As promised last week, your preview of the new Flight of the Kestrel book starts here.
Shom Reuel's wrists were secured to the table. Like most interrogation rooms, this room had only a table and two chairs. No decoration, no contrast of colour in the room at all. The stone walls and floor were grey-brown, even the table and chairs were grey-brown.
It was strange, they hadn't removed his hat. They seemed to assume he was human, like the men he’d been arrested with, despite his bright pink skin. Not that that gave him much advantage, since humans would be stronger and faster in the lower gravity on Boka. But Reuel grew up in what humans called low gravity, for him this planet’s “low” gravity was normal. At least he didn't have to wear his back brace, an annoyance on board Kestrel and on the other 1G planets they visited. On higher gravity planets he could barely function at all.
He understood only a little Bokan, and his captors understood only a little Standard, so there was an uncomfortable wait for someone more fluent. He hated the waiting, not knowing what they were going to do to him was unnerving. He wished they would hurry up and get on with it. He was used to violence, that was part of everyday life in the poor region of his youth. He could defend himself or his family, stand up to bullies and thugs; but he hated the waiting.
The two Bokan males who brought him in paced restlessly around the room. They didn't seem to like waiting either. The Bokans were reptilian humanoids with scaly skin, a wider jaw and a broad, solid physique. Their metre-long tails stood straight up their back through a hole in their trousers. They looked strong, even though their gravity was lighter than on Earth. Their planet was quite warm and they could regulate their body temperature, so they had no need for thick clothing like other reptilian species.
It actually wasn't long before the interrogator arrived, a youngish Bokan in a smart black uniform. Reuel imagined he had just graduated from training school, and had to stifle a smile. Still, the thought eased his tension a bit.
The interrogator asked him the usual things: who he was, where he was from, why he was here, and made notes on a tablet screen. Reuel stuck to his cover story, that his group were sociologists studying the Bokan culture, and acted as if he was a lowly ignorant assistant. He let some of his nerves show, since he thought a lowly assistant would be nervous. But he watched everything, trying to prepare for what might be to come.
His interrogator rose and left the room. Reuel tensed, every sense alert. He noticed now how clean the room was, and his mind rushed to the conclusion that it had needed cleaning after the last interrogation. What did they do? What bodily fluids had been spilled?
He watched the face of the man left to guard him - though he couldn't think what they expected him to do, with his wrists strapped to the table. The man, in a grey jacket and trousers without any badges stood to attention near the door, staring at Reuel. No, not staring - studying. Bokan first contact was recent, so it was likely the man had never seen a non-Bokan before.
The idea that they were not alone in the universe was new to the Bokans. When they developed warp drive and were able to explore further than their own system, meeting other species was a shock. The Planetary Alliance for Cooperation and Trade (PACT) was an alliance between the species with warp drive technology, so when they were alerted to the Bokan emergence, a delegation was sent to invite them to join. Initially the Bokans were suspicious, and jealously guarded their technology, but they soon realised the other species were further advanced than they were. Negotiations for Boka to join PACT were proceeding with cautious optimism.
Reuel wondered how the guard would react if he lowered his head to his hands and took his hat off. Like all Altairians he had no hair, but a row of soft spines ran down the centre of his head. The spines moved in response to emotion, at that point Reuel was having trouble keeping them calm under his soft hat.
The thought of the guard seeing his spines writhe made him smile, which made the guard look away. That made Reuel smile even more. On reflection, he decided to keep his hat on, and not introduce unnecessary complications. If the Bokans used violence against him, they would find out he wasn't human soon enough.
The guard, whose curiosity was getting the better of him again, snapped to attention at the sound of the door opening. The interrogator entered and waved his tablet at Reuel.
'We have been unable to find any reference to your expedition,' he said, walking round the table to stand over Reuel.
Reuel refused to take the bait. 'I do not know about that,' he said, putting a worried look on his face. 'I was hired by Mr Parks directly. He does the paperwork, I do what I’m told. As long as he pays me.'
The interrogator paused to consider. Reuel felt the tension gathering and his spines stirring. The man's sudden movement startled him.
'Very well,' he said, and turned to the guard. Reuel understood the gist of the Bokan instructions: 'Put him in a cell with the other one. We must speak to the leader.'
Reuel had been holding his breath and let go. He was relieved for himself, but concerned about Parks, though there was nothing he could do.
