The Fifth StoneBy Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 13
The second stone is hate, and that shall fail you.
The third stone is knowledge, and that shall fail you.
The fourth stone is prayer, and that shall fail you.
The fifth stone shall not fail you.
The fifth stone is a magic stone, my David.
Made up of fear and failure, lies and loss.
(From 'Five Smooth Stones' by Stella Benson: Stanzas 5 &10)
"You incredible imbeciles!" The Federation commander took off his helmet to better survey the corpse-strewn room, his voice rising to a vulture screech as his rage grew. "Your orders were to take Blake and Avon alive!"
"Sir," one of the braver (or less experienced) guards spoke up, "It wasn't our fault. Blake was already dead and Avon refused to surrender. He could have killed us all."
"It would have been better for you if he had. Commissioner Sleer is not going to be pleased." The commander kicked the nearest corpse, rolling Avon's bloodied form from atop Blake. The officer stared down at Avon's mocking grin, which was frozen in death. He imagined the man was enjoying his revenge. "We're as dead as them. We just aren't clever enough to lie down now and save ourselves the bother."
Among the still bodies, one form twitched. A woman opened her eyes and groaned. "What happened?" she asked.
"Rebel scum!" One of the troopers would have killed her where she lay, but the woman was quick to gather her wits when she saw the blaster. "I'm a Federation agent, Arlen's my name. I was sent here to infiltrate." She gave a code word, hoping one of these men had a high enough ranking to verify it.
"Stop!" The commander waved his man back. He looked down at Arlen, who glared back at him. He strode over to her and helped her to her feet. His grip was not gentle, and neither was his tone when he spoke to her. "So, Sleer had you working the inside and us the outside. A lot of trouble for nothing."
"Nothing?" Arlen's sharp eyes raked over the bodies littering the tracking gallery. She tightened her thin lips into one compressed line, as the grim realization of her failure hit. "I had hoped to bring in Avon and Orac, to make up for losing Blake."
"We may yet find Orac," the commander didn't sound hopeful. "That is, if we live long enough to search."
"Yes." Arlen understood all too well what he meant. Their mutual employer had been very specific about the reward for failure. She shuddered. "Damn it! There must be a way out of this."
"What? It's all very well to rid the universe of these rebels, but I hadn't planned to join them in martyrdom."
"If only we could shift the blame." Arlen was a survivor of Federation infighting. She knew what was needed- a scapegoat.
"Onto who? Once the blockade disabled their ship, these rebels were our responsibility." The commander refused to let Arlen escape her share of blame. If he was doomed, then so was she.
"That's it! The blockade... if it destroyed the ship and the rebels, then we are in the clear."
"But it didn't. They crash-landed, but they survived. Long enough to make it death for us."
"Why?" Arlen waved, taking in the commander's intently listening men and the silent bodies. "Your men and I are the only ones who know that Avon's crew made it this far. If they died on their ship, then there wasn't any point in delaying clearing out this nest of vermin that we were using as bait." She nudged Blake with the tip of her boot. "And as for Blake... well, he never came back from his last bounty hunt."
The commander rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "It might work. What have we got to lose. All right," he snapped, startling his troopers. "Get the bodies. We'll dump them at their ship." He smiled at Arlen. "Who knows, we may yet survive this mess."
* * * * *
Arlen and the commander examined the panorama with critical eyes, seeking any flaws in the presentation. Scorpio's tattered hulk smoldered nearby, corpses strewn about her in the clearing formed by the ship's belly-scraping arrival. They had worked hard to give the impression that survivors, injured fatally themselves, had heroically dragged their dead and dying comrades free of the wreckage. They couldn't very well put them on the ship itself, as had been Arlen's first thought- bloody bodies lying on a clean deck would have been incongruous. The second plan had its advantage; allowing Gauda Prime's voracious wildlife access to the dead would reduce the rebels to scattered bones long before any investigator could arrive.
"I don't know... should we leave Blake here? It might look suspicious," the commander asked Arlen.
"It seems appropriate, to leave him with his friends." Arlen laughed. "When the scavengers get done, you'd have to count the bones to know there was an extra corpse. Why shouldn't Blake stay here?" Arlen marched back to her flier. "I am not going to waste time that I could be using to devise a cover plan for myself, just in case this doesn't work."
The commander agreed. He and his men were going to have to prove that they'd been too busy hunting live rebels to have investigated the crash site of an unidentified smuggler. He joined Arlen in the lead flier and left without a backward look.
From the forest, once the living humans were gone, came the rustlings of curious animal life. A pair of heavy-coated wolfish beasts emerged. They were wary, for the scent of human beings was associated with danger, but the promise of fresh meat brought them into the clearing. The larger one sniffed cautiously, then sank its fangs into a limp arm.
A loud snort alarmed the wolf-lings, sending them into defensive crouches above their intended meal. An animal close in size and general outline to a horse broke through the brush at the edge of the clearing and headed directly for the wolves. It lowered its head as it came, threatening the carnivores with the convoluted horn that sprang from its forehead. It squealed and pawed the ground in a stallion's territorial display. The wolves growled, but backed away. There was other prey in the wood, prey they did not have to risk impalement to obtain.
The victor held its head high, watching until the wolves had fled. Then it walked to the humans, bending its long neck down to observe the bodies closer. It touched the nearest one with its horn. At the meeting of horn to flesh, a green-gold glow flowed from animal to human. It repeated the treatment with each corpse, then began to graze, seeking grass untrodden by the Federation guards.
The animal raised its head, still idly chewing grass, at a muttered groan coming from the first human it had touched, a female. This had been the one the wolf had bitten. The woman's wound filled in with new flesh, completely healed before she roused.
"What?" Soolin lifted her head heavily. She stared about in blank-eyed confusion. She had been shot, had felt the searing pain as she fell. Now there was no pain, not even the lingering aches gained from sleeping on the hard floor of an abandoned shack the night before finding Blake.
She staggered to her feet and took stock of the situation. She was surprised to find her weapon had been left at her side. Having it was some reassurance; that, and seeing her crewmates, lying in varied uncomfortable- appearing poses on the grass, made her slightly more confident. The others were outwardly undamaged, although breathing harshly. She left off her cursory examination when her awakening senses registered a large animal in the vicinity. She drew her weapon and trained it on the beast, only then noticing the ripped and bloodied sleeve on her gun arm. She drew the tear aside- there was no injury beneath.
She stared at the animal. "It's true, then. I was dead, wasn't I?" She lifted her weapon higher and shouted at the animal, "Go away! Get away from me!"
The beast flattened its ears and shook its head, sending a froth of silvery mane flying, but it did not flee.
"Why aren't I dead?" Dayna had awakened. She patted her jumpsuit experimentally. "Soolin, shouldn't I be dead? Or at least badly shot up? And what are we doing back in the woods? And what's that?" Belatedly noticing the animal, she stood up and approached it, her hand held out in wonder.
"Don't, Dayna!" Soolin warned her. "Stay away from it. It's dangerous."
"But it's so beautiful, Soolin," Dayna protested, but maintained her distance. "The Sarrans had horses, but they were nothing like this. Is this what horses are like on Gauda Prime?"
"It's unrelated to any Earth animal, Dayna, and as deadly as it is beautiful. It's a unicorn." Soolin stayed vigilant, weapon ready to blast the unicorn, if it threatened attack, although she had her doubts as to the effectiveness of the gun against this particular target.
The unicorn sniffed the air and shifted its weight from side to side, without coming nearer to the women.
"No such things as unicorns." Vila had gotten to his feet quietly and joined the others staring at the unicorn. He didn't understand why he was still alive, but he refused to think about it in detail, for fear someone would discover his mistake and he might find that he really was dead. "What's that?" He pointed at the large gray equine facing them.
"Oh, don't worry about it, Vila. You just said there's no such thing, so it can't really be there, can it?" Dayna heard a moan and turned to see Tarrant struggling to sit up. "Give him a hand." Dayna bullied Vila into helping the groggy pilot to his feet, while she went to check on the last of Scorpio's crew to awake.
"Avon?" she asked, quietly. The man was twitching, clearly close to consciousness. In that state, Avon was more unpredictable than normal, so she didn't touch him. No sense in getting her head blown off by mistake- or on purpose, for that matter.
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