Tuesday, Virgo 11th,
Year 1999 After Deva, 9:26 p.m.
(Year 199,967 Before Christ).
25º 97′ S, 31º 05′ E
“Wake up . . .” said a hushed female voice. He felt frantic soft tapping on his back and shoulders. The high-pitched whine of a mosquito near his ear served as an instant reminder: they were all still hiding out in the uncharted savannah. For twenty-five weeks, Captain Milfort’s expedition had been trying to locate the legendary citadel of their most elusive enemy.
“Stella . . . ?” he mumbled as the back of his head grazed against the patchy grass. He’d been dreaming about his children, he thought, but now he was sprung into alertness.
“Don’t make any noise, Captain. My cover’s blown! They’re here! They’ve found us!” she whispered.
He almost didn’t recognize Stella, her large, deep green eyes framed by matted locks of auburn hair. She’d been gone for over a year. Small rips and fresh blood stains marred the light fabric hung loose over her malnourished frame, woven in a pattern he’d never seen. Could he trust her? They were supposed to find her, not the other way around.
He managed to nod and Stella moved on to wake the next person up.
Captain Edmar Milfort sat up in silence, his heart pounding. The camp had been thrown into a quiet panic as Stella woke his men and women.
“Where’s Yuri?” Edmar asked Stella.
She turned around with a raised index finger above her lips. “He’s on his way back home. He said Vellaskey’s expecting us.” Stella tied a leather satchel around her waist, shutting tight the hint of a soft blue glow coming from inside.
The captain heard the soft cooing of a baby and felt despair.
A baby? Was this the child Stella had mentioned in her distress message? Nothing seemed to match the Wise forecast reports.
He felt fully awake now. “You’re bleeding.” He scanned their surroundings and then picked up the baby. “How long until they get here?”
Stella drank from a strangely ornate flask which resembled an elongated human skull. “Five, ten minutes tops. Give me the child.” The husband she always spoke of, the one nobody ever met, was nowhere to be seen.
“How did you find us?” He checked the baby for any visible bruises. “Don’t think for a second that you’re in charge here. We’re bringing you home. Vellaskey will squeeze every last drop of information from you until you’re allowed to see the light of day again.”
“I know exactly who we’re up against here, Captain. Do you?”
She licked her dry lips, taking a hand to her ear. There was a fast-moving presence in the distance.
Captain Milfort handed the child over to Stella, then turned to the signal fires that surrounded the camp. He took a deep breath and blew them all out from where he stood.
“Donald!” Captain Milfort ordered his third-man-in-command, the next in Yuri’s absence. “Curtain!”
Emissary Donald Elkhorn lifted both his gauntlet arms and ripped many yards of grass up from the soil. A curtain of dirt, leaves and broken twigs surrounded the group. “Everyone, gather the essentials and let’s head home!” he barked.
“Captain Milfort! We can’t break protocol when we’ve never gotten this close before!” reasoned Emissary Zara Sphinx.
“Our only protocol is getting home to our families in one piece, Zara! This is a peaceful expedition, no matter what the Wise say!” he roared, ignoring Stella’s persistent request for silence.
Distant cries of war came from a mile or more away. Their camp had been located.
“Mother Deva . . .” How would he get his team home now?
“Listen! They trust me! I can persuade them!” Stella turned around and thrust the gurgling baby into his arms. She reached inside the bundle of rags.
“What are you doing?” Edmar asked as she removed an odd stone necklace from the child and then raced straight toward where the sounds of the approaching enemy rumbled.
His gut lurched. Stella was never the most disciplined of his emissaries, but a traitor? Captain Edmar Milfort scanned the remaining grass in search of a naked patch of soil where he had laid down a sizeable limestone the previous night. Setting the baby on the ground, he dug up the spot with his bare hands, until his fingers met a rock-hard surface. In one fast swoop, the captain pulled from the ground a polished ivory board, welded to diamond handlebars and a rock-hard. When he shook the dirt off the board, an unexpected stillness startled him: there was supposed to be a rattle of hefty pebbles.
Then he remembered the blue glow in Stella’s bag. How had she taken them?
Just a glance inside the transportation device and he knew the whole camp had been ransacked. Stella was gone. “The desert people stole our fuel! Power up your gravitairs anyway you can!” He shouted to his dispersed emissaries. “We don’t stand a chance! Retreat! Now!” He rummaged through his belongings to find any sign of artifacts glowing blue.
One of his group let out a deafening shout of pain.
Donald shouted from the distance. “Feet forward! Hands back! They have arrows! Knock them down!”
“Leave everything behind! We can meet up by the entrance!” Milfort commanded, throwing a few dimly lit blue rocks into the empty fuel compartment. It would have to do. He glanced around and saw the baby on the ground. She’d be stomped by fast galloping beasts unless he took immediate action. “I’m going off the grid! I’m taking the baby to Qosm! We can meet up by the waterfalls. Bind Stella if you have to; do not let her out of your sight!” he bellowed, sliding his communication gauntlet off his right hand, then twisting the fabric sideways, until it also gave off a weak, blue glow. “Do not fight them, Zara! Split up and retreat. They cannot find Devagar!”
“You’ve got it, Captain!” Emissary Zara Sphinx shouted in the distance, as the remaining members of the expedition threw whatever pieces of blue-lit artifacts they could find into their gravitairs. Thrusting the gauntlet inside the fuel compartment, Captain Edmar Milfort secured the star-shaped lid back on and hurried to pick up the baby. With her weight, the power meter went up to an astounding seventy-eight percent. Something’s not right. But he had to go.