Reuel was put in a cell with Daniel Hoy, his crewmate, and he was glad to see Hoy was unharmed. Hoy had a yellower cast to his skin compared with most humans Reuel had met, and his eyes were more pointed. This was because he came from the East on Earth.
The cell door clanged shut and the bolt shot home. Reuel looked around. The cell had dirty stone walls and floor. The ceiling was metal sheeting, with a fluorescent light in a cage in the centre. There were no windows. Hoy signalled Reuel to check the room for monitoring devices. It didn't take long.
'So much for a clandestine mission,' said Hoy. 'Parks and his bright ideas, he had to rush into things.'
Reuel was relieved Hoy wasn't criticising him. This was the first clandestine mission he had been on since joining the crew of the Kestrel six months ago, and he wanted to do well. The three of them, Parks, Hoy and Reuel, had been sent to validate intelligence that the Bokans had developed a secret weapon.
Reuel watched as Hoy checked out the door. It was heavy metal, the hinges were on the outside, and there were no electronics, no key pads or hand print recognition systems. It seemed the security systems were mechanical.
'We’re not going to get out of here in a hurry.'
'Hanging about in the street was not a good idea either,' said Reuel. 'I think that man was already suspicious of us.'
'So Parks went and asked him for directions! It’s his fault we’re in this mess!' Hoy said.
Reuel looked round, startled. He wasn’t sure how to read Hoy’s reddened face. These humans with head hair instead of spines were still difficult for him to read. At home on Altair the nuances of someone's cranial spine quivers were there for all to see. None of his species would dream of speaking so harshly of a senior officer, such behaviour would be unconscionable.
'How is Commander Parks?' Reuel asked.
'Reuel!' Hoy snapped. 'No ranks. We're sociologists, remember? We've come to study a new alien society.'
'Sorry, sir. They took him away as soon as we were arrested, and that must have been an hour ago. Did they say anything when they questioned you?'
'No, they just asked questions. I said nothing, of course. What did you say when they questioned you?'
'I stuck to the story, told them I was the junior member of the team and did not know the details of our expedition.' He struck an exaggerated humble pose. 'I am here to fetch and carry. They should ask Mr Parks.' He stood straight again. 'Where is Parks?'
As if in answer to his own question, the bolt rattled and the door opened. Parks' face was a mess, his clothes crumpled and his knuckles bleeding. A knot clenched in Reuel's stomach as he feared the Bokans would probably do the same to him. A guard pushed Parks in the back and he stumbled forward, while the door was bolted behind him.
Nathaniel Parks was a human of, Reuel had been told, Scandinavian descent. He believed that meant Parks was from the north of the northern hemisphere of Earth. Tall, with blond hair, cut short, and blue eyes. A look of relief crossed his face as he saw his two crewmates unharmed.
'Are you two all right?' Parks asked, sitting on the floor. He ran a hand through his hair and then explored his bruised face with his fingers.
'Yes.' Hoy knelt beside him. 'Are you OK?'
'I’ll live.' Parks gave a wry chuckle and rubbed his knuckles. 'I gave as good as I got, but Bokan skulls are hard.'
'Can I recommend, sir, you concentrate on the lower chest in future?' Reuel said. 'Their ribs are not substantial. Also the eyes are a good target…' he paused, seeing their surprised faces. 'I looked it up in preparation for this mission.'
He went over to Parks with a container of water. 'I found this by the door, sir. It looks all right.' He bent to give Parks a drink and spoke in a low voice. 'I cannot find any cameras or microphones, the walls are solid. We might even be underground. There is nothing here but those mattresses along the wall.'
There were four of them, two either side, but to call them mattresses was a compliment. They were thin and lumpy, the dirt giving no hint of their original colour.
'It's a shame,' Parks whispered, 'because I thought we were doing quite well up to then. That contact we were given pointed us in the right direction, and there's definitely something going on. This building being partially underground explains the lack of obvious security measures from outside, which is where I made my mistake. If only you two hadn't joined in the fight, you might have escaped, to rescue me later. Still, it is what it is.'
'We'll have to hope our cover story holds,' Hoy muttered. 'Let's hope this secret weapon we're looking for isn't a new interrogation device.'
The door opened and two guards came in, all but dragging a prisoner who could hardly walk. When the guards let him go, the man, possibly a human, fell to his hands and knees, his head drooping, his face covered by his long dark hair. Hoy and Reuel moved to assist him.
