Guest Starring David Boreanaz as Charles Mathers
As Val stepped out of the room she shared with Lark to head toward the large common room, she tripped over several pairs of shoes and went stumbling forward. Thankfully a pile of clothing cushioned her fall. Pushing herself to her feet, she charged into the second bedroom to confront the culprit.
"Lyssa," Val exclaimed. "You can't leave your stuff all over the house."
The blonde woman glanced up at her from her bed, where she sat cross-legged in yet another unfamiliar outfit. Val had never seen her in the same clothes twice, and as the Baines sisters continued to unload their possessions from the ship, she began to understand why. Spread out across the quilt covering Lyssa's bed was a game of solitaire. Val was faintly surprised the woman actually owned a deck of playing cards.
"What is your problem?" Lyssa asked coolly.
"Look at this place," Val said, spreading her arms wide. The room was lined with clothing, shoes, and accessories. Small boxes of indeterminable content were also strewn about. "You don't have enough room to breathe in here, and now your stuff is spilling out into the common areas."
"Don't strain yourself, Val, it's bad for the complexion," Lyssa advised, returning to her game.
"Well, that certainly explains your work ethic, or lack thereof," Val snapped. "Your little sister has shown more responsibility. She's out there right now with the work crews, helping finish the power grid."
"Well, goody for her," Lyssa mumbled.
"What is wrong with you?" Val demanded. "This self-involved moping has gotten really old."
"This place is hell," Lyssa snapped, tossing the cards in her hands off the end of the bed. "What is the point of this? Building the settlement, setting up power grids—we should be working on the damned ship and getting the hell off this planet."
"That's not going to happen," Val said, "and you know it. The cargo hold is underground now—the only way onto the ship is through the emergency hatches. That bucket of bolts will never leave terra firma again."
"Your company built that 'bucket of bolts,'" Lyssa hissed. "Your confidence in Harrison is so inspiring."
"Harrison and my company have nothing to do with this," Val said. "I know that in your world, you can gloss over any situation that might arise by throwing money at it. But for the rest of us, we have to work through our problems because life doesn't always hand us a free pass."
Lyssa rolled her eyes. "More speeches," she sighed. "All you people ever do is blow hot air up our backsides."
"That's it!" Val shouted. "You're with Bucky on ecological detail. His team is collecting samples along the southern river basin today, but they'll be back tonight. You can head out with them bright and early tomorrow morning."
Lyssa jumped up from her bed. "You can't do that," she argued.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Val nodded. "For every work shift you miss, you lose a day's food rations. And no more access to the ship."
"That is not fair," Lyssa said, her lip quivering.
"Save the theatrics," Val advised. "Crocodile tears will make your eyes just as puffy as the real thing."
"What's the problem in here?" Lark asked from the doorway.
"You are supposed to knock," Lyssa shouted, her voice growing louder with each syllable.
Lark took a step back, but smirked at the outburst. "Somebody needs a nap," she said.
"Lyssa will be heading out with Bucky tomorrow morning, Lark," Val said. "You two should be in the same area. You're still planning on gathering some wood for your weapons, correct?"
Lark nodded. "Yeah," she verified. "Tom and I are hitting the underbrush at first light."
"Good," Val replied. Giving Lyssa a long stare, she finally turned on her heel and breezed past Lark on her way to the common area.
"Damn, you pissed her off," Lark commented.
"Just get the hell out of my sight," Lyssa hissed.
"Lay off, Baines," Lark muttered. "It's pretty lame when your kid sister shows you up, you know?"
With that, she left the doorway. Several pairs of shoes went flying past an instant later as she crossed the hallway to her own room. Lyssa scowled at the open door, hating the feeling of helplessness she'd suffered since they landed on this planet, and hating the people who so effortlessly maintained it.
Beneath the thick canopy of the jungle, the falling rain was reduced to a light mist. Lark and Tom trudged through the underbrush and kept an eye out for stray vampires. The midday light barely penetrated the foliage above. Hidden by dark green rain slickers, the two were well camouflaged as they hurried along.
Lark paused suddenly, forcing Tom to skitter to a halt before he plowed straight into the heavy pack slung over her shoulders. "Here," she said, pointing toward a fallen tree.
She raised the axe she'd been carrying in her right hand. Tom peered at the moss-covered tree and frowned. "Not to question your judgment or anything," he said, throwing his hood back from his head. "But why did we walk two miles for this?"
Lark glanced at him, her brow furrowed. "Because it's dead. And the wood is sturdy. I saw one of these growing near the settlement."
When she turned back toward the fallen tree, Tom sighed and mumbled, "She kills things for fun but won't hurt a living tree. Makes sense."
He just barely caught the pack she threw at him after sliding it from her shoulders. Tom watched quietly as Lark began to chop at one of the heavier branches. The wood would be fashioned into a collection of stakes to round out Lark's armory. Feeling a little unnecessary, he took a few steps toward the side of the large tree and leaned against the mossy bark, making sure he was well out of the axe's range.
From this new position, Tom couldn't help but notice the horrible smell rising up from behind the tree. Wrinkling his nose, he glanced at Lark to see if it had caught her attention as well. She was far too busy playing with the sharp object to pay him any mind. Tom left her pack on the ground and walked in the opposite direction to circle the fallen tree. Near the roots, the stench was nearly unbearable. Tom resisted the urge to cover his nose and continued forward until he found the remains of a large animal on the other side of the elaborate network of roots that had been ripped out of the soft earth as the tree fell.
