Post Mon Jan 02, 2006 7:20 am

Hearts of Gold

Hearts of Gold is one of the earliest short stories focusing on the "lost" Kriar, it was the first Kriar story that sold to a commercial print publisher. It was printed in a magazine, and then later in an anthology called Distant Journeys.

Hearts of Gold


All Atrius remembered was the sound of the blast and the impact as the force exploded against his skull. His fuzzy recall could only bring back fragments beyond that chronon, the blurry image as the ground rushed up into his face and the delayed sensation of shock and pain. It had not been a good day to awake from a million cycles of stasis. In fact, he’d never thought much of any day that involved dying.

Atrius pushed the cloth off his face and struggled to a sitting position.

He shuddered, realizing he sat in a lightless room. Darkness was bane to Kriar. Without sunlight their bodies went dormant, a biological throwback overcome through technology. Reason exerted itself. Nothing to fear, his matrixes were providing the necessary resources.

He rubbed the back of his head and scanned the shadowy surroundings. Counters lined three walls in the rectangular room, and six beds were arranged down the middle. A caustic smell hung in the air and he heard the hum of machinery. From the surgical implements on a table nearby he guessed this to be an infirmary.

He stepped away from the bed and moved to examine the tools. Touching the matrix gem on his brow, it emitted a dim red light. Atrius picked up the cold metal instrument and rolled it between his fingers. There were traces of his blood on it.

Atrius dropped the tool and ran a finger over the matrix on his sternum, instructing it to run a full physical diagnostic. No telling what these creatures were trying to do.

**Aberration, right radial appendage. Scan continues...**

Turning his gold skinned arm he found a tube inserted between the flexor muscles. Now what would they hope to accomplish with that? He removed the tube and a dribble of chalky blood followed it. Atrius willed the circulatory cavity closed. Frowning, he wiggled his fingers and tested them for sensation.

Only incompetents would apply medical techniques specific to their species on a different race.

**Trace metallic intrusion, lower left abdominal region.**

He examined the thumb sized matrix jewel inserted above the groin area. It glowed red and healthy, his trusted life-support mechanism. Atrius continued probing until he discovered the recently closed vertical incision.

What is this? The wound was to my head. By the Mother, they were doing an autopsy even though I wasn’t dead! Both his hearts thudded at the thought of primitive tools invading his body.

**Level three diagnostic complete. Bio-energy flux, nominal. Bacterial intrusion, nominal. Viral activity above nominal tolerances, corrective measures proceeding. Motor control at eighty-one percent. Muscular performance, sixty-eight percent. Respiratory--**

He halted the diagnostic. In summary, he wasn’t in peak condition. Chronal indicators showed a passage of three planetary rotations since his first encounter with the indigenous life, and a total of two million solar cycles from when the Protectorate warriors wounded and imprisoned him in the lake bed.

With no escape possible, he’d stasised himself until help could arrive. The distress transponder must have failed.

He’d been freed when a dredging machine brought him to the surface. He started conversing with the inhabitants and things proceeded well until its explosive termination. He would be more cautious now.

He searched the infirmary. It’s all gone. My clothes, the weapon, the cyber--dark, they have my cyber! Level twelve tech in the hands of a level four race. I need it to build a signaler.

He clenched his fists. Directive seven; I must get ALL the gear back. Difficult, I don’t blend at all. I’m gold and they’re white. They use verbal communication instead of telepathy. I’m an engineer not an auditory semanticist, I haven’t used my voice in eons. At least they’re not telepathically ‘deaf’. Perhaps, I can get someone to help me locate my equipment.

Atrius put on a blue smock he’d found earlier. Now his alien nature wouldn’t be evident to the casual observer.

His people were of the same basic stature, and possessed a like number of digits. Their eyes differed; he’d seen none that had normal black eyes with the star mottling. Kriar eyes matured to a healthy solid black from the white, blue and black stage seen at birth. That state appeared permanent in this race. Without the equivalent of Kriar visual abilities they’d be hampered in darkness.

Going to the door he peeked through the window into the unlit hall. He concentrated, probing into the heat spectrum and then into non-radiant light bands. No-one in evidence. He pushed through and switched his vision into the sonics, navigating down the corridor by watching the ripples of his steps as they reflected off the surroundings. He wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell of chemicals and the pungency of burned plant material.

He continued flicking through the spectrums, came to a branch in the corridor, and chose the right. It looked cooler and would probably lead to the exterior.

Following the coolest air he turned several corners, passing what he guessed to be office cubicles.

Curious, none of them are present. He assumed that since their night vision was poor that their common work patterns shut down during nocturnal times.

He stopped in a windowed corridor that gave him a view past the silhouettes of several rectangular structures and across the glittering surface of the lake. Beyond the far shore, mountains protruded like jagged rows of teeth. The azure night was sprinkled with clouds and stars winked in a multitude of hues.

Atrius found the exit easily. A quick probe located the electrical connections that might alert sentries to the portal’s opening. A few pieces of wire pulled from an inactive circuit allowed him to bypass the sensor.

Outside in the cool rarefied air, Atrius could detect the hint of combustion exhaust, traces of stagnant fossil byproducts, and the mingled fragrances of marsh salt and tree sap. The breeze caused his back to prickle.

I’m free. By now, the Protectorate are only a bad memory.