One of the guards pointed at Parks. 'You! Come now.'
Hoy jumped between him and Parks.
'I'm in charge. Talk to me.'
'No,' said Parks, 'it’s my responsibility.'
Parks dragged himself to his feet and approached the guard. At two meters tall, Parks was taller than both guards, but the other one stepped back, weapon drawn, so there would be no arguments. The first guard grabbed Parks' arm and they took him away, and the door clanged shut behind them. Hoy and Reuel exchanged a worried look.
'There’s nothing we can do about him for the moment, let’s see to this guy,' Hoy said. 'Help me get him onto a mattress.'
The man had been badly beaten. His bare arms were covered in bruises and there was blood on the back of his tunic. They rolled him onto his back. His face was bruised and there was a lump in the centre of his forehead with fine red lines radiating from it that looked like a particularly nasty wound. They carried the man over to the nearest mattress. Reuel fetched the water while Hoy tried to make the man comfortable.
'Can you hear me? How do you feel?' Hoy asked.
The man groaned and opened his eyes. 'I can’t, I can’t.'
'It’s OK. We won’t hurt you. We’re prisoners too. '
Reuel lifted the man's head and helped him to drink. 'I am Shom Reuel, and this is Daniel Hoy. I am from Altair and he is from Earth. We did not intend to end up as a guest of the Bokans, but we spoke to the wrong person. How about you?'
'Tanu,' the man gasped, 'of the family of Pe'Rod. I’m… an explorer.' His voice was soft, speaking took a great effort.
'Well, there is little to explore in here,' said Reuel. He tore off the bottom of Tanu’s long tunic. Using the rag as a swab, Reuel pushed back the man's long dark hair and washed dirt, blood and sweat from his almost-white skin. His high cheekbones and grey eyes made him look fragile, and his arms and hands were so thin, they were skeletal. Reuel himself was slim, being from a lower-gravity planet, but he thought the man looked human enough.
'I suggest we all try to get some rest,' said Hoy. He pulled Reuel close and whispered. 'Don’t be so free with the introductions. We can’t trust anyone.'
'Sorry sir, I will be more careful.'
Hoy settled down on a mattress across the room. Reuel lay down on the adjacent mattress, but after only a few minutes, sat up again.
'Sir, how can you rest in this situation?' he whispered. 'What are they doing to Commander Parks?'
'No ranks!' Hoy hissed.
'Sorry. If they do the same to him as they have done to this poor man, who knows what state he will be in when they bring him back. What will he tell them about us? We could be in even worse trouble!'
'Don’t be such a cry baby, and don’t underestimate Parks. He’s a hard nut to crack.' Hoy dropped his voice and leaned closer. 'He worked security in the past. Remember your training. What we need to be doing is planning how to get out of here and resting so we’re ready when the opportunity comes.'
Reuel lay down, affronted at being called a baby. The hat he wore to hide his cranial spines was uncomfortable when they were writhing, so he tried to calm himself, but a thought occurred to him and he sat up again. 'So how are we going to escape from a solid room with no electronics in the door, and two guards outside?'
'Looks like we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way, and jump the guards next time they come in,' Hoy said. 'Now pipe down and try to get some rest.'
Reuel opened his mouth to speak, but Hoy got there first. 'That's an order.'
Reuel stared at the ceiling. He felt out of his depth, but he trusted Parks and Hoy. They were First and Second Officers on the Kestrel.
Part of PACT, a non-military organisation created to assist trade, research, and the sharing of culture and technology between the different species who had developed warp capability, the Kestrel was a Fast-Response ship with a crew of eleven. The Fast-Response Fleet was almost an independent police and diplomatic force, able to operate between planets, where jurisdiction may not be clear. They offered investigation and assistance wherever needed.
Reuel had been so proud when Captain Darrow picked him for this mission. There were not many low gravity planets in the Kestrel's region of responsibility, and his physical limitations meant he had to stay on board when they were at higher gravity planets. He wanted to do well, and reminded himself that he had been in bad situations before, growing up back home. He reflected that dreaming of adventures in space was not the same as being in one.
This was not what he had expected.
When he closed his eyes his senses concentrated on the rank smell of their cell. It reminded him of the changing room after an exercise session, with the added scent of mildew on neglected fruit boxes. Foul as it was, it also made him just a little homesick for the back alleys and cramped houses, though he was glad enough to escape when he joined the Academy. He lay there thinking of home.
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz