Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 1


The silence, which a moment before had possessed the dark halls of the ship, was split without warning by the blaring of alarms. "WARNING! Perimeter has been breached. All stations on standby; prepare for boarding party."

The black-clad guard in the hall drew himself up slightly and placed one hand on the weapon at his hip. But he didn't really expect any trouble, at least not any time soon. A boarding party would have to enter through one of the air-locks, and so even if it got in, it would be a while before anyone got to his part of the ship.

He moved slowly up the hall, his rubber shoes making no sound against the black metal of the floor. His momentary attention which had come when the warning sounded ebbed slightly. He had been on patrol for a while and was getting tired. He yawned and leaned for a moment against the wall. And then he stumbled backwards, his mouth open and his eyes staring, as if he had seen a ghost.

Because--he had seen a ghost.

At least, that's certainly what it seemed like. Through the smooth black wall of the ship, a figure floated, passing through the wall without seeming to notice its existence. Though he could plainly make out its humanoid shape and white, metallic appearance, he could also clearly see the blank wall behind it.

He regained his feet and started fumbling wildly with the communicator on his ear. "This place really is haunted," he mumbled incoherently.

The figure seemed to look at him and then levitated upwards, moving so that it stood directly over him. He glanced up and his hands fell limp at his side. And then he took in the detail that the figure seemed to be wearing some kind of armor--all at once, everything he had been told in briefings came back, and he knew--but it was too late.

Even as the thoughts were going through his mind, the figure seemed to solidify and at the same moment dropped with a crash on top of him. He crumpled to the floor unconscious.

The figure in white also remained immovable for nearly thirty seconds after dropping on him. It was the figure of a human, fully enclosed in body armor of pure white, like the heart of burning stars. One other detail--once it finally moved and rose slowly from on top of the stunned guard, one might have noticed that part of the armor was formed into a sort of tunic or skirt.

"Are you in?" A rough voice barked from inside the figure's rounded helmet.

"I'm in." It was a female voice that answered. Female and still young. "I had to take out a guard, so I've phased back sooner than planned. I couldn't let him raise an alarm."

Another voice spoke in her ear. "But that throws everything off."

The figure in white reached down and pulled off the man's communicator and crushed it in the powerful hands of the armor it wore. He wouldn't be able to sound an alarm now, even when he regained consciousness. "I had no other choice."

"Understood," said the first voice briskly. "And you can't risk phasing again?"

"Not so soon."

"Then proceed with Plan B."

"On it."

The figure in white rose slowly and effortlessly from the ground and then turned towards the hallway before her. Unfortunately, she didn't have a complete schematic of the ship's interior, but she could make an educated guess as to its layout. Inside her armor, she took a deep breath and then shot forward. In a moment, she had all-but vanished, her movement being so fast that her armor became merely a white blur.

It was a blur, but it wasn't truly invisible. Still, by hugging the ceiling and pushing her speed to its highest, she was able to pass several more guards without being spotted. There was no point in engaging in unnecessary battles. Fortunately, the ship was built on a very simple plan, and the hall she followed (parallel to the exterior wall) led her straight to the rear airlock, exactly as she had calculated. She was glad of that. She was less glad about the nineteen guards standing in front of the airlock controls. Obviously, they had known to protect the entrances. Even though she would surprise them, that wouldn't give her enough of an edge. Twelve of them were armed with energy packs; three had no visible weapons, and four had strange weapons she couldn't identify. She wasn't sure she could win against those kinds of odds. Her defenses were weak. But that wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that once they spotted her, they could call in reinforcements. And even at her best, she certainly couldn't take on the entire ship.

There was one way, but it would take precision and would involve a risk.

But that was nothing new for her.

The guards were already alert, but one could tell a sudden definite change come over them. "She's here," shouted one, whose loose, black robe with silver edging marked him as a high officer. "Scatter fire!"

The men moved smoothly and efficiently, forming a hollow circle, facing outwards, and released a barrage of fire.

The white streak which they had noted deftly avoided the fire. Well, most of it anyway. Something struck her and for a moment she faltered in her flight, making her fully visible to the guards.

"Target lock," shouted the officer.

Inside her helmet, she frowned. She hadn't thought she could last very long in this fight, but she shouldn't have been hit so quickly. Even though the shot hadn't damaged her armor, it had made contact, which shouldn't have been possible--at least, not so quickly, so easily. But, even though they seemed to have caught her, she had still been able to press a certain button first--pressed it without them realizing she had.

