Sarhea sat crouched behind an outcropping of rock, her brown cloak pulled closely around her, as her energized gaze scanned the dark landscape beyond for any signs of her quarry. Out before her, stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction, lay the Toolak Ravine. It had been several weeks since her first hunting venture had ended here in failure. She had spent those weeks in intensive preparation for the venture she now waited to begin.
It had been a revealing journey. Nothing had both surprised and troubled her more than what she was beginning to discover about this world’s energy and the way it interacted with her own. This city’s energy was alive, just as it had been on her home world, but there was a distinct lack of recognizable Guardian presence. A series of experiments had ended with something being awakened inside of her, something that both confused and frightened her. The city’s energy was incredibly strong; when it was in unity with her own, it could influence her nearly as strongly as when the Guardians would take control of her on her home world. She had barely regained control of herself and ever since, she had felt the beckoning lure of a foreign force all around her. It was felt even in the guiding energy she had regularly employed to assist her. Whatever had been awakened within would not allow her to ignore it, as much as she tried. It would come upon her when she least expected it and she’d tried in vain for more than a week to resist its influence.
When she finally grew too weary of the effort, finally quit fighting its insistent prodding, she discovered it had been trying to help her. When she’d finally allowed herself to be in unity with the energy around her, the solution to her other pressing goal had presented itself. She needed to find a way to safely learn about this city as Nakyla had suggested. To do that, she had to overcome her fear of interacting with the city’s citizens. It was possible to speak to others without revealing her dangerous secrets; she done it with both Aleena and Nakyla. But she would also have to learn what it meant to be a documented citizen. Aleena had warned her that she would not be able to continue to live in the shadows and that if anyone caught on that she was undocumented, she would be put in the difficult situation of having to reveal her past to everyone. She did not want that. Aleena already knew more about her than she ever intended for anyone to know and it made it difficult for her to manufacture a cover story. She only hoped Aleena would stay true to her word and never repeat the story she’d been told.
She knew it had been her guide’s doing when she was unexpectedly introduced to a pleasant Kreetian woman named Leesha, who was second in charge of entering and keeping the citizen records database. The offhand information she’d learned in casual conversation between the woman and Aleena had given her enough to build on. She needed more information to formulate a story. She had begun careful surveillance of citizens she’d heard mentioned, followed the energy’s leading, and over the course of several weeks, had made connections with Tobin, a pleasant middle aged Cassarian who served as the City historian, Argine, who was the overly social Paloan mate of the city’s intelligence director, and Frieda, an elderly Taloan woman whom she’d been unexpectedly drawn to. The elderly woman turned out to be an old friend of the city overlord Sarsan. Through her new connections, she had nearly completed an idea in her mind for a story that would keep all suspicion away from her and would allow her unhindered access to all the city had to offer.
Sarhea shoved the memories aside; she’d pondered the possibilities now for too long and needed a break. Tonight, she was hunting. She’d been sneaking out into the darkness for four days now as she followed up on a vibe she’d been receiving from Nakyla during their latest sparing matches. The Malkaian’s mind had been troubled, but she would not divulge any information. Sarhea had done more digging on the side and had discovered rumors of unusual drone activity near the ravine. She had indeed witnessed the foul contraptions streaking through the darkness of the deep chasm. Hours of careful observation had revealed a surprising pattern. Three drones would streak east through the ravine roughly thirty minutes apart. Roughly an hour later, all three would head back west, again thirty minutes apart. The cycle would repeat throughout the night. She had considered traveling down the ravine to see where they were going, but had decided she couldn’t risk the exposure. They moved much faster than she did and she couldn’t risk being caught out after daybreak again, especially after hearing there had been heavy military presence out patrolling the area once the sun came up. She’d had ample time to devise her attack plan. She may not have been able to take many drones out at once, but she was confident she could pick them off one by one, much as she had learned they did to any who dared venture recklessly beyond the city’s shields.
Her attention was drawn to the darkness to the west. The landscape was painted with weak energy, attesting to what she’d heard spoken by several, that the lands beyond the city were essentially dead. She should not have been able to see this dark, moonless night, but one positive side effect of her experiments had been the discovery that if she demanded it, this world’s energy could illuminate the outlines and signatures of everything around her, much like it had the day she escaped with her cargo. It was no longer a reactive phenomenon; she could call on it whenever she felt the desire.
