18 Eye to Eye
The galley was bustling as everyone tried to snag breakfast before first shift began. Cass waded through the crowd, two trays held high.
“Here Ilona, this one’s yours.”
“Thank you.” Ilona said, taking her meal. She’d grabbed a table as far away from the crowd as possible. Ilona ate her oatmeal in small, neat bites. Cass was eating fruit-e-ohs of colors not found in nature, and scarfed it in sloppy spoonfuls.
“Thanks for saving my seat! It’s crazy today. So how you liking Orca?”
“I like it here.” Ilona said quietly. “Everyone is so nice. Doctor Seth helped me with your computer, she’s not like the one I had at home.”
“Yeah Winston’s good for that. Ask Dave if you want games, he’s got them all.”
“Officer Hartley? Is he nice? He’s so... big.”
“Yeah he is kinda’ huge isn’t he? Dave’s good people though. There aren’t any real creeps on Orca this year. ‘Cept Louis, and there might be hope for him. And the Praxis agents.”
“They frighten me.” Ilona admitted.
“More of them are coming today. It was on today’s roster—a bunch of us have to help them unload their gear.”
Cass looked up sharply. “Need an extra hand? Winston’d let me help. Let’s go see what they’re up to.” She slurped the now-dyed milk from her cereal, muttered an apology for it, and went to investigate.
Shelby was directing a bunch of poor grunts unloading an endless series of crates from the elevator. “Ok men, let’s move this hardware! Go go go! Hey bozo, take it easy with that!”
Agent Hauser watched, unimpressed. “Aren’t you taking this final frontier act a bit far?”
“Forewarned is forearmed.”
“Forearmed is trigger happy. Shelby, from where I stand it looks like you’re guaranteeing all out confrontation, and I’m not sure we’ll survive it.”
“Sure we will. We’re on the winning side.”
“Are we?” Ellie said, mostly to herself, and went to see if she could find something less scary to do.
Brett came around the corner. “What’s all this?” He asked generally.
Cass made ‘pretend you don’t know me!’ faces behind Shelby’s back. Shelby said to Brett, “Just covering all eventualities.”
Brett caught Jason in quarters. “That Jake Shelby is a huge worry. You oughtta check out the stuff they’re unloading up there.”
“I know. Mum told me.”
“This is going to turn into a disaster!”
“We must stop.” Neri chimed from the door.
Brett jumped. “Neri, you shouldn’t be here! The place is crawling with Praxis agents, what if they see you?”
“Is too important. I am going to pyramid.”
“Neri... wants to negotiate with Shersheba and Malakat.”
“They are ocean people.” Neri said, “My people. Only I can make them see.”
Jason explained, “The ocean planet people want to migrate here, but if there’s a war there’ll be nothing left to migrate to. That’s why Neri thinks they might compromise.”
“All they want is the ankh. You’ll walk right into their trap!”
“Jason says the same thing but I see no other way.”
“No, no way. You can’t just walk in, we’ve got to think of something else.”
Jason said, “I think... I have an idea.”
In the depths, the pyramid loomed. Inside, Shersheba and Malakat were speaking with their homeworld.
Councilor Garron said, “Our situation here is fast deteriorating. Even my position as leader is under threat.”
“I’m sure you exaggerate. Our troops are loyal to you.”
“The red virus is spreading faster, Princess. Death comes with even more speed, and the people begin to say we can offer no more help than the old council and the child Mera! You promised there would be progress.”
“But Malakat, we must migrate to the opal planet soon or we will all perish!”
“Do you doubt me?” Malakat snapped.
“No, of course, but...”
“This is the biggest operation in our planet’s history. I am—we are—not organizing some sightseeing adventure. Your conduct, this hysteria, does not please me or the Princess Shersheba. Be warned, Garron.”
“Yes yes, I’m sorry, I realize-”
“Then do your job and let me do mine.”
A guard entered. “Intruders.”
“I must terminate our discussion immediately.”
“Enough! Garron, you must keep control, no matter what.” Malakat closed the call. “Enemy craft?”
“Ah. This we shall welcome. Princess, if you’d open the doors and you, alert our forces. But fire only at my command.”
The minifin surfaced and Brett and Jason climbed out cautiously. They were surrounded by ocean planet warriors who didn’t meet their eyes. Maybe they didn’t speak English.
“Welcome, gentlemen.” Malakat said.
“Jason, how nice. And your little brother.”
Jason said, “We come in peace, Shersheba.”
The girl laughed. “Don’t tell me you want to change sides?”
“You have something to discuss?”
“They went alone?” Dianne repeated. She was down in computers with Cass and Winston, and had just heard the news.
