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Chapter 44

      "Captain, you're needed on the bridge."

      Gral looked up from the pad he as working on and in Jeremy's direction.

      "Go ahead," Jeremy said, "you deal with it. I'll handle balancing the rest of the accounts."

      Gral stood and stretched. "I'll be back as soon I've dealt with this." He kissed the top of Jeremy's head and turned to head out.

      "Not so fast." Jeremy caught his arm and pulled him back, planting a kiss on his lips. "This is a proper 'I'll be back in a while' kiss." He let go of his Heart, and Gral just shook his head in amusement and headed to the bridge.

      "What's the situation?" he asked as the door closed behind him.

      "We're receiving a broadband distress signal." Nimil pressed a key and a male voice spoke in English.

      "This is Eugene Lincoln, head of the Lincoln mining facility.  We are in dire need of assistance from anyone receiving this message. We've had tremors and cave-ins. We don't know how long the planetoid will hold together. Please, we have families with children, we need to be evacuated." The voice stopped.

      "The message repeats after that," Nimil said.


      "Unclaimed territories."

      Gral thought the situation over. Humans in unclaimed territories could mean anything, from prospectors to pirates, and too many things in between. It was impossible to fully keep tract of what was going on in those. It could be a trap, relationships between earth and Kelser were not good.

      "Toom, how far are we?"

      "Close to three hours, at top speed."

      "Tamirik, what's a scan of our patrol route look like?"

      "It looks clear, captain," his daughter answered. "No suspicious chatter, or out of place energy signature."

      He nodded "Toom, set a course. Nimil, establish contact with them. I need more information. I'll be in my quarters, let me know when they reply." He turned and head to the door.

      "I have them," Nimil said, as the door opened. Gral stopped. Already? He frowned. It either meant things were quiet enough they could afford to leave someone by communications, or so desperate they couldn't afford to leave the post unmanned. "This is Viper's Bane, responding to your distress call. My captain is waiting to talk with you." Nimil's English was unbroken, but heavily accented, he hadn't had the occasion to practice it much.

      "Hello?" a male said. Gral couldn't be certain if it was the same one, through the static. The screen burst into light and then broke to static. "Damn this thing." The sound was clearer now and it was the same male as in the distress call. Something was hit multiple time, and an image appeared on the screen.

      The man had dark skin, with short cropped frizzy gray hair. He was clean shaven, as humans tended to prefer, was Gral's observation, after dealing with many of them over the years. Even Jeremy was unwilling to let his beard grow. He wore a faded brown jacket, with a silver leaf pinned to its lapel.

      Gral eyed it for a moment before speaking. "Are you Eugene Lincoln?"

      "Yes, i am."

      "Call me Gral, I'm captain of the Viper's bane. What is your emergency?" That pin changed everything in his mind.

      "The planetoid is breaking apart, and we don't know why?"

      "How many have you been able to take out with your own ships?"

      "We don't have any. He settled here fifteen years ago and have been mining since. We never expected to have to leave in such a hurry."

      "How many people do you have?"

      "A hundred and sixty two, thirty one of whom are under fifteen of age. We really need your help."

      "Get everyone to the evacuation point. We'll be there under three hours."

      "Thank you. God, thank you. We'll be ready." The screen went blank.

      "Jeremy," Gral said, through the com, "I need to you to give me as much power from the second generator as you can."

      "Really? I don't know that's wise, we're running to the limit on our fuel usage."

      "That doesn't matter right now. Lives are depending on us traveling as fast as we can."

      There was a moment of silence. "Give me ten minutes to run the calculation and set it up."

      * * * * *

      Two hours and twelve minutes later they were docked to the planetoid. Gral and Jeremy had a squad of medics with them as the large access doors slid open. Humans started pouring through and they were guided deeper in the ship, and they both noted that a large number of them wore the silver leaf pin. The last one in was Eugene.

      "Is this everyone?" Gral asked.

      "No. Just before you arrived there was a tremor and one of the doors closed and locked for safety reason. There's a dozed families trapped on the other side." He pulled a pad and it projected a 3-D image of the section.

      "Can you over ride it?"

      "Yes, but we can't tell what the conditions are on the other side. I don't even know if anyone's alive."

      Jeremy took the pad from Eugene and plugged it in the ship's system. "Tamirik, I'm uploading part of the planetoid to your screen. We need a scan of that section. Life forms, oxy-levels, exposures to void."

      "I have thirty eight life forms, they are clustered at the far end of the tunnel," his daughter answered after a moment, and the pad's image changed as she sent it the information. "It's the only place with any oxygen left. There's hard exposures to the void, the cracks in the stone are all under a centimeter in width. So long as there aren't any other tremors the section is stable."

      "Any idea on when there might be one?"

      "No. I'm running scans now to try and figure out what's causing them."

      "Thanks." Jeremy handed the pad back and looked at Gral.

      The captain looked over the people he could see. "Thuruk! Get six of alpha here with portable breather for the eight of us plus thirty eight. We're going in for a rescue!"

      Thuruk ran out, pushing people out of his way, and minutes later he was back with five others, carrying tanks and masks.

      "Eugene, take us to the locked access. We'll go rescue your people."

      * * * * *

      Eugene led them through the hangar and processing area and then to the mining section and called the lift they were standing before. "This will take us down to their level. Fifty meters further is the locked access."

      "Can you unlock it remotely?" Gral asked.


      "Good, then stay here. We'll send them up and you make sure they head to the ship." The lift took them down. They put their masks on, and made sure their bottles were secured. Each one had the standard two hours of oxygen required by military protocols. "We're ready for you to unlock it." He said when they stood before the access.

      "It's unlocked." The control turned green as confirmation.

      Gral looked at his males. "The targets are at the end of the shaft. We know they are alive, in an oxygen zone, but not what conditions they are in, we can expect them to be hurt, or even incapacitated. This may take more then one trip, so no looking around. Stay target focused."

      Everyone nodded, he opened the door, they went through and he closed it behind them. Silently, and quickly they crossed the close to five hundred meters to the living quarters where the families had taken refuge.

      Why anyone would want to live this deep under the surface was beyond him, but Gral had to admit that decision had saved lives. The door was locked. He looked in the view port and saw a group of people in the middle of the room, from what he could tell they were trying to keep the children calm. He banged on the door and as one they jumped. One of the males ran to the door and shook his head.

      "We can't leave." His voice was muffled by the thick door. "There isn't enough oxygen to fill the shaft."

      Gral lifted the tanks he had in his hand so the male could see them, then moved out of the way so he could see that everyone had them.

      The male hesitated a moment, then went to the others. Quickly they disappeared from view. He came back, opened the door and quickly backed into the room. The eight of them entered and closed the door behind them. Gral offered a mask to the male.

      "We're okay in here. This section generates its own oxy."

      "Good. We have oxygen for everyone. Is anyone injured?"

      "No, nothing serious, but we have three elderlies, I don't know that they'll be able to move very fast."

      "We'll carry them. But the first step is to make sure everyone can breathe."

      It took them thirty minutes to ensure everyone had a mask, their tank was secured, and could comfortably breathe. The elderlies had two alphas each helping them. Jeremy and Gral took the rear and they headed to the lift. The journey was again in silence, but slower. The lift was still waiting for them. The elderlies and their escorts went in first, then, as many of the children they could put in without crowding them.

      When the lift came back, Jeremy took the rest of the children, and as many of the adults as he could. Gral only had five left with him.

      Jeremy nodded to him as he closed the lift, and then he picked up the child next to him. "It's going to okay. Soon we're going to be on a ship, and away from here." The girl nodded, just as the lift shook. She grabbed on to him tightly, and worries echoed from everyone. "It's just a small one, everything is fine." He said.

      There was a second small tremor, then the doors opened. Waiting for them was Thuruk, and another alpha.

      "Eugene took the other group to the ship," Thuruk said, "Amadila is going to take this one, and we'll wait for the captain."

      Jeremy nodded and handed the child he was holding to her, while Thukuk sent the lift back down. A moment later everything shook, making everyone fall. Sound of snapping came from the lift, and then a rockfall.

      "Gral!" Jeremy screamed as he got up and rushed to the lift. The door wouldn't open. "Gral!" he screams again, this time over the com. "Are you okay?"

      "We're okay. The doors prevented the rocks from leaving the lift. But we're not going to be able to leave that way. Tamirik, is there another way to the ship from here?"

      She didn't reply immediately. "I don't know," she finally said, angry. "I only scanned your immediate area, but you have another problem. This last tremor has made that entire section of the planetoid unstable. The next one is going to bring everything down on top of you and Jeremy." She sobbed. "I don't know what to do."

      There was a long silence.

      "I'm coming down," Jeremy said. "Have Danyl and Relio bring the drilling equipment."

      "No," Gral stated. "I won't have you die with me."

      "What? Don't you dare give up now."

      "I'm not giving up. I'm accepting the inevitable."

      "Sir," Thuruk added his voice. "We can do this. If we get enough hunters here we can dig you out."

      "No. That is out of the question., i won't have anyone on the crew endanger themselves to save me."

      "We can't lose you," Thuruk whispered.

      "We are hunters," Gral said.

      Thuruk didn't say anything.

      "We. Are. Hunter." Gral growled.

      "We die so our people live," Thuruk finished, crying.

      "Good. You know what to do."

      "No!" Jeremy yelled. "I won't accept that. Do you hear me. You swore to me that we would always be together. Don't you dare go back on your promise."

