The sun had set a quarter of an hour earlier, but a dull red light still glinted off the wet bark of the trees. The only sound was a constant dripping. That was a good thing, Corry decided. She had been crawling on her belly though the fern and moss covered mud for the past forty five minutes and she didn't want any cracking branches giving away her position.
It had been easy enough to spot the barrels of their blaster carbines, poking out of the stand of twisted trees on the rise to her left. Of course, they weren't trying to hide. They didn't care who knew where they were.
A squelching came from far to her left and one of the blasters sent several red bolts hurtling into the underbrush. But there was no cry of consternation, so she had to assume that her companions were still alright, still creeping silently forward toward their target.
Their objective was straight forward; get within twenty meters of the gun emplacement without being seen and stay hidden until the hour was up.
Amongst the trees on the quickly darkening skyline she saw a figure quietly stand and stretch. That had to be the Admiral. Mike was taller and a bit broader. She chuckled silently, careful not to let the white of her teeth flash in the dim light as she slowly brought the muzzle of her blaster carbine to bear. It was an extra fifty points if she got one of them.
But before she could take her shot, she sensed a large dark shadow land in the branches of the tree above her. Another shape silently winged by to perch in a tree between her and the emplacement. Corry was suddenly even more still than before. These shadows had teeth—lots of them.
Corry's mind raced, trying to line up her options. She didn't know if the others had seen the huge beasts yet. She had to warn them, but the moment she moved those evil smelling birds would dive on her. The day before she had watched one of leather winged creatures strip the flesh from a small deer-like animal in just minutes.
Her carbine would be no help. For tonight's exercise, all of their blasters had been set at a tenth of their normal power. Against a meter long muscled body with a good two meter wing span, the laser would cause nothing more than a sharp tingle. If anything, the blaster would only make things worse. These creatures seemed to be deaf, attacking by sight only. The red light of the lasers must have attracted them or they wouldn't be hunting this late.
Corry bent her face closer into the mud and used her teeth to pull at the chain around her neck. Her dog tags emerged with a soft clink, but she kept going, hoping that Mike wouldn't shoot her between the shoulder blades. The weakened laser light would make her unprotected back a perfect target for the winged creatures. Hanging beside the silver dog tags was a small black tube. She didn't even bother to spit the muck out of her mouth before she took the whistle between her lips and began to blow the small shrill whistle over and over, spelling out a warning in Morse code.
She was too late. With a guttural scream, four of the shapes lifted from the surrounding trees. They dove at a dark spot behind a clump of long grass, ten meters to her left, directly at the base of the mound, thrusting and ripping into the ground with their beaks and teeth. A faint human cry struggled up through the mass of bodies.
In the frantic moments that followed, Corry saw the dark form of Robert Troi surge upward out of a glassy pool of black water. He covered the distance to the birds and their struggling victim in four fast strides, swinging his carbine butt at the head of one of the creatures.
Nick Fel and Mike Burn burst from the gun emplacement and ran down the side of the mound, yelling as they came. Nick fired his blaster over and over into the eyes of the beasts, trying to distract them from their prey. Mike had a knife in each hand and was about to wade into the mess, but Corry didn't see anything more, because by then she too had reached the cluster of shapes. With no other weapons at hand, she resorted to tucking her head and tackling the nearest winged body from behind.
They were very lucky this time. The suddenness of their retaliation set the enormous beasts to flight, leaving only one battered and blood stained leather carcass behind.
It took three of them to lift the creature and roll it to the side. As the carcass slapped down into the mud, its heavy wing pulled back to reveal Ben Bagwa's face glistened up at them from a mud puddle. His ready but slightly shaky grin flashed in the twilight. "Ain't this just fun?"
Farpoint Station, one week earlier
Waves of dry heat rose from the tarmac around Farpoint's main hanger, but no breath of air came from the savannah to provide relief. While most people skirted the black surface, keeping to the shadows between buildings, Admiral Nick Fel walked straight across it as he headed for the hangers.
Lieutenant Colonel Corry Vrecken found that she had to increase her stride to keep up with him. The Admiral had the typical fighter pilot build, medium height and slightly rugged. Corry stood nearly six feet tall—yet he always seemed to out pace her.
"I'm not sure what you are asking, Colonel." The Admiral said with a shake of his head.
"Actually, it's quite simple, sir. I'm tired of being a liability."
The Admiral stopped dead and turned to her. "No one has complained about your work to me."
"It's not Engineering, sir, it's... How can I explain this?" Corry stared off through the rising heat waves before turning back to him. "You order people into danger all the time. I don't." She made a dismissive gesture. "Well, I do, but it usually just involves radiation and hot metal. Suddenly I'm being faced with blasters and ion cannons. The past couple of weeks have taught me very forcibly that I am no longer on Earth."
She could feel the sweat starting to trickle down her back, but she plowed on. "The kind of team work that I am used to is not the same kind of team work that you expect of your senior officers. Most of the people I worked with at NASA were grey-haired, lab-coated scientists. Even the few hotshot astronauts I knew never dreamed they would have to shoot Martians!"
Nick shook his head. "Corry, I have no problem with the fact that you have never killed anyone. It's nice to know that there are still people who haven't had to face that."
"Thank you, sir. But, I'm not asking you to make a killer out of me. I'm simply asking you to teach me to be useful. At the least, not a danger to those around me."
Fel spent several seconds thinking before he said, "Fair enough. It happens that your timing is suspiciously perfect. Mike and I are taking out our newest Survival Instructor candidates for a training run next week. We'd be glad to have you join us."
At Corry's smile, he shook his head and warned, "Remember, you asked for this."
Corry glanced toward the back of the transport as she climbed aboard. Ben Bagwa had his fiancÃ©e Juno tucked under his arm and they were both laughing at some remark.
Robert "Smoke" Troi was being mobbed by three young women who had come to say farewell. Corry recognized two of them from the Hunter's AstroNav team. The third was wearing a medical uniform. They were making eyes at him as he described the latest maneuver that Wraith Squadron had been perfecting.
The way people were carrying on, you would think they were all going on holiday.
Corry hadn't really told any of her friends where she was going. Of course, it would have been easy enough to find out. Changes to duty rosters, getting Jol and Alleyett to cover for her for a week... But, if the truth be told, she was a little embarrassed to be training on something that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else, so she hadn't broadcast her plans.
But now, watching the others say goodbye, she began to feel just a bit lonely.
Mike Burn, Director of Rogue Squadron's Intelligence Unit, came bustling into the transport. "Everyone ready? So, what are we waiting for?" he grumbled, heading forward to check on the pilots.
He passed Fel and Tony "Viper" Moore, who where sitting in the forward section, engrossed in some discussion. Moore gave Corry a rather predatory grin before turning back to the Admiral.
As the final well wishers left the cabin, Juno approached Corry, "About the third day, when it's getting really, really bad—give Ben this, will you?" She handed Corry a carefully wrapped packet.
Mike's official and oft repeated rule was "No contraband!", but Corry wasn't about to point this out to Juno. Corry smiled, "I'll make sure he gets it." She was rewarded with a wave as Juno jumped off the transport and ran toward the edge of the flight line.