"Ugh," Tom cried, turning his head away from the foul air.
Lark paused in her work and turned to face him. "What is it?" she called.
"Some kind of animal," Tom replied, nearly gagging. He held out his hands as she approached, warning, "You probably don't want to—"
Shaking her head, she swatted his hands away and breezed past him. "Please," she said. When she caught sight of his disgusted expression, she added, "Don't be a baby."
Tom held back as she squatted down to investigate the creature. "Absolutely nothing turns your stomach, does it?"
"Wheat grass juice," Lark supplied candidly, reaching out to poke at the corpse.
"What?" Tom asked.
"When I was in California it was all anybody drank," she explained. "The most disgusting crap I've ever tasted."
Silent for several moments, Lark continued to examine the animal as Tom observed from a safe distance. When a strange hooting cry echoed through the jungle around them, he glanced around in surprise. Although he'd heard the sounds for days, no one had ever seen any evidence of the creatures that made them.
"It's been dead for several days," Lark said, drawing his attention. Gingerly lifting the animal's paw, she was surprised to find a hand and fingers that were not too dissimilar from her own under the hair covering its skin. "Interesting," she murmured.
"Interesting?" Tom echoed in surprise. "A dead animal is interesting?"
She glanced up at him in irritation. He looked rather queasy, and refused to meet her gaze. "Except for some birds and a few smaller land animals, we haven't seen the other creatures that live on this planet. Look at this," she exclaimed, leaning forward. Spreading the gingery hair between her fingers to expose the skin beneath, she revealed two puncture wounds on the animal's neck.
"Killed by a vampire," she said. "Maybe this is why they've left us alone the past few weeks. They found another food source."
"Well, that's good then, right?" Tom asked. He crept forward until he stood directly beside her.
"No, it could be very bad," Lark responded. "We don't know anything about these creatures. They may not react to these attacks very well."
"And depending on how intelligent they are, they may know we all arrived in the same crash," Tom finished her thought.
"Exactly. We better get Val out here to take a look. I know biology isn't necessarily her thing, but she's the most scientifically minded person here. Maybe Dr. Bartlett would want to see it, too."
"Should we—" he paused, disgusted by the thought. "Bring it back to the settlement?"
Lark glanced around. "We could piece together a kind of stretcher with some branches, I guess," she said.
She looked down at the creature's hand once more. Reclining back as the body was, with its legs extended straight out below its torso and its arms lying flat at its side, it looked as though it walked upright. Lark didn't know many animals that did that, not on Earth, anyway. How odd that the planet they happened to crash upon was not only habitable to humans but also housed creatures with similar physical traits.
"There's rope in my pack," Lark told him as she rose to her feet. "I'll start collecting some—"
Her words were cut short as a large figure suddenly hurtled out of the surrounding jungle and swept past her. Lark instinctively ducked just as a heavy arm swung at her head. On her way down she caught sight of the same dusky fur that covered the dead creature. She quickly realized that this one was much larger than the one on the ground.
"Tom, watch it!" she called after her friend.
He'd already started toward the other side of the fallen tree to fetch the rope. As he shifted to glance over his shoulder at the sound of her warning, the attacker lunged toward him. The creature towered over the man, standing well over six feet at full height. Lark jumped to her feet just as the animal swatted Tom with one large hand.
The human fell instantly, and Lark knew he'd been struck unconscious. When the creature bent over Tom's prostrate body, she rushed at it furiously. "Hey Fuzzface!" she cried. "Bring it here."
To her surprise, instead of attacking her, the animal reeled back and beat a hasty retreat into the depths of the jungle. She glanced down at Tom. His chest rose and fell steadily—he was breathing normally. Biting her lip, she finally shook her head and hurried to follow the creature. Tom was fine, and she needed to know where they were coming from.
It was difficult keeping track of the creature's path as she crashed through the underbrush, but she managed to maintain a similar pace. The dusky figure was never long out of her sight as she chased close behind it.
While they ran, Lark began to hear familiar sounds emanating from the jungle around her. The strange, husky grunts seemed to come from all sides as they echoed through the trees. These were the same hooting cries she'd heard for the past week. She began to think she'd made a large mistake in judgment when she left Tom behind. The creature was obviously not alone.
When two other figures suddenly closed in from either side, she guessed that the first had lead her on this chase in order to lure her into a vulnerable position. Lark stopped running and shook her head at her own stupidity. Steeling herself for an attack, she centered her weight and brought her fists up close to her face.
The two creatures stared at her for many moments, but made no move to engage. Frowning, Lark lowered her fists a bit to examine them more carefully. Since the only one she'd seen close up had been dead, this was her first opportunity to determine the potential danger they posed.
They were as tall as the first had been, standing at a statuesque 6'4" at the very least. Wearing no clothing or decorative accessories, they were covered only by the reddish brown hair that spread liberally across their skin. It was easy to see why a person would assume them to be little more than animals. But Lark sensed an intelligence in the brown eyes staring back at her—an intelligence that was displayed by vampires and demons as well. She still had no idea what their intentions were.
After a moment of close scrutiny between the two sides, it became clear that they were having similar thoughts about Lark. The longer she stood before them, the more confused they seemed to be. As she lowered her hands to her sides, the two creatures visibly flinched, and she had an idea of what was going on. They thought she was like the others—like the vampires. They were waiting for her to attack them, but were ready to take a stand against her if it meant protecting their own kind.
Sighing, Lark opened her hands and spread her arms out in a display of supplication. "I don't speak gibberish," she started, feeling foolish even talking to them. "But I'm a human. I'm different then the ones who killed your kin."
The creatures tilted their heads simultaneously as they processed her speech. They mirrored each other's movements so perfectly that Lark wondered if it was some kind of defensive maneuver. It certainly creeped her out.
When the one on the right started screeching, Lark tensed and dropped her hands. It took her a moment to understand that it was trying to mimic her voice. The sounds it made were obviously not its normal tone. Because it was making such an effort to communicate, Lark fought to stifle her laughter at the sight of this strange creature attempting to twist its vocal chords around the English language. What it said next stopped her cold.
"Human," the creature grunted.
Lark's mouth dropped open in surprise. It stared at her, tilting its head again as it tried to judge the proper response to her facial expression.
"That's me," Lark confirmed, smiling. "I'm human."
To her amazement, the creature pulled its lips back in a strained grimace as it attempted to duplicate her grin. Lark began to feel like she was part of some twisted game of "Monkey See, Monkey Do."
"Obviously dental hygiene is not a strict requirement on this planet," she muttered.
When she spoke, both of the creatures suddenly ducked their heads in duplicate cringing postures. The one who had first communicated with her started growling, his bizarre smile long gone.
"It was a joke," Lark assured them.
But they were no longer paying any attention to her. She realized then what had gotten them so worked up—there was another sound traveling through the jungle around them. Her first thought was that Harkon and his friends had found them, but it took just seconds to dismiss that notion out of hand. The sharp staccato cry was unlike anything she'd ever heard. It certainly had the two creatures before her shivering were they stood.
The first animal mumbled something at her, and for a moment she thought he was swearing at her. But then both of them whirled and ran in the opposite direction, quickly disappearing in the underbrush. Lark wasn't sure what was going on, but she knew that if those hulking creatures were upset by it that she had definite reason to get the hell out of there.
"Tom," she gasped, remembering her friend. Lark turned and hurried back the way she came.
The narrow pool of churning water gave off a stench that made Lyssa's stomach clench. Uncapping the small vial, she gingerly dipped it into the oily substance, taking care to make sure her fingers didn't touch the surface. After quickly twisting the cap back in place, she wiped the vial clean before labeling it according to the code chart that Bucky had passed around the group before it set out that morning.
"Baines!" a male voice called sharply, making her jump. "Did you get that water sample yet?"
Scowling, Lyssa rose to her feet. "Yes," she demurred, waving the vial before carefully placing it into one of the slots that lined an inner pocket of the bag she'd slung over her shoulder.
According to Bucky—a stupid nickname, but Lyssa didn't know his real one and so had to use it—algae wasn't supposed to grow in moving water that was continually fed by a spring. That was enough for him to demand a sample for later testing. Lyssa didn't understand half of the scientific terms he threw around, and had the sneaking suspicion that he didn't, either. But he was hand picked by Val to drag them across miles of jungle growth, and she had made it clear that Lyssa was to obey his every command.
That was probably what rankled her the most. Lyssa knew they didn't have the facilities to do an in-depth scientific survey of these samples they were taking—all of that had been set up on Vic-12 before the colonists had ever taken off from Earth. The ship was for transport and only meant to house people and cargo. All of this scientific inquiry was an exercise in futility—especially when they should be devoting all of their energies to getting the Prosperos space-worthy again. Val was making like they'd be spending the rest of their lives on this planet, and Lyssa would be damned before she'd give in to that idea.
Her bitter musings were interrupted just then by a nearby shout. Charles Mathers appeared briefly through the flora cluttering the landscape in order to wave Bucky over toward his location, and then quickly ducked back through the swaying leaves to disappear. Frowning, Bucky gestured for the others to continue their work before following. Casting a dark glance toward Lyssa, he finally passed through the undergrowth and vanished from sight.
Lyssa snorted and shook her head. The little dictator thought a red-headed scientist made him an authority over her? Holding her head high, she moved to follow them both.
A tall brunette grabbed her arm to stop her. "Bucky said to keep working," she glowered.
Lyssa narrowed her eyes as she stared up at the lanky woman. "Jessica, right?" she asked. "Get your hand off my arm."
Jessica was no match for her long practiced glare of superiority. It had frozen waitstaff and corporate drones in their tracks for years before she'd been dumped into this hellhole. Of course, it had also earned her the nickname "The Duchess," but that had prompted very little hardship for her. When in her element, Lyssa knew what she want, and demanded perfection from all of those around her. She just needed a bit of practice here in this new setting before her full powers were restored.
When Jessica's hand fell away, Lyssa nodded faintly. "You do what you want," she said, "but I'm done listening to Napoleon over there. Algae samples, maggot-infested road-kill…it's a waste of our time. I'm going to go see what Mathers found."
Three more of the workers stood from their posts, prepared to follow. Lyssa smiled, feeling smug. As Jessica frowned after them, they made their way toward Mathers and Bucky.
She hadn't traveled ten yards when she nearly stumbled over them. The two men were crouched among some ferns, staring forward at something she couldn't see. When she cried out in surprise, Bucky turned and hissed at her for silence. Charles merely twisted on his heels, grabbed her by the front of her shirt, and pulled her down to ground level.
"What are we looking at?" Lyssa whispered, peering through the foliage.
She could faintly see several figures moving about some twenty-five yards away, though it was difficult to make them out through the underbrush. Charles pointed at the dark figures and whispered, "Those animals are fighting."
Bucky sighed irritably. "They aren't just animals," he hissed, clearly offended. "Look at them—they're using weapons."
Lyssa frowned at him. "Hate to break it to you, Bucky," she said. "But even chimps use tools. I saw it on the Discovery Channel."
Mathers chuckled under his breath. Positioning herself closer to the taller man, she whispered, "Move over, I can't see."
Mathers shifted sideways so she could kneel between him and Bucky. When she did, she caught a glimpse of a dark scaly hide as one of the creatures swept past. She gasped, startled.
"They're getting closer," Mathers said urgently. "We need to get out of here."
Bucky stared at the creatures, his face rapt with fascination. Lyssa knew he wasn't going anywhere. "What are they?" she asked.
He shook his head. "They're beautiful," he breathed.
Rolling her eyes, Lyssa turned back toward Mathers. "They were fighting each other?" she asked. "Or were they hunting?"
Mathers shrugged. "There was a group of animals; a different species than this one."
"They were mammalian," Bucky interjected.
"Yeah, sure," Mathers agreed. "Anyway, I was watching them—they're the first large animals we've seen since the crash. And then these other ones ran out of the jungle and just attacked them, for no reason."
Bucky scoffed at him. "No reason," he muttered. "They're obviously hunters, and the mammals are their natural prey."
Mathers sighed. "We are three miles away from the settlement, Bucky," he stated. "We need to start back before they get any closer and box us in."
"They don't even know we're here," Bucky argued. "They've got their kill; they don't care about us."
As he spoke, a sudden flurry of chirping sounds erupted behind them. The rest of their party crashed through the trees in a dead run. As Lyssa had, they nearly tripped over the group of colonists crouching in the ferns.
"Something…chasing us," Jessica gasped.
"We're leaving," Lyssa decided, grabbing Mathers's arm. He nodded affirmatively.
"C'mon," he said, gesturing toward Bucky. "This way."
Bucky still resisted, but finally allowed himself to be lead away. He continued to protest until Charles cuffed him across the back of the head. The blow was light, but his point was clear. Bucky fell silent as the group continued to make its way out of danger.
"I really wanted to do that," Lyssa confessed.
"Never mistrust your instincts," Mathers deadpanned, forcing her to chuckle.
They hadn't traveled fifty yards before even more creatures emerged from the jungle. These weren't like the ones Lyssa had briefly seen. They were much larger in size, and covered in fur. The first two skittered to a halt when they saw the humans bearing down on them. Baring their teeth simultaneously, they growled at the group menacingly. Lyssa opened her mouth to scream, but several of the others beat her to it. The shrill cry made the animals wince in surprise.
Before the situation turned into an outright confrontation, a compact gray blur sped between the two groups. The creatures twisted to face this new opponent, forgetting the humans entirely. As they moved to follow, the racing figure stopped and turned toward them. As Mathers had said, it was a different animal entirely. The scaly hide Lyssa had vaguely ascertained just moments before covered the hairless creature like armor. She saw only bright yellow eyes and a gaping maw of a mouth filled with bright, dagger-like teeth before she was forcefully yanked backward.
"Lyssa, let's go," Mathers whispered urgently. She obeyed without question.
The reptilian chirps were chorused by agonizing howls as the larger beasts continued to flood the area. They'd come to assist their fallen comrades. The humans were suddenly in the middle of a massive battle. Lyssa followed the broad back of the man before her, glancing to either side now and then to be sure the rest of their group was keeping up.
For the most part, the hairy creatures ignored them as they raced through the skirmish. They were intent on their immediate foes. In moments, the humans left the worst of the fight behind them, heading south to make their way out of the valley.
"Wait," Lyssa called several minutes later. She fought to catch her breath when the others finally paused. "I need to stop for a…minute…"
Bucky stared at her, his face taut with fear. "We need to get out of here," he squealed.
"Oh, now you want to leave," Mathers snapped at him. "We could have avoided all of this if you just—"
"Hey," Lyssa interjected, gazing around them. "Where's Jessica?"
The others turned to each other curiously. Lyssa's quick head count confirmed there was only nine of them left—one was missing.
"She must have fallen behind," Bucky said. "She'll catch up."
As determined as he was to remain just minutes before, he was now just as anxious to abandon the valley and his great scientific find. Lyssa shook her head at him. "She's faster than you," she told him. "She'd be able to keep up, unless something happened to her."
"Then she's gone," Bucky said. "Let's move."
Lyssa gazed at him in shock. "Let's move?" she repeated in amazement. "You're just going to leave her out here alone?"
"I'm not going back there," he avowed, slashing one hand through the air. "Just listen to them."
He was right, Lyssa realized. The battle raged behind them, echoing through the jungle. It sounded as though there were dozens involved.
"We don't know that she's dead," she said. Vaguely, she wondered just who it was speaking with her voice, because the words certainly didn't sound like Lyssa Baines. Lark must have been rubbing off on her, after all.
Mathers tapped her shoulder with the back of his hand. Jerking his head back in the direction they'd just come, he said, "Let's go, then."
For one moment, her mind froze her body in place. It was entirely stupid of her to even attempt to go back there. She didn't even like Jessica. But staring up into his dark eyes, Lyssa became certain they'd be able to find the girl if they tried.
"Damn," she muttered to herself. Nodding curtly, she headed out behind Mathers.
"You're crazy," Bucky shouted after them. "It's suicide."
They were silent as they hurried back toward the fray. Finally, Lyssa was urged to comment, "They're not going to wait for us, you know."
"I know," Mathers replied. "Feeling a little insane right now?"
"Well, it's for the good," he said. "It's what we do."
Lyssa frowned at him, but he was too intent on the jungle before them to notice. She thought it was an odd thing for him to say. It was something Lark would say, and there was nothing remotely normal about that girl. Shaking the wayward thought from her mind, she focused on their primary objective. For Jessica's sake, she hoped the woman was dead rather than injured. After seeing those teeth, she was certain she didn't want to be on the losing side of that fight.
As they stumbled through the underbrush, Lyssa soon realized the jungle around them had grown rather quiet. Holding up her hand, she gestured for Mathers to stop. The canopy overhead made it nearly impossible to judge how much time had passed. It could be night as far as they were concerned, although Lyssa's eyes had adjusted to account for the faded light. Within the jungle their surroundings appeared to be in perpetual twilight. But Lyssa guessed that in the true darkness of night this place was pitch black.
"Is it over?" she asked. "I don't hear anything."
"Wait," Mathers whispered. Cautiously, he pointed up above his head.
Lyssa heard the rustling sound before the reptilian chatter floated down from the overhead trees. "They climb, too?" she gasped.
Mathers shook his head and grabbed her by the elbow. "Run," he urged.
A heavy crash and spray of leaves signaled the creature's abrupt movement as the two of them jolted forward. It followed them from above, leaping from branch to branch almost effortlessly. Their heavily muscled bodies appeared far too heavy for climbing, but this one was managing just fine.
As they raced through the trees a second creature appeared directly ahead. Lyssa wasn't sure if the fight was still raging nearby, but the two of them were definitely being hunted. Mathers shoved her to the left to alter her course, and they continued to run.
With several more of the creatures closing in behind them, Lyssa almost didn't even notice the brief splash of color amidst the neutral grays of the darkened jungle floor. She paused to see a thin figure cowering against the trunk of a tree. Jessica crouched in the tall fronds of some ferns, shivering with fear.
Lyssa dropped to her side an instant later. Placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, she murmured in a hushed tone, "Are you injured?"
For a moment she didn't think Jessica even realized she was there. Then the woman's wide eyes rolled in her direction, the whites gleaming in through the semi-darkness. "Lyssa?" she asked, her teeth chattering.
"Yeah. Let's head back, all right?" Lyssa asked. "Charles and I—"
Glancing up, she realized they were alone for the moment. Mathers had gone on ahead, perhaps not noticing that she'd stopped. As she watched, two of the creatures plunged into the brush in the direction they'd been running, still in pursuit. For now, the two women seemed to be out of immediate danger. But Mathers was on his own, with several of the reptilian beasts on his heels.
Lyssa swore under her breath. Jessica stared at her quizzically as she began patting down the pockets of her jacket, desperate for anything that might help their situation.
"These are Lark's clothes," Lyssa explained to her. "You don't think I was going to get anything of mine dirty, do you?"
Jessica said nothing and simply reverted back to her faint rocking motion. She was in shock. Thankfully she'd managed to go unnoticed by the animals thus far. She was in no condition to defend herself.
Finally, Lyssa's fingers closed around a slender metallic object nestled in an inner pocket of Lark's jacket. Pulling it out, she breathed, "Thank God you're a smoker, Deborah Lark."
After testing the lighter to make sure it still worked, Lyssa touched Jessica's arm lightly to gain her attention. "Hey, I think the coast is clear for now. I want you to run straight back in that direction, okay? You should hit the mouth of the valley in a few minutes, and from there it's a straight shot back to the settlement. Can you do that?"
Suddenly animated, Jessica clutched Lyssa's arm. Her nails dug through the lined jacket, exerting a bruising pressure that made Lyssa wince in pain. "Where are you going?" she demanded.
"Charles and I came out here to find you—I'm not going to leave without him," Lyssa said with finality. Amazingly, she realized she actually meant it, too. Bit would be proud that she was finally using her resolve to good measure.
"I can't go back alone," Jessica sputtered. "I can't do it."
Lyssa frowned at her. Glancing down at the ragged t-shirt with its hand-drawn advertisement of some musical group she'd never heard of, Lyssa snorted in disdain. "You're about as punk as my grandmother," she mocked. "I thought you signed up for this detail for some excitement."
Jessica's head wobbled back and forth. The meek gesture made Lyssa push even harder.
"Is that a no?" she demanded. "You can't even wuss out properly? I knew there was a reason I didn't like you. Stop wasting my time, little baby."
Finally, she saw some results. Jessica scowled at her, obviously angered by the abuse.
"If you can't run the half mile to the edge of the valley, then I don't know what the hell Val saw in you," Lyssa said. "Bucky did better than that."
As Jessica continued to stare at her, nostrils flaring, Lyssa lost her patience and swatted her. The loud slap seemed to reverberate through the trees, startling them both.
"Now get out of my sight," Lyssa hissed, squelching her fear that they'd been heard.
Jessica lurched to her feet at last. After quickly glancing around herself to be sure they were still alone, she quickly took off running through the underbrush, and soon disappeared from sight.
"Motivational speaking may be my calling," Lyssa whispered.
She cast about for a stick that would be large enough to burn. Finding one that was roughly the width of her forearm, she quickly shed Lark's lightweight jacket and wrapped it around one end. It was flammable, at least. Hell, if she got out of this, she'd give Lark a new one.
"Let's see if you bastards like fire," Lyssa murmured, lighting her torch.
When she reached the fallen tree, Lark was shocked to see one of the creatures holding vigil over the body of the dead animal they'd discovered earlier. She realized it was the one she'd chased through the jungle before being stopped by the twins. She'd started to notice slight differences in the size and shape of each of the animals, and the pattern of growth and coloring of fur covering their bodies. They were not so indistinguishable from one another.
The creature glanced up at her in surprise as she approached. Lark circled him to check on Tom, not taking her eyes away from him. He didn't make a move as she knelt beside her friend.
"Tom," Lark urged, gently patting his cheek. His dark lashes fluttered against his cheeks, but he did not awaken. Frowning, Lark gave him a slap with her open palm.
"Wha-?" Tom sputtered, rising up. Lark held him down by his shoulders.
"Just wait a second," Lark told him. "You took quite a hit. How do you feel?"
"Something slammed into me," Tom muttered. "You mean I was knocked out again?"
Recalling that Harkon had thrown him against a wall on the ship, Lark winced on his behalf and nodded.
"I've known you for less than two months and I already need a CAT scan," he muttered.
"Okay, I think you're fine," Lark said. "Can you stand?"
Nodding, Tom lurched forward and clumsily rose to his feet. He spotted their visitor an instant later and nearly toppled backwards in surprise. Lark steadied him and hurried to explain, "He's here for the body. If we leave him be, he won't attack us again."
"Again?" Tom sputtered. "You mean that's the thing that clocked me? And you didn't—you know, do your thing?"
"Tom," Lark said, putting a hand on his arm. "C'mon, we need to get out of here."
"Tom," the creature parroted, standing. He was shorted than the other two but easily topped six feet. He moved closer, and Lark stepped between the two males before they started something.
The creature reached past Lark with one long arm and poked Tom in the chest. "Tom," he repeated.
"What the hell?" Tom asked, his voice rising hysterically. Lark presumed he was getting ready to bolt.
"No, it's okay," Lark said. "It's what they do—they mimic what they see. I don't think they even understand…"
Just then the creature spoke again, unleashing a long string of syllables that made little sense. It was the same language the other two had used.
"What?" Lark asked.
He repeated the same phrase once more, then waited expectantly. When they did not respond, he murmured in confusion, "Tom?"
"It's his name," Tom realized.
"I can't say that," Lark responded. "All I caught was the first part. Sever?" she asked the creature.
It only seemed to confuse him further, so she stepped toward him and said, "I'm Lark."
At her abrupt movement, Sever reeled back fearfully. Gazing suspiciously over one shoulder, he stumbled over to the nearby body. He made a few small gestures over the corpse, sent another wary glance toward the humans, then retreated out of sight into the jungle.
"What did you do?" Tom asked.
"They think we're like the others," Lark explained. "Like the ones who killed their friend."
"Vampires," Tom spat.
"I obviously confused them when I didn't attack, and they're curious about us. But they still don't trust us."
The strange, rattling chirping sounds echoed around them once more, giving Tom a start. "What's that?" he asked.
"Something we haven't seen yet," Lark responded. "We better haul ass back to the settlement."
As she reached down to grab her pack, she heard the crackle of her radio broadcasting Val's voice. "Lark, do you read me?"
Quickly slipping the clip over her ear, Lark spoke into the communicator, "What's up, Val?"
"Where have you been?" the woman demanded. "I've been trying to raise you for the past twenty minutes. You weren't even wearing your com device, were you? I can't believe—"
Irritated, Lark cut her off, "All right, Val, I get it. We've had a little excitement out here. We found evidence of an intelligent species on the planet."
"That's great," Val blurted. "I knew it was only a matter of time before we gathered enough information to—no, just wait," she interrupted herself. "You and Tom headed north this morning, right?"
"Yeah, we're about two miles out," Lark responded.
"We need you to check on the ecological team," Val said. Her voice sounded strained.
"What's going on, Val?" Lark asked.
"We lost radio contact about a half hour ago, and we're not sure why," Val explained. "But there were a few transmissions before that point…" she drifted off. "We're not sure what we heard, but we think there may be some trouble."
"Where are they?" Lark demanded.
Tom glanced at her. Unable to hear Val's side of the conversation through Lark's earpiece, he frowned in confusion at Lark's words. "What happened?" he asked.
Lark shook her head at him. "Lyssa's group is in danger," she replied. "What was that, Val?"
"They were supposed to explore the twenty-sixth quadrant on your provisional map," Val said.
"Screw the map, Val, give me some details here," Lark snapped.
"They weren't going to travel more than three miles out. They should be northeast of the settlement."
"All right, I've got a mile at least. I'm sending Tom back to you and heading out on my own," Lark said before removing the device from her ear.
"What?" Tom asked. "I'm on my own?"
"You'll be fine," she assured him. "Just take my pack. You've got a cross here, and some holy water. Father Murphy blessed it himself just last week."
"Okay, that will help if I run into Harkon, but what about those things out there?" Tom asked.
"Tom," Lark said. "The others are on their own, and they have no idea what they're up against. Just keep your head down and hurry back toward the settlement."
She tossed the pack toward him. "I'm leaving the radio with you. Let Val know your progress and save her a coronary, will you?"
"Hey, Lark," he called after her. When she turned to face him, he said, "Take care of yourself, okay?"
Shaking her head, Lark had to grin. "I'm not the one to worry about," she responded.
"Harkon!" Ramirez shouted before bursting into the house.
He turned away in embarrassment at the sight that greeted him. Harkon eased away from Jade, his pale flesh gleaming in the semi-darkness. He had the grace to reach for his pants from the floor and begin to clothe himself. Jade on the other hand merely rolled her eyes and leaned back to rest her hands on the table she was seated upon. She crossed her legs in the briefest display of modesty.
Zipping up, Harkon regarded him intently. "Now, what is so important that you felt the need to interrupt our afternoon calisthenics?"
Ramirez felt himself blush and was amazed he was still capable of such a response. "Something big is happening," he stammered, glancing at Jade. She was still perched on the edge of the large table, stark naked. Her expression was part irritation, part boredom, but not at all friendly.
Following his gaze, Harkon frowned at Jade's show of defiance. "Get dressed," he snapped.
Turning his back on her, he missed the wounded expression Jade sent his way. Harkon returned his attention to Ramirez, gazing at him quizzically. "Something big?" he asked, intrigued.
"There seems to be a small scale battle going on in the valley just northeast of here," Ramirez explained.
"The humans have discovered our furry friends?" Harkon guessed.
Ramirez shook his head. "These creatures," he said, waving at the house around him, "and something new. We didn't see these on our reconnaissance. But they're intelligent."
"Are they?" Harkon asked.
"They carry weapons," Ramirez noted.
Harkon smiled. "This I have to see," he mused.
Jade appeared at his side, freshly dressed in a pale blouse and dark trousers. She glowered at Ramirez, jealous that he'd been the one to bring the news to Harkon. But she spent so much leisure time with their leader she could hardly expect to be the one who gleaned important information from the outside.
"It's still daylight," she observed.
"The canopy extends to the battle location," Ramirez assured her.
"Well, then," Harkon said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "We're just wasting time here, aren't we?"
Lark had paused to catch her breath when she spotted the flicker of flames in the distance to her right. She was accustomed to running and didn't normally tire very easily, but it had been a stressful day thus far so it was no wonder her body was starting to show its fatigue.
After sighting the fire, she heard the faint cries of a woman shouting angrily. Lark grinned wryly. "Why do I get the feeling that's you, Lyssa?" she murmured.
Hefting her axe, Lark started toward the scuffle carefully, unsure of what she would find. The first thing she saw was a tall, dark haired man bashing his fist into a large creature's head. She realized instantly that these were the animals that had caused the hairy creatures to turn tail and run. Nearby, Lyssa thrust a burning torch into the side of another reptilian animal as it approached to attack her. It squealed in pain and fell back several steps, but kept a cautious watch over the blonde woman for the slightest hint of vulnerability.
Lark rushed toward the creature, swinging her axe in an arc above her head. With a loud cry, she slammed the flat edge against its head in an effort to drive it back. Unlike the first creatures, these seemed to be malevolent, but it was safer to judge the danger they posed before she went for decapitation.
The creature reeled back in surprise. Twisting toward her, it opened its mouth to hiss at her before thrusting its head forward to snap at her. Unprepared, she was just a bit too slow moving out of the way, and it managed to catch her by the arm with the razor sharp claws lining its gnarled hand. Lark called out in surprise and pain. Jerking away from the creature, she backed toward Lyssa and the protective light of the torch.
"Well you're not going to listen to reason," she muttered at the thing as she glanced down to see the damage to her arm. Four welts slashed through the meat of her bicep, bleeding freely. "You ruined my shirt!"
Darting forward, Lark dispensed with the kid gloves and used her axe to its full advantage. The first creature seemed unaware of the weapon she wielded, for it leapt toward her. Lark crouched slightly to kick it out of the air and swung the axe immediately after. The sharpened blade sunk into its neck, slicing muscle and bone to imbed itself in its spine. The creature's reptilian scream made the others pause in amazement.
Jerking the blade from the animal before it even landed on the soft earth below, Lark turned to face the rest of its comrades. "Lyssa," she commanded, "Torch."
