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Captain
Join Date: Jul 2012
Posts: 579
# 10
04-18-2013, 03:29 AM
Three moons' light cast difficult shadows as Darus loped across the rocky ground, skirting the edge of the vast canyon that crossed the desert's face like a scar. Darus's own face was set, intent, feverish with concentration. One misstep - he knew these rocks, he knew them well - but one misstep would be enough -

And that was the least of his worries, of course.

His ears were alert, painfully alert, to the sounds of the night. There was the inevitable scuff and rattle of his own feet on the dry stones... was there something else? Animals lived in the desert, somehow; tiny hairless foxes, and slow torpid lizards, and nameless things with too many legs. But there was something else, too, echoes of his footsteps... that weren't echoes.

They were close. One of them was close. Darus fought to keep his nerves under control. He knew they were close - he had to let them close - once, at least -

Six hours to sunrise. By sunrise, it would be over, one way or another. He would reach the perimeter, he would find a transporter station... or he wouldn't.

Footsteps. Not his own. Very close, now.

The hunter loomed out of the shadow of a rock, features twisted in a grin of triumph; tall, black-armoured, a weapon in his hands. Darus slowed almost to a stop, his eyes narrowing, judging the situation.

"Halt!" the hunter commanded.

Darus's mouth was very dry. He breathed heavily, sucking at the thin dusty air of this world. The Hirogen stood there, his body armour blending with the shadows. A young one, Darus thought, an initiate, puffed up with pride at his first kill.

He pointed to the Hirogen's gun. "Are you hiding behind that, hunter?" he said, putting as much scorn into his voice as he could manage.

The Hirogen looked down as if seeing the weapon for the first time. "This?" he said, his scorn more than matching Darus's. "This is for dangerous prey." He tossed the weapon aside. Darus took the opportunity to sidle, inconspicuously, a few steps left.

"For such as you," the hunter continued, "I will use only my hands." He gestured with his balled fists. They were lethal enough weapons, Darus thought. His body tensed, but he kept his voice level as he spoke.

"You should be sure you know where you stand, hunter."

The hunter's eyes glittered in the moonlight as he stared. "I stand with my pack!" he answered. "And the pack stands with your Empress, who gives us hunting grounds - and prey, in traitors like you, Romulan!"

"That wasn't quite what I meant," muttered Darus.

His rangy body seemed to explode, to uncoil itself into a leaping kick, a martial arts strike that hammered into the Hirogen's massive chest. It was delivered with Darus's full strength; an unarmoured foe would have fallen with his sternum caved in. The Hirogen staggered at the force, took a step back. His foot came down on a rock, which moved underneath it. Arms flailing for balance, the hunter took another scrambling step, then another; then, finally, his foot came down on a rock which wasn't a rock at all, only a shadow. With a shriek, he toppled and fell, vanishing over the lip of the cliff.

Darus stood up, every limb trembling. He wrapped his hand around a fist-sized rock and advanced, cautiously, to the edge of the precipice. Poised to throw, he looked down. It took a moment, in the dim light, to make out the scene. The Hirogen's lumpish shape was hard to pick out among the other lumps, of rocks, some twenty meters below. Darus relaxed, a little.

One down. One pursuer down, out of how many? But at least the odds were fractionally less against him. And at least, now, he had a gun.

He retrieved the weapon from where the hunter had thrown it, checked the charge and the settings. It was enough to make his spirits rise. Just a little.

"Damn you, T'laihhae," he said aloud.

---

Two days before.

"Damn you, T'laihhae," Darus said cheerfully, "why not at least try it?"

The slim young woman looked up at him, dark eyes watchful. "Your rock climbing? I don't care for broken bones, even if you do."

"So you'd rather stay here?" Darus made an expansive gesture which took in the whole of the dusty compound, the blocky administration building, the stark shapes of the barracks. "This has got to be the worst outpost in the entire Empire! Damn it all, at least climbing rocks is good for something. What else do you want to do? Sit around and work extra shifts? Listen to the educational broadcasts from our glorious leadership?"

T'laihhae's eyes flickered from side to side. Her voice dropped a little as she said, "Please don't speak disrespectfully of the leadership."

"Oh, come on," said Darus. "It's just you and me here... haven't we known each other long enough to speak freely?"

T'laihhae's gaze dropped. "Sometimes... you speak too freely, Darus. You should not be so - so critical."

