Kim turned and blew Duke a little kiss, just before she disappeared into the shadow of the valley. They soon reached a speed which she knew none of the other horses would catch. She glanced back and saw that Newt and Red were about four horse lengths behind her. Duke and the others were fading out of view quickly as they slowed their pace considerably to climb the narrow high trail out of the valley.
Duke, thank you. Kim thought at him as if he could hear her telepathically. But this time it's me that's going to save your ass! She gripped the staff tightly between her hands and the reigns, and let her body naturally keep with the rhythm of her powerful horse's strides. The hills and ridges on the right side of the valley were higher than on the left, and the valley remained in shadow. Kim hoped the sun would really drive the Shenthrai off like they thought. Would the effects be instantaneous? How much light was enough? Even now, a thin red-pink line of light was starting to eat its way over the mountain ridge in the distance to her right, but the deadly low whispers were more pronounced than ever, and the swirling vortex of darkness above them had only increased in intensity.
Kim stopped worrying about such questions when suddenly they were all around her. Four of them came bursting forth into the twilight like flak shells from the world wars. They were dressed just as Luna had shown them, all Ninja-like and fearsome-looking, especially with their pale-grey faces and pupil-less eyes. And they were fast! Two appeared at ground level and immediately gave chase, bounding along the ground in great strides. She breezed right by those two even as the others manifested in the air above her and glided down like swooping vultures. She had Cheesecake maneuver in a slow S-turn to keep out from underneath these.
Kim could hardly believe it when a ground attacker caught up to her and leapt at her, shouting, "Orani Spec!" with a hatred that penetrated into her mind and made her shiver. It had something black, sharp, and deadly in each of its long-fingered hands.
She pointed the staff at it and focused her will. It was just like when Duke was teaching her, as if she were cutting through someone with a sword, as if she could visualize the end result even before it happened. A small crackling sphere of energy shot out from the key and hit the assailant full in the chest. It wailed like a banshee and disappeared in another puff of black smoke. Yet there was no time to congratulate herself.
Fast as the Shenthrai were, Kim and her two protectors began to pull away. But then the occasional flack burst grew into a barrage as more Shenthrai began to appear . . . and more. There was a burst right in front of her, and Kim wove around it. Something sharp with an obsidian shine flew past her ear. She ducked closer to Cheesecake. Kim guided Cake left around a boulder, then right across a small stream that had begun to flow in this part of the valley, and then jumped an outcropping of low rocks. She heard gunfire behind her. Three obsidian throwing daggers struck the ground directly in front of Cake in a perfectly spaced line, and the startled horse tugged at her reigns. Other horses might have panicked at that point, but Cake kept her composure as Kim guided her in a sharp right turn.
"Easy, Cake!" Kim tried to soothe as she kept her head low.
Kim turned and fired two more bursts from the staff behind her, hitting nothing but driving three of the nasty creatures off of Newt and Red. The valley narrowed into a short canyon ahead with overhanging walls that perhaps at some time in the ancient past had formed a full tunnel. The stream Kim had been guiding Cake back and forth across began to widen and deepen. Cakes' hooves splashed through it again as Kim cut back across to avoid two more Shenthrai appearing in flak bursts. Dimly, Kim realized it was the same Shenthrai disappearing and appearing over and over again. Even though they were very fast and agile, the Shenthrai didn't seem fast enough to keep up with the horses at full gallop, but they didn't need to by pulling that trick.
There were somewhere between six and ten of them, and they began throwing daggers that sliced through the air as soon as they appeared. Kim rolled her body to the left and right, dodging the daggers that she could see. She rolled onto Cheesecake's left side and hung there, using the strength of her legs to hold herself to the side of the galloping horse, she fired twice more and managed to hit another Shenthrai, who wailed and vanished.