The sound of voices. He retreated around a corner and waited. Two males approached from between adjacent buildings. He synchronized with their minds to overhear the conversation.

“--me the creeps, Wendle. Why did Joseph shoot him?” This from a big dark-skinned man with kinky black hair.

“Look, Garthe, Joseph is the security chief. I don’t know his motives.” The tall blond male fumbled for something in a pocket. “I agree his attack was uncalled for, the gold guy was trying to talk to us. What if there’s more of them? I’ve seen his weapons--”

The two males stiffened as a third figure melted out of the shadows in front of them. The entity spoke with a higher pitched voice. “What about the alien, Wendle? I come back from vacation and they say we found an alien. Nobody will tell me anything.”

This one’s thoughts are unusually clear.

The blond male held his chest. “Samantha, you scared me.”

“Sorry. Tell me.”

“I can’t, Sam. It has to be kept classified until it’s reviewed. Group sevens will be let in on it real soon.”

They seem unusually edgy around this female.

“There’s no danger is there?” Though her voice sounded tremulous, Atrius detected something that more closely resembled resolve.

Something about her was different. Her patterns scanned poorly.

Garthe spoke. “Sam, it’s all right.”

She nodded. “By the way, have either of you seen Eric?”

Both shook their heads.

“He got upset about Dan leaving and ran off. I’ve checked most of his hiding spots.”

“We’ll send him home if we see him.”

She waved and walked off into the night. The female moved in almost perfect silence.

The males were quiet as they approached the door, as if the encounter had upset them. One took a rectangular object and slid it through something on the wall. The two disappeared inside.

Better leave the vicinity. They’ll find that I’m missing soon. Staying in the shadows, he moved toward higher ground. There were over forty buildings in this small barrier-enclosed community. The structures near the lake looked utilitarian while the ones higher on the plateau looked to be personal shelters.

A brilliant flash lit up the town, and a red beam lanced across the lake to explode in the distance.

Dark! My side arm. That’s the level seven setting. If they use the last…He didn’t want to imagine a plasma disruption. Atrius ran toward the origin of the beam.

He hid behind a building as a four wheeled vehicle rumbled past with two gray-uniformed aliens inside. Continuing toward the lake, the exhaust smell, old chemicals, and stale fossil products grew stronger.

He came to a drop-off. Below, he saw a floating platform crowded with cube and cylinder-shaped storage containers, mechanical lifters, and various metalworking and repair equipment. A wooden causeway lit by metal light-poles stretched out to the dock. Three aliens hunched around something in a corner. He reached hearing range and synchronized with their minds.

“That’s not the highest setting?” This from the smallest of the three. He wore an odd blue fabric on his head.

“Quarter turn left on the dial,” said a fat one with dark hair.

Another man, thin with a shock of red hair, shook his head. “Don’t mess with it anymore, Al. Joseph wanted us to test it, not blow up the base. It vaporized a twenty ton rock, that’s enough for me. One setting might be a self-destruct.”

“What idiot would put a self-destruct on a hand gun?”

Atrius edged down the bank, staying in the deepest shadows.

“Let’s crank this baby up to full and see what happens.”

Believe me, you won’t SEE anything. Atrius snatched a smooth flat rock from the ground and weighed it in his hand.

“Al... I don’t think we--“

“Okay, okay--I’ll aim at something far away.”

If it’s still set at the last aperture, pieces of you will be raining for a megarev. A short stretch of water lay between him and the dock. The throw needed to be angled so it wouldn’t give his position away.

Atrius touched his brow matrix, range and environmental readouts displayed in his vision. A command put a quarry-lock on the back of Al’s head. Targeting data flickered into view. Concentrating, he calculated the trajectory for the skip; accounting for the chop in the water, imperfections in the rock, his physical condition and fatigue factors.

Al adjusted the power. “All right. Ready, one--“

Atrius let fly. The stone hissed out and skipped. It struck Al behind the right ear with a hollow thud. The fat one collapsed as if his legs had turned to pulp. Atrius raced to the head of the dock while the two remaining men dived behind a container, their weapons out. He could still see them from their heat.

“What happened?” Blue-hat asked, voice wavering.

“Something came out of the water and hit him.”

“I didn’t see any flash.”

A conduit from the shore powered the dock. Atrius snapped the cable loose, and leaped away. The area plunged into blackness.

He heard their curses and the crack of projectile weapons. Shells whined off the rocks and the metal mooring posts.

“That looked like that gold guy!”

“No way,” Red-hair burst out. “Joseph killed him.”

Their eyes were better than he’d estimated. In the distance, he heard the race of a combustion motor, the sound of the uniformed-men’s vehicle.

No time. This will probably get me shot.

Atrius charged down the pier. He waited for the men to reveal themselves from behind the crates.

“There!” Blue-hat stood and leveled his gun.

Atrius dived as the weapon barked. The shell scored with a rip of pain, whistling as it ricocheted off the bone-plate in his shoulder. He rolled and came up running, swerving onto the dock as Red-hair squeezed off a shot.

A lance of burning cut across his forearm. He doubled his speed and leaped as they both fired at close range. Two stabs of agony, one in the chest, the other in the leg.

His forearm smashed the throat of the shorter, and his elbow caught the other low in the ribs. The three of them went down.

**Warning: Ventricle damage, primary heart in fibrillation. Multiple metallic intrusions. Physical efficiency at 39 percent.**

A giant hand crushed his ribs and dots swam in his vision as he forced himself up. Atrius felt blood pouring down his chest, plastering the smock to his body. Whimpering, Red-hair scrambled to his feet and Atrius stopped him with a palm-heel punch between the eyes.

**31 percent. Primary cardiac cessation. Blood loss now hazardous. Two hectarevs to stasis engage.**

Atrius dropped to one knee as Blue-hat thrashed on the dock. He struck the alien’s head against the wood sharply. The creature stopped moving. Atrius could feel the heat building inside him.

Not enough blood to cool me anymore.

**24 percent. Blood loss nearing critical.**

Feeling ready to melt, he crawled to his side-arm. Turning Al over, he found the holster and looped it over his shoulder. Atrius rolled behind a crate, put his back to it and concentrated.

**Energy shields off-line. Efficiency now 21 percent. Blood loss critical. Secondary cardiac irregularity. One hectarev to stasis engage.**

Hands shaking, Atrius twisted the gun’s aperture to its tightest focus, then spun the power setting to minimum. He tore his smock open. Pasty white blood ran down his chest from a gaping hole. The world danced as he tried to focus.

The screech of a vehicle stopping.

He gripped the gun and ordered a sense link.

**Matrix to weapon linkage successful. Mark IV status, on-line.**

Atrius strained to access the matrix data. His flesh felt on fire.

If I let the matrixes stasis me, I’ll be helpless. Concentrate.

**Cauterize procedure loaded. Mark IV firing-sequence updated. Targeting sequence updated. Ready.**

Pointing the gun into the wound he adjusted the aim until a target lock registered. Gritting his teeth he squeezed the trigger. The gun hummed. A red light lanced into the wound. Flesh sizzled and his body jerked. He bit back a scream as molten pain shrieked through him.

**Primary blood loss abated. Secondary wound closures commencing...** The gems glowed, Atrius felt the arm, leg, and back injuries stop bleeding.

**Stabilized at ten percent. Estimated repair time to nominal efficiency, ten kilorevs.**

He’d functioned with only one heart before, but not with so much blood loss. The cauterization procedure had left him with no strength.

He heard running on the pier. The lake lapped against the dock only an arm-span away. Holstering the gun, he locked it down and struggled toward the water. Every muscle felt as if it were ripping. The water hissed as his body heat dissipated into the icy lagoon. Submerging, Atrius pulled himself along the plant encrusted bottom of the dock toward the pier. He felt the vibration in the water as the alien’s ran overhead.

Darkness. So weak. He forced down a new surge of fear. He didn’t want to be trapped on this alien world. He shuddered at the thought of being picked apart by primitive researchers, imprisoned in some lightless cell. Atrius steeled himself against the images.

Control.

He would have to stay in the water for a while. Fortunately Kriar, unlike mammalian species, retrieved gases through the skin rather than the lungs. The water lowered his body heat and relieved excess pressure while his matrixes regenerated lost blood and healed the damaged heart.

Surfacing under the pier he listened to the hurried discourse between at least four individuals. Too tired to synchronize with their minds, he listened to the tone and speed of their voices. Nothing indicated that they’d heard him enter the water.

Red-hair became conscious first. Atrius remembered the sound of his voice informing Blue-hat that Joseph had killed him. Red-hair’s story would cause a stir. Hopefully, the wounded males would distract the rest from tracing the trail of blood.

After a while, they carried Al and Blue-hat away. A few males remained to search the dock. They paused at one point and spoke in hushed tones for a while, then left.

They must have seen something. They’ll soon be back with help. It’s only been a kilorev and I’ll need two more to be capable of walking. I don’t want to kill these primitives.

Atrius lay in the water and considered his problems. Even if he recovered the lost technology, he’d remain stuck on this planet unable to call a recovery team. He’d never been a strong telepath, planetary and interstellar distances were manageable. Homeworld and her probe-vessels would be trillions of light-cycles off.

I can build a transmitter, but I’d need to get tools from these people. If I do that, I’ll be exposing them to level nine technology. Otherwise, I’m stuck trying to hide and evolve level nine tech from level four junk.

He focused on healing. One problem at a time. Resolving the immediate crisis took precedence over long-range difficulties.

Another kilorev passed. Still no activity.

**Ventricle damage repaired. Primary cardiac restart. Advisory: Cyber-medical treatment required to remove relocated foreign material.**

Dark, now I have to function with metal bouncing around inside me.

He felt sharp pains in his chest as the matrixes stimulated the ailing heart into action. Atrius drew an easier breath.

Time to move. Staying here, knowing they’ll return is stupid.

He pulled toward shore. At the sound of someone running above, he froze. The steps pattered halfway down the pier and stopped.

That can’t be a full-grown male. Not heavy enough.

Using the non-radiant spectrum, he made out a small silhouette. The figure shifted back and forth, then ran further down the pier. Atrius heard metal squeal and saw starlight through a gap. A child climbed down onto the piling braces and closed whatever had been opened.

Atrius made certain he couldn’t be seen, then headed toward shore. He stopped again at the sound of vehicles screeching to a stop. Beings stepped out, conversing rapidly.

He heard Samantha’s voice address the group. Atrius synchronized with the conversation.

“Samantha, what are you doing here?” asked a scratchy male voice.

“I’m looking for Eric. I saw him run down here.”

