CHAPTER 25

Shuttle One touched down, sinking into the soft white-blue sand. The mechanics squealed as the docking ramp lowered to the cushioned floor.

A palm-sized drone zoomed out, darting this way and that, silently collecting environmental data as it scanned the surrounding area.

Albert's work boots clacked as he walked down the ramp, his shoulders hunched over the tablet in his hands, deciphering the information coming in from the drone. His goggle lenses automatically darkened to protect his eyes from the unimpeded afternoon sun. The beach was empty. Empty and clean—no people, no trash, no dead sea creatures washed ashore.

He scratched the side of his head as he read the information on the screen: oxygen levels were normal, the temperature was on the warmer side, but comfortable, and humidity was high this close to the water. He rolled his eyes. He didn't need a robot to tell him that last bit. He could feel the hydrogen bonds in his hair breaking, causing his already messy locks to swell and frizz the closer he got to the coast.

He stopped in his tracks as the drone passed over the sea.

His lips frowned. What he read couldn't possibly be right. He tapped the tablet. The drone shot into the sky, high above the island.

A real-time aerial image transmitted back. He swiped and pinched the screen until he could see the whole island. It was surrounded by a band of purple water over a mile thick.

He gazed out at the sea. He knew he shouldn't get any closer, but curiosity overshadowed safety as his legs moved on their own accord.

He had to jog a ways as Cap had docked the shuttle as far inland as possible. Not knowing what the tides were like on this planet, Cap thought it best to play it safe and Albert couldn't have been more grateful as he got nearer to the water.

The waves pushed and pulled against the sand. Shushing in and out like a giant breathing beast.

Albert drew closer than was wise—the water oily, pearlescent. He took several steps back as its unsettling shimmer reached for his feet. He coughed into the crook of his elbow as he covered his mouth—the water's strong aroma made his nose sting and throat burn. Warning text scrolled across his goggle lenses, advising him to seek fresh air immediately.

He stepped back until he could breathe safely.

According to his tablet, the water had dangerously high levels of chemical compounds like nitric acid, hydrazine, and metallic hydrogen. All substances found in outdated rocket fuel.

He studied the purple water, watching it dissipate the further it moved toward the horizon.

He searched the water's edge—there were no signs, no warnings, nothing to caution locals or visitors of the toxic water. He checked the aerial image again. There were no boats, no ports, no harbors.

What had happened here?

He spun toward the shuttle when he heard voices. Jack, Sicily, and Cap congregated near the base of the ramp.

He rushed back to meet them.

"Don't go near the water," he shouted out of breath, clutching the tablet to his chest. The trio's eyes flicked to the water before resting on him. "It's poisonous and will kill you," he continued, showing them his tablet.

"Well, that's super," Cap said sarcastically as he digested the data. "We've landed on Murder Island."

"Killer Beach," Jack said with a smile.

"Death Coast," Cap added.

"Seaside Homicide," Jack quipped.

"What do you think happened?" Sicily asked, holding up a hand to stop their naming game.

"My guess… we're not the first spaceship to crash on this planet," Albert replied.

They turned toward the island town at their backs, built on a wide cliff several hundred feet above sea level. It made sense to Albert that it had been built so far away from the coast. Their tides must be high and with rushing venomous waters, they were smart to build their structures as far away as possible.

The group turned back when Forrest's and Aurora's footsteps clipped down the ramp.

He noted the way Aurora moved at a slight angle as if making herself into a smaller target should anyone try to attack her—a girl still very much on the defensive.

Forrest positioned himself next to Cap while Aurora stood near the base of the ramp, her head down, hands in her pockets, engrossed by the sand at her feet.

"Next step?" Sicily asked.

"We split into teams—" Jack began but was cut off by Albert and Cap as they said in unison, "I call Poe's team." Their hands flying into the air to stake their claim.

Jack shook his head. "No. Poe will stay with the shuttle."

Their hands dropped to their sides. Albert crossed his arms over his chest as Cap stuck his bottom lip out like a petulant child.

Jack ignored their displeasure and said, "As will Aurora and Forrest."

