Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 11



[White's Journal. Seventh of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] In our quest to reactivate the Guidance Beacon in the Altayra System, we had been joined by Altayra's ruler, the young and lovely Princess Valencia--and had twice clashed with Maxwell and Erybus's Nadirite army. In the last battle, we had been divided, and several of the others were trapped. Gold and I left to get the tools necessary to free them. Returning to The Crystallair, I was shocked to see Green's armor lying in a heap in front of the ship.

“Wait! Gold!” White shouted the warning as Gold started to speed forward. “Be careful. I think--”

“It's a trap?” he finished. “It definitely was a trap.” His voice was cold and hard. “But I think it's already been sprung.”

They flew together to the spot. After a moment, Gold nodded and dropped almost to the ground, hovering just a few degrees above it. “Low-grade corban,” he commented, looking at the ground--it was hard to see against the black rock of the planet, but the ground was covered with coarse black powder. “Old-fashioned, but effective. It's an unstable enough of an explosive that it doesn't take much concussive force to set it off. Just sprinkle some around on the ground in front of our ship--”

White could understand all too clearly. “If we had been out of armor when we came back to the ship, we could have all been killed.”

Gold shook his head. “I'm going to take Green inside. Can you make sure that there's no more danger?”

White nodded. “On it.” Neither one had said anything, but they both knew that something was wrong. Green hadn't moved and was laying at an awkward, unnatural angle. He also hadn't responded over the comms. Whatever he was, he was not all right.

It was a few minutes later when White entered The Crystallair, having disposed of all the explosives. She found Gold in the Medical Chamber. He had performed an emergency override to force Green out of his armor and now Green was lying on the bed-part of the medical equipment.

White felt a pang when she saw him lying there. He looked so young--really, just a child, too young to be running these kinds of risks. His pale green skin was paler than usual--almost yellow--and his hair was pasted to his forehead by sweat. His right leg was twisted at a weird, impossible angle and was barely recognizable as a limb. But at least he was still alive.

“Is it broken?” she asked.

“Broken would be putting it mildly. We'll have to fire up the diagnostic computer to find out for sure, but his whole leg seems to be--well, mashed is the only term I can think of.” Gold's voice was still hard, but White could tell from its tone that he was relieved that the damage was no more serious than it was. “I don't see any mark on his head, so I'm thinking it was the pain of his injury which made him pass out--he seems to be feverish, which I take to be caused by the pain, but since he's a mod, I guess I don't know exactly how all his physical processes works.” He glanced at her. “But there's one thing I don't get. Green came back to the ship, though we don't know why--maybe to get some tool or weapon or maybe to fly the ship back to the battle--I can imagine him working out some plan in his mind and since I'd ordered comm silence, he couldn't ask or tell us about it. Anyway, he came back to the ship. He walked up to the door and stumbled right into a trap someone--probably Maxwell--left for us. He stepped on that corban and the force of his footsteps detonated it. That all makes sense, more or less. But if he wasn't in his armor when the explosion happened, he should be hurt worse than this. And if he was in his armor, he shouldn't be hurt at all--the explosion couldn't have been that powerful and his armor isn't injured.”

White shook her head. “The only thing I can think of is that he phased on his armor at the exact moment the corban detonated, though I didn't think Green's reflexes were that good. But there's no point in speculating till we run a diagnostic. This computer can dig up all sorts of info, so it may be able to tell us what happened.”

Gold took a seat beside Green, while White sat down at the computer. Gold pressed a button and a curtain shot out between the bed and the chair where White sat. “He's burning up--I'm going get him out of his jacket and shirt and see if that helps any.”

White nodded absently, but she was already absorbed in her work. Generally, Blue was the one delegated to running the medical equipment--she had been trained on similar equipment back at Ursa Prime before she joined the Corps--but White knew how to do most things with it. In fact, the basic programing was simple enough that any of them could use it if they needed to.

After a few clicks, she was viewing an image on the screen. It was something like an x-ray (which legends said had been used by doctors a millennium before) but it showed her a cross-section of Green's leg--flesh, bones, and all.

And what she saw made no sense at all.

“White?” She couldn't see Gold because of the curtain, but she could tell from his voice that he was worried.

“Well, we can fix it up, so there's no worry there. But there's no way that an explosion of corban or anything else could have caused an injury this extensive.”

“Then what did?”

She tapped her fingers against the controls for a moment, thoughtfully. “The only thing I can think of which could cause this kind of injury would be a photon disrupter.”

“What?”

White went on, talking more to herself than Gold. “Disrupted photons cause this kind of damage to an organic system when they pass through it. But--” She frowned and went back to the controls. The diagnostic computer was a very advanced piece of equipment. The basic principle on which the equipment work came from the healing machines used on the planet Bellas--but that basic principle had been wedded to some of the most advanced computer tech known in Ursa Prime. With this equipment, one could find out all kinds of things about a patient with a click or two--even pulling up data from the past which had left an imprint of some kind on the body. Most of that kind of info didn't interest White at the moment, but by focusing on certain parameters, she could probably pin down exactly what she needed to know.

“Got it. I still don't know why, but I do know what.”

Gold walked around the curtain to stand behind her. “What did you find?”

“Yesterday--after our battle with Maxwell--when we came back to the ship, Green went straight to the Medical Bay. I wondered about that--usually he goes to the Viewing Chamber when he wants to be alone--but I didn't think much about it. But he had good reason.”

“This happened then--during that battle?” Gold stared at her in amazement. “I do remember Maxwell firing his disrupter and then Green started acting strange for a second. But do you mean that he actually was hit?”

“That's what it looks like. Fortunately, the hit was only on his leg and can't have been too serious--compared to what it could have been, anyway. Green knows how to use this thing well enough to treat his own injuries, so when we got back to the ship, he locked himself in here and did what he needed to. But even as good as this equipment is, an injury of that level is going to take time to heal completely. The force of that explosion--even while he was in his armor--was enough to undo the treatment, to do all the harm over again, basically--that would probably hurt more than the initial injury, which would explain why he passed out.” White glanced up. “I don't know if you noticed or not, but Green never took off his armor--not while we were on Altayra Rex, not while we were in the Guidance Beacon, not when we went to that village--I haven't seen him without his armor since before that battle with Maxwell. And this was why--it was because of his injury. The armor would work almost like a cast to protect his leg until the healing completed.”

“I really didn't notice that.”

White had definitely noticed. Not that it was especially strange, but she had noticed. And it had weighed on her mind--because of the Nth Dimensional Holocube that went missing on the Wanderer and then reappeared in +(1)d and then disappeared again. The fact that Green had kept her armor on had made her suspicious--could he have had something to do with its disappearance? He was the only one of the Corps beside her that would really know the value and function of an NDHC. And she had considered that he was hiding it inside his armor. But she had discarded the idea--it would be difficult to fit the bulky piece of equipment inside their armor. And now she knew the real reason why Green had kept his armor on. Except-- “But I don't understand why Green would do any of this. He's an introvert--he doesn't talk about himself much--or like to call attention to himself--but why in the Cosmos didn't he just tell us he'd been injured when it happened?”

“I think I know.” Gold stood staring down at her with a strange expression. White couldn't place that look--it wasn't one she had seen Gold use very often. But his voice was about the same as usual when he spoke, maybe just a little softer. “I know a good bit about all of you, maybe more than the rest of you know about each other. But I never knew anything about Green's past, except that he came from some out-of-the-way place in Draxmore, that he was born as a mod, and that he was really smart--because of his intelligence levels, he came to Ursa Prime where the Prefect discovered him and chose him to be part of the Corps. I know he's an orphan, but I don't know anything about his parents or what happened to them. Beyond that--I really don't know anything about Green's past at all. But just now I saw something that I'm afraid may tell us something about his past--that may explain why he didn't want to take the chance of any of us being involved in a medical diagnostic of him. You were just analyzing his leg, weren't you?”

