Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 14

[White's Journal. Seventh of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] Things in the Altayra System had gone from bad to worse. We were still no closer to defeating the Nadirites; Maxwell had kidnapped Princess Valencia; and the tensions within our own number continued to grow. While searching for Maxwell and his captive, Red and Silver had been cornered by Nadirite powersuits. I was able to rescue them, but in the fight the Nadirites escaped.

“So, what happened here, anyway?” asked White, looking in puzzlement at Red, Silver, and the mechog. She had made a few passes, hoping to catch up with the retreating Nadirites, but she hadn't been able to pick up their trail and so she had returned and was now trying to put together exactly what had led up to the strange standoff.

“Just about what it looked like,” Red admitted, a little sheepishly. “We had just showed up to investigate the campsite when those Nadirites jumped us. We could've whipped them easily if they hadn't surprised us.”

Generally, White didn't pay much attention to Red's boasting, but in this case she agreed. Red and Silver probably would have been a match for the three Nadirites in a fair battle. Actually, Silver on his own probably would have been a match for them. Hand-to-hand combat was his strong point.

“They knocked out Silver before I knew what was going on and then threatened to shoot him unless I phased off my armor.”

White nodded. That was about what she had assumed had happened. But there were still a couple of things she didn't understand. “What happened to this wreck?” She nodded towards the ancient spacecraft which had formed the backdrop to the fight.

Red shrugged. “Wasn't it always like that?”

“No. It was in almost perfect condition when Gold and I were here before.”

“Huh. Well, it was this way when Silver and I got here.”

“In that case, Maxwell may have caused it.” She closed her eyes for a moment in concentration, sorting out all the data she had. “Probably, he had a small ship of some kind hidden in there. It would make a perfect hanger and nobody would be likely to think of it. He could've even built it in there.” Maxwell had always had a hobby of working with machinery, and now his exoskeleton made it easier than ever. She could easily picture him working inside the derelict craft, fashioning his own new creation.

The mechog made a short bark, bringing her attention back to the present. Red was half-holding, half-petting the large animal, as he had been ever since the end of the battle. “That's the main thing I don't understand. Where in the Cosmos did that mechog come from?”

“It was here when we got here.” Red glanced up at her, with a keen but anxious expression. “Don't you understand? This is Maxwell's mechog.”

Of course. She hadn't thought of that because she wasn't used to seeing the animal without its master, but now that she had thought of it, it was clear. All mechogs did look a great deal alike, but there were a few distinctive characteristics by which she could tell that this was Maxwell's. What had he called it? Timmy?

“That's a good boy,” remarked Red, talking to the animal as he rubbed it under its chin. With its metallic coat, White wasn't sure how much it could really feel, but it seemed happy with the attention, anyway.

White was still puzzled, but she wasn't exactly sure how to phrase her next question. That Maxwell's mechog might return to his campsite might make sense--but why had Red been so anxious to protect in that battle? White wasn't sure she would have expected Red to be quite that bold in protecting his own teammates, let alone Maxwell's pet. But she only commented, “I never knew you were an animal person.”

“On Kastoria, my family owned a whole pack of mechogs. We had them trained for hunting.”

Hunting. Of course. Mechogs had strangely keen senses and uncanny ability to find their way. That had to be the way Red's mind was going...

“You see, don't you?” Red's expression still looked anxious, but somehow passionate. “This is our one lead to finding Maxwell. He should be able to lead us straight back to wherever Maxwell is. And it's not just my idea,” he added defensively, as if he expected White to raise an objection. “That's why the Nadirites were trying to capture him, too. It seems that Maxwell has run out on them.”

Somewhat predictably. White wondered whether being an enemy or an ally of Maxwell would be more frustrating.

“You think it will work, don't you?” Red apparently took White's token nod as an agreement. “I just hope Gold agrees. He doesn't always like to listen to my ideas.”

White felt a pang at that. The way Gold had been acting lately, she wasn't sure he would be willing to listen to anyone's ideas. But all she said was, “We'll find out soon. The others are going to rendezvous here. Gold and the others finished up their work at the Guidance Beacon already. I'd like to get Silver checked out before he moves too far. That was a serious knock to the head he got.”

“I have been hit harder before,” said Silver, quietly.

“I know, but that doesn't mean there may not be internal injuries.” She glanced back at Red. She was still puzzled. Something about him seemed different than usual. The way he had been acting, though not entirely atypical, seemed somehow “out-of-sync” with his usual character. Though, come to think of it, that was true of most of the team over the last several days. Maybe she had just grossly miscalculated their characters. “It's a good thing you thought of the mechog,” she admitted, partly because it was true and partly to try to get Red to talk more in hopes of giving her the key she needed. “If it works, that may be our chance to get finally catch up to Maxwell.”

