“Are there more?”
Caldswell’s question snapped me out of my fixation, and I straightened up, swinging my light across the floor. We found five more dead lelgis in the area directly around the airlock and then a sixth farther in, hanging from what looked like a tree.
It is a tree, Hyrek typed. You’re in an arbor. Look up.
I obeyed, gasping in amazement. The room we were in was even larger than I’d initially thought, and it was filled with a canopy like nothing I’d ever seen. Enormous trees rose from several patches of dirt along the edges of the room, their wide, flat leaves forming an overlapping cover high above our heads. The canopy looked blue green in our floodlights, but most of the leaves’ edges were rimmed with black.
They’re dying, Hyrek wrote.
“What did you expect?” Cotter said. “No heat, no light, no water—assuming your plants drink water and not blood.”
A tribe ship’s heart is its trees. Hyrek’s message came so quickly I could almost hear him slamming his claws against the panel. They grow all through our ships, and their death is the tribe’s death.
“I’d say they outlived their tribe this time,” I muttered, flicking my light toward a shape on the ground.
Dead xith’cal lay scattered all across the far side of the large room. They must have died a while ago, because the bodies were pretty well decayed, yet another reason I was happy I hadn’t unsealed my suit. “That’s strange,” I said, turning over the closest body with my foot. “No bullet wounds. They weren’t shot.”
“They wouldn’t be,” Caldswell said. “Lelgis don’t shoot.”
There was something in the way he said that that killed my questions before they could form.
This makes no sense. Lelgis and xith’cal do not fight.
Hyrek had typed that to Caldswell, but I answered anyway. “I thought xith’cal fought everyone.”
We fight to eat and for challenge, Hyrek wrote. Lelgis are poison, and they do not fight as we do.
“Well, something fought them,” I said, sliding my light over the dead bodies, xith’cal and lelgis.
“Morris,” Caldswell said. “See if you can get to a command room. Maybe there’s some kind of record, a security camera, something that can tell us what happened.”
“We need lights first,” I said, looking around.
There’s a door to your left, Hyrek typed.
It was as good a place to start as any, so Cotter and I dodged the bodies and made our way over. The doorway was rounded almost like a cave entrance and set into a metal wall that had been cast to resemble stone. Inside was a narrow stairway leading up.
Our people lived underground before we were forced into space, Hyrek wrote before I could ask. Stoneclaw is an old tribe and keeps the old ways.
“I wish they’d kept bigger doors,” I said, sticking my head up the dark stairwell. “I don’t think you’ll fit, Cotter.”
Cotter snorted. “Leave it to lizards to live in holes. Why even make something this small? Xith’cal are ten feet tall if they’re an inch.”
The males are ten feet tall, Hyrek wrote. Females are significantly smaller.
I frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female xith’cal.”
Of course you haven’t. Fighting and dying is for males. The smart xith’cal choose to be female—you live much longer. Hyrek paused. Females are also in charge of all science and technical aspects of xith’cal society. That’s how I knew the door in front of you went somewhere useful. It’s a female door.
As I read Hyrek’s words, I suddenly thought about how small our xith’cal was compared to others I’d seen. Small and differently colored. Now was hardly the time to be pushy, but I made a mental note to ask him, or her, about it later. For now, we had more pressing business.
“Guess I’m the lucky girl,” I said, stepping inside. “Cotter, keep watch. I’ll see if I can’t get us some light.”
Cotter didn’t even grumble at the order. Bad as standing around on an alien ghost ship was, at least this area was open and seemed relatively safe. Much safer than going up a small, dark tunnel into the unknown.
The stairs went up nearly thirty feet by my estimation, curving in a slow spiral so that I couldn’t see the top until I reached it. The small room I came out in could have been a control room on any space station. There was a large exterior window looking down on the bay where we’d come in and the Glorious Fool beside it and a smaller interior window looking out into the canopy of dying trees. I couldn’t see Cotter through the leaves, but one of the consoles had a blinking red light, and I decided to have a look.
I pushed the padded stool aside and stood in front of the console, shining my light on the various controls. “What now?”
Let’s start on the upper left, second row, third from the top.
I found the switch easily, a fist-sized clunker covered in xith’cal scribble. It was heavy. If I hadn’t had my suit, I probably couldn’t have thrown it, but the Lady Gray had no problem. The switch flipped with a satisfying metal crunch. I was immediately rewarded by the whir of machinery.
Now go to the panel on the wall behind you.
I had to hunt a bit before I found what he was talking about, mostly because it wasn’t a panel at all but a large box covered in ominous black markings. It was locked, so I ripped the cover off. Inside was a field of red toggles, each one carefully marked.
“Which should I hit first?” I asked.
I’m not sure. They’re numbered, not labeled, Hyrek wrote. The words paused, and then I saw Just hit all of them and we’ll see what happens.
“My kind of plan,” I said, sweeping my arm across the lot.
Light flickered around me, and suddenly I could see, but only dimly. Soft red-orange light shone beneath the consoles and along the walls. The light through the window looking down on Cotter and the trees was a little stronger, but not much.
“Guess there wasn’t enough power for the main lights,” I said, flipping a few switches at random. “All I can seem to get are the emergency ones.”
