"It looks like all the elevators in this sector are out of commission," the soldier with the slate computer sighed from a relatively familiar crouched posture of planning. "We're not out of this yet - not by a long shot. You wouldn't happen to remember what you did to get that elevator to stop - would you, Ma'am?"
"Yes, Janette," Burdlit hissed while attempting to gather some sort of eye contact with the botanist, "how...did you get that transport to stop."
"I'm not sure," Janette lied while keeping her eyes peeled on the contingent. She needed to latch onto them at all costs. "It was spur of the moment. I just flicked some switches and it worked." The response was curt, distracted.
Peculiar, there were no switches within a transport to be flicked, so the soldier with the slate computer chocked the utterance up to colloquialism and moved on, "We're going to have to find another way out of here, and unfortunately, that'll mean heading back down through Inner Corridor."
This, of course, met with the frustrated groans from the rest of the weary contingent. They had just come from there, hoped that they would never have to return, and actually got done fending off a Deew which was now starting to feed on people! Their lasers were surprisingly effective during the endeavor, but the margin for error had become much slimmer. Those were the tradeoffs it seemed. The biological weapon could now be damaged, but its play was now for keeps - as if that was not the case beforehand.
Only now, beneath the bedding of shrubbery that commandeered Level Z's floor, walls, and ceiling - and had been believed to have spread throughout the entirety of the various levels at this point and rate (of growth); these attacks were becoming increasingly more difficult to spot. If the Deew could be seen or felt, it could snap into trying to ensnare any person who came into its vicinity or, worse yet, contact. Before, the deadly impalement of spiky branches, although speedy, still happened to have been telegraphed. Simply put, they saw it coming. With the lights all but smothered out by the biological weapon appropriating most of the foreseeable surface area, the burning embers of controlled, laser-induced forest fires plus the flashlights that connected to each soldier's laser rifle lit the way. They knew that going back through Inner Corridor was a suicide mission because the presence of foliage would be incredibly thick from the perspective of a dense origination point.
Burdlit stood next to Janette but somewhat hovered over her by the distrusting gaze of his shady leer. He opined, "You look exhausted. I had quite the time down inside Inner Corridor...myself. One thing that I couldn't quite figure out was why the dispersant was never triggered. Do you happen to have any idea why that wouldn't have turned on? I'm just curious."
Janette wanted to tell Burdlit to back off, but she knew where he was going with that not so innocuous line of questioning. It had been her doing, and yes, the hope was that the operational general would have perished as a result. The only thing that was coming, however, happened to be his response to the betrayal. Both of their eyes turned to the soldier with the slate computer who piggybacked off the unassuming query.
"I'm thinking that we need to try and make use of the dispersant now," she suggested. "When we were traversing the ducts, the storage vats still seemed to be intact. Probably, just the hose mechanism had gone faulty. I've got a little time now to think and can attempt to isolate the actual issue."
"Let's buy her some additional time to figure this...uncanny problem out," Burdlit said purposely in the direction of Janette as if to insinuate to the botanist that he already knew the answer. "Teams of four. Three of you stick here and make sure that nothing gets through this position. The second team of four, start clearing out a path from this point all the way on down the stairwell to the Inner Corridor entrance. Last team of four, I'd actually like to split up."
Not that - Janette thought. The math was simple, but Burdlit's aims were fuzzy. With four total people left, if he sent two of the soldiers in that group away - they would be alone to discuss any such matter that met his fancy. And she would be close to powerless to stop him. Unarmed. Still clutching the Deew sample. Alone.
Picking up on this apprehension, Burdlit assured, "I'll watch over Janette, personally - to ensure her safety. You last two, make sure that the biological weapon doesn't fill itself back in along the way. The last thing that we need is to get split up with our already diminished numbers."
But the subtle assurance was of the most threatening kind to Janette as she finally turned to meet Burdlit's beady eyes at the insistence of a directing hand which sought to lead the way in deference to 'ladies first'. About the last thing that the botanist needed was to turn her back to him. For her, it was time to speak up so that the entire bunch could hear, "I don't feel comfortable with this."
Since Janette did outrank Burdlit in the eyes of the Galaxy Bloc soldiers from the contingent, her concerns were both respectfully noted and dutifully heeded. The soldier with the slate computer concurred, "It's definitely not my idea of fun time to go back down there. Do you have any other suggestions, Ma'am? In retrospect, I'm open to try just about anything."
For Burdlit, his nonexistent patience was wearing thin. Janette had played that well, but this was a game that she could not win against him. And this Human wanted to hop on the universal stage and test wits against a seasoned veteran, so he merely needed to pick his spot - the right time to isolate her to his vaunted presence of a not so widely discussed infamy.
"Even if it means our own lives," Janette stated, "we can't risk exposing the rest of the planet to the Deew by opening up another sector. Its spreading would be far too rapid for any type of containment activity to occur. Right now, the biological weapon's reach is still limited. Although, it might not appear as such. Keeping the rest of Inner Corridor intact happens to be Dio Qze's one chance at containing this fallout."
"Hadn't thought about it like that," the soldier with the slate computer admitted and conceded, "because there's still a chance to save the planet if the Deew can be clipped off in this section. I still think that triggering the dispersant might help us to do that even if we don't double back through Inner Corridor on the heels of its defoliation. Hopefully, it's strong enough to have some sort of an effect."
