Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 7


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] After a variety of setbacks and unexpected battles, we had finally arrived at our destination, the planet of Altayra Rex, where we were to meet with the government to discover the reason for the Guidance Beacon's deactivation. Arriving at the palace of Altayra Rex, Red struck up a conversation with a mysterious girl in the courtyard, when suddenly we were confronted by two very angry men, who informed us that this girl was none other than the ruler of the Altayra System.

The man's words hung in the air for a moment, and for once even Gold seemed a little nonplussed. Whatever they had expected, it wasn't this. To everyone's surprise, it was Red who recovered first. He phased off his armor and, in the same movement, dropped to one knee before the girl. “Your highness, we bring you greetings from Ursa Prime and beg your pardon for our accidental impropriety.”

“Red actually knows words like that?” said Black in surprise.

Gold glared at her but didn't have time to respond.

Princess Valencia smiled demurely at Red's actions, yet she also seemed pleased. White wasn't surprised that with Red's background, he would know the proper thing to do under the circumstances--even though, generally speaking, doing the proper thing wasn't Red's strong point.

“You are not the one that owes an apology.” Valencia narrowed her eyes slightly. “Zortan?” Her voice was still quiet and demure, but there was a clear note of command to it.

One of the two sages moved forward and bowed to Gold. “I apologize for our brashness. Of course, as representatives of Ursa Prime, it is our desire to extend to you every possible courtesy.”

“We simply didn't expect our meeting to happen under these circumstances,” added the other man.

“Exactly, Rothmar. We were not expecting a visit from the Corps--certainly not here or now.”

White had already made a fairly complete profile of the two men. Though they were identically dressed in formal black robes, they were not very similar in appearance. Zortan--who was clearly in some sense the superior of the two--was a tall man with pale skin, sharp, angular features, and a very prominent bridge to his nose. His jet black hair fell in short bangs over his high forehead, striking a strangely youthful and careless contrast to his more austere expression. Rothmar was nearly three inches shorter, with a more stalky build. While his hair was also black, it was short and bushy, reminding White of some kind of shrub. His eyebrows were also dark and heavy and jutted ominously out from under his forehead. When he spoke, his voice was much lower than Zortan's and had a certain coarseness to it.

“No apology is needed,” answered Gold, a little stiffly, bowing slightly. Red had stood up again by this point, and now all seven members of the Corps stood in a row facing the three Altayrans.

Princess Valencia glanced questioningly at the two sages and then at Gold. “But what brings representatives of Ursa Prime here to the Altayra System?” She smiled. “You come in peace, I hope?”

Rothmar scowled suddenly, and the expression gave a strange, dark, bestial note to his face. “Surely Ursa Prime is not interested in exploiting our resources.”

“Of course not,” Gold spoke quickly and with a slight note of surprise. “We have come because of the Guidance Beacon.”

“The Guidance Beacon?” repeated Princess Valencia, curiously. “So you have some business with it? Then what brings you here to Altayra Rex? This is not the planet on which it is located.”

“We were sent here to find out if you knew of the reason for its deactivation?”

“What?” Zortan and Rothmar spoke in unison and then glance at each other.

“The Guidance Beacon is inactive?” asked Zortan, placing two of his fingers on the bridge of his nose, as if expecting to pull out some kind of explanation. White couldn't help thinking that he must do this often and that it was responsible for the pronounced shape of his nose.

Princess Valencia placed her head on one side, quizzically. “But how is that possible?”

“So you are saying you didn't know that?” pressed Gold.

“Hey, of course they didn't know,” Red interrupted. “Do you think they'd lie to us?”

“Well, somebody's awfully defensive all of a sudden,” remarked Black.

Gold narrowed his eyes and threw her a glance and then turned back to the Altayrans. “Three days ago, Centauri City lost contact with the Guidance Beacon, meaning that it had in someway been rendered inactive. We were in the area, and so we were sent to investigate, since one of our members has the ability to navigate the Void without the aid of the Guidance Beacon--although things turned out to be more complicated than that,” he added in a lower voice.

“But that makes no sense.” Princess Valencia was frowning now. The expression seemed somehow to make her appearance more striking than otherwise. “We have workers posted on Altayra Vorphintus in order to maintain the Guidance Beacon and prevent ordinary wear-and-tear. If something were wrong, they would have contacted us. Could it be that somehow the beacon's signals are simple not penetrating the Void?”

Gold glanced at Green. “Is that possible?”

Green had his hat pulled down low over his forehead and was staring at the ground. “Theoretically, yes,” he answered after a pause. He seemed annoyed and disgusted by the question. “But it's extremely unlikely because of the nature of the Guidance Beacon--because of what it is and how it works, nearly any other explanation is more probable than that its signals simply aren't getting through. After all, it's designed for the sole purpose of penetrating through the Void.”

“Then--what--” Valencia seemed truly concerned and puzzled.

Rothmar and Zortan glanced at each other again. “There's only one explanation,” commented Rothmar, in such a low voice that White wondered if anyone else even heard him.

Zortan nodded and then glanced at Valencia. “Your highness, I'm sure there is nothing more in this conversation to interest you. Just a few technical matters to clear up. And besides, the time is growing late, and you will be needed inside.”

“But--” The princess seemed far from happy with this interruption and also seemed just a trifle confused by it.

“Keisai!” Zortan turned away and called out the word sharply, like a command. Apparently it was, for a moment or two later, a young man appeared from the building to their right and came across the courtyard to them. “Keisai, if you would escort her highness inside...?”

The man bowed. “Of course, m'lord.”

“Of course,” repeated Princess Valencia, in a rather flat voice, as she turned towards the man.

White assumed Keisai must be the man's name. He was a striking man--slightly above average height, lean but muscular. His hair was a burnished yellow and fell to his shoulders. His skin and features were almost unbelievably perfect in composition and design, almost too perfect to be true. White couldn't help wondering if he wore make-up. As far as physical appearance was concerned, he was fitting to be the consort of the princess, but the way Zortan addressed him--and the fact that he was barefoot and wore only a simple white tunic--made White assume he must be a servant of some kind.

Without another word, the princess fell into step beside Keisai and the two walked away and vanished into the building.

“So that is the palace, I take it?” remarked Gold, after a moment of awkward silence.

“That building is her highness's residence, while the other--” he nodded to their left-- “is the seat of the government.”

“What about that big building back there?” asked Black, motioning to the structure above them in the face of the mountain.

“That is the Temple of Ice,” answered Rothmar, a little shortly. “It is--”

“It is a sacred place to our people,” Zortan finished.

“Oh.” Gold seemed to find that answer a little unexpected but he didn't push the point. “Anyway, about the Guidance Beacon...”

Zortan took a step forward. “I apologize for the delay. I did not wish to speak of this in front of her highness. There is no need to cause her worry unnecessarily. But...”

“But there may be an explanation,” added Rothmar. “A reason why our men haven't reported this problem--whatever the problem is.”

Gold nodded. “And that is?”

“They're gone.” Rotham said the words in a hard, matter-of-fact voice.

“Gone?” Gold, White, and Green repeated the word almost in unison, though in very different tones. For almost the first time since they had reached Altayra Rex, Green looked up and pushed his hat back a little on his head. “Define 'gone,'” he said.

“Gone where?” asked Black, at almost the same moment.

Rothmar only shrugged.

Gold frowned. “By 'gone' you mean they've deserted their post?”

Once again, Rothmar only shrugged.

With one abrupt, almost savage motion, Green pushed hat back so far it would have fallen to the ground if he hadn't still had his armor on. “That doesn't make any sense. What are you trying say?”

Zortan gave a rather forced smile. “Pardon our ambiguity. The problem is that we simply do not know.”

Green didn't seem satisfied. “You suggested an explanation for the absence of your men from the Guidance Beacon. That implies you do in fact have some idea beyond simple ignorance.”

Rothmar frowned angrily and he took a step forward, clenching one fist. “Why, you--”

“Rothmar!” Zortan turned towards him with a glare that would have stopped anyone in their tracks. “Remember that these are our guests. Besides, their confusion is understandable.” He turned back to the Corps. “Allow me to explain. On your way here, did you notice the large, half-finished building on the edge of town?”

“Now that you mention it, yes, I did,” White answered thoughtfully. None of the others spoke--she suspected none of them had noticed it.

“Did you think it strange that such a large construction project should be unmanned?”

“It did not occur to me at the time. But thinking of it now--”

“We were building a new storehouse--we had large crew of men working on it. Three days ago, I went down to inspect the work, and when I got there--” he paused and then shrugged-- “there was no one there. Every single man working on the project had simply vanished.”

The words hung in the air for a moment. Whatever the Corps had thought Zortan was working up to, it wasn't that. And then something happened that was almost as surprising--Silver was the first to break the silence.

“You mean to say,” he began, awkwardly, “that they ran away?”

Zortan scowled for just a second. “That seems unlikely. It's not as if they were slaves. They were free workers and were being well-paid for their work. But, in truth, I can't tell you what happened. Their families knew nothing about their disappearance. Witnesses have testified that work did begin that morning--so we know that sometime during the course of the day, they simply--vanished. We have not been able to find a trace of them anywhere within the Altayra System.”

Green pulled his hat back on. “That seems incredible.”

“You're awfully skeptical,” growled Rothmar, glowering at Green.

“Well, so were we at first. But there it is.” Zortan pressed the bridge of his nose again. “Unfortunately, this is not the only case of this. There are reports of several other cases in which a group of people simply vanished--without warning and without explanation.”

“Have they all been groups of workers?” asked Gold.

“Usually, but in at least one case, it was just a group of ordinary people from a village on Altayra Li.”

“And has it always been groups--not just single individuals?”

“Yes. At least, we have no reports of any isolated disappearances, though that would not cause as much of a stir and so might not reach our ears as soon.”