“Yes.” That injury had been so obvious, she hadn't even thought to look elsewhere.

“Well, run a diagnostic of his torso--and please tell me that that's some kind of weird side affect of the photon injury.”

White didn't understand what Gold was getting at, but she tapped a few controls on the computer. And then she understood.

“What is it?”

“It's what it looks like. Multiple levels of scar tissue formed by repeated surface lacerations of the skin over a roughly... ten year period.”

“Green is only thirteen.”

“I know.”

For a moment, the two of them just looked at each other in silence. Then White stood up and turned away, saying something she had no idea she was going to say until after she'd said it: “You may not like your father, but some children have had more reason to hate their father or guardian than you do.”

Gold didn't answer her.

A lot of things made sense now. She guessed this might have some relationship to why Green was such a perfectionist and why he tended to be so introverted--and almost certainly this was why he hadn't wanted any of the others to be involved in the treatment of his photon injury. White had trouble stomaching the truth, though she thought she was more used to these kinds of thing than Gold was--she had had a broader experience of the world. Besides, like Green, she was an orphan--and though she had never been unkindly treated, she had had heard stories from some of the other orphans which the Tremonsirs rescued. Some of them, terrible stories. Especially from that one boy--though, in retrospect, she supposed she should take his stories with more skepticism than she had at the time. Still, this was not the first time in her life she had confronted scars like these.

“Here's what we're going to do.” Gold's voice interrupted her thoughts. Once again, he seemed cool and collected. “He'll be out as long as the medical equipment is working. Once it's finished up, I'll take him back and put him on his bunk. When he wakes up, we'll just tell him we found him outside the ship and brought him in. He doesn't have to know we ran a diagnostic at all.”

White shrugged. The plan was understandable, but it wouldn't fool Green for a minute. Still, it would spare them all some awkward conversations. “I've started the healing program--there's nothing more to do for a few minutes. I'll go start gathering together the tools we'll need to break that force field.”


A few minutes later, Gold walked into the main cabin and found White in the middle of eating a block of prefood.

He laughed. “That's unusual for you. I'm used to seeing Black and Red heading for the rations as soon as they can, but not you.”

White smiled, a little self-consciously. “I don't know why, but I was hungry tonight. I know we ate a few hours ago in Hath'ellah, but I feel as if I haven't eaten for a day or so. I decided it wouldn't hurt to get a bite now while I can.” She tapped a box on the table. “I've got everything together to free Blue's group, so there's nothing I can do until you're ready to leave--or are we going to take the whole ship over to Hath'ellah?” And though she said nothing, she noted with amusement that Gold also went straight to the rations' cupboard and pulled out a couple blocks of prefood.

“We'd better. After what nearly happened here, I don't like the idea of leaving the ship alone.” His face darkened. “We'll collect the princess and take her back Altayra Rex--and then we're going to go after Maxwell and bring him to task once and for all. He's gone too far this time--he could have killed Green with that photon disrupter--and he could have killed us all with that little trap outside. We can't let him get away with it.”

White frowned. “You said that before. What makes you think Maxwell was behind that trap? It might have been Erybus--or the Altayrans, for all we know.”

“Oh, Erybus may have had a hand in it, too--it fits his style; distracting us with one trap so we'll be preoccupied and walk right into another trap. But the fact that they used a cheap, low-grade explosive like corban makes me think of Maxwell. Erybus has more class--he'd have used something more complex and expensive.”

White wasn't entirely sure of his logic, but she didn't push the point. Having finished up her food, she walked over to the ship's main computer and pushed a few controls. “That's strange, really. Someone came up outside the ship and planted that explosive, but they didn't come close enough to set off The Crystallair's security system--so we can't verify who put it there.” She frowned. “It's almost--almost as if they knew exactly what to do and how far to go to avoid activating it--almost as if they knew the ship's security protocols.” Her frown deepened. Thoughts from yesterday which had been pushed aside by recent events were now resurfacing. She glanced at Gold and could tell that he was thinking the same thing.

“They might have a way of finding out those protocols,” he said, but he wouldn't meet her eyes.

“Gold, we programmed those protocols--Prefect Alkyte himself wouldn't know them. Only those of us in the Corps know--and--”

Gold stood up. “There's just no way. There's no way any of us would be involved in this--there's no way one of the Corps could betray us.”

White turned in her chair to face him. “Is that what you really believe or just what you want to believe?”

For just a second, Gold didn't answer. When he did, his voice was deeper and rougher than usual and had a note she had never heard--at least, not when he was talking to her. “Look, White, save your mind games from the rest of the Corps--don't try them on me. Now, take the ship up and fly to Hath'ellah. You should have the coordinates now. I'm going to check on Green.”

White bit her lip and watched motionless as Gold stalked out of the room. She wasn't used to his talking to her like that, but maybe he was right. She felt uncomfortable entertaining a suspicion about the others--but there were just too many things that didn't make sense. Maxwell and Erybus had known things about the Corps' movements and powers that they shouldn't have known. An Nth Dimensional Holocube had vanished from the Wanderer and reappeared briefly in +(1)d, meaning that one of the Corps had put it there. And now someone had set a trap by the ship without activating the ship's security monitors, as if they had known the security protocols themselves. Any one of those things might be a coincidence, might have some kind of legitimate explanation. But put all together, they seemed to point to one reality--that one member of the Corps was a traitor. She hated to think it, but she didn't see that she had any choice but to entertain the suspicion at this point. But who? And why?

She shook her head, forcing herself to push all those thoughts to the sidelines. After all, her suspicion was nothing more than a suspicion. Maybe Gold was right to treat it so cavalierly. In any case, there was nothing she could do about it for the time being. And it was time to get the ship moving.

*

The morning glow was just beginning to show from the subterranean veins of Altayra Vorphintus by the time the Corps was back together and all the explanations were made--all the ones that were going to be made, anyway. White and Gold had flown back to Hath'ellah and, reunited with Black, had begun the work of breaking the force field which held the others. At some point, Green rejoined them, but he hadn't mentioned anything about what had happened and neither Gold nor White asked him (though White was still curious as to why he had gone back to the ship in the first place.)

But now the seven members of the Corps--along with Princess Valencia--were standing in the ruins of Hath'ellah and they all had a fairly clear idea of what had transpired over the last several hours.

Gold shook his head. “So the people in the village disappeared before the beam struck. That's strangely--compassionate. I would've sworn the Nadirites didn't even know what compassion was.”

Valencia pressed her lips together. “I fear that--given what you have told me of these Nadirites--if they saved my people, they saved them for some more dreadful fate.”

“It's hard to say. But there's nothing more to be accomplished here. Your highness, we're going to fly you back to Altayra Rex--given that the landing field and any ships were destroyed. I'm sure the sages will be worried about you.”

“No doubt.” There was a slight note of cynicism in the princess's tone. “But I am still concerned--with these Nadirites lose in the system, none of my people are safe.”

“Don't worry about it, Valencia,” Red interjected. “Dealing with bad guys like them is our specialty.”

White noted that Red had fallen into the habit of calling the princess by her first name. She also noted that the princess didn't seem to mind or, at least, wasn't making a point of rebuking him.

“Crimson kid does have a point,” agreed Black. “Fighting bad guys is pretty much what we do for a living.”

