Chapter Thirty-Six – A Venom for the Venomous
Citlally sat through the meeting held by Doctor Linnaeus, Endan on one side of her, Mannarius and Dhruv on the other. She would be riding in the Lionstar, just as she had ever since meeting the Lion, and they would descend into the atmosphere together. What Linnaeus had them doing once they were on the ground, they would all do together. As nervous as the dangers of the mission made her, she was eager for a chance to strike out at the K’zzyrch.
Once the doctor had concluded his instructions, and the others had left, Linnaeus stopped Mannarius to talk to him.
“I know when you’re upset,” he pointed out.
Mannarius shrugged and stepped out of the doctor’s reach.
“You have wanted this for years,” Linnaeus reminded him. “Striking at the K’zzyrch, using all of our strength to show them that we are done with them hurting the rest of the galaxy…”
Mannarius glared at him through narrowed eyes. “Time and again, you send your own son into the pit of hell. You didn’t embrace him when he was conceived, but now that he’s useful to you as one of these – these rebels, you always welcome him around.”
The Lion grumbled and added, “As long as he dresses the way that you expect him to.”
“And he does it,” he went on, interrupting the doctor, “even though he’s nervous around you. He does everything you ask of him. He’s a terrible friend, and an even worse cousin, but he’s a damn good son. Do you even see that in him?”
“Of cou –”
“Just forget it,” Mannarius cut in. “I don’t actually want to hold a conversation with you. I’m going to fight the K’zzyrch, because they took Rozariz from me, and lot of them are going to die because of me. Just remember that I’m not doing it for him, and I’m certainly not doing it for you. If it hadn’t been for your meddling and his foolishness, I would still have my Rozariz – and probably some cubs by now!”
Dhruv and everyone else stayed silent, staring at Mannarius while he told Linnaeus exactly how he felt. The doctor couldn’t get any words in edgewise – at least, nothing meaningful. Once he was done, he turned to go, his co-pilot following close behind. He was half-way through the door when Citlally heard the sound of bodies running into each other.
“Xingfei?!” the Lion complained. “What are you doing down here and not chasing after Jalingan like a lost puppy?”
“Now he’s taking it out on him,” Citlally whispered, giving Endan’s sleeve a worried tug.
They stepped closer to the door to see three other aliens standing behind Xingfei. One of them was Chela, who seemed to be escorting the others.
“I’m sorry, Mannarius,” Xingfei told him. “We thought Doctor Linnaeus was done, and we really needed to speak with him. It looks like I got back here just in time!”
“They were very insistent that they speak to you, doctor,” Chela said.
“Yes, what is it?” the doctor asked, stepping forward. “Go on.”
Chela led the other two into the room and closed the door.
“Varilax Lefallon reporting, doctor,” one of them said. As soon as he heard his name, Endan recognized him from the asteroid minefield; he was the indigo-skinned friend of Doctor Sendrick. “My apologies for being late, sir.”
“Ah, I wasn’t quite sure whether to expect you at all, Varilax,” the doctor replied. “You had gone all the way to one of the remote outposts.”
“Yes, sir,” Varilax confirmed with a nod. “And you will be glad to hear that it was well worth our time.”
“Is that so?” Doctor Linnaeus asked him, rubbing his chin with great intrigue.
Varilax nodded. “I was at Remote Outpost 3-14, y’know,” and when I got to the medical center, there were some very interesting patients there.”
“R. O. 3-14?” Dhruv repeated. “Captain, were were there –”
“I know Dhruv,” Mannarius interrupted. “I doubt that she remembers, it though.” He glanced briefly at Citlally.
“Go on, Varilax,” Linnaeus said. “Who was there?”
“Two K’zzyrch soldiers, y’know,” the indigo-skinned alien told him.
Dhruv looked to his captain with widened eyes.
“It must have then ones who arrived just as we were leaving,” Mannarius noted.
“You were there at that time?” Varilax asked. “Well, you just managed to miss something really interesting! One of the K’zzyrch soldiers was injured, and the other one was ordering the doctors in the medial center to heal him.”
“How interesting that they did not seek out their own medic,” Linnaeus noted.