Black was showing great restraint, in that she hadn't produced any knives yet, but that was about as far as she could go. “So your people have been just disappearing, and you've done what about it?”

Again, Zortan scowled for just an instant. “We have been at a loss as to what to do. Also, you must understand, we did not truly understand and believe the scope of this, until the disappearance in town which, as I said, was only a few days ago.”

“And you have no idea what is behind it?” Gold pressed. “There's no hint about what's going on?”

“Well, there is one thing. All these disappearances have begun since the black ships came.”

Gold took an abrupt step forward. “The black ships?” His words came rapid and intense. “What do you mean by that?”

“About two months ago, we first sighted them, on the outskirts of our system,” Zortan explained. “Large ships, black as the Void through which they sailed. They hovered there--never coming into our system, never contacting us, seemingly unconcerned with us.”

“And so we left them alone,” added Rothmar.

“You left them alone?” repeated Gold.

“Yes,” Zortan explained. “Altayra does not have many ships--merely small one we use to travel between our planets. We are at peace with both Ursa Prime and Draxmoor and so have no use for warships. We had neither reason nor the means to interfere with these mysterious ships. But ever since they came--”

“The disappearances have started. We are not even sure there is a connection, but there it is.”

“We have thought it best not to worry her highness with any of this until we learned something more definite.”

Gold spun around, barely listening to the end of the sages' explanation. “We've got to get to the Guidance Beacon--” he paused and glanced over his shoulder at Zortan and Rothmar-- “with your permission?”

“Of course.” Zortan nodded. “We would be deeply grateful if you did investigate this matter.”

“Corps! Suit up and fly back to the ship.”

In seconds, the corps had phased on their armor and were skyborn. “What's the rush?” asked Red, seeming annoyed.

“The sages told us about black ships coming out of the Void--that can only mean the Nadirites. And if the Nadirites have actually appeared within the Altayra System, then they're probably related to whatever happened to the Guidance Beacon.”

“But, sir, that doesn't make logical sense,” Green objected. “Why would the Nadirites want to interfere with the Guidance Beacon? Wouldn't that simply bring unwanted attention to whatever they're doing in this area?”

“Maybe--but, remember, without the Guidance Beacon, there isn't any way for Ursa Prime to send forcrd here to deal with them, either. The seven of us are the only ones who can stop them from doing--whatever it is they're doing.”

“And the five MBUs,” White reminded him.

Gold grunted. “We can handle this without their help.”

“I still don't get the rush.” Red still sounded miffed.

“Because if the Nadirites are in this system--and have been for some time--then we may not have much time. Erybus isn't stupid; he has some kind of plan. We've seen that already. And he's had plenty of time to set things up. Anyway, standing there talking to those sages wasn't accomplishing anything.”

White had to agree that she would be glad to get to something a little more tangible. “If we get a look at the Guidance Beacon, we can probably determine if it was tampered with or if it has broken down naturally.”

“And whether the crew working on it really did or did not simply disappear.”

“I just want to go on record right now,” Black began, “that if I had to work for those sages, I'd probably disappear too.”

“I personally like cold-blooded, domineering, ambiguous superiors,” remarked Blue. “But that's just me.”

White made a mental note that Zortan and Rothmar had made a very negative impression on both Black and Blue. Odd that those two agreed on something. Actually, come to think of it, Black and Blue did tend to agree on things, even though they came from opposite backgrounds and almost had opposite personalities.

But they had reached the ship by this point.

“Blue, can you get us to Altayra Vorphintus?”

“No, I just sat down here at the controls because it's a comfortable chair.”

Gold seemed to filter out the sarcasm. “Good. Estimated time?”

“Eight minutes, absolute time.”

Even though they had never visited the Altayra system before, the ship's computer had information stored in it--as much information as Ursa Prime possessed about Altayra, anyway--and that would allow Blue to plot a course to the Guidance Beacon.

Green phased off his helmet, adjusted his hat, and then phased it back on. “Sir, do you have any theory on the situation?”

Gold shook his head. “We just don't have enough data yet. There's nothing as yet to connect the disappearances around Altayra, the Guidance Beacon, and the Nadirites--but I can't believe it's a coincidence. Green, do you think it's possible that the Nadirites are abducting people from Altayra? Using some kind of teleportation technology?”

“Given the description of the disappearances as given by the sages--” Green began very slowly. And then he paused for a long moment.

“Given that, what?” Black prodded.

“I am not aware of any technology which would make that possible--to teleport a large number of unknown people out of an area remotely without causing any damage to the area itself. However, since the Nadirites are doing experiments with PWDTech and have actually approximated Moreland's Intersect, it's certainly possible that they've found a way to affect that kind of teleportation.”

“But--” White said, frowning behind her helmet-- “while the Nadirites might have a motive for harming the Guidance Beacon, why would they kidnap other workers from Altayra? They would have no reason for wanting to keep Altayra from building a storehouse.”

Black was the only one to have phased off her armor. She was sharpening one of her knives. “Maybe it was just to distract people from their real goal--the Guidance Beacon.”

“Because a group of primitive peasants pose such a major threat to the Nadirites,” agreed Blue, without turning from the controls.

White nodded. “Blue's right. It doesn't seem as if these Altayrans pose any danger to the Nadirites--so why bother to trying to fool them?”

For a moment nobody spoke. Silver had sat down in his usual place, though he retained his armor--but now he raised his head and spoke. “There can be only one explanation. They stole them for slaves.”

“That's one possibility, but it doesn't seem very likely.” Though Gold had his helmet on, White could tell he was frowning thoughtfully. “I can't believe the Nadirites would bother getting involves in an ordinary racket like the slave trade, and what would they be doing that they'd need slaves for personally? I mean, we're talking relatively unskilled labor here. If it were scientists of some kind, I'd buy it, but why enslave common people from Altayra?--unless they're doing some kind of heavy duty work different from their normal thing.”

“Sir, I think it would be premature to formulate any theories without further information.” Green seemed slightly more animated than usual, though he still spoke coolly and logically. “We don't even know that there is a connection between the disappearances Zortan mentioned and the Guidance Beacon or the Nadirites. It's conceivable that there is no connection--we simply cannot accurately assess the situation without further data.”

“But if there are people simply disappearing from Altayra, isn't that something we should look into, even if the Nadirites aren't behind it?” asked Red.

“We have no authority to get involved with anything like that unless it's related to the Nadirites or the Guidance Beacon,” Gold pointed out. “Unless Altayra asked us to investigate, I suppose. They are formally our allies and the Corps is never supposed to ignore someone in need, anyway. But the Guidance Beacon takes precedence over everything.”

“Thought there was an off chance you'd be interested in this,” remarked Blue laconically. “We're in orbit around Altayra Vorphintus. We should come above the location of the Guidance Beacon in forty seconds, absolute time.”

“Turn all monitors to approach mode.”

For most purposes, there was no need to see outside the ship from the main cabin, but for approaching a planetary destination like this, they could see around them via the monitor system.

Even though they were above the atmosphere level, they could see all the way down to the surface of the planet. It was a barren, rock-covered planet like Altayra Rex and seemed very sparsely populated.

In fact, they didn't see much of anything, until they saw--it. It was a massive structure, like circular pyramid built of concentric rings of ascending height, covered in antennae and crystalline spheres.

“That's the Guidance Beacon?” asked Black.

“Technically, no,” answered Green. “That is the station for creation or projection of the Guidance Beacon. If it were active, the Guidance Beacon would appear as a translucent star of energy in the sky above it. Clearly, that station is not operational.”

“Blue, put the ship on autopilot. We'll go down in our armor.”

“I'd rather try do a crash landing on the planet, but if that's an order...”

A moment later, the seven members of the Corps had flown out through the airlock of the ship (except Red who just teleported through the hull) and were streaking down through the atmosphere towards the station. As they got closer, it became clear that the walls which formed it were not truly rings but rather an interlocking pattern of crescents.

“Green, do you have anything yet?” asked Gold as they dropped. “Any idea what happened to the Guidance Beacon?”

“Nothing, sir, except that it's definitely inactive. Blue--”

“7t/89.5*e△52,” she responded. “That's what you were going to ask, isn't?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Be quiet, Red, and let the brains do their thing,” Black suggested.

“Green?” Gold prodded.

“Sir, using Blue's energy readings, we can tell when and how the beacon was deactivated. Based on the time coordinates, it went offline suddenly and without previous alteration at the same moment (absolute time) that Centauri City lost contact with it.”

“Which means?” pushed Black after a brief pause.

“That whatever happened to it, happened suddenly and abruptly. But we can't make any complete analysis until we come planetside.”

“Understood.”

“So what's our plan, chief?” asked Black as they neared the ground.

“There's no sign yet of any Nadirite presence. So our first step will be to investigate the station and determine why the Guidance Beacon has been deactivated.”

“And?”

“That's it. We can't make further plan until we've established the nature of the situation.”

Behind her helmet, White frowned. That seemed like a pretty sketchy plan for Gold, who was almost as obsessed with proper planning as Green. Of course, it was true that they really couldn't make much of a plan until they knew what was going on. And since they were the Corps, there wasn't any real danger. Still, it was odd. Maybe Gold was just getting more confidence in himself as leader and in the team. All things considered, they had done well recently--they had destroyed an entire Nadirite mothership without injury, and they had managed to take down the Intimidator and solve the mystery of the Wanderer--though with some help from the MBUs.

“Huh, this place seems strangely quiet,” remarked Black as they touched down in front of the station.

“What did you expect?” Green seemed annoyed. “It's an automated station. It's not going to have a lot of people around it.”

“What about those workers the Sages said looked after it?”

“They wouldn't be here every single second.”

“Or maybe they just disappeared. Maybe,” Black added with perfect cheerfulness, “they were taken by the ghosts. This is the haunted galaxy, after all.”

Green took a loud, exasperated breath and then expelled it slowly. “Whatever. Sir, we should investigate the station. That should tell us everything we need to know.”

