Whatever debt the wildcat tribe owes Rif, it must be major. As leader of her tribe, she has to first discover if the sheep tribe is collecting on that debt. Prrowa wouldn't be a wise leader if she sold out the security of her tribe to another over a debt to somebody who isn't even a member of the sheep family. This is the beginning of a bartering session and our wildcat leader is trying to figure out what the sheep want before they ask.
It's a game of favors. Who's favor cancels who's favor and does cancelling one favor create another obligation? It's politics at its most basic.
Is it just me or does Prrowa look like she's expecting to be asked for the impossible in the second panel? She's figured out that Rif was the one who sent the sheep and now she's waiting for the other shoe to drop
Humanity was an ancient and extremely technologically advanced civilization, having designed and built incredible scientific feats. Foremost among these was advanced robotics, from artificial intelligence and self-replicating robots to enormous war machines that would supplant entire armies. They also possessed technology that allowed them to control the weather and were masters of bioengineering with their most notable creation being the Morphs. While humanity has long since vanished from the Earth, their ruins and artifacts remain scattered through out the world.
Classified as High Command Security Level Four (Number authorized to read this document currently stands at three.)
Background: I discovered this transcript while searching the city of Australia. Once I realized what I had, the material was reclassified "Eyes Only, pending final security disposition." Based on my examination of earlier testimony, I am certain the accused, Lieutenant EP Selon, was the human agent feeding us information.
Judge: You admit to commandeering the spaceship once it reached Earth orbit by murdering the pilot and then shooting the two surviving members of your unit, Privates Purser and Sink. You then humidified the ship, locked yourself in an escape pod, pressurized the ship to seven atmospheres, and allowed us to recover the ship via remote control after it entered Terratwo's atmosphere. You abandoned the ship with two flasks of the plague via the escape pod after activating the pod's stealth unit. You poured one beaker out at 25,000 meters over an active storm front. You dumped the other flask in the Hamburg City Reservoir before your surrender to military authorities, a fact you did not reveal for five days. You also sabotaged the spaceship to have a minor accident upon landing that released the pressurized atmosphere before we could initiate quarantine procedures. Is this a fair summation of your crimes?
Selon: Yes sir, though you forgot to note a warrant for my arrest was issued after the shuttle landed and you discovered the bodies.
Judge: Did you know what those beakers held? Selon: It held the viable contents of a plague developed by Earth morphs to eliminate all primate life forms. I learned the true nature of the bioweapon after I translated the intelligence files downloaded from the ORB. This virus thrives in fresh water and can remain viable as water vapor while aloft for a period of four weeks.
Judge: Nobody on your team knew the true nature of this bioweapon?
Selon: I confirmed their wish that it would destroy all morph lifeforms. They believed what I said since they thought the bioengineered safeguards against deceiving those in authority still affected me. Their faith in that allowed me to hide the truth until the material reached my superiors. They didn't translate the document for almost two weeks. By that time, too many carried the infection.
Prosecutor: If I may summarize our medical witness, your honor. In two days, the disease becomes contagious. However, it doesn't manifest itself for three weeks. During this contagion stage, the plague spreads via perspiration through any form of personal contact. At week four, those with the weakest immune systems manifested the first signs of the plague. Health individuals took up to a week more to show signs of an illness. None realized the danger until the number of casualties exceeded a thousand per day. By that time, we believe too many contracted the illness. We had no way of containing or curing the disease. In less than six months, humanity will face the real possibility of extinction. Judge: You realize what you have done to your own race?
Selon: I liberated them, sir. I'm a humanized morph, genetically bred as an intelligence officer with a life expectancy of seven years. Our scientists considered the shorter lifespan a reasonable trade for a memory capability greater than many computers and the ability to make intuitive leaps. You considered us a disposable commodity. I am essentially a representative of a race of slaves bred for submission to your will.
Judge: You're still one of us, a human.
Selon: Don't you get the joke my creators made when they named every male "Ep Selon" and every female "Eppi Selon?" Say it fast and the names becomes "epsilon," the letter designating us as belonging to the fifth generation of a genetically created human. We feared creating another morph slave race, knowing what happened. Scientist developed a race of subhuman entities designed for specific purposes. In your folly, you believed this race had no self-awareness. Judge: Your timing was a little off if you intended destroying humanity. Two days after your departure our scientists discovered a viable world. One of our generation ships containing a crew of three hundred and sufficient genetic material to remain a viable species launched three weeks later.
Selon: I don't care. At least this world and Earth will be safe for the morphs. The virus will contaminate them and they will become carriers. If ever humanity tries enslaving morphs again, it will result in your extermination.
Judge: And you are proud of this genocide?
Selon: An ancient human once said "Give me liberty or give me death." Since you have denied my kindred the first, I have given yours the second.
They anticipated a hero's welcome. Instead, each was taken to a private cabin and locked in their quarters. Based on the ship's chronometer, nobody communicated with them while they traveled to the wormhole. Major Riven found himself a virtual prisoner and was willing to bet they did the same to Lieutenant Lewark.
A paw written message next to the computer terminal asked him to provide as detailed a report regarding his experience on Earth as soon as possible. Since the computer had no connection to the ship's network, he had to use the memory stick an unknown crewmember left in the room prior to their rescue. Major Riven laughed at the extreme security measures they used to isolate them and whatever information they provided.
