IX: A Crack in the Armor

Rhiannon was falling again.

Someday, she thought, trying to move her arms, to reach out for something to hold onto, I'll have to grow wings.

Her body was weightless, tumbling, and she was starting to feel sick before she was dimly aware that she wasn't falling at all, that there was solid and slimy ground beneath her body, that she had never been flying and had never been free.

There was dark all around her, lurking all around her body like water or a bad memory. She knew she wasn't wholly awake but she didn't move, barely breathed, for fear of waking herself further and learning that the darkness was real. In the back of her mind, though, she knew; she squeezed her eyelids tighter together.

The air smelled like blood.

What happened to me?

She remembered something choking her. A Skaarj. The last thing she had seen had been its ugly face pushed close to hers, snarling at her as she lost consciousness. She winced at the terrifying memory; the clatter of chains punctuated her movement.

Her eyes opened. The darkness did not change. She moved her head slowly, from one side to the other, her eyes wide open and unblinking. The column of her throat ached from where the Skaarj had grabbed her, and her arms felt stiff and heavy at her sides.

Where am I?

She had been taken. She had been knocked out and kidnapped. She had been spirited away into darkness by a monster. She didn't know whether to cry, scream, or panic. The darkness around her was like a mouth, sealed shut around her body; any minute now it would cave in and crush her.

"Machiel?"

Quiet. Rhiannon blinked once or twice, trying to ignore the prickling behind her eyes. He could be asleep, she thought desperately. This feeling isn't me being alone. I'm just scared. I'm lost. I'm—

—alone.

She folded her legs towards her body and the chains rattled again.

"Ah!"

When had her breathing gotten so heavy? Her heart thudded in her stomach as she groped in the darknness, dread adding another weight to her shoulders as her fingers closed on something cold and hard and heavy clasped around both of her ankles. Her hand came up, carrying with it the length of chain that coupled her legs together. Biting back a sob, she used her free hand to encircle the metal shackle around her wrist.

A prisoner. A prisoner in the dark.

Dropping the chains onto her lap, her face crumpled in grief, and the proud Chantilly officer crawled to her hands and knees. She was able to shuffle her knees forward twice before the chains pulled taut with rattling certainty. Legs shaking, she put her hands on the floor and managed to get to her feet. Unsteady as a newborn horse, reaching out blindly for anything to get a measure of distance, her fingers met nothing but air. She turned, figuring the chains had to be attached to something, and felt a wall behind her. Her fingers met one of the metal plates that one of her chains was attached to. She picked up one of the chains and tugged on it. The plate didn't budge. Closing her eyes, she ran the chain through her fingers. There was roughly three feet of give in the metal on each of the four lines that she was pinioned with.

Rattling. She was making so much noise. Someone—something—was bound to notice. And if the monster that had brought her here was listening for her—

She clamped her lower lip between her teeth. And sniffed. And sniffed again.

Oh god please don't cry they'll find you—

She choked on a loud sob.

It was as if she had broken a spell.

"Holy shit, is Luthienne crying again?"

The sharp voice, spoken in a sharp English lilt, scratched the empty air like nails. The overly loud question was answered by a series of groans, coming from all directions with varying degrees of volume, like they were coming from behind walls.

A woman's voice, husky and raw, rose above the others. "That was not me. Mudak." It took Rhiannon a moment to pinpoint her accent as Russian. She sat as still as she could, rejoicing in the sound of neighboring people in chains. She wasn't alone, at least.

"Could'a fooled me," the first speaker shot back. "Did anybody else hear some bitch suckin' snot here? I could'a sworn—"

"Who cares who it was." Another Russian. His voice was weary, heavy. Old. "Stop terrorizing Luthy, for God's sake."

"Ah," Rhiannon cleared her throat, awkward once more in the silence. "It was me."

Soft murmurs. She figured that there were at least five others besides herself.

"Fresh meat, eh?" Denny's voice wormed into Rhiannon's ear like a snake. "Which cell ya in, cookie?"