“Right. Corps, advance.”

They had no particular formation. Gold led the way, with White and Green behind him, followed by Black and Blue, with Red and Silver bringing up the rear.

“Sir, the central controls should be at the center of the station. If we go there, we should be able to get the information we need.”

“Right.”

“Why don't we just fly to the center?” asked Black. “This whole place is open on top.”

“There's too much residual radiation around the top of the station,” Green responded.

“A little radiation can't hurt us while we're in armor.”

“No, but the reaction between that radiation and the kinetic energy used in flight could conceivably create a concussive force which would destroy the station, rendering our entire mission here pointless.”

“Just thought I'd throw it out there.”

Because of the shape of the station, it was both easy and hard to reach the center. The concentric crescent-shaped walls had passages between them, so it was just a matter of following them until you came to the end, moving inwards, and repeating the process. But the crescents weren't arranged in a logical pattern--at least, not that White could detect, though she knew there had to be some scientific reason for their arrangement--meaning there was no clear way to know which way to go, though you would always find the opening eventually.

The walls were shiny and reflective, giving off a strange aura in the unnatural earth-born light of Altayra. White was beginning to understand why the Altayra system had the reputation it did. It was so different from any other planetary system that it was sure to strike travelers as strange. And there were many people who were all too quick to assume a paranormal explanation for anything that struck them as unusual--even in the 32nd century.

“This place is really quiet,” commented Red, seeming a little nervous.

“Unlike some people I know. Right, crimson kid?”

“Come on, guys, doesn't something about this place strike you as strange?”

“Red, don't let your imagination get out of control,” Gold ordered. “You're just getting nervous.”

“I don't know. Something--something isn't right. I've got a bad--”

“Don't say it!” Black warned, glancing back at him.

“Hey, why are you looking at me? Doesn't anyone else have a bad--”

“Don't! I'm warning you!”

Red shrugged. “All I'm saying is that it's weird. I've definitely got a bad feeling about this--”

They had just reached an opening in one of the walls when Red made his comment. White was about to say something--trying to direct Black and Red's attention to something more productive--when it happened. Without warning, something struck her from behind, throwing her forwards into the corner of the wall. Even with her quick reaction time, she didn't have time to brace before impact. Fortunately, the wall was considerably weaker than her armor, so she was startled, but far from injured.

The wall had seen better days, though.

But White wasn't alone. She could feel the back of her head tingling, as her mind raced to sort out the variety of stimuli coming simultaneously. Even before she was able to push back from the wall, she could hear two sets of sounds which told her most of what she needed to know. One was over the Corps' in-armor communicators, over which she heard six distinct sounds of surprise. The other was over the external mic which was the sound of struggling and violent movement.

They had been ambushed.

White knew all that in the two second gap between the first sign of the attack and the point when she extricated herself from the wall and turned to view their attackers. When she saw them, everything else fell into place.

What she saw were eight or nine figures in power suits. The power suits were large but of a far more stream-lined and agile design than normal, making them look something like the Corps' armor. The technology of the power suits enabled the wearer to gain highly advanced strength, as well as giving them access to various weapons. In many ways, they functioned like miniature Mobile Battle Unites. But what White noticed most of all was another detail about the suits. They were black--and engraved on the chest of each was the silver symbol of the Nadirites.

But there was no time to stop and stare. The attack had come so fast and so abruptly, the Corps had had no time to prepare. Since the Nadirites outnumbered the Corps, they were able to target each of the members and still have a couple of units left over to run interference.

As White turned around, she found herself face-to-face with her attacker--though with the fixed, impersonal faceplates of the power suits (which was much the same as the faceless helmet of the Corps' armor), it was hardly worth being called face-to-face. She noted the Nadirite had some kind of gun mounted to the shoulders of the suit. She probably wanted to avoid getting hit by that.

As she turned, the Nadirite moved forward to repeat the attack, but this time White was ready. Rising a few inches off the ground, she used the speed of her armor to circle the attacker. Though she had no weapon, she could use her speed itself as a weapon. Even as the Nadirite moved forward to attack, White was behind him (or her--with the power suits, there was no way to tell) and struck him with full force. She didn't have space to build up much speed, but it was enough to send him sprawling forward into the wall. White had hoped to damage the power suit, but the Nadirite seemed uninjured, though monetarily stunned.

All this took place in a matter of seconds. In the same length of time, the rest of the Corps had their own problems. Two of the largest suits had tackled Silver and were holding him pinned to the ground. Somehow, one of the suits was flying above their heads, apparently wrestling with the air. Even in those few seconds Green had had the presence of mind to turn invisible. Black, Blue, Gold, and Red all had their own antagonist.

And for the first five or six seconds of the fight, the Nadirites had the upper hand.

Gold was being pushed face first against the ground by his assailant, but his position didn't prevent him from acting. “Silver, Red, melee!” he shouted into their comms. “White, Blue, remote position, attempt analysis. Green, Black, interference!” At the same time he shouted, he suddenly pushed back against his attacker. The Nadirite had apparently assumed he had Gold under control and wasn't ready for the counterattack. He stumbled backwards and clashed into Black and another of the Nadirite agents.

For just a second or two, nothing seemed to change, and then with a shrug that was like the eruption of a volcano, Silver shook off his two assailants and then stood up. Though the Nadirites' suits masked their real feelings, White couldn't help thinking for just a moment that they seemed to freeze in fear when Silver stood up.

Red had been pinned against a wall, just around the corner from Silver. At the same time that Silver stood up, he teleported out of the grip of his attacker. “You guys are stupid to think you can beat us.” He spun in a circle, firing a barrage of energy stars in every direction, before he teleported back, directly in front of his erstwhile attacker.

Red's energy stars were not a very powerful weapon, but usually they had some affect. But they seemed to bounce harmlessly off the Nadirites' suits--apparently they had some kind of powerful shielding, White guessed. Even so, with so many of them bouncing around everywhere, it provided a distraction--and in that moment of distraction, Green broke free of his captor.

Silver had also taken advantage of the confusion caused by Red's attack. With one quick lunge, he had reached Black and Blue and the two Nadirites who had attacked them. Without hesitation, he swung one armored first at the foremost of the Nadirites. He raised the arm of his suit (which seemed to contain special shielding) in order to ward off the blow, and Silver's other fist swung in from the other side, scoring a direct hit and knocking the Nadirite all the way across the hallway. The other Nadirite, one of the larger suits, lunged at Silver. Silver fell back and the man's momentum carried him forward. Then Silver kicked up with his legs, turning a headstand in the air and using his feet, and the man's own momentum, to send him hurtling towards the other wall.

The fight had lasted almost thirty seconds by this point and there had been no serious damage on either side, but now the Corps were all freed from their attackers. And for the first time during the encounter, one of the Nadirites spoke--one that had a silver boarder around the shoulders of their suit, indicating an officer of some kind. “You cannot defy the children of oblivion. We will crush you sooner or later, so don't even think you can win this.” It was a woman's voice. Judging from the accent, White guessed she was from the Syrian system--Serioc X, most likely. There was fairly strong Nadirite sympathy in the outer planets of the Syrian system.

For just a moment, the two sides seemed to take an impromptu cease fire. Gold looked at the officer. “What is your business here, Officer? What reason do you have to be here?”

“Reason is the broken sword of the gods. We have no use for such things.”

“Obviously.” This from Blue.

“There is only one reality, Corps. That reality is Oblivion--and it is something you will experience for yourself in moments.”

“Do they train you to talk like that or is just something that happens naturally?” asked Black.

The officer didn't answer. “All units, attack. No quarter.”

“Do you guys ever give quarter? I mean, would that even mean anything to you?”

No one answered Black's questions. But that was because battle had erupted in full earnest again.

The quarters were extremely tight for a fight like this. White hoped the walls immediately surrounding them weren't very important, because they suffered more causalities than any of the combatants.

Following Gold's order, White had tried to move out of the battle itself. Normally, her tactic would have been simply to rise into the air, but the Nadirite power suits seemed to be able to fly almost as well Corps' armor and so height was no advantage. Something about the way the Nadirites flew bothered White; she'd never seen flight like it in a power suit. It must be some radically new tech the Nadirites had developed or (more likely) stolen. Fortunately, they couldn't match her speed, so she used this to escape their attention, leaving them to focus on easier targets. White had hoped to be able to find something helpful about the Nadirites, something that might give them an edge, but there was nothing that stuck out. She wondered if Blue was doing any better. Gold and Black had taken positions in front of Blue, who was the weakest offensively of the Corps, fighting to give her some space to do analysis.

Red and Silver were doing the bulk of the fighting. (White occasionally was able to tell where Green was based on other things, but since he was invisible, she really didn't know where he was for most of the battle.) For the most part, the Nadirites were depending on brute strength and not on their weapons--and in a battle of strength and skill, Silver automatically had the upper hand--and Red's teleportation and energy stars kept things stirred up enough that the Nadirites couldn't regroup and offer a cohesive strategy.

The fight had been going on for about five minutes before anyone spoke again (something of a record for a fight involving the Corps). One of the Nadirites had caught Red off guards and pinned him to the ground. Keeping him down with one hand and his knees, he pulled back his other arm which had a gun of some kind mounted to the wrist. “Now you're going to die, Ursite.”

Judging by his voice, the Nadirite was younger than Red--White would have guessed fifteen. She couldn't help wondering what would cause a boy so young to end up fighting for the Nadirites. Obviously, he still wasn't completely versed in his craft.

Before he could fire, Red simply teleported sideways and then fired a barrage of energy stars into his face. Taking advantage of his temporary confusion, Red slammed into him and tore the gun off the suit--the first calculable damage of the fight. “Don't even think about it, kid,” he practically screamed. “You're the ones who're going to lose this.”