As she tucked Juno's packet away in her field pack, Corry noticed a small parcel under her socks. She hadn't packed anything like this. When she opened the seal she found three extra large Snickers bars and a note. "We'll keep the Barqs cold!" The note was signed Ilexa and Red. The Snickers would have been Thorn's idea, the Bargs was pure Red. Corry smiled as she tucked the care package away. It was a nice touch.
Unexpectedly, Glantry appeared from the cockpit.
"What are you doing here?" Corry asked, "I thought you hated flying transports."
"Oh, I do. But when you are hauling this much brass around, you can't ask a Lieutenant to do the job."
He raised his voice theatrically. "I will be your pilot today, gentle beings. Caf is available in the front, and we have provided nothing but the finest seating for our intrepid explorers."
Corry surveyed the hard benches and shock webbing with a critical eye.
Glantry stopped beside her and looked down. "And for you," he said with a quiet grin, "a good luck piece." He handed Corry a very small black tube with a curious arrangement of holes. "Should fit on the chain with your dog tags. When you are done with your week of slogging around with these guys, just give a whistle and we'll come pick you up."
He waved away her thanks. He confided, "Just between you and me, I hated Survival. The mud is no place for a pilot." Robert snorted at this remark, and then settled back into the webbing and shut his eyes. Apparently Robert could sleep anywhere.
As the transport rose into the air, something Glantry had said suddenly stood out in Corry's mind. Mud? Oh, great.
Drop Zone: Tel Marshan Jungle, 50 kilometers from destination
Troi crouched at the open door, waiting for the transport to touch down. The ship's descent slowed until it hovered two meters above the ground. Ben and Corry lined up behind him, making final adjustments to their packs.
"Make for the tree line." Bellowed Burn over the hum of the engines as he stood behind the trio. He flicked the safety off his E-11 and smiled. "And try not to get hit! I'll give you one minute before I start shooting."
"Lovely." Cried Robert, as he launched himself out the door, followed closely by Ben and Corry.
It was quickly evident why the transport hadn't landed. Robert's impact left him up to his ankles in a thick, sucking mud. "Just lovely!" He cried, as he yanked his boots out of the muck and started running for the cover of the tall trees, at least a kilometer away.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see his teammates trying to keep to the higher hillocks of grass, but when the first blast from the E-11 sent brown water and plants fountaining into the air just in front of him, all bets where off. The three wove and darted trying to keep from being a steady target for Burn's itchy trigger finger. Keeping out of the mud was no longer important.
"Got everything you need?" Viper called, as Nick settled his pack on his shoulders.
"Little late to be asking that, isn't it?" Nick grinned back.
"I'll have everything ready and waiting for you. Just make sure you get there in five days. I don't want to be sitting on this rock for too long."
Nick waved acknowledgement as he followed Mike out the door and across the meadow. The three other members of the team had reached the trees in record time.
Viper yelled to Nick's retreating form, "Expect a few surprises!" as the transport lifted off and headed west into the jungle.
Tel Marshan Jungle, in the Trees
"Congratulations. None of you are dead." Mike laughed at the glares he got from that remark. He picked up his blaster carbine and displayed the power reading to the three people sitting in front of him.
"Nick and I carry E-11s and Flash V hand blasters. The power on these weapons has been permanently set to one tenth normal output. This allows us to shoot you." He grinned ever wider at their reaction. "We're going to make this experience as realistic as possible—without doing any permanent damage."
He flipped the carbine's power off and said. "But here's the catch. You have fully powered weapons. If we get into trouble, it's your job to protect us. Got it?"
Mike sat on a tree stump and turned the briefing over to Nick.
"This isn't a normal survival course." Began Nick. "It's not basic training, or scout camp. Instead, it's a bit of everything. For some of you, this training run will be old hat. That's one of the reasons you are being considered for Survival Instructor position. For some of you this will be virgin territory. But no matter where you start, we all need to end it together. This is a team effort. Some of the exercises over the next few days will require you to act alone, but ultimately you won't make it without your team mates. Questions?"
Nick surveyed the three expectant faces before him and decided that this time the training run might actually be fun.
"OK, Mike will take point. Let's move out."
The rest of the first day became one long blur of trees and mud. Burn led a forced march through the dense forest, going over or through every obstacle in their path—trees, rocks and pools of stagnant water.
Water. After the first three hours, Corry found herself thinking of nothing but water. It was all around. Dripping from leaves and bark, pooling in rotting logs, oozing out of the mud as they squelched through.
Early on, when Ben had reached for his canteen, Mike called back sharply. "No water. No food. Nothing until we reach camp. This is called Impact, folks. Watch how your body reacts to it."
It was five more hours before they reached what Mike called a camp site.
Corry had entered her zone. At first she found the march exhilarating. She was out from behind a desk and in nature again. But after hours of brown mud and grey fallen trees, she tuned out the distractions around her and began to mentally work out some problems with her latest project. In her mind she was half way through the dismantle of a HemiHead XF when she nearly bumped into Ben.
The group had stopped and Nick was motioning them to pile their packs on a semi-dry looking ledge. She pulled off her pack and began to flex her shoulders and neck muscles. But they didn't get a breather quite yet.
Mike barked out, "Ben and Rob, clear a fire ring and a sleeping area. Cut some green limbs to keep us out of the mud."
"Corry, we need dry wood for a fire." Corry's eyebrows traveled up toward her hairline. "Yes, I think there is some out there." Mike laughed. "Then get a fire started."
Ah ha! She'd been expecting this. Starting a fire without matches—the oldest trial in the scout manual. She grinned. If this was a test, she had already passed.
By the time she had gathered and laid the wood for the fire, the others were working on a crude sleeping platform. But they had finished and were watching her with interest before she had discovered enough dry moss and bark to start her tinder nest.
She smiled serenely at them. Let them be an audience. This little Earth girl would show them how it was done back home.
One thing she really hated using was a bow-drill, so she spent several minutes searching for something that acted like churt, the men whispering behind her back as she pawed at the half buried rocks.
Finally she was ready. She positioned herself at center stage, carefully balanced the nest in front of her and with four glancing blows of her knife hilt on the churt she captured a small group of sparks in the tinder. A good half minute of gentle blowing produced a slender stream of smoke. Then she stood and swung the nest from her knees to her head in long steady arcs. She grinned in triumph when the smoldering nest suddenly burst into orange flames.
"Fire, anyone?" She asked happily.
Mike clapped slowly, several times. "Very nice. But why all the work?" He bent toward the neatly laid wood, drew his blaster and placed the muzzle against a small log. Two quick blasts started small tongues of flame licking up into the wood.
Corry stared at him in open mouthed surprise. Then she quickly dropped her flaming tinder onto his already crackling fire as it began to singe her fingers.
Another long march started well before dawn the next morning, finally ending at the edge of an opening in the forest. Everyone seemed relieved to see sunlight finally penetrate the dense overhead canopy.
Ben, Rob and Corry soon found themselves hunting for wood again. A lot of wood. This time they were tasked with building a four meter high observation platform. The work took them a good two hours, but they were eager to see what they would do with the tower.
It turned out to be a ruse. Instead, they were led to the edge of a clearing several hundred meters away.
"This is called TD, people. Target Detection." Nick explained in his best lecture hall style. "Hidden in the meadow behind me are twenty-five items that shouldn't be there. You have thirty minutes to identify them."
