Friday, February 24, 2017

Hope's Star

By the light of the stars that weren't shining last night
I searched for the tunnel at the end of our sight;
And I stumbled at last, in a forest of fir,
On a corpse that the dead had forgot to inter.
'Twas the corpse of fair Hope in garments that gleamed
In astral arrangements like visions that seemed
Certain to those who believe what they've seen--
But wandering stars these (St. Jude, verse 13)
Lost in the darkness, dead bugs which had glowed
Like stars do the moment before they explode.

By the light of the stars that weren't shining last night
I buried Hope there, at the end of our sight.
And turned then, unseeing, and journeyed afar
Like magi dyslexic who flee from a star.
On dry streams of reason I built me an ark
Of doubts that we saw by the dusk's early dark
All that good Fortune could find in a slump
Dishonor, disaster, doom, Donald Trump;
And my ark ran ashore on a vortex at sea,
A dark weight of blackness where a star used to be.

By the light of the stars that weren't shining last night,
I saw the ground stir, like the dust in a fight
And Jordon rushed over its dark, stormy banks
As the continent brushed off the dusk from its flanks,
I rushed in my terror through the of the dawn
With the coming of things which were all done and gone
And the graves they were opened, and I saw fair Hope
Saw her waltz on her tomb like a bell on a rope;
And a crucified man, danced blithe at her side
With a dead splendor bright as when rockets collide.

By the light of the stars that weren't shining last night
I saw a new star dawn at the end of our sight,
It was the deathlight of Hope but it shined more like life
As the sweet song of vict'ry thro' screams of the strife;
Like spilt blood red roses in the deserts were born
(I know they were roses when I felt a thorn)
And still the star shone, too glorious to cope
A bright reborn spirit of once buried Hope:
In the light of that star lie the ages impearled
God's in his heav'n, all's right with the world.

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 3

[White's Journal. Fifth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] After our discovery of the Nadirite blockade in the void and our failure to break through to Altayra Rex, we returned to Centauri City to report to the Prefect. However, when we landed, we discovered that Red had gone AWOL. Blue, Black, Silver, and I went to track him down and found him in a bar and about to get into trouble. Just as Blue and Black were going in to get him, I spotted a familiar figure on the street--the last person in the Cosmos I wanted to see.

White made a few split moment decisions. "Black! Blue! Don't phase on your armor," she called into her communicator, her voice low but commanding.

"What?" For once, the two girls spoke almost together.

"Don't phase on your armor--or let Red do it--unless it's a matter of life or death. Silver, come here--and fight. With Silver's help, all of you should be able to get out of there without your armor."

"What are you going to do?" asked Blue.

"Provide a distraction." White took a deep breath and in one fluid motion phased on her armor and shot upwards. Hopefully, she moved so quickly that nobody would see her. They had to clear out of the area without anyone knowing the Corps was there. If he knew they were there, there would be trouble--and it was trouble they could do without right now.

Black's voice came through her communicator. "Can I stab anyone?"


"Well, what fun is that?"

"Fun is not the primary objective here."

"You really don't understand the concept of a barroom brawl, do you?"

"Why would I want to?" White thought, but she didn't bother saying it. At that moment, she had no time for dialog or paying any attention to what happened below. She knew, based on how things were going a moment before, that Red, Blue, and Black were about to be in the middle of an all-out fight--and Silver should be there by now. If Silver was there, she really wasn't too worried. Silver was the primary fighter of the group. And though his armor augmented his skills, he had plenty of skill even without it to win an ordinary brawl like this--unless there was someone with some kind of weapon. But even so, it would only take her a few moments to provide the momentary distraction which would allow them to escape.

If only Red hadn't run off and gotten them into this problem in the first place. But she forced herself not to think about that. There were other things that mattered more.

She had reached the roof of the dome now. Centauri City's dome was pretty low. Almost directly in front of her was one of the artificial lighting units which provided such light as there was in Centauri City.

"What's your status, Black?" she asked.

She could hear background noise which told her the fight had started.

"Just for the record, if these guys don't kill Red, and Gold doesn't, I will."

"Hey!" Red had turned his communicator back on. So apparently none of them were in too much danger yet.

"Get ready to move. I'm about to give you a distraction. If it works, phase on your armor and fly back to the ship as fast as you can--including you, Red."

"Yeah--uh, of course."

She could tell that Red was nervous. He had bitten off more than he could chew this time.

As usual.

She used her armor to reach into +(1)d and pulled out the Nadirite energy pack which Gold had given her earlier. This was a compact container of raw kinetic energy. If she'd had time, she could have figured out an efficient, technical way to do this. But she didn't have time. So there was always this...

With one swift motion, she slammed the energy pack into the base of the lighting unit.

The brawl down below had been going as well as could be expected. Blue wasn't a fighter--even with her armor, definitely not without it. Red had gotten pinned to a table at the beginning, and there wasn't much he could. That left things to Black and Silver.

When White gave her order, Black shrugged and then set to work. "Well, this is a real slice of life." She flipped a knife out of somewhere inside of her jacket, tossed it once, and pitched it at the large man who had Red pinned to the table. The knife passed by and missed him, just as Black had intended. Still, he didn't know that, and he flinched away from the knife, giving Red the chance to push back and get free.

"Don't phase," Black hissed into Red's ear. And then she grabbed the knife back. Another of the men was coming at her. She dodged his rush, causing him to trip over the table. "Here, stick around," she suggested, stabbing the knife through his shirt, pinning it to the table.

By this time, the entire room had erupted into conflict. Most of the people had no idea what the fight was about, but that was really not the point. But at about the same moment the brawl began in earnest, Silver leaped over the low partition which served as a wall. He landed on the back of one of the larger combatants, knocking him to the ground. Though he couldn't have been much more than twenty-three (everyone in the bar seemed to be under thirty), he was a larger man than Silver (in bulk size, anyway, though not nearly as muscular) and in an instant, he was back on his feet. And his motion threw Silver across the room across the room like a laser blast. Silver had rolled himself up into a ball and bowled over three youths, knocking them to the ground or against the wall. With an agility that seemed incongruous with his large bulk, he landed lightly on his feet. He was by Red, Black, and Blue now, at the back of the room.

Red looked visibly relieved now that Silver was there. "Yeah, you guys don't know who you're messing with. We're--"

Black jabbed him in the stomach with her elbow. "Try not to say anything stupid for at least five minutes, crimson kid. Better yet, just don't say anything at all."

The large man Silver had knocked over pushed his way through the crowd and faced them. "I don't know who you punks are, but you picked the wrong place to make trouble."

"We haven't made any trouble," Black corrected. "I mean, I haven't even stabbed anyone yet. What more do you want?"

"And you've got to pay for that little stunt a minute ago," he added, and then punched Silver in the face.

Well, he tried to punch Silver. Silver rolled backwards and sideways, avoiding the blow. Falling into a half-crouching position, he struck upwards, landing a square blow on the man's stomach.

The man staggered backwards, tripped over a chair, tried to get up, and then fell again. But his fall seemed to enrage the rest of the antagonists.

"Well, this is getting fun," commented Black, but for one instant a serious look flickered in her eyes.

And then it happened. Without warning, the perpetual dusk of Centauri City was shattered by a strobe of white light. It was like coming out of a dim room into the full light of a cloudless summer day. For a moment, everyone in the bar staggered backwards, stunned and blinded.

"NOW!" White shouted through their communicators.

The Corps needed no urging. In an instant, Silver, Black, Red, and Blue had phased on their armor and flown upwards. By the time their would-be antagonists had adjusted to the light, there was no sign of their erstwhile opponents.

"Well, that was the most fun I've had all day, " commented Black. White had joined the other four and now they were flying towards the spaceport. "But I hope you appreciate what we sacrificed for you, Red. I lost one of my knives back there."

"Which means you'll have to break another one out of that collection of a hundred or so you have under your bunk," remarked Blue laconically.

"Hey, I never asked for your help," Red responded sullenly. "I could've handled things."

"Yeah, right. Still, I don't really know whether you could have been in any worse trouble there than you're going to be once Gold gets a hold of you."

"What did I do?" But there was chagrin as well as defiance in the words.

"You seriously want me to tell you? You've broken enough rules of protocol to get you court-martialed if we were actually part of the Patrol."

They had reached the port and now landed beside the gleaming bulk of The Crystallair.

Black phased off her armor and led the way towards the entrance. "Well, now the fun begins."

White pressed her lips together and suppressed the urge to say anything. Black was only augmenting a bad situation, but she knew anything she said would only make things worse. Besides, now that Red was safe, her mind was more concerned with something else. Had she made the right decision? They had all escaped uninjured, but there had been risk--far more than there would have been if they had simply used their armor to escape in the first place. Had she been right to take that risk? Had she allowed her emotions to affect her judgment? That was something she had promised herself never to let happen again, but she couldn't deny the possibility.

From the moment she entered the ship, she could feel the tension. Green was sitting at the table, doing some kind of calculations with the holocube--as usual, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him. But Gold was standing in front of the control panel, his arms folded, his face dark with anger.

"We're baaaack," called out Black as they entered.

Silver sat down in his usual place and bowed his head, as if waiting for further instructions. Blue and Black both sat down at the table. That left White and Red standing.

For a long moment, nobody said anything. Then Gold spoke in a low, gruff voice. "White, status report. What happened out there?"

She quickly and simply repeated the events of the last hour, omitting only one thing.

Red shuffled backwards, a little nervously. "So, yeah, I guess all's well that end's well, right?"

Gold lunged forward and grabbed Red's shirt, pulling him forward and almost lifting him off the ground. "Do you have any idea what you've done? Where do you think you are? You thought you'd just go running off on your own and get yourself involved in a drunken brawl--as if we were some kind of street gang? We're the Corps--we're supposed to be better than that."

"Do you always have to talk about street gangs so derogatively?"

Gold completely ignored Black. He was too focused on Red. "We've got a serious mission--a mission which we've already failed. I've had to report failure to the Prefect--I don't want to have to call him again and tell him that one of my troops got their throat slit in some back alley of Centauri City. Do you know what we are? We are official agents of Ursa Prime. How do you think that would look if the news got out that the Corps was involved in some kind of rumble in a place like that? It would reflect on the Prefect and ultimately on the entire government of Ursa Prime. Wouldn't that look great in Nadirite propaganda? But you're too stupid to think of any of that, aren't you?"

"I--uh--" Red stammered, incoherently.

Gold still had a tight hold to the front of his shirt, and now he gave him a rough shake. "Do you have any idea what it means to be part of the Corps? Do you have any idea what responsibility means? Do you have any idea what discipline means?"

"Well, I think you're about to get a crash course in what discipline means. And I do mean crash."

"Black, please," White chided in a low voice.

"Look, I--" Red began, a little more coherent this time.

"I'm not interested in your excuses!" Gold's voice rose slightly in volume, though it was still stable and well-modulated in pitch. "You've got to learn to take some kind of responsibility for your actions." He kept a hold of Red with one hand, but his other hand dropped to his side and formed itself, as if by automatic instinct, into a fist. "You've--"

He stopped suddenly as a sound cut through the room--the sound of someone loudly and ostentatiously clearing their throat. He let go of Red (who staggered and almost fell, but righted himself after a moment) and spun to face the source of the sound. The source was a life-sized hologram standing by the control panel. It was a tall man in a white uniform. His face had the marks of age and his hair was pure gray, but his body still seemed lean and youthful, and there was a certain sense of energy and competency which radiated from him. This was Prefect Alkyte, the man in charge of the entire Ursa Prime Patrol Force.

