— by Ted R. Blasingame
”Take us in, Mr. Harada,” Jason said quietly. He leaned on the engineering station at the rear of the bridge and felt a small twinge in his arm. He winced and began to massage the wrist cast, despite that it couldn't help. It had only been three days since his fight with the captain, and although Dallas felt the accelerated mending was progressing well, it still bothered the black wolf – especially the itching. He stared at the cast in distain and then sat down in the empty chair to buckle in.
“Aye, sir,” the pilot acknowledged.
Goro moved his controls forward and the ship nosed down toward the world of Brandt. Miklos flicked a switch at his station and the forward windows took on an orange hue as the heat shields activated. There was a resistance to the controls as the atmosphere thickened with their descent, and then the windows cleared after several long moments. Goro altered his course around a bank of immense cloud formations directly in front of them. The storm system was too wide for them to avoid altogether, but he would skirt the edge of it as much as possible.
“Mik, dim the interior lights and put the infrared on the video panels,” the coyote said quietly. The terrier complied without answering and then looked up as the greenish screen showed the boiling clouds, rain and hail chunks swirling before them. A small bolt of lightning snaked out above them, but the ship's speed left it far behind before its boom could be heard. The deck plates buffeted beneath their feet and loose items on the bridge rattled in place.
Goro checked his readouts, adjusted his course through the thunderheads, and then dropped their speed. A heartbeat later, the Hoenix emerged beneath the clouds into a hard rainstorm. Another bolt of lightning reached up from an ocean far below and touched the cloud beside them with a boom that shook the vessel. They were heading westward in the opposite direction of the mass of clouds and within moments they were out from beneath them into full sunlight. The video panel flashed blinding green a moment before Mik switched off the infrared signal and replaced it with polarization. The ship's flight smoothed out and the deck plates became calm.
Harada dropped the ship's altitude further until it was only a few hundred feet above the Herdantian Sea. Directly ahead of the ship was a chain of mountain islands. Jason glanced at the readings on the station beside him, and then he said something quietly to the greyhound.
Farrell nodded and tapped on a couple controls. “Engine room, this is the bridge,” he said. He listened into his earphones and then nodded. “Yes. Disable artificial gravity at your convenience. Castelrosso Island is on the panel. Yes, that's correct.”
“Sir?” Miklos asked when Jason stepped up next to his seat to look at the video screen.
“Hmm?” the wolf asked with a glance down at him.
“Are we returning to the sea cavern or are we going directly to Hoenix?”
“The captain's original plan was to land in Castelrosso for some supplies,” Jason answered, “but he thinks we may be in a race against time before Randon returns to Brandt, so we're going to bypass our home port.”
“I need the new coordinates,” the terrier said with a frown. “At our current speed, we'll be over Castelrosso in five minutes.”
“Drop speed to standard surface cruising,” Thorne's voice said from the back of the room. Jason looked back as the captain stepped onto the bridge and gave him a nod. The grey wolf was dressed in tan desert clothing and his dark grey travel cloak, the same garments he had worn out of the ancient city.
“Surface cruising, sir?” Goro asked. “Are we doing a water landing?”
“Standard speed typical for aerial approach,” the wolf explained.
“Aye, sir. Dropping speed now.”
Thorne walked across the room and handed a small leaf of paper to Miklos. “Here are the coordinates,” he told the navigator.
“Aye, sir. Calculating new course now.”
Aramis put a hand lightly on Goro's shoulder and said, “Our new course will take us parallel to the mountain range behind Castelrosso to the west,” he told him. “When we approach the general area of the ancient city, a strong magnetic field is going to screw up your instruments, so you're going to have to complete the rest of the course manually. There will be strong updrafts due to the mountains.”
“Flying manually through strong air currents, eh, sir?” the coyote said in an uncertain voice.
“If you're half the pilot you claim to be,” Thorne said with a smile, “we should be in good hands.”
Goro chanced a glimpse up at the wolf and Aramis gave him a look of confidence. “Uh, thank you, sir.”
“The magnetic field and the strong drafts are the primary reasons the city has remained hidden for so long, even through it is relatively close to Castle Bay,” Thorne explained to anyone who might be curious. “Once we get into the field, we will have to take it slow for several kilometers, which will make navigating through strong updrafts all the more dangerous. There are more disturbances in the field than just magnetic, which may account for the city's seeming invisibility.”
“What causes the field?” Farrell asked.
Thorne turned toward him and replied, “It's probably a natural phenomenon, since I don't think King Chaaq's people had anything like a cloaking technology, although the effect is virtually the same. Despite our advancements, even satellites have never detected the city from orbit.”
“New course calculated,” Mik reported. He transferred the data to Goro's navigational console and then got up from his seat. He walked back to the chart table and started going through topographical maps for the Herdantian region of Brandt.
“What are you doing, Mik?” Jason asked.
The terrier looked up at him and gestured toward Goro. “If the navigational computer is going to be useless, and he's going to have to fly us in manually, we're going to need a topo for the coordinates. If I can find the right one in time, I can get him a hardcopy before we lose the system.”
“Good thinking,” Jason said with a nod. Miklos went back to his charts. The first officer glanced back to the captain for a second before returning his attention to the approaching land mass on the vidscreen. “How did you find Hoenix if it was so well hidden?”
“A lot of research, a little bit of luck and one engineering mistake,” Thorne replied with a smile. “I'm sure you remember my interest in historical legends? During my free time, I studied everything I found concerning the Hoenix rumors. I theorized that something like the cloaking field might exist as a natural phenomenon, but I had no proof until Branson and I discovered it quite by accident.”
“Who's Branson?” Miklos asked curiously as his eyes lit up. He had found the chart he had been searching for and proceeded to call up a hardcopy printout from the navigational computer.
“Branson was the Silverthorne's engineer,” Jason answered.
“He and I used to tinker with the ship's systems all the time,” Aramis explained. “We managed a mess that resulted in a different range of frequencies on the sensors by mistake. It knocked out all our regular sensor data while we were flying over the mountains on our way back to Castle Bay, and we discovered a strange signature reading below us. We didn't have time to check it out, but I logged the coordinates for later. It wasn't until Randon approached me about seriously looking for the city that I associated the phenomenon with the possibility of why Hoenix had never been located.”
“We're coming up on the island now,” Goro reported. “We're eight kilometers south of the spaceport traffic.”
All eyes went up to the vidscreen that showed the waves of the sea crashing on sheer cliff bluffs where the mountains met the water head-on. Goro raised their altitude without waiting for the command and took them over the primary ridge of the mountain range. The city, which shared its name with the island, would be several kilometers northeast to the starboard past three other mountain peaks from their location. To the port side were more mountains spread out along the shore to the south, but they thinned out the farther inland they traveled.
Thorne felt someone come up behind him and tensed himself when he recognized her scent. “May I speak with you a moment, Captain?” Crandall asked quietly.
The wolf turned to look at her and saw the humble expression on the Siberian husky's face. He glanced back at the vidscreen for a second and then nodded. “We'll be approaching our target soon, but I can spare a few minutes for you.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the gunner replied. Thorne followed her off the bridge and into the corridor beyond. She led him to a small instrument alcove and then turned to face him. Thorne had never considered Crandall to be someone who embarrassed easily, but she practically fidgeted before him.
“What's on your mind, Karla?” he asked in a soothing voice. He rarely called his crewmates by their first names, but he thought it might diffuse her qualms in this situation. It seemed to work, because recognition of her name from him registered in her eyes. She gave him a genuine smile and wagged her tail gently.
“Sir,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper, “I want to apologize for my actions the other day. I didn't know you had the Hoenix gold in mind for the crew. I should have realized you had a better plan than chasing mere freighters.”
Aramis nodded with a smile. She had no way of knowing that returning for the Hoenix gold hadn't even occurred to him until his memories had fully returned. He preferred to let everyone like Crandall think it had been his original plan from the beginning. He put a hand on her shoulder and peered into her eyes.
“The Guarana was a mistake,” he admitted, “but it was only a stepping stone to the main goal. I can assure you there's more than enough hidden treasure in Hoenix for every gold-hungry person on board.”
Crandall gave him a wide smile, and then she leaned forward to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek. Aramis looked at her in surprise when she pulled away and looked up at him shyly. “Thanks for this opportunity,” she told him.