Corry and Robert exchanged shrugs. Sounded easy enough. Ben just grimaced.
Then Nick said, "You may sit but not stand. You may use your macrobinocs or spotting scopes. You may not talk or compare notes. Sit where you are and begin."
Corry soon decided that Mike and Nick would make sadistic Easter Bunnies.
A power cell perched on a hillock in the center of the field was the easiest of the items to find. The detonator clip nestled in the crotch of a tree on the far edge of the meadow was the worst. But the most maddening was a pile of Snickers candy bars lying in the shadow of a large rock.
All three passed the exercise, but they were rubbing strained eyes and backs before the end.
Then they gathered the items from the meadow, shouldered their packs and left their unclimbed tower behind as they started another long march into the woods.
2000 kilometers to the north
Here, the ground was not muddy, the trees were not oppressively overgrown and the sun was warm.
Glantry stood from where he had been lying in the shade of the transport. He had just finished a book he had been mean to read for the last three months and he felt strangely content with the galaxy.
He strolled toward the banks of the meandering stream that had induced them to make camp in this meadow, arriving just in time to see Viper thread a fat silver fish onto a line that already held six or eight others and toss it back into the water to stay cool.
Glantry asked casually, "What are you planning to do with those?"
"I thought you liked fish." Viper mumbled from beneath a rather floppy khaki fishing hat as he lay back in the grass, his pole dangling nonchalantly from one hand. Glantry was sorely tempted to make a comment about the hat, but apparently it was gift from O'Neill. Wouldn't pay to trespass in that area.
Glantry settled for a conversational tone. "Oh sure. Fish made an excellent dinner last night. And fish were good for breakfast this morning. I didn't even mind fish for lunch." He took a deep breath and said very clearly, "But if you tell me that we are having fish for dinner tonight, you are walking home."
Viper didn't even move. He simply said, "For your information, these beauties are going back with us to the base. They'll be a real hit. I think I'll do a little Brontola sauce and ..."
"Oh no, you're not!" exploded Glantry. "That is a stripped down shuttle! There aren't refrigeration units in there you know."
Viper peered up at him from under the brim of the hat.
"I'm not spending the next three days in there with your fish." Glantry shuddered realistically. "Then there's the trip home! Eight hours in hyperspace with three day old fish? I think not."
Viper looked longingly at the shining string of fish and sighed. He hated it when Glantry was right. "Well, we'll just have to feast tonight then. We can head to the temple early tomorrow morning."
Glantry couldn't believe he had won that battle so easily, but he had been wondering when they were going to get down to business. "How long will it take you to rig your little bag of tricks?"
"A couple hours. Everything's all set." Viper answered, waving a hand at the two large rectangular containers sitting by the side of the shuttle. "I'll prime those babies, hide them in some key locations and they're ready to go. Then I just lie in wait."
Glantry popped the top off one of the containers and surveyed the contents—being very careful not to touch anything. He clicked his tongue in sympathy. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a cruel streak?"
"I've been working to perfect it for years." Viper grinned from beneath his lucky hat.
Robert twisted one more time, trying to maneuver into a comfortable position. "Ouch! Stupid tree root!" Across the fire pit, Ben mumbled sleepily, "What did you expect? It's their home, you know."
Robert retaliated. "You'd think, with all of this muck, I could find a soft spot to sleep."
A low voice came from the shadows beyond the dying light of the fire. "That will be number three."
"Three what, Corry?" asked Mike.
"Oh, I'm just planning some little projects for when we get back." Called Corry softly from her position on guard duty.
"Really? So, what's number three?"
"Repulsor units for sleeping bags."
When the soft laughter had died down, Nick asked, "What's two?"
"Heating units for sleeping bags."
There came a moan from Ben. "I'll take a couple of those."
Robert yawned and asked, "What's one?"
There was an long silence.
"Come on, what?" Ben levered himself up on his elbow and peered at her.
"Well... sound dampening fields for sleeping bags."
"Sound dampening? Why?"
Corry shifted in embarrassment. "The Admiral snores."
Laughter erupted from three of the bags.
"I thought I heard a bantha come through here last night, was that the Admiral?" asked an unidentifiable voice.
Nick sat up straight. "I do not!"
"Don't worry, sir. I won't tell anyone." Corry's grin flashed in the darkness.
"This is rank insubordination!" Nick cried with mock severity as the laughter grew even louder.
Mike called, "Watch out Corry, you've stumbled on a state secret. People have been sent to Kessel for less. You could get court-martialed!"
Corry sighed. "Do they have hot showers in military prisons?"
"Then I'll risk it."
"Is that all it would take to make you happy right now?" Ben chuckled, but another silence greeted him. "Corry?"
"Tsssk!" Corry hissed from the shadows.
Mike was instantly out of his bag and beside her. "What?"
"I don't know. I felt something move."
"Here." She guided his hand to the tree she had been leaning against. "Do you feel that vibration?"
After a moment he replied, "Yes."
"What is it?"
Mike shook his head. "Something big. Can't tell where it is, though. This swampy ground tends to distort things."
The quiet was abruptly shattered by several large four legged creatures charging through the underbrush, headed straight for the smoldering embers of the fire. As Mike pushed her behind a large tree, Corry caught a glimpse of their enormous shaggy brown heads. If she had been on earth she would have called them bison, but here...
The animals stampeded through the little camp, bellowing as they churned bags, packs and gear into the mud. Mike made a grab for Corry's carbine, but she whispered, "No! Don't provoke them. They'll be done in a moment."
As if on cue, the snorting beasts quieted and started to mill. Then one began shaking his hefty fur mane and headed off into the jungle at a trot. The rest quickly followed.
"How did you know that?" asked Mike as they picked their way back into the camp.
"Grew up on a ranch. Actually, there's no real way to tell what bison will do. I'm more used to cattle, but once a stampede starts you'd better be mounted if you want to shoot at them."
Ben swung down from the tree that he had somehow managed to climb and started to look around in the mud. "Frell. I'm missing a boot!"
"I think we're missing a man." Said Nick who was surveying the ruin from the top of a large rock.
The other three stopped in shock and then started yelling, "Smoke!", "Robert!" as they searched the trampled ground.
"Over here!" came a muffled cry from behind a large downed tree. Ben jumped over the top and found Robert wedged between two deadfalls, still encased in his sleeping bag.
"How did you get over here?" Ben cried as he pulled Robert upright. The relief in the group was almost palpable when Robert came up in one piece.
Robert rubbed at a raw spot on his side and said, "Well, Corry. I've got Project 4 for you."
"Escape pods for sleeping bags."
When dawn finally came the group conducted a thorough inventory. They had lost the emergency comm unit, and nearly all of the food stuffs were ruined in the stampede. Fortunately, Ben was able to find his boot.
Nick was optimistic. "Food we can do without. I'm just glad the Med Kit is in one piece."
By mid morning they had reached a series of open spots where the sun was again able to penetrate the dense overhead canopy. Spirals of steam curled up from the quickly warming vegetation, lending an eeriness to the place. Around the next bend, the view became impressive.
A wide, rock walled chasm stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. The group turned the direction of their march to parallel the ravine, and followed the edge for half an hour before they came upon a rickety bridge made of roped together logs. The chasm was at its narrowest here, only three meters wide.