Her ever present guiding energy remained separate from the revealed landscape and suddenly darted off down the ravine’s edge. Her gaze locked on an eerie blue-black glow that began to illuminate the ravine walls to the west, and right on time, a drone with its festering black energy shot past her position and disappeared to the east. She noted its flight level along the ravine walls. Despite her desire to move into attack mode, she stayed in place, and as had occurred the past four nights, the second drone shot by thirty minutes later at exactly the same flight level. As soon as it was out of sight, she sprang into action.
Sarhea scurried down the precarious rock footings she’d scouted out earlier that lead down the side of the ravine and to the opening of a crevasse that splintered off the main formation. It lay right above the drones’ flight level. Sarhea ducked into the crevasse and waited for the last drone. She quickly retrieved the red-studded dagger from its sheath. She would have to time her leap perfectly to hit her target. To miss would mean certain injury-the ravine floor was still a good ways down into the darkness. Her nerves were on edge as the reactive power coursed through her in anticipation.
She spotted the glow of the black energy right on time. Her guiding forces grew tense and stationary as she fought to ignore the drone and focus on their leading. The stationary waves of energy suddenly converged on one point out over the open darkness. Sarhea leapt out, adrenaline rushing through her veins and felt herself freefalling through the darkness. She made solid contact with cold metal. She had little time to position herself before the drone abruptly launched into the night air over the ravine. She expected the move this time and clung to the leading edges of the mechanical beast’s wings.
“Not this time,” she growled as strength surged through her.
She reached up and slammed the red jeweled dagger directly at the heart of the black energy. She felt the blade slide through the gaps in the vent openings, watched as its energy signature pierced into the black flame. A malicious grin formed when the drone’s motion faltered, giving her the opportunity to grab her blue jeweled dagger and slam it home in the same manner on the opposite side. Her hatred, her enflamed defensive energy, poured from her core, through the daggers and into the beast’s black heart. She watched in triumph as it vaporized before her, the drone’s power abruptly disappearing. She ripped the daggers from their mark as the lifeless hulk of metal rapidly began falling to the dark surface below. When prompted, she leapt off her kill and landed safely away from the impact as the contraption crashed before her. An intense wave of pride and satisfaction surged through her-it was her first successful kill.
Sarhea had no time to revel in her success. There were still two more drones to dispatch. If she did not kill them both, they would most likely alert the others and all her preparations would be in vain and she would have to start anew. She called on her guides and quickly made her way back to the hidden crevasse. When the black signature came into view, she instantly knew it was flying lower than it was supposed to be. She fought to push aside her growing worry and concentrate on the energy’s leading-she had to trust her guides. She couldn’t help but cringe when the energy converged out over the open darkness, the drone still alarmingly a good distance to her right. She closed her eyes and leapt for her mark.
Cool night air rushed around her as she fell. She made contact seconds later, but further back on the drone than she would have liked. The drone’s expected vertical launch shook her slipping grip. She had no choice but to thrust her red jeweled dagger into the space between its hull and wing. Her blade found its mark, and when it did, the drone veered sharply to the right. It hit the top edge of the ravine and spun crazily to the ground on the opposite side. Sarhea felt as if her arms would be pulled from their sockets as she struggled to remain in place. She had only a few seconds to act when the drone hit the ground. She pulled herself forward and slammed her blue dagger into the beast’s black heart. She fought back the pain as she ripped the red dagger from the wing and plunged it into the faltering black energy as well. The festering flame vaporized as the first had, leaving behind a lifeless, empty metal shell.
She had no time to dwell on the burning pain that left her arms weak from exertion. She was on the wrong side of the ravine away from her crevasse and any kind of rock outcropping to conceal her, not to mention she was much too high to safely launch out at the final drone. She frantically scanned her surroundings as her mind screamed for a solution. Angry red and blue energy flared in her vision, bringing her to an abrupt stop, as it demanded her attention. Sarhea hesitated, closed her eyes, and tried to calm herself. She took a couple of deep breaths before opening her eyes once more. The guides had moved to surround a patch of small stones. She arched a brow as she slowly made her way to the pile, picked up the rock that was pinpointed and held it before her. How was a simple stone supposed to help her? She crouched at the edge as the energy flowed from the stone then out over the ravine, once again collecting at a specific point. The solution suddenly came to her.