Varilax shrugged. “It must have had something to do with them even being so far out that way, y’know? Anyhow, there was no way for the doctors to decline them any service, so they took advantage of the situation.” He turned to the Restherian beside him and said, “This is Doctor Andryx. He was working working in the Remote Outpost medical center when the K’zzyrch showed up.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Andryx said as he shook Linnaeus’s hand. He turned to Citlally. “And it is wonderful to see you doing so much better.”
She blinked, looking up at him.
“Excuse me,” Endan said as he stepped between them. “How do ye know my wife?”
“Relax, Endan,” Mannarius told him. “Andryx was one of the doctors working to help Citlally back when when we first got her off of Sardonia.”
This brightened Endan’s face a great deal. “Well, then I’m incredibly grateful tae ye,” he told him, shaking his hand eagerly. “I don’ know what I would do without my sweet Aztec princess.”
Doctor Andryx smiled. “It’s good to know that the two of you are back together. Now, you’ll also be glad to know that we have a new advantage over the K’zzyrch.”
His words gave Linnaeus reason to move the group back into his lab, where they sat together at a table and served tea and coffee before resuming their conversation.
“So you had to heal a K’zzyrch?” Doctor Linnaeus began.
Andryx nodded. “Yes, they were very… insistent, shall I say. So my fellow doctors and I decided to use the situation to our advantage.”
“And how did you do that?” Linnaeus wanted to know.
“He only had a broken leg, y’know,” Varilax said.
“Indeed,” Doctor Andryx agreed. “I might have simply put a cast on him –”
“A shoddy one,” Mannarius cut in, “if you don’t want him to be able to fight again.”
Andryx blinked when he heard the Lion’s words, then looked to Linnaeus.
“He’s angry,” Doctor Linnaeus explained. “Please, go on.”
“Yes, well, I might have put a cast on him, and sent him on his way, but we – Jabiloy, Quelliros, and I – realized that we could do more than just that. You see, we usually do x-rays along with our work on broken bones. We had considered not doing one, so that we could send them on their way as quickly as possible –”
“And risk the bone not healing quite right?” Mannarius asked. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
“Well, yes,” Andryx agreed, “but we realized that if x-rays give us some information, then a full-body scan would give us so much more. It would all be information that we needed badly; nobody had ever collected detailed biological data on a K’zzyrch before. We took the risk and let them know that we would need to run several scans to check on the nature of the injury, and to ensure that he carried no infections or parasites.”
“And they let you?” Linnaeus asked.
“Of course they did,” Doctor Andryx replied. “Between our… protocols, as we called them, and medical necessity, they didn’t put up much argument.”
“They aren’t all that intelligent without their doctor around, y’know,” Varilax added.
“Well, at least not these individuals,” Doctor Andryx went on.
“And you did the scans?” Linnaeus asked.
Doctor Andryx grinned. “MRI, CT, x-rays, you name it. We were also able to sedate the patient while we set the bone. We got him to a private room and took ultrasounds, radionuclides, and thermographic scans.”
“You also used the optical lasers, didn’t you?” Varilax asked.
“Of course,” the doctor confirmed. “We took blood samples and what-have-you. I was even able to locate their venom glands and draw a sample of that.”
“That’s quite a lot of data you collected,” Linnaeus commented. “We could make great use of it here.”
“So I thought,” Andryx said. “And we already have.”
With a nod from the doctor, Varilax moved aside the tea kettle and laid a titanium case on the table where they sat. The case had two locks; one coded, the other keyed. Varilax pulled a key from an inner pocket of his flight suit and turned it in the lock, and Andryx followed by entering in his code. The case opened with a click.
“This is what we rushed here to show you,” Andryx said. “Varilax said that the secret was assembling for a new mission, so I wanted to make sure that you got this before you fought the K’zzyrch again.”
Inside the case was a foam lining, and nestled safely in the foam were several vials, each containing a dark, rich purple liquid. There were also several computer chips, each one in its own plastic case. Andryx slid one of them across the table towards Linnaeus.
“This is the data we collected,” Andryx told him. “Reports, analyses, interpretations, everything. You can use it as it is, or you can develop it further; it’s completely up to you. I can only hope that you will share anything new that you discover.”