Forrest's mouth puckered in disappointment. He probably wanted to join the crew and explore the island, but Albert understood Jack's reasoning. The shuttle was their only way out of this place, they needed their strongest to protect it. From what? He had no idea. And Aurora and Forrest were outsiders, liabilities. They hadn't been around long enough to understand the crew's flow and timing. Everyone played a crucial role in their survival and the Kohls still needed to figure out their place among the team.

Aurora merely tilted her eyes up, staring at Jack through her thick, dark eyelashes. She shrugged, unconcerned with the plan. She went back to toeing the sand with her slipper.

"The rest of us will head into the village, figure out what we can." Jack paused. "Is that all right with you?"

As if pulled by the same string, everyone turned to observe the woman at the top of the ramp.

Poe's hands were in her pockets, her head down. She lifted her eyes and shrugged, the motion and posture a mirror image to Aurora's.

Albert smiled. Poe had many talents, but his favorite was her ability to mimic. She was a natural. In a tick, she could become an entirely different person. Her mastery over her body was a skill. A weapon she'd honed to perfection. It was invaluable in their bounty hunting and, he suspected, was the main reason she was able to go undetected for so long.

It was only through pure dumb luck and a wonky energy scanner that Jack and Cap had discovered her at all over a year ago.

"And don't go anywhere near the water. It will kill you," Jack finished with a firm nod at Aurora and Forrest.

Forrest nodded enthusiastically back, communicating to him and the rest of the crew that he could be trusted and he wouldn't let them down.

Albert liked Forrest. He seemed like a good kid, but Aurora did nothing but swipe her foot across the sand, apparently too lost in thought to respond.

Jack ignored her lack of response, rubbed his hands together, looking like a man on a mission to save his crew and said, "Let's suit up."

#####

Cap and Albert walked ahead. Jack followed with Sicily at his side, her hand wrapped around the crook of his arm, her fingers squeezing tighter and tighter the higher they climbed.

They'd been walking for over half an hour, winding their way up the cliff's side. A walkway had been worn into the rock, making the path to the village easy to travel, but that didn't stop them from taking precautions. Albert's drone buzzed overhead, scouting for any possible pitfalls—and with Cap there to meet those dangers head-on, there wasn't anything to worry about.

The late afternoon sun flashed off of Cap's twin blades. Jack and Sicily squinted every time the light shone in their eyes. Maybe Jack was being overly cautious having Cap bring his weapons, but he didn't know what waited for them at the top. And Jack never took safety for granted, especially when it came to Albert and Sicily.

While he hated bringing them into unknown territory, he wanted them along for research purposes. They never knew when they might run into a rare plant or animal or find an unusual healing herb—his wife's favorite. Through their travels, Albert and Sicily had discovered many organic materials that were not registered within Nexus' databases and had become irreplaceable tools in their work. They were the best at detecting those golden opportunities, but it still made him nervous having them here, even when traveling with two energy-abled individuals.

"What in Sun's fire?" Albert mumbled under his breath as he paused, entranced by whatever the drone was showing him on his tablet. Cap peeked over his shoulder at the screen.

Sicily's grip on Jack's arm turned into a vise, he warmly placed his hand over hers, softly stroking her fingers, her hold relaxing but only some.

Albert and Cap quickly walked on, too excited to see in person whatever had been on the screen.

As they reached the top of the cliff, they were halted by a massive archway proceeding a strange, open tunnel made of thick off-white spikes curving toward each other near the top and leading into the village. The structure had been ravaged by the passing of time, but the remnants were still overpowering.

Albert reverently touched the sides of the arch, the white material sparkling in the light. "Fulgurite," he said in awe. "Carved fulgurite." He circled the structure multiple times, using his drone to inspect the parts of the archway he couldn't reach.

The petrified lightning had been crafted into two intertwined sea serpents, their heads overlapping and pointing toward the sky at the arch's apex, their fangs as sharp as real teeth. The craftsmanship was undeniable—the detailing impeccable. A single scale would have taken weeks to complete.

"Do you know how fragile this stuff is? For someone to have carved something this impressive… it must have taken decades," Albert said, his voice hushed as if in worship.

"This is incredible," Cap said, his hand hovering over the mineraloid, but not making direct contact. He was probably too afraid to touch it—not knowing what his own strength could do to something so delicate. Jack sympathized. It was the very reason he wasn't getting any closer, choosing to admire the two-story archway from a safe distance.