For a moment, Gold seemed nonplussed, but he quickly drew himself together and saluted.

Prefect Alkyte acknowledged the salute with a nod. "It's good to see you're all together now."

"Yes, sir. We're here and ready for orders."

The Prefect glanced around him, taking in all the members of the Corps. "First of all, I want to congratulate you on your fine job. The seven of you, unassisted, took down an entire Nadirite mothership, without any casualties or injuries. That something no one else has ever been able to do. More to the point, you have discovered a major Nadirite force and escaped to tell us about it. That is an important accomplishment."

"But we weren't able to do anything about that force," said Gold. "And we weren't even able to capture the Nadirite captain."

"Yes, but it is still an accomplishment to be proud of. But mentioning that captain--Erybus, as he called himself--does bring up an interesting question. What weapon did he use? That is a matter I should like more light on."

White paused for a moment, swallowed, and then spoke. She had realized it earlier and tried to push it aside, but she couldn't escape the reality. "Sir, I'm certain he was utilizing some kind of Primitive Warp Drive Technology. I saw PWDTech used once before, and the appearance was the same."

When she said that, everyone started slightly. Even the Prefect raised his eyebrows in surprise. Only Green seemed to show no emotion. He only pulled his hat down a little lower over his forehead and then motioned to the holocube. "To be exact, he was using some kind of remote exchange apparatus to approximate Moreland's Intersect. Based on my calculations, that's the only possible answer."

Only White and the Prefect showed any reaction this time. The Prefect stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Moreland's Intersect. Well, well, now that may prove a problem."

"What's Moreland's Intersect?" asked Red, glancing from Green to the Prefect and back again.

It was the Prefect who answered. "A very advanced form of Primitive Warp Drive Technology."

Black pulled a knife out of her jacket and began spinning the point on her finger. "OK, is it just me or is that a contradiction? An advanced form of primitive technology?"

And, unexpectedly, Silver raised his head and spoke without being addressed. "A stone is a primitive weapon. Yet I have known men who could use a sling to throw a stone with the accuracy of a laser and enough force to kill a man. Would you not call that advanced?"

"That is a very good metaphor, Silver," remarked the Prefect. "As I'm sure you all know, there are four known dimensions of space plus time which forms the fifth dimension. All space-ship travel, all phasing, and even most forms of teleportation utilize some or all of those five dimensions in some way. But there are other dimensions which are not dimensions of space. For instance, a thought cannot be measured in five dimensions, and yet it exists. Warping and other forms of teleportation utilize non-spatial dimensions along with the five dimensions and also possibly other dimensions of space, if they exist. But the distinctive mark of Primitive Warp Drive Technology is that it utilizes these dimensions in a very rough and inexact way. The best metaphore I can use is that it's like throwing a handful a gravel at a target and assuming that at least one piece will hit the target. Moreland's Intersect is based on the same principle, but it works on a much finer point, making it more powerful and more controllable than most forms of PWDTech. And while PWDTech is primarily a means of transportation, Moreland's Intersect is something rather different, bringing energy and properties from other kinds of reality into our point in four dimensional space. Of course, Moreland's Intersect is mostly theoretical. No one has actually achieved it in over a millennium."

Gold looked thoughtful. "So that's why Erybus was so powerful. By tapping into the power of all dimensions and channeling it against us--no wonder he was able to beat us."

"But don't the Nadirites realize what they're doing?" asked Red, for once seeming serious. "Don't they know how dangerous it is to play around with PWDTech? I mean, the universe is still recovering from what happened with that stuff before."

"The question is whether that is not in fact what they want. As a group which worships oblivion, it is not unthinkable that unleashing chaos is in fact their intention." Prefect Alkyte shook his head and turned back to Gold. "I must confess I am not so very surprised to hear this as you might think. A short time ago the Nadirites stole a piece of technology from us, something called the Omnibox. Fortunately, it was recovered due to the courage and ingenuity of one of our men." He paused and smiled. "To be exact, it was recovered by Ensign Kenneth Alkyte and his copilot."

It was fairly common knowledge among those associated with the Patrol that there existed some friction between Prefect Alkyte and his hotheaded, strong-willed son--yet as he spoke of Kenneth's accomplishment, the note of fatherly pride was very strong.

"When we recovered it," he continued after a moment, "we learned that they had been using it to attempt some very advanced calculations, calculations which suggested to us that they were doing research on Moreland's Intersect. The fact that they have achieved it--even by remote approximation--may prove a problem. But that is not my main concern at the moment. So long as the Guidance Beacon in the Altayra System remains inactive, no ships can pass through the void either coming or going--we can't even send anyone in to deal with those Nadirite ships. There are ways to get around this, of course, but all of them would take time--more time than I want to sacrifice in this matter. But when human ingenuity fails, sometimes you have to turn to the wonder of nature."

"Sir?" Gold seemed a little startled by this sudden metaphysical turn.

"There is planetoid known as the Wanderer which passes through the void. There is a scientific explanation of its rout, but I don't understand it and I doubt any of you would besides Green. Suffice it to say that it travels through the Void and it does so by relative space, meaning it passes through the distance between Centauri City and the Altayra System in about the same time that it would take a space ship. Even though we cannot navigate in the void, it passes through, following some path of its own. And because of its speed and method of travel, it is feasible to use it as a mode of transportation. Moreover, I have been meaning to send someone to investigate the Wanderer anyway because of some odd phenomena observed relating to it."

"So, wait, we're going to hitch a ride on some planetoid?"

"Exactly, Red. The Crystallair is a versatile ship and should have no difficulty in landing on the Wanderer. From there it will be a simple matter of riding on it as it passes through the void into the Altayra System. It bypasses the location of the Nadirite blockade, so you should not meet any trouble."

Green frowned and pushed his hat back. "But if we're just going around the Nadirite blockade, why do we need the Wanderer at all? Blue could find her way through the void at any point."

"Ah, thank you for noticing. First of all, I hope that by hitching a ride on the Wanderer, you may escape notice. We do not know the location of all the Nadirite ships. The blockade may stretch farther than we know, but even so, they may not be suspicious of the Wanderer as a natural occurrence. But there is another reason. Your mission remains what it was to begin with--to go to Altayra Rex, meet with the government there, and find out what is going on with the Guidance Beacon--and to do whatever is within your power to get it activated again. That is the primary thing. But we also cannot ignore such a large Nadirite presence. That's why I'm sending other agents with you, via the Wanderer. They will tackle the Nadirites from the Altayra side while you deal with the problem of the Guidance Beacon."

"Other agents?"

"Yes, Gold. Since we don't know exactly what we're dealing with, I'm going to send some more versatile agents--namely, a mobile battle unit squad."

"Sir! That--I mean, we are capable of handling this problem on our own. We are the Corps, after all."

Prefect Alkyte smiled. "I like your enthusiasm, but this is the most logical course of action. We have a small window of opportunity before the Wanderer passes into the void. Fortunately, I have a skilled mobile battle unit pilot in your area. Someone you know rather well, Gold."

Gold took a step backwards and, for just an instant, a shadow crossed his face--something like anger and something like fear. "Sir?"

"General Kenton."

"Oh--oh, yes, of course."

"I want you to go to Kappa Base, where you can rendezvous with General Kenton and his squad. From there, you can fly to the Wanderer." He interlocked his fingers. "Now with that out of the way, I just want to give you a warning. Once you reach the Altayra System, you will no longer be within Ursa Prime's dominion--and until the Guidance Beacon is activated, you won't even be able to communicate with us. Altayra Rex is a sovereign power and though it is friendly, it is by no means an ally. If anything, traditionally it would be more likely to ally with Draxmoor. While there, you will be acting as representatives of Ursa Prime. Try not to do anything to antagonize them--and be aware that you do not have the full authority there that you have here. But also be aware that with such a large Nadirite presence so close to Altayra, there is a strong possibility that the Nadirites have conquered Altayra Rex or, at least, are active throughout the system. Though your primary objective is to activate the Guidance Beacon, if the Nadirites have invaded a civilized system, defeating them is also primary and takes precedence over ordinary protocol."

"Yes, sir." Gold drew himself up and saluted. "You can count on us."

Prefect Alkyte smiled. "I have confidence that you can handle this matter. Oh, and by the way, Gold--any way you look at this, it will be a difficult mission. You are going to need your full strength at its peak level. So... try not to hurt any of your troops too badly before this is done. Over and out." His image flickered for a moment and then vanished.

Red yawned. "That was a lot of talking."

"Don't complain," advised Black, still spinning her knife on her fingers. "I think Prefect Alkyte just saved your hide."

Gold shook his head in annoyance. "Red, go your room. I'll deal with you later. Actually, everyone go to your rooms and get a little sleep. This may be the last chance you get for a while. White, you and I can take turns flying the ship from here to Kappa Base. You can take the first half of the trip; I'll take the second."

"I'd rather not," remarked Blue standing up. "I always prefer going indefinite periods of time without rest."

"Well, go to sleep anyway. Just count meteors or something." Gold spoke a little more sharply than usual, and he turned away.

In a few moments, the Corps had dispersed, and White was alone in the control room. She made a few calculations on the flight computer and then guided the ship up and out of the space port and into the darkness of space. The route between Centauri City and Kappa Base was fairly straightforward, and she had made it before. (Kappa Base was one of the twenty-two primary bases which served as the backbone of the entire patrol organization.) There would be no real difficulty, unless something went wrong.

She was glad of the chance to concentrate on something simple and straightforward. Things had been happening so quickly lately--and she couldn't help wondering if she had made the right choices. She needed some time to herself, to think... and pray.

It seemed like only a few moments later when Gold walked up behind her. "I can take over from here."

She stood up and gave him the controls. "Nothing unusual to report so far."

"Good." Gold grunted and sat down.

White hadn't eaten earlier. Now she pulled out a block of prefood and fed it through the preparation computer, selecting a palate of flavors and nutrients from the console. She missed real food, but this was the primary fare in Ursa Prime and certainly more convenient for space flight. "Are you all right with Prefect Alkyte's plan?" she asked, glancing at Gold curiously. He had seemed a little upset while they had been communicating.

"It's a logical plan. Realistically, we can't take on an entire fleet, and if we can get the Guidance Beacon turned on again, that will be the most helpful thing. I just wish we could have done something more."

"What about this General Kenton? The Prefect said you knew him. Are you all right with working with him?"

"Kenton? Yeah, he's all right. He's one of the best mobile battle unit pilots in the patrol. I've known him for years. He's a little--hmm--eccentric, but he's a good pilot. And more importantly, I know who is in his squad--and who isn't."

"Gold?" White was a little surprised by the strange tone in Gold's voice.

"Sorry. I just didn't know where Prefect Alkyte was going earlier--and there are some people in the mobile battle unit division that I don't want to see right now."

White wanted to press the issue, but somehow she knew it wouldn't be a wise choice. Of course, she knew within the patrol there existed some friction or at least rivalry between ordinary ship pilots and mobile battle units. She wondered if Gold had been affected by that or whether this was something more personal.

Gold was running a few calculations on the computer. "We should get to Kappa Base in plenty of time for the rendezvous. I wonder if we'll have to leave from there immediately, or whether we'll have a little time."

"Is there something you want to do?"

"I want to set Red to cleaning out the ship. That's the only thing I can think of doing to him, and it should be rough enough. I still think a bloody nose and a couple of black eyes would get the point across to him quicker, but the Prefect is right--we're going to need the full force once we get to the Altayra System." He paused for a moment and then glanced at her. "You think I'm being too hard on him, don't you?"

White stopped eating for a moment, once again startled by how well Gold could read her thoughts. "Well, yes."

"But you at least have to realize how serious what he did was. If we were actually part of the patrol, and if we were officially at war, he could have gotten executed for a stunt like that."

"I'm not arguing about that. But--"

Gold turned his chair to face her and leaned forward. "Look, White, I respect you and the things you believe in. But in this world, it's not always practical. I know you believe in compassion, but that can be a weakness--especially in this line of work."

White took a bite of prefood in order to keep herself from speaking. "Compassion is strength; harshness is weakness," she repeated in her mind. But she wasn't going to argue the point with Gold. First, because she had learned that arguing theological points with Gold was futile and second, because she knew that no matter what he said or how he acted, Gold was one of the biggest hearted people in the Cosmos. He might lack patience, but he certainly did not really despise compassion. "I'm not arguing with you, Gold--I agree that Red has to learn to take responsibility for his actions. Discipline can be a form of compassion, you know. But don't forget that even if we are sort of like a military group, we aren't and Red is still young--younger than an ordinary member of the Patrol."

"White, he's sixteen. He's only a year younger than you and me."

White paused and then asked, "What is the age of adulthood in Diaster City?"

"Eighteen. Why?"

"I don't know much about the Kastorian System, but the one thing I do know is that a boy does not enter into the full responsibilities of manhood until twenty-one. Do the math and it works out that Red is quiet a bit younger than us." She didn't mention that on that same logic, she was older than Gold since the Tremonsirs considered adulthood to begin at sixteen. "And also remember that he has had a more sheltered life than some of us. I mean, he's practically a prince on his own world."

"In other words, you're saying he's just a spoiled brat."

"Well, that's not exactly--"

Gold made a few adjustments to the controls and then turned back to her. "That's all the more reason why he has to learn not to do stupid stuff like this. I don't say there may not be some excuse for his being an idiot, but if he keeps on like this, he's going to get himself--and maybe all of us--killed." Gold clenched his fist and pounded the arm of his chair. "And that's not going to happen on my watch."

White didn't respond. Somehow this always happened when she and Gold argued about anything. She had been raised as a warrior. She understood the importance of discipline as well, if not better, than Gold himself. Certainly, she agreed that Red's wild stunts were a danger both to himself and the whole team. Then why did she still feel that there was something wrong with Gold's approach? Was it just meaningless sympathy, feeling sorry for Red because of his age or some other irrational factor? She narrowed her eyes. She really had to regain control of her feelings. This was yet another time where she seemed to be allowing her emotions to control her actions--and to her that was the worst sin of all.

"White, can I ask a question?"

Gold's voice broke through her thoughts jarringly and unexpectedly, though he spoke in a more quiet and subdued tone than usual.

"I suppose so."

"Why didn't you just phase on your armor and fight today? I mean, when you were rescuing Red from that bar. You chose to provide a distraction--which is good, but I don't quite understand why. Of course, it is just as well if the Corps wasn't associated with any of that, but I can't believe that was your thinking. It's just funny. You were trained as a warrior, yet you, of all of us, seem the least willing to fight, wanting to find any other way out of a situation."

"The Code of the Tremonsirs was even more strict than that of the Corps when it comes to unnecessary violence," answered White slowly. "'In so far as you can, live at peace with all men.' But--" She sighed. She really hadn't wanted it to come to this, though she should have known that Gold would pick up on the fact that there was some unexplained factor. "Gold, he was there."

"He?" Gold sounded blank. "What do you--wait!--you can't mean--the Intimidator?"

She nodded.

"Are you sure? Did you get a good look at him?"

"I didn't see his face--but there's only one prosthetic like his in the entire universe. I'd know it anywhere."

"But what would he be doing in Centauri City? I guess that's a dumb question. Centauri City is exactly the place where a guy like him would hang out--whether he's lying low after a job or looking for a new one." He shook his head. "I guess I'd better send a message to the patrol in Centauri City. They should be aware of him, at least. I'd like to be able to deal with him personally, but we certainly don't have time for that now. Then you made the right choice. If he knew the Corps was there, he would have started something. And though I'd like to have things out with him once and for all, I don't want to do it in a crowded city. Too many innocent bystanders. And this problem in the Altayra System takes precedence over everything--even him."

White felt a strong sense of relief. She had been afraid Gold wouldn't agree with her judgment on the matter.

"If this mission in Altayra doesn't end up taking real long, maybe we can come back and tie up a few lose ends in Centauri City. But you'd better get some sleep, White. We'll be Kappa Base before you know it, and then I don't know when we'll have a chance for a good rest again."

She stood up. "You can handle things from here?"

"This is just routine stuff. I may not be as good a pilot as you or Blue, but I can handle this."

She turned to go. "Well, then I'll see you after we dock."


In so far as time meant anything in such places, it was early morning when The Crystallair docked in the hanger of Kappa Base. Even though there was no real difference in sensation, White somehow knew instinctively when they docked and came to full wakefulness immediately. Most of the others did also, and in a few moments they gathered in the main cabin. All except Red who could sleep through almost anything.

"I really wish Red had come so I could tell him to go back to his room." Gold seemed honestly a little miffed by this. "But if I lock the forcefield so he can't get out of his room, it may get the idea across to him--when and if he wakes up."

White decided not to point out that Red could simply teleport out of his room if he wanted to. There was no reason to make things worse than they were. Anyhow, she thought Red was more or less cowed by events and wouldn't try anything like that.

"Now," continued Gold, "I want White and Green with me to meet General Kenton. As the second-in-command of this team and the tech-expert, I want you two to be there to get any details we need. Blue, Silver, and Black--you can consider yourself at ease. You can stay here in the ship, or come with us, or explore the base. You shouldn't be able to get into too much trouble here."

"You're confidence in us is overwhelming." This from Blue.

"Just make sure you stay synced with our communicators as we may need to leave immediately."

As it turned out, all of them started out together except Silver and Blue. Silver had seemed a little puzzled at being given a choice, so Gold had told him to stay and guard the ship, not that it was likely to be in much danger. And then Blue said she had better things to do than wander around and accomplish nothing and so she stayed also. But the rest exited the ship and came into the main part of Kappa Base with Gold leading the way. He was the only one of the group to ever have been inside Kappa Base, though they had been to other bases before and all twenty-two were built on the same general plan (except Alpha Base, the primary headquarters of the entire Patrol, which was much larger and more complex than any of the others). As a military structure, it was rather simple and austere, composed of a gray, metallic compound. The base was shaped like a wheel, with a number of concentric rings around a central hub. Their ship was docked in a bay along the outermost of these rings.

"Normally, there aren't mobile battle units attached to Kappa Base at all," remarked Gold as he led them down a hall. "But usually, if there is a MBU squad attached to a base, they would dock at the opposite end of the outer ring, so I'm going to assume that's where we'll find General Kenton and his squad."

"I'll have to admit, I'm a little curious." White was walking almost at his side, just a step or two behind. "I've never seen a mobile battle unit up close before. But I take it you're a little more familiar with them, Gold?"

"You could say that." Gold spoke without turning around.

Once again, she felt a sense of antagonism from him. For some reason, MBUs were not a good topic for him, though she still couldn't imagine the exact cause of his feelings.

"Mobile Battle Units representation has fallen within the patrol over the last twenty years," Green explained in his cold, pedantic voice. "Primarily, because of the growth of small, versatile, maneuverable spacecrafts which can now perform many of the same functions originally fulfilled by MBUs. Because of this, many MBU pilots have left the patrol and gone into the private sector. However, there is still a significant presence of MBUs because they still possess certain unique abilities and because a significant number of MBUs outclass their corresponding spacecrafts."

"Yeah, what he said," agreed Black, "only in shorter words and with more expression."

"Are you ever serious, Black?"

"Are you ever anything else, Green?"

Green made a disgusted noise at the back of his throat and then pulled his hat down lower over his forehead.

"Keep it civil, you two," Gold threw over his shoulder. "We do have an image to uphold, you know. Dealing with Red is bad enough without you two starting anything."

They had all phased off their armor. Still, they attracted attention as they walked through the base, both because their unusual variety of clothing and because they were younger than the average people who wandered around a Patrol base. A few Patrolmen looked up and watched as they walked by and then went back to whatever it was they had been doing before. Though most of these people had never seen them before, probably all recognized them as the Corps. (The jackets were mostly responsible for that. )

Gold stopped abruptly. "Well, this is the part of the base where MBUs would be stationed and I see that Kenton's machine is here, but I don't see any sign of him. White, would you and Green wait here while I go and see if I can find out where he is? There should be someone around here who knows."

"All right," White nodded.

They were standing in a somewhat broad hallway which ran alongside a hanger, a much larger hanger than that in which they had parked their ship. Through a transparent panel through the wall, they could see the machine which Gold had mentioned.

White walked over to the panel and looked through. She had seen MBUs from a distance before but this was her first time to see one up close. It was larger than she had expected, though still not nearly as large as their own ship. Yet it gave a strange impression of size, probably because of the distinctive shape of the machine.

"So that's a mobile battle unit?" asked Black, coming up beside her. "It's certainly unique."

"Of course it's unique." An unexpected voice boomed out behind them--a deep, rolling voice that seemed to fill the whole corridor. "That's what makes it so awesome. And it's not just a mobile battle unit either. It has another name. Wanna know what it is? Of course you do. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

At this unexpected voice, White and Black both spun around to see who had spoken. What they saw was a tall, brawny man (around thirty, probably) with wide shoulders and an easy, virile baring. He wore a purple flightsuit, but on his shoulder was an insignia which marked him as a high officer in the Patrol. He had black hair which fell in curls over his forehead. But the thing that struck them most was the fact that his skin was a dark green.

"Who are--" White began, nonplussed--and then she realized that he wore a name tag on his flight suit. 'Kenton.' "You're General Kenton?"

"General Lucius Kenton, yeah. You must be the Corps. I thought as much. I'm with the mobile battle unit division, but around here we don't call them that; we call them mechs or in this case, mechas. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!" When he shouted out the word, his deep voice seemed to shake the whole corridor, and White could have sworn that one of the wall panels vibrated just slightly. It reminded her of the thunder which accompanied the frequent storms on the planet Coulair, her former home.

But General Kenton didn't pause, his words coming with an even cadence like the unceasing roar of a well-tempered engine. "You're totally excited about working with us mechs, aren't you? Hey! Green-skin buddy." He gave Green what White guessed was supposed to be a friendly punch in the shoulder, though it made him stumble backwards. "Mine is radiation. My system has two suns, you know. What about you? Radiation too?"