"You know now you can't escape us with speed," said the officer, apparently wanting a chance to gloat. "And we outnumber you."

She could tell it in his voice. He was proud of defeating her that quickly. Proud of himself for leading such a skillful attack. If his guards really had a target lock on her and fired together, they could probably have taken her out of the battle, if not more. But first, he wanted the pleasure of rubbing in her defeat and his own skill in achieving it.

It was a common guilty pleasure people indulged in, she knew. And she also knew that like all guilty pleasures, it was costly. In this case, very costly.

He centered his gun on her. "Alone, you can't hope to escape."

"Yes." For the first time, she spoke out loud, allowing her voice to be heard outside of her armor. "But you're too late. I'm not alone. Slice!"

The door behind her was suddenly torn in two, like bread cut by a rough knife. Two things happened at once. The door which had been torn open was that to the airlock. The pressure inside had been almost equalized, but not quite, meaning that when it was torn open, there was a momentary rush in pressure which pulled all the men off their feet. The second was that other figures floated out of the airlock, moving quickly but not with any sense of undue hurry.

In the momentary distraction, the figure in white had disarmed the four men who carried the unknown weapons and dealt sever damage to three of the energy packs, before she moved to join the others.

The officer had been pulled from his feet like the others but an instant later he was back up, staring in horror at what he saw.

What he saw was several figures, dressed in nearly identical suits of armor, humanoid armor with rounded joints and round helmets, metal armor which gleamed and glistened in the dim light of the ship. Besides the figure in white, there were six others.

One gold, like the amber flickering of undying fires.

One black, like the sky of a starless night.

One silver, like the sheen of a polished sword.

One red, like the foaming of restless magma.

One blue, like a frozen core of unfeeling ice.

One green, like the rich verdure of a forest primeval.

"The Corps!" he gasped in amazement, though with more of horror than surprise in his voice.

"Cool. You've heard of us." This from the figure in black. This too was the voice of a girl, though younger and rougher than that of the figure in white. "Then let me guess--you know what's about to happen next, right?"

The man glanced down at his weapon and noted that it was useless. "Our plan was to prevent your entrance, but--even now you cannot hope to defeat us."

"Yeah, right." The figure in red spoke now. It was a boy's voice, youthful and cocky. "We're the Corps. We could take on your entire ship with our armor gummed up with Ambients."

"Ah, thank you for reminding me. We have prepared some Ambients for just such an occasion."

The blue figure face palmed. "Why did we let Red have a microphone again?" It was a girl's voice, well modulated and cultured.

The gold figure shook his head. "You're missing one thing." It was the same voice, young and brusque, yet with a note of confidence and assurance, which had spoken to the figure in white earlier. "Either informing the rest of your ship or releasing any kind of special trap for us means having the use of your communicators. Green?"

The figure in green spoke impassively. "All local communicator radiation is safely jammed." It was a boy's voice, seemingly younger than any of the others, though strangely unemotional.

For the first time since the entrance of the armored figures, the officer seemed nervous again. He tried to activate the communicator wired to his head but got nothing but interference. The Corps had spoken the truth.

"So, without that," continued the figure in gold, placing his hands together, "it's just the nineteen of you against the seven of us. White already knocked out over half of your weapons, and you can't seriously expect to hurt us anyway."

The officer tried to speak calmly, but beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. "Even if you defeat us, you cannot defeat the whole ship. And even if you do--"

"Notice how he went from saying we couldn't defeat him to discussing what happens when we defeat the whole ship?" commented the figure in black.

"Even if you do--" he repeated, his words even less coherent than before-- "it will mean nothing. All things return to darkness. Order is only a temporary disturbance on the surface of chaos."

The figure in red made a motion as if to stifle a yawn. "This guy is more boring than Gold's lectures. Is this a battle or a discussion club?"

"He's stalling for time," said the figure in white. "In this situation, time is on his side, not ours. And he's trying to work up his courage."

"What? Do you think we're afraid of you?"

"Um, haven't you been paying any attention?" asked the black figure. "We're the Corps. You should be afraid of us. Seriously, you've got a shorter attention span than Red."

"Hey!"

The officer seemed to have regained his calm. "We know the Code you follow. We have nothing to fear from an enemy who is too weak to kill."