"How deep is it here?" asked Robert.
"Deep enough that you don't want to fall in." Ben commented wryly.
The ground at the bottom of the chasm wasn't visible, but the tree tops were a good ten meters below the rim.
Robert was leading the march at this point, so he went first, testing the bridge as he walked. When he got to the middle he called back, "It's stable, but let's stay spread out to cross it."
Robert had reached the far side and Corry was half way across before Ben stepped onto the rounded logs that served as decking. But as he left the safety of the rim behind him, everything went wrong. One of the two tension ropes that secured the bridge suddenly snapped, whirling through the air past Ben and Corry to strike Robert in the pack. The impact sent him flying face first into the ground.
Corry felt the bridge begin to fall apart under her and leapt for the lip of the ravine. She only half made it. The edge caught her in the solar plexus and drove all the wind out of her body. She clawed at the grass for a hold, and came up with her hand in Robert's. Robert pulled her to safety in one quick movement and left her retching for breath as he stuck his head over the edge.
Ben was hanging onto the log flooring of the bridge some two meters below the top. Robert watched as Ben began to haul himself up, log by log. Given enough time, he could have climbed out, but with just a meter left to go the ropes that supported the hanging section of bridge began to snap.
Robert lunged down, catching Ben's wrists before his body weight completely severed the ropes. But Robert had forgotten the ever present mud. Beneath him, a layer of mud under the long grass acted as a perfect slide and he began to slip over the edge.
Corry gratefully dragged in a lungful of air and turned to thank Robert. Instead, saw him sliding past and she dove to stop his forward motion as Ben's weight dragged him down. Her left hand caught one of the slender trees at the ravine's edge and her right hand closed on Robert's trousers.
"Not the pants!" Robert called to her through gritted teeth. She quickly transferred her grip to his field pack, but even that second of lost contact allowed him to slip further.
"Stop kicking, Ben!" ground out Robert.
"I'm not kicking!" came Ben's voice. "I'm trying to get a foothold!"
Robert twisted around to look at Corry. "Can you pull us up?" Corry's eyes widened at the request—her arms were already beginning to quiver with the strain of holding both men's weight. She adjusted her grip on the tree and tried to pull. Robert called "Breathe, Corry!" as her face began to go red.
"Can't pull any further." She said in a strangled tone. "Don't know how much longer I can hold you."
"OK." Robert replied, trying to control his breathing and calm her down at the same time. "Just warn me if you have to let go."
Corry nodded quickly.
Robert turned back to Ben. "Anything you can hang onto down there?" he called.
Ben nodded. "Lots of stuff. Give me my right hand back, will you?"
As soon as Robert turned his wrist free, Ben grabbed for the nearest root. It was thick and semi-dry... and pulled out with a clatter of dirt and pebbles. He reached upwards and found another, this one was more slender, but it seemed to hold.
As the pressure on his wrist decreased, Robert called to Corry, "Just a little longer!" He took the "mrmph" from behind him as an acknowledgement. But the relief was short lived. The second root suddenly snapped, sending Ben swinging out away from the cliff face, dangling by one arm. Robert found himself dragged another several inches over, his toes digging deep furrows in the mud and grass.
As Ben reached the apex of his swing he reached down and pulled his wide bladed sheath knife free. Then, on the return, he swung the knife back and buried the blade sideways into an area of the face that he hoped was free from rocks. The shock of his impact caused the blade to quiver, but it didn't snap. It continued to hold as he transferred his weight to it, but he still kept a grip on Storm's wrist.
"Good idea." Came Storm's quavering voice. With his free left hand Robert tried to reach his sheath knife. Fortunately, he preferred a cross draw, so the sheath was strapped to his left thigh. With a quick downward thrust he secured the blade in the ground several feet back from the edge and transferred his weight to it. When it held he twisted again to look at Corry. "Gotta rope?"
Corry's arms were no longer quivering, and she was able to say, "No. You?"
Ben's voice came up the cliff, "Use the tension rope!"
Corry looked around wildly, but Robert pointed with his chin to the twisted rope lying behind her in the trees.
"I'll have to let go to reach it." She said.
"Just be quick." Robert answered calmly.
"Quick is good!" came a hearty reply from down below.
Corry slowly let go of Robert's pack. His knife hand shook a bit, but he didn't slide any further forward, so she gathered her legs under her and ran for the rope. One end of the rope was still secured to large tree, so she ran it quickly around a second and back to the two men.
"Throw it to him—and don't slide over yourself!" grated out Robert.
Corry sent the rope snaking down the cliff on Robert's right side. It was several feet to Ben's left, but to send the rope directly to him would pin Robert to the ground. Then she jumped back to her original position and snagged one of the shoulder straps on Robert's pack in one hand and a tree in the other.
Ben eyed his two safety points, trying to decide which he would sacrifice. "Well?" Robert taunted, "Do you trust it or me?"
"Good question." Ben released the knife and kicked out toward the dangling tension rope. He snagged it on the second try and went up it like a monkey, reaching the top in no time. Then he grabbed Robert by the belt and pulled him back away from the edge.
For several minutes all three lay gasping on the grassy rim.
On the far rim, Nick quickly hid the grappling hook and line that he been holding in case the three weren't able to get to safety by themselves, and let out a sigh of relief. Then he hollered, "Well, how about us? You still have to get us across."
Corry rolled over and groaned. But Ben was on his feet and yelled angrily across the chasm, "Did you cut that rope?" As an afterthought he added, "Sir."
"That was me." Mike admitted, with something like remorse in his tone. "Sorry, but I told you it was going to be realistic."
"What about last night's stampede, did you somehow engineer that, too?"
"Nope—just dumb luck."
Ben couldn't think of anything coherent to say to that, so he just shook his head.
Nick found a comfortable rock and leaned back to watch the three rebuild the bridge. When Mike joined him, Nick said. "I hate that exercise. We've got to find something better."
Mike shrugged. "I thought it was very instructive."
With their supplies ruined, dinner looked to be a dreary event. Several of the few non-poisonous tubers that grew on the planet were slowly roasting on the coals when Ben came into camp with a surprise.
"Water roaches! They're a great source of protein." He held up a finger long bulging body covered with a hard black shell. "Just the thing for growing boys and girls."
Corry shrugged, "Well, I like lobster, so roaches can't be too bad." She reached for one of the scuttling critters and was about to set it on the coals when Ben stopped her.
"No! You can't cook them. They turn to rubber. You have to eat them raw." He smacked the roach's small head against one of the rocks bordering the fire and then bit straight through the shell. Yellow-green slime oozed out of the squashed shell and he popped the whole thing into his mouth, chewing happily.
Corry felt her stomach curdle. She managed to choke out, "That's disgusting! How can you eat that?"
Ben continued to grin. "You have to have protein, Corry. And you have to eat it were you can find it. Sure you don't want one?" He offered her a writhing bug.
Robert was laughing silently. "Sorry, but he's right. You'd better eat all the protein you can."
Corry narrowed her eyes. "Well now, it doesn't have to be that protein, does it?"
"Not if you can find something else." Nick spoke up from the other side of the fire.
Corry slowly turned to Mike. "May I borrow a throwing knife?"
A blade seemed to materialize in Mike's right hand. "Will this do?"
Corry blinked. "Ahhhh... something a bit heavier I think."
Another blade appeared in his left hand.
Ben nudged Robert, "How does he do that?"
Corry inspected the knife and shook her head. "Perhaps a longer blade?"
A third knife appeared out of thin air.
Ben threw up his hands. Robert said, "I give up. How do you do that?"
Nick laughed. "Don't bother to ask. He never tells."
Corry tried to stop herself from staring, "I think that one will do." She took the third blade from Mike.
Turning back to look across the fire she said, "Don't move, Ben." Ben's eyes got very large as he froze in place.
With what she hoped was casual ease, Corry flipped the long knife over in her hand and then sent it flying past Ben's ear. When he turned to stare behind him, a long grey snake was neatly pinned to a tree trunk not three feet away.
"Yow!" he cried, jumping up. "Why didn't you tell me that was behind me! Are you nuts?"
Corry shrugged, "He wasn't hurting you."
She skirted the fire and pulled the knife from the head of the snake, then deftly cut a slit around its circumference. With three quick tugs she stripped the skin from the snake and was left holding a gleaming white carcass. "Now this is what I call protein."
Ben ducked out of the way as she brought the pale glistening body back to her place by the fire. She chopped a two inch length off the end with her utility knife and skewered the meat on a stick.
"We cook food where I come from." She lectured as she propped the stick over the coals.
"All food?", asked Robert with feigned innocence.
"Quiet you." Corry smiled. "You're ruining the effect."
Nick took a piece from her with a nod and began to thread it onto another stick. Mike waved his piece away, preferring to stay with the tubers. Robert started cutting more skewers from the wood behind him.
Only Ben didn't move.
"Want some?" Corry pushed a piece toward him.
Ben recoiled and grimaced. "I don't like snakes."
"But it's protein." She countered sweetly. "You have to have protein, Ben."
Ben grabbed a water roach and purposefully crunched through the carapace. Corry just shuddered.
The next morning was spent in target practice.
It was like turning Ben loose in a candy store. After just a few shots Nick was impressed.
"Sinclair said he was good." He turned to Mike sternly, "And no snagging him for your squad. Davie would never forgive me."
Mike grinned and they turned their attention to the others. "What's your opinion of Vrecken?"
Mike shrugged, "Well, she wouldn't be my choice for a sharpshooter, but at least I won't worry about her walking behind me."
"What's she doing wrong?" Nick asked.
"Nothing specific. She's just a bit too cautious with her weapon."
Nick laughed, "Coming from you? That would means she's probably normal."
Corry had initially hated the idea of a blaster. That amazed her friends, because blasters were the stuff of dreams for them. But blasters just didn't have the same feel as the firearms she was used to.
However, she soon found herself ignoring the cold duraplast grips and just watching for the strike. It wasn't the warmth of an eighty year old wooden stock at her cheek, but then she wasn't here to hunt coyotes, either.
Mike stopped to stand just behind her firing position. "If you relax a little you'll get better results."
"Thanks," Corry called, trying to keep her eye on the target. "I'm just used to something with a bigger kick."
"I can get you something that kicks... ", offered Mike.
"No!" she said quickly, "No, thanks! I'm just getting the hang of this one."
Mike confided, "I thought engineers couldn't shoot straight."
Corry chuckled as she sighted on another disk at the near edge of the range and squeezed the trigger. "I'll tell Jol you said that."
She flicked off the power to her carbine, sat upright and shrugged. "You can't grow up on a ranch without handling firearms. Honestly, Mike, hitting what I aim at isn't the real problem. The problem is whether I'll be able to aim at ... certain things."
"Like people?" he asked evenly.
She looked him in the eye. "Yes. From the first day my father let me touch a gun he told me 'Never point a weapon at another person'. It's been a litany I've carried with me my whole life. I don't know that I can break that. I really don't think I want to."
He put a hand on her shoulder as he turned to join the others. "Good. Then I won't worry about you."
That wasn't at all what she had expected to hear from him, but she found it strangely comforting. Or maybe it wasn't so strange at all.
Only Robert seemed to grumble at the exercise. "I just can't seem to focus on the target!" he muttered.
Nick stopped beside him. "That's because you are used to sitting in a fighter."
The two pilots regarded each other for a moment before Robert smiled. "I guess you're right, sir. I expect the enemy to be 250 or 400 meters out, not 30 meters."
Nick nodded, "I have the same problem. Just relax, the focus will shift."
By the end of the exercise, Robert's marks were approaching Ben's.
As they retrieved their targets, Robert said, "Next time we play with lasers it'll be in a snub fighter. Then we'll see how good you are!"
"Loser buys." agreed Ben.
Suddenly everyone looked up as the sound of engines came low over the trees.
"Scatter!" hollered Nick. "Get under cover and don't move!"
They watched from concealment as a Lambda-class shuttle flashed above them. Minutes later it passed again, several kilometers to the south. Nick grinned, "Well, I'm glad Viper is having fun. Change of plans, folks. Let's get some rest and we'll conduct our next exercise at dusk. That'll keep us out of sight."
"What are we doing tonight, sir?" asked Robert from under a mass of fern.
Nick's smile widened even more. "Covert infiltration. Now it's your turn to hide."
The long fourth day had been brought to a quick end by Ben's narrow escape from the "deathbirds" as Robert was now calling them. Corry thought that even Mike and Nick were a little shaken by the attack. She certainly hadn't gotten the adrenaline out of her system yet.
Ben, however, seemed to be in fine spirits. He didn't even want to sit still while she tended to the collection of cuts that he now sported on his face and chest.
"What was that music you were playing?" He asked as Corry sponged off more mud and blood from his jaw line. She wrung out the cloth and found Troi placing a clean cup of water beside her. She smiled her thanks at him before Ben's question hit home.
"Yes, on your little whistle."
"It wasn't music, it was Morse..." Realization dawned on her. "You don't know what Morse code is, do you?"
Ben shrugged, causing one of the dressings on his chest to pop free. As Corry smoothed it down again she muttered, "Great. Just great. I can't even use Morse code around you guys."
Nick spoke up from where he was stirring a watery soup. "Is that a signaling language?"
"Yes. Sound or light used in dots and dashes to spell words. Ah heck!" she said, splashing the cloth in the cold water and ruthlessly applying it to Ben's neck, "you don't even use the same alphabet."
As Ben shrugged back into his shirt and jacket, Corry disconsolately dumped the dirty water into yet another puddle.
Mike called from across the fire pit, "It's a steep learning curve, Corry, but you don't have to do it all at once."
She sat by the fire and accepted a warm cup of the thin stuff they were calling dinner from the Admiral. "But until I learn I'll keep making stupid mistakes like that."
It was quiet around the fire for several minutes as she stared at the few lumps floating in her cup. She realized that the others were letting her think in peace. She also realized that her attitude was dragging them all down. She swigged down the tasteless stuff and brought her head up with a grin.
"I have something that you might like, Ben."
"Really?" He asked, with a bit of trepidation in his voice.
"Yep." She worked her way around the fire to her pack and began to rummage through it. She didn't know how, but the small package from Juno had somehow escaped stampeding hoofs, days of mud and even Mike's notice.