Rhiannon clenched her hands even though she was shaking. "My name is Rhiannon Ries, and I am an officer of the Unified Military Service rescue ship Chantilly," she said. "I don't know where I am because it's pitch black, so could you do me a favor and be respectful and fill me in?"

"Love to," Denny said, "but can't. We don't know shit about where we are ourselves. Haven't seen a bit a' sky for weeks. Maybe a month. You lose track of time when you're chained to the wall in an alien installation."

"You've been here for a month?" Rhiannon couldn't keep the horror out of her voice.

"Yes." The Russian man was speaking now. "But we have been in Skaarj captivity for much longer. There were many more of us, all from different ships, but that was before the Dark Arena was abandoned and we were shipped here."

She knew nothing of the building, but hearing the words made Rhiannon shudder. "Where are you from?"

"Inuit. The Kran."

"But that went missing two years ago!"

She heard a thin string of laughter from what must have been Luthienne.

"What are they keeping you for?"

"When we were in the Dark Arena, we were only prisoners of war, but now the Skaarj seem to be searching for something and need some sort of Terran expertise."

"They're askin' questions, apparently." Denny sounded bored. "A couple days ago they whacked Andres for not offering up some information. Poor bastard didn't even know what they were talking about. They'll probably give you the same treatment when they realize that you're awake."

"What are they looking for?"

A pause. Luthienne was the only one who bothered to answer her, her voice shaking like a leaf.

"…We don't know for sure. But we've heard…things. From…all sorts of people. The Nali. But…it seems silly, to us…that they'd…the Skaarj…would still be around after…after what happened."

Rhiannon was breathless. "What are you talking about?"

"We think…that something…someone...made it off-world, but before they did…they…they killed her."

"Killed who?"

"The Queen."

A rude screech of metal. Rhythmic footsteps. A snarling sound that nearly paralyzed Rhiannon with fear.

"Good luck, cookie," Denny whispered.

Rhiannon stood up. She didn't know why she did. She felt the weight of the shackles on her limbs, cold and terrible.

She was an officer. She had to be brave.

The barred door in front of her swung open with a sound like a scream.

And Rhiannon Ries faced day one of her interrogation.


An hour into their renewed journey into the mountain, Machiel finally figured out where the source of the annoying, sharp sound that he had been hearing the entire time was coming from.

He dropped back a few steps to walk behind his companion, dropping his eyes to where the Marine's hand was. There.

Shick. Shick. Shick.

The Marine was holding his arm at his side, his gloved fingers tightly wrapped around the hilt of a knife that was nestled in a thin pouch on his outer thigh. Every time the Marine took a step, the knife would be pulled out of its sheath with a small snick. He never fully removed it, though, and the soft music of metal seemed to convey the military man's restlessness.

Their pace was fast enough for them to keep warm in the cold night air of the mountain, but after his rest and the meal that he had eaten, Machiel didn't feel as bad as he did before. His back was a little sore, but he was used to the twinge of pain every other step. Besides, he was preoccupied with worrying about both Rhiannon and what might happen to him when he reached the Prometheus. The Marine expected him to fight. He snorted inwardly. He would try, of course, if he didn't run away screaming first.

The footpath they had been following curved gently and dipped into another cave. The pilot rolled his eyes. If he ever got off this planet he'd be a certified spelunker.

"I'm not a big fan of this either, Mac," the Marine said as they slipped into the wet semi-darkness. From somewhere in the recesses of his uniform he pulled out a flare and struck it. Harsh red light filled the cavern, and Machiel squinted against it. Speaking over the hissing fire, the Marine said, "I'm used to it, of course. Maybe that's why."

"How'd you get so used to it?"

The Marine didn't answer.

The cavern was small and relatively shallow, and before the flare had burned all the way down they had already reached the other side. The mountain towered over them as they made their way up a gently sloping, grassy hill. A wooden gate led them past a jagged boulder and into a small clearing with three abandoned Nali huts. Machiel sniffed the air tentatively. The normally clean mountain air carried with it the sharp tang of metal and the sour aftertaste of fractured starship fuel cells. He was about to ask the Marine if he thought they were close when the Marine put his finger to his mask in the 'quiet' gesture.