Gold turned to Valencia. “We have been entrusted with the responsibility of reactivating the Guidance Beacon--in order to do that, we have to defeat the Nadirites and find out what their objective is in your system. I ask that you trust us to do that and return to your palace. We can defeat the Nadirites.”

“And you can work better without having to worry about me?” she finished, with a smile.

Gold flushed slightly. He had apparently been thinking that exact thing.

“Well, I accept your decision. I do not see what good I can do against such an enemy--though I do wish I could do something.”

Gold's face darkened slightly. “You might be able to do something--we need information. Do you have any idea why the Nadirites are here, what they might be after in your system?”

For just a second, the princess's face seemed to go completely blank. White couldn't decide if she was trying to hide something or just trying to think. Then she shook her head. “As you are no doubt aware by now, we are not a rich or powerful people here in Altayra. What do we have that such enemies could want? We have made a few scientific advances--but that was hundreds of years ago and those discoveries can be easily freely found throughout Ursa Prime and Draxmore now. From all we know, it seems as if the Nadirites are not targeting us--but you. It you--the Corps--that they are interested in. And here in Altayra, you are alone--it is just you against them, for Ursa Prime cannot send reinforcements without the Guidance Beacon, and we have no forces powerful enough to help you. Draxmore might help, but the nearest military base of theirs is far away, for we are near only to the remotest boarder of the empire.”

“You do have a point,” Gold admitted. White thought he sounded impressed. “But if Erybus just wanted to fight and defeat us, I still think he could have found a better place.”

White wanted to point out that Valencia wasn't quite right--they weren't quite alone, as the MBUs were somewhere on the Altayra side of the void--but she didn't think Gold would appreciate being reminded of that. Besides, the princess's theory still might be true--Erybus might not have expected the MBUs being sent and, besides, with them being busy tracking down the Nadirite launch ships, the Corps was essentially alone.

“In any case,” Gold continued, turning away, “our first order of business is to return to Altayra Rex, and from there we'll map out our plan of attack.”

Valencia seemed impressed and a little awed by The Crystallair. White didn't know exactly what kind of ships the Altayrans used, but clearly nothing as advanced as this. And The Crystallair wasn't even that remarkably advanced of a ship. She seemed nervous and kept to herself, though Red kept hovering around her.

White noticed something else--and that was that all of the others (except Green) were hungry and grabbed some food the instant they were back on the ship. She expected that from Red and Black, but not from Blue and especially not from Silver. (Red did offer a block of prefood to Valencia before he started chowing down, but she waved it away. White suspected it would be a breach of protocol for her to eat with commoners like themselves.) It was a little thing, but it lodged in her mind. They had eaten the evening before--of course, a long time had passed and a lot had happened, but everyone still seemed strangely hungry. It passed through her mind that Erybus might have used some kind of hunger ray on them. It was silly, but at this point she wasn't exactly ready to say anything was impossible. With God all things are possible, but man is limited--one of his greatest limitations being that he does not know what is possible. It was something the Tremonsirs had taught her, and she had learned for herself it was true. Some things were impossible and some things were possible, but when it came to deciding which were which... well... all she knew was that there were things they did every day which even a thousand years before would have been thought impossible--and that in her travels up and down the fourth-dimensional axis, she had seen things which even her fellow Corps-members would have thought impossible if she told them. What was it Green had said last evening? Whatever is actual is, by definition, possible--and sometimes the only way to find out if something was possible was to do it.

Blue had taken charge of flying the ship for the short trip back to Altayra Rex. It was such a comparatively short trip that the group had not dispersed but all sat around the main chamber of the ship. Silver had given up his accustomed place at the side of the cabin to Valencia, who sat there as quiet and immovable as Silver usually did. He sat crosslegged on the floor beside the door to the Medical Chamber. Red was standing, awkwardly, a short distance away from Valencia. Green, White, and Black were sitting at the table, and Gold was leaning against the wall just back of the control panel.

“All right, let's just get a few things clear,” commented Gold, breaking the relative silence. “Once we get her highness back to the safety of Altayra Rex--”

“If she is really safe there--” thought White. With the Nadirites loose in the system, nowhere was really safe--and from all appearances the Altayrans had nothing to fight or even defend against the Nadirites and their weapons.

“--we have one primary goal--we are going to track down and capture Maxwell.”

Black glanced up and there was for an instant just a glint of surprise in her usually casual expression. “Why Maxwell?”

“It our one major piece of unfinished business. We've let Maxwell slip through our fingers too many times.”

“And stopping the Nadirites and reactivating the Guidance Beacon is obviously of secondary concern compared to maintaining our reputation,” added Blue without turning around.

Gold shook his head. “There's no point in trying to reactivate the Guidance Beacon without dealing with Maxwell and Erybus. The Nadirites outnumber us and know the territory better--they can keep us from reactivating it or destroy it again. We've got to go directly to the source of the problem.”

“But why Maxwell?” pressed Black. “I thought he was the evil comic sidekick in this equation.”

“Exactly. On his own, Maxwell really isn't a threat--but combined with Erybus, who is already a powerful enemy, he does pose a problem. If we can capture him, that will leave us with just Erybus--and his troops--to deal with. Besides, if we capture him, we should be able to get information out of him--we may be able to find out what in the Cosmos Erybus is really after.”

Black shook her head and tossed a knife casually into the air, catching it behind her back. “Once again: Evil comic sidekick. Obviously, Erybus isn't letting Maxwell in on his secrets. You saw how surprised he was when Erybus revealed his secret weapon in that last battle.”

“It's a chance. But Maxwell isn't as stupid as he looks. I'd be willing to bet that he knows more about Erybus's schemes than Erybus intended him to know. Anyway, we've got to take Maxwell down--once and for all.” Gold smacked his left fist into his right palm for emphasis--and there was a strange, hard look to his eyes.

White knew what Gold wasn't saying. All that was true, but it wasn't the main reason he wanted to go after Maxwell. It was because of what happened to Green. Gold really did take danger or injury to a member of the team very seriously.

How seriously?

For just an instant, she wondered exactly what Gold would do when and if they finally managed to capture Maxwell. She couldn't escape that hard look in his eyes. But she pushed the thought aside. After all, they were the Corps. They had a Code. They weren't just a gang of kids. They were better than that.

Blue interrupted her thoughts. “I know you're busy with important things, but just F.Y.I., we're landing in Altayra Rex. We'll touch down in about twenty seconds.”

“Right. Corps, prepare to disembark.”


It was “morning” in Altayra Rex (apparently all the planets in the system ran on essentially the same time pattern), but the city was already crowded. But, as before, once they landed, a guard--the same guard--emerged from the crowd and conducted them through it, to the outskirts of the town, and to the courtyard between the governmental buildings and the Temple of Ice. The guard seemed stolid enough and took the whole thing--including the presence of Princess Valencia--as a matter of course.

The Sages did not take the same attitude.

The instant they entered the courtyard, Zortan and Rothmar rushed up to them, their black robes rustling--both, in their different ways, looking very upset.

“Your highness! Are you all right?” Zortan demanded

At almost the same moment, Rothmar accosted Gold with, “How could you have done such a thing?”

“Whoa, someone seems a little overprotective,” Black commented.

“You do not understand the gravity--” Zortan began.

Valencia stopped him with a cold stare and then stepped forward. “If you insist on shouting at any one, you should shout at me. The Corps did nothing but protect me and assist me to return--the choice to travel to Altayra Vorphintus in the first place was mine and mine alone. And, to answer your question, I am quite well. Perhaps a little tired, but that is all.”