She sat down on the log beside Ben and presented the package to him with a dramatic wave of her hand. "Ta da! Instant gratification!"
"What is it?" he asked.
"Actually, I don't know. But it's from Juno, so it's bound to be good. Open it up!"
Inside the packet was a slightly smashed, but still recognizable, piece of pie. "Pie!" breathed Ben. "I love that woman."
"Today we are going to infiltrate an enemy strong hold. Two kilometers ahead is an old stone temple. It's of step design and we are going to use that to our advantage."
Nick laid flatcams of the temple on the log in front of him and let the team get a good look. Then he continued.
"You see, Viper is playing the enemy in this exercise and he has had several days to set up all kinds of traps. Our original plan was to enter by a secondary access tunnel, in the forest here." Nick indicated a point 50 meters from the temple base. "But I'm going to change those plans." The Admiral grinned at Mike Burn. "Viper's been getting too complacent. So, we are going right up the side of the temple and in through this balcony on the seventh level."
"Our objective is to retrieve a set of datapads. They will be located in a room on one of the upper levels of the temple. We then make our way to the temple roof where we will be retrieved by the shuttle. Any questions?"
Silence answered him.
"Good. Anyone have a problem with heights?"
* * * * *
The temple's stone walls were steep and pitted, the rock almost porous from centuries of mildly caustic rain. Each level was around four meters high, with a meter wide ledge before the next step started upward.
The climb was more challenging than strenuous. The crumbling stone made every foothold hazardous, and rubbed the skin off fingers on every handhold. Mike lead the first rope with Robert in the middle and Corry bringing up the rear. Nick and Ben made up the second rope. All had donned grey and white camouflage suits to help blend in with the stone.
Mike was one level down from their objective when he paused to survey the area around the temple. Below him, on the fifth level, Robert was preparing to provide belay for Corry as she started that pitch. Nick was on the second level with Ben just about to reach him.
The typical dense green forest spread below Mike at this height. He liked trees, but this mission had been just a little full of them. He decided he missed the open savannah of Farpoint.
Two steps below, Corry felt the double tug that indicated "on belay". She sent Robert her one tug answer "climbing" and waited for his indication to "climb". She waited for a nearly a minute before she tugged once again. This time the response was immediate. "Climb". She shrugged. Robert must have had to move to a better position. Then she started looking for her first foothold.
Corry was over the top of the step before she realized anything was wrong. The sight of Robert kneeling on the stone level, his hands behind his neck brought her blaster to her hand, but the muzzle against the back of his head stopped her from doing anything with it.
This level was different from those below. It was deeper and several dark openings pierced their way into the temple. All this extra space allowed the two men in stormtrooper uniforms and the man in a green Imperial officer's uniform to remain hidden from those below.
Oh great. Viper wins again. How did he know we would try the exterior route?
The officer put his finger to his lips and extended his hand for Corry to surrender her blaster.
Well, Viper, you have Robert and you have me. But maybe you won't get everyone else.
Corry put up her hands, her blaster dangling from one finger in the trigger guard. Standing there, on the very edge of the step, it was easy enough to drop the blaster and let its clattering descent warn the others.
Instantly, Mike's head appeared from the step above. But one glance told him all he needed to know and he disappeared from sight. The officer and one of the stormtroopers rushed to the edge, but when Corry looked down, there was no sight of Nick or Ben.
Ha! didn't get quite all of us, did you!
She grinned to herself as she and Robert were roughly ushered into the darkness of the temple.
In the Temple
While two men in white coveralls finished strapped her arms to her sides on a vertical board, Corry could hear muffled noises coming from the next chamber. The sounds were all too familiar. She remembered the same horrible drone of an interrogation probe from Rheilnor when Travan was torturing the Admiral. But it was the human sounds that accompanied the drone which made her wince. She had heard those sounds on Rheilnor also. Does Viper keep recordings of this stuff?
She swallowed hard and reminded herself that this was just a training exercise. She was supposed to be afraid. Afraid is alright, as long as you deal with it. The trick was to remember that these people wouldn't do any actual damage. They would just give her the experience she needed so that if the real situation ever came up... She tried to square her shoulders but the board severely limited her movement.
Thorn had recounted several horror stories about the interrogation simulation that she had gone through. The memory of those stories wasn't helping Corry's peace of mind at all. She hadn't realized that interrogation would be incorporated into this week's training. She tried to slow down her breathing and get her anxiety under control. Better to get it over with now. You asked for this, my girl, so no complaining.
The techs withdrew and a tall thin whip of a man loomed over her. Corry wasn't used to looking up at people and she found it intimidating. Great casting, Viper. Just what I needed. Very realistic. Corry looked the man in the eye as steadily as she could.
His voice was smooth and languid. "Well now. I'm afraid that we only have one interrogation probe available, and it is busy entertaining your friend at the moment. Such a sad state of affairs."
They weren't going to use the probe. That was a relief. She wasn't sure she could face that hideous metal ball.
The man smiled, and there was cold laughter in his eyes. "I'm afraid we'll just have to do this the old fashioned way...."
* * * * *
Corry blearily staggered down the hall as the stormtrooper pushed her along. However, when the cell door closed, the trooper suddenly became much more gentle, lowering her to the metal slab that passed for a bed and helping her to lean back against the wall.
The trooper removed his helmet and Viper's face stared at her out of the white duraplast armour. "Corry, are you alright?"
Breathing heavily, she glared at him through her right eye. Her left eye was swollen shut.
"You people are crazy!" She managed to croke out. "You call this BASIC training?" She spat some blood out of her bruised lips and mumbled. "I don't know where you got that guy, but he's sadistic!"
She stifled a gasp as she tried to straighten up. "Does he know he's not supposed to do permanent damage? I swear I've got at least two cracked ribs."
Viper tried to say something, but Corry's pain was quickly being replaced by indignation. "Alright, I didn't talk. Did I pass? Can we get on to the next part now?"
Viper shook his head, trying to stop her. "Listen to me Corry—this is real. Do you understand me? Training is over, these are real stormtroopers."
Corry stared at him, not quite comprehending.
"Just tell them whatever they want, alright? Just get through the next hour or so. We'll get you out."
"What do you mean?" Corry cried plaintively, but Viper quickly replaced his helmet as the door opened. Two stormtroopers entered, followed closely by the tall man whose face she had quickly grown to hate.
The officer's voice was slick with enthusiasm. "Good news. Your friend has finished with the probe, so you may now take your turn."
Across the room, Robert's unconscious form was tossed roughly onto a slab. Even though she couldn't focus completely, Corry could tell that his breathing was wrong, and his face was as grey as his torn camouflage suit.
As the two helmeted stormtroopers grabbed her arms and propelled her out the cell door, she felt panic begin to rise in the back of her throat.
* * * * *
Corry knew she was screaming, but she couldn't stop herself. Screaming was better than talking. At least she hoped it was. She wasn't even embarrassed about it anymore. It just had to be.
The plasma field that was grating her every nerve to shreds was suddenly flipped off, and her head pitched forward on her chest.
During these few seconds of quiet, the man's voice came clearly into her ears.
"What is your objective? ... How many are in your party? ... Where do you come from?"
