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HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 15
 

Aramis Thorne looked up into the late afternoon sky and frowned at the overcast conditions. What had begun as a clear day had darkened to gloomy grey, appropriate for his frame of mind. He said little to anyone who addressed him, and the lifelessness had returned to his eyes.

The body of his son had been sent down to the Hoenix in the company of Jason and Cal on an anti-grav dolly borrowed from the Cliffhanger, along with Miklos and several others who had been injured in the initial confrontation between the two crews. The sand funnel chamber had been re-sealed and abandoned, never to be opened again.

Randon walked quietly beside the wolf, his own internal thoughts just as dark. The young wolf he had watched grow up from a pup had admitted matricide. Cinjin had shown them all where he had supposedly disposed of Scarlet's body, but her body was still missing. Why had Cinjin admitted murder? He could have kept silent by letting Thorne believe her death had been at Randon's hand, but instead he had caused his own death in the admittance. What was the purpose in it all?

What had begun as a falling out of friends due to the details of their expedition had turned into fatal bloodshed. Although Thorne's own act had been one of revenge, he had still taken a life. With the murders of Scarlet, Cinjin and Jenda, the fight had gone out of the quiet wolf.

Aramis moved slowly as they walked up the gravel pathway to the upper garden. His injured rib was hurting again, but he didn't bother to tell anyone. He was so very tired, in both body and spirit, and he wanted nothing more than to curl up somewhere to rest and heal. He had an obligation, however, and he would honor his word before collapsing. It was the only thing that gave him strength.

Randon glanced up at the rock wall that bordered the pathway and then looked ahead. It was only then that he recognized where they were.

“Why are we going to the sacrificial pit?” he asked quietly.

Without looking up, Aramis cleared his throat and replied. “The gold coins are there,” he said. “You noticed that I had an interest in it on our earlier visit here. That's why.”

“You mean to tell me I had Daniel drop you into the very gold cache I was trying to find?”

“Yes,” Thorne said dully.

Had it not been for the recent chain of events, the cougar would have laughed at the irony. Instead, he shook his head in amazement and said, “I have to admit that putting his gold in a place no one would likely visit was an inspired plan by ol' King Chaaq. I understand that in his day, poisonous snakes were kept in there to make sure their sacrifices were delivered to the realm of the dead.”

Thorne looked up at him with weary eyes. “Is that what you intended for me when you had me dropped in there?” he asked tonelessly.

Randon looked surprised. “Actually, I hadn't thought of that until just now… Honest, Aramis, I only intended it to be a temporary holding cell.”

“Right.”

The cougar frowned and sighed without another word. They arrived at the evergreen trees flanking the flagstone walkway a moment later and Randon suddenly stopped.

“What is it, boss?” Darrah asked from behind him.

“Someone is watching us,” Randon whispered as he hand crept slowly toward the holster at his side.

Thorne stopped and looked back at his old partner. “My people,” he explained. “They've been guarding the crate.”

“You first, then,” Randon said as he gestured toward the flagstone walkway.

Thorne turned and continued along the path. There was no one in sight when he emerged into the garden area, but he walked straight to the sacrificial pit. Randon stepped out into the open cautiously, but he waved the rest of the crowd back to stay on the path. Argus Roza stepped out boldly and moved directly to his captain's side, followed quickly by others in his crew. Aramis gave the fox a cursory glance and then put his hands on his hips.

“Mr. Lightner…” he called.  “Come out here.” There was a moment of complete silence in the garden, but then there was movement in the bushes to his left. Farrell crawled out on his hands and knees, looking extremely apprehensive at the cougar standing beside the wolf.

“It's all right,” Thorne assured him. “We're under a truce.”

The greyhound didn't look convinced, but he got up on his feet and held his pistol in front of him, its barrel pointed up toward the grey sky.

“Sir?” Farrell asked hesitantly, “Are they going to take our gold away from us?”

Thorne looked directly into Randon's eyes and said, “No, he has given his word that we can leave with it safely.”

There were murmurs of surprise from the feline's crew, and several of them rushed out into the open to stand beside Randon.

“Hold!” Randon called out to his people. “What he says is true. I have given him my word.”