“It was them or Neri. She wanted to go but Jason wouldn’t let her.”
Winston said, “Neri thinks there’s still time to negotiate.”
“And I hope she’s right. I got a pretty good look at some of the stuff Praxis was loading in gamma level, and it had some pretty nasty warning stickers.”
“Do they realize the danger they’re in?”
“Since it was to protect Neri... how could they not?”
“I know Winston, I know.”
The boys were ushered into the main chamber of the pyramid. Shersheba hopped up onto the statue, but got down again after a moment. Guards stood around the room, looming but still not looking at anyone.
Malakat said, “Now, how can I help you?”
“Neri doesn’t want conflict between our people.” Jason said slowly. He was scared, more than he wanted to be, and it made his voice come out monotone. Brett was completely silent.
“Give me—us the ankh and there will be no problem.”
“Neri has requested a meeting with you Malakat. Alone.”
Shersheba gave Jason a look. “Malakat is my servant. I give the orders here!”
“Well, that’s not how the operation seems to work from the outside, Shersheba. Just an observation.”
“How dare you! Malakat-”
Malakat turned to her. “They are just trying to provoke trouble between us highness. They are bigger fools than I thought.”
“Wait, Shersheba. Neri is prepared with Malakat alone. If you agree, she says she will consider handing over the ankh. And she wants me at the meeting, just to keep an eye on things. These are Neri’s conditions. She will only meet with Malakat. Take it or leave it.”
“What are they playing at?” Shersheba hissed to her companion.
“This is no game, highness. This is our opportunity.”
“And what about the sister? Where will she be? I don’t like this Malakat, I suspect a trap. I insist on being there.”
“That is my decision and it’s final!”
Jason took a breath. “You haven’t heard the rest of the proposal yet.”
Cass had pulled up a database of symbols. “I saw this one, that one, and lots of those. Helen, can you translate?”
The computer displayed each symbol in turn. “Hazardous. Toxic. Inactive explosives.”
Dianne drew a sharp breath. “Explosive? They brought explosives onto Orca?”
Helen said, “Would you like a closer look at the storeroom, Commander? I can patch into the security cameras.”
Cass grinned, “Yes please!”
The view wiped the smile off her face. Shelby and Hauser were arguing, surrounded by their gear. And there were some symbols Cass hadn’t seen when she helped unload. She said, “Is that..?”
“Move in closer, Helen.”
After a pause Winston said, “Nukes. They brought nuclear torpedoes.
“They’re going to destroy everything.”
Ellie stormed out of the storeroom. Undermining his authority indeed! Shelby undermined himself! Didn’t he realize he had to use the authorization so often because absolutely everyone thought he was stupid? Except Richter, worse luck.
Annoyance almost drowned out the thought that had been on Ellie’s mind all day: that they were all going to die and it would be her fault.
She nearly ran into Ilona. “That was close. Are you ok?”
“Perfectly well, thank you Miss Hauser.”
Ilona looked—off. Her eyes looked sunken and as she walked away she was swaying a little. Ellie followed her. Ilona moved fast, looking straight ahead as she went through the viewing tube. As if...
The girl fumbled her card as she unlocked the door to her quarters. Ellie heard her say, “Mum? Start the shower? If I don’t feel water soon I shall die.”
The door closed. Ellie stood by it and listened to the sound of water in Orca’s pipes.
It was certainly an emergency. Dianne and Winston had gone off to have a private council of war with Paul bates and anyone else they could think of, leaving Cass to mind the computer lab. She had things to do, but nuclear missiles two floors above made concentration impossible. Cass sat with her head in her hands and made stupid plans, like calling her parents for an emergency move to the mainland. Possibly the mainland of America. Or maybe she could hack the launch system and disable it. Or hit Shelby over the head with a heavy object...
The door opening interrupted her gloomy reverie. It was Agent Hauser.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“Winston’s not here.” Cass said briefly.
“I need some information.”
“I don’t have to give you anything. We know what you brought on board.”
“Trust me Cass, it’s not my idea!”
Cass whirled to look at her. “Then do something! Change it! You’re a grownup!”
“Whoa. Don’t think I’m not trying to. I’m sorry. I need some information, on the quiet. It’s a long shot but it might change the situation.”
“Yeah? What do you want to know?”
“I need access to the figures on Orca’s water consumption records. I want to look at the average and compare it to the figures for Ila and Ilona Smith’s cabin. Can you help?”
Cass’ guard went up. “Ilona’s nice! And she’s got nothing to do with anything. If you creeps go after her...”
“No! I just want to stop all this. Believe me.”
