"This one doesn't look much different from the others," Tarp said as she stepped over a collapsed rock wall that once formed a small hut. Her boot heel caught on a small branch blown against the rocks and she put her hand out to stop her fall.
"Except for the map rooms being a different shape," Terri reached out to help steady the captain. "They do appear to be basically the same. You alright?"
"Yes," Tarp nodded as she regained her footing. "They must have made the map rooms unique so they could differentiate one village from another. Found this under the debris," she handed a palm-size piece of metal to the sergeant. "Looks like the same kind of writing as the other one we found. Can you read it?"
Terri's brow crinkled as she read the Islander words scratched into the metal. "It says that Mo-Tah would be asked to guide them in a choice they had to make."
"Does it say what choice?"
"No. It might have but the metal is broken off in the middle of the writing. Maybe the other part is buried under all that," she pointed at the debris piled inside the remains of the rock wall.
"I looked for more when I found that," Tarp sat down on the wall. "Sorry, hon, but I think that's all that survived."
Terri sighed, "too bad. Maybe if we knew what they were asking Mo-Tah we'd know what kept them from coming home."
"Can't you ask her?" Tarp brushed an adjoining stone free of rotting leaves and dirt, offering a clear spot for Terri to sit.
"I'm afraid it doesn't work quite that way," Terri said as she accepting Tarp's offer. She pulled the captain's hand into her own, doing her best to rid it of the dirt from the stone. "Wish it did."
"There has to be some reason they stayed," Tarp shook her head as she looked around the small cluster of collapsed huts.
Since identifying the map room in the village at the top of the wind-blown ridge, the women had followed the trails to the other villages. At each location the ruins of a handful of huts huddled around a map room, these having survived the years in remarkable good condition compared to the other structures. And the women had grown used to the feelings of a presence in the unusual buildings.
"I just feel like we're missing something," Terri studied the piece of metal Tarp had found.
"You mean in the villages?" Tarp asked, scanning their surroundings again. "Unless it's buried, I don't know what there could be," she said as she surveyed the barren slope the village rested on. "It's just like the others. They're either on the top of a ridge, in the bottom of an arid canyon or on a bare slope like this one. You'd think they could have found better places to live."
"That's just it, Midge. Why didn't they?"
"Good question," Tarp sighed. "Come on," she stood, pulling Terri to her feet using the hand the Islander still held. "We should be able to find the last village before nightfall. Maybe we'll get lucky there."
Terri allowed herself to be pulled off her stony perch. She started to put the piece of metal in her shirt pocket then stopped when a thought flashed through her mind. "Honey, does this metal remind you of anything?"
"Like what?" Tarp asked as she looked at the object Terri held.
"I don't know. It just seems like I've seen or felt something like it before."
"On your Islands?"
"No, we have very little metal there. Almost all of our dwellings and tools are made from the materials Mo-Tah provides."
"Hmm," Tarp thought, "then it must be something you've seen here on the Mainland. Like the tasar?"
"No, the tasar is built with a metal much lighter than this. And stronger," Terri emphasized her point by bending a corner of the metal piece.
"You're right. You could never do that with the metal the Confederacy uses. Maybe something you saw when you were in training or at Beta II," Tarp offered.
"No, I don't think so," Terri frowned, trying to draw the thought out of the deep recess it was nestled in. "No point wasting time thinking about it now," she said as she carefully tucked the metal piece into her pocket. "Maybe I'll remember something on the way to the next village."
"Maybe," Tarp smiled.
Hand-in-hand, the women walked back to the tasar.
Lieutenant Hovart stepped out of the troop transport as soon as the large craft set down on its resting pad at Command. He was halfway to the general's office before most of the soldiers inside the transport had removed their safety harnesses.
"Good to see you back, Lieutenant," the colonel greeted the returning soldier. "I take it that your mission was a success?" To keep the Alliance from learning of the lieutenant's operation and its subsequent success or failure, radio silence had been ordered until the transports were safely back to Command.
"Yes, sir," Hovart saluted the officer. "Over seven hundred freed from Beta III. Captain Midd was sure right about the effect freeing the camps will have on our chances. Any word on her and the sergeant?"