Green adjusted his hat. He seemed a little more annoyed than usual. "No. I'm a mod."

Mods were a familiar concept in Ursa Prime, though the government tried to discourage their creation. Mods were people whose genetic code had been modified before birth, usually to give them some specialized ability. However, more often than not, the attempt ended badly.

"They have a mod for green skin now? That's amazing."

"My skin allows me to metabolize photonic energy directly at one hundred percent efficiency, meaning I don't need to eat in order to supply my body with energy so long as I'm within sight of some kind of starlight."

"That's so cool. But I bet you still eat, don't you? Just for fun?"

"I think eating is disgusting," said Green, pulling his hat down slightly.

"Well, I guess there are a lot of things in life that are better than eating, aren't there? Like mechas. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

"I see you've met General Kenton," commented Gold as he rejoined them. He spook coolly and casually. He didn't seem the least unsettled by their strange companion. Obviously, he was already familiar with his eccentricities.

"Hey! Colton, good to see you." General Kenton turned to Gold and tried to punch him in the shoulder but Gold, who seemed to expect the move, sidestepped.

"Colton?" repeated Black raising her eyebrows. "That's your real name?"

Gold glared at General Kenton.

"Oh, right, Gold--sorry."

White was surprised, but somehow the name did seem to fit him.

Gold was talking again. "So--General Kenton--Prefect Alkyte wants us--"

"To take the Wanderer. Yeah, right. Of course, it's crazy, but things will be great, because I've got a mecha. MEE--"

"Yes, we get the idea."

White frowned. "Wait, you said 'take the Wanderer.' It's an empty planetoid. Why would we have to take it?"

"Because it's not an empty planetoid anymore. Didn't the Prefect tell you about it?"

"Yes, now that you mention it--he did say there was some kind of strange phenomena regarding the Wanderer which required attention anyway."

"By strange phenomena he meant that it's been taken over by machines. Yeah, bet you weren't expecting that, were you? Pretty strange, isn't it?"

"It's been taken over by machines?" repeated Gold, quizzically. "What does that mean?"

"That's just the problem. We don't know. That's what makes it a mystery. But even though nobody should be on the Wanderer, there are all kinds of machines appearing on it and they seem to be operating on their own. But you don't need to worry about them. We'll take care of them, because I've got a mecha. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! You saw it, right?" He walked to the window over the docking bay.

White took this moment to make a closer examination of the machine. She knew it had to be General Kenton's, even without his identification. It was the same shade of purple as his flightsuit, though she wasn't sure which was colored to match which. She was familiar with the concept of a mobile battle unit or mech. It was a machine built roughly in the shape of a human being. Its legs and arms allowed it to do perform functions impossible to any other machine, though it also utilized a radiation shield which enabled it to fly. The pilot sat in a cockpit set in the "neck" of the machine. General Kenton's machine did not differ in essence from the pattern, except that it was much more streamlined in appearance than most mechs. In some ways, its rounded, humanoid form reminded White of the Corps' armor, though of course many times bigger. But the general had referred to his machine as a mecha. She remembered reading about mechas, a very specialized and elite form of a mech, with much stronger shields and a more organic control system.

But General Kenton didn't give them much time to think. "Now, that's a mecha. Pretty awesome, right? As soon as the rest of the squad gets together, we should be able to--"

Gold suddenly gave sharp intake of breath. White glanced up at him and then started slightly. For just an instant, she had seen Gold's face as she had never seen it before--a face full of anger and horror, as if he had suddenly seen something that angered but also slightly scared him. She had never seen Gold show that kind of feeling.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw the source of his emotion.

To be continued...

Prologue to American Christianity

You cannot understand development of Christianity in America without understanding the history of the church prior to the colonization of America--particularly, the history of the church in Western Europe, from which the vast majority of American settlers came during the country's formative years. On continental Europe, there were mainly three streams of Christianity during the Reformation period--Catholicism, the Magisterial Reformation, and Anabaptism.

Up to the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church held universal sway in Europe--it was "the church." This is not to say there were not rivals and split-offs, individuals and groups which opposed the establishment, but these did not alter the essential point. The main characteristic of the Catholic church was this universal, holistic nature. One was baptized in it as a baby, married in it as an adult, and given their last rites in it when they died. It was melded together with the government--many functions which we now associate with the state were carried on by the church and the church held a great deal of power over the state and often the state held great power over the church.

This is essential to understand. The Roman Catholic Church was an attempt to create an actual Christian kingdom on Earth in which the church and the state were married to each other. The baptism of infants was a way of establishing the citizenship of this kingdom. Because of this vision, the state had the authority to persecute doctrinal heresy, since it was tantamount to treason.

Though the Reformation altered the Catholic's power in some places--Germany and parts of Switzerland--in other countries, Catholicism retained these characteristics through the Reformation period.

The Reformation is dated from Luther, but Ulrich Zwingli came up with many of the same ideas as Luther, independently. Luther's followers became known as Lutheran while Zwingli's followers were called Reformed (because Zwilglians didn't test well with audiences) and later Calvinists, due to the influence of a certain prolific French theologian.

Luther and Zwingli differed sharply on many points of doctrine, but they were alike in their basic division from the Catholic church, particularly on the doctrine of a personal salvation through grace as opposed to salvation coming through the church. However, they did follow the Catholic idea of the church and the state working together. Hence their reformation is referred to as the Magisterial Reformation (from the Latin word for Magistrate). Both in Germany and Switzerland, the ideal was to create Protestant government which would protect and enforce Protestantism in the same way Catholic governments protected and enforced Catholicism. They were not standing for religious freedom but rather for the establishment of their religion. As such, the Reformation still insisted on Infant Baptism, as foundation of the Christian commonwealth. Because of the use of governmental authority, religious conflicts turned into political conflicts and wars, including the bloody 30 Years War.

An important name to remember from the Magisterial Reformation is Martin Bucer, a Catholic monk-turned-Protestant Scholar from Strasbourg. He would have a major impact on John Calvin and on other strains of the Reformation which we will get to later.

The Anabaptist movement grew during the Reformation, largely out of a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The Anabaptists--or re-Baptizers--didn't believe that infant baptism was valid and that one must be baptized as an adult. They also believed that Christians should not involved with the Government or with war. One the major leaders of the Anabaptist movement at this time was Menno Simons and his followers became known as Mennonites. Because of this idea of separating the church from the state, the Anabaptists were seen as an anarchist force by the established church and so were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike. Many Anabaptists would eventually come to America, becoming the modern Mennonites and Amish.

The reformation in England, however, took a rather different form than the continental reformation, since it originated out of political, rather than religious reasons. The main locus of the reformation was the Church of England, but many other religious groups and movements grew up in and around it.

Henry VIII separated England from Catholicism, making a separate Church of England, but he still retained many Catholic ideas and the church was not very distinct. However, under Henry's successor, Edward VI and his Protestant advisors, Protector Somerset and Protector Northumberland, many more Protestant stands would be taken to turn the Anglican church into a more distinct church and less of a Catholic knock-off. Largely influential in this reformation was John Calvin (who corresponded regularly with the English church leaders) and Martin Bucer, who would settle in England.

The English reformation was also Magisterial, with the government enforcing the reformation, which sometimes broke out into civil strife and bloodshed. And this was only complicated by the fact that England varied for a while between Catholic and Protestant leadership.

One of the main characteristics of the English reformation was that it contained a variety of different viewpoints. Leaders like Queen Elizabeth tried to form a coherent, stable political and religious order by allowing some divergence of opinion within the church. (So, for instance, both Predestinarianism and Arminianism flourished within the church.)

Out of the English reformation, one of the most out-spoken and powerful groups to emerge were the Puritans. Though they were not a united group with completely uniform beliefs, they did share the common idea that the reformation in England had not gone far enough and that the Church of England was still too much like the Catholic church. Hence they were called Puritans because they wished to purify the Anglican church.

In doctrine, the Puritans were very similar to (and influenced by) the Swiss Reformation of Zwingli and Calvin. They believed that the fate of man was predetermined by God; that the church ought to be simple and straightforward, reflecting only what was revealed in Scripture; that Christian should live sober, pure lives. They also, for the most part, remained strongly in the Magisterial Reformation tradition, believing that this purification of the church should be enforced by the Government--so much so that after period of tension and intrigue, English Puritans waged a civil war, deposing and executing the king (Charles I) and establishing a Puritan leader named Cromwell as the leader of England. The Puritan experiment failed following Cromwell's death, and the traditional Anglican church returned with its careful compromise of doctrine and its more-or-less tolerant attitude towards religion. However, Puritan influences remained in many places, including literature. Out of the Puritan movement came two of the most influential books ever written in English--the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress.

Another movement to come out of the English Reformation was the Quakers, founded by George Fox. The Quakers or Friends emphasized personal, spiritual religion in the place of organized, ecclesiastical religion. Fox taught that all people had an “Inner Light” from God, a personal ability to meet with and communicate with God. The Quakers also disbelieved in war and emphasized the equality of all people, making them similar in many ways to the Anabaptist movement, though the Quakers disbelieved in baptism altogether. Because of the radical nature of Quaker beliefs, they were viewed as a dangerous group and were persecuted by pretty much everyone.

Finally we have the Baptists, who arose out of the Puritan movement in England. Their essential idea was a rejection of infant baptism--one must be baptized as an adult, as a conscious decision for Christ, in order for it to 'count.' They also rose out of the idea that individual churches should rule themselves, as opposed to being controlled by an overarching 'State Church.' Though in some ways they were similar to the Anabaptist movement of Menno Simons, they mostly come to their conclusion independent of the Anabaptists. Probably it is for this reason that they did not share other Anabaptist ideals, such as disbelief in war. The Baptists arose out of the English Puritan movement and so tended to follow the Calvinistic idea of predestination. However, many Baptist fled to Netherlands to escape persecution and there were influenced by the followers of James Arminius, who taught that God gave man a free will and allowed him to reject God's working. For this reason, both ideas are present within the Baptist tradition.

The thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States were primarily settled by people from England and so the religions of the English Reformation formed the religious foundation of the New World. Most of the groups just discussed--Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, and Puritans--would be the dominate forces in American Christianity.

The Church of England was brought to America and was the primary religious establishment in places like Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. However, it was not a very powerful movement in so far as the great mass of people were concerned and does not play a very important role in American history, though it still survives today as the Episcopalian Church.

Puritanism would have a much more important influence. The most famous American colonists were the Separatists or Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Plantation. They came out of the Puritan Movement, but rather than seeking to purify or reform the Established Church, they wanted to separate from it and form their own church. Unable to do this in England, they came to America. Though their colony was small and not long-lasting, they had a major impact on American history as an idea.

After the Separatists, the Puritans began to arrive, forming what would become Massachusetts and Connecticut. Though part of the church of England, they wanted to purify and reform it--and unable to do that because of opposition of the English king, they came to America, hoping to form a new Christian commonwealth, a kingdom of God upon the Earth.

Like their English counterparts, the American Puritans believed in Calvinist theology, in the importance of personal morality, and in governmental enforcement of religion. In Puritan New England, groups such as Baptists and Quakers who rejected Puritan ideology, were not permitted and, at least in the case of the Quakers, were harshly persecuted. However, later religious toleration was introduced by an order from the King.

Like all other versions of the Magisterial Reformation, the Puritan experiment was built around the idea of the marriage of church and state, of a civil order which was also a religious order which one entered through baptism as an infant. However, as the New England Puritan experiment continued it ran into the problem that obviously many people baptized as infants were not Christians and could not be counted as such. This led to a great deal of controversy about who exactly could be counted as part of the church.

The Puritan colonies began with great optimism but ended in disillusionment. This had two consequences, one of which was the turning to the Great Awakening, which we will get to later. The other was a lasting disillusionment with religion, at least with the idea of a formal religious establishment. It is possible (this is a personal speculation) that the ultimate refusal of America to accept the idea of an established church was because of disillusionment with the Puritan ideal.

Baptists had a stronghold in Rhode Island, whose founder (Roger Williams) was a Baptist for a brief period of time. Rhode Island had a policy of religious freedom which permitted Baptists to exist, something withheld in other colonies, though the Baptists did have a presence even in places where they were forbidden. Eventually, the Baptists would spread across the country and become a firmly entrenched part of American religion.

Quakers had a presence in many colonies (even in places like Massachusetts where their existence was illegal), but especially in Pennsylvania (which was founded by an English Quaker named Penn) and New Jersey.

Though there were Catholic sympathizers in England, even among the royalty, it was was difficult to be a Catholic in England. For this reason, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore formed the colony of Maryland to be a haven for Catholics in America. However, it was not merely for Catholics and would eventually be overrun by Protestants. However, to the best of my understanding, it was the first colony to establish officially a form of religious freedom.

So far we have a very brief and cursory picture of Christianity in America and in England during the colonial period. And it was at this point, shortly before the American revolution, that a new element was introduced, something which, though new, was really only the final logical result of the Reformation. In England it was called the Evangelical Revival and in America the First Great Awakening. In England, the primary mover was John Wesley, in America, Jonathan Edwards, and in both countries, George Whitfield. Though Edwards, Wesley, and Whitfield differed radically in matters of doctrine, they were united in a common theme or vision--it was the idea of a personal, experiential encounter with God as the basis of religious life. It was not experience for the sake of experience, but experience rooted in religious reality.

Edwards put it this way: one might know that honey is sweet or that a certain person is beautiful based on second-hand evidence, but this is a very different thing than tasting honey with our tongue or seeing the person face to face. Just so, we can know--rationally and certainly--about the realities of religion through the Bible, but that is a different thing than actually experiencing them. (“A Divine and Supernatural Light...” in Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards) Wesley expressed the same feeling personally when he wrote of his conversion, when he said his heart was “strangely warmed” and he felt the force of the fact that Jesus had died for him specifically.

This was the heart of the evangelical revival and the Great Awakening--the emphasis on a personal experience with God, a personal assurance of salvation, a personal knowledge, a personal religion. None of this was startlingly new--it had been present in some form in all of the Reformation and even in Catholicism, but now it was brought to the forefront and given a new emphasis. And what was more importantly, people were experiencing it. Under the influence of these preachers and others like them, people began coming in vast numbers to a personal knowledge of God. But this wasn't simply an isolated religious experience--it actually resulted in a changed life in those who experienced it. Alice Tenny argues in Living in Two Worlds that this revival completely changed the course of English history and changed the nation completely. As for America, it reenergized and revived a religion that was beginning to die in disinterest and disillusionment, following the failure of the Puritan Experiment.

The Great Awakening/Evangelical Revival crossed denominational lines, and brought new life into many different religious groups. However, a special note needs to be said about John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican, the son of an Anglican priest, though with strong family ties to the Puritan tradition as well. Wesley's vision of the revival was something like the Puritan vision--a dream of reforming or purifying the church from the inside rather than splitting off and starting a new church. However, his vision was more spiritual than political.

Besides his personal work and preaching, Wesley gave two important, unique contributions to the awakening movement. One was an emphasis on careful, organized Christian living. Whitfield is said to have once remarked that Wesley saw more long-term results than he did because Wesley was able to follow-up with his converts and help them become strong Christians. While Wesley did emphasize the importance of an initial, experiential salvation, he also placed a large emphases on living the Christian life afterwards. The other important contribution was the formulation of the Doctrine of Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification. It was a truth which dawned slowly on John Wesley and his brother but which would become a dynamic part of their ministry and their legacy. Though Wesley himself had a somewhat uneasy relationship to America--especially because of his opposition to the American Revolution--his followers did see a great deal of fruit here, especially because of Francis Asbury, who was sent to America by Wesley and who helped give form and direction to Wesley's followers after the Revolution.

This was the Great Awakening--a wave of personal religious experience which crossed both denominational and colonial boundaries, becoming (in some sense) a uniting point for people of different religions and (for American) people from varied colonies. Some people have suggested that the Great Awakening helped the thirteen colonies gain the sense of unity which would see them through the Revolution soon to follow. The Great Awakening--and the new life it breathed into churches as the Methodist (followers of Wesley), Congregationalist (a break-off of Puritanism), and Baptist would set the stage for the early religious life of the New Nation.

Dickens, A. The English Reformation. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1964.
Edwards, J. Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Ed., H. N. Gardiner. Project Gutenberg E-Book.
Gonzalez, J. L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 2

[White's Journal. Fifth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] Our mission to the Altayra System was interrupted when we encountered a Nadirite ship in the void. We were able to destroy it but not without first meeting the enigmatic captain who called himself Erybus and wielded an unidentified and powerful weapon. However, after the ship was destroyed, we realized that there was an entire fleet of ships blocking our way. Our only chance was to use our super-weapon, the Matrix, but for some reason we were unable to activate it.

"Well, what are we going to do now?" Black repeated.

There was a brief moment of silence and then Gold spoke. His voice was hard and a little more gruff than usual. "What are we going to do? There's only one thing we can do. Put our tails between our legs and run like a bunch of cowards."

"I think the word you're looking for is 'tactical retreat,' chief," Black said. "Also known as 'survival.'"

"Call it whatever you want, it doesn't change what it is. Blue! You head back to the ship. If you don't make it back, none of us do. Silver, cover her. White, phase."

"But, Gold, if I--"

"White! Phase! That's--"

"An order," she finished with a sigh. It was the third time during the mission that he'd said that to her. In an average day, he didn't pull rank that often, even on Red.

"Stay in +(.5)d. I want at least one of us to live through this. Follow Blue and phase back only if Blue's in mortal danger and Silver can't handle it. Green, go invisible and follow up Blue and Silver. Black, Red, and me will come behind and cover your retreat. Got it?"

"Got it."

As she phased out, White couldn't help repeating Gold's words in her mind. "I want at least one of us to live through this"? Really? It wasn't like Gold to be so pessimistic. Still, she knew he hated the idea of running away from a battle. It had to be chaffing him--as was the fact that they were losing a battle that wasn't even supposed to have happened. They had been expecting this mission to be relatively simple and peaceful. The Guidance Beacon on Altayra Vorphintus had become inactive. Without this, all traffic into and out of Ursa Prime's dominion was impossible. The Prefect had asked Gold to take the Corps and investigate. They hadn't really expected to run into much trouble at all in the mission--certainly not here in the void before they even reached the Altayra System. Gold wasn't afraid of battles, but he also didn't like getting into them without good reason and without being able to plan things out in advance. But she knew more than anything, he hated losing. They were the Corps, and even though they were still relatively new to their role, losing wasn't an experience they had had very often.

Once she recovered from the momentary nausea and vertigo that always came with phasing, she followed after Blue and Silver. She didn't really like her position. She couldn't be hurt so long as she remained at this point on the fourth dimensional axis, but she also couldn't do anything to help either. And because of the kickback which came with phasing, there wouldn't be much she do to help for a few moments if she did phase back. She hated watching the others fight without being able to do anything.

It was a rout, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. The Nadirites' weapons had been built for fighting other space ships--not for targeting anything as small as a human being. Even if the Corps had been merely ordinary individuals, the Nadirites would have found it difficult to strike their targets. And the Corps' armor gave them added speed and agility, making it even more difficult for the ships to target them. Still, things were far from easy--especially as Gold, Red, and Black were deliberately trying to draw the Nadirites' fire in order to cover the others' retreat.

White wasn't exactly sure what would happen if the Nadirites scored a hit. Gold, Red, and Black had the strongest armor, but even so, she wasn't positive they could handle a direct hit from a weapon of that size.

Fortunately, she could still communicate even if she couldn't do anything else. "Green, exactly what kind of weapon are the Nadirite ships using?"

"Generic kinetic energy canons," he answered. He had apparently recovered from his turmoil of earlier and spoke in his ordinary calm, unimpassioned voice. "They're using raw kinetic energy tempered with just a little photonic energy in order to render it stable and capable of hitting a small target. However, that means the force is gradually dispelled as it gets farther from the launch point."

"So if they do make a hit?"

Green paused for a moment. White knew he was doing some quick calculations in his head. "Given the distance Gold, Black, and Red are from the ships by now, the nature of the weapons, and the strength of their armor, even a direct hit is unlikely to cause any serious damage. But there is a margin of error." And suddenly he broke character and added with a tone of vexation, "Too big of a margin of error. We didn't calculate any of this out in advance."

"We're holding our own out here, Green," Gold interrupted. His voice was a little less rough than before. "Just worry about getting back to the ship. Are you making progress, Blue?"

"No. I've stopped out here to have a break and a little snack."

White nodded. Translated, that meant she was making progress. By now, she had caught up to Blue and Silver (and she assumed Green also, though he was invisible so it was hard to tell). From her position, she could see the ship in the distance. For the most part, the Nadirites were making no strikes out this far. They were concentrating their fire on the other three, probably not realizing that the group had split up. White couldn't figure out how they were managing to observe them at all--she certainly wasn't surprised they couldn't do it with great accuracy. This part of the void was generally impassible because ordinary navigation and communication systems wouldn't work here. Even the Corps wouldn't have been able to pass through here without Blue and the special ability of her armor. That was why the failure of the Guidance Beacon was such an important issue, as it alone made passage through the area possible. Of course, the Nadirites had to have some secret way of navigating the area. The void was their primary base as they were safe from all pursuit here. But how they managed to navigate was something White didn't know.

"Gold, what's your status?" she asked.

"We're managing." He was back to being gruff. That meant things were going badly. She wasn't surprised. As powerful as the Corps was, they weren't meant for tackling an entire fleet.

"Just in case you were wondering--and don't have anything else on your mind--we've reached the ship," commented Blue.

"Good. Bring it around and fire."

"What?" White had been about to pass into the ship, but now she paused and spoke in amazement. "Gold, you're not going to try to fight that entire fleet. We--"

"The Crystallair isn't powerful enough for that. I know that. But it can fire a shot or two which should be enough to distract them so that we can get safely on board."

White knew she should have trusted Gold's leadership.