The sound of venting echoed somewhere close by.

Suddenly the Marine was running, boots slamming into the dusty ground, gear slapping against his back. Machiel followed him, his hand pressed to his back. Behind one of the huts, in the space between two mounds of rock, there was a clearing that allowed him to see all the way down into a huge valley that sat at the foot of the mountain range. The ground between the boulders dropped in a straight plummet down to the floor of the valley, and the wind that bucked up from the floor was nearly gale-force.

But nestled in the valley, a dark glowing gem under the stars, was the Marine's prize.

The Prometheus.

Machiel's heart filled with horror at the sight. From up here, the mighty military ship looked like a child's toy that had been violently broken underfoot. Great sections of the hull had apparently burned completely away in reentry; in one missing section of the ship he could see every single deck inside. Its pitiful solar lights were still on, illuminating the ground at its belly like a broken halo. The worst wound the ship suffered was undeniably the direct break in its midsection, cut all the way through like a huge knife had been used to cut the warship like a slice of bread. The two pieces lay several hundred feet apart from each other, held together by a series of energy bridges, either set up by the survivors of the wreck or—something else.

"Look at that," the Marine breathed. "Thank god it didn't break up in the air."

"Sure looks pretty broken up to me."

"C'mon. Let's find a way to get down there."

He didn't know why, but the Marine seemed happier. He watched as the other man ran to the very edge of the drop-off, standing a breath away from a deadly fall, grabbing onto the tip of one boulder and staring down at the broken wreck of a once-proud transport. The mournful sound of its working mechanics wailed into the air.

Suddenly turning around, the Marine cocked his head at him, then reached out and seized his arm. After a few steps, he said, "Why do you keep holding your back like that?"

Machiel, surprised by the Marine's abrupt question and even moreso by the fact that he had actually just expressed interest in his well-being, laughed sheepishly. "It's hurting. It's been like that since the crash. I don't know what's wrong with it."

"Here. Hold this." The Marine shoved the CAR into his hands and circled around to walk behind him. "No, don't stop, keep walking." With businesslike air, the Marine reached around and unzipped the pilot's flight suit, yanking it down to his waist and making Machiel nearly fumble and drop the gun. Lifting up his undershirt, the Marine inspected the bare skin of Machiel's back.

"It doesn't look like you've got any internal bleeding going on," he said, poking the area none-too gently. Machiel grunted with pain. "Maybe it's a slipped disk. Or spinal cancer."

Machiel looked at him, his face twisting. The Marine suddenly slapped him on the back and laughed. "It hasn't killed you yet, so don't worry about it! Now get dressed." He grabbed his gun back and trotted ahead. "Well, hurry up! The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get Rhiannon back."

Another pause. Then he offered the rifle back to Machiel. He looked at it dubiously.

"…What about it?"

"You're going to need it." The weapon was once again pushed into his unsteady hands. Machiel spluttered.

"But what are you going to use?"

The Marine reached down and flicked the knife out of its sheath, flipping it expertly up in the air and catching it by its curiously carved handle. A sort of grip tape was wrapped around parts of the carvings and the blade was whip thin and almost two handspans long. The thing looked older than dirt, though, and Machiel shook his head. "I don't think that'll work. Besides, how am I supposed to shoot this thing? I'm a pilot, not an officer!"

The Marine chuckled. "You'll learn," he said, spinning the knife around in his fingers. "Besides, the Prometheus is a warship, is it not? If I know anything about UMS, it's that they always have spare munitions lying around. And if I have to crack a few Mercenary heads to get to them, it won't bother me too much."

Excitement crackled in the air around the Marine.

I bet his face looks like a kid's at Christmas. Maybe he really does enjoy killing.

"Let's go, Mac."

Shrugging his shoulders back into their sleeves and zipping up his flight suit, Machiel followed the Marine down the hill.

Wait a little bit more, Ries. Just hold on.

I promise I won't let you fall again.