“Then what the blazes are we even doing here?” a short bobcat spat out in anger. He cradled his right arm in a sling and looked disgusted that he may have been injured needlessly.

Randon turned to him and gave him a look of longsuffering. “We still have a purpose in the city, Mr. Bast,” he said. “I will explain once Captain Thorne's people have safely left with their treasure chest.” Lightner looked up in surprise at the cougar, and then flashed a smile at his captain. The bobcat didn't share his cheer and grumbled obscenities beneath his breath.

“Right,” Randon said with a sidelong glance at a nearby lion. “Mr. Lowe, I need you to go down to the Cliffhanger and get another anti-grav dolly. Bring it up here as quickly as you can.” The lion gave him a quiet nod and then trotted back along the path to carry out his task.

“Crandall!” Aramis called out. Once again, the garden fell into silence before the canine gunner stepped out of the bushes with her firearm out in front of her. She kept its barrel pointed toward Randon's chest with a look of suspicion.

Thorne ignored her gesture and turned toward Randon with a grimace on his face. He held his side in pain and then pointed to a spot in the bushes near them. “Our crate is hidden in there,” he said. “We'll need your help getting it back out into the open.”

A lynx and a female leopard started toward the indicated spot, but Crandall whirled on them with her pistol. “Captain!” she exclaimed.

“Stand down, Karla,” Thorne commanded. The husky gave him a look of disbelief, but followed the order. She lowered her weapon, but didn't remove her finger from the trigger.

Thorne looked over at the small gathered crowd. He pointed toward a familiar face and said, “Mr. Bova, would you and Mr. Ravenwood give them a hand moving our crate out here?”

The Doberman and the German shepherd quickly stepped forward, as if suspicious the two felines would harvest a few of the coins if not watched carefully. The four of them slid into the bushes where Aramis had indicated. A moment later, there was the sound of grunting as they pushed the heavy crate out into the open. They stopped just outside the evergreen bushes and then stood aside.

Randon followed Thorne to the crate and watched as the wolf brushed a coiled rope from the lid and dropped it onto the ground at his feet. Aramis opened the lid and then looked up at his ex-partner. The crowd filled in around them as Randon reached down and picked up a handful of ancient coins. The luster had long gone from the gold, but that didn't deter the unanimous grins that spread around those gathered.

“Would you look at that?” Derek exclaimed. “It's a bloody fortune!” Someone else let out a whistle and there were other murmurs of appreciation at the sight.

“Surely you're not going to let them just take it?” the female leopard asked with an intense look at her captain.

Randon let the coins fall through his fingers and then he looked over at Aramis. “Thorne?” he said.

The wolf met his gaze and shook his head. “After this crate is on its way down to my ship,” he said, “I will honor our bargain.”

Randon stared into his amber eyes for a long moment and then nodded. Bound by their agreement not to mention the larger coin stash in front of Thorne's crew, he nodded to the leopard and said, “Captain Thorne will be allowed to take this treasure with him for his crew.” The bobcat next to her opened his mouth in protest, but Randon held up a hand with a smile. “Don't get your fur in a fizz,” he said. “You won't be disappointed with the compensation.”

Darrah reached out, picked up several of the coins from the crate, and held them up in front of his nose. “It better be good,” he said with a grumble. He dropped the coins reluctantly and turned when they heard someone coming up the pathway.

The large lion had returned with a platform that hovered a few inches above the flagstones, controlled by a small remote in his hand. He brushed a hand through his thick mane as he guided the platform toward the crowd.

“Here's the dolly, as ordered,” he said in a gravelly voice.

“Very good, Leon,” Randon said. The lion put the anti-grav dolly next to the crate and then lowered it to the ground.

Thorne gave a quick glance at the four who had pushed it out of the bushes and immediately they complied with the silent order by hoisting the heavy box onto the platform.

“I will take that,” Argus said to the lion as he snatched the dolly's control box from his hand. Leon's face contorted in anger, but Randon gave him a quick hiss. The lion stepped back and let the fox activate the dolly's levitation system.

