The betwixt book one, p.11
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       The Betwixt Book One, p.11

          
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  Chapter 11

  Tarian Mercs were coming to this underground dig site on this tiny moon in the Crag system. I couldn’t believe it. Last week, my life had revolved around serving customers at a space station and watching galactic cooking shows in my spare time – and now I was about to face a mercenary attack in an unprotected underground facility. This was the stuff of those bad holonovels you buy for a half credit at the media store.

  “I have to go,” the hologram of Jason looked off to his left, “Just stay—”

  The hologram cut out – buzzing at first and shifting around as if the image were made out of wobbly jelly. It left a hollow white noise in the air.

  Nobody said anything. Which was good, as I could barely even handle the silence at this point, let alone everyone talking at once. Mercenaries? What did they want? Would they come here; did they know about this place? Or was there something else on this moon that was drawing their attention? Would they hit the space dock and be gone? What about Hipop? Would he be safe in storage?

  Gah! I felt so small and incapable – like the innocent I was, facing off against my first real taste of the violent side of space. Holomovies and games were one thing – a fully armed, vicious hoard of Tarian Mercs was another.

  Doctor Cole straightened up, tugging on her dusty brown vest like the Commander would tug on his uniform top. “I have to tell my people.”

  “How do you intend to defend these facilities?” Od’s voice didn’t betray even a hint of fear, though he wasn’t standing nearly as straight and neat as he usually did.

  “Defend?” I broke in, the nerves building in me like steam trapped in a pipe. “How do you know they’re even coming here?”

  Doctor Cole’s expression was steadily growing more determined – the hard furrows on her brow deepening until they looked like trenches across her forehead. “There’s nothing else on this moon – nothing that would keep a band of Tarian Mercs entertained, anyway. They’re coming here – you can count on that.”

  I didn’t want to count on that. I didn’t want to count on anything but Commander Cole getting here in time. “If you’re sure, why don’t we get out of here? This moon is so hilly – couldn’t we go and hide in some cave somewhere and wait this out?”

  Crag’tal laughed, and it sounded like metal grating on metal. “Tarians have bio scanners, good trackers, too. Only chance is to defend until backup gets here. We’ll lose – but only chance.”

  I didn’t want to be hearing this – everyone was telling me this was a no-win situation. “No – but what about the Crag Army? Won’t they intercept? Won’t the Crags at the space dock put up a good fight? You’re a warrior race, for heaven’s sake—”

  “Tarians are fast, they have third generation Hyper Cruisers, they are a crack unit, and they are set up for snatch and grabs. The Crag Army isn’t going to bother with them when they know the GAMs are on their way. They’d know the Tarians are headed for us – and wouldn’t be about to waste valuable resources on trying to prevent an attack they aren’t equipped for. We’re on our own for now.” Crag’tal was being unusually expressive, which was hardly a good sign.

  I looked at Crag’tal, waiting for him to cut in that the Crags wouldn’t be that cowardly, but he shrugged.

  “Crag Government not what it used to be.” His voice was heavy with regret.

  I imagined, for a race like his, it would be a hard blow to allow alien assassins to encroach on their territory. I would have pictured every Crag grabbing a weapon and converging on the Tarians like Crags to a fight. But they were just going to sit idly by – because this was politics, not war.

  “So what do we do? We can’t stay in here, not with that thing.”

  “It’s not a great situation,” Doctor Cole walked over and yanked her curtain open, “But we have to defend that thing – as crazy as that sounds – and stop it from falling into the hands of the Tarians. If they get their hands on it or it gets loose – there will be hell to pay.”

  Doctor Cole marched off, calling her people to her like a mother hen escorting her chicks away from the circling shadow of the hawk. Crag’tal and Od walked over to join them, Crag’tal resting my rifle on his shoulder like a farmer rests his scythe – ready for the harvest.

  I didn’t move, didn’t want to. Walking over to the pre-Tarian-attack confab over there would be accepting that such a thing was going to happen. I didn’t want to believe a word of it. It was too unreal. I wasn’t the kind of girl to find myself in such an outrageous situation – space mercenaries and underground archaeological sites were not things Normal Mini was used to.

  I crossed my arms and hugged myself – squeezing my torso and crouching forward.

  I raised my gaze to that thing. It was staring at me, white eyes unmoving.

  I straightened up slowly, my arms dropping to my side. I faced it from across the room, and it felt like the space between us wasn’t there at all.

  A part of me knew how this was going to end; the rest of me would have to wait and see for herself.

  “Mini,” Od called from across the chamber, his voice echoing loudly.

  I ignored him, hands reaching for the rifle attached to the back of my suit.

  “Mini—”

  Why wait? I could tell what would happen; I could feel it deep in my bones.