Red clenched his left fist. “We've got to find him.”

White sighed. Clenching one fist to emphasize determination was a fairly common habit among men, but she knew Red had consciously or unconsciously copied it from Gold, since he had used his left hand even though he was right-handed. She wondered if picking up habits from Gold was exactly a good thing at the moment.

But Red was still talking. “We've got to find him--and rescue Valencia.”

Ah. Of course. That explained it. White was used to Red's infatuations, but this one was obviously going to new levels. “Red, of course you're concerned for the princess, but--”

“I know,” Red interrupted petulantly.

“Know what?”

“Whatever you were about say.”

White decided not to point out the logical inconsistency of that statement. “I know you were impressed by her appearance,” she began carefully. “Anyone would be.”

Red looked away. “You just don't understand. It's not like that. Maybe it was at first, but not now. Not now that I've come to know her. Not after what the Sages told us.”

White decided that conversation would be more profitable if she just let Red talk.

“Valencia was born with everything. She's beautiful; she's got a position and a whole kingdom of people who love her; she rich--as far as this system goes--she has it all. And yet she's never going to get to enjoy it fully; she's doomed to die before she even gets a good start on life.”

Red paused and so White nodded, even though he still wasn't looking at her. Certainly, there was a strange pathos in Valencia's story. They had all been affected by it, though obviously Red more than the others.

“And yet--you know what?--for all that, all she cares about is her people. The fact that she's dying doesn't seem to bother her at all, except that it will leave her people without a ruler. Everything she does is done in reference to that--her duty, her concern for the people of this system. You saw how she acted in Hath'ellah. She's just our age--she doesn't have any powers, no armor--and yet she wasn't afraid to stand up to that angry mob or even to the Nadirites--not when the safety of her people was in danger. She'd lay down her life in a second if it would help the people of this system. She's a true princess.”

Red paused again and White felt there was nothing she could say. She had duly noted Valencia's selfless attitude but hadn't thought much more about it. Clearly, it had made a much greater impression on Red--and not without reason. She wondered how much a share self-reproach bore in Red's impression. Red, after all, had a lot in common with Valencia--born, like her, into wealth and position. Had the similarities impressed on him the difference between their relative attitudes?

“And that's why,” he turned suddenly to face her, “that's why we've got to rescue her from Maxwell--why we've got to stop whatever it is Erybus and the Nadirites are doing here. It's the least we can do--it's what she would want us to do--it's all we can do. Don't you understand?”

“'A man with two souls staggers wherever he goes,'” answered White. “'Like clouds that never rain, blown by the winds; trees that never grow fruit; waves of the sea, raging with the froth of shame; wandering stars lost in endless darkness.'”

“What?” Red looked at her in consternation and confusion.

White took a step back and looked equally confused. She hadn't realized she was going to say the words until she said them. And they hadn't be directly intended for Red. But now she understood. Red was in love with Valencia. Or if this was just an infatuation, it was an infatuation of a rather unique and intense character. Certainly of unique and intense character for Red. It probably wouldn't last. They didn't usually. Once they finished this mission in Altayra and moved on, Red might completely forget the princess. But at the moment, he loved her and it was changing his character, making him think things and feel things and do things he wouldn't normally think, feel, or do.

Of course.

However, she would have had some difficulty in explaining everything she was thinking to Red and was saved the trouble as, at that moment, The Crystallair appeared in the sky above them.

As soon as they got back on the ship, White took Silver to the Medical Chamber and run some tests and then some healing protocols. There was no extensive damage, but there was no point in taking chances.

When she returned to the main cabin, she found the rest of the Corps gathered around the mechog and Red, who was trying to explain everything to Gold.

“I knew I couldn't trust you to do anything on your own,” Gold was saying as White entered the cabin.

“Gold, I--”

“I sent you on a simple mission, to find out a few simple answers--and instead, you come back with a wounded comrade and a mechog!”

White spoke in a quiet voice. “Gold, none of this is Red's fault. Listen to him--for once, I think he's on to something.”

Gold didn't even turn to look at her. “I don't need advice from you about how to do my job.”

“Obviously,” remarked Blue, laconically. She was sitting at the table, casually eating a block of prefood.

“How in the Cosmos did you think this overgrown metal puppy would help us any?”