Zortan was only slightly mollified. He pressed the bridge of his nose for a moment and then began again, “Your highness, do you realize what you have done? What could have happened?”

“Do you realize what did happen?” she returned quietly. “The entire village of Hath'ellah was obliterated. And, prior to that, all its inhabitants simply disappeared. I gather,” she added in an tone that was polite but cold as ice, “that this is not the first case of this kind. Is that correct?”

Rothmar turned towards the Corps. For just an instant, his face seemed almost bestial in its look of anger and annoyance. “You told her?”

Red moved forward. “Yeah, we did. Is that a problem? You're just a Sage--is it really your job to decide what Valencia does or does not know?”

“You dare to address me like that, you--”

For just a second, White thought that there was going to be a fight--both Red and Rothmar looked angry enough.

But the instant was broken by the princess. “Red, I appreciate your support, but this is my battle.” She turned back to Zortan. “The Corps did tell me of what you had told them--but reluctantly and only when it was more or less inevitable. In any case, I was a first-hand witness to what happened in Hath'ellah--in a sense, at least.” She frowned. “Why did you not tell me?”

Rothmar still looked angry, but Zortan had folded his arms and looked as calm though not as cool as the princess. “Is it not obvious why we didn't? You yourself have proved the wisdom of our silence. If we had told you, you would have done precisely what you did--gone off and tried to solve the mystery on your own.”

Valencia seemed to admit the truth of that. “But with the safety of my people in jeopardy--”

Zortan made a sound like a snort. “And what good can you do for your people if you are dead? Under any circumstances, such actions would be imprudent. But you know your condition, your highness. You are in no state to be playing the role of heroine.”

“What better state is there in which to play the role?” asked Valencia simply. “There is little risk in it for me, after all.”

“You know you do not mean that.”

“But--”

Zortan unfolded his arms and turned towards the building to their right. “Keisai!” he called out. A figure appeared from the palace and came towards the group. “Keisai, if you would escort the princess inside--she is very tired and worn from her trip.”

“Of course, m'lord,” answered the figure.

“Of course,” repeated Valencia and took his arm--and they turned away towards the palace.

It was weirdly familiar. White clearly remembered the scene from the previous day. Zortan had called Keisai and had him escort the princess inside, to prevent her from hearing the rest of their conversation. As before, Valencia seemed a little unwilling but acquiesced. As before, White couldn't help looking at Keisai and remarking on his physical appearance--thinking that, so far as looks, he was fitting to be the consort of the princess, even though (considering the way Zortan addressed him and the fact that he was barefoot and wore a simple white tunic) he was obviously a servant. It was a weird sense of repetition, everything being exactly the same.

Except for one thing. This wasn't the same man they had seen before.

The man they had seen the previous day had been tall, lean, with fair skin and long golden hair. This man could hardly have been more dissimilar. He was average height, perhaps a little on the short side, with a broad, husky build, rounded shoulders, dark skin, and nearly non-existent black hair.

“Wait a minute!” Red exclaimed. At first, White thought he was thinking the same thing she was, but it soon became apparent that his mind was utterly elsewhere. He took a step forward and glared at Zortan. “Who runs this system, anyway? You or the princess? If she is worried enough about her people to go out and check on things, why do you have such a big problem with it? Is there something you're hiding?”

“You do not understand.” Zortan seemed to be talking between clenched teeth.

“I know something about royalty, and I know no two-bit advisors should be bossing around their king--or princess--like this.”

“Why you little--” Rothmar began, but Zortan shut him down with a look. Then he sighed and called after the retreating figures. “Keisai! Wait.”

The servant and the princess stopped and both turned to look back.

“Your highness, do I have your permission to tell them the truth?”

Valencia nodded. “If you believe that is best, then yes, tell them.”

“I understand.” He lowered his eyes and waited until the two figures had vanished into the palace. Then he glanced up and seemed to note the strange look several of the Corps were giving him. Even if Red was too preoccupied to notice, the others had. “What is it?”

“That servant--” Gold began. “He--”

Zortan smiled, a little blandly. “Oh, you are thinking of the man you saw yesterday? That was a different Keisai.”

“What?”

“It is a very common name in our system. I think we have half a dozen different servants around the palace with the name Keisai.”

“Oh. Right.” Gold seemed strangely nonplussed by that answer. “Anyway, what was it that the princess said you could tell us?”

Zortan gazed at him with a cold, clear look and then pinched the bridge of his nose again. (White wondered how many times he did that in an average day.) “Perhaps we should have told you all this to begin with. I imagined your time in our system would be brief--that you would not meet with her highness again and so there would be no reason for you to know this. It is not a subject on which I like to speak--not a subject which I would casually broach to any stranger who walks unto our planet. Still, now, with all you have done--you have the right to know. And if I do not tell you, you will imagine something more terrible--if anything could be more terrible.”

“I understand your reluctance,” said Gold, with a stiff bow. He was uncomfortable in these kinds of settings, but he seemed to sense the importance and seriousness of what Zortan was saying.

“Are you sure--” began Rothmar.

“Yes, they should know. It is not merely some personal quirk of ours to worry about her highness, you see. It is not merely out of morbid fear that we wish for her to conserve her strength and remain here. There is a good reason for our concern.” He paused and seemed to take a breath. “You see, Princess Valencia is dying.”

“What!” All of the Corps started--none of them had expected that. But Red's reaction was the most pronounced. He jerked forward and spoke in a quick, almost scratchy voice. “What kind of sick joke is that?”

Zortan nodded stolidly. “It is quite true, I am afraid.”

“It's--it's not possible. It's some kind of mistake--”

“Do you think we would make a mistake about this?”

“Red, stand down,” ordered Gold, but his voice was not as hard as usual when giving a command.

“I do not blame you for being surprised--upset.”

“You don't seem all that broken-up about it,” Red accused, his voice almost cracking.

Zortan bowed his head. “We have known so long that perhaps we have come to terms with the reality--as her highness most certainly has.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “We are a small, simple system. Our people are not rich nor our dominion extensive. But we have been happy. The royal line, since her highness's royal ancestor first brought our people here to the system, has ruled us well. Our people generally have loved their king, looked at him almost as father rather than a master. Her highness's late royal father and his queen were especially well-loved, because of their just and generous rule over us. But for many years, we believed the dynasty might be at an end. They were the last of royal blood, and they had no heir. And then--then when Altayra had given up hope of it happening, the queen gave birth. All of Altayra was overjoyed to see her birth--so glad that some child was born that they did not care that it was a girl, though she would be the first female heir to take the throne in Altayra's history. Everyone in the system loved her, though none more than her parents. As they celebrated her birth, they prepared and planned out everything for their child, determined that she would have everything they could give her, that they would do everything they could to give her a good life. And then, hardly a month after she was born, we learned that she was dying.”

Zortan spoke in a quiet, almost emotionless voice, but for an instant he turned away, as if to hide his feelings. When he continued, he spoke in the same, even tone. “She was born with a disease or, perhaps more accurately, an imperfection, a flaw--the exact name and nature does not matter--I will not trouble you with doctor's details--all that matters is that we knew then, knew that her highness would never live out the long and happy life her late royal parents and all of Altayra wished for her--that she would most likely not even reach adulthood.”

“I-I am sorry,” said Gold in a low voice, bowing his head. “We did not know.”

“No. But she has grown up knowing--knowing that her time is short. That is why, I think, she is so concerned for her people--she wants to do everything she can while she still has time. But that is also why we do not want her running around on her own, exerting herself in this way. Even though her constitution is still strong--considering her circumstances--we do not wish her to exert herself unnecessarily. Her time is short enough as it is.”