The Crystallair was the Corps' ship, specially built for the last incarnation of the Corps and entrusted to this group by Prefect Alkyte. It was a long, narrow ship with a long nose fin and another set of fins near the rear end, making it look like an arrow or an exotic water creature. It was a light ship, built for speed and not for battle, though it did have a few weapons. She passed through the walls of the ship and then phased back to =(0)d once inside. Though for several moments, she was too upset by the transition to do anything, she could see what was going on. Blue had gone to the main panel and began working the controls. Green, becoming visible again, came up beside her and took control of the weapons. Silver, who had entered with them, sat down quietly on a bench that ran along the side of the cabin--as always.

"We can't actually hit them with any force from this distance," Green said with a frown in his voice. "And if we hit them with a weak shot, it may alert them to that fact and make them guess our real intention. But if we fire and miss they won't be able to access the force of the weapon."

"You know, any time you want to stop thinking about shooting and actually shoot--that'd be great. If, you know, you don't have any other important plans for the next thirty seconds."

As normal, Green ignored Blue. White wasn't sure if Green didn't understand her sarcasm or whether he just didn't care. In any case, he paused for another moment and then fired.

By this time, White had recovered. She phased off her helmet and looked at Blue. "Can you see Gold and the others?"

"They're coming."

There was a few moments of tense silence as the four waited for the arrival of their comrades.

"Will they be all right?" asked Silver, raising his head suddenly. It was the first time he had spoken during the entire mission. He had a deep voice, very heavy and sluggish as if from lack of exercise.

"Of course we'll be all right," said Red as he appeared suddenly in the room. The walls of this ship were thin enough that he could enter instantly, using his armor's teleportation ability.

"What about Gold and Black?" asked White, glancing at him.

"We're in the airlock," added Gold, speaking through their communicators. "Green, give another shot at the Nadirite ships to distract them--then Blue, turn the ship around and head out of here as fast as you can."

"Yes, sir." Green had worked out the exact angle for his shot already and now he simply activated the firing mechanism.

Blue watched him and then with a shrug began manipulating the controls of the ship so that it made a circle in the void and shot off away from the Nadirite fleet.

"Are they pursuing, Blue?" asked Gold, as he and Black entered the chamber.

"Apparently they have something better to do with their time. No sign of pursuit."

"Keep up a good rate, just in case. How long will it take us to get back to Centauri City from here?"

"Say an hour absolute time."

"All right. So we failed in this mission, but at least we got out with our lives for what that's worth."

"Well, I'm good with being alive," remarked Black. "It's sort of addicting after you do it awhile."

"And it makes me hungry," added Red. He had phased off his armor and was now rummaging through one of the compartments at the side of the chamber. He pulled out a couple blocks of prefood and started chomping at one.

By now, all of them had phased off their armor except Blue who remained at the control panel. It was only through the unique power of her armor that they had any hope of finding their way back to Centauri City. Silver still remained sitting quietly at the edge of the chamber, his default position when not actually in action. Gold had gone up to the monitors beside the control panels and was looking at some readings--probably making sure they weren't being followed, White thought. Black had also pulled out a brick of prefoood and fed it through the preparation computer. Green sat down at the table and looked in annoyance at Red, who was still munching. "You do realize that food doesn't have any flavor or nutrients yet, since it hasn't been run through the computer. You're basically eating solidified nothing."

Red shrugged. "I like the way it tastes this way better."

"That's not possible." Green's voice rose in pitch as it always did when he got especially annoyed or confused (which were basically the same with Green). "It's scientifically impossible for it have any taste."

"Tastes good to me."

"It may break the rules of science, but breaking rules is what Red does best," said Black, sitting down at the table. She pulled a knife out of her sleeve and, cutting off a piece of food, popped it into her mouth.

For a minute, it looked as if Green was going to push the point, and then he pulled his hat down over his forehead. "Whatever. It's all disgusting anyway."

The group was a motley one. Out of armor, they really had no commonality of appearance except for the matching jackets which Gold had designed. Each member wore one which was colored according their position in the Corps. Besides this, they were all dressed in the fashion of their respective home worlds. The seven members of the Corps came from different places all over Ursa Prime's vast dominions--except Green who was from Draxmoor not Ursa Prime at all. And White, though born in Ursa Prime, had spent most of her life at other points along the fourth dimensional axis. The youngest of the group was Green who was about thirteen, while Silver had to be eighteen or even nineteen, though White didn't know for sure.

Black popped another piece of food into her mouth. "So what's our status exactly, chief?"

Gold turned back to them. "There is no status. We failed. We have to go back to Centauri City and report to the Prefect. We'll just have to see what he says--after he gets done chewing us out over our failure."

White couldn't imagine Prefect Alkyte chewing out anyone no matter how badly they had failed. And in this case, it really wasn't their fault. But she knew it wouldn't do any good to say any of that out loud.

"It'll be good to get back to the old home turf." (Black had lived her whole life on the streets of Centauri City before she joined the Corps.) "You think the Prefect will send us back here?"

"He'll have to." Green adjusted his hat again. "So long as the Guidance Beacon remains inactive, there can be no transit between Ursa Prime and the Altayra System."

Red had already finished one block of food and was now working on the next. "Who cares? Ursa Prime doesn't really need anything from a back-corner of the Cosmos like the Altayra System."

Green narrowed his eyes. "First of all, Altayra is more important than you might think, and second of all, Altayra is the link between Ursa Prime and Draxmoor--and Draxmoor is the most important ally Ursa Prime has."

"Well, then we'll just have to fight them, I guess. Yeah! Those Nadirites won't have a ghost of a chance--"

"That reminds me," said White abruptly. Even she never felt bad about interrupting Red. Sometimes it was the only way to get anything said. "When I first entered the Nadirite ship, one of the guards saw me and said something along the lines of 'this place really is haunted.' Why would the Nadirites expect their own ship to be haunted?"

Green adjusted his hat again. There were two distinctive things about Green in general appearance. One, of course, was his pale green skin and hair. The other was his hat, which he tended to fiddle with whenever he was thinking. It was the kind of hat known a millennium before as a 'baseball cap.' It had gone out of and come back into fashion inexplicably several times in the interim. It had gone out again about twenty years before, but Green wore his almost constantly. White had never seen Green without the hat somewhere on his person--and he had a sort of nervous habit of fiddling with it when he talked. "He was most likely referring not to the ship, but to the Altayra System. It has been named the Haunted Galaxy by some travelers."

White frowned. "That's illogical."

"Yeah, who believes in ghosts anymore?" asked Red.

"That's not what I meant. There is nothing illogical about believing in ghosts. Not that I do," she added quickly. She had found that because she believed so many things that the others didn't, they were inclined to think she believed everything they didn't. "What doesn't make sense is calling it a galaxy. I mean, Altayra's realm is very small--only, what?, four planets? Why call it the Haunted Galaxy?"

"The Haunted Star System didn't sound as cool?" Black suggested.

"Technically, it's not a star system either." Green always had a penchant for accuracy.

"What do you mean?" Gold took a step forward and for the first time since the fiasco seemed more like his normal self.

"Altayra doesn't have a central star."

All six of the others started slightly, even Silver who didn't usually react to things that the others said. "How is that possible?" asked White.

Green pulled his hat down over forehead. "I guess we'll get all the details when we actually get there."

"If we get there," observed Gold, a little moodily.

Green pushed back from the table. "Sir, can I be dismissed?"

Gold nodded. "You can all be at ease--except Blue. There's nothing more any of us can do until we get back to Centauri City."

Green turned and walked out of the cabin without another word.

Red and Black were still eating, but White moved away and, after a moment, exited the chamber. She wanted a chance to be alone. She knew Green would probably have locked himself in the viewing room, his usual retreat. She pressed her hand again the force shield in the doorway just to make sure, but when it didn't yield to her touch, she turned away and headed towards the medical bay. She could usually count on not being disturbed there.

Though The Crystallair was a small ship, it was full outfitted and was more than spacious for the needs of the Corps. Besides necessities like the seven sleeping chambers and the control cabin (which also served as the main gathering place for the Corps), there was also a medical bay, the viewing room, a training chamber, and several other features, so that the Corps had everything they needed. After all, the ship was their only real base and their home.

In the medical bay, White walked to the wall and activated a control, so that the wall seemed to fade away, giving her a panoramic view of dark star-studded void beyond. It wasn't as good of a view as she could have gotten from the viewing room, but it was good enough. Of course, it was only as simulation. They were traveling by relative space, making it impossible to see anything in the conventional sense even if it weren't for the fact that here in the void you couldn't see that much clearly anyway. Still, it was something.

She stared out at the darkness, trying to focus her thoughts. Being part of the Corps was still a new experience for her--for all of them. It was a massive responsibility, but they all seemed to have adjusted to bearing it. It was an interesting group--seven youths gathered from across the universe, gathered from very different backgrounds--seven people who, under other circumstances, would probably have never met, let alone worked together.

She didn't know all about the backgrounds of the others. Gold's rule from the beginning was that none of them needed to talk about themselves unless they wanted to. So, for instance, she knew nothing about Silver or Green except that they both came from fairly primitive, out-of-the-way places, and both were orphans. Blue, on the other hand, was from the city of Ursa Prime itself where her family was rather wealthy and influential. Black was from Centauri City, a place on the very boarder of Ursa Prime's authority and almost a world all to itself. She had lived on the streets and had been part of a criminal gang until she reformed and had been offered pardon and a position in the Corps by Prefect Alkyte. Red was from the Kastorian System, a small but prosperous part of Ursa Prime's dominion. His father was the hereditary ruler of the system, and Red, as his oldest child, would eventually succeed him.

And then there was her. She was without family, like Black, Silver, and Green. Her first memories were of the virtual orphanage where she had lived the first five years of her life. And then she had been rescued from there and adopted by the Tremonsirs. The Tremonsirs were an order of monks based in -(1)d who traveled up and down along the fourth dimensional axis by means of their phase-ships, striving to right the wrongs of whatever world they encountered. The Tremonsirs had adopted her and trained her, both as a pilot and as a warrior. But it was more than that.

And that was the thing that made her most different from the others. She stared out at the darkness. To the others, that's all they would have seen. Darkness. A world without meaning or structure. But she--she saw something more. She saw the hand of God. For she was a Believer. Though she had broken with the Tremonsirs, unable to accept all the practices and beliefs of their monastic way, she had not abandoned the faith they had taught her, faith in the Creator; faith in the Redeemer. She knew it seemed strange to her teammates, as to many people across the Cosmos--to pin one's faith and build one's life around the life and death of a Man who lived thousands of years ago on a planet buried in a forgotten galaxy. But she knew it was more than that. He was not dead.

She stared out at the darkness, softly repeating the words of one of the Tremonsirs' battle hymns. "Lord of armies, God of peace/May your kingdom never cease/Grant us courage in the strife/God of victory, Lord of life./Through the Heavens as we soar/May your blessing through us pour/To teach all systems, rich and poor,/Christ is living evermore."

She had gotten this far when a slight sound behind her told her that she was not alone. She turned quickly to see Gold standing in the doorway. "Can we talk?" he asked.

She nodded. She had rather suspected Gold would seek her out before they reached Centauri City. As his second-in-command, she was used to these conversations. As he moved across the room towards her, she took a moment to take stock of him. She and he were alike in that both were seventeen and both were somewhat tall for their age. And both had hair as black as the dark void outside.

