Avon was in teaching mode as he reported on the conditions of the planet below. His voice could have sounded like any number of bored professors in front of an equally bored audience of the barely awake, but for some reason, even with a flat tone, the vibrating smoothness of it, the way the volume changed when he wanted to stress a point, was mesmerizing.
"We've come at the worst time, of course. The hemisphere where the Advanced Technogenics Division resides is just entering its storm cycle. They call it the Long Storm. Something of an understatement, it lasts the equivalent of three-and-a-half Earth years."
"What kind of storms?" Argus stood up and went over to the vidscreen, studying the swirling white and black surface of the planet below, trying to pierce its mysteries.
"Electrical storms, ice storms, sandstorms and windstorms. Usually in combination."
"Only if you're caught out in the open."
Vila sighed. "We'll just have to wait then."
"Not three-and-a-half years." Argus turned to look at Avon. "What about the Research Centre? Can our teleport penetrate it?"
"Not recommended. Not unless you wish to arrive in pieces, or not at all. There's too much signal interference. "
"I like my idea better," mumbled Vila under his breath.
"Alright, that rules out the teleport. Would the shuttle survive the storms?"
Reya seemed to be preoccupied during this discussion but she looked up. "There is another ship onboard."
Argus grimaced. "Sester's ship."
"That is our best alternative," said Avon. He angled his head to his left where Jenna was sitting. "We will need a good pilot."
Jenna looked at him in surprise. "I could pilot it."
There was a brief pause as everyone waited for Argus to say something.
"Are you sure? You haven't piloted in awhile."
Everyone was staring at her but Jenna was only aware of one set of eyes. Lt. Dain's intense blue eyes were looking at her intently, as if he were trying to encourage her, to remind her of what he had said many times. If she wanted the crew to trust her again, she would have to try harder, she would have to be honest with them about everything. "I piloted the smuggler's ship. The one that transported the initial shipment of Shade."
There was a sharp intake of breath around the room and everyone turned to observe Avon's reaction.
His face never changed expression, he only said, "Then the storms would not present a difficultly."
Argus nodded. "Alright, Jenna will pilot. I'll draw up a list of people we'll need. It's not a large ship so we'll have to go down with the bare minimum. Vila, tell Sester we'll be using his ship."
"Tell Sester we'll be using his ship he says," Vila muttered to himself as he made his way to Sester's cabin. "What if he says no? Am I supposed to tie him up?" He pressed on the cabin buzzer and heard a muffled chime inside.
There was no response. Was he in there? He should have checked. Vila pressed again, twice in succession. If Sester wasn't in there, he'd have to go and find him.
The door slid open. "Sester…oh…Kirsten…" The young woman, slightly dishevelled and looking amused, was standing in the doorway. Vila craned his neck to peer inside past her. "Is Sester around?"
"Around?" She smirked. "Lying around, yes."
There was a rattling of metal.
"I…have to talk to him. About his ship. It's important."
"Well, come on in then." She smiled expansively and stepped to the side to let him in.
"Don't you dare!" Sester shouted from inside but it was too late, Vila took a step inside, stopped and stared. Sester was lying on his bunk, hastily pulling his tunic together and refastening it, which was hard considering one of his wrists was chained to the head of the bed. His face instantly changed from outrage and embarrassment to his normal one of casual indifference. "Vila. You wanted to use my ship?"
"You're…" Vila was at a loss for words. He remembered catching these two before in a similar situation. Of course, he'd heard of the kinds of games some people got up to, and not just men and women. He wasn't naïve, not in the places he grew up. This was tame in comparison.
"Yes?" There was an air of challenge, daring him to say something more specific.
"Doesn't it hurt?"
Sester rolled his eyes. "You have no idea."
"I would never hurt him." Kirsten came over and sat at the edge of the table, her shapely legs swinging freely. "Well, not much."
Many of the things on the table had been pushed haphazardly to one side. Some had fallen over onto the floor. Vila wondered how long these two had been at it and how far…
"You asked about using my ship?" Sester's question shook him from far more interesting speculations.
"Yeah. Argus wants it. We can't use the teleport to go down to Tingash because of the storms. We need your ship."
"I'd be happy to lend my ship."
There was an eager look on his face, which made Vila nervous. "What's the catch?"
"Et tu, Vila?" he asked with an amused smile on his face.
"Never mind. Since you expect it of me, I do have one condition."
"I knew it. Spit it out."
"Argus can use my ship, but I'm coming down with you."
"Are you sure?" Sester obviously didn’t know the conditions on Tingash. "The storms down there are bad. Dangerous. That's why we need your ship. And it's crawling with mutoids. Not your neighbourhood friendlies."
"I'm familiar with the conditions on Tingash."
"And you still want to go down?" Vila shook his head. Why would anyone face dangers he didn't have to? He was sure Argus didn't want Sester going with him.
"I have my reasons."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"That's my condition. I won't interfere with the mission; in fact I may be able to help."
"I don't know…you'd better talk to Argus."
"What a wonderful suggestion. Kirsten? The keys please."
Kirsten jumped down from the table, a slim key already in her hands. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you did that just to get away from me."
"And escape my delightful fate at your hands? Would I do that?"
She poked the key into a recessed hole and turned until there was a snap and the cuffs sprang open. "Come right back or I'm not going to be here."
Sester freed his hand and rubbed the red line on his wrist as he got up. "Lead on, Vila. And let's hurry."
Sharp-Eyes edged closer to the mouth of the cave and the punishing winds outside as she sniffed the currents of air, desperately trying to find her mate. Brave-Heart's scent was gone and his mind-voice was silent. He did not respond to her calls sent out into the silence.
The air was heavy in her chest and the fur at the back of her neck stuck out in fear. Her heart was pounding so hard that it drowned out the howling of the wind.
She could no longer smell the two-legs with their dead scents. They had passed far from the cave. And Brave-Heart had gone after them.
Did they catch him? Sharp-Eyes flung her head from side to side. It could not be. Brave-Heart was the best. No one could touch him or see him if he didn't want them to. They could not have caught him. He would have sent his voice to her if there had been danger. He would have warned her to protect the pack.
The two-legs were clever and devious. They had devices that gave them advantages the wolves did not have and they had been trying to catch one of them for a long time.
Sharp-Eyes flung her head angrily. No! It could not be. The two-legs could not have captured…she sneezed and sneezed again. Her mate was still alive. She could feel it.
But where was he? Why could she not hear his voice?
Inside the cave, the pups whimpered as they sensed her worries.