“Sam, you should leave, that alien is loose. They wounded him and think he’s hiding nearby.”

Atrius heard the child inhale sharply, the creak of fatigued metal. He scanned the area where the youngster crouched.

Those rusty pins are going to break. If the boy falls they might shoot him thinking he’s me. I can’t let that happen.

“Joe, you said the alien died.” Her voice sounded anxious. In her mind it was anger.

“It went into hibernation instead of dying. Harris said he could keep it sedated. The alien attacked Al, Josh, and Pedro. It’s wounded and has a weapon now.”

Joseph paused. “Boys, start searching and be careful. If you find him, back off. We’ll attack from a distance.”

The dark you will.

They broke ranks and moved in different directions.

“Why didn’t you let me in on this sooner? If there’d been proper monitoring this wouldn’t have happened!”

“I have to clear it first, you know that. I don’t have time to argue, we can’t give it time to find a way to call help. Its people might force us to give the equipment back.”

The dark spawn shot me simply to get the technology.

“Damn, I have to find, Eric.” She paused. Atrius sensed her presence expand.

A mind scan! She’s not one of these creatures.

Eric’s perch squeaked again, and the boy gasped.

Have to cloak him or she’ll find both of us.

Submerging, Atrius swam to a position underneath Eric and surfaced in silence. He could see the half-grown boy sitting in the crook of the support. His tousled brown hair hung in his face, and Atrius could see the excess heat in his cheeks.

Atrius thrust out of the water and grabbed the boy. He clamped his hand over the child’s mouth and nose as they submerged. The youngster kicked and struggled. Atrius concentrated.

**Environmental field parameters updated. Water to atmosphere conversion engaged.** A blue glow surrounded them both as Atrius dragged them underneath the dock’s shadow.

<Keep still. I let go and you won’t have any air!>

The boy kept fighting, his mind in an irrational turmoil.

I hate doing this. He clamped down on Eric’s mind, stilling all thought save for the words he put there. <You will be calm. I will not hurt you.>

The boy froze, his mind forcefully sedated.

Atrius continued. <You will make your breathing shallow.>

Samantha’s telepathic scan washed over him. He screened his emanations. The mental force panned back. She was too good to fool.

Is this some new Protectorate agent? After all these millennia?

Holding the limp boy close, he kicked hard for the deepest part of the lake. The boy was his only link to learning more about her. He didn’t know whether this Samantha would give away his location, or wait to come after him herself.

As the distance increased he scanned the shore with his matrixes. She stood on the dock. Her bio-signature now burned hot, many times the energy of the nearby males. A check of her cell helixes showed radical differences from the other entities. A life emanation that must be Joseph stood nearby.

Atrius felt a wave of frustration from her. He imagined the female standing on the platform body taut and fists clenched.

She must need to conceal what she is, otherwise she would be after me.

His hearts felt tight. That wouldn’t last. Analyzing the readings, he’d have trouble fighting her even when uninjured. If the boy was her progeny, she would be especially fierce.

Kicking harder, he skirted rocks and felt cold currents waver past.

Under normal circumstances, he would never use a child to shield himself, not even the offspring of an enemy. Knowing this Samantha would be paramount in escaping. If he kept Eric, she’d double her efforts to find him. He also risked the child being injured in their clash.

Our right to children is what started this conflict.

He could probe the boy’s mind and let him loose on the far-side of the lake to avoid a conflict with Samantha. Could he be so abhorrent as to violate another life-form’s psyche with a forced mental scan?

No.

The Daergonian political party’s disregard for other lifeforms was what embroiled them in the war with the Protectorate. If they’d followed the Solarian beliefs he wouldn’t be stuck two million cycles from home.

He adjusted his matrixes, allowing for pressure and temperature. The injured leg was working at minimal efficiency. He put the thigh wound on highest regenerative priority. Scans still showed Samantha remained stationary on the platform. Her probes continued to keep him bracketed. By now she would be certain that he’d captured the boy.

Atrius could feel her anger and concern.

The dilemma made his mind ache. It seemed irrational to even consider surrender simply to keep an alien child from being hurt. Were the Daergon’s right? Was he weak because the thought of harming innocent aliens made him ill?

No, dasta Solaris maintained that morality must be all-encompassing. The warrior ethic applied to foreign cultures as well one’s own species.

Checking the boy revealed that his vital signs were strong. He compensated again for the rising water pressure, a painful ringing in his ears. Navigating into a deep trench he followed it toward some rocks that would provide good cover against electronic scanning.

Have to get what information I can before releasing him.

The silt haze near the lake bottom would serve as a limited chaff field and prevent visual recognition.

He released Eric’s mind.

The boy twitched. The fear returned.

Darkness. Cold. Disorientation.

<Calm, I won’t hurt you. I only want your help. You can talk back, I’ll understand. Think your words, like you were talking to yourself.>

“It’s dark. I’m scared.”

Atrius empathized with the boy’s fear of lightlessness. <It’s not dark to me.> He linked their minds, letting Eric see the glowing blues and purples of the non-radiant spectrum. Fanning strands of plants and algae stretched up all around them.

“Wow!” A pause. “You really won’t hurt me?”

<No. Do you plan doing something to make me want to?>

“No, sir.”

<Good. How long your mother has been a part of the Protectorate.>

“The what?”

The mind-sync showed no falsehood. If she was an agent she had kept it a secret. He bio-scanned Eric, looking for similarities to Samantha’s patterns; definitely a maternal link. The paternal inheritance indicated that the boy must be a pairing between an indigenous male and her.

The boy shuddered. “I’m cold.”

Atrius adjusted environment envelope’s heat. <Better?>

Eric smiled. “Yeah, what are you anyway? You’re not like Joseph said.”

He needed to put him at ease to learn what he must know. “My people are called the Kriar. Yours?”

“In school they say we are homo sapiens. Sometimes when they talk about other races, they call us ‘humankind’.”

<Humans. Is your mother different from them?>

He felt Eric’s confusion. “What? No.”

Eric must be ignorant of her differences. <We will cross the lake, then you can return to your mother.>

“I don’t want to go back.”

This puzzled Atrius. He remembered her saying that Eric was upset over Dan leaving. Her mate? Had their separation been that traumatic? He thought about it as they swam toward the biggest rocks. The silt kicked up by his movement formed colorful swirls in his spectral scans.

“Can you take me into space?”

<Eric, that would make your mother very angry.>

“So? Mom couldn’t do anything to you.”

<You might be surprised.> She probably kept his heritage a secret so the boy wouldn’t accidentally tell any adults. What was her purpose here?

“Why did you grab me off the dock?”

<I didn’t want you to fall and give away my hiding place.>

“Oh. How come you didn’t run away?”

<Joseph has something I need back.>

“I bet it’s that weird black box with all the buttons on it.”

Atrius stiffened. <Yes. You’ve seen my cyber. Where?> He stopped and rested in the crook between two boulders. He kept hold of Eric so the matrix field would continue to surround him.

Eric balked. “I don’t think I should tell you.”

<I respect that. It would be better for Joseph if you told me.>

Eric frowned. “What do you mean?”

<Your people have a military, right?>

“Yes, this is a military base.”

Atrius absorbed that. <I’m a military commander. Part of my job is ensuring that people don’t copy our technology, even if I must hurt them.>

The boy thought about that for a moment. “I’ll tell you where your box is if you don’t make me go back to Mom.”

<What could she have done that’s so bad?>

“She said Dad didn’t love me anymore.”

<And because she said that you don’t want to see her again.>

“It’s not true. Dad will come back, I know he will!”

<Being mad at her won’t make him come back. This is a bad time. Without your father around, she needs you.>

“When you say it. It doesn’t sound so dumb.”

Atrius smiled. <I’m glad. Will you promise to go back to her?>

“I guess.”

<Good.>

He decided to take Eric ashore now. The boy would serve as a distraction. Eric must be the highest priority in Samantha’s mind.

The war. Did either side win? Did it matter after so long? Were any of his people left to rescue him?

One thing at a time.

Two kilorevs later he found a safe place to come ashore. Most of his damaged tissue had healed over. Trudging ashore with the boy in tow he kept alert. Men might be deployed on this side of the lake. He withdrew the environment field and checked the tree choked waterline.

Eric’s jacket and pants hung on him like loose skin, his round face flush and blue eyes wide. The boy shivered.

<Cold?>

He nodded.

<If the area is clear we can make a fire to keep you warm--> Foliage crunched off to their right.

He checked his matrix status. **Nominal efficiency in 4.4 kilorevs.**

Stepping in front of Eric, Atrius pulled his gun. Figures were coming toward them. Best way out, is to fly. A command to the matrixes.

**Flight mode off-line at current energy levels.**

Dark, have it. He holstered the weapon. <Eric, up on my back!>

The boy hesitated, eyes glinting in the starlight, then obeyed.

Eric clung to him as he scrambled through the trees. Shots ricocheted off wood and rocks. More voices, the static click of comm units, weapons being prepared for firing.

He ducked between two rocks as shells whined off into the darkness.

Too close.

He pushed Eric down, unholstered, set and fired. A fiery swath exploded the trees, knocking two soldiers down. Men barked orders. He pivoted. The blast ripped through the undergrowth, scattering dirt and fragments of wood. More yelling. Something hissed toward them.

Grabbing Eric, he dove clear. The night erupted behind them. Stabs of pain in his shoulder. The boy cried out.

Oh no!

Spinning, Atrius reset and stunned two men taking aim. A flash burst blinded another group. Lifting Eric he rushed for cover. The boy cried about being shot. He couldn’t spare concentration to check the wound. Anger welled up in him. These soldiers didn’t regard their own kind enough to check for noncombatants.

**Advisory: Mark IV charge low. Cell changeout imperative.**

Spawn! Why everything at once!? He stopped behind a boulder and scanned for their comm frequency.

Samantha’s voice. [[--I said stop firing! He has my son!]]

Atrius restrained the boy’s writhing. The soldiers weren’t advancing. As he listened to the transmissions he checked Eric. Shrapnel had creased the child’s side. The wound bled freely.

<The damage isn’t severe.> He was guessing. For a Kriar it would be a minor injury. He tore some cloth and used it to staunch the bleeding.

Joseph’s voice. [[Understood Robbins--all units restrain fire. Discontinue any use of fragmentaries. Unit four, keep alert. Don’t let him hop the fence. Unit three--report.]]

[[Unit Three. One and two need evac, no fatals. Hostile proceeded west. He’s moving slow, Sir, he’s either wounded or carrying a load.]]

[[Acknowledged. Move up. Do NOT engage. Use suppressing fire to push him north...]]

He shut it off.

<Eric, I can stop the bleeding, but it will hurt. Do you understand?>

The boy grimaced and nodded. “I’m scared.”

<I know. Close your eyes.> He adjusted the gun for a cauterize procedure. The sizzle of flesh and the scream were over quickly. The boy whimpered and twitched, but calmed quickly.

A mental blast hit so hard that Atrius recoiled. <<Scag! Hurt my son again and you will die in dishonor.>>

<Wait--!>

Her mental presence vanished. His chances of avoiding a confrontation were dwindling. She’d pinpointed him. He could leave Eric, but these guards might kill him. Then fighting her would be inevitable. She’d come after him purely on principles.

“Mom is nearby.”

Atrius looked at him. <You’re sure?>

“I always know when she’s close.” His blue eyes were wide.

Shells whined past his hiding spot.

Dark. <Stay here, do not move. Talk, yell, but don’t even twitch until you’re certain they know who you are. Understand?>

“Yes.”

He squeezed the boy’s shoulder. <Stay in the light Eric.>

Diving over some rubble, he rolled behind a tree. Shells hissed through the foliage. Whiffs of burning wood and leaves. Swerving through the brush he circled the soldier’s position.

The shots became more inaccurate as they tried to track him in the darkness. Confused voices, the click of comm units and crackling speech.

Atrius followed the sound. Hearts speeding. He burst into a clearing and snatched a weapon away from a man before he could turn. Slamming a knee into the soldier’s belly, he cracked him across the shoulders with the gun stock. Diving under the aim of the other man he thrust the weapon skyward as it chattered a spray of projectiles. Jerking the gun away, he hurled it into the darkness.

The red-faced soldier attacked with a punch. Atrius grabbed his fist. The man swung with the other hand. Atrius seized it.

<Stop, I-->

An explosion of pain as a hard forehead cracked him between the eyes. He reeled, barely blocking as the soldier drove a knee toward his groin. Atrius countered with a hammerfist to the ear. The man dropped.

He bent over clutching his face. Blood dribbled over his lips and tears welled in his eyes. I can’t believe I let him do that!

Rubbing his eyes he oriented south. His stomach tightened. That other warrior could be anywhere and he was functioning at half-nominal.

Taking a few paces, he staggered. A wave of dizziness made the landscape turn fuzzy. The damage and exertion were getting to him. He needed to hole up and let his bio-systems to stabilize.

Leaning into a jog, he headed down an animal path.

A yell. Eric!

Atrius paused and looked back. Distance made it impossible to tell what had occurred. It sounded as if he were being silenced or fell unconscious.

First instinct was to help the boy. So weak. If he didn’t go now, he would die. Samantha would help her progeny, hopefully distracting her long enough for him to get away.

He focused again on the path, then lunged as he detected an energy surge from down the trail. A slash of burning as a beam of energy clipped his shoulder and disrupted a tree. Scrambling, he righted himself.

The muscles down his left side twitched. His hearts thundered. Any slower and I’d have lost my arm. Bio-repair is using too much energy. If I pull power back for shields I’ll be paralyzed.

Pulling his Mark IV, he scanned the area. Empty.

She must be a Protectorate agent. No one else has a stealth field that good.

Her thoughts sounded hollow. <<I can’t let you escape. I don’t know how you found me, but you can’t go back to command with what you know.>> He felt her determination.

Talk or fight? Her weapon needed to recharge or she would have fired again. Engaging here would mean fighting Joseph’s soldiers also.

He plunged through the underbrush. A blast seared across his back, glancing off the limited shielding. Another shot deflected off his thigh. It threw him off balance. Rolling he oriented and fired three low intensity bursts. One bolt scored, outlining a figure diving for cover behind a rock.

**Advisory: Mark IV charge critical. Cell changeout imperative.**

Spawn. Her weapon isn’t powerful, but its power source regenerates. She’ll pick me apart. Have to isolate the fight and take her hand-to-hand.

He ducked a blast and ran. Close combat with a Protectorate soldier? He was so battered that two humans almost downed him.

Shells whined in the trees to the north.

He zig-zagged through the forest. The wounded leg burned. All his injuries were like an outcry of doom sapping his will and strength. The woods blurred as he focused on staying upright and moving. The gun-fire faded behind him. Samantha stopped attacking, presumably to keep from drawing fire. Instinct told him that she was following, waiting for the proper moment.

After a few hectarevs, his scans picked up an electrical field cutting across the landscape. The fence. It seemed to take forever to reach it. He could feel every slide of his muscles pulling in their sheaths.

Two energized metal barriers spaced apart barred the way, one of linked squares over twice his height, the other barbed coils piled head-high. To his tired body, it looked as tall as a mountain. Disrupting the barriers would alert the humans. Climbing would make him a target.

Paralleling the fence, he looked for anything that might aid in scaling. He quickly determined that the vegetation had been uniformly cleared for twenty paces around it.

Have to risk the climb. Try to utilize the electricity for recharge.

The matrixes reacted sluggishly to the mode change. He probed for anything that would give a clue as to the proximity of the other warrior.

Nothing.

The Kriar never breached the Protectorate stealth technology. He found this encounter strange. Usually their warriors used a powerful blast to bring down a Kriar’s shields. Then they always closed for hand-to-hand.

He gripped the metallic mesh. Electricity seared across his skin then rasped into his matrixes. It hurt but no damage was being inflicted.

Atrius climbed as fast as his fatigued body would allow. This position made him too vulnerable. Arcs licked around him, making his muscles jerk and hair stiffen. Reaching the top he swung a leg over. It was too quiet. No gunshots. Across the lake he saw the lighted structures where he awoke. Two water vessels cut back and forth in a search pattern.

Something was wrong. He expected an attack by now. Maybe she lost his trail. She also might be waiting for him to get trapped between the coils and the fence.

He looked again for any sign she might be out there. As expected, he saw nothing. Spawn. I’ve come this far.

He jumped down and the electrical hiss stopped. If only there were time to recharge the matrixes. Then he could use flight mode to go over. Perhaps using the last dregs of the Mark IV’s power cell, he might get a few revs of flight.

He drew the weapon.

<<Drop it, mansor. I wish there were another way, there is enough death on my conscience. I have a child to consider now.>>

Ice seemed to form in his guts. <I am not a mansor. I am Fabrista Solarus Shal’kath Atrius Starheart. You have the advantage.> He dropped the Mark IV and put his foot on it. <Is the boy safe?>

Atrius felt her anger and searched for its origin. <<Eric is fine, despite your efforts to get him killed.>> He detected a touch of surprise in her mind about his concern over Eric.

She was close. Somewhere in front of him. <He would have given away my concealment. It forced me to take him when I retreated. I did not intend to let him be injured. Children have no place in war.>

Cold curiosity filled Samantha’s thoughts. <<Children have no place in war? What kind of mansor would say something so soft?>>

There. Atrius saw where some plants were pressed down. With his foot he turned the weapon so it pointed at her. He commanded the gun to full power and remote firing. He didn’t want to kill her unless forced. She wasn’t a Protectorate soldier. <I am a Kriar Shal’kath. If I must die. Honor me by ensuring the humans don’t learn the secrets of my cyber. It threatens you in any event.>

<<The device Eric saw. It’s a computer/sensor pairing?>>

<The best scanner made. You two will be as obvious as black rocks in white sand. Your scan baffle won’t even stop matrix sensors.> He tapped the jewel on his forehead.

Atrius felt her frown. <<If I don’t honor the anachronistic directive, you’re hoping that I’ll still do it out of self interest.>> She sighed. The tone in her thoughts changed. <<I’m certain you’re not a Dralatha now.>>

<Why?>

<<I let you aim and ready your weapon. You didn’t fire.>>

<So, you’ll let me go?>

<<No.>> She sparkled into view on the other side of the wire. She stepped closer, tall and slender with auburn hair and large green-brown eyes set in a triangular face. She wore a loose green blouse with long sleeves and tight blue pants tucked into boots. <<I want your help to get me and my son to a system where I won’t have to worry about my superiors finding me. I’m an escaped military convict, abandoned my post. Dralatha imperials punish desertion with death.>>

He frowned, bent and holstered his weapon. <I don’t even know if there are any of my people left.>

Her gaze was penetrating. <<Can you get me asylum if there are?>>

Atrius thought about it for a moment. <Certainly.>

<<At worst we can try to build a ship.>>

He felt dizzy, whether it was exhaustion or relief he didn’t know. <I need my cyber to build anything, signaler or ship.>

<<I’ll take care of that.>> She gestured and he felt a bubble of force lift him over the wire.

He stumbled when the energy let him go. She placed a palm shaped weapon in her pocket and studied him. <<The eyes. If I’d seen that closer I would have known you weren’t a Dralatha.>>

Atrius nodded and looked around. <What now?>

<<You find a place to hole up and then meet me when I call you.>>

<That’s it? I should trust you not to send those soldiers after me.>

<<Atrius, we need each other.>>

Her reasoning didn’t help. Trust started this mess--but what other choice did he have? He stared into her eyes. Samantha’s mind screens were too sophisticated for him to be sure of her truthfulness. She appeared sincere. <All right.>

<<Good, come on.>> She pushed him ahead, taking a path away from the base. <<I hope you’re ready to stay a while-->>

Atrius felt a sharp pain as something impacted against his skull.

He stiffened.

Force exploded around his body and the world went blurry as the ground rushed up into his face.

Not again...

Atrius awoke with his nose buried in a clump of foliage. An immediate check revealed he’d been out a hectarev. The pain in his skull remained, Samantha’s hand was tangled in his hair. She knelt by him, breathing hard. Unfamiliar energies pulsed in his body. His matrixes fluctuated irratically, bio-readings, scans, and sub-functions flickering off and on in his mind. The crystals struggled with the alien power coursing through him, tapping already exhausted resources in an attempt to restore order. Their efforts to adapt only worsened the situation.

<<Scag it, Atrius, wake up!>>

Human voices. “Spread out, he was there a moment ago.”

Atrius heard rapid footsteps. At least twenty soldiers appeared out of the trees guns poised.

“Never saw anything move so fast. One moment he was there, then--nothing.”

He struggled to move, a painful tingling shot through all his limbs as if they’d fallen asleep. So many recuperations in a short span of time. Atrius managed to grab her arm.

<What did you--?>

<<Activated my camouflage-field, I didn’t have time to warn you. Let’s go, they’ll trip over us if we don’t move.>> She pulled him upright.

