKeen and put things right.”
Parker found his shirt and slipped it on. “We need to get out of here.” He looked down at Masdok, who was stirring on the floor. “I’ve got an idea how he’s going to help us.” He gave the alien a kick. “Get up; you’ve got a job to do.”
Parker led Masdok down a long white station corridor while Dawes held the weapon at the alien’s left ear. “Tell your people to get back. We’re going down to the Docking Hangar and getting out of here.”
Masdok grunted. “You will not be permitted to get off this station with me. The security personnel will burn you down to the deck plates.”
“Who said you were coming with us?” Dawes piped up. “If anyone starts shooting, you’ll be the first one that goes down.” She turned to Parker as they stepped into a level lift. “If we are impeded, I’ll kill him myself.”
“Let’s hope not.” Parker replied. “He’s our only ticket out of here.” He looked over the lift controls. “How does this thing work?”
Dawes reached over and pressed a small green button. “How did ever manage to find me when you can’t even operate a simple lift elevator?” The lift doors closed and with a hum, the car descended.
“You never ran to a space station before.”
The car passed three levels before the overhead lights flickered and died, leaving only the muted light coming from the control panel. Parker turned and slapped the imitation wood paneling adorning the walls. “Damn it, all I wanted was to have my vacation. No shooting, no injections, no homicidal aliens trying to kill me.” He looked at Masdok. “No offense.”
“None taken.” The alien replied. “I should warn you both that the lift motors have stopped working and the automatic level braces are most likely going to engage. I would estimate that if we don’t get past the next level, Station Security will flood wherever we stop with neutralizer gas and take you into custody. Which of course, means that you will be back with me soon.” He smiled.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.