Friday, February 24, 2017

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?"

"No."

"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...

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