  I could see the future playing out before me in perfect detail. The Tarians would attack, we would become entrenched, and as the GAM would arrive to save the day, the monster would break free. We’d all die. Caught unaware, we’d be taken from behind in a flash of gray flesh streaked with red. It was like keeping your worst enemy in a time-released cage behind your front line as you concentrated on the fight ahead. We may be intending to engage the Tarians, but the real enemy was right here in front of me. I wasn’t about to make a fatal mistake—

  “Put the gun away, Mini.” Od appeared at my side. “We must concentrate—”

  “I don’t think so. We can’t afford to let it escape.”

  “Don’t do anything stupid,” Doctor Cole snapped from somewhere behind me. “We have it in containment for now—”

  “Like hell.” I was annoyed, angry at their stupidity. I felt like the only person who knew what was going on – like the sole person smart enough to bring along a shotgun to a zombie attack when everyone else had packed tea and biscuits. They were all hoping for the best without planning for the most likely scenario. That thing would get out and kill us – the only option we could take was to act now.

  I raised my gun, eyes locked right on my target. I could feel it in my mind like a scar – a painful reminder of some deep wound that hadn’t healed. This is how the Twixts operated, how they survived – they managed to make people forget what they were, what they could and would do. I wasn’t about to—

  Od walked in front of my rifle. His expression was real. It wasn’t overly nice, pleasant, chirpy, or clear-water calm. It wasn’t cute, annoying, or enthusiastic. He was looking straight at me as if he’d known me for years – as if I knew who he was and he no longer had anything to hide. He didn’t say anything.

  I lowered my weapon.

  Neither of us spoke.

  “We need it alive,” Doctor Cole said from behind me, voice relieved but still sharp. “We need it to help us understand what we’re up against—”

  “I know what we’re up against, Doctor. I don’t need that example staring me down to figure out what a Twixt is.”

  “We have to study it, find out if they have a weakness. The People are no longer with us – well, you’re the last. How are we supposed to win a war with one half-bre—”

  “By not being idiots,” I snapped. My human side was well and truly buried. I knew what I had to do, and there was no way anyone was going to get in my way. The Twixts weren’t there to be studied. You could safely study grass and space dust if you felt like observing and recording natural phenomenon. Twixts weren’t an object of science – they were the stuff of nightmares. The only way to stop a nightmare was to confront the beast.

  “There’s only one of you now,” she pleaded. “We have to find a way other than all-out war.”

  “You said that’s how the galaxy failed last time – that they spent valuable time trying to figure these things out when they should have been fighting them. This is the wrong plan, Doctor – you have to trust me on this.” I looked right at her, authority coming from somewhere truly deep inside me.

  Od was looking right at me with such intensity it almost pulled my gaze from the creature.

  “You sound like my son – too willing to take the brute force option—”

  I flicked my gaze to Od, back to the creature.

  “If we don’t find out as much as we can, we will be fighting blind. Don’t be selfish, child. You may be the last of your kind, but there are more races in this galaxy than one – and it is up to us all to fight for our own freedom. You can’t be the guard of everyone.”

  I kept flicking my gaze between Od and the creature – back and forth in a steady motion.

  What would Jason do?

  I rallied. I wasn’t going to lose control of this situation, not now. “You’re right, Doctor – I shouldn’t talk for everyone. Crag’tal, what do you think we should do? Leave the thing alive, so it can break out and take us from behind? Or should we shoot it now?”

  It was odd listening to my voice sound like that – harsh and unforgiving. It was even odder to hear myself say those things. Was I suggesting we murder in cold blood? That sounded like something a hardened soldier would say, not Normal Mini the waitress.

  I shook my head, clearing my thoughts.

  Crag’tal moved his hands along his gun and shrugged his shoulders. “Now or later—”

  “No,” the Doctor had her hands up, “We can’t do this.”

  Kill it now while it rested quietly in the cage – what would be the problem with that? It was our natural enemy, the sworn nemesis of the whole galaxy. If the situation was reversed, and I found myself in the cage and the creature was free to face me – it would have attacked first chance, no questions asked. So why was it so wrong to do the same now?

  It was them or us.

  I put my finger back on the trigger.

  “It doesn’t work that way, does it, Mini?” Od said so quietly no one else in the room would have picked it up. “You can’t be both at the same time – yet it tears you up when you allow one to overpower the other.”

  I didn’t want to follow his words, but I still knew what they meant.

  “You have to be both at once. Find a way.”

  Both human and a member of The People at the same time? I was one person inside one head on top of one body. So why did I feel so torn?

  A part of me won and lowered the gun. No, I lowered the gun.

  A tense couple of seconds followed before I turned to face the others. I couldn’t describe the feelings churning through me; I had to ignore them for now. “So what do we do?” My voice was quiet and somehow full-bodied at the same time.