Aramis looked over at Randon and then held up one hand. “Listen up,” he said loudly. “I want everyone from my crew to accompany Mr. Roza and the crate back down to our ship. I want the box secured in the cargo bay, but no one is to touch its contents until I can divide it up equally among you.” Canines pushed through the crowd and surrounded the crate. There were determined expressions on all their faces. The treasure was theirs, and no one would take it from them without a deadly fight.

Crandall walked over to the wolf with a frown. “Sir, I don't think you should be left alone with these yahoos,” she whispered to him. “Let me stay as your bodyguard.”

Thorne shook his head and put a hand on her shoulder.  “Karla, I will be okay,” he said quietly. “I had to make a deal with Randon to let us keep our gold, and now I will honor my word. Go with Argus and make sure the crate gets to the ship unmolested. I should join you in about an hour.”

Crandall didn't look convinced and opened her mouth to voice her concerns. Aramis put a hand up to her lips and gently touched her. “I'll be okay,” he repeated.

The husky searched his eyes for deceit. The familiar piercing directness had gone; there was only gentle acknowledgement in them now.  She swallowed and then nodded without further argument.  She joined the canine guards surrounding the crate and looked down at her feet.

“Go,” Aramis said in a stronger voice. Argus gave Thorne a quick salute with one finger and then guided the dolly and its attendants across the flagstones.

The small number of felines left standing beside Randon and Thorne began to murmur in discontent. “Should I tail them?” Bast asked.

“No,” the cougar replied. “Just let them go.” Bast gave him a dirty look, but otherwise did nothing.

As soon as the Hoenix crew was out of sight along the pathway, Randon turned to Aramis and crossed his arms. “Okay, they're gone,” he said in suspicious expectation. The feline crew of the Cliffhanger crowded around the wolf, as though to stop him from escaping.

Thorne tried to kneel down to pick up the rope at his feet, but his injury prevented him from squatting down far enough. Gasping for air, he straightened up and said, “Have someone tie that off. We will need to go down into the pit.”

Randon picked up the rope and handed it off to Darrah. The orange cat moved off to the evergreen bushes to do his task, and Randon looked at the grimace on Thorne's face in concern. “I don't think you can handle another rope right now,” he said dubiously. “If the gold is piled up at the bottom of the pit, I won't need you down there with me to bring it up.”

“There's more gold?” Bast asked with renewed interest.

Aramis nodded to the bobcat. “Eight bags of Hoenix coins were in the crate you just saw,” he explained. “There are over two hundred more bags through the sacrificial pit.” He looked over at Randon and added, “The coins aren't lining the bottom of the pit. They're in a hidden antechamber that can be reached through the pit.”

“Ah, I see,” the cougar replied with a raised eyebrow. “I suppose only you can open the door to the gold?”

“No, you could do it, but I want to be with you when it's opened. I want you to see that I have not lied to you.”

Randon looked around at the seven felines that made up his crew. He motioned to the cheetah standing behind them. “Captain Thorne didn't listen to your medical instructions and has stressed his injuries, Renee. However, he's about to stress them further by climbing down another rope, so please do what you can for him.”

The feline medic nodded and then motioned for the wolf to follow her a few steps away from the group. She dug into her medical kit and said, “Take off your shirt.” Aramis began to unbutton his shirt while Randon gave instructions to his people. When Thorne tried to pull the shirt from his back, his rib twinged and he gasped from the sharp pain. He tried to double over, but he hurt too much to bend far.

Renee tsk'd and held onto him tightly until he could catch his breath. When she was sure he would remain standing, she held up a small pair of scissors and cut through the medical bandage she had wrapped around him earlier. She let it drop to the ground at his feet and then gently prodded his side. Thorne gasped again and then bit his bottom lip to resist an outcry of pain, but Renee stopped when she realized how much it had swollen since her last examination. She frowned deeply and then prepared her small electric hypo with a different fluid than she had used before.

“I don't recommend going down into the pit with the captain,” she told him as she administered the shot with her hypo. She knelt down before him and held up a roll of stiff fabric. “You might do more damage to your ribs, Aramis. You can just tell him how to open the chamber. Take a deep breath and hold it.”

Thorne looked down at her and tried to give her a smile. He had always liked the cheetah and knew her concern for him was genuine, despite the events of late. “This has to do with more than just instructions, Renee,” he told her before taking his breath. “If you can just keep me together a little while longer, I will rest when I get back to my ship.”

“Do you have a doctor on board?” the cheetah asked. Aramis held his breath and gave her a nod. She wrapped the cloth around his middle several times and then clipped the end tight against itself. “You can breathe now.”

She pulled out the small spray can from her med kit and then shook it up to a quiet rattle. She sprayed its fine mist over the wrap fabric and then set the can on the ground beside her. She helped him back into his shirt and then buttoned it up for him. When she was done, she reached up and lightly stroked the fur of his left cheek.

“I may have to have a talk with your doctor to make sure you do rest,” she teased.

Aramis looked at her with tired eyes, but managed a small smile now that the pain in his side had diminished. “Once Dallas sees the condition I am in,” he said, “she may force me into a cocoon to make sure I can't move until I'm well-healed. I'm already operating well beyond the care she has already administered, and she's not happy about it.”

Renee chuckled. “You do lead an eventful life, Aramis Argent Thorne,” she teased.

The wolf's countenance fell and he heaved a heavy sigh. “Too eventful,” he replied. “I wouldn't be surprised if my ship takes off without me once they have the gold on board. I've been rough on them ever since I took command of the Hoenix.”

Hoenix? You named your ship after this city?”

Thorne looked up just as Randon walked over to them. “Yeah,” he replied. “Silly, I know.”

“Who's being silly?” the cougar asked with an amused expression.

“Your partner is a silly wolf,” Renee said with a twinkle in her eye. Randon and Thorne exchanged glances. She hadn't said 'ex-partner'.

“Are you ready, partner?” Randon asked.

“Let's get this over with,” Aramis replied. With Renee's medication dulling his pain, he was able to concentrate on the job at hand. He walked to the opening of the sacrificial pit and put a foot up on the knee-high stone wall surrounding it. Darrah already had the rope secured to a tree, with the other end draped down into the pit.

“Let me go first,” Randon said. “That way I can belay from below.”

“As you wish.”

The decent to the bottom of the pit went without incident for both of them, despite Thorne's injuries. Randon swept the scattered bones to the side with his boot to make room for them both to stand without having things roll beneath their feet. When Aramis was down and standing beside him, he shed the rappelling harness and stepped around the remaining crate and suitcase.

“What's in those?” Randon asked.

“Survival rations and a change of clothes,” Thorne replied absently. He felt around on the wall until he found the slight handprint depression and then applied pressure. A section of the wall pivoted inward and Randon's eyes widened. The sound of stone scraping against stone echoed in the confines of the pit.

“I would have never found this,” the cougar muttered.

Aramis gave his companion a sidelong look. “That's why you came to me for your expedition,” he said wryly. “This is exactly the kind of thing I did most of my research on.”

“You should have been an archaeologist, my friend,” Randon said with a chuckle.

Aramis pulled his flashlight from a pocket and aimed it inside the new corridor. There was a series of steps leading upward, carved out of the stone floor. The steps were wide and the incline was a shallow grade. “After you,” he said.

Randon took a step forward, but then hesitated. His brow furrowed and then he shook his head. “Lead the way,” he said quietly. Knowing the cougar was suspicious of some possible booby trap, Aramis nodded without argument. It was musty inside the small chamber, but an outside breeze helped clear the air. Randon followed him closely, his own flashlight washing over the hieroglyphs that covered a good portion of both walls. They moved up the shallow steps around a softly curved passage. The open door behind them disappeared around the bend, but Randon seemed not to mind.

Just as the passage was about to wind back over itself, Aramis stopped in front of a blank wall. Randon bumped into him from behind and was about to ask about the stop when he noticed that Thorne had pulled out a knife.

Randon held up his hands quickly. “Now wait a minute,” he started. Before he could finish, however, Thorne stuck the thin blade into a crack in the wall and twisted it slowly. It took an effort to pull at the knife without sliding it out of the crack, but the blade tip had just enough purchase that a section of the wall began to move.