Cass gave Ellie a long look. Finally she said, “Helen, you get that?”
“Affirmative. Compiling data.”
Neri and Mera waited on the island. Neri was making something out of shells. Mera paced and watched the sea. When the minifin surfaced she ran down to help pull it to shore.
“We’re fine, Mera.”
“Yeah, it was scary but we got out in one piece. Where’s Neri?”
“Waiting inside. Come on.”
Neri stood up and hugged Jason. “Jason, you are safe! Malakat will come?”
“He agreed. With conditions—it’s got to be on the mainland beach, a big open area. That way no one can sneak up without being seen.”
“I’ll be there, back a bit. Malakat’s obviously pretty keen to have it out with you but he did agree for me to be there.”
“So everything’s settled then?” Mera asked.
“Meanwhile...” Brett began.
“Brett’s stroke of genius.”
“Shersheba. We had to include her in the operation or she’d cause trouble. So, you and me will look after Shersheba in the hills above the beach. As kind of hostage insurance. Is that ok?”
Mera looked uncertain, then nodded. “All right.”
“Ok. We’re all set then.”
Ilona stepped out of the shower and sighed. Much better! She fumbled with the earth people’s strange idea of underclothes, then put on her uniform. “I am well, Mother. It’s just that school and shift took so long and I couldn’t get away. Are you well?”
“You do not need to ask that twice a day.” Ila teased her daughter. “This planet is good for me. I feel much stronger.”
“Yes, well, I must look after you as Father would have done.” Ilona gave her mother a damp hug. “I have a little while before I go on duty. Shall we try a new flavor of this planet’s ‘ice cream?’”
Just then Ilona’s communicator rang. She took it out and turned it on. An image projected from the little device. “Yes, highness?”
Shersheba said, “A meeting has been arranged with the Bates boys and the chosen one. I’ll need more information from you.”
“I want the frequencies of their personal communicators.”
“But-” Ilona began, not sure where the thought would end.
“I’m not really enjoying my task anymore. That is, I don’t think I’m suitable to be a spy. I find I’m becoming quite fond of these earth people. They’re not how we were told they were. Several of them have helped me, or showed me interesting things like their best foods or earth games. They’re quite... nice.” She finished helplessly.
Shersheba smiled for a second before her face went cold. “Now listen to me Ilona, and listen very well. You have no idea how cruel and ruthless these people are under their smiling exterior. They plan to kill us all. At this very moment they have their weapons assembled, do they not? And now, our survival rests on you. I want that frequency. If you fail, you and your mother will be judged as traitors, do you understand?”
Ilona’s eyes had gone wide. She nodded quickly. “I will find the frequency.”
Malakat waited on the beach. He was smiling.
Neri and Jason got out of the inflatable up the beach. Jason pulled it out of reach of the waves while Neri watched Malakat.
“No one else around. Looks ok so far.”
“You are not to worry.” Neri murmured.
“Who me?” Jason’s voice caught, that’s how worried he was. “Right, well, I’ll wait back here and keep an eye on him, ok?”
“I will be careful.” Neri turned away.
“This is only way.”
“Yeah... I know.” Jason turned on his com. “Brett? Meeting about to take place. You?”
“The insurance is here. She’s unarmed.” Brett moved his camera to show Shersheba, sitting against a tree. Mera hovered next to her looking tense. “How’s it looking?”
“Cass and Winston are monitoring the underwater approaches so I’m not expecting any unwelcome visitors. Be careful. Out.” Jason cut the call and looked up. Neri and Malakat stood face to face. The sunlight gilded their tan skin, Malakat’s alien garments and Neri’s hair. Enemies, walking together.
“Ocean planet people must come in peace.” Neri said quietly.
“It must be possible.”
“Neri, you are an innocent. The earth people would never permit that.”
“...you are not ready to believe.”
“Your people on the ocean planet are dying of the red virus.”
“My sister Mera tells me.”
“Then you know that time is not on her side.” Malakat turned to her with passion, almost longing in his voice. “Don’t fight your own people Neri! Hear their suffering. Accept that Earth will never receive us peacefully, that to act now is our only chance! We can do it, we can share the power of the pyramid!”
Neri just looked at him with calm eyes.
“And what of the Praxis organization? Do you think they are prepared for peace? You know them. They would have killed you if not for a lucky accident.”
“Not accident. Earth people save me. Jason, Brett, my friends.”
“And what more can they do? The ones with real power want war, you have seen that! They overrun Orca even now. You don’t belong with these weaklings Neri. Return to your own people. Fulfill your destiny as queen of the new earth kingdom.”