"I've never seen one this tall or this thick," Albert said excitedly, circling the serpents a sixth, seventh time. Albert mused that for the arches to be this epic, it would have to have been two enormous strikes of lightning hitting the sand at the same time and fusing together at the top.

Albert was so lost in his theory, he hadn't detected Cap moving to his side or the way Jack positioned Sicily behind him. It wasn't until Cap placed a large hand on his shoulder that his excited speech stopped and face fell when he noticed the mass of people walking toward them through the tunnel.

As they approached, Jack realized it wasn't a tunnel—it was a rib cage. A lengthy one with ribs large enough for four men to walk side by side comfortably.

He scanned the crowd—seventeen, all men, unarmed, barefoot. He guessed their ages to be between forty and sixty, but it was difficult to tell. Their faces were lined, but their bodies were strong underneath their worn, homespun clothing. These men were laborers, working long hours in the unforgiving sun.

A burly man in front with white-grey hair lifted a broad hand in greeting, a warm smile spread across his tanned face. "Welcome, travelers!" he hollered. Some of the men behind him smiled and waved, but most kept a wary glare on the Impulse crew.

Jack was uneasy. This group was a strange mix of welcome party and angry mob. The wrong word from him could tilt the scales to the latter and he did not want to test those waters.

He stepped in front of Albert and Cap, returning the man in front with his own pleasant smile. "Thank you, I'm so sorry to intrude," he said as he shook the man's offered hand. It was rough and calloused.

"Tut, tut. No trouble at all. I'm Rovert Coscas," he said with a firm pump of Jack's hand. "Welcome to Wihani. It isn't often we see shuttles circling the sky and I said, 'Lads, let's go give these strangers an island welcome they won't soon forget.'" He placed his hands on his hips, beaming at the crew.

"Thank you, that's very kind." Jack gauged the men's reactions as he introduced each member of his crew, especially where Sicily was concerned, but the men seemed most interested in Cap, their eyes darting to the swords peeking above his shoulders.

It was understandable—they were strangers with weapons, anyone would be on alert.

"Our engine blew. We crashed a few hours north of here and are in need of help and supplies."

Rovert lowered his head, shaking it from side to side, dismayed. "I'm afraid we don't have the supplies you require or any communication technology. We are but simple island folk, living off of the gifts the Great Serpents will us. All we can offer you is a hearty meal, a place to sleep, and some clothing if you desire."

Jack covered his disappointment with a practiced smile. "That is unfortunate, but we don't wish to bother you. We appreciate your time. We'll be on our—"

"Nonsense," Rovert interrupted. "You are guests in my village. You must stay. We will host a dinner in your honor." He peeked behind Jack's shoulder. "Are there any more of you?"

"Yes, we have three more down by the shuttle."

Rovert clapped and rubbed his hands together, pleased. "You must invite them up! They shall dine with us, as well." The crowd behind him murmured their agreement and pleasure.

"If you insist, thank you. We'll send them a message." Jack glimpsed back at Albert, he started, nodded and typed something out on his tablet.

"Wonderful!" Rovert exclaimed, giving Jack's back a friendly slap. "Come, let me show you my home."

Rovert gestured for the Impulse crew to follow. They traveled under the archway, through the ribs, and into the heart of the village, the Wihani men at their backs. Rovert called for the men to prepare the feast. They dispersed, leaving the Impulse crew alone with Coscas.

Any concern Jack had disappeared. With the odds in their favor, they could handle anything Rovert and his men threw at them, but Rovert was so welcoming, so charming. Jack didn't know why he'd been worried in the first place.

The sand beneath their feet transitioned into dirt, the ground becoming solid and dry.

They passed small, square derelict buildings made of dark sand and clay. Some were adorned with dried coral and fish bones, but most were missing any sort of decoration. Windows were cut into the sides, but there was no glass. Many were crumbling, while others were missing parts of their roofs, caved in and useless. There were enough huts to house a hundred plus, but Rovert and his men appeared to be the only residents.

Rovert showed them the gardens, waving at the men who were gathering plants and placing them into hand woven baskets, presumably for their dinner. The gardens were little more than small patches of sand and dirt scattered wherever they needed to be for the best results, growing a variety of vegetation Jack didn't recognize. Sicily and Albert eagerly catalogued the flora using Albert's tablet and drone to take small samples.