The dark vortex above them began to descend, and as Kim reached the small, short canyon, it completely blocked all light from view. The darkness swirled around them now, and Cheesecake slowed and began to whinny in confusion. The great mare slowed to a trot as she began to struggle against Kim. Cake desperately wanted to turn around and bolt in the other direction, but Kim urged her forward. She held the staff high, and it lit the way in front of her, but it did not penetrate the swirling darkness more than a few feet. It had gone strangely silent, and Kim expected the Shenthrai should have come bounding in for the kill by now.
"That's it, Cake." Kim soothed. "Just follow the water, come on!" Kim made a clicking sound at the back of her throat. "Come on! A little faster now, girl. We're in a bad spot."
Kim kept herself tucked close to her horse's body. She could hear Newt and Red approaching behind her, they called to each other and to her, trying to figure out what was going on. She heard them taking into their short-range radios.
"Sergeant Riker, do you read us?" Newt was saying. "Lost Boy lead, come in! Lost Boy two! Corporal Brodrick, do you copy?"
After a short pause to listen for a reply, Newt commented, "I think we've lost comm., Red."
She allowed Cake to turn around, and head toward the sound of the men but kept her at a slow walk. Now she had to protect her escorts. The deep whispers began again.
"Over here!" Kim called. "Follow the water! Look for the light!"
"Our lights aren't working!" Red shouted back. Kim realized the man must have not heard her right over the voices that had begun to boom forth from the darkness around them.
"Orani spec!" they snarled. "Kantosh, Kantosh, Kantosh, rigoontai yon! Orani Spec!"
"No!" said Kim as calmly and clearly as she could manage. "Look for my light."
"We can't see anything!" said Newt. "Even our night vision is just solid dark green."
Kim saw white, glowing eyes cut through the darkness, and fired the staff. A Shenthrai screeched and the eyes disappeared, but more eyes began to appear and creep slowly through the darkness, like nocturnal predators ready to pounce. They were all around now. So they had come in slowly, surrounding and studying us, Kim realized. She calculated she had only three shots left with the key-staff, and then it was lights out.
Slowly, she persuaded Cake up to a slow trot.
"We saw that!" Newt called. "Let's get out of here! We need to move—"
Newt's voice was cut short by a sharp cry and the terrified whinny of a horse.
"Newt!" Red called. "Newt! Are you alright!"
"Red, be quiet!" Kim said sharply. "Just head toward my voice."
She found Red in a few moments. He looked stricken and confused for a man who had probably seen a lot of scary things in his time. Kim put a finger to her lips indicating they should be quiet. She wasn't even sure if it would matter. Kim turned her horse around, keeping them both covered with the staff.
"Giiiiive. Giiiive us spec," said a low grumbling voice.
"Spec?" Kim asked.
Whispers chattered together as if in conference.
"The source. Giiiive usss source. Youuuuu. Youuuuu may . . . liiiiiive."
"Source? The key, right?" Kim asked, waving the staff. "No way! Leave us alone!"
"Hey, wait!" said Red. "Do that again. I could see them with the NV goggles."
"Do what?" asked Kim in a sharp whisper.
"Wave the stick around."
Kim felt her brow furrow.
"No, not wave," she mused.
She placed the glowing pyramid end of the staff next to his head.
"Yeah, that's it!" he said in an excited whisper. "I can see them. Six of them, three in front, three behind. And, and . . . oh, Newt."
"What is it?" demanded Kim.
Red swallowed. "You don't wanna know."
"Lassst…Last time, huuuumaan. Want, liiiiive, yeeessssss?"
Kim suddenly had an idea.
"Do you have any flash bangs, left?"
"Just one," nodded Red.
"It'll be enough," said Kim. "Get ready. When I tell you, throw it. Cover your eyes, and follow my lead."
Hicks was doing a good job pacing everyone, Duke had to admit. Kim was a good teacher, it seemed. The man looked like he'd been riding all his life, a far cry from the awkward and terrified rider he was when they had first set out from Dallas. It allowed Duke and Riker to track Kim's movements through the canyon, though it was still difficult from up here on the plateau.
"I've lost them," said Riker.
Duke had too. He'd been looking ahead, trying to keep pace with Hicks and his mount. It was the third time he'd lost sight of her, and Duke wanted to throw up each time that happened. Kim led her escorts through sharp turns and often used the natural cover the valley provided to help evade her assailants. That often took them out of view. The trio of riders in the valley below were struggling to stay ahead of their pursuers, but had thus far been successful. Duke could only watch in awe of Kim's riding skills as she led them across, around, and over obstacles while being harried by the enemy. Duke had seen the shadowy figures expertly hurl weapons, probably those throwing knives that they had used last time as they burst into existence, but Kim rolled onto the side of her horse, dodging them while managing to fire the key-staff twice. Duke hadn't thought about her actually using the device properly. It eased his worry somewhat. Duke scanned the valley, searching for some sign of Kim. They were almost at the end of the valley.
Riker pointed ahead, where the exit to the valley lay through a narrow pass.
"I lost them in there," Riker called. "The clouds came down around them!"
More sunlight had crept its way into the sky, and Duke could see the dark swirling clouds clearly now. They blotted out a section of the valley like an ink spill.
"They haven't come out the other side yet," Riker explained.
Five seconds went by as Duke stared at the clouds. Ten seconds. Twelve seconds. Duke was counting them in heartbeats. Something was definitely wrong. He looked up at Riker, who had the beginnings of a sympathetic look on his face. Duke didn't even want to look at Mindy to see what she was thinking.
"That can't be good," said Hicks.
"Well, of course it's not good!" said Duke in worried annoyance.
"No not that" said the Captain as he pointed. "That!"
They all turned their attention away from the swirling clouds below, and didn't question Hicks as he brought the pace to a slow walk, then a stop. Moving at high speed toward the lip of the valley was a Drag'oosian assault ship and eight of their hover tanks. The tanks kicked up eddies of desert sand and dust as they raced across the expanse, giving the platoon of hover tanks the ominous look of an approaching sandstorm.
"H-oh boy," huffed Duke.
From the valley below came a bang loud enough that it echoed across the hills, and made Duke duck his head as his body reflexively jumped. He caught a glimpse of a sliver of light as it cut through the dark clouds below. The clouds tore apart in a chaotic fashion as spines of light found their way out. In that same moment, Kim and Red came hurtling out of the mass of black as if their horses had just burst from the stocks at the Kentucky Derby.
"That a way, Kim!" Duke cheered, but caught his breath as he realized it was premature.
Newt was nowhere to be seen, and the Shenthrai were close behind, gaining fast. Ahead of them all was the large alien tank platoon, and it was also quickly closing the distance. No, things did not look good, Duke thought. It was the biggest understatement he had ever heard. Riker looked stricken, but he was listening intently to what Red was telling him.
"What's going on?" Duke asked.
"They got Newt," said Riker bitterly. "They know what's ahead now, but I doubt it will help. If we hurry, maybe we can give them some backup at the end of the valley."
"Come on!" Duke shouted at the whole group as he urged his horse to race after Riker. "We've got to catch up to them."
Red's warning that there was a large Drag'oosian force ahead came only half a minute before the large assault ship swooped in above them, strafing them with powerful bursts of green-white energy. Kim managed to slip between the destructive blasts as they tore great chunks of earth from either side of her. The cigar-shaped ship flew past. Kim glanced over her shoulder to see it turn again in pursuit. She nudged her horse in a hard turn to the left, expecting the ship to fire again. Instead, there came from behind her the ear-piercing sound of twisting metal and a shockwave of fiery explosion that nearly knocked Kim from her saddle. The assault ship was exploding from the inside, and as she urged Cheesecake to hurry forward Kim realized the Shenthrai had taken out the ship. They didn't seem to care what got in their way.
