Operation Stargate - Book One
Xenologist Bret Grayson was hired to make contact with one of the indigenous tribes roaming the savannahs on the planet Salamander. He soon finds out the real purpose he is on Salamander. His uncle, the legendary Master Scout Terrex Stonewall, also has a hidden agenda, but even he doesn’t know about the secret that lies beneath the original military outpost. It seems every species living in this part of the Galaxy has a sudden interest in Salamander and they are willing to risk a war to keep the secret from falling into human hands. Grayson and Stonewall have no choice but to form an alliance with representatives from the Spiders, the Anorians, and the Accilla. The motley group embarks on a journey that takes them to regions unknown. They face dangers they can only overcome if they set aside their prejudices and work together as one unit.
They had been walking for hours. Bret Grayson worried about his uncle, wondering if he could keep up for much longer. He had been complaining about cramps. Terrex Stonewall was the oldest in their group. At least he didn’t have to worry about his other two companions, Pilsner and Lee.
“Leave me behind, Bret. I can’t walk anymore. The cramps in my leg are more frequent and getting worse. Get yourself to safety. I’ll dig in here.” Stonewall stood bent over, gasping for breath. “I’m getting too old for this.”
Grayson grabbed his arm. “Nobody stays behind,” he rasped.
“I’ll be okay.” Stonewall chuckled. “I’ve survived worse situations than this one. I can hang on for a couple of days. You can pick me up with the Slider.”
“I won’t hear of it,” Grayson said with an impatient voice. “We’ve eluded them so far, but we don’t know how close they are.”
He looked at the dark clouds in the alien sky and let the gaze of his eyes rove over the flat grass-covered savannah toward the south. One of the two moons came into view as it slowly rose above the far horizon.
“We have about three hours of daylight left,” he guessed. “We should be able to make it to the forest before darkness falls, even if we slow down our pace. We’ll set up camp in the protection of the trees.”
“What if we don’t make it because of me?” Stonewall insisted. “I’m only slowing you down.”
“Don’t even think about that, Uncle,” Grayson said sharply. “You’re the one who taught me never to give up, remember? So, please, don’t give up on me now. I’m not leaving you here, no matter what. We’ll make it. All of us.”
“I don’t know why I let them talk me into coming to this forsaken dust ball.” Stonewall removed his wide-brimmed hat and wiped the sleeve of his Scout’s uniform across his forehead, painting it with rusty streaks of wet dust. “This damn heat is killing me.” Reaching for the water bottle dangling from his belt, he unclipped it and took a sparse sip. “Even the water is warm,” he complained after clipping it back onto his belt.
Grayson shifted his rifle from his left shoulder to his right, at the same time adjusting his backpack. “Look at the bright side, Uncle Terrex. Our contract is only for one year. I for one am not sorry we came.” He smiled. “After all, what better way is there to learn from the legendary Master Scout Terrex Stonewall than being with him on a hostile planet?”
Stonewall chuckled humorlessly. “You know, the bastards at Salamander Mining Ventures lied when they described the situation here. Salamander Town was supposed to be located in a peaceful part of this planet. Nobody mentioned hostile natives.”
“The Newt aren’t supposed to be in this area,” Ned Pilsner added. “The only ones around here are the Naard. You never know where they are because they’re nomads. The Newtare swamp dwellers and live much farther south deep in the swamps.”
“So what are they doing here in the Drylands?” Stonewall asked.
Pilsner shrugged. “Beats me. There must be something that brought them here.” He squinted at the alien sun, still a blazing ball in the Western Sky, even though it had nearly reached the tops of the ragged mountain ridge. “It isn’t that far to the river anymore. Once we reach the river, we should be able to shake our pursuers. Hopefully, the boat we hid among the tall bamboo-like plants is still there.”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” Grayson eyed the Trooper with curiosity.
“No reason. I’m just saying.”
Grayson shook his head. “Let’s not get paranoid now.” He turned to his uncle. “Are you ready to continue?”
Stonewall nodded. “Let’s go.” He gave a strained laugh. “Next time we’ll take one of the Sliders to travel across this bleak landscape. I can teach you all about survival even on a Slider. It’ll be faster and safer.”
“That would be okay with me, but won’t that defeat the purpose of this exercise?” Grayson asked. “The problem with taking a Slider is that you miss all the treasures this land has to offer. We would have never found those emerald deposits.”
“Yes, those emeralds,” Stonewall said, smiling. “We should get some kind of bonus for that. Searching for treasures wasn’t part of this trip.”
“No, it wasn’t, but at least we have something to show for our troubles, since we didn’t even find a trace of the Naard.”
“Company,” Pilsner said hoarsely and brought up his weapon.
Grayson whirled around, lifting his own rifle at the same time. From the corner of his eye he saw the white flash of lightning explode from Pilsner’s laser and heard the harsh scream of displaced air. A slim shadowy figure disappeared behind one of the huge boulders strewn across the landscape. He thought he saw a second shadow behind another boulder, but then it was gone. He wasn’t quite sure if he had actually seen something.
“Devil’s Comet!” Pilsner cursed. “They move too damn fast. Cover me.” He held his rifle in front of him, ready to shoot, and walked toward the boulder.
Grayson watched him with apprehension, his nerves tight like the strings on a violin. He had his laser up, aimed at the boulder, and ready to fire at anything that moved.
Pilsner approached the giant rock with obvious caution and walked around it. Lowering his weapon, he shrugged. After looking around for a moment, he came back to the group.
“They’re like magicians,” he growled. “They just disappear.”
“I never saw anything,” said Robert Lee, peering into the shimmering air. “Perhaps it was just an illusion. People get those if they’ve wandered through the hot desert for a long time.”
“No illusion. I know what I saw.”
Stonewall cleared his throat and spit into the dry dust. “This planet sure isn’t anything like Epsilon. That planet was nothing but deep jungle, even though there were quite a few deserts there. We didn’t have hostile natives chasing us.”
“A peaceful planet, except for the dinosaurs roaming those jungles and the flying dragons attacking you from the air,” Grayson said with a chuckle. “At least we don’t have to worry about them around here.”
“No dinosaurs,” Pilsner said, “but we do have our own nasties—Shaglions and Moonvipers in the savannahs, Devilapes in the forests, and Snowbulls in the mountains. Oh, and let’s not forget the Rhinogators in the swamps. Those are the largest and most dangerous ones that we’ve run across so far, the brutes if you will. There are dozens of tiny critters who can kill you when you least expect it. We haven’t a clue what lives in the oceans and the big lakes.”
“You forgot to mention the natives,” Lee said. Being a rookie Scout, he usually didn’t say much, trying to absorb as much knowledge as he could from Stonewall. At least that was the impression he gave Grayson.
“Right, the natives.” Pilsner touched the left side of his face. A vivid scar ran alongside his jaw to his ear. “On our first encounter with the Newt we lost a man and three of us were wounded. The Newt got away without any casualties. We weren’t prepared. We didn’t expect natives with such ferocity. Even our so-called superior weapons didn’t help us much. How can you hit a target that moves as silently as a ghost, has the ability to blend in so completely, and is as fast as a lizard?”
“Thanks for cheering us up, Pilsner,” Stonewall said dryly. “And here I thought we’d have a peaceful and quiet vacation on this planet. Seems I was mistaken.”
“No vacation, Master Scout.” Pilsner smirked. “Don’t forget, we’re all getting mega credits for being here. You’ll have to earn your keep. You’ll be able to retire comfortably after your contract runs out.”
“What good is money if you don’t live to enjoy it?” Stonewall grumbled.
He touched the button on the remote, activating the magnetic field under the sled that carried most of their supplies. It lifted a few inches into the air and hovered behind Stonewall, waiting for him to start walking.
Grayson walked silently beside Pilsner, while Lee trailed behind the group as the rear guard. Grayson kept scanning their surroundings. The landscape had changed significantly since they left the swamp. Even the thick tall grasses had given way to clusters of thin, brown blades growing from the yellow dry ground. Small dust devils rose as the wind became stronger, and when he looked in the direction of the river, he saw dark clouds moving in from the mountains.
“Looks like rain,” Stonewall remarked behind him.
“I’m afraid there’s a nasty storm brewing in those mountains,” Pilsner said. “I don’t want to be caught out in the open.”
“Do you think the Newt-warriors are still trailing us?” Grayson asked, glancing at Pilsner.
The dark-skinned man nodded. “Ever since we left the tall grasses behind, it became more difficult for them to hide, and they’re keeping their distance, but once we enter the forest it’s a different story. Those beasts they ride can cover the distance from the swamps to the trees in an amazingly short time. Don’t forget we’re on foot and can only walk so fast.”
“So you think they haven’t given up?”
“Probably not, but I can’t say for certain. We don’t know much about them. I can’t even guess why they’re trailing us.” Pilsner stared into the distance. “As I said, we know very little. We know they’re hostile and warlike. Why are they like that?” He shrugged. “We don’t know. They’re primitive and they can throw stones with uncanny accuracy using those slingshots. They’re also skilled with their curved wooden sticks. If they miss their target, those sticks return to their owners, but if they don’t miss you end up with a hole in your skull. Very handy little weapon. Primitive but effective.”
“What do the Newt look like?”
“We haven’t gotten a good look at them, yet, but Dr. Bernard thinks their ancestors were reptiles, because they prefer the swamps to dry land and are definitely reptilian. It’s quite possible they’re not even native to this planet.”
“You mean some reptilian race seeded this planet?”
“That or they are descendants of stranded space travelers.”
“What about the Naard?”
“They are different from the Newt. Not warlike and not aggressive—in fact, they seem to avoid contact with other species. Perhaps that’s why they became nomads. The ancestors of the Naard were definitely not reptiles. Most likely, they were tree dwellers. Their long, muscular arms support that theory. Anyway, that’s what Dr. Bernard believes. One thing is certain, they’re unquestionably mammals.”
“Have humans had contact with them at all?”
“Not much, but, apparently, they have approached the town on at least one occasion. Probably out of curiosity. There are stories that some of the miners have traded artifacts with them.” He threw a glance at Grayson. “I assume that’s why they brought you here, to make contact with the Naard and to study them.”
“That’s what I was told,” Grayson said. “But it seems it may be more difficult than I thought to even find them.”
They walked on in silence, each of them following their own thoughts. Pilsner checked his compass occasionally to make certain they were still walking north.
“Can I ask you something, Pilsner?”
The dark man threw a quick look at Grayson. “Sure. What do you want to know?”
“How did you get that scar on your face?”
Pilsner’s hand went to his face to touch the scar. “Courtesy of the Newt. It happened the second week after our team arrived here. I got hit with one of those sharp stones they use as missiles, and I call myself lucky. Trooper Rik Lamonte wasn’t so lucky. He died with a hole in his forehead.” He stopped talking for a moment as he obviously recalled the skirmish with the natives. “We were good friends,” he said in a low voice.
Grayson didn’t know what to say. He had never been good at expressing his sorrow and he searched for the right words, but before he could comment, Pilsner spoke.
“In our profession it’s best not to get too attached to somebody. It’s less painful.”
“Also much more lonely,” Grayson added.
The wind had been picking up speed while they talked. Grayson coughed as a sudden gust of wind whirled up small clouds of dust in front of them.
“The weather is turning ugly,” he said. Straining his eyes, he thought he saw trees ahead, but he also noticed that the clouds were much closer and darker now. Lightning flashed through those dark clouds and the rolling thunder increased in intensity.
Another few minutes of walking revealed those were indeed trees he had seen. It wasn’t a large forest, but there were enough trees there to provide them with protection.
“I suggest we camp here,” Pilsner said. “I miscalculated the time. We’ll never make it across the river and to the forest before dark. We may even get caught by this storm while we’re on the river.”
“I agree,” Stonewall added. “The storm is moving in fast.”
He was right. When Grayson looked at the treetops he saw them bending toward south and he could hear the roaring of the wind. He knew this was going to be a bad one. The first drops of rain were beginning to fall. They left dimples in the dry dust of the ground at first, but then they began to form small dark spots in the yellow dirt that grew larger as the drops changed into rain. This happened quickly, and he knew they didn’t have much time to erect their tent.
They reached the relative safety of the trees within minutes. It wouldn’t take long before the rain penetrated the umbrella of branches and leaves above them, but it gave them extra time.
It took them less than ten minutes to set up the tent. Using ropes, they secured it to nearby trees and then entered their shelter. Before Pilsner followed the others, he sent up a couple of spy-eyes to warn them of possible intruders.
The thin walls of the tent were not soundproof, but they offered protection against wind and pouring rain. The four men lay on their blankets, listening to the pounding of the water and the howling of the wind that was drowned out by constant thunder.
“We’re lucky we found this grove of trees,” Pilsner said. “I wouldn’t want to be without their protection now. This is a bad storm.” A deafening thunderclap underlined his words.
“It seems to be right above us,” Stonewall said. “I think we’ll be stuck here for a while.”
“Aren’t you glad we didn’t leave you behind, Uncle Terrex?” Grayson asked, smiling.
“Of course I am.” Stonewall chuckled. “Actually, when I suggested you go on without me I was only testing you. It was part of the drill.”
“Testing us? To what purpose?”
“To see how you would respond. Would you leave a member of your team behind to save yourself or would you decide not to split up and protect a weak member, even if it threatened you own survival?”
“How would you have reacted had we actually decided to leave you behind?” Grayson asked, curious to hear the answer.