“It can lead us to Maxwell,” Red answered. There was irritation and sullenness in his manner, but he was standing his ground, which was more than he would usually do in an encounter with Gold. “This mechog is the only one who knows where Maxwell is. He can lead us to him.”

“Don't be stupid. Do you think he's just going to let us follow him to his master's hideout? Mechogs are smarter than that.”

Black was sketching invisible lines on the air with a knife. “Normally, I'd agree, Chief. But this is Maxwell's mechog, so...”

Gold made a dismissive motion with his hand. “This is all stupid. Our only hope for tracking down Maxwell is the monitor system. Green, is the system live?”

Green nodded. “Yes, sir.” He moved to the ship's computer and pulled up a few charts.

“Do you have enough data to pin anything down yet?”

Green didn't answer for a few seconds, as he sorted out the data in his mind. Then he shook his head. “There is a residual trail from Altayra Conaurrah--the Nadirite agents Red and Silver encountered must have used a small cruiser, which has now returned to the Void outside of our range. However, there is no definitive signature which could be Maxwell's. Very likely, his ship has landed or is in orbit so that the engines are not engaged or only operating a low level. Until he moves, there's no way to pin him down.”

Gold's face darkened. “So all we can do is wait?”

Green adjusted his hat. “Sir--I would suggest we return to Altayra Rex while we wait. If Maxwell has, in fact, kidnapped the princess for ransom, then most likely he will send a message to the sages demanding said ransom. He may have sent it already, in fact. And that might give us some new data to work with.”

“Roger that.” Gold suddenly seemed all business again. “We'll return to Altara Rex immediately.”

Blue put down her food and looked up at him. “And if we can't find Valencia, then what? Waiting for new data can only last so long.”

Gold's face flushed and for a minute, White thought he wasn't going to answer or was going to attack Blue. But when he spoke, his voice was calm though hard. “There's only one thing we can do. The abduction by Princess Valencia under our watch is an international incident and therefore takes precedence over other concerns. We'll have to call General Kenton and the other MBUs to join the search. With their help, we could turn over every stone in this system until we find Maxwell. It would be our only option, if it came to that.” His voice grew harder and he clenched his fist. “But it won't come to that.”

“Are you sure?” asked Blue.

“Blue, take control of the ship. We need to return to Altayra Rex. That's an order.”

Blue walked to the controls. “Of course. I would never possibly dream of defying an order, even if it wasn't especially intelligent.”

Gold didn't pay any attention. “I'll put the mechog in the hold and we can release it once we get on the ground. There's no point in keeping it around.”

If there wasn't, White wondered why Gold didn't release it then and there, but she knew it wasn't worth the trouble to ask and she had too many other things on her mind.

“It shouldn't be a long trip but if you can grab a few seconds of rest, do it. We may not get another chance for a while.”

The Corps dispersed. White checked to make sure Silver was still all right, and then went to find Gold. She knew he wouldn't want to talk to her and she wasn't sure she could make him listen or that it would do any good if she could, but she had to try.

She found him in the storage chamber of the ship, just off from the hold where he had stowed the mechog. He looked up at her as she came in and then looked away without acknowledging her presence.

“Gold, we have to talk.”

“I don't talk to traitors--not unless you're going to tell me that you know where Maxwell is.”

Gold moved as if to leave the room, but White stood in front of the door. “You know as well as I do,” she said quietly, “that I haven't betrayed the Corps.” She was hurt that Gold had fallen back into this attitude towards her, after having come out of it for a few minutes earlier. But she also was now convinced that his doubts were not sincere--besides, one of them had to keep calm, and by the looks of things, it had to be her.

“That's what I would expect a traitor to say. Now, excuse me--” He moved forward, almost as if to push her out of the way.

White stood her ground and locked eyes with him. “Gold, you may think I'm an enemy. I may be an enemy. But aren't you honor-bound to give even an enemy a chance to speak?” She felt just a little dishonest, manipulating Gold like that, but she knew that appealing to his sense of honor was the only way she could make him listen.

He looked away. “Make it quick.”

She took a deep breath. She had gotten what she wanted. She had gotten a chance to talk to Gold. Now, would she be able to say what needed to be said?

“Gold, I've always respected your skill as our leader, your courage as a soldier, your code of honor--” (that sounded too much as if she were flirting with him--but she had no time to rethink her words now--) “so, I want you to listen to me now when I tell you that you are destroying this team.”

“Hmph.” He still was looking away.

“I don't blame you for being angry with me, for not telling you the truth about Maxwell months ago. I don't blame you for being angry with Blue, for the way she's been challenging your leadership on this mission. I don't blame you for being angry with Red, given the way he generally acts. I don't blame you for being angry with your father, given what he did in the past. But your anger is destroying you and our entire team.”

