Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Chapter Fifty-six

Within minutes the squad was walking carefully across the broken lava beds, following the path of least resistance, toward the Citadel. Hyland tried to keep the pace steady, but not quick. She sensed a hesitation on the part of Monier who was now on the point. Monier seemed to think she was walking into the muzzle of a rifle. She would do it, but she wasn't going to rush to do it.

As they approached the site where the mass assault had been engaged, where the bodies of the dead soldiers still lay, Hyland said, "Let's hold it up."

Monier shot a glance over her shoulder and then dropped into the closest impression grateful for the reprieve.

Price crawled close to her but this time didn't ask the question that was becoming a standard. He just waited for her answer to it.

Monier answered him anyway. "Nothing."

Hyland joined them and said, "This is really as far as my thinking has taken me. We know, based on the evidence, that the Citadel will fire as we move much farther forward. Unless it views us like it did that second phantom squad."

"Except," said Price, "they've already killed us..."

"So you said. Maybe you'd like to test your theory."

Price looked at Hyland and then at Monier. "Rachel?"

"Nothing, Tree. I don't know. I wouldn't want to risk my life on this theory."

Price slipped forward so that he could look at the Citadel. There was nothing to indicate that it was dangerous, but he knew that meant nothing. The evidence of the danger was spread out in front of him.

"No sense in killing off a number of us," said Price. He stood up.

Coollege grabbed his hand. "Don't be stupid, Tree."

"It's not going to fire," he said, not sure that he believed the words. "It's just not going to see me as being there."

"Captain," said Monier, "I'm not sure how much faith I would put into this plan."

"There is nothing we can do," said Price, "except test the theory."

Coollege looked at Hyland. "This is your mission."

"And the orders are clear," she said quietly. "We must try to reach the Citadel."

Price stood there, took a deep breath, and said, "I don't believe I want to be buried. Cremated and scattered through space I think would be best. I want my ashes spread through the cosmos by naked virgins."

"That's not funny, Tree," said Coollege. "You're not funny at all."

"Once I'm beyond the ring of bodies, you can join me over there and we can continue to march on to the Citadel."

He wanted to say more but knew that he was just wasting time. He turned and began to pick his way across the lava beds. He reached the line of bodies but didn't stop. He stepped over one and kept his attention focused on the ground so that he wouldn't stumble. Or maybe so that he wouldn't see the flash of laser light.

Then, suddenly, he looked up and realized that he had passed the critical area. The Citadel had not recognized him as a threat and had not engaged him. The question was whether it was because he was alone or because the ruse designed by Monier had fooled them.

He continued on and then stopped. He turned and watched as the rest of the team began to move forward. They fanned out, crossed the ring of dead bodies and still the Citadel ignored them. With the rest of the squad on the move there was no reason to believe that it was going to engage him now.

As the group joined him, they said nothing to him. Monier took the point again, followed closely by Swain and Lopez. They strung out again, hoping that if the Citadel opened fire, it would not target all of them at once. That someone would have a chance to get away.

Thirty minutes later they stood at the foot of the Citadel. Price reached out an patted the smooth stone. It was cold. For some reason he had expected it to be warm, maybe from the heat of the sun or maybe from some internal source but it wasn't. It was as cold and seemingly dead as the city that surrounded it.

Monier stood there, looking up at, toward the top. "Lot's of electrical activity," she said. "Nothing else. Just the electricity."

"Now we have to get inside," said Hyland.

"We reached the walls," said Zouave. "We have completed the mission."

Swain ignored him and said, "We could climb." Then he shook his head. "I guess that won't work."

"There has to be something," said Hyland. "Let's spread out and see what we can find."

"What are we looking for?" asked Zouave.

"Maybe water pipes, air ducts, disposal chutes. Hell, maybe we can find a door. I just don't know."

Monier moved to the stone, put both hands on it, palms on the rock. She let the impressions come to her as they did when she held personal objects and photographs. She let her mind go, floating almost above her and then said, "There seems to be a number of large ducts around the walls about ten feet from the ground."

"Good," said Hyland. "Very good."

In minutes they found one of the openings and were clustered under it. "You know what it is?" asked Hyland.

"No... just that it leads into the Citadel. Into the center of it."

"Anything else?" asked Price.

"Just what I've told you. It's really strange but there is nothing but electrical activity."

Hyland asked, "Doesn't that strike you as odd. I mean, if you walked up to a fleet installation of this size wouldn't you pick up something?"

"It would be screaming at me," said Monier. "But this is an alien site. What would happen on Earth, or in our fleet, just doesn't matter here."

"So what do you want to do, Captain?" asked Swain.

"Follow our orders and penetrate this," said Hyland.

Swain put his hands together to make a step to lift her up, toward the opening. "After you, Captain."

She put her foot in Swain's hand, stretched out until she could grab the lip of the opening and said, "Thanks." She then began to haul herself up.

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