It was not long before she saw the glow of the last black heart racing back toward the west. When the energy shot forward at a pinpointed target below, she launched the stone. She heard the resulting clank, saw the black energy lurch to a stop. Her guides raced furiously about her as the drone began to rise vertically out of the ravine. Her body trembled in anticipation as the metal hull came slowly into view in front of her. Before she could leap out at it, it banked abruptly right into her.
Sarhea’s breath was knocked from her as she struggled to find a grip on anything. She felt the cold slats of the vent openings and dug her fingers in with all her might. Pain ripped through her left arm and shoulder as the drone banked sharply back to the left, flinging her up and almost over its side. She found herself gasping for breath as they shot out over the ravine, the drone doing its best to throw her from its back. Her fragile perch on her prey was quickly being eroded away. Several abrupt maneuvers took her by surprise, the last of which finally gave her the chance to find the slats of the drone’s right side vent openings and recuperate her hold on it. She had it now. The drone began another series of particularly violent maneuvers, but she held fast. The opportunity to retrieve a dagger finally presented itself, and as she did with the two previous drones, she dispatched the black energy with precision hits.
Sarhea felt sharp stones dig painfully into her right shoulder and hip as she was thrown violently her prey. It had been too close to the ground for her to leap safely away upon impact. She tumbled and slid across the rough gravel before finally coming to a stop. She rolled onto her back and gasped in pain. She found herself struggling to catch her breath before a sudden prodding urged her to focus on the blue element of her guiding energy. As she did, a sudden peace washed over her. She closed her eyes and allowed the energy to consume her, allowed it to take her pain.
She’d done it. She’d finally made significant strides in accomplishing her goal. Three drones lay scattered along the ravine. She had destroyed them, and not just damaged their vessel so they could escape and find another; she had sent them to whatever hell the Guardians had prepared for them. It felt good. It was not long before she felt the gentle prodding of the energy once more. She couldn’t lay here on the ground much longer-daybreak would be upon her soon. Sarhea was afraid to move. The peace that had washed over her was only masking the pain she had briefly felt earlier, and there was no telling what damage had been done to her right side.
She finally groaned and rolled onto her left side before pushing herself to her knees. Her head swam as she teetered unsteadily and waited for the pain to come rushing back. But the pain did not come; there was only a dull throbbing ache. She slowly stood, and after waiting for the dizziness to subside, walked back to her last kill. The handles of her daggers still protruded from the vent slats on either side of its front. She spat upon the dead contraption as she yanked her daggers free. She cast one last glance around, her energized gaze finding the wreckage of her kills, before she slowly turned and headed back toward Refuge City.
Dawn could be seen breaking on the eastern horizon before she finally arrived at the outcropping of rocks at the edge of the city’s southern boundary. She was exhausted and in a fair amount of pain. A group of ships suddenly rocketed out over the city, heading south, and she quickly noticed the Alpha Team’s white ship at the head of the formation. Sarhea allowed a slight smirk to cross her lips. She’d accomplished in one night what they most likely had not properly accomplished in years. Her pain eased slightly at the thought as she continued her journey back into the safety of the city.
“The bugs in the system seem to have been exterminated, Commander,” Kaden reported from the controls.
Raith glanced up as he worked to adjust some settings on his excursion suit. It was great news. For weeks now, they had been chasing puzzling ghosts in the programming. It had nearly caused him to give up on an otherwise superb ship. He quickly made his way to where Kaden and Nakyla sat at the controls. His critical gaze fell to the radar screen. For once, the plot lines accurately depicted the visuals beyond the ship. Eight energy signatures flanked their position, four on each side, and glancing out the side windows, he confirmed the presence of Strike One and Strike Two’s squadrons.
“Yes, for now, it seems the problem has been eradicated,” he confirmed and stepped back from the front.
“You alright, Raith?” came Bud’s whisper beside him.
Raith turned to see his friend’s worried, questioning gaze. He sighed quietly as he glanced back toward the front. The week’s drone activity had been nearly overwhelming, leaving his team and troops operating on limited rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had more than a few hours of sleep himself.
“I’ll be fine. Just a little tired, that’s all,” he mumbled.