She tried to keep her body absolutely still. If she could just buy a few more seconds of peace... The moment she shook her head, he would start in again.
This time he didn't even wait for her response. The field flared to life once more, and the screaming rose to match it.
But something was different this time. The drone of the interrogation probe was accompanied by another, higher pitched whine and a pinging. Then the field suddenly disappeared and there was an incredible silence. Her body sagged forward against the restraints, but she was too busy listening to the screaming to move. It went on and on, lapping against her brain.
"Wake up, Corry. We have to move now." Mike's voice seemed to come from a great distance. But it chased away the sound of the screaming until his voice settled in right next to her. "Corry? You're going to be alright. It's over now."
Corry realized she was sitting on the floor. She blinked at him with her one good eye and then slurred out, "I screamed like a girl."
Mike laugh was soft and mirthless, "You are a girl. No shame in that." He mopped some of the blood from her lips with a cloth. "But I didn't hear any screaming, so don't worry about it."
Viper was pacing back and forth across the doorway, blaster rifle at the ready. He was mad clear through, "I told you to tell them whatever they wanted! Can't you take a direct order?"
Corry tried to focus on his face and then gave up, whispering. "I didn't know if it was real, or part of a test or..." Another good shaking by Mike managed to clear the greyness from her vision.
"No screaming?" she asked, tilting her head to the side so she could see him better.
Had it been in her head the whole time? "Oh. Now I'm really worried."
Mike seemed relieved. "That's the Corry I remember! Come on. We have to move." He looped one of her arms across his shoulders and helped her to stand.
"How's Robert?" she whispered.
"Not too well. They went after him for a long time. But he's tough. We'll go get him now."
Storage Room, off the Main Corridor
Ben was waiting for them outside the entrance to the interrogation chamber. All three men were wearing white body armour and carrying Imperial weapons. It made Corry wonder just what kind of mischief they had been up to.
Five minutes of ducking into shadows and avoiding heavy footsteps caught them up to Nick and Robert who had hidden themselves in a storage room off the main corridor, two floors below the roof.
When they had all squeezed into the room, Nick asked what was on everyone's mind. "Just what is going on here?"
Viper squatted down as he explained, "I came in yesterday to set everything up. Almost walked right in on these goons. When I couldn't reach you by comm, Glantry tried to locate you from the air. didn't you see him?"
Nick sighed. "You said to expect surprises. Well, we thought that was one of them."
Viper said resignedly, "I knew I should have told him to waggle." He stood, unconsciously adopting stance he used for mission briefings and addressed the group. "Now that I've finally got you all together, the plan is to head for the roof. I've already contacted Glantry. We just need to send the final alert. But we'll have to do it from up top. This much stone blocks the signal."
Nick had other news. "We have a problem there. I did a little recon while you were gone. It seems the stormies have the next floor given over to barracks. They're camped out between us and the stairs to the roof."
Mike cursed. "How many are there, Viper?"
"Total? I estimate forty troops plus a dozen techs and officers. I don't know how many are outside, but there could be up to two dozen off duty right now."
Ben spoke up. "If the corridor is too dangerous, can't we just go outside and climb to the top?"
Nick tried to find a tactful way to explain, but he ended up just saying it. "The Imps did a real number on Troi. He's got no use of his legs." Silence greeted that announcement.
"Paralyzed?" Ben finally asked.
"I don't know." answered Nick. "The probe is designed to hyperstimulate the nerves, but not to destroy them." He added bitterly, "That would take all the fun out of it."
He put his hand on Robert's shoulder and continued. "He could get his legs back any minute now, or it could be permanent. Only time will tell. The point is, he can't walk, let alone climb."
Everyone suddenly noticed how quiet Troi had been. The skin around his eyes was stretched taut and was still grey, but he managed a brief smile. "I don't need my legs to shoot. Just prop me up somewhere and I'll provide cover for you while you go up."
Viper bit out. "They'll be no heroics on my watch. We all go together."
"I'm not so sure we shouldn't leave him." Every head swiveled to stare at Mike. "What if we lay some charges further down the hall, toward the interrogation chambers? We can trigger them when we get to the roof. The stormies will run down there to see what the commotion is and then we slip in and retrieve Troi. Even if only half of them leave, we'll have better odds." A round of nods approved the idea, but everyone hesitated at the thought of leaving Troi alone.
"If it's alright with Robert, I'll just stay with him." Corry tried to keep her voice light. "I don't really feeling like climbing any more today."
"Liar." accused Robert, but Corry thought she heard a note of gratitude in his voice.
"Oh, yeah? You wanna compare scars?" she taunted, glaring at him though her one good eye.
"I can see these two will be alright." laughed Nick. He handed an imperial issue carbine to Robert and Mike pressed a small personal blaster into Corry's hand.
"How come I always get the little one?" she grumbled.
Viper came back from peering out the door of the room. "There's a balcony three corridors off the interrogation chambers. We can plant the stuff and then head outside from there." He turned to Robert and Corry. "When you hear the boom, be ready to move." He slipped out the door, followed closely by Mike.
Ben gave the two a quick smile. "We won't be long." Then he was gone.
Nick took a final look out the door and then said quietly. "Stay here. Stay hidden. We'll be back for you."
* * * * *
Corry sat beside Robert, trying to be as still and calm as she could, but the minutes dragged into a quarter of an hour and she desperately wanted to pace. She was exhausted and she knew if she sat still much longer sleep would find her.
Robert finally said, "Look, if you want to walk around, do it. It won't bother me."
She glanced at him, startled. Could he read her mind? "Well, maybe I'll take a quick look down the hall." She pulled herself to her feet and then paused inside the doorway, listening.
"Anything?" whispered Robert.
"No. Just very quiet." Too quiet was what she wanted to say. "I'm just going to go to the next corner. I'll be right back." Robert nodded, so she took a better grip on her blaster and slipped into the corridor.
It was a good twenty meters to the corner and past it she could begin to make out the sounds of movement and talking. Peering around the corner she could see a doorway halfway between her position and a narrow flight of stone stairs leading upwards.
She retraced her steps as quietly as she could, and was almost back to the storage room when a strange strangled cry pierced the quiet. She found Troi writhing on the floor. His head was thrown back in agony, his neck corded and veins bulging. Then she saw his legs. The muscles were contracting into small knots, drawing his legs into grotesque positions.
As she fell to her knees beside him, she thought she could hear his bones creaking with the strain. She gathered his head and shoulders in her arms and he forced his face against her uniform, trying to stifle his own cries. "Hang on, Rob." She whispered. "It will pass. I know it will." She had no confidence that it would. She had no medical kit, no muscle relaxants and no idea what to do.
An eternity later, Troi fell back with a gasp, every muscle in his body suddenly slack. He was breathing hard, too weak to move. When he could finally speak his face was determined. "If that happens again, they'll hear me and find us both. You've got to help me, Corry."
"Anything." She promised, as she helped him sit up. "What do you want me to do?"
"Set your blaster on stun and shoot me."
He gasped a little as a tremor went through his body. "It's either that or leave me and run. Which do you want?"
"I am not leaving you!"
"Then they'll track us down the next time I start yelling. Do it!"
"Are you ... are you sure?" Corry picked up her blaster and tried to keep her hands from shaking.