White frowned. If Red lost his temper, his use in the battle would be essentially nil. Fortunately, Red's spasm of anger never lasted long.

Even in the height of the battle, something pulled at the back of her mind. Red's emotions tended to run hot and fast but not very deep. Black had always seemed very emotionally stable--almost obnoxiously so--but White now knew that at least part of this was a bravado to conceal her real feelings. Gold had also always seemed emotionally stable, but now with the revelation of harbored anger against his father, White knew that Gold's emotional stability was also at least partly a facade. Green, Blue, and Silver all seemed either to have no deep emotions or to keep them bottled up somewhere inside. And she herself--she had spent the last four years swearing to herself and to God that she would never let her emotions control her--but had this led her to suppress her emotions too much? Each of them was, in some way, off-center emotionally. Was it possible that was the reason--

But she didn't have time to finish her thoughts then, because Blue spoke in her usual, off-hand manner. “Just in case you hadn't noticed, we're not hurting them at all. And they reek of some kind of radiation I can't place.”

“What in the Cosmos?” Gold was both surprised and puzzled. “You're right.” Even though the Corps had been doing well in the fight, the only actual damage that had been done to the Nadirites had just been done by Red. “It's as if--we're just knocking them around, but it doesn't hurt them. There's no way in the Cosmos their shields are that strong. Green, is there any way that's possible?”

There was a long moment of silence and then Green spoke. “Kinetic energy defusion due to the cancellation of gravity and the laws of motion. None of our attacks are actually damaging them because the force is dispelled through movement.”

White understood the basic concept of what Green was saying, but “That's not possible. How--” And then she understood. “Moreland's Intersect?”

“It's the only way something like this is possible. Somehow they actually aren't fully operating in our space at all.”

Gold gave an angry expulsion of breath. “This is just another distraction. If they're using Moreland's Intersect, than that means Erybus is here somewhere. Blue, can you track the source of their radiation?”

“No, I just wear this armor because bulky metal suits are fashionable now. The source is further inside the station.”

“Naturally. Corps, head in. Silver and Red, rearguard.”

For just a moment, the fight took a nasty turn as the Corps tried to retreat and the Nadirites tried to stop them--but for all the attributes the Nadirite power suits had, they didn't have speed--not enough to match the speed of the Corps. In moments they had created a gap between the two groups, and the moment later, found an opening further into the complex. The closer they got to the center of the station, the narrower the passages became, making any full scale attack difficult.

Seemingly, the Nadirites gave up any attempt at pursuit.

And then, before they had time fully to take in the fact, they had reached the central room of the station. It was a large, circular room and the walls were covered by various controls and gauges of a scientific nature. Clearly, this was the “brain” of the station, the central command center for the operation of the entire Guidance Beacon. And calmly sitting in a swivel chair in front of one bank of control was a figure White had only seen once before but who had left all to great of an impression on her mind.

Erybus.

As before, the Nadirite captain wore a black robe, though over it was the strange harness or vest which they now knew to be the approximation device by which he achieved Moreland's Intersect.

He looked up with a smile as they burst into the room. “Good evening, Corps,” he said, his voice lilting and almost musical. “I trust you were not unduly inconvenienced by my troops.”

Gold stood motionless for a moment. “Captain Erybus, you and your troops have invaded a neutral power. You realize what that means?”

White knew that Gold was careful to follow proper protocol, but she couldn't help thinking this was no time for talk. They had seen before just how powerful Erybus was.

“You still have this obsession with rules and laws, Corps.” Erybus stood up. “Rules and laws which are merely fictional constructs of your artificial society. They are like the armor you wear--artificial coverings to hide your shame and your humanity. But what can they do to change to the dark void which lies at your heart, as at the heart of all reality? Will your rules and laws hold back the surging tide of anger you already feel at me and my forces?--”

“Shut up!” shouted Red, who seemed unusually upset and probably a little nervous. He teleported around the room in a matter of seconds, ending up directly in front of Erybus. He slammed forward, as if to tackle the captain, but Erybus raised one hand which glowed slightly. Red slammed into his hand and was thrown backwards, sprawling halfway across the room.

Erybus didn't even lose his train of thought. “And when you come face to face with the dark cadaverous face of Oblivion, Corps, what good will your reason and your laws do you? Light and logic, morals and manners--they are all only dying candles in the face of that great darkness. Like so.” He snapped his fingers.

A small black contraption appeared beside him. White wasn't sure if he had teleported it in or if it had been there all along, cloaked in some way. It was a fairly simple contraption, like a chest with a number of cylinders connected to it in a certain pattern--a pattern which told White exactly what it was.

“That's a--” she began.

“A K-P Bomb,” he finished. “A bomb capable of blowing even your armor into a million pieces; of shredding the very atoms of your body back into their composite particles; of blowing half of this planet to Oblivion. And--” he snapped his fingers again-- “it's going to detonate in fifteen seconds. Just enough time for you to fall on your knees before the blank reality of your own dissolution--and worship. Have fun.” And with a flicker, he vanished as he had on their last encounter.

In that brief second, a barrage of thoughts passed through White's mind. It was possible that Erybus had been bluffing, but she doubted it. And a K-P (Kinetic Photon) Bomb would definitely have the power to destroy even their armor. Given the design of the station, there was no way they could escape and get out of the blast zone in time. They might have had a chance by heading spaceside, but if they flew through the radiation at the top of the tower, that would release enough energy to detonate the bomb anyway. For about two seconds, White thought that Erybus was right--that there was nothing left but despair.

Not that White was afraid to die. She had faced death before. 'Yes, though I am walking through the chasm of death's shadow, I will be afraid of no disaster, for You are there with me.' The words repeated themselves in her mind without her conscious volition. She wasn't afraid to die--but she didn't want to die, either. Yet, even more--in that brief moment, she realized--she was afraid, afraid for the others. She--she didn't want them to die. Not now. Not yet. Not like this.

And there was one slight chance of preventing it.

Without another thought, she shot forward, her arms outstretched--directly towards the bomb.

To be continued...

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 6


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] We were finally on our way to the Altayra System via a planetoid called the Wanderer, along with Gold's parents and three other Mobile Battle Units. However, our trip was interrupted by a battle with our old foe, the Intimidator. With the help of the MBUs, we were finally able to bring him down, but then he threatened to use his powers to detonate the entire planetoid, leaving us stranded in the middle of the Void.

Gold suddenly came out of his thinking position and lunged forward, pinning the Intimidator even tighter against the ground. When he spoke, his voice was much lower than usual. "Listen to this, Maxwell and listen good. I'm giving you  five minutes to get off this planetoid and stay off. Do you understand me? I'm giving you one chance to walk away from this mess without anything worse happening to you. If you don't--" He paused and then stood up.

Maxwell scrambled to his feet and smoothed back his hair. "Thanks, Gold--I knew I could count on you guys." He put his fingers into his mouth and blew a shrill whistle. An instant later, the glistening form of his mechog scrambled over a nearby pile of junk. "There you are, Timmy. All right, boy, let's go." He threw one leg over the back of the animal and the two of them began rising slowly into the sky. "Hey, intimidate you later, guys."

"You're letting him go, kid?" Gold's father's voice sounded over their comms.

Gold turned away from the retreating figure of Maxwell. When he spoke, he seemed calm, cool, and collected again. "The Prefect asked us to solve the mystery of the Wanderer, and we've done that--and now that we know what Maxwell was doing here, I don't think he'll be able to continue his scheme. So that's accomplished. Beyond that, we have our orders--for you, its to defeat the Nadirite blockade; for us, to reactivate the Guidance Beacon in Altayra. Prolonging a pointless fight with the Intimidator isn't going to help accomplish either of those things. If he could carry out his threat and maroon us here, it would mean that much more time before the Guidance Beacon is reactivated. That's a risk I'm not authorized to take."

"He was just bluffing." Red sounded miffed. "You should have captured him. After all he did to us--"

Gold's response rang out like the crackle of laser. "Red, if it weren't for General Kenton, you might dead--or, at least, we would have had to bargain with Maxwell earlier while he was in a position to demand more. I'm not about to risk his team for the sake of our pride. Anyway, as I said, the Prefect did send us here for a purpose and it wasn't to beat up Maxwell. Now, we're returning to our ship. There's nothing more to be accomplished here. General Kenton, do you need us for anything else?"

"It looks like everything's cleared up. And it was awesome, too. You don't think that metal kid will come back?"

"It's not likely. Maxwell usually knows when he's whipped."

Blue spoke in a low voice, and White wasn't sure if she was talking to herself or to the others: "But how is he going to get away since he doesn't have a ship? The mechog can't take him much beyond the boundary of this planetoid."

"The same way he got here," answered Gold, in a cold, quiet voice. "With a little help from his friends."

"What?" White was puzzled by Gold's answer and his tone, but he was clearly in no mood to answer questions. He was already half-striding, half-flying back towards The Crystallair. White felt as if it were up to her to say something. She turned to the MBUs. "General Kenton, thank you for all your help. Green, how long until we get to the Altayra System?"

It was Gold's mother who answered, speaking again in her normal, sane-sounding voice. "An hour and five minutes, absolute time. With a contingent variable of twelve minutes."

"Well, I think we've accomplished everything necessary, then. We'll contact you again before we reach the point of departure."

"Right," agreed General Kenton. "But one thing first. And this is very important."

"Yes?"

"MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

*

"Well, that went about as well as our battles with Maxwell usually go," remarked Black cheerfully, as she used a knife to demolish a block of prefood.

White only nodded briefly. She was really in no mood to exchange dialog with Black, especially not about the battle. She really would have preferred to be alone with her thoughts, but that was clearly not going to happen. By the time she and the others had reached the ship, Gold had already vanished--White supposed he had locked himself into his cabin. As usual, once they returned from a battle, Black and Red immediately grabbed a few bites to eat and the company dispersed. Silver was sitting in his accustomed place in the control cabin, staring at the floor. Red and Blue went back to their cabins, Red taking four or five blocks of prefood with him. Green, for once, choose the Medical Bay as his place of retreat, leaving White free to use the Viewing Chamber. However, despite the clear images which surrounded her of the vast reaches of space which lay beyond the Wanderer, she did not feel the ordinary sense of awe and peace which usually came with the view. Probably because, for some reason she couldn't fathom, Black had chosen to follow her and now stood across the room, slicing apart her food with her knife and talking.

"Guess it's a good thing we had the MBUs along, wasn't it?"

"Certainly, without their aid that battle would have been more difficult," White agreed with a sigh. She definitely wasn't going to get any space for peace or contemplation with Black around. "If they had not been able to free Red, we would have been in an awkward position."

"I don't think I'd go that far." Black had been leaning against one of the monitors but now she came erect and casually paced the room. "I mean, I'm not so sure Maxwell would dare kill one of us, and I'm also not sure he could have killed Red in there if he wanted to."

White wondered if Black had a point--would Maxwell really kill one of them? As Gold had pointed out, Maxwell had seemed more interested in defeating them than killing them, for all his talk. But knowing for sure about that would mean understanding the Intimidator's thought patterns, and that was something she still couldn't do. "Regardless, gambling on something like that would be a big risk. And that's a risk Gold's not going to take."

"I really don't see the risk. I mean, after all, this is just Red we're talking about." Black threw this over her shoulder as she reached the far side of the room. "We would probably be better off without him, anyway."

White narrowed her eyes and drew herself up a little in her chair. She suddenly realized that there was something slightly different in Black's mannerisms and tone. She seemed more... serious? White couldn't quite pinpoint what the attitude was, but she could definitely sense there was a slight change from Black's ordinary demeanor.

Black stood staring at a monitor on the far side of the room, but something about her suggested that she was waiting for some kind of response from White.

"Don't you think you should give Red a break?" she asked quietly. "You were rather hard on him today--even for you."

"Yeah. Yeah, I was." Black nodded and turned around. "Wanna know why?" She came down and stood opposite White, one hand on her hip. "Because I can't stand him, and I really wish he would leave the Corps and go home." She delivered this statement in her ordinary voice, but there was a more determined note in her stance and a slight, hard gleam in her eyes that White had never noticed there before.

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Bet you didn't think I could be serious, did you, sister?" Black turned away and started pacing again. "I guess this mission is going to be full of surprises for all of us."

"I confess," White began cautiously, "I never thought you had such a strong animosity for Red." Of course, given the way she treated him, it should have been obvious. But Black treated everyone that way. Did she feel the same way about everyone else?

Black was standing on the other side of the room now, and she spoke without turning around. "You saw how Red acted today in battle--when Maxwell captured him. The instant he was caught, he started whimpering like a whipped puppy. I don't have a doubt in my mind that if Maxwell had pressed him a little, Red would have betrayed us all in a heartbeat to save his own skin. He's a coward--and I don't have any use for cowards."

Suddenly, Black turned around and took a few steps back towards White. "And before you go all Little-Miss-Self-Righteous on me, let me qualify that. War is a strange thing. I know that. Being in a position where you're around people who want to kill you--knowing that every second might be your last--knowing that your entire future for better or worse hangs on a thread and largely on the roulette of fate--that's a strange thing, and you never really know how someone will react to it until they're in it. You and me and Silver were all raised in that kind of atmosphere--we've been fighting for our lives long before we joined the Corps. No, I don't know Silver's history," she added, noting White's questioning look, "but you can tell just by being around him that this is nothing new to him. Fighting is more ingrained into him than even into you and me--it's so much a part of him that he doesn't even think about it any more. I don't know what things were like in his past, but I know he's been in conflict and mortal danger since nearly the time he was born. And for me, living on the streets, and for you, fighting alongside the Tremonsirs, that's also true. Gold doesn't have the experience, but he has the training and the natural disposition for this kind of life--and he has second-hand experience, since his parents are in the Patrol. Blue, Green, and Red don't have any of that. I don't know about Green's past, but this is clearly something new and not necessarily pleasant to him. Blue and Red both come from rich and secure backgrounds. Probably the closest Red ever got to war before he joined the Corps was a half-friendly tussle with some other boy and even that, considering his position on Kastoria, was probably pretty one-sided. Whose seriously going to try to beat up the son of your planet's ruler?" Black had paced back to a position opposite White by now. "So to Green, Blue, and Red, being part of the Corps is something pretty foreign, both by background and personal inclination. I get that. And Blue and Green don't make any pretense to like it. They don't try to be something they're not--they just do what they have to do. But Red is different. He tries to play it as if he so tough and strong but when push comes to shove, he can't take it."

Black paused as if she was expecting White to say something. "Granted," she said cautiously, "Red's intentions don't always seem to match his capabilities."

"You're too nice to be accurate, you know that, sister? We all know what Red's like. And that kind of brash impulsiveness is an endearing quality only in manga--and even then only if you can back it up. And Red can't. That's just the simple fact. It's just a matter of time until he gets himself into something he can't handle and then he'll end up sacrificing the rest of us in order to save his own hide. And that's what I mean by saying that I wish he would just go home."

Again, Black paused and seemed to expect White to answer. She tried to chose her words carefully. "As you say, this is something new for Red. It's going to take some time to adjust--"

"That's not good enough." Black set her knife and the remains of her prefood down on the table and then turned away for a moment. "Even if you were trained as a warrior, you don't really understand, do you? Maybe with the Tremonsirs, it was different. But living on the streets, you had to learn to see everybody in terms of potential liabilities and advantages. Everyone you trusted, everyone you depended on was someday going to become a danger to you. You had to balance that against whatever potential advantage having them around meant. That was the only way you survived. And having Red on this team is a liability with no advantage. In the end, it's going to cost somebody their life--and I don't know about you, sister, but I don't want to die."

Suddenly she turned around and plopped her arms down on the table, with her face only a few inches away from White's. "So, tell me--what am I thinking right now? What am I feeling?"

"What?" White started back slightly and stared at the other girl in confusion.

"You're supposed to be able to read people, right? Well, what about me?"

White forced herself not to show most of the surprise and distaste she felt. The last thing she wanted was to get drawn into some kind of mind game with Black. Still, she had a general idea what the girl was after and she knew she had to play along, at least a little. "You're using your animosity towards Red, authentic in its own way, and a belligerent attitude in order to cover a genuine concern and, even more, a genuine fear about the future--probably, specifically, a fear of death."

Black caught up her knife and prefood, threw them both into the air, turned a backflip, and caught the food in her mouth as she turned, while the knife seemed to naturally fall into her pocket. "Well," she commented cheerfully, "it's good to see that the old synapses are still firing properly. I was beginning to get worried. Because we're supposed to be one of the best and most powerful fighting groups in Ursa Prime, and over the last forty-eight hours, we've let ourselves get led around the asteroid field by a creep like Erybus and a second-rate thug like the Intimidator. I don't know what's wrong with us, but when Blue thinks its necessary to call in help for us take on Maxwell, I know we're in trouble. At this rate, we're going to get seriously clobbered if we face another major battle."

"And we are going to. Sooner than we may think."

Both White and Black were startled at the unexpected addition to their conversation. White looked up to see Gold standing in the doorway of the chamber. He had phased off his armor and, as usual, he wore his jacket open over his flightsuit. But there was something slightly different about him which suggested to White the idea of dishevelment. Maybe it was that one or two of his spikes of hair seemed to be pointing slightly different directions than usual.

"What?" asked White a little blankly, as Gold walked down the room to join them.

Instead of answering her, he glanced at Black. "You've sensed it, haven't you?"

"It does seem likely," agreed Black.

"What?" White felt even more confused now.

Gold turned to face her. "Think about everything that's happened--everything since the Guidance Beacon went out."

"I still don't see what you mean."

Black had moved back, and so Gold sat down on the table. "Let me just ask you this. That Nadirite ship--they had clearly prepared for us to come. They expected us to fight them. Erybus even had a weapon powerful enough to knock us back. And yet, when we fought them, they simply gave in. Why? Why didn't Erybus push that battle? Our plan was to destroy the ship so that they would be forced to flee rather than fight--and I really don't think Erybus expected us to be able to do that. But since he had the ability to warp out, there was no reason why he couldn't stay and fight us until the very last moment. And if he had, he might have been able to beat us, for all we know. And yet he just ran away. Why didn't he fight?"

White was finally beginning to follow Gold's thought pattern. "You don't mean--"

"Then there was the fight with Maxwell. It seems pretty definite that Maxwell was the one supplying the Nadirites with weapons. Also, since he got from Centauri City to the Wanderer in such a short amount of time, he had to be taken by some kind of ship--most likely, by a Nadirite ship." Gold's voice tightened up just a hair. "Our fighting was sloppy today. Maxwell isn't a great criminal, but he's not stupid, either, and that exoskeleton of his is powerful--more so than we even knew before today. And yet he didn't really push his advantage. Maxwell may be a wuss, but he knows how to play his opportunities. But he didn't today."

He paused for a moment and then went on. "And then there's the biggest problem--and the biggest connection. The Nadirite guards on the ship were able to perform a target lock on your armor in a matter of seconds. That shouldn't be possible, but they did it. And Maxwell was able to craft some kind of homing sphere which was actually able to lock on to Red's armor. Maybe the same kind of technology was behind both--I don't know about that. But I do know that both Maxwell and Erybus are smart enough to realize that if you have that kind of technology, you make use of it for all your worth. If they could target you and Red, they could target all of us. Whether they could actually use that to take us out is another question, but the point is that they had something that potentially powerful--and they hardly used it at all."

White frowned. "It seems strange--but you're saying this has all been--set up?"

Gold nodded slowly and didn't look at her. "It's the only explanation. Erybus not only expected us to invade his ship--he wanted us to. Though I still don't think he expected us to be able to destroy the entire ship, he did intend for us to win that battle. Just like someone--probably Erybus, because Maxwell doesn't think like this--wanted Maxwell to lose that battle today. We're being played--hard--by someone."

"Which means that the Maxwell and the Nadirites knew we were coming on the Wanderer," pointed out Black, who had moved to the far side of the room.

"It's not really that surprising. With Maxwell stationed there, the Nadirites obviously knew about the Wanderer. They could have easily guessed that we would travel on it. Anyway, this wasn't anything top secret--and we all know that the Nadirites have spies in the Patrol. It's no stretch to think that word could have leaked out."

White pushed back in her chair. "But--but why?

"That's what I wish I knew. I've been thinking it through ever since the end of that farce of a battle. I don't know what's really going on here--but I'm sure that the Altayra System is somehow at the center of it. Something about it is significant. That's why we need to be ready--because I'm sure we haven't seen the last of either the Nadirites or Maxwell."

"Yeah, but the question is--" Black had walked to the doorway and she threw her final comment over her shoulder as she walked out-- "are we ready?"

Gold stood up and walked slowly towards the wall where he stared out at the images of the void. "No," he said, more talking to himself than to White or the absent Black. "No, we're not. Without the Matrix--and without having even a clue about what's really going on--we don't have a chance."

White was surprised. She had never seen Gold take anything this hard. "Certainly, things could have gone better," she admitted, "but we came through all right."

"All right isn't good enough." And then Gold stopped and gave a slight grunt-like laugh. "Well, that sounds more like something Green would say." And then the amused note left his voice. "But it's true. If the MBUs hadn't shown up when they did--well--it's anybody guess what would have happened, but it could have been bad. Really bad. I can't believe Blue called them without my order, but it's just as well she did."

"They would have stumbled onto the battle eventually, anyway. This planetoid isn't that big."

"I suppose so." Gold fell silent for a long moment. "I just wish things had gone differently. Maxwell isn't the biggest criminal out there, but he's become our problem--and we need to take him down once and for all. And of all the times to have another one of our no-win situations, it had to be now. With him here."

"Him?" repeated White, a little blankly.

Gold didn't seem to hear her. "We should have been able to beat Maxwell in a matter of minutes. We're the Corps, after all. We're supposed to be better than that. And then by the time they showed up, we might have had this whole situation wrapped up. And I could have been like, 'In your face, old man.' I would have," he added defiantly, seeming to sense White's look of shock and incredulity. "But now we're just back to the way things were before. Now he still thinks we're just a bunch of kids with fancy armor--nothing more."

White wouldn't have used the word 'fancy' to describe the Corps' armor, but she felt that now would not be a good time to bring that up.

"That's why we've somehow got to get our act together. We've got to prove that we're the Corps."

White looked down, unsure how to respond or whether a response was even necessary. Something about Gold's attitude bothered her, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Maybe it was that he seemed to be taking the entire situation too personally.

White hadn't wanted to bring it up, but as Gold remained silent, she felt a strange need to say something, and she knew she was going to have to tell him sooner or later. "Gold, there's something you should know."

He turned to look at her, his face somewhat calmer than his voice before had led her to suppose. He seemed to be waiting for her to go on.

"Do you remember what happened right before we ran into Maxwell? Do you remember what we found?"

He nodded. "The Nth Dimensional Holocube. Though I'd forgotten it until you mentioned it. I suppose we'd better go pick it up. That's too valuable to leave sitting around out here."

"That's what I need to tell you. In the middle of the battle--when Maxwell turned into the giant mech--I was thrown back towards where the Holocube was. And that's when I noticed."

"Noticed what?" Gold prompted when she paused for a long moment.

"It was gone."

"What?" Gold took a step forward. "Gone? Are you sure?"

"Yes. I remember exactly where it was. And it was gone. Our battle hadn't extended that far and so it couldn't have been knocked aside or anything like that. It was just gone."

Gold took a few more steps forward so that he stood almost directly in front of her. He was frowning with thought. "I suppose with that weird power Maxwell was using, he could have moved it even though he wasn't near it--but why would he have bothered? And so far as we know, there's nobody else on this planetoid. Do you have any explanation?"

"No--and that's why it bothers me. An Nth-Dimensional Holocube is a valuable thing, but not so valuable that I'd waste time worrying about it with everything else going on right now. But the fact that it vanished like that in just a few minutes--it bothers me. I just couldn't come up with any explanation--but you're right that Maxwell might have been able to move it remotely. I didn't think about that."

"And I suppose he's smart enough to realize its value and try to get it out of the way of our fight. But somehow that just doesn't fit Maxwell's usual pattern of thought. We probably should have picked it up while we could. It would only have taken a couple seconds to stow it in +(1)d."

"We couldn't know that Maxwell would consider it important enough to bother moving."

"We should have known." Gold's frown deepened, and he slammed his fist into the table in a motion half of emphasis, half of anger. "We're the Corps. We can't afford to miss things like that. We can't afford to make mistakes."

White raised her eyebrows. Gold had always been determined, but he seemed to be growing more and more obsessive. At this rate, he was going to end up as much a perfectionist as Green.

He turned away and walked slowly down the room towards the doorway. His walk carried its ordinary note of confidence, but the slow speed seemed to give a slightly discordant note. "Black is right. We're not ready for this. But we're the Corps. We're going to be ready. Because if we keep doing sloppy work like we have been, we're going to be in trouble--and even your prayers won't be enough to get us through."

White caught herself almost giving an audible intake of breath. She was honestly shocked--and was thankful that Gold had left her alone after throwing that last statement out. She was shocked partly because he had said it. Though she knew Gold didn't accept or even understand her beliefs, he had never slighted them, either. That was the kind of line she would have expected more from Black.

But even this was only superficial. What really bothered her was another fact which Gold's comment brought to the surface of her mind--the fact that she hadn't been praying at all during the battle. The Tremonsirs had trained her that prayer was to form a part of every action a Believer did--even battling. And usually that had been true for her. But not today.

And that fact bothered her.

*

Nothing more of note happened during their sojourn on the Wanderer. Even their eventual departure from the planetoid went smoothly. There were a few tense moments for the MBUs, whose departure was a little more delicate, but in the end they all made it off the Wanderer without problem. A few words were exchanged between the groups--mostly between General Kenton and White, who had taken over communication given Gold's obvious distaste for it--and then the groups parted. General Kenton and the other four MBUs headed towards the most likely location of the Nadirite blockade, while Blue turned the nose of The Crystallair towards their destination--the capital planet of the Altayra System--the place they had been trying to reach all along--Altayra Rex.

The entire Corps had gathered in the main cabin of the ship.

"Blue, estimated travel time." Gold shot off the question like a command.

"Ten minutes, absolute time."

"All right, then--we've got just enough time to rebrief before we land."

"Rebrief?" repeated Black, with a quizzical look. "Is that even a word?"

"It's not," answered Green, "but it's a perfectly logically way of expressing the concept 'to brief again.'"

"This is a time to go over our mission--not to argue about grammar." Gold sounded just a little annoyed.

"It's technically not a question of grammar, sir, but rather of vocabu--"

"Moot point, Green." Gold walked down to the center of the room so that he could face everyone, except Blue who was sitting in the pilot's chair. "We probably all remember this, but let's go over it one last time. Our mission in the Altayra System is to find out what happened to the Guidance Beacon on Altayra Vorphintus. So long as it's inactive, no ships can travel between Ursa Prime's dominion and either Altayra or Draxmoor. Even fighting the Nadirite blockade is going to be difficult without that beacon. We're actually functioning as diplomats--at least, at first. We're going to meet with the government in Altayra Rex to find out about the Guidance Beacon. Once we know what happened to it, we'll act accordingly."

Silver raised his head and for once volunteered a question. "And what if they have chosen to turn it off of their own free will?"

Gold frowned. "I don't see that as likely. But I guess it is a possibility. After all, Altayra is a sovereign system and there's nothing forcing them to have a Guidance Beacon. But why would they risk upsetting Ursa Prime--and Draxmoor too, for that matter?"

"Maybe they got tired of paying the electric bill?" suggested Red.

Green shoved his hat down over his forehead. "The Guidance Beacon utilizes a cold energy cell created in the Altayra System, meaning it functions on a very small fraction of energy--and the cost of maintaining it falls on Ursa Prime."

Gold glanced at him. "I don't think anyone mentioned that before. So the Altayrans didn't build the Guidance Beacon?"

"No, though it uses designs crafted in the Altayra System. Ursa Prime voluntarily created the Guidance Beacon and, with permission from the Altayran government, placed it in the system. It is Ursa Prime which maintains the beacon and provides the energy it uses."

"Huh. That's interesting, but I don't know that it changes the nature of our mission. Anyway, our primary goal is to find out what happened to the beacon and then do whatever it takes to get it working again." Gold rolled forward on his feet and looked around with a more intense expression. "But there is a very strong chance that before we're done, we're going to run into the Nadirites and/or the Intimidator again."

"And some ghosts," added Black, spinning a knife on her finger.

Gold looked at her blankly.

"Didn't Green say the Altayra System is haunted?"

Green pulled his hat down a little lower, so much that it almost covered his eyes. "I said the Altayra System has been nicknamed 'The Haunted Galaxy' by some travelers. That does not imply that it is, in actuality, haunted."

"I think hanging out with some ghosts would be cool. They'd have to make better company than Red."

"Hey!"

Gold made a motion with his hand. "One last thing. Remember that we're in strange territory here. Altayra Rex is a sovereign power--and while we're here, we're acting as official representatives of Ursa Prime. Remember that--Red."

"Huh?" Red seemed honestly shocked. "Why are you looking at me?"

"Because you're the one of most likely to do something stupid. And the last thing we need right now is to cause some kind of incident between Ursa Prime and Altayra."

"How could I do something like that?"

"I don't know--and for both our sakes, you'd better not let me find out."

"What?" Green frowned in puzzlement.

"It was a veiled threat--it's not supposed to make logical sense," Black explained. "Don't think about it."

Gold turned to look at Green. "Is there anything else about the Altayra System we should know?"

"There is not extensive information available, since Ursa Prime has had limited interaction with it over the years. For the most part, it's a very rural and even backwards system, though it has produced designs used extensively in Ursa Prime and Draxmoor--particularly, the cold energy cell and liquid fusion hologram."

"The what?" repeated Red, curiously. He seemed to be half remembering something.

"Liquid fusion holograms--holograms which can use atmospheric moisture to become temporarily solid."

"Yeah, I've heard of those. We've got some in the Kastorian System."

"They aren't considered practical enough to have a widespread use, but you'll find them scattered around."

White had been listening, though her mind had been partly taken up by thoughts from her conversation earlier. But now she interjected her own question-- "So the Altayra System has produced designs for technology--but it isn't technologically advanced itself?"

"As a whole, no."

"Isn't that a little strange?"

Green shrugged. "I can only assume there are--or were--scientists outside and above the general caste of people who pursued technology beyond that used by their own people."

"And then sold it to other systems without using it to build up their own system?" asked Red.

"That would seem to be the implication, yes." Green looked down. "But, as I said before, there is not extensive information available about the system so much of this is conjecture."

"Well, we'll be able to form first-hand impressions any minute now."

White stood up and walked over to stand beside Gold and Blue at the control panel.

In appearance, the Altayra System was unlike any system she had visited, even in her vast experience. Every populated system she had ever seen was built around a central star or stars which provided the gravitational center of the system and which was the source of all energy in the system. But Altayra appeared to be only four--or maybe five--planets floating in a rough square-like shape. She was familiar with the physical laws which held such a system together--though she thought even Green would be hard pressed to explain them in a ten minute time frame--but she was puzzled as to what supplied the energy for the planets. Without a central star's light, how could anything grow? How could people live? Green had mentioned the unusual composition of the Altayra System before, but until now she hadn't thought seriously about what it meant.

Traveling to new worlds was nothing new for the Corps, but seldom did they touch down on a world about which they knew so little. White hadn't had an experience quite like this sense her days with the Tremonsirs, and even they usually had more intel than this when they went to a new destination. This was going to be an interesting experience.

"We're getting a signal from the spaceport on Altayra Rex," remarked Blue. "In case you wanted to know."

"Good. Then bring her own down."

"I was going to just float aimlessly in space for a while, but I guess I can't argue with an order."

*

The first impression White had as they disembarked from the ship was one of energy and movement. The spaceport (if the few landing strips and single flight tower were worthy of that name) was directly in the center of a large town of some kind and on every side of them, people were hurrying about their business, for the most part oblivious to the fact that they had landed. The people's dress seemed somewhat barbaric, but not without its own kind of style and finery. White guessed that the clothes of nearly everyone was made out of the hides of some kind of animal, though treated in someway to make the clothes something more than mere hides. From the design of the clothes and the nature of the treatment, White could differentiate between different classes in the crowd.

The crowd was a little different than what they were used to seeing in Ursa Prime--but they had visited backwards and out-of-the-way places before. What made this scene so unusual was the light--though this matter was so subtle that it took White a second or two to realize it. There was some light from artificial lights around the city, making it something like Centuari City--but the main bulk of the light did not come from here, nor did it come from the sky (as in every other planet White had ever visited). It came from the ground.

The ground of the planet was bare rock, with no grass (though occasionally small patches of amber-colored moss). The rock was dark and shiny like obsidian but veined with translucent white stone like quarts. These veins glowed with a light that was bright but not intense, striking upwards and somehow feeling the whole air with light.

"Green?" asked Gold, glancing at him. He was usually the one ready with an explanation.

Green was the only one of the group who hadn't phased off his armor, and though he had removed his helmet, his hat was pulled down so low over his forehead that his eyes were almost invisible. "I can only assume those veins in the ground are conduits of photonic energy."

"But no brighter than they are, they shouldn't be able to make this much light," White pointed out.

Green seemed annoyed and disgusted by the whole subject. "Based on my readings, there are some unusual features of the atmosphere of this planet--I would theorize that microscopic crystalline particles in the air act as magnifiers for the photonic energy, giving us a defused effect of light. You'll notice that almost nothing casts a shadow here."

Black shook her head. "That sounded really weird--and I didn't even understand any of it. I'm just surprised that with something that unusual, Green isn't down on his hands and knees, scientifically investigating for all he's worth."

Green performed the seemingly impossible task of pulling his hat down further. "This place is disgusting. I'm not going to get any closer to that ground than I have to."

"Try to keep your opinions to yourself," Gold ordered. "Don't forget we're visitors here."

"Hmph." Green seemed even more disgruntled than usual.

"Quiet." There was a warning note in Gold's voice. But this was because finally someone in the crowd was taking notice of them. Through the press, a man was pushing his way towards the clear space around the spaceship, where the Corps was still standing. The man was a tall, brawny figure, dressed roughly but with a certain mark of care and precision. Something about this clothes, combined with his walk, told White he was a soldier or guard of some kind, even before she noticed the sidearm he carried.

He pushed his way through the crowd and came out opposite the Corps. For a moment, he stood looking at them with a stolid gaze. White noticed that he kept one hand on the handle of his weapon. "Strangers, what is your business on Altayra Rex?" he asked finally, speaking crisply and with authority.

"We are here on behalf of Ursa Prime," Gold explained, "and we have business with the leadership of Altayra."

"So you are from Ursa Prime." The man touched his hand to his forehead in what White guessed was some kind of salute. "In that case, the Sages will wish to speak with you. Follow me, and I will take you to the palace."

Gold nodded in acknowledgment. "Thank-you," he said, stiffly. Gold was always a little awkward in formal settings.

"Follow me." The soldier saluted again, and then turned and led them through the crowd. As they moved, the crowed parted to let them through with a large margin--and most of the people stopped to stare at them. Obviously, strangers were a rarity here.

"The Sages?" repeated Black, never silent for very long. "What exactly are they?"

White wasn't sure if Black was addressing the question to Gold or to their escort, but it was Gold who answered. "Prefect Alkyte mentioned something about them. Though Altayra has a monarchial government, most of the details of governing--especially when dealing with Ursa Prime--are handled by a group of counselors or advisors known as the Sages."

"What point is there in having a king around if you have to deal with a bunch of second-string advisors?"

This time, Black probably hadn't been addressing anyone, but Red answered. "Hey, running a whole system is a lot for one person. You've got to have some subrulers. We've got the same basic set-up back in the Kastorian System."

Black seemed to be about to respond with something (with her, it was anyone's guess what) but Gold threw her a look and for once she actually kept quiet.

Meanwhile, they had passed out of the main part of the city into an area which White took at first for a park of some kind. It gave her the impression of vast, well-kept lawns, only without grass. But there were wide patches of stone carefully marked off with walls of multicolored stones which glowed in the surreal light of the planet. Carefully positioned throughout these lawns were stone obelisks and some statues--it was these which suggested to White the truth. This was probably the area surrounding the governmental center of the planet. She had seen a similar set-up on other planets, but hadn't recognized it here at first because of the absence of plant life.

That fact still bothered her, but this was no time for puzzling about it further.

Though the ground was uniformly smooth, it wasn't uniformly flat. The "park" (as White continued to call it to herself) was laid on the side of a rising hill, meaning that they could not see very far ahead of them, though something large and white could be towering over the horizon. However, it was not until they reached the crest of the hill that they could see anything clearly.

What they saw was a tall mountain or range of mountains. The one directly ahead of them was white--at first sight White thought it was covered with snow, but a closer examination suggested it was merely white in color. At the foot of the mountains, directly in front of them, was a sort of cove or valley, surrounded on three sides by the rising slopes of the mountains. On the right and left there were low buildings which opened out into series of small patios, while on the far side a long stairway led up the side of the mountain to a large building fronted by tall columns. Only the front of the building was visible, seemingly built into the mountain itself.

There was a sort of a courtyard in the center of the valley. They passed two more guards at the entrance to the courtyard (these were dressed in much more elegance than their guide) whod merely observed them and said and did nothing.

Their guide halted in the middle of the courtyard. "If you will wait here, I will inform the Sages of your arrival."

"Of course." Gold nodded, a little curtly. White could tell he was still uncomfortable about the situation. He was by training a soldier--not a diplomat.

"So that building would be the palace?" asked White as the guard vanished into the structure to their right.

"I'd guess so, yes. Or maybe it's just the Sage's HQ--the building up the hill seems to be the most important looking of any of these. I would've thought it was the palace. But this really isn't my area of expertise."

The courtyard wasn't completely open. There were a number of odd looking stone structures which broke it up--seeming to take the place of trees--and there were also a number of benches. And it was about at this point that they realized that one of these benches was occupied and that they were not alone

It was a girl of about sixteen. She wore a simple white dress and was holding a book of some kind lying closed on her lap. She had very fair skin and blonde hair almost (but not quite) as bright and striking as Gold's father's. Her hair was also very long and she wore it in two braids which fell over the bench behind her. Though she was more-or-less facing them, she didn't seem to notice their presence.

"Well, hello there." As if pulled by some kind of invisible force, Red moved from the spot where the Corps stood to the girl's bench.

For the first time, the girl seemed to realize that they were there. She looked up with an expression of curiosity, though without any alarm or shock. As she looked up, White knew what had affected Red so. The girl was strikingly beautiful, her features formed with exquisite perfection. White felt a wave of admiration and just a slight twinge of envy.

Red seemed to be pulled a little closer. "So, yeah, how are you doing?"

