Read Mosaic Online

Authors: Jeri Taylor

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction

Mosaic (11 page)

from the tunnel, grateful and gasping. When the last one

had crawled free, Neelix lifted his phaser.

"Kale, LeFevre, Hutchinson, train your phasers on that

thicket. We can make it a little tougher for the Kazon to

follow us." Phaser to ire collapsed the tunnel, and Neelix

smiled to think of the Kazon trying to find their way out

of the rancid tunnel.

Ahead less than half a kilometer they could see a small

flash of sunlight-the end of the trek through the dense

copse of trees and overgrowth.

Tuvok's group was beyond, just minutes away now. Neelix

waved the group forward and, with a lighter step, they made

their way toward the glint of light. Then something began

dropping from the trees.

Neelix sensed, rather than felt, a heavy weight plummet

through the air behind him; barely brushing the back of his

head and then thudding onto the ground.

Puzzled, he turned around in time to see a dark coil

enclosing LeFevre's shoulders, heard LeFevre's sudden gasp

and then a strangled cry of distress. Neelix had time to

register only a dark, serpentine shape before he realized

more of them were dropping from the trees, directly onto

the hapless crew, hissing fiercely, an awful, caustic sound

that heightened the terror of the sudden attack.

And the smell was dreadful. These creatures were the

source of the putrefying odor they'd been smelling since

they entered the forest, and the viscous fluid that they

extruded from long, tubular snouts was a miasma of death

and decay. Neelix felt his gorge rise, and he fought a wave

of nausea.

He saw LeFevre struggling against tightening coils, hands

groping desperately to find the long head that darted just

out of his reach. Neelix lifted his phaser, afraid he'd hit

LeFevre if he used it. The young man made a strangled cry

of pain, and Neelix realized the reptile had encircled him

and was crushing his ribs.

The tubelike head of the creature swung into Neelix'

vision; ancient, glittering eyes caught his briefly, before

Neelix pointed the phaser and blasted directly into those

unblinking bronze slits. There was a thrashing as the

serpent's head was flung backward, and then it went limp,

coils relaxing and falling away from LeFevre, who gasped

for air, drawing in great sucking lungfuls as he pulled the

now-flaccid body of the huge reptile from his torso.

Neelix looked up to see the others in similar struggles; a

desperate, feral dance was being performed in the dark

passageway as the crew wrestled with their hissing

attackers. Those who weren't entwined tried to rescue their

comrades by phasering the heads of the serpents, but the

beasts were deft and agile and getting a target was

difficult.

Neelix spotted Greta Kale sagging in the crushing embrace

of mottled coils. He started to sprint toward her, then

suddenly felt a pressure on his ankle; looking down, he saw

a snaky coil wrapped around his leg and a foot-long snout

moving toward his head.

He fired blindly, missed, saw the coil envelop his leg and

begin to tighten, felt his leg go numb immediately, looked

for the elongated head, which was bobbing and weaving,

fired again and hit the mark, saw the tubed head drop

heavily to the ground, and felt his leg regain feeling.

He turned to Greta, who was already turning blue, eyes

popped wide. He couldn't isolate the serpent's head; in

desperation he put the phaser tip directly against the

reptilian body and fired. The serpent exploded.

A stream of matter and fluid sprayed Neelix, who threw up

his hands to ward off gouts of tissue and cartilage. Bits

of bone stuck to his face and hair, but Ensign Kale was

released, and he could hear her ragged, shallow breathing

once more. She moaned, and Neelix guessed she had broken

ribs. Glancing around, he saw that the situation seemed

under control: serpents lay dazed or writhing on the

ground, and all the crew were standing, some bent over,

drawing grateful breaths of air, others warily eyeing the

huge coiled reptiles on the ground and scanning the trees

for more of the vicious animals.

They weren't, strictly speaking, snakes. On their dark,

mottled bodies were a series of small leglike appendages,

which would serve to give them traction on the ground and a

better grip on their victims. Their long snouts could

spread wide to ingest prey far larger than they.

All in all, they were perfectly hideous creatures. Neelix

shuddered slightly, grateful for Starfleet's powerful

phasers. He wasn't sure his would have had the same effect.

He motioned for someone to help him with Greta; they

hoisted her between them and hurried toward the light that

beckoned to them from the end of the passageway with a

comforting golden glow. It seemed to promise safety.

Tuvok scanned once again: Neelix and his group were

nearing his location; the Kazon were behind them and moving

steadily. It was imperative they find cover.

He turned to eye the members of his squad, who were

investigating the terrain for some kind of protection

against the Kazon. It did not look promising. There was no

high ground to hold, no cover except the woods through

which Neelix was now proceeding. Tuvok disliked the

prospect of a ground battle with the Kazon without some

tactical advantage, but at the moment he saw none.

He turned to see Ensign Kim scanning the ground intently.

The young man had been trying to discern a pattern of some

kind that could be seen from the air and that might mark

the location of a protected tomb or tombs; before they had

realized the Kazon were on the planet Kim believed he had

identified such a pattern. But that search had stopped as

soon as the dangerous intruders had been identified. Now

everyone was scanning for caves, which might provide

protection.

"Lieutenant Tuvok!" Kim's voice rang through the air.

"I've found something!"

Tuvok turned to see Harry standing about fifty meters

away, waving at him. Then the young man abruptly

disappeared. Tuvok was on the run instantly, plunging

through the brushy weedbed. As he neared the spot where Kim

had disappeared, he could hear the young ensign calling to

him.

"This is it, Lieutenant-this is it!"