"Yes, I'm sure." His face went red as a small seizure ran up his spine. "You'll be doing me a favor. Believe me!"
"Alright." He watched as she triple-checked the stun setting and turned toward him.
Robert looked up the barrel of the blaster at Corry's white face and tried to grin. "Hurry up, will you? You aren't making this any easier on me."
Then his legs spasmed again, the ligaments suddenly stretched to horrible lengths by the contracting muscles. As a wild cry started to escape his lips, Corry pulled the trigger.
Outer Temple Walls
Three quarters of the way up, and no sniper fire yet, thought Ben happily.
The men had abandoned their stormtrooper armor, trusting to dull grey camouflage instead of shiny white duraplast for their protection as they made their climb.
Suddenly, a series of explosions ripped through the temple and a curtain of dust blasted out of the balcony twenty meters below them.
"Too soon!" Viper swore. "So much for that great idea. Keep moving, people. We don't want to get caught out here."
Nick and Mike exchanged knowing glances. "I say we let him go first."
"I AM going first." Viper growled back from above them.
But that was the end of the banter. Two more levels and they were close enough to hear the tread of the sentries on the roof.
Corry automatically ducked when she heard the explosions, but they were far down the corridor and no danger to her or Troi. What was dangerous was the sudden sound of running feet and shouting. She had dragged Troi to the corner of the room behind the doorway and now she crouched there with him, counting as guards and techs ran past through the corridor outside.
Ten men went by and then there was silence from the corridor. She waited a good two minutes and started to fidget. If they didn't leave soon, the Imps would be back.
"Ah heck." She said to the unconscious man at her feet. "Let's get out of here."
The men gathered just below the parapet, crouching to avoid being seen. Nick pointed left and right, then flattened himself against the wall. Ben and Viper split from the others, and hugging the wall moved five meters out on either side. Mike inched out on the crumbling stone of the last terrace until he was easily visible from above and lay back on the stone, positioning his left leg at an odd and painful angle. When Nick nodded, Mike began to groan.
After the tumult of the explosions, that low sound seemed to cut through the air, and within seconds a trooper's head appeared over the parapet, rifle aimed dead center on Mike's head. But Nick had the angle he had hoped for. He sprang upward, arms wrapping around the sentry's neck and then pulled the Imp down and forward to sprawl at Mike's feet.
Another sentry appeared sending a blast into the stone as Mike finished the first trooper. But the second sentry's aim was marred by the blistering on both sides of his breastplate as Ben and Viper's shots hit home.
Nick was standing now and used the parapet as a shield while he picked off the two sentries who foolishly tried to run across the roof to their comrades.
The roof secured, Ben stationed himself at one of the sentry points. Viper centered himself on the roof and activated his comm. He listened for a moment and then relaying the message to the other three men. "Glantry says hold onto something. He'll be here in two minutes."
Nick grimaced. "That's cutting it pretty close. Doesn't leave long to get Troi and Vrecken out." He checked the power settings on his blaster carbine—this time set to one hundred percent. "I hope going down the hall will be easier than coming up the walls."
But as the men turned to start down, Corry staggered through the opening to the roof, Robert draped over her shoulders in a fireman's carry. Viper and Nick ran toward her and helped her lower the pilot to the ground.
"Just stunned." Breathed Nick. "What happened?"
Corry opened her mouth to answer but nothing came out. She just shook her head breathing hard.
"Are they following you?"
She found her voice. "No. But I don't know how long that will last. I could hear them coming back."
The coughing bark of an E-web sent everyone ducking, but the gun was located far below, hidden on wide ledge at the base of the temple. It was firing at the white tri-winged shuttle that shot toward them, coming low over the tree tops.
Nick and Ben ran to the edge of the roof and began pouring energy down into the emplacement. Then they threw themselves backwards as the heavy crack of a proton torpedo finished the job.
Glantry wheeled up on his starboard wing and rushed around two sides of the temple, suddenly appearing beside the second E-web instead of above it. The gunners never knew what hit them.
Through the smoke from the burning gun emplacements, the shuttle rose to the top of the temple, hovering above the roof, ignoring the few bolts of energy flying toward it from the ground.
An enormous blast, half a kilometer into the jungle sent everyone but Viper ducking and silenced the weapons fire for a moment. He smiled and shouted, "Scratch one Imp transport! I've been wanting to blow that. Thought I'd keep it in reserve until we had our own here."
Ben and Nick lifted Robert into the shuttle while Viper and Mike covered them. Corry grabbed gear, packs and weapons—anything that wasn't bolted down—and threw it into the hatch before strong hands reached down to pull her aboard.
The last two scrambled on board and slammed the hatch shut.
The shuttle rotated several degrees, pitched its nose skyward and took off in a manner that no transport pilot would ever have attempted. The grey of the temple walls quickly were lost in the sea of green trees far below.
Observation Lounge, Farpoint, Two days later
"Here's to the first man I ever shot!" Corry raised her glass and saluted Robert.
"Lovely." grimaced Robert. "Is that the way you will always remember me? With my face in your cross hairs?"
"I didn't shoot you in the face! I shot you in the chest." Corry corrected. "Exactly dead center in the chest, I might add."
Ben laughed, "As long as you don't remember me in a stormie uniform, I'll be happy."
"No, I think I'll always remember you hanging from that piece of bridge by one hand. Swaying out .. over ... the ..." Corry slowed to a stop as Ben shook his head warningly, his eyes pleading.
Juno had walked up behind Corry and she asked sweetly. "Did you say 'hanging from a bridge'?"
Corry answered with an incoherent, "Uh, well... Umm..."
Juno rounded on Ben, "You said this trip was a walk in the park. Nothing that you couldn't do every other week." Hands on hips she glared at him, "Just what happened out there?"
Corry spoke up quickly, "Give him a break, Juno. Without him, we wouldn't be here. Right, Robert?"
"Sure! Oh, absolutely! Saved my life at least six times." When Robert started relaying some rather fantastically embellished moments, Juno's eyes got bigger and bigger. Under the table, Corry directed a swift kick into Robert's left shin. Robert let out a garbled moan and rolled his eyes back in his head.
"Your leg!" Corry was immediately filled with remorse. "I forgot! I'm so sorry!" Then she recognized the sly laughter in his face. "You rat. I'll get you for that."
Juno turned to him with concern in her face. "How are your legs, Robert?"
"Just fine." Robert smiled. "In fact, I'm going dancing after dinner. Can Ben spare you for a song?"
"Hands off, buddy." growled Ben.
Nick and Mike wandered over to the table just as Viper appeared from the kitchen, carrying a enormous covered silver platter.
"Something special tonight." Viper said, setting the heavy dish in the middle of the table. Six expectant faces looked up at him. "Escargot!"
Corry gulped and turned a little green.
"Not really." chuckled Viper. He pulled the cover off the smoking platter. "Two inch thick grilled Nerf steaks. Medium rare!"
"Sure to give some people nightmares." He added as he placed a plate of vegetables in front of Mike.
Corry sighed contentedly. "Just like home."
"Really?" Asked Juno. "You have nerf on earth?"
"Well, basically the same animals, we just call them something different." Corry answered, "My Dad's a nerf herder."
She looked perplexed as laughter rang out around the table.
"What? What did I say?"