Bud helped him adjust one last setting on the suit’s right shoulder. The constant training and field missions had left him in quite a bit of pain. At least Bud knew him well enough to not prod him to seek medical attention; the quite Kalatian faithfully tended to his tasks without question. Raith tried to ignore the fact that if the drone activity did not calm down soon, he would end up back on Mouser’s operating table. Raith shook the thought away as Bud finished up the last adjustments. He slowly rotated his right arm to test the changes. The extra help from the suit’s enhanced mechanics thankfully took a bit of the strain off. Yes, it would have to do.
“Alpha One, Alpha One. This is Strike Three. Come in Alpha One,” came a squawk over the ship’s radio.
Raith’s gaze met Bud’s, the worried look in the Kalatian’s eyes mirroring the concern that welled up in him. They both turned and quickly made their way back to the front.
“This is Alpha One, go ahead, Strike Three,” Raith replied.
“Commander, we’ve come across something unusual down here on the eastern branch of the ravine,” came Askar’s report.
Raith scowled as he glanced at the radar. Askar’s squadron had left earlier to scout the eastern end of the Toolak ravine.
“What have you found?”
“Sir, we’ve spotted three downed drones, two on the north side of the ravine, one on the south side, and all within a half a mile of each other.”
Bud could only give him a confused shrug as he cast a quick glance over to the Kalatian.
“Was there an earlier strike I was not informed of?”
“No sir. There is no evidence of weapons damage on any of them from what we can tell. Visuals from the air suggest they hit the ground hard, almost as if they simply quit flying and fell from the sky.”
He caught a questioning glance from Nakyla. “Raith, could it be…” she started then paused.
Raith knew what she was thinking. The mystery surrounding the drone they’d found weeks ago had never been solved. There had been evidence, however minute, that there was something out here targeting drones, but no other sightings or evidence had been found to corroborate the theory. Until now…
“Strike Three, what is your location?”
“Sending coordinates now, Commander,” came the quick reply.
A shrill beep sounded from the radar console as the relayed data was received. Strike Three appeared to be somewhere beyond the current range of the radar.
“We heading over to check this out, Commander?” Kaden questioned from beside him.
Raith was silent for a moment as he considered his options. There were several important missions complete today, but something deep within, a prodding he’d long learned not to ignore, urged him to investigate. His eyes locked with Nakyla and Bud’s expectant gazes.
“Strike Three, we are headed your way. Strike One and Two, remain on your tasks. Tagar, you have the lead here,” he replied, handing over command of their mission to Strike One’s squad leader.
A chorus of acknowledgements flooded the airways.
“Kaden, get us over there.”
“Yes sir,” the Cassarian replied as he maneuvered the ship to break formation and head toward the coordinates Askar had relayed.
Ten minutes later, Raith spotted the energy signatures of Askar’s four ships. They were clustered at points on both the north and south side of the ravine. As they neared, he spotted Askar’s ship with another on the north side of the ravine.
“Askar, have any or your men been on the ground?”
“No sir. We’ve been scouting the ravine from the air, searching for more downed drones, but the three here are all that we’ve found, and the scans report there are no more drones in the area.”
“Very well. We are nearly to your position. We’ll set down on the north side. Have your ship’s crew ready to assist and the rest of your squadron in the air keeping watch on radar. The drone activity has been too unpredictable for us to be caught off guard down there,” he replied.
A prompt acknowledgement with a hint of excitement was received. Raith felt Nakyla’s gaze once more. There was no mistaking the gleam in the Malkaian’s amber eyes.
“Suit up, Nakyla. I’ll investigate the drones with Askar, but I want you looking for signs of whom or what brought them down. I have a strong feeling that this is related to that incident a few weeks ago.”
“Yes sir,” she replied with a grin as she released her restraints and stood. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. If there’s someone out there, I’ll find them,” she continued and headed to the back of the ship to suit up.
Raith turned back to Kaden. “Set down between those drones away from the ravine’s edge and be ready to assist us if the need arises,” he started then paused when Kaden arched an unsure brow. “There a problem?”
“No sir, it’s just…” Kaden started.
“There’s more to your position than just flying ships, Kaden. There is a reason all of us take part in the same training. Just be ready,” Raith snapped, his patients wearing thin. Kaden wisely kept any further comments to himself.