The girl was staring at them still. "Who are you?" she asked finally. Her voice was clear and well-modulated, slightly high in pitch. She spoke calmly and without confusion or concern.

"I'm Red," answered Red.

"You don't look red," objected the girl. Her tone was questioning but still not confused.

Black face-palmed. "Even when he needs to, he just can't do dialog."

Gold shot Red a look. "Stand down, Red." Then he glanced at the girl. "We are visitors," he explained.

"Visitors are rare here," remarked the girl, standing up. "I welcome you to Altayra Rex. Who did you say you were?"

"We're the best, that's what we are," answered Red.

The girl raised her eyebrows. "The Best? What an odd name."

"No, I don't mean--hey, are you laughing at us?"

"No." But the girl was laughing; quietly and sedately, but she was laughing. "No, I am not laughing at all of you. Just at you."

Red flushed and seemed to be stuttering, trying to come up with something to say, when the conversation was abruptly interrupted.

"What is the meaning of this?" shouted a voice, coming as the first intimation that they had more visitors.

They had barely taken this question, when two men, both dressed in black, were suddenly beside them.

"How dare you commit this sacrilege?" demanded one of the men--a different voice than that which had spoken before. "Stand back if you wish to breathe another breath!"

As if by instinct, all of the Corps instantly phased on their armor, except Gold who stood his ground.

The girl glanced at the men. "Zortan! Rothmar! What is the matter?"

"Are you all right, milady?" asked the man who had spoken first, as he came to stand beside the girl.

"Of course."

The other man turned on Gold, as the only one still out of armor. "Who are you to dare such a thing?"

"I am Gold, leader of the Corps," he answered, "and we are here on behalf of Ursa Prime."

The man seemed just slightly mollified. "Oh. But even as representatives of Ursa Prime, you had no right to--"

"To what?" asked Red, as the man paused. "We haven't done anything."

"And still you stand there, showing not the least respect for her."

"Her?" Gold seemed a little blank.

"Yes." The other man came up on the other side of the girl and stood there in a protective stance. "Can you not show at least some reverence for the ruler of Altayra?"

"The what?" Red exploded.

"The ruler of Altayra. Her imperial majesty, Princess Valencia Isollion Caranthia Calome vy Altayra."

To be continued...

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"


The Puritan movement began in England as an attempt to bring the more radical ideas of the European Reformation into the Church of England. Because the English government was not friendly to Puritanism, many Puritans came to America, hoping to be able to establish a new, reformed society in the new world. Jonathan Edwards came from this tradition, though from a segment or break-off called Congregationalists, who believed that individual churches should govern themselves as opposed to being part of a larger church body. In other respects, Edwards reflected the ideas of the Puritan tradition, especially the idea of Divine Sovereignty and the idea that God arbitrarily and inescapably predestined the fate of every human soul, irrespective of their merits. Edwards was also born at a time when the Puritan tradition was beginning to wear thin. The church was largely becoming lax--was beginning to be without either power or purity.

He was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut to Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards, the only son among ten sisters. He had preaching in his blood since his father was the pastor of the local area while his maternal grandfather was such an influential and respected preacher in New England that he was nicknamed the "Pope of the Connecticut Valley." As a boy, he was very interested in religion and prayer, but the interest was only superficial and he soon fell into sin. By 17 he had graduated from college and began studying for the ministry. It was during his time in college that he experienced a real conversion and come to know the true joys of religion--very different, as he described them, from everything he had known before.  He would work as a supply minister and tutor until 1726 when he began work at as assistant pastor and his maternal grandfather's church is Northampton, eventually becoming full pastor after his grandfather died. While there, he married Sarah Pierrepont, daughter and great-granddaughter of famous preacher. He had a successful and popular ministry at first, but eventually tension began because of Edward's strict insistence on true conversion and godliness, especially as a prerequisite for communion. This tension eventually led to Edward's being voted out of the church at the age of 46.

He then moved to the town of Stockbridge where he worked as a preacher in a small church there as well as a missionary to the Indians, becoming very well liked by both. He also wrote several theological papers here. During this time, his daughter married the president of a college (now called Princeton)--who subsequently died, at which point the college asked Edwards to be his successor. Edwards reluctantly accepted the position but within a few month of taking the position, he died of smallpox.

By his preaching and writing, he had a large affect on the Great Awakening and on religion in New England. "Still to-day, in spite of wide departures from his theological system, he remains an effectual spiritual force in the churches inheriting the Puritan tradition." (H. Norman  Gardiner) Perhaps his greatest legacy is the change he made in the hearts and lives of people under his ministry--not any writings he left behind him.

His most famous work is "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It is partly famous because of the story that goes with. During the Great Awakening, when religious revival was sweeping New England, the town of Enfield, Connecticut, was untouched. Edwards had been appointed to speak there on a certain day and people from the surrounding area were so concerned that they spent the night before praying that the revival that had visited them would also come to Enfield. At the beginning of Edwards' message, the people were disinterested. As one witness said, "the appearance of the assembly was thoughtless and vain. The people hardly conducted themselves with common decency." However, by the time the sermon was over, revival had broken out among them and there was so much crying that Edwards had trouble being heard.

There is a structure to the sermon, not uncommon to Edwards. First there is the text and the examination of it. These observations lead to the main idea of the sermon; the main part of the sermon is the development and expansion of this idea. Then, having developed the idea, he ends with a section of application.

The main idea or proposition of the sermon is clearly stated early on: "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." In this sermon, Edwards is addressing sinners--specifically, sinners who recognize their responsibility to God. There is nothing in this sermon for those who are already Christians or for people who disbelieve either in God or their own sinfulness. It is not to such people that he speaks. Rather, he is addressing a very specific kind of person--the sinner who recognizes his need and intends to get right with God... someday. Edwards is trying to show them that they have no guarantee of a future opportunity and so must seek God now. Essentially, this sermon is a warning against procrastination, against putting off a decision to follow God.

In working up to his proposition, Edwards primarily makes use of a simile. The text is the line: "Their foot shall slide in due time." (Deuteronomy 32:35) For several paragraphs, Edwards develops this picture of someone walking along a very slippery path.  "They were always exposed to destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall." Someone walking in such places is in danger of falling every moment: "he can't foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next."  The falling is very easy: "as he that stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down." In the same way, the wicked are in continual danger of sudden destruction.

He develops a similar idea later, again through the use of simile, saying that "It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand... The unseen, unthought of ways and means of persons' going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won't bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight can't discern them."

A little later in the sermon, he pictures what someone in Hell would say if they could be asked if they, while alive, thought they would end up in Hell.  "No, I never intended to come here: I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind... I intended to take effectual care; but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief."

In other words, Edwards primary point is that we have no guarantee of continued life; if you are a sinner, you have no guarantee that you will not be dead and in Hell before the day is out. Nothing in this world is keeping us safe--only the continued forbearance of God--the very God against whom we have sinned and whose righteous anger is raised against sinners. "You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. 'Tis ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up."

Edwards goal in this sermon is to encourage his hearers to take action, to repent and turn to God--not at some future point, but immediately, at that very moment. This is the conclusion of the sermon. "Let every one that is yet out of Christ and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women or middle-aged or young people or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence... Therefore let every one that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come... 'Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest ye be consumed.'"

The entire sermon is built around the idea that God has, up to the present moment, shown mercy and forbearance to those sinners who are alive and therefore they should repent before that mercy and forbearance comes to an end. But why has God shown this mercy and forbearance up to this point?

It is not because He can't bring judgment, since obviously He could easily. It is not the claims of justice, since justice demands the punishment of sinners. It is not love, or, at least this is not mentioned. (God's love is only referenced twice in this sermon and both times in reference to His love for Christians.)

In a sense, then, NO reason is given, no reason except the mere arbitrary decision of God. In his proposition, Edwards says that sinners have been preserved by "the mere pleasure of God." In the next sentence he defines what he means by that: "his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty." In this one can trace the clear note of Edwards Calvinistic theology. However, it is true that God's actions are arbitrary in that they are conditioned by nothing outside him and though we believe that God's love leads him to hold open the door of mercy, this is a free choice on God's part and we have no guarantee that it will remain open for any of us. In that sense, even an Arminian can agree with the bulk and main thrust of this sermon. God, out of His vast love, has given us an opportunity today. We have no promise of being given another opportunity tomorrow.

But though the doctrine he preaches is rather hard, there is an interesting note about the attitude of the sermon itself. Over and over Edwards speaks in language of compassion and pity for the sinners he addresses: "How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be. Oh, that you would consider it, whether you be young or old! There is reason to think that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity... If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing it would be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But alas! instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell!"

"So far as Edwards's personal attitude is concerned, it is not difficult to detect in it the pathos and the pity of the gentlest of men weeping over the senseless folly of those who, blind to impending destruction, refuse repeated invitations of safety." (Gardiner) The compassion is very proper and right. If more preachers had presented the doctrine of Hell with this attitude, it might not have garnered the scorn and reproach it has. Too often, whatever the real attitude of the preacher, the general impression given is that of the preacher in Eggleston who “seemed to be kind of glad that we was to be damned.” But while we're on the subject, we shouldn't miss the irony of Edwards attitude. He shows love and compassion for the sinners in the hands of God--the very thing he either denies or at least ignores in God himself. Somehow Edwards is more loving and compassionate than the God he serves. This is not a particular problem of Edwards but of Calvinistic theology in general, and can be roughly said to be at the heart of the criticism of classical Calvinism by George MacDonald.

But we must not think that Edwards sermon or theology is all doom and gloom. He does have another side, a positive as well as a negative. Though it is not the main thrust of this sermon, he does point to the blessings of the saved as well as the sufferings of the lost: "Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very likely in the same miserable condition that you are in are in now a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him that has loved them and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest for one moment in such a condition?"

Edwards, J. Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Ed., H. N. Gardiner. Project Gutenberg E-Book.