The crew never released them from their cabins. A ship-wide announcement alerted them to the vessel's final orbital approach on Terratwo. The ship's captain issued his order that all personnel secure themselves as he alerted his crew to the time remaining before reentry. They had just enough time to secure themselves before the Mongoose entered the atmosphere.
It seemed the High Command's sense of paranoia didn't end when they landed. The crew remained on the ship but both of them were ordered off the ship. Armed soldiers in full assault armor formed two security rings around them as they left the Mongoose. The soldiers escorted them from the landing zone to a distant hanger, their weapons continually sweeping the area. Three gunships hovered over the spaceport as they were loaded into one of five armored carriers.
Their unseen driver reminded Riven of a certain wildcat. The two of them held onto a support post as the vehicle raced to its destination. Based on nothing more than the time in transit, they must be a great distance from where they landed. Riven would have sold his soul for a window. After more than a year, he wanted to see the surrounding countryside of his home world.
One moment the driver's actions threatened to throw them around like dice in a cup and the next it slowed to a pleasant pace. At such a sedate speed, Major Riven could hear the distinctive sound of a gunship hovering overhead and wondered if it followed them from the spaceport. Another thirty minutes passed before their carrier stopped. As they emerged from the vehicle, either the same contingent of guards or another security detail established a defensive perimeter.
Riven wanted to see the sky. None existed within the underground parking facility. He tried reading some of the signs, hoping to discover if he was inside a military or government facility. Even knowing the where would relieve his sense of anxiety. That too defied his powers of observation.
The guards gave them no choice but to go where they led. They marched to the far end of the underground facility to a bank of elevators. The guard's commanding officer motioned them inside the one open car. As soon as they entered, the commanding officer joined them. The security officer punched a few keys and they went down.
The doors opened. All about them they saw heavy security as guards in their best dress uniforms maintaining a constant vigil. One pair of guards marched up to them and after exchanging papers with the commanding officer that accompanied them, ordered them to follow him. Those were the first words spoken to them since their rescue.
In silence they followed these uniformed soldiers deep within the facility. Coming to what appeared as a blank wall; the guard placed his paw on a scanner and a door materialized. Using their rifles as pointers, their chaperons directed them inside and the door disappeared, leaving a solid wall.
Within the room, the two ferrets found a conference table and several comfortable chairs. The two had not been seated more than a moment when the door materialized. Seeing who entered, they snapped off their best salute and remain standing even after the wildcat general motioned them to sit. Not until the heavyset rat who preceded the general gave his permission did they return to their chair.
"You are no doubt wondering about all this elaborate security?" The rat inquired.
"Chancellor Pica, we expected to be debriefed, but not by the Morph Supreme Ruler." Major Riven stuttered. "Nor did we anticipate such a reception when our mission failed."
That got the rat laughing. "Didn't the crew tell you we won the war?"
Major Riven maintained his silence. Chancellor Pica turned to the general that accompanied him and asked for two folders. After the general placed the packaged documents onto the table, Chancellor Pica dismissed him. The rat pushed one folder at each of them and waited until they opened it.
Just reading the first page had the lieutenant whistling and him staring at the rat.
"Talk about a problem in translation," snickered Lewark. "That plague we were sent to destroy was created by morphs. Somehow the original document omitted who designed this biological weapon."
"Not quite correct," said the rat. "The original memo never mentioned the scientist or their intended target. All it did is give a lot of technical information alluding to its purpose. Back when this document was created, morphs didn't have access to an ORB so we thought this originated with humans. We now believe this item to be a piece of military intelligence and not a scientific journal or research paper. Until Major Riven copied the ORB's data, we didn't have the full intelligence report, just a random page."
"The document had a point of origin, shouldn't that have alerted somebody as to who originated this paper?" Major Riven couldn't believe the humans that inept.
"Back when this was first transmitted, humans and morph communities were intermixed north of the Great Barrier Wall. We now believe the morph scientists developed this weapon in secret. For reasons none will never know, the humans didn't destroy the lab or failed to determine if anything related to the research still existed. Instead, they transmitted their information from a nearby location to a well-known human biological warfare facility on the eastern coast."
"And we made the same assumption the humans did. We both thought the research done by humans based on the exclusive human use of ORBs and the reception point, not its point of origin." Major Riven gave a snort. "If the humans had transmitted that document from a more distant site, that lab's location would still be lost."
"Indeed," the Chancellor responded. "Our agent said the initial discovery came from a recovered computer anomaly. During the voyage from Earth, somebody tried to delete an inbound priority transmission, which explains how one random page survived. If some computer tech hadn't searched the root directory of the generation ship's original computer, nobody would even know of its existence."
Riven nodded at Chancellor Pica's assessment of the events leading to the document's discovery. Without the full intelligence file, its original intent remained too vague. For reasons known only to the humans, they never used the copy of the military codes provided as part of the ORB download to decipher the full report.
They knew, or had the means to know, the bioweapon affected humans only. It begged the question why the dog / human back at the cave believed the weapon the golden grail for eliminating the morphs. Major Riven couldn't fathom how such a monumental blunder eluded them.
"The Mongoose's Captain transmitted everything you recorded on the computer you used on Earth, Major. That included the ORB download of the human military code. Once we translated the original report, our analysis showed the lab communicated with a morph reservation in ancient Ohio. Apparently, knowledge of the weapon became lost after the detonation of a nuclear device over Canton."
"Did we ever learn who supplied us the information," inquired Lieutenant Lewark.
Chancellor Pica drummed his fingers on the table. "No, we never did find out who supplied us the data. He stopped transmitting the day the Hydra entered the wormhole."