"We'll show you who's weak," exploded the red figure, his voice growing more youthful and high-pitched. "Maybe we don't kill, but we can sure make you wish we did." He rushed forward, his metal feet making a strange clicking noise on the metal floor of the ship.

The officer produced a strange weapon from inside his robe, something like a baton, though he held it in the middle like a quarterstaff. It seemed to crackle as if charged with some kind of energy. The figure in red rushed up to him and then stopped abruptly, just out of range of the weapon. And then he vanished.

"Hey, look at me when I'm attacking you!" said the figure in red, standing on the other side of the officer.

The officer whirled in surprise, and at the same instant, the figure in red, standing where he had been before, used advantage of his temporary distraction to jerk him from his feet, grasping him by his wrists so that he dropped his weapon.

"Red!" The golden figured shouted in exasperation, and then added in a tone of command, "Corps, melee!"

Instantly, the armored figures broke from their positions and rushed forward towards the guards. All but the one in green who simply vanished as if he had never been there. The black-robed officer was too busy with his adversary to be much help as a commander, but the men were well trained. Swiftly and silently, they formed a defensive position against the bulkhead of the ship, fanning out so as to block the approach of the enemy. Those who still had weapons, trained them on their attackers. One of the group, however, did not join the defense. Instead, he headed for the hall which lead to the rest of the ship. No doubt, his purpose was to raise an alarm and bring reinforcements.

But as he ran to the exit, he found himself suddenly blocked by some kind of invisible wall. He lashed out wildly, but he couldn't hit something he couldn't see. And as he struggled, disoriented, he found himself pulled off balance by the invisible thing and he fell to the floor.

Meanwhile, two of the guards, still armed with their energy packs, had cornered the figure in the black armor.

She laughed. "I really like those energy packs. But you can only hit me with them if you still have them." She turned an effortless summersault through the air, moving more swiftly then the men, even with their trained reflexes, could follow. She came down behind them and pulled her arms downward, striking the packs. As her arms swept down, narrow fins slid smoothly out of them, slicing into the packs, instantly shorting them out, both rendering them useless and giving their wearers enough of a jolt of raw energy to put them out of the battle for the moment.

The figures in blue, white, and gold were also playing their part in the battle, but the bulk of the rest of the fighting was being done by the silver figure. With most of the weapons out of commission, it came down to little more than an ordinary brawl, and the silver figure far surpassed all of the guards in skill, to say nothing of brute strength. His speed was fast but not super-human. His blows were strong, but not beyond those of a man. And still, he subdued about half of the guards while the others were just getting started.

In just about a minute, only two out of the nineteen were standing. One was the officer who was still fighting with the red invader. The other was a guard whose insignia also marked him as officer, though a lower one. He possessed a staff like the high officer and was using it to spar with the golden figure.

Something about it was strange. She could sense it. Inside the safety of her white armor, she frowned. Was the man playing for time? Time was on his side, since the absence of communication would alert the rest of the ship sooner or later. But there was something else... She was used to trying to read people's emotions and attitudes. He seemed a little smug, as if he really thought he had a chance of beating Gold. But no matter what his weapon was, that seemed unlikely. Unless--unless his real weapon was something else.

"Blue!" she shouted suddenly. "Scan!"

There was a momentary pause, and then the answer came back in a slightly animated voice. "Turret--ninety degrees."

She whirled in place. Even as she did, a panel (at a right angle to her previous point of view) slid back in the wall of the ship. The guard had been deliberately trying to lure Gold into the sights of a monstrous gun of some kind hidden behind the panel. As the panel slid back, it began firing. But even as it did, she had shot across the room, throwing all her force downward. The strength of her armor was augmented by her speed and the impact buried the end of the gun in the floor. Whatever shot it fired, went downward into the lower part of the ship.

Gold took in what had happened, but it did not destroy his concentration. The same could not be said for the man he fought. The guard was so surprised at the failure of his plan, that he paused for just a moment.

And that moment was all that Gold needed.

"Yeah! That'll teach you to mess with the Corps," said Red a moment later, as he turned from his now downed adversary to join the others who were regrouping in the middle of the room.

Black shook her head. "I love how in these battles, Red spends the whole time pummeling one guy while the rest of us take on two or three apiece and then when it's over he acts as if he whipped the entire group single-handed."

"Hey! I didn't see any of you falling over yourselves to attack the head man."

Gold turned on him suddenly, and his voice was angry when he spoke. "By the way, what was that about? I never gave you an order to attack."

Red moved back a step. "Uh, these guys are Nadirites. And they were standing there with weapons trained on us, trying to keep us from going forward. I didn't think an order to attack was really necessary."

Black had fanned out one of the blades on her arm and was examining it critically. "For once, I think crimson kid has a point. These guys are pretty much by definition our enemy."

"That still doesn't give you the right to attack without an order. There are just the seven of us against this entire ship, and apparently they're expecting us. And you just go wading into a battle like that without any kind of plan--as if this was some kind of street brawl. We're the Corps--we're supposed to be better than that."

"Speaking of which," said White quietly, "we should be moving out before reinforcements show up." The last thing they needed at that moment was an argument between Gold and Red.

"Right. Green, have you worked out the schematic of the ship?" He had turned to address empty space, but as he spoke, the green armored figure materialized from nowhere.

"Yes, sir. It's about as we theorized."

"Then revert to plan A. Red, take Blue and Silver and head for your target. Black, White, and Green--follow me."

"I'm already on it," said Red. "I'll be there before the rest of you can even get out of this chamber."

Gold only grunted.

The seven figures moved out of the chamber and then divided.

"Green, what's our most direct route to the bridge that will also be most likely unguarded?" asked Gold sharply as the four figures paused for a moment in the corridor outside.

Green was silent for a moment. "There should be a way to access the secondary shaft just up this way."

"Green, lead."

Green nodded and walked quickly down the corridor. Gold followed directly behind with Black and White bringing up the rear. Black glanced around at the black interior of the ship as they went. "You know, these guys are totally evil and all, but they do have great taste in decorations. I mean, what better color could you pick for everything than this?"

"Black, keep quiet," Gold ordered in a low voice.

Inside her helmet, White smiled a little ironically. She didn't see much likelihood of that happening.

Green stopped suddenly . "We need to cut through the wall right here."

Gold stopped and glanced behind him. "Black?"

"On it, chief." She shot forward and brought down her arms, extending their blades as she did. With one clean motion, she cut through the wall of the corridor. "Everybody in."

As they passed through the opening, White noticed that they had come in to some kind of smooth, cylindrical passage. She guessed it was somehow connected to the engine, but she wasn't sure how this strange ship functioned. There might be danger, but she felt sure that Green would never lead them into an unsafe situation. His meticulous mind would have calculated for any danger.

"How close can we get to the bridge this way?" asked Gold.

Green paused. "There should be access point at the end of this shaft from which we can enter one of the main arteries of the ship just a few yards from the bridge. But none of that is definite."

"Can you give me exact details?"

"Yes, sir." Green vanished, the power of his armor allowing him to become completely invisible. This ability of Green made him a critical member of the team.

"Red, how is your team doing?" asked Gold as he hurried down the shaft with Black and White behind him. All the suits were connected, allowing them to communicate from almost any distance.

"Stop worrying, Gold. We've got everything covered."

"Red! If you mess this up, you will answer to me. I knew I should have put Blue in charge of that squad," he added in a undertone.

"What are our odds?" asked White, as they hurried forward.

"If we can get to the bridge without a lot of opposition--and if Red's team makes it to their destination... we should be able to do this without much trouble."

"Way to keep a positive outlook, chief." This from Black.

As usual, Gold ignored her. "Green, do you have a report?" There was silence. "Green!" Gold's voice rose in annoyance. "I want that report now!"

White raised her eyebrows. Gold was definitely abnormally tense. Usually he knew how counterproductive it was to try to hurry Green. Not that she blamed him for being tense. They hadn't planned on this battle. Their mission to the Altayra System was supposed to be a peaceful mission. Of course, they had known that the Nadirites had ships in the void beyond Centauri City, but they hadn't really expected to run into one en route.

As they reached the access point Green had mentioned, they could hear a voice blaring through the ship. "All stations on black alert. The Corps is inside the ship. Repeat, all stations on black alert. This is not a drill."

"Black alert. I really like that. Can we start using that?"

"Black, quiet. Green--now!"

Green suddenly reappeared directly beside them. "The corridor between this point and the bridge is eighteen yards long. There are guards positioned every three yards. Obviously they're expecting us. The first two and the last two are armed with energy packs. The central one has a photon disrupter."