Sudden realization hit the cougar; he reached out over Thorne's shoulders and grabbed the stone edge with the tips of his fingers. With the door held by his companion, Aramis put the knife back in its sheath, and then put his own fingers on the edge of the stone. The door hesitated briefly, and then it came open under their combined effort.

What might have once been a balanced door was now out of calibration, and it slowly stopped. However, it was wide enough that both of them could squeeze through the opening.

When Randon stepped inside the antechamber, his eyes widened at the sight before him. Stacked up against the walls were so many bags of golden coins that his breath became shallow. He did a quick calculation based on the coins he had seen in the crate above, and figured that each canvas bag would roughly hold five hundred coins.

Aramis leaned against the door on the far wall, but Randon paid him no attention. The cougar began counting all the bags he could see. Moments later, Randon sat down on the floor and leaned back against the bags.

“There are two hundred seventeen bags in here!” he said at last with a wide grin. “That has to be over a hundred thousand coins!”

Thorne nodded quietly. He neither smiled nor frowned, but kept his expression neutral. “Your master will be proud,” he said calmly.

Randon nodded with an excited swallow, but then he closed his eyes to calm his breathing. “You have my word,” he said a moment later. “I won't report your insignificant little crate to Faltane. The value of eight bags is considerably less than the amount he was going to let you keep as part of your share anyway.”

“Thank you, Zef.”

Randon ran his tongue over his broken tooth and then opened his eyes to look over at the wolf. “What will you do now?” he asked.

Aramis sat down on the floor opposite his companion with some difficulty and hung his head. “I am not sure,” he said quietly. “My family is gone. I am a lone wolf without a pack. The city of frustration has lived up to its name and has taken them from me.”

“From what I could see, your crew is all-canine,” the cougar replied. “They will have to be your new pack.”

Aramis looked up at him and shook his head. “I'm barely holding them together under my command,” he said. “Once they have their gold, I suspect many of them will bail.”

“I would imagine the success of this venture would prove you can lead them to treasure. Among pirates, that will gain you loyalty.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Thorne glanced up at the bags of gold in the light of his flash. “How much of this are you going to report to your master?”

Randon gave him a startled look. “All that's here,” he said. “I'm taking a big risk by not telling him of the treasure your people took to your ship. He may find out about it anyway when you try to cash them in for real credits. Beware of Victor Faltane, Aramis. He's a dangerous man and has more connections that you know.”

“I may have slipped up when I went to the old badger to sell the coins I had on me when I escaped from this city,” Thorne muttered, “but I know of others who are just as interested in Hoenix artifacts who we can sell them to – others who are actually from Brandt. It's more personal to them.”

“Well, I wish you luck, my friend,” the cougar told him. His flashlight began to flicker and he shook it for a moment before he looked back to his companion. “My people will be wondering about us,” he said. “I suppose we should get you back down to your ship before we start taking all this out of here. Besides, my tooth is hurting again.”

“I need a hand up,” Thorne said with a frown. “I got down here on the floor, but I can't seem to get up again.”

Randon gave him a friendly smile and then extended a hand. “You always were a scrapper, Aramis. I would advise you not to get into any more fights until you have healed properly.”

Thorne took the offered hand and managed to get to his feet with the cougar's help. “I'm pretty weak right now,” he admitted. “If you want to finish me off, you'll never have a better time.”

Randon snorted in amusement. “Come on,” he said. “If I don't get you back down to your ship, I'm sure your Second will think I have finished you off.” 

*** 

Aramis gasped in pain and held on tight to Randon's middle. The stone roads of Hoenix were rough under the knobby wheels of Randon's ground motorbike, and each jolt sent spikes of pain into his side. He wished the cougar's old airbike had been stored on the Cliffhanger instead of this old thing, but they left behind the larger vehicle to make room for potential cargo when Randon received orders to return to the ancient city.

Thorne clenched his eyes shut and did his best to ignore the pain. Randon had been talking to him, but had fallen silent when he realized the wolf was in no shape to pay attention. Not designed with a motorbike in mind, the streets were rough and he had to take it slowly. They were near the bottom of the mountain and the bulk of the Hoenix loomed over them a short distance out onto the plains. It was the first time the cougar had taken a good look at the vessel and he whistled at its sight.

“What is it?” Thorne gasped.

“Where did you dig up that old Fynian fossil?” Randon asked. Aramis opened his eyes and peered over the cougar's shoulder. The submarine starship looked out of place sitting on the grass plains, as if it was in drydock or on display in a museum.

“Found it in a cave,” Thorne muttered. “Should have left it there.”

“That reliable, eh?”

“You have no idea.”

“What did you name her?”

“I named her after this city. It's the Hoenix.

Randon laughed aloud. “I'm surprised you got it off the ground… or out of the sea. The Altus-class vessels were tough ships, but if you name one after the City of Frustration, that's what you're bound to get.”

Thorne started to agree with him, but the motorbike left the stone roadway and bounced over a couple of rocks before they rolled onto the grass.  The wolf nearly bit his tongue and decided it would be best to keep quiet until they reached the ship.

As they approached the vessel, the darkening sky above rumbled ominously.  Several people waited beneath the belly of the ship just outside the cargo ramp. Jason Talos stood with his feet planted defiantly apart, his broken arm in a sling, but a pistol in his good hand. He watched Randon suspiciously before he noticed that Aramis sat behind him. 

The black wolf signaled to those behind him with the pistol upraised, and it was then that Randon realized they were all armed.  The cougar pulled to a stop beside the first officer and cut the engine to the bike.

“Hello again, Duster,” he said with his chin raised. “I've brought your captain back to you, alive and well.”

“Almost well,” Thorne rasped as he slowly eased himself off the bike, “but I will live.”

“Randon,” Jason acknowledged. “How are we doing?”

“We?” the feline captain asked as he scratched the scar across his eyelid.

“Are you going to let us leave, or will we have to fight our way out?”

Randon chuckled and looked up at the bulk of the Hoenix. “Looks like one shot would do it in,” he said lightly, “but you're in no danger from me or the Cliffhanger.  The box of gold is yours to keep. I don't intend to come after you for it.”  He watched a small Papillion walk quickly down the cargo ramp and approach Aramis in concern.  “Our feud is over, Duster. Aramis and I have mended our fences.”

Jason looked surprised. He turned to Thorne with a look of inquiry, and the grey wolf nodded to him with a weary smile.

“Well, this is unexpected,” Jason replied. “I'm glad to hear it.”

Randon looked over at Dallas with a nod. “Take care of this scrapper,” he told her. “Make him rest and heal, even if you have to strap him to his bed!”

Dallas didn't look amused, but nodded quietly. She tugged gently on Thorne's arm and said, “Come with me, Captain. I think you've had enough for one day.”

“Just one moment, Dallas,” the wolf said. He moved back over to Randon and quietly peered into his eyes. The cougar put down the kickstand and stepped off the bike. The two lifelong friends embraced briefly and there was a deep sadness in Thorne's face. 

He stepped back, clasped arms with his friend, and then spoke in a voice low. “Goodbye, Zef. I don't think we will ever see one another again. Good luck and live well.”

Randon tilted his head, but before he could ask about the comment, the wolf turned back to his crew.  He cleared his throat as he stepped back onto his bike. “Goodbye, Aramis. May the wind be at your back!” He started up his motorbike and then headed back to the mountain city without a look behind him.

Jason and Argus helped Thorne up the cargo ramp, with the others following close behind.  “What was that all about?” Jason asked. “You don't think we'll tangle with him again?”

Thorne pretended he didn't hear his officer's question, but he turned to him once they got inside the cargo bay.  “What is our operational status?” he asked.

The black wolf seemed startled to have had his question ignored, but he cleared his throat and motioned to Hugo to close the cargo door. The hydraulic pistons slowly retreated and raised the ramp as Jason turned back to the captain.

“The crate of gold is sealed in a vacuum chamber that has been depressurized,” he reported. “No one can get to it without setting off an alarm on the bridge. The bodies of, uhm, Cinjin and Jenda have been placed into cold storage until we can do something with them, and the ship has been fully prepped for take off.  Goro and Errol have the launch systems primed on standby. We didn't know if we would need a quick getaway, so we can launch at any time.”

Thorne nodded and gave a quick glance at the nurse before returning his gaze to his first officer. “Very good,” he said in a raspy voice. “Launch immediately,” he said.

“Heading?” Jason asked.  “Mik has a bum leg from the fighting, but he's patched up and on the bridge at his charts awaiting your orders.”

“Take us back to our cave at Castle Bay,” Thorne said. “Once we have docked, I want the ship re-supplied and prepped for a quick turnaround for a flight to Dennier.”

“Dennier?” Jason and Argus asked in unison.

“That's correct,” Thorne confirmed. “After we're on our way to Dennier, I will divide up the treasure equally among the crew.”

“Why are we going to Dennier?” Dallas asked. “Everyone, including you, needs rest and relaxation after all we have been through.” Thorne looked terrible, and she was impatient to get her charge into the infirmary, but she wanted to hear out his orders.

Aramis felt a surge of anger come over him at having his command questioned, but a new twinge of pain in his side stopped him from raising his voice. Instead, he coughed and leaned against the nurse until the fit was over. The cargo door mechanism shut itself down and the cargo bay began immediate pressurization.

“As captain, I don't need to explain myself,” Thorne said to them hoarsely. “I need my ship and crew on Dennier, and I won't distribute the treasure until we're on our way.”

“You don't trust us,” Hugo said with a dark look.

Thorne merely looked back at him wearily. “We have a considerable treasure on board, Mr. Sullivan,” he said. “If I gave out the loot in Castelrosso, half the crew would abandon ship before we could launch again. Once we have reached Dennier, you can stay or leave as you like, but this ship will go to Dennier if anyone wants to see their share of the treasure.”

Hugo wore a deep frown for a moment, but then he shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, Captain,” he muttered. “It doesn't matter to me where we go. I don't intend to leave.”

Thorne heaved a great sigh.  “I am tired and I hurt,” he said to the small group. “Please launch as ordered.”

The first officer nodded. “Aye, sir,” he said in acceptance. “No matter our destination, I'll feel more comfortable putting distance between us and the Cliffhanger.”

“Thank you, Jason,” Aramis said. “I'm now going to the infirmary, where I assume Dallas will put me under sedation.”

The Papillion took his arm with a nod. “Mr. Talos has his orders,” she said. “He can carry them out without your presence on the bridge. I will give you something for the pain once we get upstairs. Consider that your penance for what you put yourself through today.”  Aramis allowed her to lead him toward the lift without another word or look at anyone else.

Jason watched them go for a moment and then he walked over to a bulkhead. He thumbed an intercom call button and the unit chirped at the connection.

“Bridge,” said Farrell's voice.

“This is Talos. Everyone's on board and all hatches are sealed. The captain's orders are to launch immediately for Castelrosso. We're going back to base. I'll be up to the bridge momentarily.”

“Aye, sir. I'll be glad to be away from this place.”

“Me, too, Farrell. Be sure to monitor the skies behind us, just in case Captain Randon changes his mind and comes after us. I don't want any surprises coming from the rear.”

“Aye, sir.”

Jason switched off the intercom and he could hear the surface engines start up. With a glance over his shoulder at the others, he started for the lift without a word.

Several decks up, Aramis and Dallas stepped out of the lift near the infirmary. They could feel the vibration of the floor plates and they knew they had launched. Once inside the infirmary, Thorne moved to a monitor and turned it on as Dallas went to a cabinet and began to take out cleaning supplies for his injuries. The monitor displayed the forward camera view, which showed only the grey cloudy sky. It hadn't started raining yet, but looked as if it could at any moment.

The wolf tapped out a few commands and the scene switched to a camera beneath the ship. The grass plains below were falling behind quickly and then he changed the viewer once again.  Spread out over the side of the mountain was the ancient city of Hoenix. From their position, he could see the amphitheatre and the dark starship within. Its hatch was still open and people were outside in the open air, so there didn't appear to be any preparations to launch after them.

Thorne's eyes moved until he located the building that housed the throne room. It was more elaborately decorated than the others around it, but its beauty amongst the city was lost to him.  Hoenix began to slip out of view as the ship moved forward. He reached out and briefly stroked the screen, moisture in his eyes.

“Goodbye, Scarlet,” he whispered.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.