Sreyler Theb’s fingers moved more and more frantically over the LCARs input. Tursk looked on from behind, hope fading from his face with every passing second. He could barely bring himself to look at what the screen now showed.
The disbelief was evident in Sreyler’s voice as she confirmed what she was seeing, “I’m not getting any lifesigns from his transponder. No response from coms. Radiation’s too strong to pick up the tricorder signal. Sir, there’s no way I can get a lock. He’s either nowhere near the transponder or…”
Tursk emitted a deep rumbling sigh, “There has to be a way to see through.”
“Sir, the lifesign data’s back,” The dash of hope in her voice was soon extinguished, “it’s not matching any kind of Argosian biosigns though. Must be Gürm.”
“I don’t care what we have to do, Commander, we’re going to get to that transponder’s location and find out what’s happened. Nothing changes as long as there’s a chance he’s still alive.” Tursk was resolute. He stood, unmoving as he racked his brains for solutions.
Sreyler’s thoughts came flooding in like the ice flows of her childhood. She thought of her parents, who bade farewell to her before she had left for Zhaman’ti; Xin-Ra Havreii, his tutelage and mentorship teaching her everything she now knew about starship systems. Then Vordenna, the kind soul, and commanding officer with whom she’d catalogued the wonders of the galaxy.
Her concentration returned, “I can try and isolate the radiation wavelength. Maybe matching it with the frequency of the emitter array could increase transporter accuracy. No…” Red flashed up on the panel, signalling the nonviability of the input parameters, “The rad-clouds in the upper atmosphere are way too thick.”
“Could we send a shuttle below them, beam in from there?” Tursk offered.
“Not powerful enough, the engines would be fried if it ever made it through the clouds.” Sreyler’s words were frayed with exasperation.
“Hmmmph, keep on it.” Tursk said, “I’m going down to the emitter array. If we can modify, boost the beam strength somehow, we might be able to punch through the radiation.”
“Aye sir,” Sreyler barely looked up.
Tursk headed for the turbolift, “Ensign Steldon, you’re with me.”
The early morning mist over Sandastrom had just begun to clear. The cold air circulated through the tightly packed rows of buildings, blowing browned leaves through streets paved with rough cut stone.
“Morning, Wide-eyes,” a voice from the door caused Felrak to whirl around, “brought you summat ta eat. Oh, looking for yer stuff?”
“Uhh,” Felrak eyed the reptile standing before him holding a tray of food, “thank you for the hospitality.” It began to dawn on him just how much trouble he was in, “so where are my things?
“Funny you should say that,” deep black eyes blinked from the top of a long, thin head, “we let the Magistrate know as soon as we’d picked you up. He’s the law around ‘ere, ya see? Anyways, he came around last night, and he seemed mighty interested in what ya had in those pockets.” The lizard cocked his head towards Felrak’s overcoat, still hanging over the fireplace.
“Oh…” Felrak’s stomach did a flip, “And you are?”
“Terribly sorry wide-eyes, Salatryx is the name,” the lizard placed the tray down on the chair beside him and held out a clawed hand. A forked tongue flicked out of his mouth, then back in before Felrak could blink.
“Pleasure to meet you. I’m…” Felrak thought for a second, deciding against revealing too much, “Actually many people do call me Wide-eyes, never did have an easy time fitting in.” He went in for a handshake, then fumbled awkwardly as Salatryx pressed his palm against his.
“Eh, fancy that. The wife thought you were a swamp ogre or some kind of abomination from the outfarthings.”
“Yup. Yer seem pretty well spoken though, if you ask me. It’s just yer ‘ed shape that’s a bit off putting, and you’ve no tail. Skin’s a bit like mine, mind you. Just looks like you’ve got some funny stuff growing on yours. That an infection?” Salatryx held up an arm, looking between it and Felrak’s face to compare the tone of his flesh, “Where have you come from, anyway?”
Felrak couldn’t help but smile, “Very far away. Very far indeed.” His stomach let out a loud growl.
“Ah, where’s me manners?” Salatryx lifted the tray again, “Got some steamed cerrawinkles ‘ere, and a couple of kaambaps.”
The salted smell of shellfish and freshly baked bread wafted towards Felrak, “Those look delicious.”