"So how did the war end?" Major Riven was glad Lieutenant Lewark asked the obvious question.
Without saying a word, the rat pointed to their folders. Both Major Riven and Private Lewark scanned the pages. According to captured documents, the Hydra suffered major damage while running the morph gauntlet when they reentered the Terratwo star system. Morph scientist theorized several of the beakers shattered and their contents leaked into the atmosphere prior to their landing.
Three weeks after the ship's return, the humans suffered a severe flu epidemic. Within another week, the true nature of the plague manifested itself. Humans died at an alarming rate. Health officials tried containing the epidemic but it already infected humans on every continent. They had no way of isolating all of the known plague victims.
The human scientists learned the plague consisted of not one, but five variants, each with a lethal potential of seventy percent. By the time it had run its course, approximately twenty-four hundred people survived out of every million inhabitants. Other deaths indirectly related to the plague reduced that number even further.
The war of extermination with the morphs made recovery difficult. Viable births dropped as the number of humans capable of reproducing fell below five percent. Without the manpower to maintain a social structure or their technological achievements, anarchy followed as basic survival needs overrode everything. War production on the human controlled continents stopped.
Soldiers at the front lost all logistical support. Ammo, fuel, and food dwindled while military discipline deteriorated. With the morphs pressing them along all fronts, the soldiers fell back, which led to their inevitable exposure to the plague. Those behind the front lines died, which denied the humans the replacements they needed.
Two months after the Hydra's return, the morph's probing sorties became an all-out offensive. The human forces remaining on the contested continents of Sagittarius, Pisces, and Taurus were overwhelmed. Human naval forces were found drifting at sea, their crew dead or dying. Even the lunar bases suffered as reinforcements carried the disease there before the humans realized what had happened. If any human force survived, they could do nothing more than await the exhaustion of their supplies.
Then the morphs invaded the largest human controlled continent of Primary. The invasion fleet entered the naval command port city of Australia without meeting any organized resistance. Morph soldiers searched the region for humans and found rotting bodies lying everywhere. Those few humans discovered alive did not live long as the invaders carried out their orders to exterminate humanity. Morphs could not allow the humans a chance to repopulate the world. The next generation would be immune to the plague that destroyed their elders. If the humans grew in sufficient numbers, the war of extermination would begin anew.
That was when Morph High Command remembered the mission to Earth. A high priority was set on sending a ship through the wormhole to investigate. The day after the Supreme Military Commander declared victory, a morph ship launched for Earth.
"I'm pleased the war is over, but I do have a question." When the rat indicated his approval, Major Riven asked about their secondary mission, the investigation of Earth's morphs.
"Our scientists believe your wolf companion, Stripe, will infect his pack and any other morph he meets. For them, it will be an inconvenience of a few days with no lasting impact. In less than a year, every morph residing within a hundred miles of that wolf pack will carry the plague. It will take a few years, but eventually every morph on Earth will become carriers. If humanity ever returns to Earth, the virus will destroy them as it did the humans of our world."
Leaning back, Chancellor Pica continued his summation. "We intend limiting contact with Earth to a very select group of scientists. Their culture is too primitive and would suffer too great a shock if we revealed ourselves. For now, the keyword is caution."
The rat stood up, which effectively ended the meeting. Major Riven and Lieutenant Lewark saluted the Chancellor before following him out the door. When they reached the streets, the Chancellor dismissed them and suggested they enjoy an evening in town before returning to base. He assured them that by this time tomorrow, both would be mustered out of the military as honored heroes. The war was over and the only thing left to do was hunt down the last remnants of humanity.
Major Riven watched the Chancellor's entourage depart before he relaxed his rigid military posture. He then raised his muzzle and took in the familiar sky of his home world. Ying appeared full, just below the constellation of the Great Pagoda while Yang hugged the northern horizon. A paw tapped his shoulder and a discrete cough reminded him that another morph stood next to him.
"I was just thinking," said a wistful Major Riven. "We stand here looking upon the night sky and the downfall of humanity. Will we enter a dark age similar to the long night we faced if humanity won or will we witness the dawn to a new era of enlightenment? Have we learned enough from our creators to not repeat their mistakes?"
"No way to know for sure, Major. I do know we have the time to explore all our potential. Let's do as the Chancellor said and enjoy the possibilities."
As you know, the final chapter goes up on November 15, 2018. I intended to include the epilogue with that upload as a way of closing all open threads, however, plans have changed. Anticipate the Epilogue on Monday the 19th.
If anyone is curious, the comment thread for the original version is still available for viewing on this site. The story is gone forever.
My last note, if you wish to comment on this or any story I've posted, go ahead. I will respond.
The Doberman pulled back his arm and threw the glass object at Major Riven. Moving faster than they expected, Stripe charged forward. Drawing his war axe, he used it like a club. Giving a mighty swing, he shattered the flask, which drenched the three of them with the liquid. As the Doberman slid to the floor, he picked off bloody glass shards driven into his body by the force of the wolf's swing. Still the dog continued laughing. Riven approached the dog, an arrow at the ready. Lewark grabbed the empty box the dog discarded.
"This room is packed with enough C4 explosives to collapse this whole cave system. There's no way of deactivating the bomb before it goes off and I wouldn't if I could. At least I'll take you filthy animals with me."
Major Riven understood everything this human said. The word bomb told him he had to act. He turned towards the room's doorway. "We have got to leave. Now!"