He finally turned around. “White, I was never cut out to play the namby-pamby nice guy role. I couldn't do it even if I wanted to, which I don't. I was born to be a soldier.” His voice was still hard, but it didn't have that note of antagonism now. Almost unconsciously, he had slid just slightly towards his old attitude towards her.

“And a solider, of all the people in the Cosmos, should understand what I'm saying. A soldier is someone who has to submit to his commander--or to his Code, in your case--and has to force his emotions to submit to his will. A soldier is someone who can't let his own emotions, his own anger control him.”

“So that's what this is all about? You went to all this trouble to talk to me about my emotions?”

“What's so strange about that? Emotions are powerful things. We know that--the entire legacy of the Corps is built around the Matrix, which is powered by our emotions. If they're not properly controlled--”

“So you think I'm not controlling my anger?” Gold challenged. “You think I'm just going to snap one day and start throwing a tantrum and breaking things?”

After the way Gold had acted the last several days, White wouldn't have thought that possibility quite as distant as he apparently did. But-- “No, that's not what I'm saying.” She sighed. It looked like she would have to start with the point where she had really begun to understand. “Red is in love with Princess Valencia.”

“Do we ever run across a pretty girl that Red doesn't fall in love with?”

“No. And more likely than not, this one won't last. I mean, this is Red. But it's more than just a pretty face this time. Valencia's devotion and self-sacrifice--all the more solid against the backdrop of her personal tragedy--have made a definite impression on him. He's thinking about it and that, in turn, is changing the way he acts.”

Gold made a dismissive motion. “If you're going to say that 'True love conquers all' or something like that, I'm going to lose what small amount of respect I have left for you. You've seen more of the world than any of us, so you of all us know that that kind of thing is nonsense.”

“True love might conquer all, but our love, even at its best, is only half true. But even at that, it gives people the strength to do things they would never be able to do.”

“And at least half the things it makes people do are bad,” finished Gold.

“Of course.” White felt her voice rising slightly with intensity. “Love isn't always a good thing any more than electricity or radioactive power. But it exists, just as they do. Love is a real thing. It's an emotion, a collection of emotions, but its more than that--it's an act of the will, an act of the intellect, a collection of emotions, even, to some extent, a material passion--all bound together to become something more than--certainly other than--all of them. That is what love is, and it follows through for other things we call emotions, even anger.”

“And your point is?” Gold asked and then, noting the flash of irritation in her face, added, “You're getting angry--while lecturing me about my anger.”

White felt something inside her snap, or, perhaps, fall into place. “Yes, I am. 'Do not sin; be angry. Do not let a cycle pass without dealing with the cause of your anger.' Anger exists, just as love does--for a reason.” She took a step forward, her words coming in a quick, staccato. “Anger--love--fear--hope--all our emotions--they all have a purpose. They are all sacred things, gifts to us from the essence of God. They are not drugs for man to dull his consciousness or toys to amuse him or gods for him to worship or annoyances to be suppressed like insects. Anger has its proper use, like everything else which God made. There are plenty of things in this vast, broken Cosmos that you can--should be angry about. But what do you use your anger for?”

Gold was staring at her with a strange expression. It was defensive yet seemed slightly puzzled. “What do I use it for?”

“You use it to mask your real feelings--your real concerns, your real worries, your real regrets, your sense of injured pride and hubris--you hide it all and transmute it all into anger. You've done it as long as I've known you, but it was so subtle at first that I never noticed it. But this mission has been pushing you beyond your limits, and so you've been forging an angrier and angrier mask to protect yourself.”

Gold had folded his arms. “You make it sound so simple,” he remarked in a cold, hard voice.

“Of course it's not simple. Nothing in this universe is simple. But then, that is the specific potential and danger of very strong emotions--they simplify the world, sometimes oversimplify. To a man in love, love and the thing he loves temporarily fill the whole of the universe--hence both the noble and the foolish things people do out of love.” She didn't think she was getting through and knew the more she said the worse it might get. But on the other hand, this might be her once chance to get Gold to listen at all and she had to make the most of it. “Take your feelings towards you father. What they really are is most likely rather complex--a combination of justified indignation, shame, associated guilt, all mixed up with the ordinary tensions which arise between father and son and between any two people of such similar temperaments--but if you chose turn that all into anger, it becomes very simple. Simple, but not true. Because you don't really hate your father--or, at least, you and I both know that you shouldn't, that you don't have sufficient cause to. And you don't hate your teammates, except, perhaps now, me and that only started yesterday. And yet you are angry with us. It creates an imbalance, a pretense, a mask. 'A man with two souls staggers wherever he goes.' If you use your emotions wrongly, obviously it's not going to work out right. It will be like eating food that doesn't actually feed you...”