      "Jeremy, my Heart is yours. It will always be with you. Take care of it for me. I will come back for it, one day, but you need to live. The ship's yours now, and the crew will need you. If you die here, who will look after them?"

      "Who will look after me?" Jeremy pleaded.

      Thuruk put a hand on his shoulder. "We will." He pulled Jeremy to him. "We need to go." He guided him away, gently at first, but then faster, as the ground started shaking and pieces of the ceiling falling.

      Jeremy let himself be lead until they were in the ship. Once there he shook Thuruk off and headed directly to the bridge. "Tell me who did this," he ordered as he entered.

      Everyone looked at him, surprised.

      "I don't understand," Tamirik said, her eyes wet.

      "Who sabotaged the planetoid so it would become unstable."

      "No . . . No one."

      "I refuse to accept that. Scan it again., you must have missed something! That colony was full of leafers. So it must have been the Humans, or the Taournians. Tell me who to hunt."

      "It wasn't them," she said, wincing away from his anger. "All those years of mining weakened the planetoid's structure, and the tidal pull of the neighboring planetoids weakened it even more. It was just a matter of time."

      "No. That can't be right! I need you to tell me who did this. I need someone to hit! Someone has to pay for Gral!"

      Someone grabbed his arm, and he shook it up, turning in the process, and looked into Toom's eyes.

      "I need you to come with me, captain, please," he indicated the door with an outstretched arm. Jeremy glared at him, but Toom returned it. Jeremy growled and stormed pass him. "Scan for the bodies, we're not leaving him here. Once you've retrieved Gral, get us back to our patrol," Toom said, before joining Jeremy in the corridor and leading him to a combat training room. He ordered the four already there, practicing their unarmed combat, out, and then stood in the center of the room.

      "What are we doing here?" Jeremy asked, looking around. He'd been in such a room before, decades ago, as part of his training to ensure he could defend himself when humans tried to kidnap him.

      "You wanted someone to hit. So go ahead, hit me."

      "I don't want to hit you. I want to hit those responsible!"

      "You really are being dense," Toom sighed, "you heard your daughter. There isn't anyone to blame, but that's not really why you want someone to hunt, isn't it? Now that you can't hide behind him, you have to prove that you're not the weakling I've always known you to be."

      Jeremy glared at him. "I don't have anything to prove to you." And headed to the door.

      "What I never understood was how he could be such an idiot to never realize that about you." Toom never saw the punch coming. His head spun from the impact, his balance went, but his training was ingrained deeply. He feel to the ground, rolled and let the momentum help him back to his feel, if a little unsteady. He wiped blood from his muzzle.

      "Don't you *dare* say such a thing about him."

      "Why not? He devoted his life to you. He gave you his Heart, do you have any idea what that means to us? And you're honoring him how? But setting yourself on a course to die?"

      Jeremy lunched himself at Toom. "What do you want me to do?" he punched him in the face again. "Just let him die in vain?" a punch in the stomach. "He is to be avenged." To the face. "He can't be forgotten just because he died." The face again. "He was strong, a leader." The shoulder. "He made hard decisions for us?" A kick to the groin, that one, Toom blocked. "What do you want me to do?"

      Toom caught the next punch and pulled Jeremy tightly against him. "I want you to strong, like him. You have to make the hard decisions now. And you have to start with the hardest one of all. You have to live."

      Jeremy was silent, and then the tears came. "I don't know how!" he scream through the sobs. "You're right, I'm just a weakling. I always was."

      "No. You are not weak. Your are his warrior. We all saw it as soon as you joined our family. Why did you think I couldn't stand you back then. You didn't have to tell us you were strong, you showed us, by having to learn to live among us, the only one of your race. You learned to be one of us, without ever sacrificing who you were. That's how I knew you were the male for him, and that he was willing to be with only you, to follow human culture, in that, if you'd asked him. You are not weak, you are hurting, but you don't have to hurt alone."

      Jeremy nodded and slowly the sobs ebbed. "I need you to be the acting captain, I can't . . . Not right now."

      "I understand. Will you be okay?" Jeremy nodded, and Toom released him.

      Jeremy looked at him and winced. "I'm sorry, you need to go see a medic first."

      "I'm your mate, if taking on some of your pain this way helps you, then you have nothing to be sorry about. But yes, I will see a medic." Toom could feel his shoulder swelling, and he was certain some of his ribs had broken, not to say anything of the few loose teeth in his muzzle. "If you need to do something like this again, I'm here for you."

      Jeremy nodded, and Toom continued watching him. "I'd like to be alone, if you don't mind."

      "Of course not." Toom kissed the top of Jeremy's head, and left.

      Jeremy stood there for some time. His legs felt like they were going to fold under him, but he wouldn't let them. Toom had been right, Gral had been right, he didn't know how he was going to do it, but he had to live.

      He went to their quarters now. He closed the door and locked it.

      Right now, he needed to be alone.

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