Time was running out for them. They raced down one of the tunnels, urged onward by the dog's maniacal tirade. A cross tunnel had him hesitate as he searched for the exit. Stripe dropped to all fours as he sniffed the ground. He didn't need to say a word when he raced down one hallway. He and Lewark followed the wolf as he ran down the tunnel.
Stripe led them down several twisting passages until he made a sudden sharp turn off the lit tunnel. Once more they found themselves in the circular room. This time they climbed. At the final turn the racing trio spotted daylight up ahead and everyone made a mad dash. Then there came a deep rumbling noise that rolled closer with each passing second.
Like lava from a volcano, the three were vomited from the cave by the preceding shockwave. The cave filled with flames followed by debris as the entire region reacted to the explosive powers unleashed. The ground shook and trees that had grown for more than a hundred winters jumped into the air as if they were frogs. Boulders shattered and a brownish fog blotted out the sun. All three morphs hacked as they breathed in the grit.
And then a peaceful calm. They stood battered, bruised, and exhausted by their ordeal. The three morphs surveyed the extent of the calamity, too numb for any reaction. That was the moment when Stripe gave an impressive shake that showered the area with the wet grit still clinging to his fur. Even the ferrets sprayed the immediate vicinity with remnants of whatever liquid had been in the flask as they duplicated the wolf's latest action.
"We can . . . we can give . . . give chase after a short rest. Those lizards will never get to use that weapon."
"It's too late, Stripe. Listen." Major Riven said.
The wolf did as Major Riven directed. A loud whining noise could be heard coming from the other side of the demolished hill. Then the noise became a thunderous roar that soon dissipated. Shaking his head, Stripe stared at Major Riven.
"Our enemy is using a ship that goes through the sky. Now we have to depend on others to win this battle or that Doberman will be right, the war is lost."
"It's regrettable I never got to finish my fight with the golden-eyed one but if all is done, I'm going home. My pack needs me," said Stripe. Major Riven raised his bow and aimed it at Stripe. "The three of us are infected with a plague that will kill every living morph. If we stay here, we'll die, but others might live. That was the weapon our enemy sought, and it's what was in that flask you shattered."
Stripe stood there deep in thought. Hanging his head down, he faced the two ferrets. A simple nod had Riven lower his bow as the three proceeded deeper into the Wildlands.
Over the ensuing six months, the ferrets honed their hunting skills thanks to Stripe. Though Stripe pestered them about their homeland, neither ferret offered any stories. However, the two ferrets remained mesmerized by the tales Stripe recounted about life in his homeland.
They all avoided talk about their illness. At first, they suffered a severe flu that left them as helpless as a newborn pup. Four days later, their health improved. Their stomachs no longer rebelled whenever they ate. It didn't stop each of them from scrutinizing the other two as they awaited the first symptom of the unknown fatal disease. But as the days passed, all marveled at the apparent health of themselves and their two companions.
This night was no different from the others that preceded it. At least it was until a strange warbling noise came from Riven's backpack. Although he still had the communicator he appropriated from Lewark connected to the solar panel on his backpack, Riven never used it since all the rest were destroyed at the cave. He should have discarded the thing as excess weight but feared some native might find it.
"No use hiding this."
Riven withdrew his communicator and was about to punch the on button when he realized the device's off switch had been overridden by an unknown transmitter. Riven looked at his two companions and held his finger before his nose in the universal sign for silence. He then punched the speaker button.
"Major Riven, please respond . . .. I say again, Major Riven, please respond . . .."
The unknown female voice continued its message without ever breaking. No doubt the message was an automated one and would continue transmitting until disconnected at the other end. Riven hit the transmit button and gave his name. The recording stopped and he could hear static crackle over the channel.
A male voice came over the comm link. "Thank goodness you're alive. The war is over and we won. We're using your signal as a homing beacon and can be there shortly."
Major Riven almost dropped his communicator. "Confirm last transmission. Did you say the war is over? It sounds too incredible to believe."
"Affirmative, Major; the war is over. Everything will be clarified after debriefing. We have confirmed that the weapon you lost is inert. I say again, the plague is inert."
"I know there's one here who will be happy to know that."
"Major, are there any indigenous life forms with you?" Even over the communicator, the metallic voice sounded agitated.
The wolf almost laughed when Riven answered in the affirmative. When the unknown voice asked if the indigenous life form could overhear them, Major Riven gave an emphatic no. Stripe flashed the shame-shame sign. Major Riven promised to call back as soon as he removed the problem. He turned the communicator off.
Standing tall, Stripe sauntered over to the lean-to they had called home. After snagging his backpack, he studied the heavens. Stripe turned and hugged the two ferrets and shouldered his backpack.
"That porcupine was right again. I'm going home. But I'll also remember his words until I find that cave we used through the Barrier Mountains. 'Look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed.' It's been a pleasure, Major. Perhaps we shall cross paths in the future?"
Riven said nothing. Once more Stripe looked skyward as he pointed out the stars forming the Great Ladle. With the Northern Star on his left, the wolf marched out of the camp without a further word spoken.
Another hour passed before Major Riven activated his communicator. After several exchanges, the two castaways broke camp and walked westward until they reached a wide glade. A quick word with the unknown voice confirmed the viability of the field as a landing strip.
Soon the night sky filled with the shriek of a madden beast. As it reached its crescendo, the glade exploded in bright lights. Riven and Lewark waited in the trees until the vessel landed. The Mongoose, a cargo spaceship smaller than the one that brought them here, hovered above the ground before it settled. Even as its ramp dropped, they sprinted for the doorway. In less than five minutes, the ship's engines roared to life once more. Home beckoned.