It was not long before Kaden set the ship down next to Askar’s at the designated location. Raith joined Bud and Nakyla at the rear hatch.
“Whatever happens, I want our interest in this kept quiet. The last thing I need is for rumors to get out that there’s a possible vigilante out here killing drones,” he whispered as the hatch opened.
“You got it, boss,” Bud replied with a grin before stepping out of the ship.
They were instantly greeted by Askar and three of his men. Raith quickly recognized one as Askar’s younger brother Lyle. Both brothers were well on their way to great places within the City’s ranks. The group came to attention before Askar finally stepped forward.
“What’s the situation, Askar?”
“Sir, we spotted the downed drones during our earlier scouting mission. At first, we thought they had been the usual casualties of war, but one of my other ships noticed there were no blast burns or blast damage. By the looks of the crash scars, they came down fast and hard. There’s the two here and the one on the south side.”
“Have you seen any other signatures on radar, drone or…anything else for that matter?”
Askar arched a brow before shaking his head. “No sir.”
Raith turned and glanced over at the nearest drone. He shot Nakyla a sideways nod before starting towards it. The Malkaian nodded in return and set out to her task, while his group followed him to the drone. It was an hour later before Raith and Bud broke from the other soldiers and rejoined Nakyla next to the other drone on the north side.
“Well, what did you uncover?” Raith asked quietly. Nakyla shook her head.
“There’s definite evidence this time that there has been someone or something out here and from the marks on these drones, I’m fairly certain it is the same as what we saw several weeks ago. The claw marks and damage to the drones are similar to that first wreck, especially the evidence on the drone on the south side. A blade to the wing control hydraulics brought it down. All three appear to have been pierced through the vent openings on either side of the things’ front hull.”
Raith nodded. “I noticed that as well. I’m having Askar prepare them for transport. I want to know what whomever did this was aiming for, what they know that we don’t. It’s easy enough to bring these things down from the air, at a distance, but it is beyond me how someone could have the guts to put themselves at such risk with simple handheld weapons. Have you found anything else?”
Nakyla motioned them over with a quick jerk of her head. She paused near a seemingly unimportant patch of ground littered with sharp gravel.
“Whom or whatever did this is most likely injured. See this? It looks as if they were thrown from the drone when it impacted the ground. I may have found some blood and traces of fur. Here,” she said and squatted.
Nakyla pointed at some dark spots he’d nearly missed. Raith’s gaze scanned the area. He could now definitely see the displaced sand and stones that marked the path the individual’s body had slid.
“Bud, get a sample. We’ll take it to Mouser and see if he can work with it. Nakyla, there any indication as to the number of individuals involved in this attack?”
Nakyla shook her head. “The ground is pretty rocky and lacking in substantial sand around this area. Though the evidence I have found suggests that only one was involved.”
Both Raith’s and Bud’s incredulous glare locked onto her.
“One? One creature took down three drones-by hand?”
“And got themselves injured,” she added.
Raith shook his head in disbelief. This was all too much for his exhausted mind to comprehend.
“We’ll have to keep an eye out for any suspicious injuries fitting this scenario at the hospital. I sure would like to find whoever this is,” Nakyla mumbled absently.
“You assume they live in the city?” Bud asked.
“I believe they do. I found footprints headed north.”
Raith’s eyes widened as he stared back at Nakyla. She simply shrugged.
“The tracks disappear shortly after they start-the ground’s too hard. But there’s nothing north of here but Refuge City.”
“How are they getting out undetected, or back in for that matter?” Bud asked
Nakyla only huffed. “That part is easy. I could do it without much thought.”
Raith only heard part of the conversation. A small cluster of stones at the edge of the slide path caught his attention. He slowly shuffled over to them.
“Raith?” Nakyla called.
He remained silent as he leaned over and retrieved something from under the small stones. His gaze hardened as he studied his find. Bud and Nakyla were quickly at his side.
“What is it-whatcha find?” Bud asked quietly.
Raith held out his hand with the object lying flat in it. Nakyla’s eyes widened with sudden insight. In his hand lay a small section of tattered brown cloth.
Sarhea goes drone hunting again. Raith and his crew investigate strangeness with the drones.
Ack-too tired to ramble too much about this tonight-if I've missed any grammar/spelling mistakes, please let me know-more chapters are coming soon!
CotL and characters © ME