"A photon disrupter!" White exploded in amazement. "Where in the Cosmos would they get something like that?"

"Based on the composition, I suspect it's made out of cannibalized Patrol Force weapons, probably obtained from that black-market weapons dealer we suspect to be working outside Centauri City and--"

"Rhetorical question, Green," said Gold impatiently.

White frowned. Disrupted photons could pass through anything, even their armor. But they would cause massive damage to any organic system they passed through. "They're using photon disrupters inside a ship? Don't they realize they could easily hurt their own men as much as us?"

Black was examining the blade on her arm again. "Um, again, these are Nadirites. They're bad guys. Employee relations aren't their strong point. They don't even have employee parties. Come to think of it, neither do we."

"White, can you take out that photon disrupter? That's the only weapon that worries me."

"I should be able to. I'll take it out first, but I'll try to get the others too--we don't want them to know that the photon disrupter can hurt us."

"Good thinking. Do you want Green for back up?"

"It wouldn't hurt to have him in reserve. But I should be able to get them on my own. And then we can get to the bridge without any major opposition."

"All right, then."

White nodded and then closed her eyes in momentary concentration. She felt a slight tingle in the back of her head, an occasional side affect of her cybernetic implants when she tried to concentrate especially hard. (Using his armor's full speed required her full concentration.) The next instant, she shot through the access point like a blast of wind, moving so swift she was practically invisible. She shot down the passage, noting the guards posted exactly as Green had reported. Not that she was surprised. Green's reports always were accurate. She bolted in front of the first two guards without being seen and in almost the same instant, she knocked the photon disrupter from the hand of the middle guard, using the force given by her speed to crush the trigger so that it couldn't be fired for a while, anyway. Before the weapon could drop to floor, she had already reached the next guard and smashed his energy pack. It was still sparking with dispersed energy when she reached the last guard and destroyed his pack. The first two guards came to attention, but not quickly enough to keep her from destroying their weapons also.

The next moment, Gold, Black, and Green burst out into the corridor. The five guards converged on them, but without their weapons they were nothing they could do.

"Good. We're almost there." Gold glanced around and then spoke into his helmet. "Red? Are you in position?"

There was only silence.

"Red!?"

Black chuckled. "Red being quiet? That's a first."

Green sighed in disgust. "You're one to talk."

"Blue?"

"Yeah?" Blue's voice sounded clearly through their helmets.

"Where's Red?"

"He teleported through a wall, and we haven't seen him since."

"And he left you and Silver behind?"

"What did you expect?"

"Red! Come in!" Gold shook his head and then glanced at the others. "White, take Black and Green and continue to the Bridge. I'm going after Red."



"Gold, no. You need to lead the attack. I can use my speed to investigate more safely."

"Or if it comes to it, my blades would probably be more useful."

"Be quiet, you two. I've got to go. I should have known better than to send Red out like that. Go on without me."

"But, Gold--"

"White! That's an order!"

White bit her lip but said nothing. Though she was Gold's second-in-command, he was still the leader, and when he made an order, she didn't argue.

"All right, then. I'm going after Red."

"Don't worry about me. I'm in."

"Red!" Gold's voice raised in anger. "Where are you?"

"Where do you think? I'm right on target."

"Why didn't you answer before?"

"Hey, these teleportations take concentration."

"What about Blue and Silver?"

"I'm letting them in now."

White could tell Gold was bristling with anger. More so than usual. "Red! We will talk about this later. Assuming you don't get us all killed first." He growled under his breath and then glanced at the others. "Come on. This is already taking too long."

The group hurried forward through the short passage and through a doorway and into the room beyond.

This was central control room of the ship, or the bridge. It was a large, circular room, with a raised platform or balcony in the middle which contained the ship's controls. The room was empty except for those at the controls. As Gold and the other three members of the Corps entered the room, a man walked down the stairs from the controls as if to meet them. "Greetings, fellow travelers." He was a tall, powerful man, with long bluish-black hair, parted in the middle. He wore a long black robe and around his neck was a pendant made of glossy black rock. Inlaid in it, was a silver symbol--an 8 lying on its side with a line struck through it--the symbol of the Nadirites. "For, after all, we are all fellow travelers on the road to Oblivion."

Gold drew himself up, floating a few inches off the ground. "We are the Corps."