"Why not? Honest criticism's needed sometimes. Like when someone's too repressed to try a new experience, say."

"Don't make light of it, Darus. Please. We should -" The young woman drew in a deep breath. "We should respect our leaders... because they're all we have. All that's left, after...."

Her voice trailed off. Darus remembered just how many of her family had died, in the disaster, in the painful aftermath.

His voice dropped. "Maybe not all we have," he said. "There are alternatives."

"Such as what?" asked T'laihhae with asperity. "Refugee status on some Federation world? As well sell ourselves as slaves to the Klingons."

"There's always D'Tan's people."

T'laihhae opened her eyes wide in astonishment. "The pipe dream of Mol'Rihan? Under the leadership of that... that academic idealist?"

"There must be more to him than that," Darus said thoughtfully. "Obisek's terrorists are prepared to work with him... and nobody ever accused them of idealism. Besides, have you noticed how much time on those educational broadcasts is devoted to rubbishing him? The powers that be wouldn't devote so much time to putting him down, if he wasn't a real challenge."

"You shouldn't say things like that," T'laihhae reproached him. "Besides... how could we even reach him? It's as much a fantasy as D'Tan's politics."

"Well, now," said Darus, "that isn't strictly true, is it? The whole point of this outpost is to maintain the transporter network... beaming supplies from the mines and refineries to the orbital stations, for transfer to trading ships from all over the sector. Maybe in the old days they could monitor everything, but now they haven't a hope. Think about it, how easy it would be. An extra transporter signal or two, routed through the system onto a neutral ship - a claim for diplomatic immunity, or maybe a straight-up bribe to some captain - and anyone here could be on their merry way to Tau Dewa inside a week!" He grinned at her. "You mull that over. Me, I'm going to climb some rocks."

---

Cold and gritty, the rocks tore at the palms of his hands as he pulled himself up. Teeth bared in a grimace of effort, Darus reached the top of the rock spire, wriggled across it, lying flat, trying to keep the sounds of his movements indistinguishable from the night sounds of the desert.

He peered out, over the edge of the rock. Light stung his dark-adapted eyes. The Hirogen had built a fire. Two of them were standing by it, bulky bodies silhouetted against the flames; a third sat on a flat stone, staring into the blaze.

It reeked of complacence, of overconfidence.... It was meant to, of course. It was a trap.

All right, Darus thought. I can see three, the bait. Where are the ones I don't see? If I were them, where would I be waiting?

The rock spire was a natural marker; he had spotted it by the dim red reflection of the firelight.

They wouldn't expect him to have the gun. They would expect him to come in cautiously, to tackle the ones by the fire... the one who was sitting down, now, he would have his back to the direction they expected him to come. A broad, tempting expanse of Hirogen back... and hunters in cover waiting to gun him down as he made for it. In cover where?

At the base of the rock spire, of course. Darus grinned. He must have passed within meters of them already - but they were so limited, the Hirogen, they saw only what they expected to see, heard only what they expected to hear. He was Rihannsu.

If there is one thing we know, as a people, he mused, it is the strength of being unexpected.

Cautiously, hardly breathing, he worked his way around the top of the spire, eyes straining in the uncertain light of moons and fires. Complex shadows lay around the base of the spire, but eventually, he had them. Two hunters, crouching in makeshift foxholes, weapons ready, waiting to shoot... along the path they expected.

One of them was beneath an overhang of the rock. Darus reached out and down, found a loose stone, a chunk twice the size of his head. It made a faint grating as he dislodged it, it dropped silently, it hit with a dull, solid thunk. One hunter left. One of the ones by the fire looked around, troubled, but not quite alerted. Darus moved into position, forcing himself to do it quietly, silently. Every lesson he had ever had in mental discipline came back to him, now, guiding his limbs, his eyes, his breathing, even the beating of his heart.

He was in position. He leaped. He dropped.

The armoured body of the second ambusher didn't make for a soft landing, but Darus was braced for it and the Hirogen wasn't. He recovered first; his hands shot out, seized the hunter's thick neck, twisted with force and precision. The Vulcans had a word for this sort of killing, he thought. He couldn't remember it right now.

There was no time to think. He knew he'd made too much noise, this time. Now, he had to announce his presence. Decisively.

The gun was in his hands, spitting blue lightning across the night. One Hirogen dropped where he stood. The others had time, just, to reach their own guns -

Cold rage mounted in Darus, the controlled fury that was the legacy of his people. Shots flared into the darkness. Rocks shattered in blue fire, an instant after his body left them. For a few brief moments, there was a storm in the desert, a storm of lightning and death.

And, at the end of it, the Hirogen lay dead, and Darus pulled himself up to his full height.

At the end of the fight, the Rihannsu was the only one left standing. It was always the way.

---


One day before.

Darus stood, rigid, at attention, while Colonel Vorkov's cold eyes appraised him.

At length, the colonel turned his long, doleful, threatening face to one side, towards T'laihhae. "Centurion T'laihhae. You will relate the topic of conversation between yourself and Centurion Darus. You know the incident to which I refer."

T'laihhae's face was graven in stone. "Centurion Darus believes he has discovered a flaw in our security, Colonel," she said flatly.

"Yes," Vorkov said, and turned to look at Darus again. "A means of desertion. With so few of the loyal military left, desertion is an exceptionally heinous crime." His gaze switched back to T'laihhae. "Why did Centurion Darus discuss the matter with you? You have no security responsibility."

"I -" A muscle jumped, just briefly, in T'laihhae's rigid face. "I believe Centurion Darus's ideas in this respect were not fully formulated, Colonel. It was - a speculation. Nothing more."

"But you reported it to the security authorities," Vorkov said. "As was your duty."

"Yes, Colonel."

"And Centurion Darus did not so report it."

"I do not know, Colonel." T'laihhae's face was under control again, blank and impassive.

"I know. He did not." Vorkov's cold eyes were on Darus again. "Why not, Centurion Darus?"

"I -" Darus racked his brains. "It was as Centurion T'laihhae says, Colonel. It was idle speculation on my part. I did not - I did not consider it worthy of security attention."

"You do not have security responsibility. That was not your decision to make."

"I -" Darus knew he was trapped. "I am in error. I accept your judgment, Colonel."

"An error." Vorkov's voice was almost kind. Darus knew that was when his superior was at his most dangerous. "Such an error might be misinterpreted, might it not? A suspicious mind might think that you yourself intended to exploit this security vulnerability."

"I am a loyal soldier of the Empire." The lie was almost palpable.

"Centurion T'laihhae is a loyal soldier of the Empire. She has demonstrated that. You, Centurion Darus, will be given an opportunity to demonstrate your loyalty. Centurion T'laihhae, you are dismissed."

For a brief instant, Darus thought he saw something in her eyes... fear, shame, grief? Then she saluted, turned briskly on her heel, and left.

Darus and Vorkov were alone. For an instant, Darus thought of attacking the man, taking his disruptor, fighting his way out of the building - Stupidity, he thought. He wouldn't stand a chance.

"You may consider yourself under arrest," Vorkov informed him, in that kindly voice. "You may protest... you may continue to describe yourself as a loyal soldier. You will be given a chance to be of service."

"Sir." Darus could think of nothing to say. Colonel Vorkov leaned back in his chair, steepled his hands in thought.

"You may demonstrate this security vulnerability. You will be taken to the perimeter of this base, and you will be released to make your way to a transporter substation. Should you reach the station and abscond, the vulnerability will be demonstrated. Should you abscond and return, voluntarily... then your loyalty will be demonstrated." Vorkov stared hard at him. "I tell you frankly, I do not expect this."

"I am a loyal soldier of the Empire."

"So you say. There are others in the service of the Empire - or allied to it." Vorkov actually smiled. "Our allies will be engaged, for the purposes of this exercise, to ensure that you do not attain your ends. It will be good for them. They grow so restive when they do not have the opportunity to hunt." The smile broadened. "So, Centurion Darus, one way or another, you will be of service to the Empire... whether you like it or not."

---

The transporter substation was a glowing jewel laid on the dusty bosom of the desert. Crouched beneath a boulder, Darus stared at it, longingly.

They knew he was making for it. It was as much a trap as the fire by the rock spire, perhaps more so. It was the one place they knew he had to come. There was no chance of reaching the next closest station, not before sunrise - and, in sunlight, he would be fully exposed; the hunters would find him, if the desert didn't kill him first.

The substation was maybe three hundred meters away. Darus ran through the options in his mind. Vorkov would already have changed the override codes, revoked his security clearance - that didn't matter. He could open an access panel and toggle in the settings he needed; Vorkov would need to replace the system's entire hardware setup to stop that. It would take maybe three minutes. He had to cross three hundred meters of desert, and buy three minutes of time at the end of it.

It would have been so much easier with help.... I'm sorry, T'laihhae, he said to himself. I shouldn't have damned you. You trusted your superiors, you trusted the system, the world you live in; how could you know it was this bad? That it was ruled by merciless thugs like Vorkov, that Rihannsu lives could be traded to the Hirogen for favours? I will come back, he promised. I will come back for you, T'laihhae, and I will make you see the truth. By the Elements I swear it.

Three hundred meters. His gaze swept across the ground, over and over again.

At least he had more equipment, now; spare guns, two knives, a Hirogen personal shield. Darus thought furiously, then unslung one gun from his back. His fingers worked busily for minutes; then, he placed the weapon carefully on the ground, scraped a loose layer of sand over it, and scuttled away from it on his hands and knees. He was committed, now, he had to move quickly.

There was another large boulder, some fifty meters closer to the substation. Darus reached it just in time, vaulted over it, crouched behind it -

The force chamber explosion of a Hirogen tetryon carbine, set on overload, made a very bright flash, a very loud bang, and an entirely satisfactory diversion.

This was no time for stealth; Darus ran, his breath burning in his chest, his feet somehow finding the right purchase, never stumbling on a shifting stone or tripping over a half-glimpsed obstacle. The desert was alive with blundering black-armoured shapes, dazzled by the blast, confused, some of them firing at shadows. Amid the confusion, there was a chance, just a slim chance -

He was almost at the transporter when the air ahead of him shimmered blue, then turned solid.

The Hirogen grinned down at him, towering above him; a massive, monstrous Alpha of the pack, securely confident in his own invulnerability.

This was it. This was the final fight. Darus felt himself grinning back.

---

The outpost was bleak in the colourless dawn light as T'laihhae followed Vorkov down to the perimeter fence.

"Loyalty," the Colonel said, "is always paramount. But its importance may be said to increase in troubled times. It is in troubled times that we show our true selves. Any person may be steadfast while they are not confronted with challenges. It is in the meeting of those challenges that our character is revealed."

T'laihhae stared at the black shapes approaching in the growing light. Hirogen hunters, striding along the ground for the most part, but a few were riding a battered military hover-truck. There was something on the truck's flat bed....

"For those who demonstrate loyalty," Vorkov continued, "there is advancement and preferment. The truly loyal do not yearn for such things - their service is enough in itself - but the rewards are the natural consequence of their actions. For those who demonstrate faithlessness - there is punishment, of course. And such punishment as will serve as an object lesson, for others whose loyalty is... more delicately balanced."

The hover-truck came to a halt. The hulking Hirogen leader stepped down.

"A good hunt!" he crowed, and slapped a balled fist into his cupped palm. "Fine prey, strong, brave and clever. The pack is stronger for his culling of our weaklings!"

T'laihhae could see the shape lying in the truck, now. The Hirogen had done... things. His head was mostly intact, the features still recognizable. Of course, T'laihhae thought, the Hirogen pack leader would want a trophy in good condition.

Vorkov nodded, briskly. "We are grateful," he said. He turned to T'laihhae. "We shall discuss your opportunities for advancement, later. For now, though, attend to the details here. And see that this vehicle is properly cleaned." He sniffed, audibly. "Our equipment should not be tainted with the blood of a traitor." He turned on his heel and stalked off, back towards the administration building.

T'laihhae addressed the Hirogen Alpha. "Please take whatever trophies you require," she said. "I will then take the vehicle and return it to the transport pool."

She did not watch what the Hirogen did next. She stood impassive, her eyes fixed on some distant point beyond the horizon, until the snarling, laughing pack had finished and loped away.

She was still staring into the distance when she reached up and took hold of the rank badge on her tunic. She pulled it away from the cloth, held the metal raptor in the palm of her hand, closed her fingers about it. Her hand became a fist, her knuckles turned white. Olive-green blood seeped between her fingers, trickled to the edge of her wrist, became a droplet that fell to the dusty ground. One drop, another, a third.

T'laihhae opened her fist and looked down for the first time. The raptor badge was bent and twisted, green and sticky with her blood.

"Tainted," she said aloud, "with the blood of a traitor."

She dropped the badge into the dust. With a sudden, savage movement, she crushed it into the ground with her boot heel.

Then she got into the hover-truck and drove away, never looking back.