The blonde woman didn't question but merely tossed the burning stick her way. Catching it neatly in her left hand, Lark rushed after a second creature, who immediately cowered away from the flames. She was almost disappointed when the remaining three animals took one look at their fallen companion and darted away. One moment the jungle writhed with their swift, subtle movements, and in the next they were gone.
"What the hell were those things?" she cried, turning toward Lyssa.
"A race that's kept itself well hidden until now," the man interjected, stepping closer to her.
Lark took a step back, irritated that she had to look up to meet his eyes. Glancing at Lyssa, she asked, "You hurt?"
The blonde woman had a nasty cut on her forehead, but otherwise appeared to be fine. She shook her head wearily. "We're both fine," she said.
Refusing to take another look at the taller man, Lark nodded grimly and started walking back in the direction she'd come. "We better head toward the settlement before any more of them decide to make an appearance," she said.
"Did you see any of the others?" Lyssa asked, her voice urgent.
Lark frowned faintly, surprised the woman even thought to ask about the rest of her party. "Yeah, they were at the other end of the valley, waiting for you and another girl. Jessica, right?"
Lyssa nodded. "She found her way back, then?"
"She's with them now," Lark said. "I sent them off; we can find our way just fine."
"Let's get moving, then," the dark-haired man suggested.
Lark's brow furrowed. He was certainly rather capable, she thought. For some reason it rubbed her the wrong way. Shifting her shoulders slightly as her arm throbbed, Lark fell into step behind the two of them as they started walking toward the head of the valley and the settlement beyond.
"Ow!" Lyssa yelped when Val pressed down on her forehead to dab at her cut.
"Oh, stop it," Val chastised. "All this whimpering after you were so brave today?"
Lark glanced over at them from across the room, where Dr. Bartlett was busy stitching up the gash on her arm. She laughed at the sour look on Lyssa's face. "Yeah, Baines," she joked. "Where'd your twin go? I liked her much better."
"Ha," Lyssa retorted. "It wasn't like me to go back like that, was it?" she reflected.
Lark shrugged, earning a warning glance from the doctor. He shook his head in exasperation when she paid him no mind and leaned forward to drive her next point home. "You know what, Baines?" she asked. "People have to back each other up when it's needed. It's what we do."
"For the good," Lyssa murmured. Louder, she added, "That's exactly what Charles said."
"Charles," Lark responded, furrowing her brow. "He's something, huh? How he just jumped in like that, fighting and everything?"
"Well, he's security," Lyssa explained. "And I think he was a cop on Earth."
"How do you figure?"
Lyssa shrugged. "I don't know. I just got that sense. Like he's more aware of what's going on than other people. It's probably why he volunteered for that detail."
"How did you know he volunteered?" Val asked, surprised.
"He told me," Lyssa responded.
"Yeah, well, I don't like that guy," Lark mumbled. "There's just something off about him."
"I don't know," Lyssa said. "He's kind of cute."
She leaned forward out of her chair to toss off the blanket Val had wrapped around her shoulders. It was getting hot in the doctor's quarters. Noticing the gray shirt she was wearing, Lark's mouth dropped open in shock.
"Hey, those are my clothes," she roared.
Sheepish, Lyssa glanced down at herself. "Oh yeah," she recalled. "I owe you a jacket."
Harkon sighed as he looked over the corpses littering the jungle floor. "We missed it," he muttered in irritation. "You took too long gathering the others."
Ramirez glanced down contritely even though they both knew that no one could have predicted when the battle would be complete. "These reptiles are new," he offered.
"Yes," Harkon murmured. "Ugly beasties, aren't they?"
He prodded one of them with his boot. There were far more of the hairy beasts fallen here than the others, which meant the scaly brutes were much stronger. Perhaps there'd be some use for them, if he managed to wrap his brain around just how to control them.
As he mused over the dead creature, Ramirez started shouting. The vampire stood right beside him, and his voice thundered through Harkon's ears like a tremendous bell.
"That's enough of that," he snarled, cuffing the vampire across the face.
"Harkon," Jade interjected. "It's that moron Ivey."
Turning to face her, Harkon's gaze fell on a young man crouched over the body of one of the reptilian beasts. An instant later he realized that the beast wasn't dead at all, merely dying. Ivey, starving and unable to control his bloodlust with the scent dancing around them, had given in to his urges and bitten the thing.
"Well, that saves me the trouble of testing him," Harkon breezed. He casually watched as the young vampire filled his belly. The weakened creature was unable to put up much of a fight by that point, and Ivey drank it to the point of death.
The others stared at him raptly as he released the creature and rose to his feet. They waited for him to burst into flames, or fall on the ground dead, or otherwise reject the blood he'd just ingested. They waited in vain. As the minutes passed it became clear that not only was the blood safe to drink, it was rather revitalizing. A flush of color stained the young vampire's cheeks, and he seemed to flesh out before their very eyes.
Ivey grinned, his fangs flashing in the gloom. His white face was stark in the darkness, stained a deep black as blood liberally oozed between his lips and down his chin to spatter against his shirt.
Gazing at his minion in amazement, Harkon slowly reached up and gestured two fingers toward his own face. "You've got a little something right there."