  The Doctor looked at me, assessing whether she could trust me. “You guard that thing. I can’t believe I’m saying this – but there it is. I don’t want either you or the thing coming in contact with the Tarians. We can’t afford to lose either of you.”

  I didn’t speak up at being lumped in a group with the psycho shadow killer here, but I didn’t appreciate it either.

  “The Crag comes with me, and we shore up the top of the site as best we can – make a front line at the bottom of the ladder so we can pick off any Merc coming down. All those unable to fight are going to go deep into the other side of the dig where we keep the storage bay – hide in the safety pods we’ve got there. The rest of us are going to form a mid-line between the chamber and the ladder.” The Doctor looked at me.

  “So that leaves me alone with the creature.” I didn’t bother looking back at it; I didn’t think I could survive another round of mind games with the Twixt.

  “No, Od will stay with you.”

  I nodded. Od and me against the Twixt – just like old times. “Do you even have any weapons? Crag’tal’s gun is coded to me – do you have anything to fight with?”

  Doctor Cole took a breath. “No. A couple of sonic diggers and some light saws – no guns.”

  I didn’t bother replying to that – I’d either laugh out loud or cry, and I didn’t need people thinking I was any more insane than they already did.

  “I’m sure we can find someone to un-code your gun – we aren’t above license fraud at a time like this.”

  I shrugged. “Okay.”

  “No, but it will be.” The Doctor turned to her people. “You know what we have to do, so let’s do it.” I could see the same direct command in her I’d already seen in Jason. Both of them seemed to be built to guide and protect people. With a mother like that, it was no wonder Jason had turned out the way he had.

  … He was coming, wasn’t he?

  I took a deep breath and watched everyone pile up the metal gangway that led out of the chamber.

  Jason would be here soon….

  I felt the cold pull of fear return to my arms, making them stiff and heavy as if there were icebergs tied to my wrists. The cold didn’t overwhelm me; it made the situation sharper and made me feel more human.

  You better get here fast, I thought bitterly, trying to send my thoughts across space in a desperate prayer. I’m pretty sure I need another ally on this one.

  The next twenty minutes were agonizing. I could hear the others working through the corridors – my hearing returning to its super-charged state. I could feel the rumbles beneath my feet as they shifted equipment, turned on diggers, even screamed at each other to hurry. I couldn’t see them; I had to put up with my imagination to fill in the visual gaps. Their strained faces, sweat-stained brows, and dust-coated clothes.

  Meanwhile, I stood stock-still behind the creature, behind it and the only exit out of here. I wanted to be able to see whatever would come down that gangway – and shoot the thing before they made it to the bottom.

  Od stood right next to me as still and straight as a pillar. It was like we were both those stone statues you have at either side of important gates – guarding in figure and stature alone. Oh, except I had a perfectly working gun.

  It took twenty-three minutes for the sounds of battle to begin. I heard it first as a high-pitched whine filtering down from the surface. It sounded like an insect stuck in the metal mesh of a microphone – a high pitched, distorted buzz. I didn’t need Od to tell me those were the engines of a ship powering down. It was right over us, I realized, face cold. Hovering over the hole down into the dig site – enabling the mercs easy and quick access down the ladder.

  Blast sounds made it into the chamber – ricocheting around weakly. That was my gun – that was the sound of Crag’tal desperately firing away at the intruders. Those other odd pitched sounds mingling over the top were the whir of a light saw and the shake of a sonic digger.

  I started to sweat – like I’d run into monsoonal rain. It dripped off my brown and collected at the spot between my neck and the seal of my space suit.

  Who was going to be first to reach those stairs up there? Would it be the Tarians? Would they break through the defenses quicker than a light saw through paper? Or would Commander Cole get here in time, repel the invasion, and descend the stairs with a half-smile on his lips?

  I put a shaking hand up to my mouth and wiped away the sweat that sat between my top lip and nose, making my breath too hot to handle.

  “This is not what you were meant for, child,” Od said in an odd voice. “You are needed elsewhere – out there in the galaxy, not down in this pit.” It was as if he was talking to himself, ticking off some mental list as he stared dead-eyed into the middle distance. “Your mother never intended to give you up for this.”

  Give me up?

  It was the only thing that could distract me from my fear, aside for the slim hope Commander Cole would get here in time. My mother – Her. “What? My mother—”

  That’s when the sounds of battle changed. They became quieter as if a wall had descended between me and everywhere else and this chamber.

  I could feel the symbols around the ring that held the Twixt as if they were burning into my skin. They scorched but faded, like hot coal thrown into ice-cold water.

  The ring was failing – the containment around the monster was failing.

  It was silent, not a crack, a bang, or a pop. The ring didn’t scream or screech like metal crashing into a wall. It silently descended to the ground, the symbols on its surface dying.

  I grabbed Od under one arm and threw him toward the other side of the room – toward the stairs, toward escape.

  The guy rolled as he hit the ground and gave me a look as he scrambled to his feet. I could see his face in still frame those wide, wide eyes.

  The Twixt moved toward me before I had time to turn to face it. I could feel it behind me like a gun pressed to the back of my neck. I pushed into a dive roll, twisting so I changed direction as I rolled to my feet.

  It screamed. I knew I would never hear another sound like it again. It cut through everything, every other terrible noise of battle filtering in from the other room – flattened them with its throaty blare. It sounded like a human scream distorted by a strangle. It bounced around the room, getting louder and louder until dust and chunks of small rock fell from the ceiling.

  Its throat was extending from the effort of the scream – veins bulging across the stretched, gray skin.

  I brought up my gun and shot right at it, but the Twixt ducked – descending onto its hind legs like a tiger ready to pounce.

  It launched at me – filling my view as if I were barely a centimeter away from the sun. I twisted and strafed to the side, firing as I went.

  None of the shots were hitting home – the thing was too quick. Doctor Cole had been right – this creature was different to a normal Twixt. It was faster, and, I noted with a truly sick feeling, it had no shadow. It was like it was here without being real at the same time – like a walking nightmare. I wondered, as I kept shooting but missing, whether I could hit it at all.

  I had to flip to the side, using only one hand to push off the ground as the other still held fast to my gun.

  How did my bullets keep missing? I was shooting straight at it.

  I flipped again – this time a full backward somersault that dropped into a roll, taking me further from the creature – giving me more room to aim.

  It was like a nightmare – like I was facing off against a terrible dream-creature who I couldn’t banish no matter what I tried.

  “You need a real weapon,” Od screamed from behind me. “It’s too powerful.”

  “Get out of here,” I screeched back, twisting to the side and using my gun to slam into the creature’s arm as it tried to grab me. The move, though it connected, didn’t appear to hurt the Twixt one bit.

  I rolled to the side, managing to keep out of its reach.

  It settled back on its haunches and screamed – I could see the underside of its stretched neck shake and shudder with the effort.

  “What do I do?” I shrieked. “What do I do?”

  As if from heaven, someone answered with a barrage of fire directed right at the Twixt. Plasma blast after blast ate right into the creature, forcing it backward but not doing any real damage.

  I stared at the Twixt as it started to shore up against the barrage, using its shoulder to take the blasts while it pushed forward with its powerful legs, mouth opening and closing in scream after scream.

  “Oh god.” I… I couldn’t…. Nothing was going to kill this – was it?

  “Get out!”

  I turned to see Crag’tal at the top of the stairs. He was shooting round after round at the Twixt, not stopping as he screamed at us. “Get out! Human, Kroplin – get out!”

  I hesitated, watching the play of light against the huge Twixt’s skin. It watched me right back with those white eyes.

  I turned and ran. I grabbed up Od and hit the stairs three at a time.

  I could tell that Crag’tal’s barrages were having less and less of an effect. I could hear the Twixt’s scream getting louder and feel it driving toward me. When I hit the top of the stairs and rushed up to Crag’tal, he stopped shooting, instead flicking some button at the front of the rifle.

  “What are you doing?” I screamed, wanting to grab the guy and run.

  “Second function.” Crag’tal raised the gun at the roof as the Twixt reached the bottom of the gangway – its body faster than hyperspeed.

  Crag’tal let go of the trigger, and a massive blue-white blast erupted from the rifle and slammed into the roof above us. Crag’tal turned, collecting Od and me in an arm and pushing us forward as the ceiling collapsed. Great chunks of rock rained down, blocking the entrance to the chamber and the Twixt beyond – but somehow, Crag’tal managed to shove us free.

  Silence descended for a second before I could feel the Twixt on the other side of the rocks. It wasn’t dead, nowhere near.

  This time, I grabbed Crag’tal’s arm. “We have to get out of here – now. It’s going to get through.”

  We dashed along the corridor, my mind too frenzied to pick up the signs of battle strewn around me.

  “Is everyone out?” I shouted at Crag’tal, not bothering to turn my head as I powered along the tunnel with Od still under one arm.

  I didn’t need him to answer – I rounded the corner and slammed straight into a person, dropping Od to the side from shock.

  The person in question, a GAM in big black armor, wrapped his arms around me, practically picking me up to stop me from falling backward.

  “You’re safe now,” a voice said from behind the black helmet. It was synthesized – changed slightly into a more mechanical version of itself, but there was no denying who it was. Commander Jason Cole.

  With his arms still around me, I would have paid anything to believe his words. Except I couldn’t. I wasn’t safe, none of us were.

 
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