Removing his spyglass, Riven examined the area along the line suggested by Stripe. He felt like a fool following the advice of some prophet, but so far, the porcupine's predictions had proven valuable. His mutterings about the search area changed when he found a cave opening to the right of the track indicated by the worn stone serpents.
"We might be in luck. There's a cave just outside the search area, perhaps that hill buried the lab or it was built underground. No telling how extensive it could be underground. Maybe the transmission point wasn't in the lab, but near it. It's worth the time checking."
Having a destination put a jaunty step in the squad's pace as the ferrets made for the low hill. Even Stripe felt proud that it was his discovery that led them to the distant cave. All thought the race was won and that this cave represented the finish line.
Such thoughts had the ferrets dropping their guard as they approached the hillside. They stepped through the few trees near the cave without taking any precautions. The distinctive barking sound of an automatic weapon erupted. Though Stripe didn't know the source, he remembered the sound that preceded the death of the unit's medic and dropped to his belly.
What Stripe would later describe as "a swarm of angry hornets" whizzed overhead and bark from the trees flew off wherever the insects struck. Stripe was no coward, but he did have the intelligence to know when his weapons were outclassed. He might have been closer to the trees than the ferrets, but he was the last reaching the relative safety they offered. Each time he tried moving, his size attracted the hornet's attention.
Leaning against a tree, Riven focused his spyglass on the mouth of the cave. There he observed several dogs guarding the entrance. By dialing up the magnification power, he located a Great Dane that towered above the others running into the cave. Without realizing it, Riven stepped clear of a tree and one of the dogs pointed his weapon at them. Another dozen hornets slammed into the nearby tree just after a meaty paw yanked him onto his back in a most undignified manner.
Stars danced before his eyes and the spyglass shattered on a nearby rock. Rolling onto his belly, Major Riven took a quick inventory of his body and found nothing damaged other than his pride. A glance to his rear showed him the culprit responsible for his latest fall.
"Looks like I owe you one, wolf. They almost planted me that time."
"I'm returning the favor owed" growled Stripe. "Last time those lizards used their weapons, it was you who pulled me down and saved my life."
"There must be another entrance on the other side of the hill. We would have spotted them earlier if this was the only way into the laboratory."
One of the privates peaked around the tree he hid behind, watching their enemy's movements. "We have plenty of cover between us and that cave, major. Should we try forcing our way inside?"
"No choice. If they find what they're looking for, they can leave by the other exit and will escape."
Retreating deeper into the tangled mass of trees, the ferrets gathered about their commander. He divided his force into two groups and outlined his plan. Each group would attempt reaching the cave from a different side. If they caught their enemy in the crossfire, they might force a way into the underground complex the hill buried.
Stripe followed Riven who moved to the left side of the cave's mouth while the Lewark led the rest of the unit on the other side. Several times one group sprinted across an open area while the others kept a steady stream of arrows and bolts flying at the dogs. Once both teams reached the hill, they worked their way to a point where they could fire down at their adversaries.
When the dog guards hastened into the cave, the ferrets opposite Major Riven charged into the fray. Both dog and ferret pulled out knives as they started a deadly sparring match. They joined the battle, taking on the outer sentries while the rest charged into the cave. Riven killed his opponent and prepared to join those fighting in the cave. A great fireball erupted that filled the cave's entrance.
In the quiet that followed, Stripe approached the cave with his senses alert. Major Riven and Lewark soon joined him. A quick peek inside showed them the charred remains of those who were fighting earlier. Such was the intensity of the fireball that the three could do no more than count the charred bodies. Based on the number of ash piles, everyone fighting in the cave mouth were exterminated.
"I'm betting these lizards believe they got all of us. Best we go in with our ears open and our noses twitching."
"We go in, Stripe, but I lead. Our enemy might still have a few tricks up his sleeve and there's too few of us left."
"By my count, there should be four of them and three of us, makes the odds a bit more even."
That's when Lewark quipped, "Yeah, but their weapons are still a lot better than ours. One of them could take on a dozen of us without a problem."
At the end of the short tunnel they found a circular path leading downward. After following the stone walkway twice around the central pole, the three spotted a faint light. When they came to the new tunnel, they found two paths illuminated by dim lights that flickered.
"They must have located the control room and switched on the emergency lights. It's amazing that there's still power in this place after more than a thousand years."
"Your words are meaningless to me, but you don't sound too surprised, major." Stripe gazed in awe at his surroundings. He placed his outstretched paw close to the flashing white sun and whistled in amazement. "This light gives off no heat."
Lewark gave a snort as he shifted his search from one tunnel to the other. "Back where we come from, such things are quite common." That elicited a sharp hiss from the major.
His inspection of the strange sun completed, Stripe dropped to a four-paw stance and checked the stony floor. Then the two ferrets noticed how the wolf's hackles stood on end. The wolf pointed to the left and the three moved in that direction.
As the group worked their way deeper into the complex, they continued following a serpentine path deep underground where the only light came from the flickering light fixtures. Alcoves created dark rooms extending no more than three paces from the central aisle they followed. Though no evidence of the inhabitants remained, the stony chambers had piles of rotting fabrics that hinted of accommodations in a very distant past.