“Sit yerself down then, Wide-eyes, get stuck in! I’ll stoke up the fire.”
Felrak did just that. The kaambap was dense and, lacking any implements with which to eat, took Felrak’s fingers a little work to break into. He pulled the warm bun apart, revealing starchy fibres of a pale yellow colour.
“‘Ere, like this.” Salatryx sat next to him, ripping apart his own kaambap and placing two of the slimy cerrawinkles in the middle. Felrak followed suit, then took a bite. A crunch signaled the mingling of sea salt with the bread’s chewy centre. It was hearty, and Felrak could feel his residual daze dissipating as he swallowed another mouthful. Without much sunlight, the lichens and moss on his skin had not produced the photosynthetic energy that would have usually kept the hunger at bay.
“This is delicious,” Felrak sat back for a moment after finishing the food.
It was Salatryx’s turn to smile, “Thankya Wide-eyes, hope that makes up for what yer’ve been through. I did want to apologise for that n’ all. That trap weren’t meant for you. Just wanted something a bit more substantial to feed the family with, din’t I?”
“I’d say that meal more than made up for it. And thank you for the stay.” Felrak kicked himself internally for not reading the Gürm database entry more thoroughly. He could have used at least some knowledge of their customs, “I’m afraid I don’t have any money.”
“Naw, think nothin’ of it! Least we could do before we take ya down to the Magistrate’s.”
“Yep, he wants ta see you as soon as possible. Mentioned that ‘e wanted to ask you a few questions about those trinkets.”
Felrak thought about it. Deciding that there was nothing he really had to lose at this point by going along with Salatryx and nothing to gain by refusing, he acquiesced, “Very well then.”
“Best get yerself ready, I’ll wait for you outside.” Salatryx made to leave the room.
“Salatryx, wait.” Felrak looked up to the halberd above the fireplace, “That,” he pointed, “is a fine weapon. Where could someone like me come across one of these?”
“Oh that?” Salatryx said half chuckling, “You won’t be finding any of those for sale, or anywhere else I’d wager. Been in the family for centuries, that one has. You’re right, it’s a fine blade. Served me well a good few times.”
Felrak held himself back from asking more questions. The situation was precarious enough without wandering into the minefield of revealing just how other he was. Instead, he merely nodded as his mind raced.
The streets of Sandastrom slowly filled as the Gorman Sun rose further along its crescent trajectory. Gürm went about their business, this way and that. Carts moved workers into the fields surrounding the town to till fields that had lain fallow over winter. Others dressed in fine livery and walked at a fast clip towards tall, columned buildings. On the far banks of the river, long hangars of red brick stood in neat rows, iron rivets maintaining the steep angle of their corrugated roofs. An autumnal bluster threatened rain, but the swollen dark clouds rolled overhead towards distant hills that marked the edge of the yonder weiyld.
Salatryx had given Felrak a hooded cloak to wear as they moved through the streets towards the Magistrate’s office. Even the loose, dark material was not enough to hide the shape of his head from curious onlookers. Etrexia and Frestwyx had joined them, in an attempt to divert some attention away from their strange guest, or at least discourage the citizens of Sandastrom from accosting Felrak in any way. Their plan appeared to be working, but that didn’t stop Felrak’s eyes from flitting nervously around, desperately avoiding the gaze of others as he continued to plant his feet where no offworlder had gone before.
“We’re nearly there,” Salatryx inclined his head forward, indicating a domed building towards the end of the road. Six large pillars stood before it, supporting the roof of a portico that extended out to form a covered courtyard. Trees that reminded Felrak of Earth poplars were evenly spaced along either side of the road, culminating in a series of shallow stone steps that separated the structure from street level. Two guards holding spears stood motionless, facing each other two metres apart at the top of the stairs.
The party jumped to avoid a carriage, pulled by a burden beast at reckless speed as it rounded a corner in front. A few terse words passed between Salatryx and the driver before they continued up the stairs.
“My scales, you need to be more careful, Salatryx!” Etrexia admonished her husband, “What have you gotten us into now? The attacks are one thing, and now we’re paying visits to the Magistrate like it’s nothing? All we needed was something to eat.”
Salatryx ignored her, and they were greeted by a surly grunt from one of the guards.
“Who comes to see the Magistrate?”
“Salatryx, sir, and you’ll find I have an appointment. I’m here to present the…” He eyed Felrak, who was still concealed in the cloak, “He’ll know what I’m here for.”
“Hmph.” The guard snorted, and marched towards the large double doors. They creaked open to reveal a tiled entrance hall. Offset black and white squares stretched in a mosaic pattern across the floor.
“Thank you, sir,” Salatryx bowed his head to the guard as he stepped inside. A lightning flick of a crimson red tongue was the only response. The spear wielding lizard stared off into the middle distance. Salatryx made a hurrying motion with a claw, beckoning Felrak and the others inside.
Once through the small entrance hall, the interior of the Magistrate’s office opened out into a wide chamber. A large window took up nearly the entire rear wall, flooding cool morning light across a carpet threaded with a shiny metallic leaf. Busts of what Felrak presumed to be previous magistrates lined the chamber’s perimeter, nine in total. He glanced down at the one situated closest to an ornate chair in front of the window, reading the plaque beneath. The script was a series of interlocking discs engraved at seemingly random intervals across the glossy surface.
“Salatryx! Is that you?” A high pitched, disembodied voice came from nowhere in particular, “Hold on, I’m just straightening my robes. Awful things.” Felrak raised an eyebrow, listening to the thud of footsteps descending a staircase hidden from view. Suddenly, “AH!”
A door concealed in the cream plastered wall burst open, and a diminutive, stocky lizard burst forward, “Here we are then! Ah yes, here we all are! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again Salatryx, you have a fine family indeed. It seems not but a day’s passed since I signed little Frestwyx’s hatching records.”
The Magistrate wore wire spectacles which nearly flew from the end of his snout as he scampered up to Frestwyx, giving the young lizard’s head a cheerful tousle. “Etrexia, you are, as ever, a stunning example of reptilian beauty.” He readjusted the box-like purple hat perched on his head.
Etrexia rolled her eyes, prompting Salatryx to quickly divert the Magistrate’s attention, “And the purpose of our visit; our guest. Goes by the name of Wide-eyes, he does.”
“Ahhhh, Wide-eyes… An appropriate name to say the least!” The Magistrate adjusted his glasses, peering over at Felrak then stepping forward with palm outstretched. Felrak lowered his hood, revealing the full extent of his alien features. The others in the room could not help but stare at the unique facial arrangement, the elongated cranium and the protruding temples from where the Argosian’s dark green eyes looked back at them. Felrak raised his palm in return, pressing it against the Magistrate’s.
“Forgive me, Wide-eyes. I am Bhorreth Irathelet Freyyn, Sook-Magistrate of this fine town, Sandastrom.” Felrak remained silent as the Magistrate stepped back again, “Such an interesting specimen you are. Your scales, your claws… Not unlike ours, I’d say. But the eyes, and lack of a tail. Hmmm, yes, no tail. Reminds me of them, it does.”
Felrak stood, nonplussed. An uneasiness began to creep its way through him.
“Do you speak, Wide-eyes? Tell me, where have you come from?”
“Yes, uh, sir.” Felrak looked back to Salatryx, who gave an encouraging smile, “I hail from the far…” Mentally he flipped a coin, “South.”
“The southern lands?” Freyyn pondered Felrak’s words, “Why, then you must know of them. You must have seen them.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Felrak’s curiosity got the better of him, “who are ‘they’?”
It was at that moment the horns sounded. A low, constant blast from the rooftop parapet rang through the air. It was soon joined by others, minor differences in tone creating a haunting harmony that resonated through Sandastrom’s every alley. Fear struck the Magistrate. Frestwyx ran to Etrexia’s outstretched arms, and she held him tight. Salatryx, colour drained from his face, sprung up on his toes as if listening for a far away predator.
A guard from outside crashed his way through the heavy doors, “The beacons. They’re lit! They march from Breldrendar!”
Freyyn absorbed the guard’s words, turning back to Felrak with the whites of his eyes showing. Felrak could see no fear now. A steely determination had replaced it. The lightning shock of apprehension had flashed a course through the elder lizard, and now he was ready. Freyyn spoke one word in a deep, hate-filled husk, “Mammals.”