It only took a few short minutes to return to the base. We passed the first checkpoint without incident - it was not guarded. Possibly something in the car allowed us entry, for the gate opened for us without prompting. We followed the road as it lead down, down, down into a great cutting. We drove into darkness, leaving the sunshine behind.
Then before us was the gate. It was fully as high as 10 well-grown Narns and as many heights wide. It was black and apparently made of metal. Huge, uncompromising, enduring. The Gate of Earth.
Russell stopped the vehicle. "Well, here we all are then. Wonder how this thing opens?"
We did not need to worry. The mighty gate split in the middle and swung inwards.
"Do you think that they are expecting us?"
We looked at each other and drove into the gloom.
Once our eyes had adapted to the dimness, we saw that we were in a huge bay full of ground vehicles, most of which were about this one's size. Some were larger - troop vehicles and multi-purpose vehicles in the main and there were some minute one person carriers. At the other end of the chamber were some quaint vehicles that seemed to be trolley cars designed to shuttle beings around.
There was also a door.
Russell drove up to the door, but it was too small to allow this ground vehicle entry. However, the trolley cars were about the right size. There was only one little problem.
This door had security measures on it.
Russell examined the panel, as did the Pak'ma'ra. They turned to me and said that the eyeball and the hand would probably be necessary.
Russell slotted into a small gap a card that he had apparently taken from the Dilgar in the cargo bay of the ground vehicle. Then he waved at me to place the eyeball against the retina scanner. Machinery hummed, and then the door slid open. I looked at the hand and stuffed it back in my pack.
There was nothing in sight down the long, brightly lit white corridor that stretched in front of us. Russell removed the card from the slot and I put the eyeball back in a pocket of my pack, and we continued on our merry way in the trolley car.
It was strange that noone saw us, noone challenged us. I was beginning to believe that the Dilgar were overconfident in their ability to detect unwanted visitors. Maybe they were over-reliant on technology. We simply drove in, changed vehicles, opened doors that we wouldn't have been able to open if there were any guards and did as we pleased. Security? What's that, and why would it be needed on a planet where the Dilgar are the only beings left?
The corridor went on for some distance. The trolley car did not move quickly, but I estimated that we had travelled nearly a kilometre before there were any branchings in the corridor. We saw no beings in those branchings and saw no reason to travel any of them. We had a different goal. Ahead of us lay a pool of blackness.
The corridor ended abruptly, opening into a wide platform. The ceiling above us was vaulted high over our heads - so high that ships could fly around in the space created. I gasped in amazement as I saw one of the little fliers flitting upwards towards a hatch. As I gawped at the roof, I saw the enormous hatch on the other side of the vault. They launched ships that big from inside here?
Russell stopped the trolley car and we all stepped off. Cautiously we approached the edge of the platform.
The drop below us was as great as the distance from the roof to our platform. Many many ships were berthed down there. Russell identified some as being the same type of ship that had brought us to Markab. He said that the one we had travelled on had been effectively a luxury yacht, although it could perform some military duties. From what he said, it appeared that the ships were capable of making their own jump points, despite being not much bigger than a medium-size freighter. There was a lot of movement down there too - machines and beings scuttling from ship to ship, sounds of machinery. It seemed that the Dilgar preferred to work in privacy.
A number of cargo lifts speckled the walls. Indeed, one seemed to be approaching the platform we were on. The Pak'ma'ra looked around and suggested that we hide, only he wasn't sure where we should go. Russell took one look and decided that the tunnel was the place to be. He turned the trolley car around and zipped off as we leapt aboard.
He took the trolley car down to the third crossways and then parked the vehicle in the little corridor. We heard the rumbling of another trolley car coming down the main corridor. It rattled past us, but none of the Dilgar aboard it noticed us. They were engrossed in something else.
We drove back to the platform. The cargo lift was still there. It was big enough to drive the trolley car on, but we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves. We abandoned the vehicle and took the lift to the floor of the cavern. Fifteen stories to the cavern floor.
As we slowed moved downwards, we chose which of the yachts we wanted to take. One ship had no activity around it. It was a different colour to the other ships - a blue-grey rather than the gunmetal military grey and black. There must be a reason why it was not being attended to. I hoped that it was because it was in perfect working order rather than being dead.
At long last the lift reached the cavern floor. We walked out and took a carefully circuitous route towards our ship, avoiding the areas of hustle and bustle, instead sticking to the edges of the cavern. It made our walk longer, but we were used to walking.
Noone saw us approaching the ship. Noone took any notice of us at all. We walked up to the ship and examined it more closely. This thing could create its own jump point? It was not much more than 100 metres long!
There was a lift in one of the landing legs. Maybe I was still being guided by Kimmini. I punched a code into the datapad lock. Immediately, the speaker beside the door crackled into life. It spoke in Interlac. I jumped back.
"Look, I've told you guys to stop bothering me! I can't let you into the ship!"
Maybe I wasn't being guided by Kimmini. We looked at each other. The voice suddenly squawked. "Ooo, look at you! You aren't who I expected! Two Narn, a Human and a Pak'ma'ra! Who are you?"
I stepped forward again. "I am Na'Tiel." Behind me I heard my companions groan. They clearly believed that this being on the ship intended us harm. I figured that if it intended us harm it would have used the ship's weaponry against us. "Who are you?"
"I am the Ship."
Two could play this game. "What do we call you, then, Ship?"
The voice hesitated. "Umm, you can call me Bob."
"Well, Bob, how about letting us on before anyone notices we are here?"
"I can't do that - you have to have the security password." A different voice garbled something, and Bob muttered "Sorry. Reprogramming for Interlac."
"Security request. State password."
Behind us, we heard a shout. I swung around. A Dilgar was yelling something and pointing to us.
"Look, Bob, just override the security system and let us on! We have to get away from the Dilgar. Please!"
"I really can't do that, Na'Tiel. I am sorry, but I don't have access."
We tried every Markab thing we could think of. Kimmini. Orini. Orkanish. Guild names. Words. Towns. The last word as a group of Dilgar surrounded us was Tyronin. None worked. I surreptitiously dropped the hand and the eyeball behind the landing leg before stepping out from behind it. Discretion was the better part of valour, I thought, under the circumstances.
"Put your weapons down. Hands up!"
The leader of this group of Dilgar stepped forward. I wanted to tear his throat out with my teeth. The smell of these Dilgar aroused deeply hidden instincts. They had killed my greatgrandfather with their machines. I quelled my instincts. If I did indeed lay hands on any of them, I would be dead within seconds, and I so wanted to live.
"We've been looking for you everywhere, and you finally show up here, right in our midst." The Dilgar laughed and waved his troops to surround us. "Down on the floor, hands behind you, cross your ankles. NOW!"
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