Thorne gave her a lopsided smile and said, “Don't thank me yet. We may still have to face off against Randon before this is over, so things may yet get rough.”
Crandall's familiar look of confidence returned to her eyes and her lips curled up into a feral smile. “That's why you have a gunner like me on board, sir,” she replied. “I'm looking forward to a confrontation with the Cliffhanger! I've checked and rechecked our weapon systems ever since we left Quet. We'll be ready for Captain Randon when he shows his wretched face.”
“Providing more of Mr. Colfax's cheap parts don't bottom out on us,” Thorne commented with a dubious expression.
Crandall chuckled. “I installed the new weapon systems that you bought,” she said with assurance, “so I think we can rely on them.”
“Very good,” Thorne said with a smile. “Would you also see to it that everyone is personally armed before they disembark after we land? There shouldn't be anyone in the city to confront us, but I want to be prepared.”
“Aye, sir, I'll take care of it.” The husky gave him a casual salute and then moved past him out of the alcove on her way to the armory. Aramis shook his head with a smile and then returned to the bridge.
When he stepped back into the command center, the scene on the vidscreen had changed. Instead of a rocky landscape below, they were moving fast over a great grassy plain. The mountains were a short distance to the north, but the curving range would intersect their path again ahead. Sporadic trees over gentle hills of grass spread out as far to the south as they could see. Hoenix was relatively close to the Castelrosso, but the city in the bay was many kilometers inland from the direction they had approached the island from spatial orbit.
“What's the situational status?” Thorne asked casually.
“You heard about that already?” Farrell asked in surprise.
The captain looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Uh, no. What's happened?”
Jason frowned at him. “Ringo was just taken to the infirmary.”
“What happened?” Aramis repeated with a frown.
“He was preparing lunch when the seals on a pressure cooker blew out,” the first officer explained. “He was on the other side of the room, but the cooker's lid ricocheted off the walls and hit him. Tanaka found him under a table and called for Dallas.”
“Will he be okay?”
Farrell looked up at him. “We just got the call from Dallas, sir. She hasn't had time to make a full examination and give a report yet.”
Goro let out a curse and everyone felt the deck drop beneath them for a second. Aramis stumbled against the wall and had to grab onto a conduit to remain on his feet. “I just lost the automatic stabilizers!” Goro growled. His right hand dropped to a panel beside his legs and he reached for a lever that stuck up through the flooring. He pulled back on this hard and then ratcheted it back and forth several times.
“Navigation is out, too,” Mik reported.
“More system malfunctions?” Jason asked.
“Not this time,” Thorne replied with a look up at the vidscreen. “It's the field around Hoenix.”
The sky above them was pale blue, and there were only scattered clouds high in the atmosphere, but the air itself somehow looked thicker. The mountain range on the starboard was rapidly getting closer and Goro strained to steer the ship using manual controls. Gusts of wind were coming in off the plains as the mountains tried to block them. The nose of the Hoenix slipped sideways and the vessel zigzagged across the sky for a moment before Goro was able to regain control.
“Can I help with anything?” Mik asked quickly.
“Not unless you have a sextant handy,” the coyote replied. “I have my hands full just flying, but I think we're now off our course.”
“See that small peak off to the starboard with the dusty brown pan?” Thorne asked as he leaned over the back of Goro's seat.
“Yes, sir, I see it.”
“If you look beyond it, you'll see another peak with a notch taken out of the top edge, like a bite mark.”
“I see it, too.”
“Good, use those two peaks as a line-guide that will take you due east, and try to stay on that course for about seven kilometers.”
“Got it, sir, but with the sensors out, I can't mark distance for seven kilometers.” The nose of the Hoenix turned until it lined up directly with the mountain peaks the wolf had pointed out, but buffeting side winds made it hard for the pilot to keep them on course.
Thorne nodded and held onto the back of the coyote's seat as the inertial dampers fought to keep him in place. He picked up Mik's topographical map printout from the floor at his feet and then held it up to the side for Goro to see. “Once you pass the peak with the bite mark,” he said through rattled teeth, “all the mountains beyond in almost a straight line will have lower elevations. That will mean we're getting close.”
“Aye, sir,” the pilot acknowledged.
The mountain with the dusty brown pan disappeared beneath them quickly and a strong updraft of wind slammed the aft section of the ship. The nose took a sudden drop and they lost altitude quickly. Goro fought with his controls to bring the nose back up, but he didn't have the strength to move the controls far enough. Thorne reached out, took hold of guidance levers over the top of Goro's hands and pulled back hard.
Their combined strength almost wasn't enough, but the ship finally veered back upward, narrowly missing a balanced rock that had been in place for ages. The Hoenix lifted further upward until they had regained their former altitude.
Once back on course, Aramis released the controls and then patted Goro on the shoulder.
“Thank you, sir,” the coyote said hoarsely. “These controls are sluggish.”
“Stay on your toes,” the captain replied. “We're not out of this yet.”
The intercom chirped suddenly and Farrell answered it after he released the breath he had been holding. “Bridge,” he said.
“This is Hugo in the engine room,” said a voice. “Errol wants to report that a structural cable pulled free. We're racing to get it secured as quickly as possible.”
“Will it affect our current course?” Thorne asked. Farrell relayed the message through his headset microphone.
“No, sir,” Hugo replied, “the cable isn't broken, but it will be better for us all if we don't have any more shake-ups like we just had.”
“No promises,” Thorne said, “but we're almost at our destination. Do what you can for now.”
“Captain, we're now passing the bite-mark,” Goro reported. “I can see the lower line of mountaintops in the distance.”
“Once we reach those lower hills, the city of Hoenix will be just ahead, past a peak that looks like it was cleft in two by a giant axe. It will be on the edge of the mountains, overlooking the grass plains. The stone buildings are made out of the same rock as the surrounding mountains and may appear somewhat camouflaged, but we should be able to see them from our altitude.”
“Aye, sir, I'll be glad to reach the city.”
“Still nothing on the sensors,” Miklos reported. “There's nothing but static. I couldn't tell you about the approach of another ship, what the outside temperature is, or even if a wild mountain goat was running alongside of us.”
“You may as well forget about the sensors for now,” Thorne told him. “You'll get nothing out of them until we clear the field on our way back out.”
“Aye, sir.” The terrier sat back in his seat and held onto his seatbelt harness. He could do nothing more until they landed.
Air currents buffeted the ship again and Thorne suddenly felt a need to visit the head, his bladder rattled by the constant vibration. He growled at himself and headed for the door. “Duster, I'll be right back,” he said. “Watch the con until I return.”
Aramis stepped quickly down the corridor to the nearest facility and then let himself in. By the time he emerged, he could feel the deck tilt forward beneath his feet. He took a step toward the corridor and the ship lurched suddenly to the starboard. He stumbled hard into a wall and knocked an access panel loose. It hit the floor beside his boots and slid to the port as the floorboards jumped again. The hem of his cloak caught on a pipe fitting in the open access and he wasted a moment to tug it free. The gyrations of the floor suddenly smoothed out just as abruptly as it had begun. The captain grabbed the loose panel from the floor and snapped it back in to place, feeling winded from just bobbing around the corridor. He made his way forward quickly before he might lose his footing again.
When he stepped onto the bridge a moment later, the vidscreen showed an old, stone-made city spread out across the side of the mountains, as the ship of the same name approached over the grass plains at the foot of the hills.
Jason looked back at him and a wide grin. “I doubted we would actually find Hoenix,” he said in awe, “but we did. We found it! We're here!”
Aramis couldn't help but return his smile as Goro extended the landing gear. Four simultaneous hard thunks shook the ship, and then the coyote fired the thrusters to lower the craft to the ground. A moment later, the vessel Hoenix set down on the grass, its nose pointing toward the city Hoenix. There were cheers throughout the ship's corridors.
Thorne moved to the intercom and picked up the microphone. “Attention all hands, attention all hands, this is the Captain,” he broadcast on the ship-wide speakers. “As promised, we have arrived at King Chaaq's ancient city. Feel free to wander the streets as you wish, but arm yourselves and take a DataCom to remain in contact. None of our sensor equipment will operate within the field surrounding this area, but localized communication is possible. Crandall will issue firearms to anyone who needs them. We should be the only ones here, but stay on the alert. Don't leave the ship until you're armed.