"This is all wishful thinking," Burdlit interjected with the expertise from his own scope of support which sounded a lot like pointed yet honest skepticism, "but if we don't get either this elevator working or the sprinkler system to function, I fear that those unaffected sectors of Inner Corridor might be the only places on Dio Qze that aren't (affected). Nobody topside is going to be capable of stopping this."
There was one group who could potentially stop this, but their involvement also carried along with it the potential of a pretty big what-if. The intruder from earlier might hold some sway over the Space Force and could get them to hold back or perhaps temper their annihilation to a much more precision cutting operation. They had the power. But only, did they also have the inclination? Burdlit's 'holier than thou' attitude was astounding however, so Janette assailed, "We didn't start this!"
Having finally gotten a rise out of her, Burdlit warned, "It's too late to take it back now."
"The unincorporated planets just want to be left alone," Janette pleaded.
"And so you made your choice," Burdlit dismissed with a shrug.
It was worth Janette mentioning that, "We didn't leave the Space Force just to fall in under the wing of another group."
There was no need for justification when the intent of malice had already been ascertained, partially doled out, and the full extent of which was still yet to be determined by Burdlit. The admonishment continued, "You put on the big faction pants, and now you're going to have to wear them."
Right about now, the contingent was completely confused by the duologue. They just stood by, watched, and listened to Janette and Burdlit going at it.
"How are you going to just blame this on me?" Janette asked.
"There's something...to be said about...cooperation, Janette," Burdlit replied.
Each had the credibility of face to lose by divulging the treachery of the other to the contingent. Janette had left them all down within Inner Corridor to die. How she did it probably had to do with using her overriding rank to freeze out the safety protocols from being tripped which would have released the dispersant during the Deew's original rampage. And Burdlit knowingly endangered everybody's lives as the deadly liaison of the Carriveaua who brought the biological weapon to the planet in the first place! There was no telling how the Galaxy Bloc soldiers would react to either piece of bad news.
Or, if they would hesitate - like now. Burdlit's clammy tail traced up Janette's side and wrapped around her right wrist as he went invisible, explaining, "I've been meaning to ask you about what this is that you've been...clutching this entire time."
The soldiers only saw the aggression being waged against a superior officer and took up their arms but were prevented from firing them as they had no way of ascertaining Burdlit's exact position when he used his nano-chamo skin for stealth purposes. Janette struggled against the incredible grip of the tail which cut off the circulation in her right arm and caused her to drop the stasis container which held the Deew sample from the onset of a sharp pain.
She shouted, "No," and dove for the unincorporated planets' salvation with her left hand in the lead. Meanwhile, Burdlit's tail had loosed its grip on her right wrist in its own mindful attempt to retrieve the precious belonging.
And he was adept at multitasking in changing up the positions of the rest of his body while firing his laser rifle under the guise of the biological weapon's enforced darkness. The contingent - those who had not been caught in the initial barrage were left scattering and scrambling for a cover that did not exist. On one end of the spectrum, the Deew awaited their venturing out too far away from this temporary sanctuary. On the other, three wounded or potentially dead soldiers out of the ten - there was no telling, stood between the remaining seven and either retreat or rescue (of Janette). It was madness mixed with powerlessness as an inexplicable occurrence pit the botanist against the operational general at the worst of possible times....
"What the fu-- is going on?" One soldier shouted.
The bet was safe to be hedged that even if Burdlit made it topside, the Carriveaua actions from space would have outed him, but this way, he and Janette could have a little alone time in order to figure out what she was planning. The operational general had no doubt in his mind that he could make her talk - force her to do so under the compulsion of a scintillantly horrid regurgitation method which could keep the botanist alive inside of him indefinitely and excruciatingly until she decided to speak. The taste for Humans was definitely an acquired one, but in this case, an exception would certainly be made. The options that dining on a meal in that manner could afford were too numerous to name, but what happened to be crystal clear was that the answers did not need to come while they were on Dio Qze. But those answers would come....
"Get down!" Another soldier advised, "Look out!"
After scooping up the container and strafing away from the initially thwarted attempts of Burdlit's tail to corral the container, Janette broke off into an open field sprint for the door to the stairwell. She knew Level Z well even despite the blackout and hoped that the modifications which were made to the Deew would ensure her at least partially safe passage through what was about to be approached as the nucleus of its floral recesses. For anybody else, touching that door with the biological weapon draped all over it would have meant the end and a death from consumption which had little to do with cold weather and everything to do with a hot commodity....
"She's clear!" A third soldier ascertained of the visual at the end of the laser rifle flashlight beam which flickered uneasily with the activity of critical repositioning prior to chance presenting itself to open up on Burdlit's perceived, previous location.
"You're making this too easy, Janette!" The operational general called after her. He was surprised but also impressed that the Deew had not snatched the botanist up like any of the numerous people who had unknowingly impacted it before. She had done something to the biological weapon to cause it to behave in this manner, and Burdlit could not wait to find out what that thing was....
But before he could take off after Janette, the soldier with the slate computer challenged him with a disgusted, "How could you?"
The charge was worth addressing, so he answered with a voice which was much too difficult to pinpoint beneath the leafy mounds of a muffling insulation that plastered the entire level, "I generally enjoyed your company and camaraderie. It's not your fault that you're...Human."