Doctor Linnaeus picked up the data chip and turned it over in his hands.
“I doubt that I need to say this,” Andryx went on, “but this information is not safe for transmission. Not if you want to keep this secret you have going on.”
Linnaeus gave him a slow nod. “No. I would never transmit this… If the K’zzyrch intercepted it, and they knew that we had this kind of information on them…”
“Not to mention the danger that Doctor Andryx would be in,” Xingfei pointed out. “And probably the entire remote outpost.”
Linnaeus gave a serious nod. “Now, what’s in these vials?”
“This is the result of our blood analyses, y’know,” Varilax explained. “All my years of working to understand the k’zshyrk venom, and now we have this.”
“What we learned,” Andryx told them after taking a long sip of tea, “is that even though they have venom glands in several parts of their body, it’s not a closed system. The venom course through their blood as well, and not just in trace amounts.”
“That says a lot about how they became the dominant species on their planet,” Linnaeus noted. “Anything that ate them would be poisoned.”
Varilax nodded. “And even if the would-be predator didn’t die, it would be so weakened that it would become the prey. Clearly the K’zzyrch are immune to their own venom, and we’re working on the assumption that fellow K’zzyrch are also immune. Clearly we don’t have a way to test that part of it.”
“So this is their venom?” Linnaeus asked.
Andryx reached into the foam and pulled out a tiny vial, no wider than Citlally’s pinky finger, and much shorter. The liquid inside was a bright yellow-green. “This is the venom. I can only share this small sample with you, but our analysis is all on that chip. This,” he said as he pointed to the purple vials, “is what we formulated to counter it.”
“Counter it?” Citlally asked. “You made a cure?”
“No!” Varilax replied sternly. “No, this is not a cure at all. It is a weapon to fight back against those venomous lizards, y’know. Anything with this in its body,” he held up the tiny yellow-green vial again, “will suffer terribly when this gets into its system.” He held up a purple vial.
“We need to warn you,” Doctor Andryx added, looking to Citlally and her husband. “That includes anyone injected with k’zshyrk. That stuff is based on their pure venom, but it’s been modified in certain ways. We’ve managed to analyze it and compare them. Citlally, if you get this formula in you, it will burn as it courses through your veins. Then your blood will seize. It replicates itself using your own bodily fluids, and it will eat through your vessels and spread. It would be extremely painful, and one hundred percent deadly.”
“So it kills K’zzyrch,” Endan said, “and anyone with these scars?” He pulled up one pant leg to reveal the jagged black lines on his skin.
“Exactly,” Andryx said. “This is going to be your best weapon against them. It only takes a small amount to destroy one individual. On that chip, you have the formula for diluting the counter-venom. Varilax here has done several practice simulations, and is prepared to administer it in battle. He’s quick with a syringe and a tranq gun; our own version of a K’zzyrch doctor. He can even train some of your fellow members on how to use it correctly.”
“Wait,” Xingfei gasped suddenly, his blue hands covering his mouth. “That means Jalingan is in danger, too!”
“Of course you think only about him,” Mannarius scoffed. “The galaxy is a bigger place than you think, little blue-tail.”
“He needs to know about this,” Xingfei told him. “He can’t get any of that stuff in him. I have to go warn him.”
Xinfei jumped off of his chair, his gold bracelets jingling, his long, narrow tail waving excitedly behind him. Doctor Linnaeus caught him by the arm before he got very far to the door.
“Wait,” he said when he saw the look on Xingfei’s face. “Let me show you something.”
Linnaeus showed him over to an inner office and stepped inside. He opened the top drawer in a tall filing cabinet set in one corner of the room, and pulled a thick file from somewhere in the middle. They walked back out and he dropped in on the table, right next to the plate of madeleines and sliced pears.
“Take a look at this,” Linnaeus told the group.
“What language is it in?” Citlally asked as she looked over the words printed on the front. The letters looked like something between teardrop splotches and feline paw prints.
“That’s Leomian,” the doctor told her. “If you can’t read that, it has Jalingan’s name on it. Although… well, there may be a few documents in there in Swedish. But that’s not the point.”
He flipped through several layers of the file, found a small manila envelope, and handed it to Xingfei. The blue-skinned young man opened it and pulled out several photographs.