The dark warriors burst into existence again all around her and Red. The soldier continued to hold them off with well-placed shots from his 9mm. Each hit seemed just to annoy the Shenthrai, knocking them backwards and allowing the horses to create more distance from their pursuers. But the damage wasn't permanent, and Kim suspected Red's ammunition supply must be running low. Ahead, the valley tapered together with the surrounding hills, smoothing out into flat open desert. An ominous dust cloud was rolling in from that desert that Kim knew came from a host of alien tanks. It was growing lighter, but the sun still refused to peek above the distant hills to the east.
A Shenthrai appeared and stood right on Cheescake's head, perfectly balanced. Kim reacted instantly and thrust the staff into the being's chest. Energy crackled from the staff like a Taser, and the alien screeched and disappeared in another puff of dark smoke.
"Come on, rise!" Kim pleaded with the sun.
Kim burst forth from the narrow canyon and out of the valley with Red right on her flank. She could see the tanks clearly now, and they immediately opened fire from a distance. Huge green blasts blew great geysers of earth and dust into the air as she wove Cheesecake through the barrage. Kim's heart was pounding in her chest, her knuckles white on the reigns. The Shenthrai still harassed her from either side, occasionally throwing a dagger or two. It was getting hard to stay aware of everything. Time was running out. All Kim wanted now was to ride away from the incoming threat of Drag'oosian tanks, but instead it felt as though she was being herded toward her doom. Kim searched desperately for a route of escape. She felt her resolve slipping.
Another barrage from the tanks landed too close for comfort, the shockwaves of the blast nearly toppled Cheesecake, who whinnied as she fought to keep her balance. Kim was nearly thrown from her saddle as Cake stumbled and abruptly slowed. Her old friend obeyed as she coaxed the great mare back up to speed, but two Shenthrai had already pounced in for the kill. Kim shot one with the staff, but she realized with terror that the other one, knife in hand, was going to reach her before she could adjust.
Kim caught a glimpse of a figure flying through the air out of her peripheral vision, bellowing a daring war cry. It was Red, who had leapt from his horse. He caught the second Shentrai in an amazing midair tackle. The two of them fell to the ground, rolling and sliding in on the hard desert ground. Kim pulled on the reigns to double back to help, raising the staff for what she knew might be her last shot.
"Go!" shouted Red, as he grappled with the alien. "What are you doing? Keep going!"
Kim reluctantly obeyed, hoping the Shenthrai would leave Red be and keep following her. She heeled Cake firmly, asking her for full speed for just a while longer. As she worked her way through another volley of energy blasts that made her teeth chatter in her skull, she dared to glance back, and saw Red surrounded by a swarm of Shenthrai, as they all pounced at once. Red, she thought sadly. Thank you.
Kim wiped moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand, and swallowed hard. She surveyed the situation in front of her, looking for an opening, a path of escape. She quickly decided she had but two options. To her right she could see dust-covered road signs in the distance marking a lonely highway. Kim knew from their navigation discussions over road maps that this must be the aptly named Extraterrestrial Highway. From there, it was nearly a straight shot west for about 15 miles to the restricted base and their objective. If she cut across the desert at about a 60-degree angle from her present course, she might reach the road ahead of the Drag'oosian tanks. She might stay ahead of the pack of tanks for a time if she reached the road, but they would soon overtake her. That was going to happen regardless, plus poor Cheesecake was giving it everything she had, but Kim knew that her old friend was wearing down. The horse's breathing was labored, and she was drenched in sweat. Kim decided on her other option.
