Deserts aren’t known for providing a wealth of options in terms of cover, so when the Reilian Guard showed up, Beth fled in the only direction that offered a hope of survival.
“Why are we running at the Lion?” Lagressa asked as Beth dragged her along.
“Reilian Guard,” Beth said trying and failing to catch her breath. “Bad guys.”
She wanted to explain how the Reilians were an intensely xenophobic race and that in opening a Stellar Gate to one of their planets, the Burners had effectively declared war on them. In the books, Reilian Patrol parties were a standard boogeyman because their hostility was matched with a level of technology that was at the top end of what galactic civilization had general access to. They had teeth and were not only willing but eager to use them. Beth wanted to explain all that but running and survival came first.
The Desert Lion rose from its haunches and bellowed an ground shaking cry as they ran towards it.
Beth knew, on some level, that she probably couldn’t be hurt by either the Lion or the Guard, but that “probably” was hard to buy into when she could feel the soundwaves of the lion’s roar shaking her bones. Even if she did prove to be as resilient as her father had said she was, getting killed could kick her out of the story, and right back to her home where more Burners would be waiting.
And there was Lagressa’s fate to consider.
In response to the Desert Lion’s roar, the Reilian Guard opened fire. Beth ducked as the screaming sizzle of Disruptor Bolts flew over head. They didn’t sound like she’d imagined they would, but they were no less effective at inspiring terror.
The Desert Lion flinched as the bolts splattered over its chest and legs. They didn’t do much damage but the charge they carried appeared to sting considerably.
As the giant cat’s attention oriented on the new group of intruders, Beth caught sight of the refuge she was looking for.
“The pit! We need to jump in there!” Beth said, indicating the bottom of a conical depression a hundred yards behind the Desert Lion.
“What is that?” Lagressa asked.
“The Lion’s home!”
“Is that safe?”
“No, but it’s safer than being up here.”
Beth began to scamper down the side of the depression but the loose sand shifted under her feet and she went tumbling much faster than she’d intended to. For a moment the world was a twisting array of twinkling sand and dusty stars, then there was a terrifyingly long moment of weightlessness followed by a sudden stop that knocked her breath out.
She blinked to clear the sand out of her eyes and sat up to find the hole they’d fallen through was at least fifty feet above them.
“I guess Dad was right,” she said, after finding that all of her bones were still intact.
Lagressa was already on her feet, having landed with perfect poise and grace.
“We bought time, but if the sand creature is territorial it’s sure to be unhappy with our invading its home,” Lagressa said.
“Yeah, we need to get out of here. Look for a passage exit that leads down.”
The room they’d landed in was a large space that had been handworked into a gallery of sorts. Dozens of columns, wider than Beth was tall, ran from floor to ceiling, adorned by intricately carved rings that turned clockwise and counterclockwise seemingly at random.
“What lies below us?” Lagressa asked.
“This world is artificial,” Beth said. “It was constructed as a planet sized computer, like the one I showed you in my room but with ‘all the knowledge in the galaxy’ stored in it.”
“And that will help us with the giant cat or the soldiers above?” Lagressa asked.
“I’m hoping it will help us with the Burners,” Beth said. “If any other people like me have been here, then the computer might contain information about them.”
Their trip downwards into the planet felt like they were descending to the core of the planet but Beth knew they were only barely below its surface when they found a room that was alive with light and motion.
“Have we found what we’re looking for?” Lagressa asked.
“No, this isn’t a control center. It’s a security barracks. We definitely took a wrong turn somewhere,” Beth said and started backing up.
Right into the arms of a Clockwork Sentry.
Lagressa spun around at the sound of Beth’s startled squeak but was dropped to the floor by a short electric arc from one of the other Clockwork Sentries.
“Do not attempt to resist and you will not be harmed,” the sentry holding Beth said.
“Ok, not resisting,” she said.
“That will be a novel experience if you’re telling the truth,” the sentry said.
“Scans indicate that she’s unarmed,” the other sentry said.
“How did two unarmed girls get here?” the first sentry asked.
“Someone opened a Stellar Gate planetside,” the other said.
“That wasn’t us,” Beth said. “We’re just travellers.”
“This is a place travellers don’t come,” the first sentry said.
“This a place travellers aren’t allowed to know about,” the second said.
Beth scrambled to think of the a plausible explanation for knowing the location of one of the galaxy’s long hidden secrets.
“Unless they hold a key to the First Galactic Library,” she said, remembering how the characters in the novel gained access.
“The First Galactic Library is lost,” the sentry holding her said.
“Bits of it remain,” Beth said. “And it can be rebuilt.”
She let her eyes unfocus as she spoke and reached out as her father had taught her. The Burner’s had conjured weapons from thin air in a blink. Beth couldn’t manage that yet, or hold the things she conjured very long, but sometimes a little was all that was needed.
“Show us the key,” the second sentry demanded.
Breathing out slowly, Beth reached out with her fingers and felt the small metal cylinder that she’d conjured from thin air settle into her palm.