“But--but, c'mon--this is the 32nd century,” Red objected. “There's got to be some way to cure her.”

“No. As far as medical science has advanced, there are still diseases and physical problems for which there is no cure, no treatment. Do you think her highness's late royal parents--and we Sages, since their death--have not done all possible research on the subject? There is no medical technique in all of Ursa Prime or Draxmore which can do more than lengthen her life slightly and make her end easier when it comes. That is our secret--though it is a secret only to outsiders, such as yourself. The truth is generally known throughout our system, even to the common people. I believe it has made them love her highness all the more. There is not man or woman in this system, I think, but would willingly lay down their life in an instant if it would save her.”

There was a long pause after Zortan had finished his story. Everyone stood motionless, except Rothmar who paced silently while the other sage spoke.

Then Gold raised his head. “Well, there is nothing that we can do about this.”

“Oh, yes there is.” Red threw back his shoulders, and there was a strange note to his voice. “Valencia wants to leave things in a good state for her people--well, if the Nadirites have their way, there aren't going to be any people left for her to leave. That's what we can do--stop them from doing whatever it is they're doing and get back the people they've kidnapped. Valencia would say that was the first priority, anyway.”

“Yes--right.” Gold seemed a little surprised by Red's outburst. “Defeating the Nadirites--and reactivating the guidance beacon--that is our mission here. With your permission, we will continue with our work.”

“Of course.” Zortan bowed deeply. “If we may be of any assistance, do not hesitate to ask.”


The Corps was in a strangely subdued mood as they flew back to The Crystallair. None of them had been expecting this revelation. And even though they had only met Princess Valencia for the first time the preceding day, it was a sobering thing to know that someone who had walked and talked among them was linked with so dark a destiny.

But that kind of mood couldn't last very long--especially not with Black around. They had reached the ship and were preparing for take off, when she abruptly broke the silence. “There's just one thing I want to know. When they yell for Keisai, how do they know that the right one will answer?”

“Perhaps they think one servant will serve them as well any other, and so their names do not matter,” answered Silver heavily but without hesitation. He seemed to be joining more and more freely in conversation as time passed.

The revelation about Princess Valencia had almost pushed the problem of Keisai from White's mind.

Gold seemed to think this was a good time to divert everyone's mind to lighter topics. “I was wondering about that. Does it really make sense that they would have multiple servants with the same name?”

“It's possible,” answered White thoughtfully. “Especially if Keisai were the name of some famous person in their history.” She had lost track of how many men she had met among the Tremonsirs named John, all named after St. John of Patmos who had founded their order.

Red had been sitting in a strange attitude but now he roused himself for a moment. “Well, last night when Blue asked something about Keisai, Valencia seemed confused--which would make sense if they had more than one Keisai around.”

“I still think it sounds farfetched--but I can't imagine any reason why they would lie about it.” Gold shook his head. “I mean, we don't care what they call their servants.”

“Unless it's a code word of some kind.” White couldn't shake the feeling that there was something strange about Keisai. One little thing bothered her especially. Keisai and the princess had been walking back to the palace when Zortan called for them to stop so that he could ask Valencia for permission to tell the Corps about her illness. But when he called, he didn't call to Valencia but to Keisai. It was as if, even though she was the princess, yet this servant was somehow the superior. And both times, when the two different Keisais had escorted the princess away, she had seemed at first almost unwilling and yet had quickly acquiesced. That was why White wondered if the name might be really a code word of some kind--some way for the Sages to pass secret commands, even secret warnings to the princess. But she couldn't work out the thought any further than that.

“Anyway,” said Red, “what difference does it make how many servants they have or what their names are? All that matters is what they told us about Valencia.”

“Yes,” agreed Gold--for once not squashing Red for talking. “I'm beginning to wonder if those Sages might not be hiding something, but at least they told us the truth about that finally--and I don't blame them for not telling us before.”

The truth. It was the truth, wasn't it? White wondered if she was becoming a cynic. She couldn't help thinking that Zortan hadn't told them the story until after Valencia was safely inside the building. No, she was becoming far too suspicious. After all, it did make perfect sense--looking back over things Valencia had said, White realized they fit in perfectly with Zortan's story. And given Valencia's character, there was a high possibility that they would meet again, even if the Sages tried to prevent it--and if they had lied, it would be sure to come out.

“Sir!” Green spoke abruptly--speaking for almost the first time since they had found him unconscious outside the ship. He had his helmet phased off, but he still wore the rest of his armor--which, White knew, was acting as a cast to protect his injured leg while it healed. “Sir, our mission here does not concern the domestic details of Altayra's governing family. We have neither the authority nor power to involve ourselves in these things.”

“Hey, how can you be so cold-hearted?” Red demanded, looking at him in anger and honest amazement. “Didn't you hear that story?”

Green pulled his hat down. “I am fully aware of what the Sages told us. But that does not change the fact that our emotions concerning the princess do not defeat the Nadirites or reactivate the Guidance Beacon--which is what the Prefect sent us here to do.”

“You're not really human, are you--you green-skinned freak--do you even have a heart?”

“Red! That's enough!” Gold's voice was sharp and rough. “That was completely uncalled for--especially as Green is right. We are the Corps and we do have a mission. You yourself said it--the only thing we can do for the princess is to defeat the Nadirites.”

There was a pause, and then something happened that had never happened before in the cabin of The Crystallair--something White would have said would never happened.

Red apologized.

“Sorry--sorry, Green. I just--just got carried away for a minute.”

There was a pause and then Gold glanced at Green. “Green?”

Green pulled his hat lower with a strange jerk. “This is all irrelevant. Your feelings--your sympathy--your apologies--none of it changes reality. Life--death--the universe--none of it cares what you think. All that matters is what you can do, and only that you can do it right.”

“Well, that was strangely profound,” remarked Black.

White wouldn't have called it profound, but it also certainly wasn't what she was expecting from Green.

Gold made an abrupt movement with hands. “Regardless--our job is to stop the Nadirites and to do that, we're going after Maxwell. Blue, can you track him down?”

“Maybe.” Blue had been sitting, checking the ship's controls, but now she turned around to face them. “There are two things--one which you should already know and the other which I'm going to tell you. First, that weird metal Maxwell's arm is made of gives him a really bizarre energy signature which makes it both easier and harder to track him down than other people. Second, there's something about this system--I don't know exactly what it is--but somehow the powers of my armor don't seem to be working naturally.”

“What!” Gold stared at her incredulously.

Blue continued in an even, almost disinterested tone. “I don't know what it is--maybe even its some result from our battles--maybe whatever happened to the Matrix is spreading now to our armors--or maybe it's something to do with the system itself--but ever since we landed on Altayra Rex, my powers have been... unpredictable.”

Gold frowned deeply. “Are you sure it's not an operator failure?”

Blue shot Gold a look which would have been considered an act of war on some planets, and then answered in a voice that was slightly colder than usual: “Well, as leader of the team, I guess you should be smart enough to figure that out for yourself.”

There was an answering flash of anger in Gold's face, but when he spoke it was calmly and not in response to Blue. “White--Green--is she right--is it possible that the failure of the Matrix could cause our armor's specific abilities to malfunction?”

White glanced at Green who was staring at the floor. “I wouldn't think so--” she began.

Green jerked his hat so hard that it fell off, though he kept hold of it with one hand. “Sir, at this point we do not have sufficient data to make any kind of judgment on such a matter. Given that we have no idea what is causing the disfunction of the Matrix, we cannot possibly know what affect it would or would not have on our armor, especially as the specific relation between our armor and the Matrix is not fully known in the first place--we cannot know what affect a given unknown thing will have on the relation of two other unknown things.” Green always got upset and annoyed when things weren't going as he planned--and White certainly wasn't surprised that the continued disfunction of the Matrix was worrying him, even though the others had almost forgotten it in light of other things--but still, Green's tone and attitude seemed overly agitated for these factors. White imagined his injury was responsible.

Gold looked thoughtful and turned back to Blue. “I do remember that your powers have a unique reaction to Maxwell--it makes it easier to find the general area where he is, but harder to pinpoint where he is exactly?”

“That's a more or less accurate picture, yes. I can't guarantee to do even that much now, but I'm willing to try.”

“Then do it. Without that, we don't have any way even to begin to track him down.”

Blue made no response but phased on her armor. At the same time, she activated the take-off sequence, and The Crystallair rose from the surface of Altayra Rex and shot out into space.

White knew it would be ticklish business trying to track down Maxwell. Even with Blue's powers functioning properly, it was a difficult thing to track down a single person in the vastness of space--though she assumed that Maxwell was probably on one of the planets of the Altayra System. Based on what the Sages said, the Nadirites' motherships had emerged from the Void but hadn't come close to their system. By now, the MBUs had properly found and engaged them. It didn't make sense for Erybus and his troops to travel back and forth, so they must have a base or a smaller dropship somewhere inside the Altayra System itself. (Of course, Erybus could teleport, but she didn't think he could teleport his men and, anyway, she wasn't sure how far his teleportation powers could take him.) But knowing Maxwell as well as she did, she guessed he would be camping out on his own somewhere--not with the Nadirites, wherever they were based. Maxwell might be working for them, but he always played a lone hand.

She thought back to the first time the Corps fought Maxwell. It was early on in their time together--they had been on a routine assignment on Crenshaw's World when they stumbled unto Maxwell who was running a smalltime protection racket among the mining communities on the planet's sparsely settled moons. It had been a simple matter for them to break up his racket, though he himself escaped. At the time, she had never guessed they would ever encounter him again, let alone that he would become one of their most persistent enemies. He seemed to take his self-appointed role of arch-enemy very seriously. She couldn't help wondering if he had joined up with the Nadirites primarily because it gave him a chance to fight the Corps. Though he was probably being well-paid for his work, too--and money seemed to mean a great deal to Maxwell Million, given that he had turned to crime to maximize his chance at millions. She certainly found it next to impossible to believe that he had actually converted to the Nadirites' cause. He loved playing the system too much to desire the destruction of the system.

“He's here.”

Blue's words brought her attention back to the present. She glanced up at the monitors and saw they were in orbit around another planet. At least, she assumed it was another planet, though all the planets of the Altayra System seemed essentially identical.

“Are you sure?” asked Gold, who was standing directly behind her.

“Reasonably.”

Gold glanced at the monitor. “So this is Altayra Conaurah? Green, do you have any data about this place?

Green seemed more himself by now. “No, sir, except that this is the most sparsely populated of any of the planets in the Altayra System. Also, according to Princess Valencia, this is the home of the cold reactor which produces all energy for the system. I assume only the workers involved in the reactor would be present on the planet and it will be otherwise deserted.”

White had forgotten that the princess had said their energy could only be produced at cold temperatures, using the principle of the cold energy cell. She wondered if this fact--the fact that it was in a cold environment that the essential element of life was produced--had caused the people of Altayra to hold coldness itself in some kind of esteem or even veneration. She remembered the Sages saying that the building behind the palace was called the Temple of Ice and was a sacred place to the people of Altayra. She hadn't thought much about it at the time, but now she was beginning to wonder if there might be a logical reason behind it.

“We're going to land if we can.” Gold was frowning. “On the ground, we're in some danger, but the ship is a bigger target here in space--and we can't afford to have anything happen to the ship.”

In a few minutes, the ship had landed on the surface of the planet, and the Corps had disembarked and were standing around outside the ship.

“All right, we've got a lot of territory to cover,” said Gold, standing with his hands clasped behind him. “Since Blue can't pinpoint Maxwell's location, we're just going to spread out and search for him. We'll use our regular search protocols. We'll split into three groups--Blue and Silver in the first, Red and Green in the second, and me and White in the third. Black, I want you to stay with the ship--both to protect it in case of attack and to act as a command center. If any of you finds Maxwell, contact me--and if that's not possible, contact Black. Got it?”

“I was hoping for something more complicated, but I guess this will have to do,” said Blue.

Red clenched his fist. “We're going to track down Maxwell, don't worry. He won't be able to hurt any one else in Altayra.”

Black tossed a knife and caught it behind her back. “Well, at least we won't have to worry about the ship being attacked--not with me here.”

Gold nodded and then phased on his helmet. “Corps--action!”

At the command, the six members rose into the air and flew off in three different directions, leaving Black standing beside The Crystallair.

This was a simple search maneuver, and they had used it many times before. They weren't usually doing something as extensive as searching an entire planet, but this was an unusually small planet and there wasn't much on it to search. If Maxwell were alone and in hiding, they might not find him. But White suspected he probably had an actual base here, and he might not have bothered to try to conceal it, since there were so few people on the planet.

Altayra Conaurah looked about the same as the other two planets of the system they had visited. It had the same glossy black rock forming the entirety of the planet, veined by translucent stone and occasionally broken by patches of moss. The only real difference was that the rock seemed twisted into stranger formations, as if an ocean in the midst of storm had been suddenly frozen in its wild wind-churned contortions. White wasn't surprised that this planet hadn't been populated. Though the fact that there was giant energy reactor beneath its surface might have had something to do with it too.

“This would be simpler if we could just pinpoint Maxwell's location,” remarked Gold.

“At least we have a general idea where he is--and aren't searching the entire void for him.”

“If Blue's even right that he's here.”

“I don't think she would have lead us here unless she was sure of herself.”

Gold grunted. “I'm just not sure what to make of her claim that her powers aren't working properly here. It just sounds like a convenient excuse.”

White glanced at him. “What are you saying?”

He shrugged. “I've just been thinking. About a lot of things.” He paused and asked suddenly, “You're the science expert on the team--beside Green, anyway. How well do you understand how the Matrix works?”

White was puzzled by the question. It wasn't what she had expected based on the context. But the continued failure of the Matrix would certainly be weighing on his mind. “Nobody really understands how it works--maybe when our armor was first crafted they did, but certainly nobody knows now. But at a basic level, I suppose it's simple enough. In each of our armor is a shard of crystal.” She touched a spot on the chest of her armor. Almost invisible against the white metal was a glistening of something that was not metal, something translucent like glass but colored white like the heart of burning stars. “Those seven shards form the basis of the Matrix--or rather, they are the catalyst in creating the Matrix. The Matrix itself is formed out of our emotions--our feelings, desires, and passions, which are converted into energy to create the Matrix.”

“It seems weird when you say it that way.”

White shrugged. She thought they should all be immune to feeling anything as weird by this point. But all this talk about the Matrix brought her mind back to something that she had thought during the battle in the Guidance Beacon the day before. The basis of the Matrix was the emotions of those who wielded it. That made sense to her. The Tremonsirs had always warned her about the power of emotions. The emotions of sentient beings are in principle infinite because they are reflections of the infinite, unchanging attitudes of God. Joy, love, hope, and even anger are only human distillations of the pure energy of God. But we have this treasure in fragile canisters. She had seen in her own life the danger emotion could cause if not properly channeled and controlled. She had promised herself and God that she would never let emotion control her again after what had happened then.

But emotions were tricky things. She had forced herself to keep control of her emotions, but what about the others? Red's emotions ran fast and quick but not very deep. Blue and Silver were still a mystery to her. But she knew now that Green, Black, and Gold all had emotional turmoil that she hadn't suspected before. At least some of Black's attitude was for show and masked a fear of death--and who knew what else. Gold had his anger and bitterness towards his father because of his role in the last war, an anger which seemed in part to be the driving force behind his own actions in leadership of the Corps. And while she didn't know all of Green's story, she knew now that he was keeping many things hidden from all of them. Was it possible that their own emotional instability was causing the Matrix to malfunction?

At first she thought Gold was thinking along the same lines, and she wasn't ready for what he said next.

“I guess that leaves one question. Any of us can activate the Matrix, since it is connected to all of our armors. And if one of us is absent, the Matrix can't activate. But what if one of us were deliberately trying to prevent the Matrix from activating?”

White took a quick intake of breath. “I-I never thought of that. I'm not exactly sure what would happen. But I suppose--yes--any of us could prevent the Matrix from activating if we were consciously and actively attempting to prevent it. But you're not seriously suggesting--”

Gold shook his head. “I'm not suggesting anything--yet. I'm just trying to get everything straight in my mind.” Then he grunted. “But you're the one who said there might be a traitor among us.”

And based on the flow of the conversation, White guessed he suspected Blue. Certainly, it did make sense out of a lot of things, but was it really possible? She didn't like to think of the possibility. And she didn't like the idea that Gold suspected Blue--there was no direct evidence that pointed towards Blue more than any of them, and she felt it was more a personal friction between them then actual evidence which was pointing Gold's suspicion in that direction.

In any event, she was just as glad for the distraction which appeared at that moment. “There's something dead ahead, Gold.”

“I see it. Looks like a wreck--but it could be a good hiding place. Approach with caution.”

White and Gold came up low beside the object, hovering a few inches above the ground. What they saw was a large space ship, half buried in the ground.

“Based on the design, I'm thinking this is almost five hundred years old,” remarked Gold. “Probably it was on a ship like this that the people of Altayra first came to this system.”

“Do you really think it's that old? It's so well-preserved.”

Gold nodded. “Have you noticed how dry the air is here? I'm thinking that things wouldn't decay very quickly in this atmosphere.”

She hadn't really thought about that before, but it was true. The entire system seemed dry. The only water she had seen was a fountain in Altayra Rex. Of course, with the strange set-up of the system, it might not have an ordinary water cycle. Maybe all water had to be distributed artificially.

Gold landed and walked closer to the ship. “This would make a perfect hide out for Maxwell.”

“It does seem like his style--” White began when Gold silenced her with a motion.

They both listened for a moment. In the dead silence of the planet they could clearly hear the sound when it came again after a moment--the short, happy bark of a mechog.

Without speaking, White and Gold split up and flew around the hulk, converging on the source of the sound--where they found the object of their search.

Underneath the far wing of the old space ship, a hammock had been stretched from the side of the ship to a column of rock. Maxwell was lying in the hammock, his flesh arm hanging over the side and resting on the head of his mechog which was lying on the ground underneath.

Clearly, the last thing Maxwell was expecting at that moment was an attack. If both White and Gold had converged on him, they might have been able to overcome him before he could react.

But White hesitated. She was afraid. The Intimidator always unnerved her, because she was never sure what he might do. He was so good at manipulating people that she couldn't be sure that this perfect opportunity might not really be a trap. And there was something else, a fear so long forgotten that she could hardly call it a fear any more, since she felt sure it would never actualized. And yet it was there. All this held her back for just an instant, but that instant was enough.

Gold usually disliked surprise attacks, but he was beyond caring about that where Maxwell was concerned. He shot forward and was almost to Maxwell's hammock when the mechog suddenly sprang to its feet with a growl and lunged at him. At the same moment, Maxwell rolled out of the other side of the hammock. Before his feet touched the ground, the gray metal of his prosthetic had activated, covering his entire body in its unique exoskeleton.

“Whoa, hey, guys, this a private camping spot. Visitors aren't, you know, allowed here.”

White's momentary paralysis had passed and she shot forward as fast as she could, striking Maxwell's back with as much force as she could muster in a short space. The speed of her armor increased the force of her attack and it would have been enough to floor an ordinary opponent, but Maxwell's exoskeleton was almost as strong as the Corps' armor. It knocked him forward but didn't seem to do him any permanent damage.

He rolled with the blow and landed in a crouching position a few feet away. “Look, if you want a campsite of your own, there are, you know, plenty to chose from around here. I'll even let you into the secret of keeping it nice and toasty.”

While in their armor, the Corps was unaffected by changes in temperature and could brave even the cold of space. But White noted from one of the sensors in her armor that Maxwell wasn't talking nonsense when he spoke of his campsite being toasty. For some reason, this particular segment of the planet was significantly warmer than the general portion of the planet. She didn't have time to think of it then, but she guessed that the particles in the air which magnified the light for the Altayran system also magnified heat and one could probably manipulate that easily enough.

Gold had had just a second or two of difficulty with the mechog, but now he threw it to one side and turned on Maxwell. “White, we have to keep him away from this wreck.”

White understood the logic of the command. Maxwell might have some kind of weapons stash inside--and, even if not, the wreck was made of metal so it was possible that he could turn it into some kind of weapon using mnemic symbiosis.

White flew alongside Gold, forcing Maxwell to move backwards, away from his campsite and the old spaceship. He rose into the air and his two adversaries moved with him.

White couldn't help thinking it was time for them to contact the others. If all seven could converge on him now, he wouldn't have a chance. But that was Gold's call to make--she knew how annoyed he had been by Blue's calling for help in the battle with Maxwell on the Wanderer. And they might not need it. Without any weapons or hostages, it shouldn't be that hard to defeat Maxwell.

“OK, guys, I just want to go on record that I'm the, you know, victim in this scenario, given that you attacked me. I mean, you definitely shot first.”

“You're a criminal,” answered Gold. His voice was rough and hard but controlled. “You've broken just about every law there is--and now you've even added treason to your record, given that you've sold out to the Nadirites.”

“I wouldn't really, like, say it like that. I'm just an independent consultant--who also happens to be really, you know, intimidating.”

White thought she could detect just a slight hint of nervousness coming from Maxwell. It seemed that he had been caught completely by surprise--and therefore he had good reason to be nervous. He was at a severe disadvantage. Having no weapon and being alone on the desolate wastes of Altayra Conaurah, he had to depend on the strength of his exoskeleton alone. And though it was powerful, it was not as strong as the armor of the Corps. Maxwell was also skilled at reading people--much of his success depended on that--and he probably realized that Gold was much more serious now than he had been in any of their battles previously. Gold had always treated Maxwell as a minor annoyance--now it was different.

White and Gold had fallen automatically into a simple battle plan. White left the actual fighting to Gold, who was the stronger of the two, while she ran interference, primarily working to keep Maxwell from fleeing the battle. Gold at first had tried to simply capture Maxwell bodily, but even though his armor was stronger, the nature of Maxwell's exoskeleton made it very difficult to keep hold of him. It seemed to continually shift and rearrange itself, leaving the captor with nothing in his hands.

It didn't seem to bother Gold much. White couldn't help feeling he preferred a different tactic, anyway--his tactic being to punch Maxwell repeatedly. It wasn't that much different than an ordinary fist-fight, except for the fact that they were both flying, making the physics different than they would have been on the ground. And White could tell from Maxwell's expression that Gold wasn't actually hurting him, but it was just a matter of time until his exoskeleton gave out.

Even though Gold still hadn't called for back-up (and it didn't look like he was going to need it), they might get it anyway. The fight was moving through the air in the general direction of The Crystallair, and White guessed before long Black would spot it and come out to join, possibly calling the others back as well.

“You can't run forever, Maxwell.”

“Um, I'm not running. I'm, you know, flying. Or maybe levitating, if you want to be technical.”

“Don't think your nonsense is going to save you.”

White frowned behind her helmet. She could tell that Gold was becoming more and more angry or, maybe, was letting it show more. She hoped it wouldn't cloud his judgment.

Gold bodyslammed Maxwell so hard that he practically collided with White, flying behind him. “I know you don't actually feel any of this, but your exoskeleton can't hold out forever, and then you'll really feel something.”

“Hey, um, that was almost good. Ever think of going into the intimidating business? With a little training, you might do really, you know, well with it.” Maxwell just barely twisted out of the way of another attack. Was he slowing down? Unlike the Corps' armor which existed as a separate entity, Maxwell's exoskeleton was at least partly connected to his body (via his prosthetic) and seemed to have some kind of symbiotic relationship to him. That meant he would probably tire out in the fight much quicker than Gold, even if they had equal physical stamina to begin with (which she doubted). “It's mostly in the attitude. Your dialog could use some, you know, work, but you've got the whole angry-bad-guy mojo down. If I didn't, you know, know better I'd think you really were angry.”

“Just a few more minutes, and you'll find out how angry I am.” Gold actually managed to get a hold of Maxwell's arm for a minute and slammed him down towards the surface of the planet, though Maxwell broke his fall inches from the surface.

“Yeah, um, you've definitely got the tone down. Now just--”

“SHUT UP!”

White paused for a moment to take stock of the situation. It was only a matter of time. No matter what trick he played, Maxwell couldn't escape. He was definitely slowing down and his exoskeleton was probably weakening. But more than that, she was fairly certain he was getting nervous. In all their previous interactions, he had never seen Gold this angry. White hadn't seen this side of Gold very often--though it seemed to be coming our more and more often since the beginning of this mission.

Gold was able to grab Maxwell again. When he spoke, he seemed more controlled than an instant before, but there was still rough fire in his voice. “Shut up--you're going to need all your breath for crying for mercy once I get you out of that suit.”

“That's, you know, it. Definitely got the, you know, right note there. But it doesn't really, you know, work when everyone knows that you follow your, you know, Code.”

That might be a useful fact, White thought. Maxwell said you know more often when he nervous. It would come in handy next time if there was a, you know, next time. And now she was doing it.

“Don't worry about that.” For just a second, Gold's helmet phased off and then back on. Either he was so occupied that he did it by accident or he intentionally wanted Maxwell to see the expression in his eyes. “Even without our Code, I wouldn't miss the chance of turning you over alive to the Patrol to be tried and executed for treason. But we could still do that even if you were missing a few limbs at the time--what's two or three more prosthetics to you? Our Code forbids killing--it doesn't say anything about maiming.”

White thought she could see Maxwell becoming more nervous. Gold's bluff was working. At least, White hoped Gold was bluffing.

“You're going to pay for what you did--first on the Wanderer and then with that corban stunt.”

“Hey, that was totally Erybus's idea. I told him it wouldn't, you know, work. Did one of you actually get hurt in it?”

“Not as badly hurt as you're going to be.”

“Oh, come on.” Without warning, Maxwell landed on the ground and, at the same moment, his exoskeleton receded back to his prosthetic. “This is just, like, you know, wrong. This isn't the way this is supposed to work.”

Gold dropped to the ground directly in front of him, phasing off his armor. White landed behind him, but kept her armor on, though she phased her helmet off. Maxwell's exoskeleton might have given out--but it could also be a trick of some kind. She wasn't sure why Gold had chosen to shed his armor. Was he really just wanting to defeat Maxwell personally, man-to-man--for some kind of personal satisfaction or sense of personal honor? She would have thought he was above that kind of thing--after all, they were the Corps--they were better than that--

“You've got one last chance to talk while you still have teeth.”

Maxwell pushed his hair back from his forehead. “No, no, this is all wrong. And by wrong, I mean, you know, immoral. This is just egoism and wrath, a desire for revenge to satisfy personal pride. It's, you know, a sin. 'My dear friends, do not get revenge for yourselves, but rather open room for God's anger, as the writings say: The right of revenge is mine; I will bring retribution. This says Jehovah.'”

“What?” Gold's mouth fell open and for an instant all his emotions seemed to give away to sheer amazement. He was used to hearing Maxwell talk nonsense--but not this. And behind him, White staggered and fell to one knee. She knew. She thought Maxwell had played his last trick, but of course he had one left. He always had one trick left. He had it from the beginning and she had been a fool to think he wouldn't play it. The one thing she had hoped, had prayed, had believed, had been certain would never happen--was happening. After making an entire career out of lying, Maxwell was going to tell the truth.

“That's, you know, scripture. And what you're doing--what you're feeling right now--it's just, you know, a sin.” Maxwell shook his head. “Oh, you explain it to him, would you? You always were good at theology, Deborah.”

Gold took a step backwards, out of sheer puzzlement. “Who are you talking to?”

“Deborah. You know, White. What? Didn't she ever tell you her real name?”

Gold was staring at Maxwell with a dumbfounded expression. “How would--what in the Cosmos are you talking about?”

Maxwell smoothed his hair back again. “Um, oh. Sorry. This is awkward. I guess there are a lot of things she never told you--you know, about the old days. When the two of us were both members of the Tremonsirs. Funny how, you know, time goes by so fast. That seems forever ago now. But I guess she never told you about any of that. Then, I suppose she also never told you who her first kiss was?”

Gold's hand fell to his side and he just gaped at Maxwell for a moment.

And in that moment, Maxwell's mechog (forgotten at his campsite) sped out of nowhere. Maxwell jumped on its back and was out of sight in a matter of seconds. Neither White nor Gold made a move to follow him. Both remained in their positions as if frozen.

Then Gold spoke without turning around. “That was a bluff, wasn't it? He was just talking nonsense again to distract us so he could escape. Right?”

White didn't speak for a moment. She felt as if there was something in her throat, some large, impossible obstacle. “No. It wasn't a bluff. He was telling the truth.”

“The truth.” For a moment longer, Gold stood immovable. Then without a warning, he spun around and faced her, his eyes burning. “You knew him? All this time--all this time we've been fighting Maxwell--and you never told me that you knew him once? You just lied to us all?”

“I never lied--I never said I didn't know him--” White faltered-- “and besides, that was all so long ago. He ran away from the monastery almost four years ago.” It didn't seem that long when she said it out loud, but to her it seemed like ages. “It was--was part of a different life--a different world--I never thought--”

Gold took a step forward. His fists were clenched, but by his expression it was a toss-up whether it was in anger or in pain. “So was all he said true? The kiss--was it--were you two--”

White couldn't meet his eyes. “Gold, we were just children then. It was just--I mean--we didn't know what we were--”

“How far did it go?” Gold's face was almost white with the strength of his emotion.

“That was as far as it went. Don't even think--it wasn't like that--and anyway, the leaders of the monastery found out about it and put a stop to it. That's when Maxwell ran away.”

For another moment, Gold remained like that--his eyes burning, his fists clenched, but otherwise unmovable. Then he released his fist as if releasing his tension, though his face still looked tense enough. “So that's it. That explains everything. That's why you were so sure one of us was a traitor. It was you--you've been betraying us to Maxwell this whole time. We had a traitor in the Corps, but not any more--because you're not part of the Corps now.”

To be continued...