"He-yah!" Kim called to Cheesecake as she aimed the horse directly at the oncoming tanks. Kim had learned well how to judge distance on horseback from her endurance racing days as a teenager, but it was hard to judge the speed of the oncoming formation of tanks. They were perhaps five to six hundred meters away and closing fast. Kim was going to need cover, and soon. The valley around them had given way to a dry gully that probably filled with water only a few weeks out of the whole year. Kim guided Cake into the gully, and following it asked her to gently curve to the northwest. The tanks adjusted course and made to cut her off. The narrow gully was deep enough to give Kim some limited cover from the vast expanse at ground level where eight tanks barreled down on her. The tanks had given up their long-range shooting, and seemed intent on taking her down with their smaller conical anti-troop lasers that bristled from the sides. Kim gritted her teeth, and felt her knuckles squeeze the reigns tightly as she pressed her chest flat to the saddle. The sun still hadn't broken the cusp of the hills to her east, but the Shenthrai were strangely absent. It felt odd to want them around just a moment longer. If this doesn't work . . .
Then suddenly the tank formation began to break up. Four tanks cut back across the gully behind her. Kim dared glance around to see why. Hicks, Riker, Duke, and the others in a charge down from the hills, drawing off some of Kim's pursuit.
Damn it! Kim thought, Those idiots are only going to get themselves killed. Short-range energy bursts shrieked around her, knocking off small chunks of rock from the gully. A tank rumbled into the gully behind her. Kim felt a sudden searing pain like white-hot fire in her left shoulder and cried out. There was a smell of ozone and burnt hair. Kim's ears felt as if they would burst from the noise of the huge hover engines of a tank directly to her right. Its side lasers tried to target her, but they apparently could not dip below the horizon to do so.
Kim clutched at her shoulder. There was nowhere to go. An explosion threw her forward in the saddle. It had come from directly behind her. The tank directly alongside Kim to her right spun lazily away and began to vibrate and whine as if the machine were in agony. Then its engines went quiet, and Kim had a glimpse of the great machine tumbling upside down into the gully. Phasing out of it like ghosts came two Shenthrai. They ping-ponged off either side of the gully in pursuit of Kim.
Kim nearly sat on something hard and metal, and with a grimace, she pulled the throwing dagger from her saddle. The weapon startled her by turning to dust in her grip. She raised the staff again, and, grasping it tightly, rolled back and forth to either side of Cheesecake, trying to stay under cover while looking for an open shot. She heard her horse whinny in pain as another dagger stuck in her sturdy flank, but the brave mare maintained her speed. Kim took a natural ramp out of the gully and headed north again. She could see five smoking tanks around her, and heard two more explosions from somewhere behind her. Kim smiled a tight smile. She had been right, the Shenthrai didn't care what got in the way, and anything that did was in peril. But she knew she wasn't out of this yet.
"Come on, Cake!" Kim pleaded. "I need just a little more, girl. Keep running a little more. That's it. Fast as you can. Come on now, they can't catch us. Sun's almost up. They'll go away then. I promise!"
But the truth was Kim wasn't sure. All they had to go on was Luna's word, and it was getting awfully bright outside, but the orb of the sun still remained hidden. Kim raced across the open desert, the wind whipping her hair back and dust stinging her eyes. She was in the open now, completely exposed for the first time since the chase began. Kim counted six Shenthrai keeping pace at Cake's rear hooves. Cake was wearing down. Kim's eyes went wide, the speedy Shenthrai were parallel with her now. She looked into the vacant white eyes of one. She aimed the staff one more time and fired, the ninja-like creature dodged easily. Kim tried to fire again, but the staff merely glowed a little, then died out. Kim blinked and the Shenthrai leapt all at once at her through the air, surrounding her. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
She opened her eyes to find nothing but wisps of black smoke surrounding her, and the bright red orange globe of the sun peeking over the rocky hills over her right shoulder. Kim tentatively allowed Cheesecake to slow to a canter, and eventually to a walk. She looked around cautiously to make sure the Shenthrai were indeed gone. She sighed deeply. They had made it.
But something was still wrong. Cheesecake was trembling badly.
"It's all right girl," said Kim patting the horse's neck. "We made it. You were wonderful! Just take it easy now, and we'll get you some lunch in a min—"
Cake began to make whimpering noises. The great white mare was limping now, and definitely struggling to breathe. She stumbled and slowly began to lower herself to the ground.
Kim scrambled off Cake as her horse slowly lowered herself, and then rolled onto her side. Kim felt her heart racing as she knelt by the horse's head. Cake was trembling violently now, her mouth contorted by the seizure.
Kim quickly removed the bridle and harness from her old friend's head. She stroked the animal's cheek, trying to soothe the pain of whatever was happening. Suddenly the seizure stopped, and Cake lay still. The mare's eyes met Kim's one last time. In them Kim saw a noble animal's wish that she not be worried, and a silent thank you for being a good master. Then they lay still, vacant.
"No!" Kim screamed. "No damn it, not you too!"
She tried to shake the horse awake. She tried to check for a heartbeat. There was nothing. She tried pushing and then hitting the horse as hard as she could in the chest. Kim knew some rudimentary veterinary first aid for horses, but she had no idea how to do CPR on one. She tried to use the staff to give some sort of shock, but nothing happened.
Kim didn't understand. She shook her head in disbelief and fought back a river of tears trying to gush from her eyes. This couldn't be happening. What had caused this sudden tragedy? Then she remembered. It was one of many near misses during the chase. She crawled toward her horse's hindquarters, where a black dagger was stuck firmly in the horse's flank.
"It couldn't be," sobbed Kim as she reached to pull the dagger free.
"Don't touch it!" warned a sweetly polite mechanical voice from behind.
Kim turned to see Betty floating toward her about four feet behind her. Several hundred meters distant, five horses were racing toward her.
"But it's got to come out!" said Kim. "I touched one that stuck in my saddle earlier. It crumbled to dust."
"But its most certainly poisoned," said Betty. "And I have not analyzed the composition."
"I've got gloves on," said Kim as she tugged the dagger free.
Kim held it up to the sunlight, seeing the Shenthrai weapon in full for the first time. It was about six inches, a long triangle with serrated edges and strange markings along the gleaming obsidian blade. The handle was a short, stocky cylinder, with a metal ring on the end.
Kim was able to look at it for only a few seconds before the blade began to crumble into black dust in her hand. She turned her hand over and let the dust blow away as the sound of horse hooves rumbled behind her.
"Kim!" Duke's voice shouted. "Kim, are you alright?"
Kim didn't answer, didn't turn to look at the sound of several booted feet running up next to her. She only stared at Cheesecake, her horse, her friend. Like so many others, she was gone. Kim laid her head on Cheesecake's neck and allowed the tears to flow. Someone was trying to comfort her. Duke?
She turned and embraced him tightly, sobbing into his chest.
"How?" Kim heard someone ask. It was hard to tell who over her own blubbering. She felt so silly, so exposed in front of them all. Kim thought of Red and Newt, and couldn't stand to look any of her friends in the face. The two soldiers had given their lives for her, perhaps for mankind itself, but it didn't make Kim feel any better.
"My analysis was incomplete," said Betty, "But the throwing weapons of our attackers were laced with heavy metal toxins of unknown origin. Terribly lethal to carbon-based life-forms. Even a small scratch would be fatal to—"
"Thank you, Betty," interrupted Kim. "That's enough."
Kim stood up and controlled her breathing. She took one last look at her horse, and then found the eyes of her five human companions. They all swam with liquidly mist. She sought Riker in particular.
"I'm—I'm sorry, I couldn't . . ."
"Don't," said Riker softly. "Don't do that to yourself. They knew what was at stake."
Kim nodded curtly.
"Right," she said, "And we're not done yet, are we? Just give me a moment with Cake, and we can get moving."
As they all turned to mount their horses again, Kim caught Duke by the sleeve and pressed the key-staff back into his hands. She held onto his hands for a moment as she looked into his eyes. After a moment he nodded, giving her the silent promise she needed.