As Tuvok approached, he realized that a circle of earth

had collapsed, not haphazardly, but symmetrically, as

though triangular quarters of the circle had given way from

the center. A series of'

gentle ramps was formed, which Tuvok now descended

carefully to join Kim, who was standing at the conflux of

the triangles, which had deposited him in the center of a

huge and cavernous underground vault.

"This must be the tomb. We can use it to take cover."

"Quite right, Mr. Kim. I'll get the others."

Tuvok climbed to the surface once more and hit his

commbadge. "Tuvok to all hands. Regroup immediately."

At that moment, he saw Neelix and his group emerging from

the forest. He could tell they had wounded among them, and

Kes was already on her way to give aid. They were a motley-looking group, hair full of twigs and leaves, uniforms

covered with mud and slime, faces bloody. A few were

limping; Ensign Kale was carried by Neelix and LeFevre; all

bore the signs of trauma.

What had they endured?

"This way, Mr. Neelix. We've found cover." The Talaxian

gave him a wan smile and herded his group toward Tuvok. Kes

was scanning Ensign Kale, assessing her condition.

"We've had quite an adventure, Mr. Vulcan," Neelix began.

"I'm sure you'll want to hear all about it-as soon as we've

taken cover, of course."

"Of course." Tuvok did not look forward to another of

Neelix' endless discourses. The Talaxian had somehow gotten

the impression that Tuvok looked forward to hearing him

describe his many adventures, in tedious and incessant

detail.

Even Tuvok's great store of patience was tested by the

Talaxian's congenial wordiness.

Tuvok insured that everyone made it safely into the

underground cavern, then approached Kim, who was scanning

the carved rock wall of the chamber. "There must be a

control apparatus down here to close this thing up. There's

one on the surface, pressureactivated. It was disguised in

the stonework, but its gravimetric signature was different

from the surrounding matter." He moved his tricorder

systematically over the wall, looking for any anomalous

readings or energy signatures.

"Funny," he mused as he scanned, "I can't figure out what

these walls are constructed of. It looks like some kind of

stone, but I'm getting strong organic readings from it as

well."

"The Delta Quadrant possesses many materials which are

unknown to Federation science," offered Tuvok.

"I just hope, whatever it is, it's strong. Strong enough

to keep the Kazon out."

"Let us also hope they cannot activate it as we did."

Most of the others had begun to fan out, scanning and

exploring. Neelix' group simply sat down, clearly

exhausted. Kes moved among them, tending to the injured.

"Ah," said Kim with obvious satisfaction. "Stand back,

everybody, I think I've got it."

He put his palm on a particular panel in the wall, andwitha

whoosh of air the ramps began to lift quietly, fitting

perfectly together to form a ceiling piece, inexorably

shutting out the sunlight. It was pitch black. Wrist

beacons began to snap on, and Tuvok spied magnesite, which

he infused with phaser energy for light and heat. Others

did the same. A warm glow began to illuminate their new

surroundings, erasing ominous shadows and creating an

environment that Tuvok hoped would soothe his team. For the

moment, they were safe, even if safety lay in the

mysterious underground vault of an unknown alien species on

a planet sixty-eight thousand light-years from home.

In that way, they waited for the Kazon.

8

THE GROUND WAS ROUGH AND ROCKY; A JAGGED STONE BIT into

Kathryn's leg as she lay, facedown, at the top of the stone

quarry, peering at the swimmers below. The sun was high

overhead, but unlike the muggy summers at home it was never

hot on Mars. She turned her head toward Emma North, lying

next to her; Mary O'Connell was just beyond. All were in

swimmers and shirts, and carried bags jammed with music and

games, snacks, sun protector, and other items designed for

an afternoon of swimming.

"If they see us, they'll tell our folks,"

Mary said in a hoarse whisper. "I can't believe I let you

talk me into this."

Swimming at the quarries on Mars Colony was dangerous and

strictly forbidden by their parents. The water was deep and

cold, access was difficult, and jagged rock wasn't kind to

bare skin. The girls knew, though, that everyone did it at

some time or another; it had become a rite of passage.

Kathryn had wanted for years to swim the quarries.

Starfleet had extensive officers'

facilities on Mars Colony, and her family had visited there

on a number of summer vacations, but her parents had always

kept a close eye on her. Now that she was fourteen, they

had relaxed their guard somewhat. "What are you worried

about? People have been swimming here for years. Decades."

"We're still not supposed to be here."

"No one will ever know."

"They will if those people down there see us."

"They won't," said Kathryn confidently.

"We're not going there." Now Emmy look vaguely concerned.

"But . . . that's the quarry everybody goes to."

"Not us. I know where there's a smaller one. There are

lots of them, actually, a whole network of them that

stretch for kilometers through these hills."

"How do you know?"

Kathryn smiled, remembering the day five years before that

still was etched indelibly in her memory.

"Someone I used to know showed me. He took me all around

the colony. Did you know if you use a breathing gill and

swim underwater in some of these quarries you can access

the cave system under Olympus Mons? There's a whole

honeycomb of caves and underwater lakes. To get through

them, you have to stay underwater for as much as a

kilometer at a time until you reach the next cave. Someday

I'm going to do that." Both girls looked at her as though

she'd sprouted warts. "That sounds awful, was said Mary,

and Emma nodded in vigorous agreement. "And dangerous." "I

think it sounds exciting. I know others have done it."

"Have they all come out alive?"

Kathryn hesitated. Data had in fact mentioned a fatality

that had occurred during the Olympus Mons cave trek, but

that had only intrigued Kathryn, made her more determined

to take the challenge someday. She knew, however, that Emma

and Mary wouldn't share that response. "As long as you're

an experienced diver it's not dangerous," she said firmly.

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