The strain showed on Samantha’s face. It obviously required considerable energy to keep the two of them cloaked.

Atrius fought twitching muscles, making legs of stone plod forward. Cyber voices jangled through his mind in a confusion.

Samantha dragged on him. <<Come on, move! I can’t carry you and keep us hidden.>>

<Matrixes disrupted--> The crackling made it hard to think. <If I shut down, no sunlight--reserves depleted--body will go dormant.>

<<Do it!>>

<But--> Atrius stumbled over a rock, sending it skittering across the ground.

Soldiers oriented instantly, orders rapped out, feet pounding fast.

<<Now!>> Her eyes bored into his. <<Trust me!>>

Samantha might as well have been asking him to shut off his brain. It meant cutting off every survival mechanism in his body. Facing the dark without his matrixes...

Trust. Completely placing his life in her hands. If he didn’t, they were likely to both get caught. Visions of the infirmary flashed through his mind. Metal instruments violating his body and hers.

He did it.

**Ver--fica---n req--d. Sh-t down--** The cybervoice broke up into a gibber. He focused and sent the terminate sequence.

The jangling stopped. The full impact of his energy depleted cells hit home. The little weight he was supporting fell on Samantha. The woman propped him up, telepathically saying something that drowned beneath a tidal wave of blackness. His vision winked out.


**ETX. Matrix memory dump complete.**

Atrius opened his eyes and looked around the glowing blue chamber. The muted hum of power conduits tingled at the edge of his hearing. A faint odor of blossoms lingered in the rarefied air. An arched ceiling rose overhead until the details commingled in the distance.

He took a breath, clearing his head. The counsel table curved away from them, seven faces indistinct in the shadows sometimes outlined by a monitor or activity light. Dizzy, Atrius listed, he felt Samantha catch his arm and hold him. The woman’s face stayed impassive, her body taut and at attention, dressed in the shiny blue of a Dralathian imperial soldier.

The memory testimony took so long he’d lost all sense of time and place. He looked down and saw Eric clutching her hand. The boy’s face looked thinner than when they first met. How fast the cycles had passed.

Atrius brushed at his own gray uniform. It felt odd to be in one after such a long time, to see the real color of his skin, not to be constantly aware of the contacts placed in his eyes. He’d spent so much time in disguise he almost forgot what a Kriar looked like. The signaller took far longer to build than either of them suspected. Setbacks, constant interruptions, and finally pursuit when they were discovered contributed to their long efforts.

The Kriar had survived the war with the Protectorate, the Daergonian party broken up and leadership under the Solarian party reestablished. Atrius felt as much a stranger here as Samantha did.

So much change.

Would either of them be granted asylum and allowed to join in Kriar society? Did they even want to? Both of them were soldiers from peoples that viewed warriors as a barely-tolerated necessity.

He knew nothing else. What could he offer to Samantha instead?

A silvery ray of light focused on the counselhead, illuminating her graceful features. The elder Kriar possessed an inviolate majesty, the kind of beauty one admired but never touched. The Kriar matriarch, counsel Solaris, her yea or nay would decide the matter. The counsels rarely went against her decisions.

Vaetrana Solaris focused ebony eyes on Samantha. “This counsel has reviewed the findings.” She spoke in the human language that Samantha and her son understood. Her voice resounded in the chamber. She stood, indigo robes wreathing around her body. “My people have ignored the plight of our warriors. Our soldiers fought despite their disagreements with the ruling body because of their loyalty. They upheld the ethics of our people even when it caused further risk to their lives.”

Atrius shivered as the Counsel’s gaze locked with his. His chest tightened. She continued. “I am proud of them, even if no other Kriar is.” She glanced back to the other counsels. “I strongly recommend a full reinstatement of Shal’Kath Starheart’s citizenship with appropriate commendations.”

A great wave of relief washed over him. He listened as the counsel focused again on Samantha who twitched. “Samain Kaergar Tumok, despite the Shal’Kath vouchsafing for you, when considering your crimes against the Dralatha I could not justify granting you citizenship. I am recommending that you be issued a pass as a cultural exchange student. When it expires, we will review you for citizenship.” She lowered herself gracefully into the chair. “Those are this counsel’s opinions on the matter.”

Atrius felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His hearts grew tight. Home.

Atrius felt the murmur of disquiet, but nothing strong enough to oppose Counsel Solaris. The Matriarch turned her chair away from them not bothering to wait for a vote. None of the other members contested. In moments, the members filed out the back of the chamber. Red-uniformed security personnel unsealed the public access portals and exited.

“Does this mean we get to stay?” Eric asked.

Samantha looked at Atrius.

He nodded.

She relaxed and hugged Eric.

“What now uncle?”

He shook his head. Atrius turned and looked out a huge viewport that showed a winking panorama of stars. His stomach still felt tight. What does a soldier do after the war is over? Go back to living?

Samantha put an arm around his waist and looked out the window. “In three campaigns, it never became any easier for me. I decided not to come back the fourth time. Here we are.”

The port lit up as the sparkling needle of a survey-ship under full thrusters came into view and accelerated into the distance.

“Indeed.” Atrius squeezed Eric’s shoulder when the boy came next to him, they watched the vessel until all signs of it vanished. “What now, Nephew? We’ll have to find a new kind of excitement to occupy our time.”