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.

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