"No. A few pings reported by the probes but when we sent tasars to investigate, they found nothing. That woman is damn good at hiding."
"Bet the general is pulling his hair out."
"What's left of it," the colonel grinned. "Word to the wise, Lieutenant. I wouldn't mention Captain Midd or Sergeant Arhina to him if I were you."
"No, sir," Hovart nodded as the colonel turned to enter the Command building. "Thought never crossed my mind."
"Good. Come on, the General's waiting for your briefing."
"There it is," Midd said as she spotted the familiar layout of structures on one of the tasar's displays. "Let me find a spot to set down."
"It'll be dark soon, Midge," Terri looked at what she could see of the sky from her place behind the captain. "Maybe we should look for some place safe to spend the night."
"Well," Tarp held the tasar in a hovering position while she slowly rotated the craft in a full circle. "We several hundred clicks from the nearest forest," she said as she studied the area around the village. They were near the coast and this village was located in the sand dunes that separated the sea from the open plains of the Mainland. "Not too much around here to attract the attention of either the Alliance or the Confederacy. So this is probably just as safe as any other place we might find."
"But won't we be out in the open?" Terri asked as she looked at a display screen in front of her. She could see that there was nothing but sand dunes for several clicks and they had little if any vegetation to provide the women and the tasar cover.
"We'll have the camouflage shield," Tarp said as she guided the tasar to a depression at the edge of the ancient village. "And these dunes should block the tasar from scans of any Alliance cruisers that might be about. Of course, once the sun goes down, they won't be around much longer. And I just can't think of any reason the Confederacy would have any probes in this area, it's too far from any of our bases."
"There is the matter of them still looking for us," Terri reminded the captain.
"Hmm," Tarp frowned as the tasar came to rest on the soft sand. Instead of shutting off the tasar's power, she twisted in her seat in order to look at Terri. "If you don't want to chance it, we can go look for someplace safer. But I really don't think we are in any more danger here than we would be someplace else. Besides, if we don't stay here, we'll have to wait until tomorrow to check out this village," she smirked, knowing the sergeant was just as anxious as she was to see if they could uncover any answers into the mystery of the villages.
"That's not fair and you know it," Terri pursed her lips together as she glared at the smirking captain. "You know how much I want to get out there."
"And?" Tarp grinned.
"Alright," Terri slapped playfully at Tarp, who ducked behind her seat to avoid being struck. "Let's go see what we can find."
"Goodie," Tarp laughed, twisting back around in her seat so she could shut off the tasar's power and open the cockpit cover.
"Besides," Terri said as she stood, stretching to relax the kinks in her body from sitting in the cramped tasar. "It might be nice to sleep on soft sand instead of the hard ground for one night."
"Seems you spend the nights sleeping on me while I sleep on the hard ground," Tarp grumbled, stepping out onto the wing.
"I was thinking of you, sweetheart,' Terri giggled.
"Come here, woman," Tarp growled. She wrapped an arm around Terri and lifted her out of the cockpit to set her down on the wing beside her. Without releasing her grip, she pulled Terri close, pressing her lips against the Islander's.
Terri's hands slipped around the captain's body, one making its way up Tarp's back to bury itself in her hair and increase the pressure of their kiss. Her other hand slid down Tarp's back into her pants and over the rounded globes of her backside, her fingers digging into the soft skin as they explored.
"Stop," Tarp moaned, "please."
"You started it," Terri smiled when the captain pulled back just enough to breathe.
"I know," Tarp groaned, letting her head fall forward to rest on the sergeant's shoulder. "And I'm real sorry I did."
"You are?" Terri exclaimed, her tone mocking.
"Yes," Tarp tilted her head so she could kiss the neck beside her face. "And you don't fool me," she took a gentle nip at the delicate skin. "You know what I'm talking about. Now get your hand off my butt," she growled.
"I thought you liked my hand there," Terri laughed but she withdrew her hand from the captain's pants, placing it on her back and hugging her.
"I do," Tarp returned the hug, ending it with a quick kiss before she pushed away from Terri.
"What is with you and the wings of the tasar?" Terri asked as she watched Tarp pull her rifle and the remote out of the cockpit.
"What do you mean?" Tarp asked, moving to the wing's edge.
"Seems every time we're on one of them, you start something you can't finish."
"Oh, I can finish it," Tarp boasted, stepping off the wing to land in the soft sand. Setting off in the direction of the village, it took her a few steps to adjust to walking on the less than firm surface. "Just want to wait for the right time," she called back over her shoulder to the sergeant still standing on the wing.
"Well," Terri muttered as she dropped off the wing to follow the captain. "You do that many more times and you won't get to wait for the right time."
"Did you say something, honey?"
"No," Terri smiled innocently when Tarp stopped to look back at her in question. "Nothing at all," she said as she pushed through the loose granules to catch up with her waiting, equally frustrated lover.
"This is just too weird," Tarp was lying on a blanket spread out under the tasar's wing. She was stretched out on her back, her head resting on the entwined fingers of her hands.
After spending the time before sunset to explore the village, the women had returned to the tasar to set up camp in the waning light and eat a quick meal from the rations the tasar carried. Now with nothing to do but wait for sleep to claim one of them, the women were trying to unravel the mystery of the villages.
"First, why here? Again, it's just like the other villages, smack in the middle of the most inhabitable place around. Second, why go to all the trouble of lugging those stones here to build their huts when it would have been a lot easier to build wherever they found them? Third, what did they do for food? And fourth," she inhaled deeply then blew out a long breath before continuing. "Fourth, I just don't get it. Why?"
Terri was sitting cross-legged beside Tarp, leaning back on her arms propped behind her. "I'm more puzzled by the lack of a map room in this village. Every other village had one. And they seemed to be very important to them."
"Maybe we just missed it,' Tarp offered. "It did get dark before we could really check things out."
"Terri, how far from here are your Islands?"
"Umm," Terri gave the question some thought before answering. "Well to be honest, I'm not sure. I don't know enough about the Mainland to know where we are in relation to my home."
"Guess that makes sense," Tarp frowned, thinking the question had been silly to ask of the woman who had only been away from her home Islands once. And she'd spent most of her time on the Mainland in a prison camp. "Sorry, hon," Tarp smiled apologetically, "stupid question."
"It's okay," Terri smiled back, "I'm getting used to them."
"Funny," Tarp grinned, shaking her head.
"Why did you want to know?" Terri asked after a few moments of laughter.
"I don't really know. I just thought maybe they might have built here because they thought they could signal the Islands. You know, sort of like ‘Hey, we're stuck over here without a way to get home. Come get us' sort of thing."
"Oh. But if that was the reason for building here, then why build the other villages."
Terri sat up, brushing her hands free of sand before she picked up the two pieces of metal that she had placed on the blanket earlier.
"Still think there's something familiar about those?' Tarp asked, watching the Islander examine the objects.
"Yes," Terri frowned. "Worse, I know that if I could only figure it out," she turned the larger of the two pieces over in the hand and began to examine the back of it, "we'd have the beginning of our answer."
"Come here," Tarp whispered, slipping a hand out from under her head and holding her arm in invitation for Terri to lie down beside her. Once the sergeant was snuggled against her, she wrapped her arm around her. "What to take first watch?" she asked, yawning. "Looks like you're going to be awake awhile."
"I think you're right," Terri agreed. She turned her head towards Tarp, "sleep well, love."
"Don't wait too long to wake me," Tarp rolled her head to place a tender kiss on Terri's lips. "You need your rest too," she breathed as their lips parted. "I love you."
"I think we may have them, sir," the colonel stood in front of the general's desk.
"Here," the colonel pointed to a map spread out between the men. "A probe picked up a weak tasar identification signal last night. It was camouflaged but it seems the sand dunes were causing the shield to bounce erratically…"
"I don't care how it happened," the general barked. "Are you sure it's them?"
"No, sir. Like I said the signal was weak and broken up. But the part of it we were able to intercept matched their tasar code."
"So what are you doing about it?" the general's eyes narrowed to slits as he snarled at his subordinate.
"Two tasars are on their way to the location. They should be there by mid-day."
"Mid-day?" the general bellowed. "By then she could be long gone. Why did you wait so long to send them?"
"I sent them as soon as we identified the signal, sir," the colonel stiffened against the general's wrath. "But that beach is on the other side of the Mainland, sir, and the tasars are flying at max speed."
"What about outposts in that area? Did you think of sending someone from one of those?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but we have no longer have any outposts near there," the colonel explained. "You ordered them closed to consolidate our resources on this side of the Mainland, sir. Command is the closest…"
"Whatever," the general waved off any further comments the colonel might have. "Just let me know when the tasars have located them."
"Yes, sir," the colonel nodded then rushed out of the office not wanting to give the general any time to reconsider.
By the time the sun climbed high enough to chase away the night's shadows Tarp and Terri were already at the site of the ruins.
"Okay, let's figure this out," Terri was standing beside what was left of a stone wall. "In the other villages, the map room was always located to the southwest of the other huts and about thirty steps away from the closest one."
"Which would place it somewhere over there," Tarp motioned with her hand towards a small sand dune. "You don't think it could be buried under that dune, do you?"
"It's a possibility. Can you scan the dune to see if anything is under it or do we start digging?" Terri asked. Something deep inside her was telling her that they had to find the map room of this village. They had already discovered that the blowing sand had protected this village better than the more exposed positions of the others. Many of the huts walls were still sound but buried almost completely by the sand, the only reason the women were prevented from inspecting the intact structures.
"Hmm," Tarp punched a series buttons on the remote and waited. "Nope, let's try again," she muttered as she pressed a different series while walking a few steps closer to the dune. "Maybe," she walked a few steps closer, keeping her eyes on the remote's display screen. "Think we may be right," she said as a ghostly shape appeared on the screen, "seems there is something solid under that dune."
"Can you tell how far we'll have to dig to find it?" Terri said as she followed the captain.
"Let me see if I can get a better reading," Tarp adjusted a few dials then frowned. "Best I can tell we just start digging. There should be shovel in the emergency supplies on the tasar. And we probably can adapt something else to help dig with."
"Okay," Terri started to walk for the tasar. "We need water anyway. And it probably wouldn't hurt to eat something before we start."
The distinctive sound of metal striking stone stopped the actions of both women.
Terri froze, the shovel half buried under sand, looking down at her boots.
Tarp dropped the makeshift shovel she had crafted by flattening an empty ration box. Standing, she brushed sand off her pants as she stepped closer to Terri. "Shall we see what it is?" she asked, dropping back onto the sand and swiping away sand with her hands.
Terri dropped to her knees beside Tarp, adding her hands to the work of unveiling what lay beneath the dune.
Slowly, as the sand was pushed away, stones were revealed to the light of day for the first time in what must have been many lifetimes. The women pushed away more sand to reveal enough of a stone wall to know they had found the missing map room. As Tarp worked to uncover more of the wall, Terri cleared sand from what was apparently the intact roof of the structure.
"Wait," Tarp said as Terri moved further out on the roof. "I don't think we should chance collapsing the roof and burying the room in sand."
Terri nodded, inching her way back to the side of the structure. "So what are you suggesting?" she asked as she sat on the top of the wall.
"Let's figure out where the door should be and try to clear that so we can get inside."
"Well," Terri said as she twisted to look to her left and then her right, "the door was always on the west end of the other map rooms. So that should put it over there," she pointed back to her right.
"Let's just unbury the top of this wall until we get to the end," Tarp said as she began to carry out her own out instructions. "Then we can try to dig out the door."
Adding to the normal warm temperature of the day, the surrounding sand was soaking up the sun's heat and reflecting it back at the women.
"Glad we got most of this done before now," Terri lifted the canteen to her mouth and took several gulps. Digging out the end of the map room had taken most of the morning and both women were drenched in sweat as they finished removing enough of the dune to allow them access through the entry.
"You can say that again," Tarp gladly accepted the canteen handed to her.
"What do you think we'll find inside?" Terri asked as she peered past the sand pile into the dark interior of the room.