“By using the pyramid to kill? I will not. This is home for earth people. We must protect.”
Malakat snarled. “You are a fool, a dreamer like your mother.”
“My mother was a great queen. Gave hope to our people.”
“Shalamorn would have seen to it that we all died on this planet, as you so nearly did. Fortunately for all our sakes, she met her end when she did.” Malakat’s cold gaze turned inward to memory. “Just one flash in the sky.”
“You saw my mother die?” Neri murmured. Jason stepped up behind her.
“Oh yes.” Malakat smiled. “I was there. I was one of her advisors. How well I remember it. When no word came back from your father’s mission, your mother prepared a mission to find you. Shalamorn had foolishly believed she would succeed in starting a colony on the opal planet with her family. She went offering friendship. Lunacy. Then, as she took off... the people always believed it was an accident. The plan had worked.”
Neri had gone white. Jason said, “You mean you...’
“You? You killed my mother?” Neri said. Her eyes burned with something that was almost rage.
“It was for the greater good. And now you know how I deal with anyone who gets in my way. I am offering you one last chance to rule with us.”
“Then you can both perish with the rest of them.” Malakat turned away. He touched the com on his wrist. “Take her.”
Jason went for his own com. “Brett! Brett, come in!” But he could only get static.
Mera did not go quietly, when the commandos appeared and ambushed them. She went kicking and screaming, and biting. Brett did the same until he was tackled to the ground then tied to a tree.
Shersheba knelt next to him. “Tell Neri her sister will be kept without water until she surrenders the golden ankh. You can help her change her mind, Brett.” She stood, and turned on Mera, weapon pointed. “And you, princess, can come with us on your feet or carried after I have stunned you.”
Mera was blazing hatred, but as Shersheba raised the weapon to point at her eyes, Mera nodded and let herself be led away with only one panicked look back.
Brett squirmed like crazy, with no luck. He was still trying to get untied when Jason and Neri ran up.
“They took Mera! I messed up, it’s all my fault!” Brett almost wailed as Jason cut the vines he was tied with.
“No.” Neri chimed.
“We all blew it. They jammed the phone and they must’ve been waiting.”
Free, Brett stood up and said, “They want the ankh, Neri. Or—or I think they’ll let Mera die.”
Back at the pyramid the commandos shoved Mera into a small room, with enough force that she went to her knees. She looked up at Malakat. “You’re wasting your time. Neri will never give you the ankh.”
“You have no faith. Neri will not sacrifice her last living family for a mere ancient relic. She will deliver. Nothing is more certain. Perhaps you will even still be alive when she does.”
The door closed. Mera listened to the silence.
Richter stepped out of the Orca elevator. His agents met him.
“Welcome to Orca sir.”
“Ready to go here sir. Weapons assembled. We’re just waiting for your order.”
Richter nodded and handed over his briefcase. “Where are my quarters?”
There was a rather obvious “Ahem.” Dianne stood with her eyebrows raised.
“Ah, Commander Bates. Theodore Richter, Praxis high command. I have orders for you to surrender full command of this base to my people.”
“I’ve received no notification.”
“You have now.” He handed over some paperwork. “I am authorized to put this facility under martial law.”
“She is strong-minded.” Malakat said, “Her royal blood shows.”
“Blood has nothing to do with it.” Shersheba made a dismissive gesture. They were in the pyramid’s main chamber, Malakat leaning on the wall and Shersheba seated on one of the stone steps. “Do you truly believe Neri will hand over the ankh?”
“I am certain of it. Neri will not abandon her sister. It is only a matter of time.”
“We don’t have time! The red virus is taking over. Our people must emigrate or be poisoned.”
“I do not need to be reminded of the nature of the virus or the urgency.” Malakat glanced over at the projector that let them speak with the ocean planet. He knew more about the red virus than Shersheba did, probably more than anyone did. But he did not know how much time they had.
Inconsolable, Brett sat tossing pebbles into the water. Neri and Jason sat on a rock on the other side of the stream. They’d returned to the island after trying an failing to catch up with Shersheba and get Mera back.
“I shouldn’t’ve made Mera come.” Brett tossed more stones into the stream. “Malakat and Shersheba will flood the world. Praxis will nuke the aliens. And we lose everything. Well, we tried.”
Neri murmured, “My mother trusted Malakat and he killed her. Now he will kill everyone.”
“Starting with Mera, if we don’t hand over the ankh.”
Neri’s poise fell away and she drooped against Jason. “I must choose... help me!”
Brett shook his head.
“I can’t.” Jason said. “I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.” But he put his arms around Neri and let her lean on him, offering comfort because it was the only thing he could do.