Gold walked with a certain confidence, a confidence which in some boys of his age would have seemed arrogance but in Gold seemed natural and unconscious. He had a broad-shouldered, muscular build yet not so extreme so as to destroy the symmetry of his figure or to make his movements slow or awkward. As usual, he wore his gold jacket open and hanging over his shoulders. Under this, he wore a flight suit of a somewhat more subdued tone, though still gold in color. His jet black hair was cut short and spiked so that it pointed in various directions, without seeming chaotic or disorderly. Or perhaps it just seemed so well-ordered to White because she knew that no matter what happened to him, it always remained exactly the same.

Even though, in some ways, she knew Gold better than any of the other members of the Corps, she really didn't know that much about his background. He came from Diaster City--not the most important outpost of Ursa Prime, but also far from the least important. She knew he had family, but she didn't know much about them. And she knew that he trained and planned his whole life to be a soldier--but more than that, he had trained and planned his whole life to lead the Corps. Not that there was anything so strange in that. She knew that kids all over the Cosmos dreamed of being part of the Corps. Still, Gold had made his dream a reality.

He walked across the room and sat down on the bed which formed part of the diagnostic computer.

"So," he said after a brief moment of silence, "what exactly is our status regarding the Matrix? Do you have any idea what's wrong with it?"

White sighed. She had had a feeling he was going to ask her something like that. She turned around from the screen and sat down in the chair adjacent to him. "Even though the Matrix was created over a millennium ago, the science behind it far surpasses anything we know now. When it comes to knowing what happened to it or how we can fix it--there's really no way even to guess."

"You were worried about the Matrix last time we activated it. Do you think--?"

"The power levels were unstable. But that could have been due merely to our inexperience with using the Matrix--or a variety of other reasons. But today--today was different. I won't say there couldn't be a connection, but it's different."

"What will it mean if we don't have access to the Matrix?"

"Aside from not being able to use it as our trump card, it also means that our armor no longer as the power to repair itself."

"So we can function without it, but it will make things more difficult." Gold spoke calmly, with no hint of his previous bitterness.

For a long moment, there were both silent, and then Gold smiled, just slightly. "You're wanting to ask me, aren't you?"

White pulled back slightly. She was the one who was supposed to be able to read people's emotions and guess what they were thinking. Gold couldn't do it with most people, but somehow he had an uncanny knack when it came to reading her. "So what is it that I'm wanting to ask?" she asked, a little cagey.

"Why I sent Silver to escort Blue."

White had to smile. "You're right. That was bothering me. Silver's our best fighter in a close-up battle, but he really couldn't do anything to protect her from a long range attack--none of us could. In fact, having Silver with her may have been a disadvantage as it made her more conspicuous. If anyone, I would have thought of Red. At least he has a long range weapon."

"Yeah, but after his stunt this morning, I'm not in the mood to give him a lot of responsibility. But anyway, I was afraid it might not be just a long range fight." He phased on his armor momentarily and then handed something to White. (One of the additional perks of the Corps' armor was the ability to utilize +(1)d as a sort of pocket to hold things. Though this was where they stored their armor when not in use, they could also use it to store other things as well.) "This was the energy packs one of the Nadirites was wearing. Notice anything strange about it?"

White took the object. Energy packs were fairly common weapons among the Nadirites and others who wanted firepower without many resources. It looked essentially like a large metal box, worn over the back like a backpack. The kinetic energy stored in it was not that powerful, but it could be converted for a variety of purposes. It was a simple weapon but decently useful. Still, as she looked at it, it did strike her that there was something unusual about it. "This has too many terminals. It wasn't meant just as a simple weapon."

"Have you ever seen an energy pack like this one before?"

She turned the pack over in her hand for a moment and then spoke slowly: "A power suit. That's what this is supposed to go with."

"Exactly. It's meant to provide energy for a power suit and act as the basis of it weapons system. It's not exactly like the energy pack you would normally use with a power suit, but that's definitely what it's for--it's as if they were trying to improvise or experiment."

"We've never seen the Nadirites use power suits."

"No, but they seem pretty good at stealing Ursa Prime's technology. When I saw this, I thought they might have power suits--that's why I wanted Silver there to protect Blue if she were ambushed by them. And though we never did see any, it seems clear that at the very least, they're working at developing them--even if they don't have them already."

White placed her hands together. "Power suits. That's the closest which known technology can come to replicating the power of our armor."

"Um-hum. And they had the ability to perform a target lock on your armor in a matter of seconds. And Erybus had a weapon capable of knocking us all back. All of which adds up to one thing."

"They were expecting us--they knew we were coming."

"Exactly. But nobody knew about our mission except ourselves and the Prefect."

"No." White stood up and began to pace the room. "But it wouldn't take much for them to guess that we were coming. They would know that Ursa Prime would have to investigate the deactivation of the Guidance Beacon--and it's public knowledge we were in the area. It would be a safe bet that we would be sent to investigate."

Gold stood up also and came to stand behind her. "But that just brings up another question--because it almost seems as if they were preparing for us for some time--since before the Guidance Beacon was deactivated. So, did the Nadirites have something to do whatever happened to the Guidance Beacon?"

White placed her hand on her chin and stared out at the darkness of space, still displayed on the wall. "Considering that there is such a large Nadirite force here, we can't ignore that possibility."

"Without that beacon, all traffic between Draxmoor and Ursa Prime is impossible. What exactly does that mean?"

"That's something you'd have to take up with Green." Draxmoor was the second biggest power in the Cosmos (at least in =(0)d); really, the only other power worth talking about. For hundreds of years, Ursa Prime and Draxmoor had been at tension and occasionally at open war. However, about twenty years before, they had united to fight a common enemy--the Legion--which had threatened to destroy the entire human race. This had forged bonds between the two powers, which were strengthened now as both had to fight the Nadirites, a political, terrorist cult bent on destroying all governments and organized societies. "I know we get some imports from Draxmoor, but I don't know exactly what."

Gold turn on his heal and walked across the room. White couldn't help noticing the way he walked. Even though she knew he had doubts about the present situation, he walked coolly and with complete confidence. She had seen him in many different moods, but it never seemed to affect his stance or carriage. "Well, I'll just have to report all of this to the Prefect and see what he makes of it. If you have a chance to study that energy pack a little more, it might provide some useful intel." He paused and turned at the doorway. "And keep thinking about Erybus. You've had the widest experience of the world of any of us. See if you can think of anything that might give us a hint about exactly what kind of weapon Erybus used on us."

He walked out of the room. White stared for a moment after him, but she didn't see him. A thought had just struck her. She remembered where she had seen that weird flickering affect--the affect that had been created by Erybus's mysterious weapon. It was something she had seen once in -(5)d while on a mission there with the Tremonsirs. If there was a connection, then she knew what Erybus's weapon was. But that possibility was something she wasn't even sure she wanted to think about.

Besides, there would be time to think about that later. She glanced up at the screen and saw that it was no longer dotted only with distant stars. There was something else displayed, coming closer. It was the giant clear dome which protected Centauri City from the abyss of space.

White didn't particularly like Centauri City. It was a dark, crowded place, filled with unsavory characters. It was an isolated city on the very edge of Ursa Prime's authority, and because of this, it was almost like another world. Even the Ursa Prime Patrol Force could do little to bring law and order to the city. Not that White was afraid of it. After all, she had visited far worse places both with the Tremonsirs and with the Corps. Still, she didn't like it.

But they probably wouldn't be there long. If the Prefect didn't decide to send them back to the Altayra System, he would likely have some other mission for them. And even if he didn't, there were a few side projects she knew Gold wanted to work on. She remembered Green's comment that he thought the Nadirites' photon disrupters had been obtained from a black market arms dealer working out of this area. That was one of the things Gold had been wanting to investigate for a while. And if there was a connection to the Nadirites, it would become even more important now.

She deactivated the display on the wall and exited the chamber. Returning to the main control room, she walked up behind Blue, who had phased off her armor now. "Do you want a break from piloting?" she asked. They were close enough to Centauri City now that it was a simple matter to pilot the ship the rest of the way. Blue's unique ability was no longer necessary for navigation.

"No, I'm fine with doing intense concentration for long periods of time without rest," answered Blue without looking up.

There were moments when even White couldn't follow Blue's sarcasm, but since she moved a way from the controls after she delivered this statement, White guessed that the answer was yes, she wanted a break.

The Crystallair was fairly easy to pilot, and any of the Corps could do it, though Blue and White were best at it.

As White took the controls, Blue walked over to the rations compartment and pulled out a block of prefood and stuck it into the preparation computer. "I don't suppose you'd be hungry at all, Silver, seeing that you haven't eaten since this morning," she commented without turning around.

"I--" began Silver a little helplessly. Blue always had the affect on him.

She pulled the block out of the computer and tossed it to him. "You'll probably still be hungry after you eat that, but at least your stomach won't growl quite as loudly any more." She stuck another block into the computer for herself.

"Thank-you." Silver bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment and then began breaking off very small pieces of the block and placing them slowly into his mouth.

White mentally chided herself for not offering Silver food earlier. He was so quiet that she had a tendency to forget about him. Unlike the others, he seemed unwilling to eat unless someone explicitly offered food to him. For that matter, Silver tended not to do anything unless someone else brought him to the point.

"How close are we to landing?" asked Gold as he walked up behind White.

"Five minutes absolute time."

"Good. Hopefully we won't be here long."

"No time to see the sights, chief?" Black had also re-entered the room, close behind Gold.

"I've seen as much of Centauri City as I want to," he answered as he walked across and sat down at one of the many computer terminals which formed the ship's control hub. He activated a few controls. White guessed he was connecting to the Centauri City Communications Center and using it to send a message to Alpha Base. He confirmed her thought a few seconds later as he leaned back and commented, "Now it's just a matter of waiting for the Prefect to get time to answer."

As the leader of the entire Ursa Prime Patrol Force, Prefect Alkyte was a busy man. Coordinating all the military and constabulary defenses of Ursa Prime was a big job ,and even though he always seemed willing to take the time to talk personally with the Corps, White knew it might be a while before he had a chance to contact them--especially as the matter, though important, was far from an emergency.

"And, no," said Gold after a second as if answering a question, "we're not going to break ship until I get an answer. He may want us to make some kind of move immediately, and I don't want to have to try to track everyone down. Besides, I don't want to risk any of you being lose in Centauri City on your own anyway."

Black leaned back in her chair and cocked her head. "Chief, has anyone ever told you that you're really straight-laced for a soldier type?"

Gold didn't bother turning around to answer: "You say that like it's a bad thing."

"We've touched down," said White, turning from the controls.

Gold stood up and glanced around. "We can't do much until the Prefect gets back to us. But there are a few things from that battle earlier I'd like to go over while we've got the chance." Though the Corps' communicators were built into their armor, they also could use them indirectly while not in armor. Gold made use of this feature now. "Green, can you join us in the control room?"

"I'll be right there, sir," came Green's voice. He had entered the room almost before Gold had started his next message. "Red, come to the control room. Red?" He frowned and glanced around. "Anybody know what Red's doing?"

"He's probably asleep," suggested White. Red had a tendency of napping at the strangest times.