"Only one way to find out," Tarp dropped the canteen into the shadows at the base of the rock wall. "Ready?"
"I guess so," Terri nodded.
It took a few moments for the women to scrabble over the sand still piled at the base of the opening. When they slid down into the room, they were relieved to find themselves in a dark emptiness instead of more sand.
"So far, so good," Tarp said, pulling a crystal lamp stick from her pocket and pressing it on as she held it out in front of her.
"Looks like the others," Terri commented as she saw the map covering the wall that the solid bench encircling the room at the wall's base.
"Yeah," Tarp agreed. "Pretty much the same layout," she walked further inside. "Ceiling looks solid," she was holding the lamp stick as high as she could reach, looking for any cracks or breaks that might warn them of possible danger.
"Midge, can you bring that light over here?"
"Sure," Tarp pulled her arm down and turned to walk to where the sergeant was standing next to the bench. "What's wrong?"
"It looks like a section of the bench is out of place."
"That's strange," Tarp said as she bent over what appeared to be a portion of the bench top several finger widths off center. Tarp remembered that in all the other map rooms the bench had seemed to be a solid contour but this one appeared to be hollow. "Let's see if we can lift it, maybe there's something under here."
Tarp laid the lamp stick on an adjacent undisturbed section of bench so she would have both hands free to grasp the loose segment. With Terri standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her, the women took a firm hold preparing for the effort it would take to move the section. Bracing with their legs, the women pulled. To their shock the seemingly solid piece of stone flew off the bench. Unprepared for the lightness of the section, they could not stop it from flying out of their hands and crashing against the wall only to drop back where it had originally rested.
"Well, that was fun," Terri smirked when the surprise wore off.
"Glad you thought so," Tarp reached down, lifting the section free. "I was so prepared for this thing to be heavy," she turned to drop the piece out of their way, "I think I wrenched a few muscles."
"I'll give you a back rub later," Terri chuckled as she picked up the lamp stick. "Oh, Mo-Tah," she gasped as she peered into the exposed cavity.
"What is it?" Tarp rushed to the sergeant's side when she heard her cry out. Looking down, the captain found herself staring into the sightless eyes of a corpse. "What the heck?" she exclaimed.
Terri dropped onto her knees and began to chant.
Unsure what to do, Tarp stood quietly beside her. Unable to draw her eyes away from the body, she began to study it. It was in remarkably good condition considering how long ago it must have been buried. The man was dressed in a pair of simple fiber pants and matching shirt, both showing the signs of repeated mending to repair tears and worn spots. The boots covering his feet were in the same condition, the soles almost worn completely through. In direct opposition to his ragged and dirty clothing, his face was clean shaven and he appeared to have been bathed before his burial. Tarp noticed a small wooden box tucked under the man's arm and stooped down to retrieve it.
"He is an Islander," Terri said softly when she finished her prayer.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," Tarp set the box on the bench so she could wrap her arms around her lover. "That must have been a shock."
"Mo-Tah has been watching over him."
"Are there more buried here?" Tarp asked, her eyes sweeping around the room and the bench that encircled it. No wonder they always felt a presence in the map rooms. "Terri, these are burial chambers, aren't they?"
"Whoo," Tarp blew out a breath. "That explains why we never found any graves in the villages. Well, I guess we did," she thought of the other map rooms. "But we didn't know they were buried there. Well, you know what I mean."
"Yes, honey. I know," Terri smiled sadly. "What did you take from him?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Tarp stammered, feeling foolish for removing the man's belongings without thinking. "I'll put it back."
"It's alright," Terri stopped the captain from returning the box. "He must have wanted us to find it."
"How do you know that?" Tarp asked, puzzled.
"We are not buried with objects," Terri explained as she sat on the bench beside the small wooden box, "unless it is of importance to those who might disturb our rest."
Terri lifted the lid of the box, inside were several pieces of metal like the two they had found in the villages. On the top of all the others was a larger piece and she carefully lifted it out. She began to read the writing covering one side of the object.
"He was the last to die," Terri told Tarp. "His name was Jakuba and he came to the Mainland in the next to last group of explorers. Each piece of metal in the box tells the story of one of the explorers. He traveled to each village and collected them and kept them in this box. It was his way of making sure their stories did not die with them."
Tarp sat beside Terri, listening without comment. There really wasn't much she could say.
"He says that he asked Mo-Tah to send one of his kind to find him and asks that they take him and the others back to the Islands so they can rejoin their families," Terri's voice caught as she spoke the last words. "He says it was the dream of all of them to return to their beloved Islands one day. They waited for the intruders to leave Organi so they could return but they ran out of time."
"Intruders?" Tarp stared at Terri. "What intruders?"
"He doesn't say."
"I thought you said that there were no others when your people came to Organi."
"That is what the history talkers have always said. We were alone on Organi and that is why the explorers were allowed to travel to the Mainland."
"If there were intruders, as he called them, how could their presence prevent them from returning to the Islands?"
Terri idly reached into the box and removed another piece of metal. When she raised it into the light, she noticed several scratches on the backside of it. A memory flashed across her mind. "Midge," she asked, rubbing her thumb over the metal piece in her hand. "Do you remember when we found that Alliance processor machine?"
"Ah, uh," Tarp nodded, wondering why the sergeant was asking.
"And how you tried to cut a hole into it when we were looking for its control panel?"
"Remember the scratch marks you made on its metal skin?"
"Honey, what are you getting to?"
"Look at the scratch marks on this," Terri handed the small piece of metal to the captain.
Tarp examined the piece, trying to ignore the thoughts screaming through her head. "It's from an Alliance processor," she sighed. "That's why they couldn't go home. There weren't allowed to."
"Why? Even if the Alliance was here, why couldn't they return to the Islands?"
"Because," Tarp flipped the metal piece back into the box. "Galaxy law says the Alliance can't harvest any inhabited planet without the permission of the inhabitants. If the Islanders were the only inhabitants then the Alliance was here without permission, in strict violation of the law. If the explorers had returned to the Islands, the Alliance would have had to leave Organi and hope their activities didn't get reported to the Galaxy council. Or they would have had to coerce the Islanders into accepting them on Organi. Either way would have been a risk to them. So my guess is that the Alliance must have given the explorers a choice, stay on the Mainland and they would leave the Islands alone. Or return to the Islands and the Alliance would destroy them."
"That was the decision they asking Mo-Tah to guide them through," Terri whispered, her heart so heavy with despair over the fate of her ancestors that it was almost impossible for her to breathe.
"That would be my guess. It also explains why the villages were located where they were. The Alliance probably forced them to live only where they would not be in the way of the harvesting."
The room fell quiet as the women leaned against one another, each lost in their own thoughts. After some time, Terri broke the silence.
"I don't understand, Midge. If the Alliance was harvesting the Mainland so long ago, why did your brother and those with him not know this when they came to Organi? Why did you not know?"
"I'm not sure," Tarp rubbed the back of her head where a throbbing was starting to build. It was a good question. When Organi was chosen as a relocation planet during the exodus from her home planet of Retha, no reports of Alliance activity, past or present, had been made. This was odd considering the information they had just uncovered. "I know that they were not on Organi when I arrived with the second wave of settlers. So maybe the Alliance had already left before Mica and the others settled here." But did that really make sense, Tarp thought. She had never heard of the Alliance leaving a planet before it had been stripped of any and all resources. "At least, I don't think they were," she muttered. But then how would she have known? Until the war broke out, she had never left the small valley where her settlement was located. The Alliance processors could have been harvesting in the next valley and she would not have been aware of it. "I need to talk to Mica."
"I must return home," Terri said, interrupting the captain's thoughts. "I must tell them the explorers have been found."
Before Tarp could answer the warning alarm on the remote began to blare. "Tasars," she said, reading the display screen. "Moving fast and straight for us."
"I must return home," Terri reached for the captain, her hand grasped tightly around Tarp's arm. "I must."
"I know," Tarp nodded. "Let's go."
The women bolted for the doorway, Terri carefully cradling the wooden box under her arm.
Continued in Part 9
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