“I am sure most of the city's artifacts have been removed by Captain Randon's people, but help yourself to anything you find that they might have missed. Take standard search equipment with you, such as flashlight torches, gloves and so on. I will set out shortly with a small party to locate the treasure, and I will send out a recall signal to the crew once we have retrieved it. Captain Thorne, out.”
The wolf hung up the microphone and then faced his bridge crew. Jason, Goro, Miklos and Farrell all looked to him hopefully. He gave them a nod and said, “Any of you who wish to accompany Mr. Talos and myself may do so.” At once, the three others stood up, ready to follow him to the treasure.
“Right, then,” he said with a nod. “When Randon stranded me here a few weeks ago, I wandered parts of the city and managed to get myself lost a time or two. At street level, the avenues tend to look alike. I'm not exactly sure about the route to take through the streets, but we're looking for the arena of an amphitheatre. The place I am looking for is near there.”
With the systems shut down, the forward vidscreen was now a clear window. Miklos moved over to it and stared up at the city in the sun. It was not as large as Castelrosso, but at a third its size, Hoenix still presented a maze of streets.
Everything from the buildings made of stone blocks, the narrow streets between them, and to the surrounding hills were all the same shade of tan, as if everything was made of sandstone instead of pale rose granite. They could see little of the actual architectural style from the ship, but everything seemed constructed symmetrically with straight lines. Above the city in the mountains was a rock quarry with piles of stones and several dunes of sand or grit rock tailings. The sky above them was partly cloudy and the sun was bright on the land. Scrubby brush grew at random and areas where grass had made its purchase had gone unchecked for ages.
Mik's eyes roved over the city for several moments with binoculars while the others made sure the bridge systems were secure. His eyes narrowed and then lit up. “Captain,” he said in a quiet voice. “I think I've spotted your amphitheatre.”
The others gathered around him at the window and the terrier pointed high up in the city. “It isn't easy to see from here,” he explained, “but if I'm not mistaken, that looks like a small grandstand – a place where they might have held councils or public displays. Several of the streets appear to converge near the site.”
Thorne borrowed the terrier's field glasses and studied the area where his navigator pointed. After a moment, he nodded. “That could be it,” he said. “I could see most of the city below me when I was at the upper tiers of the arena. Do you think you could plot out a path up to it from here?”
Mik nodded with a smile. “I can get us there, Captain,” he promised. “I'll restart the vidscreen and send an image capture to my slateboard. I can use that to plot out a trail to get us up there.”
“Very good,” Thorne replied. He looked at the others on the bridge and put his hands into the pockets of his cloak. “I'm going to check on Mr. Ringo,” the captain told the others. “I will meet you outside shortly.”
“Aye, sir,” Jason replied.
The captain hesitated and then looked back at Goro. “Before you head out, go see Mr. Colfax and have him issue one of his maintenance flobots to you. Make sure it's one with at least one arm, and that it will operate outside the ship.
“A flobot, sir?” the coyote asked as he scratched an ear.
“Aye, sir, I'll take care of it.”
Thorne gave him a nod and then disappeared out into the corridor.
“I wasn't even aware we had a flobot on board,” Farrell commented.
“They used two of them to ferry parts to the mechanics during the EVA repairs,” Jason explained, “but they're normally stowed when not in use.”
“One mechanical floating robot coming right up,” Goro said as he headed for the door. “I'll see you outside.”
Farrell wrung his hands together. “I didn't think much of getting into the pirating business,” he said with a smile to the first officer, “but I think the scent of gold is starting to get to me.”
Jason chuckled and put a hand on the greyhound's shoulder. “He didn't lie to us about the location of the legendary Hoenix,” he said, “so there's no reason to think his promises of King Chaaq's gold are false either.”
“I may actually get to pay off all my debts,” Farrell said with a widening grin.
Mik tapped a control on his slateboard and looked at the vidscreen image he'd transferred to the handheld tablet. He set it on top of the chart table and pulled out a stylus stored in a slot of the slateboard's casing. His eyes roved back and forth as his mind worked out a maze-like pattern through the city streets, starting from a pathway from the floor of the grass plains, up to the amphitheatre he had spotted. He marked the route in red with the stylus and then saved the image.
Jason watched Farrell depart the bridge and then he glanced back at the city through the forward window with a frown. Hoenix gold coins and artifacts might be worth a substantial amount, but the only one who might have the funds to convert them to PA credits would be Victor Faltane, a wealthy human rumored to have his hands in many pots across the Planetary Alignment, particularly on Brandt in Castelrosso. Prior to launching from the sea cavern, Captain Thorne had rebuked Faltane's local point of contact as if he'd been no one of consequence so that the ship could leave on schedule.
The black wolf leaned against the wall and let his eyes rove over the city above. Even if they found a fortune in treasure, would the Terran now be willing to deal with them? Jason had never met a human before, but he'd heard they harbored long grudges at the slightest provocation. It was possible Faltane would refuse to buy the Hoenix treasures, or he might only offer them sludge-bottom prices knowing they might not find another market for them. Once again, the actions of the captain may have hurt them.
Aramis stepped inside the infirmary and saw Dallas fasten the finishing clip to a bandage wrap around the beagle's left shoulder. Ringo looked up and gave him a strained smile.
“Hello, Tyler,” Aramis said. “Dallas.”
“Hi, Cap'n,” the cook replied.
“Hello, Captain,” said the Papillion nurse. She made sure the wrap was secure, and then stepped back. “Have you come to put him to work carrying your treasure?” she asked with her hands in the pockets of her smock.
Aramis chuckled and shook his head. “No, Dallas,” he replied, “but with the way you have him wrapped up there, he might feel right at home in one of the city's burial vaults.”
Ringo looked up at him with wide eyes. “I'm not that hurt, Cap'n!” he exclaimed. Aramis and Dallas laughed at the beagle and then the cook grinned at them in return.
“Seriously, how is he?” the wolf asked.
“This guy is very, very lucky,” Dallas answered with a sigh. “The cooker lid ricocheted off two walls that took the brunt of the impact. By the time it got to our friend here, it was no longer traveling at a lethal velocity and only gave him a deep bruise. Fortunately, nothing is broken. I've given him an anti-inflammatory medication, as well as a fast-acting muscle relaxer, so he's going to be rather groggy for a while.”
“Everything's already starting to look a little surreal,” Ringo said with a lopsided grin.
Aramis shook his head and wagged a finger at him. “You be more careful!”
“Aye yi, Cap'n, sir!” The beagle raised his hand for a salute, but then stopped and stared at his fingers curiously. “That feels weird…”
Dallas chuckled and put away her bandages into a wall locker. “Kio has agreed to take over Ringo's kitchen duties until I release him back to work,” she said.
“My kitchen,” Ringo muttered.
Thorne looked at the wavering beagle and shook his head. “Come on,” the captain told him. “I'll help you to your cabin so you can rest a while.”
“Walk with us, Dallas,” the wolf told the nurse as he slipped a hand under Ringo's uninjured arm. “I need to tell you something before I disembark.” There was no one else in the infirmary, so the nurse shut out the light and followed him out of the room.
“Sir?” she asked.
Thorne cleared his throat and half-carried the shorter cook along the corridor to the lift. “I'm not here for the Hoenix gold,” he told her.
“The gold is for the crew,” he explained as the three of them stepped onto the lift. “After what happened with the Guarana, they deserve easy treasure. I'm here for another reason altogether.”
Feeling as if prompted to inquire, Dallas asked, “Why are you here, sir?”
“My wife has been missing since I was last here with Captain Randon,” the wolf told her. He guided the beagle out of the lift when they stopped two levels down and walked the groggy cook through the narrow corridor to the crew quarters.
“Do you think she's still here?” Dallas asked.
Aramis opened his mouth to reply, but the answer stuck in his throat. It took him a moment to make himself speak. “I think she is dead,” he said in a quiet voice.
“I'm sorry to hear that,” the nurse whispered.
“When I was here last, Randon's crew beat me senseless and I was abandoned here in the city. I was alive, but not in my right mind,” Aramis added. “I found the body of a woman, but didn't recognize her at the time. I think it was her.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Almost a month,” he replied. They stopped beside a doorway covered by a brown curtain with a pattern of white dog bones. Dallas pulled the curtain aside so the captain could place the beagle on his bed. There was barely enough room for the two of them in the cubicle together, but Ringo crawled up on the thin mattress and immediately curled up to his pillow.