There were plants for food and medicine and cloth. Rovert showed them a plant that had small round seeds that when thrown to the ground, created tiny, harmless explosions. There were cardinal-red flowers whose stigma could be ground into paste and made into a powerful adhesive when mixed with sand and clay.

All the plants were healthy and strong. Jack asked what they did for irrigation—a leading question he hoped would answer why the water at the coast had turned toxic, but Rovert simply pointed out the handmade water barrels found next to every hut and garden. There was no inland water source, but it rained often enough that they never went thirsty and their plant-based diet kept them well fed.

At this, Jack realized there were no animals, not even a single seabird in the sky. The island was completely cut-off, yet sustainable.

"It isn't a pretty sight, I know," Rovert sighed. "But it's home. Most of our repairs go to the temple—our humble village jewel." He pointed to a building in the distance sitting alone atop a wide bluff.

The building was anything but humble—it was magnificent like something out of a dream. Its walls and domed ceiling were made of pure white sand, adorned with shimmering shells and colorful sea fan coral. The doorless entrance was framed by twisting serpents embossed onto the walls, welcoming you into its place of worship.

Rovert led them past the threshold with a proud spring in his step.

Brightly burning candles nestled in the bases of conch shells hung from the ceiling using dried, braided seaweed. Conch sconces dotted the sanctuary walls in between beautiful murals made entirely out of seashells and sea glass, depicting scenes with humans and mighty sea creatures.

Rows and rows of backless benches molded from sand bordered a long, wide center aisle and at its head, a cloaked, hooded figure knelt at the temple's white-stone altar.

"And here is our priestess," Rovert whispered loudly. "She leads our congregation and manages the temple." The woman at the altar stood and turned toward the group—her face shadowed by the thin, faded green cloak and flickering light. She lifted the wide cowl off of her head and gave a small closed-lip smile.

Jack was taken aback by how young she looked, no more than eighteen, he guessed. Her skin was pale with strikingly gold hair. She gave a demure tilt of her head in greeting. Rovert introduced the group to her, impressing Jack with his memory—he didn't forget a single name.

"I have an idea," Rovert said. "Gemma, why don't you give our guests here the story of the island, while I oversee the preparations for the feast?"

"It would be my pleasure," Gemma replied in a thin, faraway voice.

Rovert said a cheery goodbye, humming a little tune as he exited the temple.

Jack was almost sorry to see him go.

The Impulse crew followed Gemma as she positioned herself near a mosaic at the front of the room.

She lifted a soft hand toward the portrait. "The story of Wihani began over two thousand years ago. Legend has it, the Sky and the Sea had a terrible fight one night over which one was more important. The Sea argued it was more important because it provided a home to countless organisms dwelling within itself. The Sky countered that it was the important one because it provided the water that created and nourished the Sea. Neither would concede to the other and their arguing turned into a horrific storm. The Sea used its crashing, swelling waves against the Sky's roaring thunder and lightning.

"Unbeknownst to these two great powers, a small boat carrying a beautiful maiden was caught in the middle of their feuding and was swept beneath the waves."

As Gemma spoke, she walked to the mosaic depicting the next part of the tale.

"As the maiden was dragged under, a magical sea serpent saw her and overcome by her beauty, took her deep into his cave and away from the dangers above, but the maiden being no more than human, drowned. The serpent was devastated, cursing the thoughtless war that had caused this. But there was hope. The serpent could save her by stealing a female serpent's egg, which have the power to bring someone back from death. But the eggs were fiercely protected by their mothers and only the strongest and most fearless could procure one.

"Desperate, the serpent became a thief, but was defeated time and again by the more powerful females strengthened by their fathomless desire to protect their young.

"Having failed in his quest, he had one final gambit. He coiled his body around the maiden lifelessly resting on the floor of his den, and used every ounce of his own magic to transform her. In an increasing flash of light that made the ocean boil, his beautiful turquoise and indigo scales were bleached of their color, and the woman was remade into a powerful sea serpent herself, drawing new breath underwater. It is said that the serpent was so happy that he roared, and his fierce, loud cry shook the ocean and the stars, and proved to Sea and Sky what was truly important in this world, and ended their silly war.

"The two sea creatures fell in love and the former maiden became pregnant. But when her offspring was born, it was not an egg, nor a serpent at all, but a full-grown man. The mother rushed her son up to the surface, carrying him above the waves on her back, but there was no land for him to live upon. The father was distraught. He could not change his son into a serpent as his power had been spent. So he dragged monstrous amounts of land from under the sea and built an island for his child.

"The man lived alone for many years. His parents' hearts withered watching their son go through life by himself. So they traveled the seas until they found a ship filled with humans. They dragged the ship by its anchor halfway around the world and marooned it on the island. The passengers were not unhappy. The island was a beautiful place, so they called it home, welcoming the serpents' son with open arms and, with the help of the serpents, built a civilization, which grew into what you see today.

"After many happy decades, the former maiden grew old and tired. Her lifespan was not like that of a natural born serpent and when her time neared its end, she washed herself ashore, choosing her final resting place among her son and former people."

"Those gargantuan ribs out front?" Cap asked, impressed.

Gemma nodded. "The name Wihani,from Ancient Speak, translates to Boundless Love. We honor and revere the Great Serpents for their protection and the gifts they have bestowed upon us."

The priestess bowed, the story completed. She had led them around the temple to each art installation finishing on the opposite side of where they had started. Her hands disappeared under her cloak, no longer needed to point out details within the murals.

"That is a lovely story," Sicily said, her hand resting over her heart.

Cap, Albert, and Jack murmured their agreement.

"Would you do me the honor of making a wish of good fortune for the coming season?" Gemma asked, her blue eyes wide and hopeful.

"Of course," Jack said. Sicily nodded in eager agreement, while Cap and Albert reluctantly shrugged their willingness to participate.

Gemma led them to the front of the altar. She gestured for them to kneel in a line at the base of the stone. She removed a small clouded glass orb from under her cloak and placed it in the middle of the altar. She took a long, skinny piece of wood from her pocket and used a nearby candle to light the end. "I shall now ignite our sacred candle," Gemma said with a flourish. "Please stay until the flame has turned to smoke." She stuck the non-burning end of her stick into the pliable material within the orb, creating a wick.

She lifted her hood and said with a bow, "May the Great Serpents grant you peace." The skirt of her cloak swished around her ankles as she calmly walked around the space, lighting extinguished candles as she went. Her delicate footsteps faded as she exited the temple and into the darkening day.

Jack and Sicily clasped their hands together and prayed.

The fire slowly devoured the thin piece of wood, growing closer and closer to the orb's wax.

Cap gave an exaggerated sigh. Jack ignored him, continuing to pray and respecting the customs of this island's spiritual beliefs.

After a few minutes, Cap sighed again. He yawned, tapping his fingers against his knees. His clothing rustled as he leaned in to whisper in Jack's ear. "I don't mean to be insensitive, but I'm hungry. How long do we have to—"

Pop!

Jack threw his body over Sicily. Cap did the same for Albert as the orb exploded.

Pale purple gas enveloped the crew.

Jack couldn't see. He coughed as thick smoke entered his lungs.

Light flashed as Cap powered-up, creating a violent wind that swept through the temple, clearing the air. Cap was on his feet, searching for any more dangers.

"What in Sun's fire was that about?" Cap asked, muscles bulging.

"I have no idea," Jack replied as he cupped Sicily's face. "Are you all right?" Sicily coughed, nodding. He kissed her forehead firmly and helped her to her feet. "Albert?" he asked, worried.

Albert coughed but signaled he was all right. Cap helped him to his feet, dusting off glass chips from his coveralls.

Jack gazed out the temple's entrance, rubbing his jaw. What had just happened? Was it an accident? Intentional? Everyone was fine… Was it a distraction tool? Were Rovert and his men heading for the shuttle to steal it? Or was this a misunderstanding? He didn't know and didn't want to chance it. "Albert, send a message to Poe—"

"Jack?" Sicily whispered, her voice hoarse, quivering.

She held her head in her hands, her body swayed. "I don't…" She lost her balance, falling to the side. Jack swept her into his arms before she hit the ground. He held her close, her shallow breaths tickling his neck hair.

He watched in horror as her beautiful skin grew red and puckered. Pus filled bumps erupted over every exposed inch.

"Jack?" she whispered, her voice small, frightened. "I… I can't see."