A quick peek into one room resulted in an even hastier retreat. The bark of an automatic pistol sounded like thunder exploding inches from one's ears as the sound echoed off the walls. That was followed by a sharp tangy smell Stripe couldn't identify, though it was the same odor as that left by the fireball at the cave's entrance.
Working as a team, the two ferrets would draw their enemy's fire. Then they heard a noise they knew was the removal of an empty clip followed by cursing. Springing into the doorway, both ferrets fired their arrows at the Doberman standing by the rear wall. Hearing him scream had both ferrets rolling into the room. When there was no returning gunfire, they stood.
Stripe followed Riven. He strolled into the room, his paws close to his war axe. Senses alert, he sniffed the stale air.
Though the chamber contained objects that dated back to the legendary time of the humans, the place itself appeared quite primitive. Every surface remained in its natural state. Nowhere were there signs that the chamber had ever been modified for its inhabitants' comfort.
The Doberman leaned against the far wall with two arrows in him. One had pierced his hip and had him using a stone shelf for support. The second shaft protruded from his chest and stained his brown fur a crimson color. Despite his pain, the dog laughed.
"You mangy fur balls have interfered in our affairs one time too many." He pulled a sealed bottle from a box and held it high. "We couldn't retrieve any data from the ORB and the scientists working here were too paranoid. They even used ancient computers that relied on silicon chips and those have long since reverted into sand. But we found half a dozen of these in a working stasis box. The war is over and you lost!"
The camp remained in darkness thanks to the sheer cliffs near their camp. The sentry on duty woke Major Riven as the sky displayed the beginnings of a clear day. Though the birds chirped within the nearby woods, none of the morphs heard their melodious calls over the continual roar of the waterfall. A light morning breeze swirled about the steep cliffs. A heavy mist left everyone's fur damp.
"Not the most pleasant sensation or the nicest smell," grumbled Stripe.
"Quit your griping, wolf. Following that stream got us down here faster than finding out how those hares got down those cliffs and hoping we could follow them. Anyway, we could all use a good bath."
"Speak for yourself, Major. We wolves don't shed water as well as ferrets since our pelts are too fluffy. As to 'smell,' tell me you have no complaints once the sun gets down here."
Everyone went about the task of preparing the morning meal and packing their gear. As was his habit, Riven kept an eye on their wolf guide, making sure he wasn't watching him. Satisfied that Stripe was occupied with the normal campsite chores, he slipped his paw inside his backpack and opened his computer.
He reviewed the radio traffic since last night. Thanks to the human agent, Major Riven had a way of monitoring the Hydra's communications. After the humans were dropped off, he learned the Hydra returned to orbit and now waited there. Based on the timer the spy provided, the humans either missed their scheduled call to the orbital spaceship or they changed the radio frequency. Without that radio signal, he couldn't monitor the human ground force.
Just then Private Lewark tapped the Major's shoulder. Of all the remaining members of his squad, Private Lewark had proven the most adaptable to the oddities of this world. He had a natural way of making friends of anyone he met, which got him a lot of information at the Inn. It also left him with a splitting headache after sampling too much of the local brew.
"I'm not questioning your commands, Major, but why not race those hairless monkeys to the finish line? We do have the map coordinates."
"Yeah, we could race them to the finish line, but we would still have to find the lab. Trailing them lets the hairless monkeys do all the work. Remember, our mission is to eliminate the lab and all traces of its existence. That means eliminating the humans too."
"If I were those hairless fiends, I'd take my ship back through the wormhole and get a bigger force here, especially since they know the approximate area."
"And what if there's no lab, lieutenant? They have to be certain it exists and that the formula is there before they contact their ship. If they are successful, there will be no need for a follow-up mission. If the virus and the information necessary for its creation doesn't exist, they haven't wasted valuable resources on a fruitless venture."
Major Riven pushed himself off the ground and stretched the kinks out of his back. Giving a quick shake first, he smoothed his fur. After connecting the solar charger, he returned his computer terminal to its place before joining the others. Their guide pointed out the course of the stream and everyone followed the waterway.
Sunlight brightened the valley and all were in jovial spirits. As Stripe predicted, his damp fur left a bit of a stink. The ferrets delighted in jesting with their guide who took every opportunity at staying upwind to them. By the time his fur dried, the sun had almost reached its zenith. Stripe pointed to an open field bordering the stream and a small column of smoke. A quick march brought the ferrets to the burnt remnants of a campfire and the bodies of five dogs. Each of the morphs had a large hole in their chest. A closer examination of the campsite found both the bodies and the ashes still warm.
"Last night's rain has destroyed whatever scent trail we could follow. No way of tracking your lizards that way until the ground dries, which might take a day or two." Stripe continued to examine the shoreline near the campfire's ashes.
"What makes you so certain our enemy killed those dogs," Riven asked.
"Three things. The first is that we are in the Wildlands where most creatures are the ones not blessed with self-awareness or intelligence. They wouldn't know how to build or maintain a fire. Then there are these dog tracks near the stream. Based on the number of tracks, there should be more dogs or more bodies. Looks like your lizards have changed their appearance."
"You said 'three.' What's the third?"
The wolf smirked. "Stonemarker's prophecy. We have found the pyre, so now I have to wait until somebody else directs us since I'm no more familiar with this region than you were of the lands I knew."
Muttering under his breath, Major Riven reached into his backpack. A quick consultation with his computer terminal and the help of a compass gave them a general direction. Now it was his turn to give directions.
All kept alert as they anticipated running into the humans who were no more than four hours ahead of them. They pushed themselves hard as they tried covering the distance, hoping they might see their adversaries.
Several times along the way, Riven checked his compass. Using it as a guide, he would locate some landmark up ahead and make for it. Once there, he found another landmark and they continued pressing forward. By the time nightfall came, all were footsore from the hard day's travels.
One private scaled a tree that night and checked out their surroundings. He felt disappointed that he spotted no fire, but then remembered that they too would go without one in fear of alerting their enemy.
Two more days passed like the first did, Major Riven using his compass and everyone following where he pointed. As the third night started since discovering the dead dogs, Major Riven gathered everyone closer. Even Stripe sensed something had changed since their last rest stop.
"According to my readings, we are about to enter the area where the ancient laboratory is located. With one exception," and here Riven stared at Stripe, "all know that whatever weapon our enemy seeks is contained in this hidden place. Tomorrow we start searching for this place, but keep alert. Our enemy is out there doing the same thing."
When dawn came, the ferrets established a search pattern. Each morph scanned his section of the area for signs that would lead them to their objective. While the ferrets did the searching, Stripe kept watch for their enemies. That had him muttering about becoming a shepherd to a herd of ferrets. Every ferret took any excuse as a reason to pass their wolf sentry and bleat like a contented lamb before returning to their assigned area.
The next day started out with the same routine. All moved out into a low field as they went to their assigned areas. Grumbling about the slow pace and the lack of contact with the lizards, Stripe scanned the area for a good lookout perch. As he passed the Major on his way to a stone outcropping, Riven gave a poor imitation of a sheep that left the wolf laughing.
From atop his rocky outpost, Stripe could detect any movement within the nearby trees and could scent anyone approaching from the opposite direction. He continued his vigil as the sun first climbed and then started its descent. Reaching for his canteen, Stripe dropped it. As his paw grabbed the metal container, his eyes widened in surprise.
"Over here, I found something."
When the ferrets gathered about him, he pointed down at the base of a large rock. There, chiseled into the rock was an ancient symbol that the recent rains had revealed when the surrounding mud had been washed away. Etched into the stone was the ancient emblem of a doctor, the caduceus.
With a note of pride, Stripe announced "Behold the stone serpents that shall point the way."
Each ferret peered through the openings they left in the rocky barrier as they awaited their enemy. None spoke and if any coughed or shifted position, the others would give the offending morph a scathing glare. Even Stripe felt the tension and kept checking that his war ax could be snatched at an instant, though Riven insisted this would be a fight over distance.
The ferret on the far right flicked a pebble at the ferret on his left who did the same thing until it reached the depression where Stripe and Riven awaited the battle. When the pebble struck the stones, its pinging sound alerted them to the approaching enemy. It took a quick glance to ascertain where their adversaries stood.
Riven saw his trap unraveling as his enemy drew closer. Instead of taking the easier course through the wide glade, his opponent hugged the forest boundary. He also had his unit alert as they moved at a cautious pace, always checking the forest for any adversaries and watching their rear for possible pursuers.
Major Riven watched his enemy approach the kill zone while his unit kept their eyes on him. When he gave the signal, those with crossbows loosened their bolt through the slits they constructed the previous day. Those armed with longbows jumped upright and released their shafts before ducking behind the stone barrier. All Stripe could do is finger the edge of his war ax.
At least they caught the enemy unawares. Major Riven watched as two of the bolts found their targets, but cursed under his breath when those soldiers joined the others in the forest. As he searched the woods for signs of their opponent, the others prepared for another volley.
Two hares exited the forest and knelt on the ground where the ambush first started. In unison the two lifted tubes to their shoulders and scanned the stony rise. Major Riven saw this and blanched.
"Everyone, start crawling into the woods as fast as you can."
Stripe didn't understand why they retreated, but did as ordered. They were halfway to the forest when the wolf's ears detected a strange whooshing sound. A second later, the stone outcropping erupted into a wall of flame. Fire poured through the rocky barrier and filled the places where they had hidden throughout the night.
Safe within the forest, Major Riven pointed in the general direction their enemy would follow. Nodding his head in understanding, Stripe led the group through the trees low enough that their opponent couldn't detect them. As they rounded a hill, Major Riven used his spyglass. He relayed his observation regarding their enemy continuing along their original course.
"Where did those lizards learn how to command such powers? I know of no such weapon that can hurl fireballs from a stick." Stripe couldn't hide his shock at what he had just experienced.
"We were lucky, this time. I thought they wouldn't use their powers here, fearing others might learn about them. Considering the stakes, I should have anticipated them using whatever means they could."
"What other powers do these lizards command? It's hard enough chasing after an enemy that can become another morph at will. If this were a more populated area, we wouldn't know if that was another contingent of hares or the killers we pursue until we got within sniffing range."
Falling in place behind their adversaries, the ferrets continued their pursuit. An examination of the tracks showed that at least two suffered injuries. One was mild as he no longer bled though his foot dragged. The second one appeared to be losing a lot of blood. Stripe reported the injured were not delaying the others.
Rounding a bend in the trail, the ferrets surprised the hares. They too appeared startled by the sudden appearance of their pursuers. Both sides grabbed for weapons and Stripe drew his war axe. A barking sound came from the hares and fearing another firestorm, Stripe dove for cover. In the ensuing silence, Stripe watched the hares continue on their original course. One by one the ferrets came out of hiding. A quick headcount showed one was missing.