No, the lights are on, Hyrek replied. Xith’cal eyes don’t need the glaring light you humans seem to enjoy.
The thought that this low, red glow was all the light I was going to get didn’t thrill me, and I kept my suit’s floodlight on as I walked over to the console in the corner below a bank of what looked to me like monitors.
“Okay, Hyrek,” I said, leaning over the controls. “Let’s see if we can’t find out what happened between the squids and the lizards, besides the obvi—”
I froze. At first, even I didn’t know why. All I knew was that my gut had clenched in the way that meant something was wrong. I stayed perfectly still, one finger poised over a switch at the base of the console like I was contemplating pressing it, and waited. A second later, I saw it again, a flash of movement in my rear cam.
I spun and fired before I could think twice. Sasha sang in my hands, firing a three-shot burst into the dark stair behind me. One of them must have struck true, because I heard a grunt, but before I could see what it was, something hard and heavy smashed me upside the head.
Had my stabilizers not been as good as they were, I would have gone over. Instead, I staggered, blinking against the spots dancing behind my eyes just in time to see a xith’cal step into the room.
It took me a few seconds to realize that, even though I was looking straight at it, I couldn’t see the xith’cal clearly. Then I remembered that my floodlight was attached to my helm. That had been what the xith’cal had hit. Now that my thoughts were clearing, I could feel it, a pressure on the left side of my skull, and I swore loudly. The damn lizard had dented my helmet.
But my light wasn’t the only casualty. In the distance, I could hear the thunder of Cotter’s shotgun, but I didn’t hear Cotter himself, even though I knew he had to be screaming into his com. I didn’t hear anyone, nor did I see more of Hyrek’s text scrolling across the bottom of my vision. The blow to my head had cut me off.
I swore a second time now that there was no one to hear and pointed my gun at the xith’cal. I couldn’t get a head shot because of the angle, so I shot it in the upper chest. The xith’cal staggered into the wall as Sasha’s armor-piercing round struck it, but it didn’t scream. Instead, it dropped a little lower and started forward again.
Now that it was closer, even the terrible light couldn’t hide that something was wrong with it. For one, there was a nice three-shot spread in its abdomen from my first attack. My second shot had hit just below the throat. None of those shots would kill a xith’cal, but together they should have been enough to make it retreat, or at least treat me with a little respect.
This xith’cal didn’t even seem to notice. It kept coming, hissing at me as it did. But though it was stalking toward me, it wasn’t stalking fast. It seemed to be having trouble standing. Actually, its movements were so jerky I began to wonder how it had clocked me so fast earlier.
And that was when I realized there were two xith’cal in the room.
I spun and shot the other one just as it jumped out from beneath the console I’d been crouching against. I hit it square in the head, but not, I realized too late, between the eyes. My shot grazed harmlessly off its skull ridge, not even slowing it down as it lunged. This one wasn’t slow like the one in the tunnel. It was on me before I could dodge, shattering my shield in one hit as its enormous weight took me off my feet.
I didn’t realize until the second xith’cal was on top of me just how much larger it was than the first. That one had been closer to my size. This one was eleven feet easy, an enormous warrior with more muscle than I’d known they could fit under those scales. He took me down like I was nothing and pinned me to the floor, locking my arms when I tried to roll into a defensive ball. I struggled madly, but even my Lady can’t lift a ton of xith’cal with both arms flung sideways and no leverage. I kicked instead, pounding the xith’cal with my boots as hard as I could.
I might as well have been kicking a bulkhead for all the good it did. The xith’cal didn’t seem to feel pain. It loomed over me, enormous and black, and then, slowly, it lowered its head until its breath was fogging my visor.
I’m not usually prone to panic, but I was panicking now. With my hands pinned, I couldn’t even get Sasha up for a shot. All I could do was lie there as the xith’cal sniffed me, and I realized with dead certainty that this was it. After all those jokes about being a xith’cal’s meal, it was actually about to happen. The xith’cal was so close now I could almost imagine I smelled its rancid breath even though my suit was still sealed. For a long second, it just sat there, staring at me through my visor, and that was when I saw it.
The xith’cal wasn’t looking at me. It couldn’t. Its eyes were covered by a white film, like a dead fish’s.
I’d thought there was something wrong with the first xith’cal, but I knew there was something horribly, unspeakably wrong with the one on top of me. His scales, normally glossy black and razor sharp, were thin and chipped. Some were even torn at the edges, like something had been chewing on them. Beneath the ragged scales, his body was covered in what looked like furry black mold. His clouded eyes were deep sunken as those of the rotting xith’cal in the tree filled gallery below, and I could see that the skin around his snout was tearing, as though the stress of moving was too much for it. A wave of disgust washed over me at the sight, but it was quickly overwhelmed by a much larger wave of terror as the rotting xith’cal reared back and bit me across my left shoulder.
A xith’cal’s jaws are its most powerful weapon, made to crunch through their own steel-hard scales. Xith’cal bites are the reason the Lady Gray’s mesh plating is two inches thick instead of one, but pinned as I was with a warrior xith’cal’s mouth completely around my shoulder, even the Lady’s armor wasn’t enough to save me.