Kiss, kelpie, kick, Knowledge, Knights, keg, kiwi, kumquat, kale, kingpin, klaxon, kerfuffle, kibosh
"Kenzi and the Kelp Kerfuffle"
*(Sequel to "Humanity")
In a kilosecond, Denevar had crossed the river, the cave, and now stood beside Kenzi. His gleaming eyes swept over her uniform as he picked up her right hand.
"Ah, First Officer, I see. Is this your first assignment?"
Kenzi sneered and pulled her hand away. "No, I have had other assignments."
Denevar slipped between Kenzi and waved with a frown at Latisha. The young mermaid slipped back under the water as if he had pushed her.
"You'll have to forgive the little fish-girl for frightening you. She was just kidding about everything. I am not a wizard; I am only a hermit. Latisha just likes to frighten new guests." He gestured to a well-lit hallway leading back further into the mountain. "Shall we retire into the kitchen?"
Kenzi took one last glance at the terrified mermaid in the pool, and followed her host.
"So," Denevar continued casually, "What brings you to Kennia, First Officer..."
"Kenzi," she answered automatically. "And I didn't mean to land here. The navigation globe on my ship got damaged, and I have to wait seventy-two hours for the repair cycle." She checked her chrono; there were thirty hours left. She looked around as they entered a cavern full of the same multicolored quartz casting a kaleidoscope of colors over the dark stone. "Where did you say this was?"
Denevar sat with a sigh at a small table. With a wave of his hand, he invited Kenzi to join him. "The Ancient People called it Kennia, or somesuch. Apparently in their day it was nothing but a bare desert place," he gestured toward the outside access, where Kenzi remembered seeing large trees and verdant undergrowth.
"Hang on," she waved a hand. "Ancient People?"
Denevar nodded. "Yes; you know, our ancestors?"
Kenzi blinked. She recalled the lessons on ancient history mentioning something about the first Settlers who made their home among the stars, having traveled across the galaxy to escape their polluted home planet.
"This is Earth?" She asked incredulously, looking back the way they had come.
"Of course it is," Denevar nodded, reaching for a bowl where strange green and yellow bits peeked out from among small, deep-green shreds. "May I offer you a salad? It's kale, kumquats, and kiwi."
Kenzi frowned at the jumble of strange foods, but if it was from Earth, like the whole human population of the Galactic Settlement, then it couldn't actually be harmful, could it?
She tried a bite, letting the intense flavor and the sharp tang envelope her tastebuds.
"This is amazing!" She scarfed down more salad. "We don't have anything like this back on the Settlement!"
Denevar chuckled. "Tell you what, in return for spending time with me while you wait for the chrono to mend, I'd like to send you back with cargo your kin will appreciate." He paused, "That is, if you have room in your hull."
Kenzi tensed. What was he getting at? "That depends on what it is," she hedged.
Denevar chuckled. "Oh, it's nothing dangerous, trust me! Let me show you."
He reached toward the counter beside the ice box and selected a small box. Kenzi watched him lift the lid carefully, then wrinkled her nose at the musty, tangy kind of smell she almost didn't recognize.
"What is that?" She choked, waving her hand to activate her armor's built-in air filter.
"It's called kelp." Denevar selected a flat, semi-transparent leaf and took a deep whiff. "You might recognize the scent if you've ever been anywhere around the smoking clubs, if the GPF still allows those."
Now that the heavy aroma had subsided, Kenzi tried to place that smell in her memory and nodded. "Now that you mention it, I do remember something like it got into the air ducts once, and caused no end of trouble till we could get it out, find the leak, and keep that terrible odor in its own closed filtration system." She eyed the box dubiously as the hermit slid it toward her. "Kelp, you say?" She grimaced. "To be perfectly honest, I would rather bring back some of the other things, the ones in your salad."
Denevar nodded. "That's fair. I'll have them delivered to your ship in a few hours." He gave the box a little nudge. "Just do me a favor and take at least this little sample of kelp back with you. I have a friend in the Settlement who would very much appreciate such kindness."
Kenzi shrugged and accepted the box. "Very well, but how will I find this friend of yours?"
Denevar waved his hand. "Don't worry about that; he'll find you."
Kenzi stood stiffly, as a soft klaxon from her ship alerted her that she needed to report in. "I need to return to my ship," she explained to Denevar. "I'll await your delivery."