They found his body in the middle of the trail, riddled by holes similar to those suffered by the dead at the Sanctuary. Stripe helped bury the group's medic, expressing his appreciation one more time for his aid after fighting the giant. Every member of the party wore a resolute expression as they pledged vengeance for their fallen comrade.
Riven changed his strategy. Ambushes didn't work since the humans had modern weapons and equipment that put them at a disadvantage. Trailing their enemy might be safer but it conceded the race to them. They couldn't allow that. He had but one option available.
Instead of a direct firefight they couldn't win, Major Riven sniped at his opponent. Whenever the humans stopped, one soldier crept close enough for one quick shot. Sometimes that unexpected shot came from a ferret Stripe led to an ambush spot ahead of the humans. At night, they crept close enough that the automated alarms activated, depriving their enemy of a restful night's sleep.
Their plan seemed to be working. The trip should have taken no more than five days, but seven had passed and they were nearing the halfway point. When the one ferret returned from his nightly sortie, he gave his commander some good news.
"I think those lizards are running short of ammo. Last night I got the guard to fire a volley at me, this time he left his weapon holstered. And that happened again when they changed guards and I crept within shooting range. They became alert and knew where I was, but nothing else."
Major Riven slapped the fellow on the back, congratulating him on a job well done. It seemed the odds might have shifted into their favor. Riven approached Stripe.
"Can you get us to another ambush point? This time we might have the stronger paw because our weapons are renewable."
No words were spoken. Stripe moved through the woods with the others trailing him on a course that led away from their enemy's line of travel. Once Riven said they were beyond detection range, Stripe changed course. When Stripe called a halt, he had them crouch behind a line of rotting trees facing a wide trail. The hard part came in awaiting the arrival of those they pursued.
Their quarry came into view. All awaited the signal; even Stripe hoped he could get off a shot with the bow one ferret offered him. A dozen hares approached the clearing when a strange warbling sound came from the one leading the others. In an instant, all of the hares dove for cover.
The sudden move had Riven's group fire a hasty volley. The yelp of an unknown voice told them that at least one arrow or bolt scored a hit. Then the forest became quiet. After watching the area for several moments, one ferret slithered forward. Seeing him stand confirmed their suspicions. The enemy eluded them once more.
This time, they gave chase. They were about to charge up a hill when Stripe signaled a halt. Major Riven almost countermanded that order until the wolf gave his reason.
"Stonemarker said 'death stalks a bald hilltop.' Until now, every hill we crossed had trees. There are none on that hill. After what we experienced earlier, I'm wondering if this is the one that will be 'crowned in fire.'"
Prudence said caution but listening to a mystic defied logic. Major Riven sent one ferret up the hill. All waited at the bottom watching the lone scout as he went forward. Moments later he hastened back spooling out a long string. Saying nothing, he reeled in the string. Suddenly the hill erupted like a volcano in flames.
Turning to his commander the scout said one word, Claymores. The humans must have used at least ten of those things to cover such a wide swath of land. They already conserved ammo so this has to be a desperate attempt at trapping them. Major Riven had to concede it almost worked too.
"Can you take us to where we need to go and not trail these hares?"
Stripe shook his head. "A day's travel north is the Barrier Wall. It's too high to climb and is too deep under the ground. The only passage through the wall is guarded by the dog castle. I doubt Prince would allow anyone into the Wastelands without a valid reason."
Another reason to hate the Puritans. The Northern Nation recognized the sapience of morphs, which caused a rift with its neighbor to the south. That led to the construction of an impenetrable wall to keep the morphs from shifting south. Major Riven never anticipated a need to cross that barrier when he first planned for this mission. If the humans did, they would have some contingency for crossing that wall available.
"Stripe, is there any way we can get pass that wall?"
"A year ago, Stonemarker advised communities along the wall of marauders who discovered a way through the barrier. His warning saved the lives and property of many morphs. We tracked them down and found out how they slipped under the wall. Prince was advised of the breach so I'm sure it's sealed by now."
"Perhaps Prince is not the most diligent."
Stripe laughed. "I thought you knew nothing of this area, Riven. Prince is easily distracted if something isn't immediately important to him. It is possible those responsible for sealing this breach might not have completed their task."
With no other option, Stripe led them to a low-lying hill. Riven was pleased seeing the cave unsealed and unguarded. One by one they filed inside and followed a rocky path that meandered deeper. When it became too dark, Riven called for torches.
Riven reached into his backpack and activated the chemical light stick. An eerie green light soon filled the cave as each ferret held up a similar stick. Thanks to the light, they continued downward. The sound of rushing water drew them to an underground river. Stripe told them the last marauder was supposedly killed as he fled downstream.
With no other option, Riven followed the water. Their journey took time as Stripe and Lewark scouted ahead for the trail that led them to the other side. Several times they found the remnants of burned out torches or campfires. Those confirmed they followed the right path. When the green sticks faded, Riven decided they would rest there.
Good thing they each carried multiple sticks. Just as their third torch waned, they heard a low rumble and felt the wind pulling them forward. The stream exited the hillside as a small waterfall that ended in a plunge pool at the base of a sheer cliff. Above them there was no path, but to the right of the cave, a rough trail could be seen in the setting sun. Before night had fallen, all had scrambled down to the base of the waterfall. As everyone went about preparing the evening meal, Major Riven felt his communicator vibrate. Making certain that Stripe was nowhere near, he activated the device. His brow furrowed as he noted the communication channel. The message was from their agent among the humans.
"For the morphs to win, you must lose. Expect no further help."