“I lay I'll just think here a while,” he murmured groggily. Aramis gave him a nod, and then the cook closed his eyes. Thorne backed out, closed the curtain, and then motioned for the nurse to follow him. They walked quietly back to the main corridor and took the lift down to the lowest level of the vessel.
“When I find her,” Aramis continued as if there hadn't been a break in their conversation, “I want you to do a DNA test to confirm whether or not it is her.”
Dallas pursed her lips in thought. “I don't have the best of equipment,” she said, “but we do have a basic DNA scanner on board that I could do a test for you. Do you have a sample of your wife's DNA to use for comparison?”
“No, but Cinjin's should be close enough to make an identification, right?”
“Yes, it can determine relation through mitochondria DNA,” Dallas confirmed. “All I need is something from the woman you found.”
“I'll make sure you will get something to test.” The lift came to a stop in the cargo bay and Aramis stepped out. He turned toward her and fixed her with his amber eyes. “I want you to be completely honest when you get the results,” he told her. “Don't tell me what you think I want to know. I want the truth if it's her or not.”
“Yes, sir,” the Papillion assured him. “I'll tell you what I find out.”
“Thank you,” Aramis said. He led her to the open bay door and the scent of sun-warmed grass was strong in the air. He collected himself and then gestured toward the ramp with an open hand. “Are you ready for a day in the city?” he asked.
Dallas shook her head with a smile, her butterfly ears dancing with the motion. “Thank you, no. I may step outside for some fresh air,” she said, “but I have no heart for exploring the ruins of a forgotten city. I've seen too many monster movies to believe it's not haunted.”
Aramis stared at her in surprise for a moment before he recognized the mischievous glint in her eyes. He laughed aloud at her joke and felt good for doing so. She gave him a wink and then waved him off the ship.
“Go,” she said with a grin. “Just don't fall into any pits in your wanderings.”
Aramis stared at her in surprise, but then realized that she couldn't possibly know about the sacrificial pit Randon's crew dumped him into. He gave her a smile and then walked down the ramp.
Thorne shaded his eyes from the noon sun and located his search party waiting in the shadow of the ship near the forward landing gear. The air was hot and dry, and he suddenly decided he didn't want to wear his cloak in the sun, especially negotiating through city streets up the side of a mountain. He pulled his throwing knives, flashlight and the Hoenix notebook from the pockets and then transferred them to his shirt and pants. Without going back up into the ship, he set his cloak on the edge of the ramp and then walked over to his men.
“Why does he call you Duster?” Goro was asking. Beside him floated a small, grey maintenance flobot that watched him idly with a pair of blue-tinted lenses, its two tiny grappling arms folded neatly beneath it. The softball-sized orb made no sound other than a quiet hum, and the coyote held its remote control absently in one hand.
“It was a nickname I had when I was his pilot for the Silverthorne,” Jason replied.
“I know, but why did he call you that?”
“Because he flies like a crop duster,” Thorne said to the group when he stepped up behind the coyote. “He could never resist buzzing fields if we flew over one, usually scaring the blazes out of the local wildlife.” He looked up at the Hoenix and added, “Of course, we had a substantially smaller ship then. This thing would frighten the devil out of anyone if it came roaring across the fields the way he flew the Silverthorne.”
Jason gave the captain a big grin. “I suppose that's why you didn't hire me as your pilot this time,” he retorted.
Thorne laughed and put a hand on the first officer's shoulder. “Something like that,” he replied. He looked over at Miklos and gestured to the slateboard in his hands. “Do you have a route plotted out for us, navigator?”
Mik tapped the screen of his tablet and held it out. “Yes, sir, I've marked the path along the streets in red,” he answered.
Thorne didn't take the unit, but instead pointed up toward the city. “Lead the way,” he said. Miklos nodded and began walking across the grass plains toward the mountain where a visible trail led up to the city. They could see other members of the crew already up on the streets.
“Hey, wait for me!”
The small search party stopped and looked back toward the cargo ramp. Crandall trotted out to meet them with one hand holding her sidearm holster in place beside her right leg. She was dressed in a thin white tank top and pair of blue jogging shorts, evident she felt the outside conditions were just as warm as the captain had. She held a length of climbing rope coiled over one shoulder, with a large sheathed knife strapped to her left leg. She seemed well prepared for a journey up the side of a mountain.
“Mind if I tag along?” Karla asked when she reached the group.
“Not at all,” the captain replied.
“Yeah, Flybait was just about to lead us up to the city,” Goro added with a mischievous grin.
Mik gave him a sour look and took a step toward the coyote, but Karla stepped in between them with a smile and said, “Great! Let's go!”
The terrier grumbled something under his breath and then began again toward the city. Goro exchanged grins with the husky and then the two of them followed the navigator's footsteps, the flobot bobbing quietly behind them. Farrell and Jason went next, and Aramis hung back to the rear of the group.
The air was surprisingly quiet, save for the buzz of insects and occasional birdsong. Sealed up for days inside a ship with the constant noise of equipment and conversation, the silence of the grass plain was unsettling and the air was now still.
Thorne shielded his eyes against the afternoon sun, already wishing he'd brought lupine sunglasses with him. When they approached the road up into the city, they found a path paved with fitted stones, worn from the city's past inhabitants and natural erosion. A short ridge of stones lined the avenue and the road made its way up to the stone buildings in an easy zigzag pattern.
Farrell pulled out a pack of cigarettes from a shirt pocket and lit one with a small lighter. He worked on it for several moments before he looked at it in disgust. He dropped it at his feet and ground it out with the toe of his boot.
“What's the matter?” Karla asked him. Her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet of the place, so she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “Was there something wrong with your smoke?” she asked.
“Tastes strange,” the greyhound replied in an equally quiet tone. “I think it's this place.”
“I think it's just your nerves,” Crandall said with a smile. Farrell didn't feel like arguing about it, so he merely shrugged his shoulders and resumed walking.
Aramis sniffed the air. He hadn't noticed it during his earlier visit, probably because his nose had been clogged with dried blood at the time, but the air smelled stale to him now; whatever it was that had affected Farrell's sense of taste seemed to have touched his nose as well. He frowned, but said nothing.
They finally reached the first of the buildings and noted their construction from blocks of granite cut to a precision fit. They could see no mortar holding them together and nothing looked as if it had shifted over the course of time. None of the buildings appeared to have sharp corners to them, having all been rounded off by design. A shallow ditch bordered both sides of the road, no doubt for drainage.
The roof of each building appeared to be made of clay tiles held in place by molded ridges, but many were broken or missing. Each roof tilted toward the grass plains and numerous tiles littered the ground between the buildings. There were no overhanging eaves, but there were carvings etched into the stone near the top of each wall. Weather had eroded many of the designs to be unreadable, but Aramis seemed to be the only one of the group who showed an interest in them.
“Hello, what's this?”
Aramis looked up at Goro's voice and saw the coyote staring up at a pair of large granite statues that stood guard over the first street intersection they had come across. One of the statues was canine, the other lupine. Both three meters high, the figures were depicted wearing loose, sleeveless robes, and had their arms outstretched toward the grass plains, as if in welcome.
In the arms of the canine guard was a body whose arms and legs dangled toward the ground. Karla scrambled up the side of the statue, using the folds in the figure's robes as handholds. Before she got up to the body, however, the arms and legs twitched and then a grinning face peered down at her.
“Gotcha!” said the miniature pincher. Karla gave him a teasing grin and playfully slapped at his leg.
“Cal!” she said to the sharpshooter, “What are you doing up there, you nut?”
“I climbed up here to take a better look at this fellow's face,” Chalmoy replied, “but then I heard you coming up the street. I decided to see if you yahoos were alert enough to realize I was up here. I guess you were.”
Aramis was amused at the pincher. The canine had always seemed like a coiled spring on the ship, but now that he was out in the open air, the marksman seemed at ease. “Did you find anything of interest up there, Mr. Bleys?” he asked.
The canine gave him a look of surprise. He hadn't realized that the captain was with the group before him and he laid his ears back against the side of his head. “Not really, sir. No,” he answered in a quietly controlled voice.
