Re-entry only took a few short minutes, but it felt much, much longer. The escape pods, whilst designed for such work, were no more than adequate to the task. Controlling the descent was much more difficult than in a ship. Controlling? I jest. The pods were falling from the sky like building blocks. The small thrusters barely managed to keep the pod on the right vector. The crash couches absorbed most of the buffetting and shuddering. What remained was still plenty enough to almost rattle my teeth out of my head.
The pod jerked as the parachutes engaged. I prayed as we drifted down towards the ocean. I prayed that we not be seen by the Redeemeed. I prayed that we set down in the ocean in one piece. I prayed that we not be eaten by some great Markab sea monster. I prayed that my ship, ruined as it was, might fly between the stars again. Finally, I prayed that I might live to see my pouchling and my lover again.
Through the port I saw the other pod drifting away from us. Its bright orange chutes stood out against the blue sky of Markab. We wafted slowly downwards. Nar'Bon was as afraid as I was. We were open targets from now until we reached land and neither of us wanted to die on this planet.
A thought briefly crossed my mind. What did Nar'Bon have to live for? Life itself? For the past three years he had been my loyal shiphand, saving my hide on a number of occasions, but outside of that I didn't know of anyone or anything that held any meaning for him. It had always been a business relationship rather than a friendship. We understood the other well enough to be able to cohabit a small freighter for weeks on end without annoying each other, but that was as far as it went. Of course, Nar'Bon knew little of my private life, so....
I had never had a chance to send a message to So'Kath. By now he would surely believe I was dead. Now I had no chance of seeing my daughter on her fourth pouching day. The despondency that was falling upon me was much too familiar.
We impacted the water in a hissing cloud of steam. Time to unweb. Nar'Bon popped the hatch as I grabbed the emergency packs and my pack full of food. At a touch, the raft unfolded itself and inflated. I smashed the transponder with a fist as it began to bleep its lonely call. I hoped that the others were doing the same thing.
As we cast off, above us was a burst of light and a meteorite flashed across the sky, followed some seconds later by a sonic boom. I looked at Nar'Bon, and saw my thoughts mirrored in his face. I doubted that we had seen a meteorite. I thought it more likely to be a ship, and I feared that it was the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal. I had no proof, but it seemed very likely that the Redeemed had seen us.
Every bone in my body was aching with the knowledge of loss. My ship was gone. Irretrievable. No amount of money could save a slagged heap of metal that had suffered involuntary re-entry. My ship had been pretty much useless from the time the shockwave hit us. With no jumpgate to the system, we could not have escaped anyway. The physical damage to the ship was almost beside the point compared to the lack of a jumpgate.
The Na'Ka'Ri'Tal had performed its last duty and brought us back to Markab. The universe had brought us back here. This was where we were meant to be. I wished it could be otherwise, but I was stuck here for the duration. There was something that had to be done but I did not know what it was or why my motley band had to be the ones chosen to do it. I sometimes think that the universe is capricious and most certainly unfair. Some get all good things, some get nothing but pain.
My face was dry, but inside I wept as I said goodbye to my dream. Nar'Bon kept to himself as we awaited the other raft before paddling to shore. I do not know what his thoughts were and I did not ask.
The journey was long and slow and arduous. None of us was conditioned for this sort of work. It took most of the day to reach the breakers belting themselves against the beach. With one last effort, Nar'Bon and I paddled frantically to catch a wave. As our raft teetered on the wave crest, I turned and placed my paddle behind the raft, forming a rudder. The wave broke and we rushed towards the shore. The wave carried us well up the beach, then retreated, leaving us high and relatively dry.
Nar'Bon and I crawled off the raft and pulled it up the beach behind us. I pulled the plugs on it to deflate it. Behind me, the others were doing the same with their raft. Once the rafts were rolled up and concealed beneath some bushes, I crawled under more bushes and fell asleep instantly.
I dreamt. I dreamt that the Pak'ma'ra and the Human were with me as we stood in Kimmini's playground. We stood together, but Nar'Bon did not join us. Faithful Nar'Bon was probably sitting watch over our tired bodies whilst our minds drifted elsewhere.
Kimmini came to us. She didn't seem so happy this time, but she still hugged each of us. I was glad to see her even if she was a vision of the dead and gone. Again she gave us the book of Tyronin. The others looked to me, and I took the book and opened it.
"Tyronin stood before a great gate that lead into the Earth herself. The old man, Kronos, his guide, said 'The Gate of Earth. This is your greatest challenge. Earth is dark. Earth destroys and smothers life. Earth is dangerous. But Earth also endures. Earth gives life. From her bosom comes bounty. Earth is beauty. All Things come from Earth and All Things return to Earth.
'This is your final challenge. Here you must face Earth, face Death, face Life. You must give in to Death to be reborn. You take only yourself to face the challenge of Earth.'"
There was no key, no image associated with this story. All we saw was the true picture. We did not know how the story ended for the tale did not continue past Tyronin walking through the gate.
I turned to Kimmini. She was very unhappy but refused comfort. She did not know what happened either. She did not have a key to offer us. She did not know the end of the story because it had not been written yet.
Kimmini took the Book from my hands and closed it. "Goodbye," she said in a tone so final that it made me shiver. She started walking off.
I called to her "Will I ever see you again?"
Kimmini turned back to me. "I don't know. That depends on you."
I turned to the Pak'ma'ra, but he was as lost for words as I.
We awoke in bright sunshine, feeling marvellously rested. At some point Nar'Bon must have given up on the watch for he was asleep beside me. He awoke soon enough once we started rummaging through the packs, looking for food. We discussed what we must do. Nar'Bon had noticed a lot of activity to our south and east - it seemed that there was some form of airbase there. Our navcomps were of little use on this planet - the maps of Markab were of poor quality and contained little information. Still, I guess that these were from emergency rafts and had to cover many, many planets.
The Pak'ma'ra was looking asbtracted. He turned to us, holding out a datacrystal. "I have a feeling that I should not take this with us. It is the original datacrystal."
We each carried a datacrystal carrying copies of the encrypted file from the research base in the desert, the genetic sequence of Drafa and the Deathspinner signature, the scanned tin label, and now a copy of the metal plate from the Redeemed ship. I hauled out my crystal. "Do you have the same feeling about this one?"
The Pak'ma'ra shook his head. "No, only this one. This is the original. It feels wrong - maybe it will bring us danger. Maybe the Redeemed will be able to track it. I really don't want to take it with us. Maybe we can bury it but... - if it was in the sea, then they would still see it moving, but it wouldn't be with us."
So much of what we had been doing was based on hunches and what Humans call intuition. I had no strange feeling about the data crystal but how could I go against the Pak'ma'ra now? We tied the datacrystal up in an airbladder from a life raft and tossed it in the ocean. It bobbed in the water and then washed up on the shore with the next wave. We wanted it to be safe. I picked up the bright orange piece of raft with its precious cargo and threw it beyond the breakers. It did not wash in this time.
"Was that wise, Captain? We need to be able to find it again."
Uh, yeah. There was that.... Still, the Redeemed wouldn't find it any more easily than we would, and I hoped that whatever guided the Pak'ma'ra to abandon this datacrystal would lead us back to it.
We decided that we had to get to the Redeemed base. There we might be able to steal a ship and escape. We were not sure of how far it was, but surely there would be a town nearby that might have a supplies store that carried navcomps. And my cereal. I was running very low in my supply of it.
So again we sliced up the rafts to form slings and tarpaulins, and began walking. We did indeed find a town, and I found some cereal - only one box out of many many boxes had been untouched by scavenging creatures - and again nearly knocked over the rack of flashlights in the camping store. I seemed to be making a habit of that. We collected food and the things we needed to stay alive whilst we walked.
All of this made sense, of a sort, to Nar'Bon. What he didn't understand was why we three were so united in this trek to the Redeemed base. He had not had one of the visions, had not seen the Book of Tyronin and read of his struggles. Kimmini was still just a dead Markab to him. For me, and I believe the Pak'ma'ra and the Human, she was a light in the darkness leading our way. Without her guidance, I would not have survived being lost in the desert, the Pak'ma'ra would not have survived Drafa, and the Human would not have known where to find the engine parts that saved us from a slow and horrible death in space. On the other hand, without Kimmini, we would not have gotten into that base and found the datacrystal that caused us so much trouble, the Pak'ma'ra would not now be honour bent on showing that Drafa had been deliberately inflicted upon the Markab, and my ship would not now be a slagged mess at the bottom of the ocean. A Narn, a Human and a Pak'ma'ra were united by a vision of a dead Markab child. When I think about it, it sounds ridiculous. No wonder Nar'Bon had trouble believing us. But he is loyal to the core, and he stayed faithful to me and those I protected.
We walked for four days to reach our destination.
During that time I dreamt again of the disembarkation bay on Babylon 5. Again my beloved and my daughter were awaiting my arrival. I passed through customs without event. I walked under the great archway and stretched out my hands to my pouchling's welcoming chubby arms. Then as she reached to me, she and So'Kath fell to dust and blew away before my very eyes. Everything blew away, leaving me in a place of darkness. I screamed and awoke and did not sleep again that night.
We were only an hour's walk from the perimeter of the base - ever so nicely marked on the new hi-res navcomp we had gotten ourselves - when we stumbled across a road that was not marked on the map. I was sick of struggling through undergrowth or climbing over fences. I wanted to walk down the road. If anything came along I could shoot it and then we would be able to ride in style and comfort instead of having to slog it on foot.
The others disagreed with me and insisted that we continue our current course. I harrumphed and started stomping down the road. It would surely lead to an entrance and the likelihood of any ground vehicles coming along was unlikely. And how was I going to get into this base? With a smile and a wave? The others thought not. Still, they were somewhere in the undergrowth and I was able to stride easily.
A burst of excited chatter from my now hidden companions caught my attention. They had climbed a low hill. I pushed up through the scrub towards them.
From the top of the hill, we could clearly see the base. It was fenced off and vast, much bigger than I could have imagined. A number of discs of many sizes plated the ground. As we watched, one opened and a small interceptor lifted itself out. One of the discs on the far side from where we stood was full half a kilometre across. Whatever ship docked inside that must be enormous for an atmosphere capable transport. A road that seemed contiguous with the track I had been on curved around the hill, stretched into the base and then dropped into a subterranean entrance.
"Look - look! A car is about to leave the base!" Russell pointed, and we saw a small vehicle crawling towards what appeared to be the outer checkpoint.
We looked at each other and began running down the hillside. "We can cut them off if we drop a tree across the road. That should annoy them enough to get them out of their vehicle."
"Then we can pick them off at our leisure and take their vehicle back into the base. Very sound, Captain." Nar'Bon's teeth flashed.
A conveniently large branch or small tree had fallen near a sweeping curve in the road. Perfect. The Pak'ma'ra and I dragged it across the road. I handed the Pak'ma'ra one of my PPGs. He at least knew how to fire it and had some skill with the weapon, unlike the Human.
We lurked in the bushes, waiting for the ground vehicle. After another minute or so it swept around the corner and came to an abrupt halt. For a few moments, it sat facing the log as if contemplating what to do next.
Then two beings got out of the vehicle.
No mercy. I aimed carefully and shot at one. Nar'Bon's PPGs sang before I got my shot off. One of the Dilgar sagged to the ground, its chest torn open by the PPG shots. The other one turned as I shot at it and took massive damage in the shoulder. I swore - I had been aiming for the middle of the chest.
Still, it didn't survive much longer as I bounded over to it and quickly broke its neck. It was a Dilgar. We had thought that the Dilgar were extinct, and good riddance! Dilgar deserved Death. No, death was too good for them. They deserved to die long and terrible living deaths, alone like so many of their captives. I saw the same blood lust in Nar'Bon's eyes that shone in mine. The Dilgar had killed some of those whom the Centauri had not managed to touch, my great-grandfather amongst them. I hated the Dilgar but my hatred was almost theoretical whilst Nar'Bon had most likely fought to save Narn in the Dilgar wars. He had seen the atrocities they had inflicted first hand. We took one body into the undergrowth and there tore it to shreds but left the other. Its uniform was more ornate and we might need something from this body to gain access to the base.
The Human pulled off one of the ornate badges and stuck it on his shoulder. With care and consideration, I plucked out the right eye from the mostly intact body. Behind me, the Human gagged. Then I took one of the hands. Surprisingly, I believe that the Pak'ma'ra took the other hand - when I had finished wrapping the eye and the hand in some raft material, the other hand had gone from the body. A snack, perhaps? Though hands are generally very bony and this Dilgar had not been dead for long. We unceremoniously stuffed the remains into the cargo space of the ground vehicle.
Back | Forward | Na'Tiel's Story | Lynne's home page