Black shook her head. "No, he's awake. I was beating him at SpaceDragons just before I came in here."

The one commonality between Black and Red was their shared love of virtualgames.

"You know where he was?"

"I suppose he was hooked up from his room, but I don't know for sure."

"Well, I can't raise him now. He's communicator isn't responding."

Blue sighed and phased on her armor. "I know you'll think to ask me eventually, so I'll save you the trouble." She paused for a moment. "He's not on board ship."

"WHAT! Are you serious?" Gold spun to stare at her.

She phased off her armor. "No. I merely talk for the sake of hearing myself speak."

White frowned in puzzlement. "That's not possible. We just landed. He couldn't have gotten off the ship already. No, wait--his teleportation ability? Of course, he could have gotten out of the ship with that, but--but why?"

There was a moment of silence. Black glanced around and shook her head. "Um, we're talking about Red, remember? This is exactly the sort of thing he'd do."

Gold slammed the bottom of his fist against the wall. "It's idiotic."

"Yeah--and as I said, we are talking about Red here."

"Of all the places--of all the times--" Gold's frown was deepening, and he made a growling sound in the back of his throat. "Not today of all days."

"I suppose we're going to have to track him down?" Black stretched. "I was hoping we wouldn't have to do anything more today. I feel beat."

"So will Red when I get my hands on him."

White felt sure that Black had intentionally set that one up.

"The rest of you stay here." Gold's face was dark with anger as he phased on his armor. "I'll go find him."

White spoke quietly but with decision. "No."

"What?" He turned to glance at her, phasing off his helmet.

She paused for a moment. "With all due respect, it would be better if you sent someone else."

"Red has to answer to me for going AWOL."

"Which is exactly why you shouldn't be the one to go looking for him. And, besides," she added after a slight pause, "you need to be here in case the Prefect contacts us."

Gold couldn't argue with her, though he clearly didn't like it. For a moment, she thought he was just going to ignore her advice, but suddenly he phased off his armor--and his anger, though not gone, seemed to solidify into decision. "White, take Blue and Black and find him."

"Why us?" asked Blue.

"Finding things is your specialty; Black knows Centauri City best of any of us; and I can trust White not to do anything stupid, which is more than I can say for anyone else on this team right now. Silver, follow them from a distance just in case anything goes wrong. This is Centauri City, after all. If White gives you a signal, come in and follow her instructions."

Silver unfolded himself from his place and bowed his head in acknowledgment of the order. "I will do my best," he said simply.

"Green, I want you to do some research for me while they're gone. At least it won't be completely wasted time."

"I like how you can get away with contradicting Gold," commented Black as the three girls exited the ship. Only Blue was in armor.

White decided not to answer that. She didn't like having to argue with Gold, but she also knew that if he tried to track down Red ,it would be entirely counterproductive. Red was a little afraid of Gold--which, generally speaking, was the only thing that kept him in line, but at this moment it would more likely drive him away than anything else. "Do you have a fix on him, Blue?"

"I know exactly where he is. I just thought I'd wander around aimlessly for a while to make things interesting."

White nodded and suppressed her desire to frown. Blue and Black weren't exactly the two she would have chosen for companions on a mission like this, but Gold's choice made logical sense.

"Might want to keep that armor off as much as possible," advised Black. They had passed out of the spaceport into the city proper now. "It makes us pretty conspicuous and in this town that's not necessarily a good thing." She pulled her knife out of the sleeve of her jacket, threw it behind her back, and caught it again.

"Because juggling knives will definitely make us less conspicuous."

"I just want to have it where I can get it easily."

Though the city was artificial, it did not look unlike an ordinary city in appearance. The most distinctive mark about it was the darkness. It was always night or at least dusk in Centauri City. Because it hung in the void so far from any star, artificial lighting units had been installed throughout the top of the dome which protected the city--but they were very poor lights and most of the time functioned at about ten percent efficiency. At no time were they able to dispel the darkness very much. There were other lights from the buildings along the streets of course, of course, but it still always seemed like night, regardless of the time of day.

"Unless you just want to wander around here all day, we might try going this way," said Blue, turning left suddenly and phasing off her armor. "But we're still not very close."

"Red has too much of a start on us," agreed White. He had probably used the power of his armor to cover the ground quickly. Even though he could only teleport short distances, there was no limit to how many times he could teleport in a row, so he had probably used this to travel across the city. "But if he stops..."

"Of course he'll stop," answered Black, who was still playing with her knife. Or maybe this was a different knife. White wasn't sure. Black usually had at least four knives hidden on her person somewhere. "Look, if no one else is going to say this out loud, I will. It's not as if we don't know what Red's after. It's not like this has never happened before. He's going to look for some people he can impress, especially, for some girls he can flirt with, and probably something to drink. In other words, he's looking for a good time. But that's a lot harder than it looks in this town."

"You're probably right," White admitted. As Black said, this wasn't the first time something like this had happened with Red--though he had never gone actually AWOL before. Even though the Corps was only a quasi-military organization and not under the official rules of protocol, this was still a serious matter.

Black stopped and glanced around. "And if that's what he's looking for, he probably will have come to this part of town. You have a more exact fix on him yet, Little Girl Blue?"

"In case you didn't notice, you told me to phase off my armor, which means I can't track him at all now." She paused and phased on her armor for just a matter of seconds. "But he's still in this general direction."

White glanced around behind her. "Silver, are you still following us?" she asked, speaking into her communicator.

"I am," he answered quietly. "Do you have any orders? And should I follow more closely?"

"No." White smiled slightly in surprise. That was the most she had heard Silver say at one time in a while. He had definitely opened up since he joined the Corps. He was speaking in complete sentences now. Occasionally, he even volunteered dialog without being spoken to. "Just keep following."

Blue phased on her armor again for just an instant and changed direction slightly. "I'm sure you're more interested in other things right now, but we're getting closer to him."

"Good." White didn't ask how she knew. She really didn't understand how Blue's armor worked--it was enough for her to know that it did work. And that it did work she had seen for herself many times. "How close?"

Blue shrugged. "Too close."

"Hey, we're almost to my old turf," commented Black. "Hope we don't run into any of my old gang around here. That could get real awkward real quick."

White pressed her lips together. For some reason she couldn't quite explain, she was getting nervous. Not that there wasn't some reason to be nervous. Centauri City was not a good place at its best, and they had come to part of it which was not the best (though it was also certainly far from the worst). Of course, there wasn't too much danger for them--not while they had the ability to summon their armor. So long as no one surprised them before they could phase it on, of course. White tried to force her nervousness to calm. A good soldier does not allow their feelings to interfere with their duty. As man does not allow the wind to direct his path, so a man does not allow his emotions to direct his life--though a man does walk best when the wind is at his back. That was how she had been trained. And usually she was good at following the training. But this day had been filled with so many unexpected reversals that she couldn't help but be a little nervous.

"Let me guess. This is the place?"

Black's words brought White back to the business at hand. They were on a rather wide street, but darker than most. However, some darkness was dispelled by the light from a building along the one side. Well, building wouldn't be quite the right word. It was more like an open courtyard. (Since there was no weather inside the dome of Centauri City, full buildings were more rare than in a conventional city.) It was crowded with people--people of a rough and somewhat unkempt type--gathered around small tables. White could clearly catch the distinctive armor of Alq. (Alq was a non-organic chemical similar in affects to alcohol, though milder in most forms. It was the only behavior-modifying drug legal in Ursa Prime.) In other words, the place was a bar. And at the back of the room, Red sat at a table with a cup in one hand and block of prefood in the other. He wasn't wearing his jacket and so there was nothing distinctive about him except his clothing and his pony-tail, both of which clearly marked him as a native of the Kastorian System. There was a crowd around him, but White thought their mood was more tense than might be explained by the circumstances.

"Definitely the kind of place where I was hoping to spend my evening," commented Blue laconically. She spoke in a low voice, so as not to attract the attention of the people inside.

"Definitely the kind of place where a kid like Red is likely to get his throat slit," added Black. "But he shouldn't play these kind of games if he isn't willing to take the risks."

"Is he in any danger?"

"Probably. I don't like the vibe I'm picking up all the way over here. Probably Red is getting under everyone's skin here just like he does with us. But the people that hang out in a place like this don't have the self-restraint we do."

"Then we'd better get him out of here. We don't want any unnecessary trouble."

"And he's going to be so anxious to go back with us."

White knew Blue was being sarcastic, but she thought that really Red might be ready to leave with them. Even from this distance, she thought she could pick up a note of nervousness in his posture.

"Then let's go." Black strode across the street and into the lighted courtyard with Blue behind her. White was following when Gold's voice came over her communicator. "White, status report."

"We've found him." She spoke quietly. "We should be back in a matter of minutes."

"Good. I made contact with the Prefect. He took things pretty calmly. He said there were some things he had to check into, and then he'd give us our orders. So try to get back as soon as you can."

"Check. Over and out."

White had stopped when Gold called her, but she hadn't lost track of her surroundings. Black and Blue had made their way through the crowd almost to Red, who looked a little relieved to see them. "Hey, girls," he said, pushing back from the table as far as he could. He couldn't push it back very far as a bulky figure was standing directly behind him.

"So pretty-boy has some really pretty friends," commented the man with a laugh.

"You would definitely be an expert at that." Blue's sarcasm sounded a little more pointed than usual. White wasn't sure if she was masking her feelings or showing them.

"He's been telling us what a big-shot he is. It was getting boring fast--but now I think the day is getting interesting."

"Yeah." Another of the figures sitting at Red's table pushed back and stood up. "Now I think we're going to have real fun."

Black face-palmed. "You guys are almost as bad at dialog as he is."

"Hey!" Red tried to stand up, but the young man behind him pushed his chair forward, pinning him to the table.

White knew things were about to get out of hand--get very, very out of hand. Still, even though she hadn't wanted there to be any trouble, she wasn't worried especially. All they had to do was phase on their armor and there wasn't a single thing anyone there could do to hurt them. At least, she highly doubted there was anyone in a place like this with a weapon powerful enough to challenge the Corps.

White had cybernetic implants in the back of her head. They had been given to her in order to cure the rare degenerative nerve condition with which she had been born, but they had the added benefit of slightly boosting her natural intelligence. This allowed her to process data more quickly than most people. So, for instance, at that moment she was mainly concentrating on the drama unfolding before her. But she also noted other things going on around here. For instance, the figure in the hoodie who was standing along the side of the street a few buildings up. He was facing away from her and seemed unaware of everything behind him. She probably wouldn't have thought much about him at all if it weren't for the large mechog standing beside him. It was unusual to see such a large animal inside of town. It came almost to his waist. It was a fine specimen with an unusually glistening metal coat.

And then the figure in the hoodie reached out his hand and patted the metal back of the animal, almost as if petting it. But the hand was also metal, of almost the same silver color.

A prosthetic hand, composed of a 10% Syrian aluminum, 90% unknown metal. The fingers were not formed with the same versatility of an ordinary hand or even an ordinary prosthetic, making it more like a stump than an actual hand. It was a hand that White knew very well. And she knew exactly whom it belonged to.

And it was the last person in the Cosmos she wanted to see, especially at that moment.