“This is a K’zzyrch uniform,” Xingfei noted. “Why are these pictures in Jalingan’s file?”
“Because that is his uniform,” Linnaeus explained. “Jalingan will be wearing that while he does his mercenary work for the K’zzyrch.”
Citlally looked over the photographs; they seemed familiar to her. Even though none of them showed Jalingan’s face, she had a feeling that she had seen the uniform before.
“So he’ll be that much harder to recognize,” Xingfei sighed.
“Not exactly,” Linnaeus replied. “I thought you knew what he wore… Anyhow, you see this?” He pointed to a certain part of one of the photos. “Jalingan is the only one you’ll find anywhere with a gold-lined K’zzyrch uniform.”
Xingfei narrowed his black-and-green eyes and looked closer at the photographs. Sure enough, gold fabric lined the front of his uniform, as well as his cuffs and collar. He looked back up at Linnaeus.
“What exactly do we do with this information?” Xingfei asked, his voice soft and worried.
“Make sure that nobody shoots the man lined in gold,” Linnaeus told him, “and you tell him that he’d better be wearing his uniform. You tell him about this new counter-venom, and warn him that he has to stay identifiable to his friends if he doesn’t want to get it in his veins. Now go – run, and you should be able to catch him before he leaves.”
Xingfei gave a hasty nodded and bounded off as hurriedly as his legs could take him. Citlally awed at the way his legs – something like a cat’s and something like a kangaroo’s, but with more joints around the ankle, and wider toes – carried him. When she heard the front door to the lab open and shut, she looked to Mannarius.
“Do you not like him or something?”
“Don’t worry about him,” Linnaeus said. “He doesn’t like it when anyone is concerned about Jalingan.”
“Okay,” Citlally sighed. “But he seems like too nice of a guy for anyone to hate or be angry at.”
* ** *** ** *
Xingfei was on the third level of the residential area when he started to worry that he wouldn’t be able to find Jalingan at all. He’d already been by Jalingan’s room, and now he was racing to catch him on his way to the docking bays.
He turned another corner and stood up straight.
“Jalingan!” he shouted to the man whose cloak was billowing behind him as he walked.
The man stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, Xingfei, there you are.” He turned around and walked back towards the blue-skinned alien.
Xingfei bounded down the hallway towards Jalingan, closing the distance between them in mere seconds. When he got there, he stood up straight again and grinned up at him.
“Hey,” Jalingan said. “It’s good to see you. I was just coming by your room, actually.”
Xingfei nodded, his chest heaving as he stared up at the other man.
“Wow, you’re really out of breath, aren’t you?”
Xingfei smirked, tried to speak, but could only chuckle before going back to panting.
“Do you want to talk in your room before I leave?” Jalingan asked him. His voice was low and even, as if he had a feeling that he knew what Xingfei would want to discuss.
“Yes,” Xingfei managed to get out in between breaths.
They walked together down the hall. Xingfei’s room was two doors away from the end, and he opened the door with his key pass. He showed his friend in and dropped down into an armchair. Jalingan set his bags down once the door closed, and looked down at his friend. For a long time, neither of them said anything.
* ** *** ** *
Two hours later, Xingfei was curled up on Jalingan’s chest, both of them warm under his quilt. He had just caught his breath for the second time, and was smiling very contentedly. His braid had come undone, leaving his ivory locks to sprawl across his back, and his tail had coiled around one of Jalingan’s legs.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Jalingan warned him. “I have a rendezvous to make.”
“I know,” Xingfei sighed. “I just… I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
His words made Jalingan chuckle. “Everything I do is dangerous, Xingfei! All of this deceiving the K’zzyrch, making them believe that they’re in control, that all of these species are servile to them. And when the attack sweeps in? I can’t even give myself away then; they have to keep thinking that I had nothing to do with it. This will probably be the most danger I’ve been in for a while.”
“All the more reason for me to come see you, then.”
“Wow,” Jalingan replied, peering down at Xingfei, “are all A’untorens this sentimental?”
Xingfei shrugged. “You could come with me to Fa’uren after all of this is over… find out for yourself.”