"I was aware of that. Gold, I think you're called?" He had a well-modulated, almost musical voice. He spoke calmly. It seemed clear that he was not the least surprised at the appearance of the Corps. As Gold has said earlier, apparently the ship had expected or at least had been prepared for their appearance.

"Yes. I take it you're the leader of this ship. You are--?"

"Names define us, and all definitions are limitations. To give something a name is to destroy its freedom."

"Uh--even I don't know how to respond to that," remarked Black.

"Still," continued the man as he reached the ground level, "I think we will be seeing a lot of each other, so it would be awkward to talk without some point of reference, even an arbitrary one. Call me Erybus, the name of my home world."

White raised her eyebrows. She had heard of the planet Erybus, but so far as she knew, its location had been lost some time before.

"Erybus." Gold nodded his head in a token of respect. "Let's not waste time. You're Nadirites. We are representatives of Ursa Prime. So, that means we're enemies."

"Enemies? The very term implies a standard of order and stability; a law, a definition. And that thing, Gold, is the very essence of the problem, of all problems.”

"We're not here to argue. We're here to destroy your ship. We thought it was only fair to give you advance warning."

"Oh, yes, because you follow a Code." Erybus threw back his head and made a motion of silent laughter. "Another form of the same fallacy, the love of order and restriction, which is an essential limitation on..."

"Why are you still talking?" asked Red as he entered the chamber with Blue and Silver behind him. White hoped he had been able to accomplish his side of the mission. They had planned on it taking much more time than this.

"So the whole group is together again."

White frowned. She couldn't read this man. "You seem awfully confident for a man who is outnumbered. Unless your men are hiding outside the room to ambush us, you're one to seven which are bad odds even if we weren't the Corps."

"Outnumbered? That concept is merely a construct of your perception, White. Which comes first? One or seven? It depends on which direction you're going."

"What? That's completely illogical."

"Don't try to figure it out, Green," ordered Gold. "Erybus?"

"As I said, Corps, it's all in your perspective. Who can say that strength and weakness are not merely two sides of the same basic reality?" Erybus threw his had back again. As he did, he seemed to vanish for just a split second and then he reappear. White would have thought she had simply blinked, but when he reappeared, something about him was different. Over his robe he was wearing a strange harness made of metal and black cloth. It formed an X over his chest, tucked over his shoulders and ran down the sides of his arms, attaching to some kind of mechanism which fit over his hands almost like a glove. The mechanism on his hands was a matte gray color at first, but after a second it changed to a shining bluish-silver. White guessed that meant it was powering up with some kind of energy. “Blue, what is that?" she asked in a low voice.

"Not sure. I've never seen anything like it."

"Nor is it likely that you will again--especially if you don't live beyond today." As he spoke, Erybus rose slowly into the air, the silver glow in his hands become more intense.

"Corps, arch formation!" shouted Gold.

The seven figured fanned out in a semi-circle around the Nadirite captain.

"Sir, this is a bad idea, when we don't know what he's using," Green began. "This wasn't in our plan."

"Plans can be altered. But this doesn't change much. We knew we'd meet opposition in the bridge. Attack!"

The Corps advanced forward, all except Green who vanished again. For a moment, Erybus blacked slowly up, still floating inexplicably several inches above the floor. And then, suddenly, he took a step forward, raising his hands with his palms facing outward. As he did, something happened. The Corps had been moving forward, but when the Nadirite raised his hands, they stopped and staggered backwards. It was as if some invisible force had struck them, struck them with incridble power--enough power to stagger even their armor.

"What in the Cosmos!" exclaimed Gold in amazement. For a moment he had almost stumbled with the force of the impact, but the next instant he was back on his feet.

White didn't blame him for his amazement. They had never encountered a weapon which could so easily force them backwards. She had certainly never seen anything like it before, and yet--yet she noticed that when Erybus unleashed the attack he seemed to flicker for a moment, again as if he were vanishing and reappearing very quickly. That weird flickering effect--she had seen that somewhere, a long time before. But where?

"You are surprised, are you not?" asked the man, floating slowly forward. "You did not expect us to be so well armed. But Oblivion takes good care of his children."

"That doesn't make any sense." Nothing could upset Black very much. "And I'm not even the expert on logic around here."

"It's a nice weapon, all right," agreed Gold. He was awed, but he wasn't letting it show. Not too much. "But it seems to be primarily an offensive weapon, depending on some kind of vibratory energy. It might protect you from a direct attack, but not much more."

"Your point?"

"You guys didn't do your homework as well as I thought. You were expecting us, I take it? And you outfitted yourself with all kinds of fancy weapons. But you've missed one thing." He dropped to the ground and stepped forward, moving with complete confidence. "Did you really think we'd depend on brute strength and just try to out fight your entire ship as if we were just a group of thugs? We're the Corps--we're better than that."

"What are you saying?"

"Green! Status report!"

"Everything is proceeding according to plan. Time at twenty minutes and counting."

Erybus's face showed no change, but he did seem to back up a bit. "What?"

"Red, Silver, and Blue infiltrated your ship's engine core and diverted your coolant into the life support system hub. Green got to the bridge while invisible and activated the system, so that the coolant is now spreading through your entire ship via the life support arteries. That stuff is corrosive enough that it should render your ship inoperative in twenty minutes. Much beyond that and you'll be faced with the void of space. And I don't think your fancy vest can protect you from that."

"I see." Still Erybus spoke calmly and without any seeming change of emotion. "But what of your Code?"

"We're not killing anyone. Your ship has enough escape pods--all your men can escape if you move immediately. You won't be able to do much fighting, but you'll be able to live."

"And if we don't try to escape--if we willingly plunge into the waiting arms of Oblivion?"

Gold crossed his arms. "That's not our problem. We've done all we can."

"So I see." Erybus clapped soundlessly. "I should have expected no less from the Corps. You are everything I was told. Nadirites! Execute emergency escape protocol!" This was spoken into a communicator on his cheek. He glanced back up at Gold. "I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Corps." He seemed to flicker again and then abruptly vanished as if he'd never been there.

Gold rushed forward and swiped the air where the commander had stood. "He's gone. White, did he phase? Can you follow him?"

"No. That wasn't phasing. Teleportation, maybe, but not working on any principle I know about."

"Huh. Blue, are the Nadirites actually following the order to evacuate?"

"As far as I can tell."

"So we probably won't need our emergency reversal."

White hadn't know that he had something like that in store, but she wasn't surprised. She had known Gold wouldn't take the risk of causing the death of the entire crew, even indirectly.

"Let's get out of here while we can. White, phase and meet us on the outside. Blue, continue monitoring the escape. Green, lead the way out."

White nodded and activated the special power in her armor which allowed her to phase to +(.5)d. By traveling along the fourth dimensional axis, she could become functionally immaterial and pass through anything without injury to herself or it. In essence, she became a ghost by hovering between two levels on the axis. Of course, in this state, she was also helpless to affect anything in either world. Besides this, the process always caused a slight backlash which gave her temporary nausea. It was something she had learned to deal with in the old days, before she joined the Corps, when she had piloted phase-ships for the Tremonsirs. But it still rendered her ability less useful than it would have been otherwise.

Once she recovered from phasing, she used her speed to shoot upwards out of the ship. It took only a couple of seconds, especially as she was not worried now about being seen.

It looked as if their attack had been successful. Even at the speed she moved, she could see that the Nadirites were fleeing from the ship. Gold and Green had worked out this plan for taking out an entire ship using the core's coolant some time ago but this was their first opportunity to test it. Even though they hadn't expected or wanted a battle there, at least they had gotten a chance to test the strategy. Still, she was worried about the seeming ease with which Erybus had knocked them backwards. What was that weapon? And how would have things gone in a longer battle with him?

"Gold, what do we do now?" she asked as she reached the rendezvous point outside the ship and waited for the others to reach her.

"Go forward until we can get in communication with Altayra Rex and hope they have some ships they can send out to capture these guys. Otherwise, we're going to have to ferry them out ourselves, and that'll be a chore."

She could detect a slight undercurrent of pride in his voice. Well, she couldn't blame him for that. Not many people could claim to have defeated an entire Nadirite mothership so easily. That was quite an accomplishment--even for the Corps.

She phased back to =(0)d and waited for the others to join her.

"They're all out," reported Blue, as the seven regrouped.

"And their ship is toast. That'll teach them to mess with us," said Red, fist-pumping.

"Uh, they actually didn't mess with us," Black pointed out. "We attacked them. I mean, sure, they're Nadirites, and so are at war with pretty much everybody, but that line doesn't really work here."

"Especially since Erybus escaped somehow," added Gold. He had that brooding note in his voice. White could tell that the leader's mysterious power and equally mysterious escape was weighing on his mind.

"Congratulations."

All seven started as the voice sounded in their helmets. It wasn't from their own communication system but over the ordinary com-radiation channel. But that kind of communication wasn't supposed to work in this area. But even more startling was the voice itself.

"Erybus!"

"You have defeated a ship. I'm sure you are very proud of yourselves."

"Yeah, pretty much," agreed Black. "Is that a problem?"

"Where are you?" Gold demanded. "Blue! Scan!" he added, turning by habit towards her.

There was a momentary pause. "Yeah, we may have a slight problem," commented Blue, casually after a second. "And by slight, I mean a great big one."

"Did you really think that the children of Oblivion were so few?" asked Erybus, a slight taunting note in his voice.

"Blue! What are you saying?"

"Yeah, well, you know how we just destroyed a Nadirite ship? Well, there are about ten more in front of us. They weren't in range before, I guess, but now they've moved forward enough to for me to spot them. The escape pods from the ship we destroyed are heading for them," she added after a moment.

"Ten ships!" repeated Gold.

"Make it closer to fifteen," Erybus corrected. "But numbers are so harsh and limiting."

"So it wasn't just an isolated Nadirite outpost." Gold was talking to himself now, but out loud. "It was an entire fleet."

"An entire fleet blocking our way," added Blue.

"You're little trick could only work once, Corps. And though the arms our soldiers carried may not have been able to hurt you, I should think our ship's exterior weapons will prove more of a problem."

White frowned. He made a good point.

"Just for the record, they're closing in on us. Thought you might want to know."

"Yeah, I can see them now, Blue." Gold was concentrating. White could tell it from his voice. "There's only one thing we can do now."

"Retreat?" suggested White. It seemed the only option to her.

"No. We've got to break through to Altayra Rex. That's our mission here. Besides, we can't let them win this. We've got to activate the Matrix."

She should have known he would suggest that. "Gold, I'm not sure that's a good idea. You know the last time we used the Matrix, the energy levels were unstable. If we lose control--"

"Noted. But without the Matrix we don't have a chance against this many ships."

"But--"

"White! Activate the Matrix! That's an order."

White really didn't like it, but she also wasn't about to argue with Gold when he talked like that. The Matrix made White a little nervous--so much raw power. Still, it was the most powerful weapon they had, and it stood at the very center of their legacy.

Seven suits of super-powered armor wrought by forgotten science, each with its own unique power.

Seven shards of alien crystal, bonded to the armor over a millennium before.

Together they formed the basis of the Matrix, an interface which drew energy from the atomic substratum of the universe, filtering it through the emotions of those who wielded it.

Over the last thousand years, many different people had worn the armor, fighting to protect the Cosmos from threats of every kind. Some had been successful, some not so much; some had conquered, some had been conquered; some had lived--and some had died. All had been young. And still in every generation, seven teenagers with aptitude were chosen to take control of the armor and the Matrix, and so carry on the legacy of the Corps.

White pressed her lips together. "All right, then. Prepare for activation."

"Aw, I was hoping for more fighting," commented Red.

"Quiet, Red," Gold ordered.

For a few moments, they floated noiselessly in the void.

"White?"

"I don't understand it." White could feel her hands beginning to tighten. "Something isn't right."

A blast of energy shot by them as one of the nearer ships opened fire.

"White! We don't have time."

"It's not working. Green?" In theory, activating the Matrix was a simple thing, a thing which any of them could do easily, almost without thought. But because of the great amount of raw energy involved, Gold had always delegated the task of activation to White or Green, as the technical experts of the team and as the most level-headed members. Green didn't answer, but she could hear him breathing heavily. He always did that when he was stressed and he always got stressed when things didn't go the way he thought they should. "Green?"

"Nothing. It doesn't make any sense. I'm not getting any kind of response." His voice was tinged with emotion and it rose in pitch.

Another shot blasted by them, closer this time. White knew that Green was jamming the Nadirite's targeting radiation, but it was only a matter of time before they were able to override it.

Black glanced around and linked her arms behind her neck. "Okay, we're being attacked by an entire fleet and we can't activate the Matrix. So what do we do now, chief?"

To be continued...

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