Abruptly Gold unfolded his arms and looked at her with a new note. “What did you say? Food that doesn't feed... Of course, with prefood that's possible--and when we ate at Hath'ellah--and again today--we all ate and all got hungry again.”

The discovery about the prefood had been Blue's discovery, so White wasn't sure whether she should have mentioned it to Gold or not, but since she had, she decided she might as well go the whole way. “Yes. Blue figured it out. That's why she asked for food earlier--the food the Altayrans served us had no calories or nutrients, just flavor. We really have no idea why.”

Gold's face clouded momentarily in concentration, and then he clenched his fist and glanced up at her. “Hmm. Well, I told you to make it quick and we're nearly to Altayra Rex now. And I still don't see how this lecture of theology and psychology has anything to do with the fate of our mission.”

White sighed internally. She hadn't gotten through. Or Gold was just too proud and too stubborn to admit that she had. “Gold, the Corps is a body and you, as the leader, are the head. You're the one keeping us together, making us a single fighting entity, not just seven kids with fancy suits. But your attitude is destroying you and, in turn, destroying the team. It's clouding your judgments and therefore everything we do and, in the end, our own fate and the fate of the legacy of the Corps. So long as you keep on the path you've taken, we're like clouds that never rain, blown by the winds; trees that never grow fruit; waves of the sea, raging with the froth of shame; wandering stars lost in endless darkness.”

He looked at her with a strange, sardonic smile, his head tilted slightly to one side. “So, what? You want me to just stop being angry? Just like that?”

“Not to stop being angry, but to use your angry properly. (Just trying to suppress your emotions won't accomplish anything, trust me.)”

“So you think it's that simple? Just snap--” he snapped his fingers-- “and everything goes into place?”

“N-no--” White admitted uncertainly. Obviously, nothing in the world was that simple. But she couldn't quite figure out where Gold was going with all this.

“So, for me to use my emotions properly and to be the head of the Corps, I have to have some kind of help from somewhere else, right? And that's where this gets evangelistic?”

Getting evangelistic with Gold was the last thing in White's mind though, after reconsideration, maybe it shouldn't have been.

Fortunately, Gold didn't wait for an answer. He shrugged his shoulders, adjusting his jacket (which, as always, hung open over his flightsuit) and then took a step forward, not looking at her. “White--”


“When I want spiritual counseling--I'll ask for it.” And with that he stepped through the doorway and vanished.

White finally let out a long, audible sigh. That could have gone better but it could have gone worse. At least she had been able to say something, anyway. And the conversation had helped clear her own mind, even if it hadn't helped Gold any. She now knew that Black was right--that deep down she had always known it even though she had fooled herself into ignoring the knowledge--she had developed a crush on Gold. It was only natural. It would have been more surprising if she hadn't. (She was still fairly sure that Black was wrong about Gold's having any feelings for her, though. Certainly, if he had had any before, they were gone now.) When she had had her relationship with Maxwell, she had made the mistake of taking her emotions for a guide. Ever since then, she had made the opposite mistake of trying to pretend they weren't there. Now she understood, even if (as it seemed) she had come to understand too late.

It wasn't the best location, but the storeroom was unoccupied so for a moment she bowed her head and began to pray.

It was a matter of minutes later when the Corps reconvened in the main cabin, as the ship came into orbit around Altayra Rex.

“All right, here's the plan,” Gold explained, seeming perfectly calm and collected again. “We're going to down and check in with the sages--find out if Maxwell has sent a ransom demand yet. If so, we'll see if that gives us anything new to go on. If not, we're going to see if we can tie into whatever primitive data systems they have on this planet for some added info--and then wait for further developments.”

“That seems promising,” remarked Blue, turning from the control panel and standing up.

Gold glanced at her coldly. “Do you have any other suggestions?”

“Of course I, being a lowly crewmember, have no ideas of my own.”

“That's what I thought.” Gold phased on his arm. “All right, let's go. As before, we're just going to leave the ship in orbit and go down with our armor.”

As White followed the others down towards the surface of Altayra Rex, she couldn't help thinking again of how barren the planet was. Obviously, the strange earth-born light of the system couldn't support ordinary vegetation. Hadn't Valencia said that all their food was produced at special farms on another planet? At any rate, the whole place seemed bleak and inhuman, cold and lifeless. It really seemed a more fitting home for ghosts than living people.

They had made directly towards the courtyard of the royal palace. They had been there so often that it was beginning to seem like a familiar location. The place was quite this time and there was no sign of Zortan or Rothmar. In fact, there was no one at all within the courtyard itself except for a girl who was sitting on one of the benches scattered around the enclosure. It was a girl of about sixteen, wearing a simple white dress and holding a book of some kind lying closed on her lap. They couldn't see her face as they landed, but they didn't need to. It was exactly as it had been the first time they visited the palace and seen her sitting there. Somehow, Princess Valencia had returned.

Even before the others reached the ground, Red had gained the lead by teleporting forward. The instant he was on the ground, he had phased off his armor and was beside the girl.

“Valencia, are you all right?”

She looked up with a smile. “Ah, you have returned.” She seemed perfectly calm and demure, not especially the attitude one expects out of a recently escaped prisoner.

“I was--we were worried about you. You're sure you're all right? Maxwell didn't hurt you?”

“Maxwell?” repeated Valencia, faltering. For just an instant, she had that blank look White had noted a couple of times before. “No--he talked a good deal, but that was all.”

“That's about the worst torture I can think of,” observed Black. By this time, the rest of the Corps had landed and were now standing around the princess in a semi-circle. All of them had phased off their armor.

“But how did you get free? Did he let you go?” Red pressed.

“No, Keisai returned me to the palace,” she explained.

But at that instant, the two sages made an appearance, rushing up to take a stand on each side of the princess. They were followed by a young servant, barefoot and wearing a white tunic, who took an attentive stand behind them. He was above average height, lean but muscular. His skin was a dark brownish color and unblemished. He had high cheek bones and dark eyes and jet black hair worn in a braid which fell half-way down his back. Somehow White had a strong feeling that his name was going to be Keisai.

“Ah, Corps, I am glad you have returned,” said Zortan. “We were just preparing to contact you. Her highness has been safely returned to us.”

“I see that,” remarked Gold in a stolid voice.

White noticed out of the corner of her eyes that Blue was pulling on a strand of hair again. Clearly, this development puzzled her as much as the others, though her face remained expressionless. “Did you say that it was Keisai who rescued her?” she asked after a slight pause.

Zortan nodded in affirmation and then nodded to indicate the man behind them. “Yes, that is correct. I believe I mentioned when you were here before that we had one slight hope of rescuing the princess without your help. That hope was, of course, Keisai who has frequently been useful to us in taking care of such matters.”

White narrowed her eyes, trying to read the man. His face and manner were calm and collected, but there were something about his words and tone... it was almost as if he were reciting a speech he had carefully memorized.

Gold was far from satisfied with this explanation. “But how did he manage to rescue her--and where is Maxwell now?”

Valencia raised her hands in a motion of ignorance. “I cannot say. He forced me to board a ship of some kind which he had docked her on Altayra Rex but then he traveled somewhere off planet and wouldn't tell me exactly where we were.”

Naturally. That much had been just about as they had figured.

Gold made an impatient movement with his hand. “But if Keisai rescued you from Maxwell, he would know where his ship was, wouldn't he?” He moved suddenly and turned to confront the servant: “Don't you?” he pressed, changing his words to a direct question.

Keisai bowed and spoke in a deep, rich voice. “His ship was in orbit around Altayra Conaurrah, keeping in the shadows by the great mountains.”

“But, of course,” Zortan added, “if he were wise, he would have moved after losing the princess.”

“I still don't understand,” said Red, who seemed honestly confused. (Not that Red being confused was especially unusual.) He looked at the princess. “How did this servant of yours manage to rescue you? Did he fight Maxwell? What happened?”

Valencia stared back with a blank, empty expression for a moment.

Zortan took a step forward. “Please. I understand your concern and curiosity, but her highness has already been through a great deal over the last several days. I must ask that do not add more to her stress. You are aware of her condition, so I ask that you do not push her unnecessarily.”

“I understand that,” said Blue, “but I think he asks a legitimate question.”

Rothmar made a dark, growling noise. “I believe you are merely jealous because our people succeeded where you failed.”

Zortan cleared his throat and glared warningly at his fellow sage. Then he turned back to the Corps, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did. “It is, of course, our desire to extend to you every possible courtesy, both because you represent Ursa Prime and because of the help you have already given to us and to her highness. However, surely you can understand that are certain thing that we simply are not at liberty to discuss, even with you. We are a small, fragile system, with few means of defense from our enemies and from nature herself. You must forgive us if we wish the few secrets we have to remain--well, secret.”

“Besides,” added Rothmar, when he paused, “your mission here does not concern the princess. If we are satisfied to have her back, you should be also.”

“Funny,” remarked Black nonchalantly, “because that isn't the way you portrayed things earlier. I guess we shouldn't have bothered trying to find her in the first place, huh.”

Gold motioned for her to be quiet. White could tell from watching him that he was both puzzled and irritated by this situation, but his voice was calm and professional when he spoke. “Of course. If this matter is settled, we will return to our original mission of dealing with the Nadirites in order to reactivate the Guidance Beacon. Just keep on your guard. Maxwell usually knows when he's beaten but we can't be sure he won't show up for another attempt.”

Valencia stood up. “I am not concerned for myself. But with that madman loose, I am afraid for my people.”

Black cocked her head. “I'm not sure Maxwell's mature enough to be considered a 'madman.' I'd go with 'madboy.'”

Valencia did not seem to notice the interruption. “And since he is allied with the Nadirites, that means a double threat to the safety of the entire system.”

Gold drew himself up. “Don't worry. We'll take care of Maxwell.”

“Something we've never determined to do before,” added Blue laconically.

Valencia took a step forward. “Please--let me go with you. I cannot stay here while the safety of my people is in jeopardy. There might be something I could do to help--”

“Your highness!” Zortan practically exploded.

“You cannot do that!” added Rothmar, moving forward, as if to separate the princess from the Corps.

She turned to Zortan with a regal frown. “I appreciate your concern, Zortan, but I am still the ruler of Altayra.”

“But--but--” Zortan spluttered for a moment, seeming more at a loss than any time during the Corps' time in Altayra.

It was Red who broke the awkward moment. He stepped forward and knelt down, almost as Valencia's feet. “Your highness,” he said, speaking with that slightly formal note which he could muster on rare (very rare) occasions, “we understand your concern. But the best thing you can do for your people is to rest here and leave Maxwell and the Nadirites to us. We have the experience and the power--we are fighters. You are a ruler. As the Corps, we pledge to capture or drive Maxwell and the Nadirites out of your system or die in the attempt.”

“I don't remember pledging that,” said Black in an undertone.

Valencia smiled. “Well, after a speech like that, I can hardly argue, can I? Very well--I commission you to go and continue your mission.” There was a certain tongue-in-cheek tone to Valencia's words, but her eyes were serious and there was no mockery in her face.

“The Corps is quite right,” agreed Zortan. “And after all you have been through, I think you had better go inside and rest for a while. Keisai, if you would escort her highness inside?”

“Of course, m'lord.”

“Of course,” repeated Valencia. And she fell into step with the servant and the two vanished into the palace. White sighed internally. This routine was becoming a little monotonous.

With the princess gone, Red stood to his feet again and glanced at the others. “So, what are we waiting for?”

Zortan bowed to Gold. “I am sorry to have caused you and your group such effort and concern for nothing. If there is anything we can do to help you in your continued work, please let me now. Perhaps,” he added with a dry smile, “you would like a little food before you leave?”

“This is no time for eating,” interrupted Red.

“Now that is not a phrase I though I'd ever hear come out of Red's mouth,” said Black.

“We're fine,” said Gold, who seemed to be remaining calm with some difficulty. “We'll return to our ship now.”

As they flew back towards The Crystallair, White tried to think through what had just happened. One thing was quite clear. The sages were hiding something. Zortan had admitted as much. Though whether they were hiding it merely from the Corps or from the princess as well was less clear. But what in the Cosmos was it? How had one of the palace servants managed to rescue Princess Valencia from Maxwell? It didn't make any sense. But if it was a lie, it didn't seem like a very good one. And if it were a coverup, then what was the truth that it covered? Perhaps Blue had been right that the sages had known more about Valencia's kidnapping; perhaps they had paid Maxwell to kidnap her and then return her--but why? What possible motive could there be?

Clearly, the mysterious and bizarre situation was bothering the others as well. As they re-entered the ship, White sensed something in the atmosphere. There was a certain tension which couldn't quite lay her finger on but which filled the group.

“So what is our first move?” asked Red, turning to face Gold as the Corps regrouped in the main cabin. “Are we still aiming at tracking down Maxwell, or are we going to go after Erybus now?”

Gold took his stand at the head of the room, with his back to the control chair. “Well,” he remarked, a little coldly, “we do have a clue about where Maxwell might be now.”

“Assuming he didn't have the sense to move after losing the princess,” answered Blue. She was standing beside the table, facing Gold.

Gold's eyes grew cold. “That's why I said might. But that's something we can check out. The data from the monitor system is still live, isn't it, Green?”

Green adjusted his hat nervously. “I-I believe so, but I'm not certain--”

Gold turned from his position to look at the monitor behind him. Though not as much a scientist as Green, he was able to read and make sense of the data quickly. “Well, based on this ,there has been no ship movement recently except for us.”

Silver raised his head and asked: “But then how did that servant bring Princess Valencia back to this planet? Would they not have required some sort of ship?”

Green pushed his hat back. “Sir, it is possible that I made some miscalculation in designing our monitor system which would explain the absence of that data.”

Gold frowned thoughtfully but didn't say anything.

“Or it is possible,” continued Green after a moment, still adjusting his hat, “that Keisai is in some way possessed of the power of teleportation, and was able to teleport to Maxwell's ship and then teleport back with the princess. That would explain the absence of data and would also be consistent with some of the strange things Zortan and the princess said.”

“Or maybe,” added Black helpfully, “he's a ghost. This is the haunted galaxy, after all.”

“It's not a galaxy,” snapped Green impatiently, “and it's not haunted.”

“This is all beside the point,” interrupted Gold, with a dismissive motion. “How Keisai traveled is not our problem.”

“Are you sure?” asked Blue.

Gold narrowed his eyes as he stared at her. He could obviously sense it--they all could--something about Blue's manner was different than usual. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that in the interest of our own future, I think we should ask ourselves about Keisai--and about how a country bumpkin from this backwater system managed to find Maxwell and rescue the princess while we, the Corps, were still thrashing around in the dark.”

Gold clenched his fist convulsively and for a moment White almost thought he was having a spasm. But his voice was calm, but low and cold, when he answered, “That's a good question. And I suppose you have an answer?”

“Yes.” Blue stood upright and her voice was emotionless as usual but without the usual sarcastic, disinterested note. “I think the answer is leadership.”

“Blue, stand down.” Gold's voice was still cold and low, but there was a dangerous note in his face.

“'That's an order,'” she finished, in a perfect mimicry of his usual voice. “That's what you always say, isn't it? All you know how to say? You're the leader and so you can give the orders and that settles it?”

“That kind of talk is insubordination.” Gold had clenched both fists now and he was almost talking through clenched teeth.

“It's only insubordination to talk to you like that if you're the leader. But--” Blue took a step forward, confronting Gold directly-- “I don't think you should be the leader.”

White, Green, and Red all started. White had known some of how Blue's mind was going, but she had never dreamed that she would go this far.

“I was chosen to be the leader.” Gold actually was talking between clenched teeth now.

“I know all that. I know you were chosen to control the gold armor and the one who does always is the leader of the Corps, that it's always been that way--that it's part of the 'legacy' of the Corps. But that was then and this is now.”

“Oo, that's an original line,” remarked Black. Nothing, apparently, could shake her very much.

“But this entire mission has made it clear to the rest of us and you're an egoist as well as a fool if it hasn't made it clear to you--that you aren't a good leader for this team. You walked right into Erybus's trap when we attacked the Nadirite blockade; over and over again your pride nearly got all of us killed, for instance when you refused to call in the MBUs to help us fight Maxwell on the Wanderer or in that fight with Erybus at the Guidance Beacon. You've gotten us into trouble but I don't remember you ever getting us out. Instead, you let Maxwell slip right through your fingers on multiple occasions. The rest of us have been bearing the burden of undoing your mistakes and I'm tired of it. If you really care as much as you claim to care about the Corps' honor and legacy, then the only honorable thing you can do is step down and turn leadership over to someone more qualified.”

“Like you?” he challenged, also taking a step forward.

“Well, that would seem to be the most rational choice, yes. But at this point I'm convinced even Red could be a better leader than you are.”

Gold's face was livid now. “Of all the--”

“Oh, yes, a puerile display of anger will definitely help your case now.”

“So you think I should step down.” Gold took another step forward so that there was only a couple of feet between him and Blue. He glared at her, his eyes burning with rage. “And what if I don't?”

Blue's eyes didn't blink. “We'll make you. There's six of us and only one of you.”

As she spoke, Silver unfolded himself from his accustomed place and walked across the room to stand beside her.

For just a moment, there was silence in the cabin. Then Gold started shrugging off his coat. White felt a pang of horror--it looked like the preparation for a fight.

“Fine, then.” Gold's voice was rough and with a single savage motion he threw his jacket onto the floor. “Do whatever you want. I quit.” And with that he phased on his armor and stalked across the room and vanished into the airlock.

To be continued...