“Right, then,” Thorne said. He looked at Miklos and gave him a casual wave. “Shall we continue?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Mik replied. He gave a cursory glance back up at Cal and then resumed walking up the hill. Karla dropped to the ground, gave the pincher a wave and then fell back in step with the search party.
They walked on up the main avenue for a while before the navigator led them around a corner into a side street. At every intersection, they found at least one of the granite statues similar to the one that Cal had climbed. They were weathered, and some of them had bits broken, but all were recognizable as canine-types. Aramis thought the lupine statues might all be of the likeness of King Chaaq, but upon closer inspection, the faces were different from figure to figure. Perhaps they were personages from Hoenix history.
“I'm surprised Captain Randon's crew didn't take these statues too,” Farrell commented in the quiet air. “I'm sure they could be quite valuable as museum pieces.”
“Randon's ship wouldn't have been able to contain them,” Thorne replied.
“That would have been a major undertaking,” Crandall added, “considering how much the things must weigh!”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Farrell agreed.
A voice boomed out of every DataCom held by the search party, and everyone scrambled to turn down the volume on each unit. “The Cliffhanger didn't get everything!” said the voice.
“What did you find?” asked another.
Miklos pointed up a different street as they came up to another intersection. The party turned and headed up what appeared to be a steep alley between close-set buildings.
“Robin and I have just been through three buildings. They're all still furnished from long ago.”
“Yes, but only a few small items – bracelets, a goblet and a few small figurines.”
“There are too many buildings here. Randon's people couldn't have gone through them all. Where are you? I want to see!”
“How am I supposed to tell you? The streets aren't marked – unless you count all the picture carvings everywhere. I suppose you can say I'm in a rock building at the corner of Swirly-Coily-Thing Lane and Bird-Hopping-on-a-Bug Avenue.”
“Yeah, you're hilarious,” the second voice said with a growl. “Send out a tracer signal so I can find you.”
“Find your own gold!”
Thorne shook his head and thumbed the volume down lower so he wouldn't have to listen to the bickering chatter. The others did likewise and they progressed on, the DataCom conversation droning on in quieter voices.
It took Miklos an hour to guide his party through the streets of Hoenix, but after a final turn at an intersection where five avenues converged, the three-story outer walls of the amphitheatre loomed over them.
“Good work,” Thorne told the terrier.
“Yeah, I'm surprised,” Goro quipped. “You didn't get us lost once!”
“Can it, flea-trap!” Miklos sneered at the coyote as he turned off the slateboard and slid it into a pocket. Goro only grinned at him before he turned his attention back to the amphitheatre. Like the rest of the city, it was made of carved, close-fitting sections of granite. Hieroglyphs decorated the walls, and more of the large statues framed wide entranceways capable of gathered crowds.
Aramis recognized the place and walked into the nearest entrance. The others followed quietly, their footsteps echoing in the cavernous interior. The humming of the small flobot reverberated in the chamber and created a sound not unlike the buzzing of bees. Arched ceilings held up the tiers of the amphitheatre above, and they passed by numerous rooms that were all empty. Boot prints were in the dust everywhere, clear signs that Randon's crew had been there. Sunlight streamed in through an opening ahead and Thorne walked directly to it.
Everyone had to shield their eyes upon stepping back outside, but the small search party found itself on the floor of the arena. It was not a large area, as grandstands go, but Crandall looked around, visualizing how the place must have looked with the stone seats above teeming with throngs of people. On each end of the oval arena was a sand and gravel pathway that led up through the seats like a ramp. Scrub brush grew unchecked through the gravel in places. No doubt, this was a place for animal-drawn carts to move things in and out of the arena toward the upper elevation.
A short wall with openings spaced every few meters ringed the lower tier. Stationed beside each opening was a granite statue armed with short blades or spears and wearing what looked to be the likeness of some sort of leather armor.
“I forgot to bring my gladiator's sword,” Goro said with a grin.
“I'm sure they had more activities here than the Friday Night Fights,” Jason said dryly.
Goro gestured up toward the stone guardians surrounding them and retorted, “Oh, really?” he asked. “I suppose those are their dinner suits?” Jason raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't favor him with a response.
Aramis walked across the arena to one of the statues and then squatted down. He picked up a stone the size of a grapefruit and hefted it in his hand with a nod. He recognized a matching indention in the leg of the statue near him and realized the stone was one hurled at him during the fight that ended with him in the pit. He looked around and his suspicions were confirmed when he spotted a scrap of cloth that had been ripped from his cloak during the fight with Randon's crew. Nearby were fragments of a thousand-year-old clay pot, no doubt the one that had taken his consciousness.
He dropped the stone at his feet and stood up again. He looked up at the upper tiers of the arena and noted the fronts of several buildings on the mountain side of the amphitheatre. He was unsure which building he had emerged from, but he raised his hand and pointed toward them.
“We'll find what we're looking for up there,” he said quietly.
Karla grinned at him and then trotted to the nearest set of weatherworn steps leading upward through the stone seats of the grandstand. Jason started up after her, followed by the rest of the group. As before, Aramis brought up the rear. He was anxious to find Scarlet, but he was also reluctant to have the confirmation of her fate in front of him.
By the time they reached the top, they were all winded from the steep climb. Thorne granted everyone a moment to catch his or her breath, but he wouldn't allow himself to relax. Despite the tightness in his legs from the ascent, he was determined to locate the tomb that held his wife. He crossed a wide walkway toward the nearest building. There were a dozen of them, all facing the arena with large double doors of balanced stone slabs, and all with more lavish adornments than any other structure in the city.
A granite quarry loomed over the buildings and there seemed to be several dunes of sand or small gritty rock piled up high. It was possible they were the tailings left from the stone mining. He gazed up at them, trying to fit them in to his memory, but he couldn't remember noticing them when he had emerged from the building weeks ago.
He approached a stone door partially ajar and stuck his head inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but there was nothing to see. It was a completely square room, approximately four meters to a side, but it was empty. He could see where torch holders had once been embedded in the walls, but it appeared that they had been forcefully removed. Broken bits of stone littered a floor strewn with cigarette butts and more boot prints.
Jason stepped up next to him and peered inside beside him. He was quiet for a moment as his own eyes adjusted for the darkness. “What was in here?” he asked a moment later.
“Could have been a storeroom,” Thorne muttered.
“Was it for the Hoenix gold?” Karla asked.
“I have no way of knowing.” Thorne stepped away as the others came over to look, but Farrell moved to his side.
“Where is your gold hidden?” the greyhound asked.
“It's near,” the captain replied. “I have to find the correct chamber, first. I'll know the right one when I find a particular burial vault.”
“Burial vault!” Farrell exclaimed. “Uh, do you think it's wise to disturb the dead?” he asked.
Thorne looked at the com officer with a frown. “Afraid of a curse?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Farrell looked embarrassed. “I know it sounds silly,” he replied uncomfortably, “but there's always some truth in legends about the dead.”
“There are no ghosts here, Mr. Lightner,” the wolf told him. “If you wish, you may stand guard outside.” The greyhound looked up at him with an open mouth and then walked slowly back out to the arena with his tail and shoulders low.
Thorne turned toward the next set of doors and moved toward it deliberately. Inside was another room had had been plundered, but it was longer. Stone tables lined both walls, but whatever had once been on them was gone. There were several doors leading out from the chamber, however. He pulled out his small flashlight and thumbed it on as he walked deeper into the room. Goro and Karla followed him inside, trailed quietly by the maintenance flobot.
The gunner walked to a raised stone slab in the center of the room between two hieroglyph-decorated columns. There were many dark stains on the surface of the slab, several of which had once leaked onto the floor at their feet. “Do you think this is where they prepared food for the hungry masses in the arena?” the husky asked in a quiet voice.
“An ancient kitchen?” Goro added. He looked around at the other doors and saw the captain approach one of them. “Those could be storerooms for the groceries.”
Jason and Miklos stepped inside the room and saw Aramis pull on a handle carved into the door facing him. Despite the age of the city, the balanced door swung open easily. The first officer brought out his flashlight and approached the captain, with the others close behind him. Farrell stuck his head timidly into the room and saw his shipmates follow Thorne in through an open door. He swallowed back his fear and then trotted in after them.
When Aramis stepped inside the next chamber, he could feel the hackles rise on the back of his neck. Although he hadn't recognized the outer room they had come in through, this place was identical to the vault chamber he had escaped.
There were torch holders embedded in the walls, containing what looked to be oil-saturated cloths bound tightly around bundles of small sticks. The iron holders depicted a lupine design, a wolf's head with bared fangs. As with the one they had seen earlier, this room appeared to be a cube with the walls, floor and ceiling to be of equal dimensions. Walls covered in more of the hieroglyphs didn't hold the attention of the intruders.
A stone burial vault was in the center of the far wall, its sides decorated with more of the hieroglyphs. Farrell let out a whimper at the sight, but bravely held his ground.
“I don't think that was a kitchen out there,” Goro whispered to the husky. Crandall frowned deeply with the realization that the stone slab was probably where the dead had been prepared for embalming.
“I wonder who's buried in there,” Jason said quietly.
“Let's find out,” Thorne replied. Everyone looked up at him in surprise.
“Are we robbing graves, Captain?” Mik asked with wide eyes.
“No,” the wolf replied. He offered no other explanation as he moved to one end of the vault's lid. He motioned for Goro to get the other end. The pilot went reluctantly, but grabbed onto the lid at the silent order. “We only want to move it enough to see who is inside,” Thorne instructed.
Goro nodded without a word and the two of them heaved on each end of the stone lid. They moved in opposite directions so the lid swiveled in place. The sound of stone grinding on stone was loud in the small chamber and Farrell jumped from the sudden noise. He bit his bottom lip and backed away from the group as the others moved forward with their lights.
A musty stench emerged from the vault and Karla put her hands over her nose. Jason aimed his light inside the stone box and saw a shriveled canine corpse wrapped in rotted strips of faded blue cloth. There were no gold coins or other trinkets to accompany the dead on its journey. Thorne wondered if there was a hidden passageway at the feet of this individual, but he had no wooden pole with him to test the theory. He hadn't yet told any of them of his narrow escape route, but didn't care to disclose that information.
He made a quiet gesture with his hand to Goro, and the two of them moved the lid back to its original position.
“I assume this is the wrong tomb,” the coyote said as they all moved back out into the embalming room. The maintenance flobot positioned itself directly over his head, patiently awaiting instruction.
“It is the wrong tomb,” Thorne confirmed. “Everybody spread out and check the other vaults. The one I want is occupied by the recently-dead body a woman in a modern red and white dress.”
“You want us to open all of them?” Farrell croaked.
The captain nodded. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “Before we can get the Hoenix gold, we will need to find the correct vault.”
“Why? Is there a secret door trigger inside it?” Thorne fixed Farrell with a piercing stare that the greyhound couldn't stand. He turned away without another word and moved off to help someone desecrate a vault.
Thorne snorted and walked back to the outside door. He knew the tomb he wanted was not in here, but other recent residents they might need to know about could be there. Besides, while the others were looking, he needed a moment to recollect his bearings.
He stepped out into the sun and shielded his eyes as he studied the other buildings that bordered the mountain side of the arena. When he had been there before, Thorne had just escaped from the pit following a beating that had left his brain rattled. He hadn't really considered a return to the place, so he hadn't bothered to fix the local details in his mind at the time.
He began walking along the row of buildings, looking at each set of doors without actually investigating anything. He wanted to see if anything like a feeling or impression touched him from just being near one of them. He need not have bothered, however. When he came to the fourth set of doors, he recognized his own boot print in the dusty entrance of a partially opened panel. For confirmation, he raised his left boot and noted that a nick out of the back of his heel matched a mirror image of it in the dust.
The double doors were partially open and he found he could slip in between them without having to touch them. He stepped into a corridor that led back in toward the heart of the mountain. The air was thick inside the structure, stuffy and humid. At the other end of the short passage was a chamber large enough to have housed a fair-sized crowd. There was a raised dais at one end, and more of the hieroglyphs decorated the walls as carvings. Four grand columns held up the ceiling and were hand-painted with colorful symbols around their curved surfaces.
Sunlight streamed in through an old, ragged hole in the ceiling, so he switched off his flashlight for the moment. Like the other rooms they had seen, there was nothing of value left in the chamber. Boot tracks were everywhere in the dust and accompanied by quite a number of cigarette butts.
As with the previous chamber, more doors lined the large hall, but one of them was partially ajar. He walked to it and then thumbed his flashlight back on to shine it into the small room.
This was it.
It was a square room identical in appearance to the other one, but the contents meant much more to him.
Against his will, Aramis felt his pulse quicken and he swallowed hard. He started to step inside, but he hesitated. Although he had moved the lid of the vault by himself once before, he wanted help this time. He wasn't sure he would be able to stay on his feet if the woman inside was Scarlet.
He put his hand inside a pocket to pull out his DataCom unit to call his party to him, but before he turned around, there was the sound of footsteps. He didn't move, but spoke in a quiet voice.
“This is it, Duster,” he said.
Jason stopped just behind him. “How did you know it was I?” he asked.
“I know your footsteps, my friend,” the captain replied as he turned to face him. “Did you find anything else of interest in the other tombs?”
“More dead bodies, all long gone,” Jason answered. “Farrell is outside, heaving his breakfast onto the rocks. I don't know if it was the smells, the sights or just his nerves, but I don't think he'll be coming back inside.”
“No matter,” Thorne replied. “Give me a hand.” He pushed on the door to the tomb, but unlike the others, the rock slab was out of balance and difficult to open. Jason grabbed the edge of the panel with his one good hand and helped him pull it out far enough so they could walk through.
Goro stepped inside and looked around the large chamber. “Do you want us to check these vaults, too?” he asked. The maintenance flobot hovered over his head and hummed quietly.
Thorne looked back at him just as he was about to enter the small room. “No need,” he replied. “This is the one I want.”
“Excellent!” the coyote said with a grin. He called to the others outside, “The captain found the tomb he wanted!”
Karla trotted over and then pushed him inside the room with a grin. “One side, pilot!” she teased. “There's treasure to be had!” Miklos followed them in quietly, taking only a momentary glance back outside to the sick greyhound. Farrell looked up at him weakly, but waved his shipmate to go on without him. Mik nodded and then walked further into the room. When he moved in through the vault chamber door, he panted lightly from the warm, stuffy air.
Thorne walked to the head of the vault and put his hand on the lid. He gave Goro a nod and then the two of them moved the lid in opposite directions to swivel it aside as they'd done before. A rank odor escaped the vault and everyone but the captain stepped back with hands or sleeves over their noses. The aroma was stronger than the others they had found, which confirmed that the decomposing body inside was only a recent addition to the burial chambers that had never gone through the embalming process.
Aramis shined his light down into the vault and felt his throat constrict. Despite the decomposition, the woman was clearly canine, possibly lupine. Dark, reddish fur clung tenaciously to rotting flesh that worms and maggots thrived in, and the smell in the chamber grew worse. Karla coughed involuntarily, but forced herself to stand her ground at her captain's side.
The dead woman was dressed in a full-length red dress with short sleeves, a white bodice, and a scarlet scarf around her neck. There were footprints across the fabric of her chest, and a single, bloodstained hole in the fabric of her garment over her heart.
“Who was she?” Goro asked with both hands over his snout.
Aramis looked up at the coyote's words, but the usual piercing directness of his eyes was gone. “My wife…” the wolf said hoarsely.
Goro, Karla and Miklos looked surprised in unison, though none of them uncovered their mouths. Jason frowned and looked again at the body. The strong odor made it difficult to look into the vault without gagging.
“Are you sure that's Scarlet?” Jason said with a critical eye. The woman's features were near impossible to distinguish.
Aramis reached into the vault, seeming oblivious to the smell, and gingerly untied the crimson scarf from the woman's neck. Bits of fur and other material clung to the fabric in places, but despite the distasteful task, he pulled it out and set it on top of the vault lid. He turned one end of the scarf over to reveal two white letters embroidered into the cloth. “S.T.”
“Scarlet Thorne?” Mik guessed.
“I bought her this scarf just before Randon approached us with a deal to look for this city,” Aramis replied quietly. He gently folded the scarf and tucked the bits of fur and other remains inside its folds. He looked up at Goro and cleared his throat. “I need your flobot now,” he said in a voice that was calmer than he felt inside.
The coyote held up his remote and tapped out a couple commands. The softball-sized orb floated down until it hovered directly in front of the captain. Thorne held out the scarf, and the tiny clamper hands of the flobot unfolded and opened to receive the item. It gripped the fabric and then Aramis let go.
“Take it outside and then send it down to the ship,” Aramis told him. “Call Dallas on your DataCom and tell her the flobot will be bringing her a DNA sample. She is already expecting it.”
“Aye, sir,” Goro replied. He maneuvered the flobot out through the door and was gone.
“Mr. Novak, help me replace the lid,” Thorne said quietly.
Jason looked at him in surprise. “You're going to leave her there?” he asked.
“For now,” the captain replied. He and Miklos moved the top of the vault back into place, and then Aramis leaned on it with both hands. “Leave me a moment,” he said to the others. “I will take you to the gold after I am finished here.”
“Aye, sir,” Jason said. He waved the others out of the chamber and then followed them out. Once alone, Aramis turned off his flashlight and then sank to his knees beside the vault in the darkness.
When Jason stepped back out into the sun, he saw Farrell sitting by himself out by the uppermost tier of the amphitheatre. The greyhound was smoking a cigarette, staring out across the city.
“How are you doing?” the wolf asked as he sat down next to him.
“Lousy, sir,” Farrell answered in monotone. “I let my fear get the best of me.”
“You're not the first person to fear the houses of the dead,” Jason told him. “I don't think we will need to open any more tombs.”
“I wasn't all that comfortable in there myself,” said another voice. Miklos sat down on the stone seat on the other side of the greyhound and quietly brushed dust from the fur on his arms. “The odor turned my stomach.”
“The smell only made my fear worse,” Farrell muttered gloomily. He felt a couple of hands on his shoulders and looked back into the eyes of a Siberian husky. Karla gently kneaded his muscles and he let out a heavy sigh.
“Just relax,” Crandall told him. “You're okay with us.”
Farrell finished his cigarette in silence and then flipped the butt out over the arena. “I was useless,” he said. “I want to be a help to the captain.”
“Have you ever done any rappelling, Mr. Lightner?”
Everyone looked up and saw Thorne standing behind the small group. He had composed himself, but the fire seemed to have gone out from his eyes. He looked down at the greyhound with a dull expression, but he awaited an answer to his question.
“Yes, Captain, I have,” Farrell replied with a nod. “It was one of my hobbies back home.”
“Then you can be of help to me,” the wolf replied. “We will need Crandall's rope.”
“Aye, sir!” Karla exclaimed. She got up and went to retrieve the coil of rope and other items she had set next to one of the buildings when they had reached the top tier of the arena. She trotted back eagerly with the rope draped over one arm. “All ready, sir,” she said.
Goro walked over to them and asked, “What's all the commotion about?” he asked.
“We're going for the treasure now,” Mik replied.
Aramis opened his mouth to speak, but his DataCom chirped at him. He thumbed the answer switch and raised it to his mouth. “This is Thorne,” he said.
“Captain,” said the voice of Dallas, “I just wanted to let you know I received the scarf with the tissue sample. What am I to use as a comparison? Cinjin has gone up into the city with the rest of your crew.”
“Go to his bunk and look for a brush with a green and black striped handle,” Aramis instructed. “That's the one he uses to groom his fur and he lets no one else use it. There should be plenty of his DNA material there.”
“Good idea, Captain. I will get it.”
“How long before you know?”
“With the equipment we have on board, it will take about a half hour once I start the process.”
“Let me know the results as soon as you have anything.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
“Thank you, Dallas,” the wolf said. He closed the transmission and put the unit into his shirt pocket. He glanced over at the others and then pointed toward the gravel pathway that led down into the arena. “We will need to follow that up to higher ground,” he said. “There is a small garden area right above these buildings that is lined with flagstones and ringed with several stone benches. Find it.”
Goro and Karla exchanged excited looks and took off running for the gravel path. Farrell gave a hesitant glance toward the captain, and then ran to catch up. Jason and Miklos remained with Thorne, and the three of them followed the others at a casual walk.
“Captain, may I ask you a question?” Mik asked when they started up the gravel path.
“What is it you wish to know?” Thorne replied.
“How much gold do you have hidden away?”
Thorne's first thought was of the hidden antechamber, but decided not to bring it up for the moment. He reached into a pocket and pulled out one of the coins with the likeness of King Chaaq stamped on it. He handed it to the terrier and said, “In my hiding place is a crate full of identical coins,” he said. “They're contained in eight bags, each one containing approximately five hundred coins. Each coin is worth about twelve hundred credits according to what I've had appraised.”
Miklos did some quick mental calculations and then his eyes went wide. “That comes to almost five million credits!” he exclaimed.
“It is if you can get that much for them,” Jason said with a frown.
Thorne glanced over at him and nodded. “I'm sure we can find a collector other than the human,” he said, correctly guessing the first officer's thoughts. “I know of others who have an interest in Hoenix artifacts besides Faltane.”
“Although none with as much power,” the black wolf stated.
Thorne dismissed the comment with a wave of a hand. “I think you're overestimating Faltane,” he said. “He's just a collector of antiquities.” Jason looked at his captain in disbelief. Victor Faltane's youthful appearance might make him seem harmless, but the first officer had obviously heard more rumors about the human than Thorne had himself.
Miklos rubbed his hands together, his eyes sparkling. “Over two hundred thousand credits to each person on board,” he said greedily. The trio stepped off the gravel path to an old pathway and then Mik suddenly frowned. “That is,” he said, “if the booty is divided up equally…” He cast a furtive glance at the captain, but Thorne had already registered the navigator's comment.
“Yes, Mr. Novak,” Aramis said. “The treasure will be distributed evenly to all personnel.”
Mik let out a snicker and split a wide grin across his face. “Heh…” he said.
“We found your garden,” Karla said with a smile when the trio passed between two large evergreen bushes. The husky was standing at the start of a sidewalk of flagstones that led up along a cliff face. When they reached her position, she turned and led them through more evergreens.
On the other side was a small, ornamental garden of flowering shrubs around stone benches and several small statues similar to their larger siblings throughout the city. Like the rest of the plant-life in the city, it had grown unchecked for ages. The shrubs had grown over some of the benches completely and grass filled in many of the cracks between the flagstones. In the center of the area was a wide hole in the ground about three meters across. It had a knee-high wall around its rim with hieroglyphs carved into its curved surface. Goro and Farrell were both leaning over the lip of the pit, peering down into its depths.
“I wonder what this was used for,” the coyote said as he dropped a granite pebble into the opening.
“It was a sacrificial pit,” Thorne explained. Farrell looked up at him with a frown. “Yes, the Hoenix people made sacrifices to their gods,” he said.
“Who did they worship?” the greyhound asked.
“Not who, but what,” Thorne replied. “They worshiped the elements around them. They believed every tree, flower, blade of grass and the rocks all had spirits within them that affected all aspects of their lives. Even the clouds above were believed to contain the spirits of their dead.”
Goro glanced at the captain and then sat down on the stone rim of the pit. The wolf was speaking, but his voice seemed to carry no personality. He looked closer and Thorne's once-piercing amber eyes seemed dull and lifeless. He swallowed and realized that the stories he'd heard about wolves must be true. They mated for life and believed strongly in the concept of family, and it was rumored that if one mate lost the other, it affected the survivor deeply.
“Where do we go from here?” Crandall asked. She pulled the coil of rope from her shoulder and set it on the ground beside her. She massaged where the rope had been rubbing her and looked around for another path away from the garden. There didn't seem to be any other way out other than the walkway they had come through. The overgrown shrubbery might be hiding a path on to some hidden cache for the gold.
“Into the pit,” Thorne replied as he looked at Farrell. “The gold is at the bottom.”
The greyhound nodded and stood up. “Now I understand why you wanted to know if I had done any rappelling,” he said with a smile.
Karla picked up the rope and walked over to the pit.
“I can't see the bottom,” Goro said.
“I hope this is long enough,” Crandall muttered as she looked around for a place to secure one end.
“Your rope will be long enough,” Thorne said. “The pit is deep enough to prevent anyone from crawling out, but it isn't as deep as it looks. The shadows hide the floor.”
Karla crawled under the fronds of a large evergreen bush and began to wrap the rope around its thick trunk. She worked for a few minutes until she was satisfied that it was secure. She stood up and dusted off the front of her white tank top. “All ready,” she announced.
Farrell picked up the coil of rope near the edge of the pit and dropped it in. They could hear it hit something other than stone, before the sound of scattered sticks bounced around. Thorne frowned and walked toward the pit as Crandall handed the greyhound a pair of leather gloves. Farrell wrapped the rope around his butt underneath his tail and took a step up onto the rim of the pit.
Thorne reached up and put a restraining hand on the canine's arm. “On second thought, maybe you shouldn't go down there,” he said to the greyhound.
Farrell frowned. “Sir,” he said confidently, “I'm not afraid of rappelling down into a pit. I've done it many times.”
“I have no doubt about that, Mr. Lightner,” the wolf replied, “but you may not like what you find at the bottom.”
A sudden dread washed over the com officer. “More corpses?” he said with a hard swallow.
“Just one, a skeleton,” answered the captain. “From the sound the rope made when it hit the bottom, I would say his bones are now scattered about the floor.”
Farrell swallowed again and stared at the wolf. Thorne opened his mouth to tell him that he didn't have to go, but the greyhound set his jaw and the fear left his eyes.
“I can do this,” he said in a stronger voice. “I won't let you down again.”
“Let me go,” Karla said with gentle words. “You don't have to…”
Farrell shot her an uncharacteristic glare and then pulled the rope tight. “I am going,” he said defiantly. He gave the captain a small salute and then stepped backward into the pit.
The greyhound let out his rope slowly as he backed down into the gloom. Although he wore boots with a good griping sole, he took his time on the curved surface of fitted stones. His eyes adjusted with his descent, and even after only a couple meters down, he could see the floor beneath him. An unidentified dark mass loomed directly beneath him, so he moved over to avoid it.
When he reached the bottom, he let go of the rope and called up, “I'm down.”
“Very good,” said Thorne's voice. “You will find a suitcase and two crates beneath a grey tarpaulin against one wall.”
“I see the tarp,” Farrell replied. He took a step and something underneath his foot rolled out from under him. He fell hard to the ground amidst a few choice curses.
“Are you okay?” Jason called down.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I just tripped over something.” The greyhound put a hand on the ground beside him to gather leverage to get up, but his fingers fell upon something odd. He picked it up and discovered that he held the leg bone of a skeleton that lay scattered within the tatters of rotted clothing. He choked back a cry of fright and shoved the knuckles of his free hand into his mouth when he saw a canine skull beside him. He quickly set the leg bone back on the ground and scrambled to his feet.
He stepped around the bones and then leaned over the tarpaulin. When he laid his hands on the material, it felt tightly woven, but even while standing next to it, the color of the fabric was hard to see in the shadows of the pit. He pulled the covering away and let it drop to the floor beside his feet. Just as the captain had said, there were two small crates and a metallic suitcase beneath it.
“Is there gold in all the containers?” he called back up.
“No, Mr. Lightner. You may ignore the suitcase, as well as the crate on the right as you face the wall; they hold nothing but survival rations. We want the one on the left. It will be quite heavy.”
“Aye, sir,” he replied. He set the suitcase to the side and then turned to the plastic box on his left. He studied it for a moment and found a small brass padlock holding the lid on tight. He pulled his pistol from a holster strapped to his leg and whacked the padlock hard with the handle a few times before it came apart beneath the assault.
He lifted the lid with a smile and then began to breathe in shallow gasps. The crate was full of rotting burlap bags, but the one closest to him revealed its contents through a cut in the material. The greyhound picked up a large, golden coin that looked to have been hand-stamped with the image of an indistinct canine's face on one side, with a planet and two moons on the other. Both sides contained tiny hieroglyphs similar to those they had seen all through the city. The crate contained more bags of identical coins and his breathing quickened.
“Well?” asked Mik's impatient voice.
“Gold… I found the gold!” Farrell called back up.
“Huzzah!” Karla exclaimed.
Jason pulled out his DataCom and tapped a command to broadcast it to all units belonging to the crew. “This is the first officer,” he announced. “The gold has been located above an arena near the top of the city! The captain promises equal shares to all!” Suddenly there were several cheering shouts from places out in the city, and even a couple of gunshots fired in jubilation.
Down in the pit, Farrell stepped back to look up at his crewmates and felt his heel come down on another bone. He moved his foot carefully and suddenly decided he had been down in the pit long enough. “I'm going to secure the rope around the crate and then crawl back up,” he said. “Then we can all hoist it up to the top. I just hope the handles of this box can hold the weight.”
”Very good,” Thorne said. He could see the look of delight on the faces of his search party, but he felt no enthusiasm in himself. The gold was their payment for serving him. The DataCom in his pocket suddenly chirped and he pulled it from his pocket.
“This is Thorne,” he said into the mouthpiece.
“Captain, I have the results of the DNA test,” said the nurse's voice. Jason looked up and swiveled his ears to listen closely.
“Captain, the body you found is not related to our Cinjin.”
Aramis and Jason exchanged looks. “Dallas, are you certain?” he asked.
“I compared the mitochondria DNA of the biological material you sent me, to several of Cinjin's fur samples. The material is lupine, but it can't be from the body of his mother. There is no match, Captain.”
Aramis fell silent for a moment as Jason turned his attention back to the others. Crandall and Goro were pulling Farrell back up out over the rim of the pit. A moment later, they were all heaving on the rope to haul the heavy crate of gold up to them.
“There was another woman with my wife when we were here,” Aramis finally said to Dallas. “The woman must have been Jenda, but she was wearing Scarlet's clothes, even down to the scarf I had bought her.”
“Women sometimes loan each other clothing,” Dallas reminded him, “Especially if they were close friends.”
“They were the best of friends,” Thorne muttered.
“I'm sorry, Captain, but the woman you found is not your wife.”
“Thank you, Dallas,” Aramis said tonelessly when Jason looked back toward him. He closed the communication and shoved the DataCom unit back into his pocket. He swallowed hard and tried not to let his eyes go moist in front of his first officer. There were conflicting emotions running through him. He was simultaneously relieved that it hadn't been Scarlet in the tomb, and distressed that he had still not found her.
“The rope is startin' to slip!” Miklos exclaimed.
Jason looked back over his shoulder and saw the others struggling with the rope, so he rushed forward to lend his strength. He could only use one hand due to his cast, but it was just enough, as they were able to continue hauling their burden up to the garden.
After several long moments, the edge of the crate came into view, but they were unable to get it up over the lip of the hole. Thorne rushed to the side of the garden and grabbed a long, dead tree branch. He took it back to the sacrificial pit and inserted one end of it between the rope and the top of the box. He shoved it hard until the end slid through and hit the stone wall beside the crate, and then he applied pressure to hold it there. Goro realized what he was doing and let go of the rope long enough to jump forward and grab the end of the branch. He heaved upward and the two of them managed to work it up over the rim as the others kept it from falling back in.
They heaved it up over the knee-high wall and then both of them nearly fell over forward as the weight of the box dropped to the ground. Fortunately, the crate hit flat and held together. The small party panted in the dry air and allowed themselves to relax – everyone but Miklos.
The terrier worked at the knots that Farrell had put into the rope and then pushed them aside. He flung open the lid of the crate and then picked up handfuls of gold coins with a wild grin across his face.
“Would you look at this!” he exclaimed to the others. “There's more than enough here to make us all rich!”
A sudden roar drowned out his words. Everyone looked up as a huge shadow passed overhead, just above the peak of the mountain. The shadow belonged to a dark blue, flying-wing starship. Thorne scowled as the vessel moved out of sight beyond the evergreen shrubs that surrounded the sacrificial pit.
Goro and Miklos pulled out their pistols and took off running along the path to see where the newcomer had gone. When they got back to the top of the gravel path, they saw the dark ship settle roughly to the floor of the amphitheatre on extended landing claws. The ship was not overly large, but it completely filled the arena.
A moment later, a large airlock hatch split horizontally. A lone figure stepped out into the sun, a broad-shouldered cougar dressed in dark blue shirt and pants that matched the color of his vessel. Even from the height of their vantage point, the coyote and terrier could see a scar across the bridge of the cat's nose and his left eyelid. The cougar raised both of his hands to his mouth and looked straight up at the pair.
“Aramis Thorne! Show yourself!” Randon called loudly. “I've come for the gold!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
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