The hermit nodded. "I shall send it out directly. I only ask," he continued as the officer turned to take her leave, "that you avoid the pool with the mermaid. She seems very agitated by your presence, and I don't want to stress her further by continued interaction."
Kenzi glanced over to regard his face, but she found no guile. "I will do so," she assured him.
She could hear Latisha calling after her as she made her way out of the crystal cavern, but Kenzi ignored the mermaid's cries. If Denevar had said she was crazy—well, so much of what Kenzi had been told contrasted so much with what she had experienced that she found it easier to believe that Latisha lied, or at least embellished the truth.
Kenzi followed the rippling creek back toward her ship. A large splash and a silent alarm from her armor alerted her to an unexpected approach behind her. She stopped and faced the water.
A massive body took shape out of the water, similar to the holographic projections she interacted with on the settlement—except that this shape bore tactile responsiveness, much like touching Latisha's hand had almost convinced Kenzi that she was actually real. This shape, though, wasn't human. Her visual scanner identified it as a horse, with the exception of the fins and tail at the lower half of its body. This creature was just as much a horse as Latisha was human—so had they both been other creatures before some horrible experiment changed them into water creatures?
Kenzi shook her head. She shouldn't believe things she couldn't prove! The horse-fish creature seemed very adamant about something on her person; it took Kenzi a few minutes to realize that it was the box of kelp that offended the animal so. She snorted and turned her back on it. She would report in, wait for Denevar's delivery, and she would leave Kennia forever.
Kenzi slid the heavy keg into place and wiped the sweat off her brow. Three down, two to go. She clomped down the plank to get another barrel, but an alarming sight gave her pause. She arrived on the ground just in time to see the horse-fish creature kick one of her precious kegs into the water!
"No, you stupid animal!" Kenzi roared, running toward the river and diving after the irreplaceable cargo.
A furious keening in her ears and a heavy weight on one side soon alerted her to what a mistake that was. Her armor was not water-resistant, and the systems were shutting down, still attached to her body. Without the use of her right side, Kenzi began to sink and drown.
A flash of movement above her, and the press of a body against her side, and Kenzi felt something soft press against her mouth, opening an air pocket just in front of her. She welcomed the rush of breath, and saw the large, worried eyes just inches from her. Latisha gripped her in a tight embrace, swimming upward with powerful strokes of her tail, while giving Kenzi breath from her own lungs.
Their heads broke the surface, and Kenzi turned aside with a spluttering gasp, tucking her knees up toward her chest to push Latisha away. Her left hand flailed until her fingers gripped the bank, and she hauled herself out of the water.
"What was that?" She spluttered, wiping her mouth.
The mermaid pursed her lips in a frown. "I saw Wenmar causing trouble and I rushed over to save you," she retorted.
"By kissing me?" Kenzi shot back. She tried to move her right side, but all the servos in her armor had seized, and she still couldn't move it.
"I could have just as easily let you drown," Latisha stated primly, crossing her arms.
Wenmar keened beside her, flopping and splashing. Kenzi snorted. "What, is that thing like your horse or something?"
Latisha wrapped one arm over the animal's neck. "Wenmar was my horse, before Denevar changed him into a kelpie, just like he changed me into a mermaid."
Kenzi shook her head. "You're delusional. Denevar's not a wizard; he doesn't even have any magical powers."
"And what about you?" Latisha challenged, swimming forward. "Some would say that armor gives you magical powers, or that your ship that takes you far away to other worlds is magic!"
"That's not magic, it's science!"
"Well, so is Denevar!" The mermaid swirled in the river. "He used his knowledge of science to change my form and that of my horse, to keep us here—and he's even tricked you into doing his bidding!"
Kenzi staggered to her feet, leaning against the keg to keep from keeling over. "What, this? There is nothing tricky about it. It's just food—"
"What about the kelp?" Latisha cut in. "Do you have any idea what it is? Did he tell you who his friends are?"
Kenzi scowled. "As if you knew!"
"I do!" She stated. "I know because my kingdom struggled against their influence as well!"
"All right then," Kenzi glared at the mermaid. "Who are they?"
Latisha calmed, and her eyes took on a keen glow. "Have you heard of the Knights Unknown?"
Cold realization courses through Kenzi's system. "The drug cartel? You're kidding! The GPF has been trying to put the kibosh on that ever since the Settlement was founded!"
"I'm not," Latisha affirmed. "Denevar's so-called friend is the kingpin of the whole operation. He's their dealer, and he's made you his errand boy."
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: