They passed through what felt like an invisible dome. Their innate armor naturally adjusted for the difference. As soon as they were inside, Gorin remarked, "It smells nasty down here."

            Will agreed. There was an atmosphere in this section, which meant whatever was in the hold was an air breather. However, the air was rank. Stagnant. Uncirculated. Thick with carbon dioxide, as well as another stench. No telling how long it had been like this, or how long the life forms had been breathing the thinning oxygen.

            Plymon paused in front of a large panel. "Found it."

            "And it's locked," Peersoff noted.

            Will stared at the panel in surprise. "What do you mean it's locked?"

            All cargo and bay areas were sealed anyway, to prevent leakage. The Anglites and Kordorphats had been shut inside their holding cells, but the only way they could have escaped would have been with the help of someone from the outside. Nothing was ever locked. Locking meant that whatever was inside was too dangerous to risk having it escape.

            Her men looked at her, waiting for her decision. She lifted her arm and made a fist. The armor turned a dark red as she pointed it toward the entrance and nodded.

            Peersoff stepped forward and placed a grinder on the locking mechanism. The tiny robot began drilling into the metal, sending out a high, thin screeching sound that always set Will's teeth on edge. Once the lock was deactivated, the others raised their arms.

            The security officer placed his fingers inside the narrow space between the panel and the frame, and shoved the door aside. Immediately, everyone shone their lights inside in a wide arc.

            "What the fekk?"

            Plymon's soft oath of confusion echoed exactly what she was thinking. The life form lay huddled in the far corner of the tiny room. It raised a human-like hand up to shield its eyes from the glare. The next moment, realizing they were not Objurian, it tried to retreat even further into the corner, clasping its legs in front of itself and burying its face against its knees. Balled up, it started to shiver.

            "By all the's a man!" The whisper came from the communications bud in her ear. The rest of her crew watching their exploration normally kept radio silence, as she ordered. In this instance, she thought the voice belonged to Magnus.

            Peersoff moved toward the creature. Immediately, it whimpered and turned sideways. It held up a grimy hand again, as if it would ward off the new intruders. Something glinted in the dim light.

            "Oh, fekking grace!" a voice exclaimed in disbelief.

            "Dearest gods in space, what have those bugs done to him?" Plymon wondered aloud, voicing her exact thoughts.

            "They chained him?" Peersoff took another step, but it was clear by the prisoner's reactions that the man was terrified. He reached toward the man. "It's all right. We're here to free you."

            Instead of relenting, the man tried to retreat as far back into the corner of his little room. Will gave the floor a cursory examination. The cell couldn't have been more than a ten meters long, and half of that wide.

            A soft whimper drew her attention back to the prisoner. Every time Peersoff tried to reach for the manacles around the poor man's wrists, the humanoid moved away.

            Maybe she knew why.

            "Let me," she ordered.

            The security chief gave her a questioning look.

            "I'm dropping my shield," she added.

            "Might I suggest you don't?" Clearly, he didn't like the idea.

            "Don't worry. I'll still keep my arm trained on him."

            Peersoff stepped back, and Will took his place in the doorway. The prisoner continued to stare at them from the rear of the cell.

            The moment she lowered her aura from around her head, the putrid stench of the place smacked her in the face, and she nearly gagged. Now she understood why they had detected the foul smell.

            The man's eyes widened as she moved into the cell. She kept her weaponed arm trained in his direction, but she held out her other hand toward him, removing the armor from around it as well so he could see she was a humanoid, too.

            "We've found a reference to him," Granth informed her.

            She smiled at the man. "You have nothing to worry about. We're here to rescue you." She made sure to keep her voice low and soothing. More than that, she tried not to think about what the creature had gone through while on the ship. It was miracle he could live in these conditions.

            He glanced down at her glowing red arm, then back up to her face. Will dropped the weapon from her aura, causing her men behind her to gasp in shock. If her helmet was back up, she could imagine what they would say to her. Are you insane, opening yourself up like that? Making yourself vulnerable?

            Shut up. I know what I'm doing...I hope.

            "Granth, what have you got?" she inquired gently, taking another step.

            "His name is Vall."

            "Do we have a species?"

            "Not yet. Objurian is fekking difficult to decipher."

            "How about some information about where they found him? Or when they took him in custody?"

            "I'll let you know when I find something," the communications officer promised.

            "Vall." Will said the name aloud and watched for a reaction. The man didn't respond, but he didn't appear to be as terrified as he had been initially.

            She slowly reached out until her fingertips touched the freezing cold metal cuffs. Vall's eyes darted from what she was doing, to her face, and back, in rapid succession. It appeared he was willing to trust her, but as to how far, she had yet to discover. Apparently her revealing her humanity had been the right decision, although it was a reaction she had never resorted to before in her career, or her lifetime.

            Rather than rewrap her entire arm in her shield, she opted for just her hand. Bringing his arm out toward her, she reached over with her weapon and drew a line of plasma with one finger. The metal dissolved almost instantly. The cuff broke apart with a snap.

            Will smiled up at the man. "One down, one to go."

            Without her urging, he presented his other arm to her. The other cuff was dissolved within seconds, followed by the ones around his ankles. Vall threw the chains to the floor with a look of disgust.

            She winced to see the bruised skin and old scars evident on his wrists and legs. A couple of spots appeared to be festering. There was no telling how much longer the man would have been able to survive in these conditions.

            She straightened, or tried to. The ceiling was too low for her to stand up.

            "Vall, come." She remained barely a meter away from him with her hand outstretched. Slowly, and with much hesitation, Vall uncurled himself until his feet touched the floor.

            He was completely nude, and in the glow from their auras, from what she could see underneath the unbelievable filth, his whole body was marked with bruises and scars. His hair hung in thick, clotted strands down to his waist. He had no beard or facial hair, which automatically eliminated him as being one of the Terran species of humanoids. Taking a deep breath, she tried not to gag, and gestured again as she took a step backwards.

            "Vall, come."

            He finally stood. As she'd suspected, he was taller than her, meaning he had to bend at the waist. Even hunched over, his shoulders brushed the ceiling.

            She continued to back out of the cargo area, calling to him and gesturing for him to follow. Vall's gaze never wavered from his face as he left the bay. Once they were outside of the container, the young man straightened. He watched as Will's men moved closer, but his initial fear seemed to have diminished for the moment.

            "Peersoff, follow us back to the ship. Plymon, I want you and Gorin to go ahead. I don't want him to feel threatened. He's been terrified long enough."

            Plymon started to turn around and leave when Granth's strident yell froze them in their tracks.

            "Self-destruct has activated!"

            Everyone took off running for the upper levels and the exit. Will grabbed Vall's hand, but the man was already half-dragging her as he hurried to remain behind the Sub-captain.

            "How long before it goes?" she yelled.