Jalingan laughed. “I’m not going all the way to the far reaches of the Sagittarius arm of the galaxy, Xingfei. Besides, one A’untoren is more then enough to keep me busy.”
His words made Xingfei’s expression change to one of disappointment.
“Hey now,” the half-lion said, laying an arm over his shoulders. “You promised me that you wouldn’t get attached.”
“I know.” His long blue ears drooped, as though weighed down by his heavy heart. Xingfei sat up and stretched his arm out to pick up his brush from his nightstand so that he could run it through his hair. “I’m fine,” he insisted as he began to re-weave his braid.
Jalingan sat up at well. “It’s a big galaxy,” he said, as though reminding Xingfei about something.
Xingfei nodded. “And defending it isn’t for the weak or sentimental.”
“That’s the spirit,” Jalingan told him. “You’re a heck of a pilot, Xingfei, and an even better engineer.
Xingfei scoffed. “Photo- and magneto-physicist and plasma engineer,” he corrected him.
“That’s why you’re so much better,” Jalingan told him. “Not to mention your ability to climb, your speed…”
He stopped when he noticed the way Xingfei was grinning at him. “You make these missions possible, you know.”
“So do you,” the A’untoren replied.
Jalingan shook his head and scooted towards the edge of the bed, shaking his leg to get it free. “I need to go.”
“Promise me you’ll wear your uniform?”
“Yeah,” Jalingan said, kneeling down beside his bags to search through them. “I might as well get it on now. I shouldn’t be caught with my other clothes, anyway. Can I leave them with you? I mean, you can give them to my father if you want. The better he hides them, the safer our secret stays.”
“Sure,” Xingfei replied, staring at Jalingan’s body while he still could. He stopped himself from saying anything else, figuring that it would come out all wrong.
Instead, he watched Jalingan pull on his space-ready undergarment, a woolen piece that would keep his arms and legs warm as he made the journey through jump-gate after jump-gate on his way towards K’zzyrch airspace. Then there was the uniform, every piece of it as black as the vacuum of space; close-fitting pants, a silk shirt, knee-length boots, and a long jacket – rather like a leather trench coat – to go over all of it.
Just as Doctor Linnaeus had said, the edging and inner lining on every piece of his uniform was gold, the shimmering lines standing out against the black like comets gliding through the æther. Xingfei traced his fingers across those lines.
“They’re all going to rely on the gold to identify you,” he whispered.
“I know,” Jalingan said. He pulled a second cloak from one of his bags, tightly-woven wool, dyed black but also edged in gold, and pulled it over his shoulders. He looked back at Xingfei and sighed. “I told you, you can’t worry about me. I will be fine; I’m more focused than I have been in months.”
“Thanks to me?”
“Thanks to you, you sentimental creature.” He smirked and laid one hand on Xingfei’s shoulder. “And I need you to be focused, too. My father entrusted you with a lot, between setting out those disruptor mines and joining the EMP team. You can’t be distracted thinking about me.”
“Okay.” Xingfei nodded and stared at Jalingan. Once he had a helmet on, he would be nearly indistinguishable from the lizards who’d killed the rest of his family during their first – and only – visit to the Orion arm of the galaxy. He shuddered at the thought of mixing them up, and focused on memorizing the look of his gold lining.
“Now,” Jalingan went on, “promise me that you won’t let them inject you with their poison. That stuff will give you the worst nightmares that you’ve ever had.”
“Sure,” Xingfei agreed, giving a weak nod.
“So…” Jalingan drew in a long breath. Then he leaned in close, wrapping his cloak around the A’untoren, and let their lips meet one last time. Xingfei was surprised at first, but wasted not a moment before returning the kiss. His fingers went through Jalingan’s hair, pulling him closer as he sighed contentedly.
“This is goodbye, then,” Jalingan said once he stepped back. He pulled his hood over his head, hiding his face in shadows, picked up only one of his bags, waited for Xingfei to cover himself with his quilt, and then passed through the door.
The A’untoren watched his cloak billowing behind him, gold and black, a shining line in all the darkness, and said nothing. He didn’t speak a word, not goodbye, not calling him back for his bandolier, and certainly not reminding him that for his species, k’zshyrk was was very much fatal.