Friday, March 3, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 4

[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] We failed to break through the Nadirite blockade and reach Altayra Rex and so we returned to Centauri City, where Red went AWOL and had to be rounded up by Blue, Black, Silver, and myself. In the process, we barely avoided an encounter with our old foe, the Intimidator. After we returned to our ship, the Prefect contacted us and told us to go to Kappa Base where would meet up with a Mobile Battle Unit Squad and then 'hitch a ride' on a planetoid called the Wanderer by which we could travel to the Altayra System unnoticed. At Kappa Base, we met our contact, the enthusiastic General Kenton. He was just explaining to us about mysterious machines which had taken over the Wanderer, when I noticed Gold become suddenly upset and angry by something--or rather, someone.

Gold's face was livid now. "You!" he exclaimed in a low voice. He took a step backwards, and his hands balled into fists as in some kind of instinctive reaction.

"Didn't expect to see me, did you?" asked a rough voice.

The man who spoke had walked up behind General Kenton while they looked at his mecha. He too wore a flight suit and an insignia which marked him as a member of the Patrol, though a lower officer. He was a short man, but well-built, husky and bulky. And he had an unruly mane of blonde hair which seemed almost unnaturally bright and yellow, like finely polished gold.

"What in the Cosmos are you doing here?" Gold still stood as if ready for a fight, and his voice was rougher and lower than usual.

"Really, now? I was hoping for a little warmer reception, Colton."

Gold phased on all of his armor except his helmet, and his voice rose slightly. "Does this armor mean anything to you? I'm Gold. Gold! Leader of the Corps. How many times do I have to tell you that, Dad?"

"Dad?" repeated Black and White almost in unison. Even Green seemed startled, though he didn't say anything.

Gold suddenly seemed to remember the others and he relaxed slightly, phasing off his armor. "Oh, right. White, Black, Green--this is my dad--

"Colonel Morgan Arrn," interrupted General Kenton, with typical effusion, "callsign 'Aurum,' Mobile Battle Unit division 378, holder of three Cosmic Heart Medals for bravery in service."

"Well, at least you seem glad to see me, General. Not so sure about this kid, though."

Gold bristled but seemed too annoyed to speak.

General Kenton was talking again. "You see, the Prefect wants us to act immediately, but I don't have a squad together right now--I was working on some solo stuff in this area--it was awesome, but it's also top secret so I can't tell you about it--and so we had to come up with a makeshift squad for this mission. But since a couple of my old friends were in the area on other business--"

"A couple?" interrupted Gold. "So Mom's here too?"

"She's out doing a little scouting, but she should be back any minute," answered Gold's father.

So both of Gold's parents were in the Patrol--apparently, both piloting Mobile Battle Unites. White nodded. Somehow it did make perfect sense.

"So it's going to be like old times, us fighting together," the general continued. "You and me and Cobalt--it's been forever since we've been together in battle. It's going to be awesome. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

Gold's father smiled, a little ironically. "Sure, let's go with that. But don't discount us ordinary mechs. Just watch where you aim your laser and leave the rest to us." He glanced back at the Corps. "You kids are just along for the ride, I guess? Just trying to get through to Altayra Rex?"

Gold had tensed up and once again he had seemed to fall into a fighter's stance. "We are the Corps." He was speaking practically between clenched teeth. "We are the defenders of Ursa Prime. We carry on a legacy and a power which has continued for over a thousand years. We don't need your help."

"Oh, really? So what's this I hear about your not being able to break through the Nadirite blockade?"

"We simply weren't prepared for them to be there. We--"

"A good soldier is always prepared. It's a lesson you needed to learn sometime, kid."

Again, Gold had phased on his armor except for his helmet, and now he was floating a few inches from the floor. "What right do you have to criticize our work? It's not as if--"

"I have a question," said Green, unexpectedly interrupting the conversation. He seemed troubled, though White couldn't make up her mind whether he was bothered by the argument and trying to stop it or whether he was so puzzled by something else that he had just been ignoring it. "Prefect Alkyte said he was sending a squad. A MBU squad is always composed of five machines. With General Kenton and Gold's parents, that makes three. What about the other two?"

"Right, yeah, about that. The Patrol doesn't have any other mechs in the area, none that could be here in time to make our rendezvous on the Wanderer, anyway. But I happened to know a couple of mercenaries in the area, and I was able to arrange for them to fight alongside us in this mission."

"Mercenaries?" repeated White. She was familiar with the concept. Because the Patrol had reduced the number of Mobile Battle Units in operation, many former mech pilots had gone into the private sector, hiring their services to private individuals for one reason or another. However, usually they did not have a very amicable relationship with the Patrol.

Gold's father seemed a little worried. "You told me about that. Sure that'll be all right with the Patrol? It's not exactly according to protocol."

"It had better be all right, or there's going to be trouble," commented a rough voice as another figure joined the party.

White suddenly had the feeling that the entire hallway had compressed, that the world was smaller than it had been a minute before. This was the sudden, instinctive change in perspective which came with the size of the new figure. He was a giant of man, seeming to dwarf all of them and to give the entire room a cramped feeling. White was amazed that he could walk down the hall without bumping his head on the ceiling. The impression wasn't merely one of height but also of bulk and muscle. This man would have made even Silver seem puny by comparison. He was a very different kind of man than what one expected to see around a patrol base. His face was rough and tanned. His heavy beard and matted hair seemed a little wild and uncivilized, an impression which was only magnified by their vibrant, fiery red color. He wore loose white pants and a white tunic tied at the waist by a silver cord. And he was barefoot.

"Who are you?" asked Black. Nothing startled her.

"I'm--" the man began, but General Kenton interrupted him.

"Let me say. All right, ready? He's--Montero Son-of-the-Wilderness of the Clan of Kyusak." He said it all in one breath. "That's so much fun to say, isn't it? Oh, and this is his wife--Mrs. Son-of-the-Wilderness. Or--Daughter-of-the-Wilderness--or--how does that work again, exactly?"

"Just call me Gayle," said the woman who stood beside the man. Somehow they hadn't noticed her before. Of course, besides a man of such dominating presence, anyone might be missed. Yet there was something about this woman that was strangely allusive and suggested that she might be standing alone in an empty room and you could still not notice her. It wasn't that she seemed insigificant. It would have been closer to the truth to say that she looked very nearly invisible. She was not short (though she seemed like it compared to the giant Montero), but she did have a slender build. She wore a gray cloak and hood, bound at the neck by some kind of silver clip.

"All right, General Half-Pint," continued the man called Montero, his voice rough and somewhat arrogant, "let's get one thing clear. Do you have official permission to hire mercenaries? Because I'm not about to get into a job like this without knowing I'm going to get paid."

"Of course, I took care of everything, Montero. This is going to be so great. All of us fighting together again. And that means we'll have three mechas and mechas are awesome. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

"Whatever," said Gayle in an emotionless voice.

"You're sure?"

"I cleared this with the Prefect himself."

"All right then." Montero shook out his heavy mass of hair. "I just want to make one thing clear, General Half-Pint. I wouldn't even agree to do this, if it weren't for one thing. What's going on with the Wanderer--machines working on their own--it sounds just slightly familiar. There just a possibility that this is a resurgence of the Legion. That's the only reason why I'm accepting this mission."

"That's not very likely," said Gold's dad with a frown.

"No. Not likely. But I'm not going to miss any chance, because I can't rest until I'm absolutely sure there isn't a single fragment of the Legion left in existence anywhere in the universe."

"You do know that isn't even logically possible, right?" General Kenton began.

"You don't have to teach me about logic, General Half-Pint. I'm married, remember?"

"Oh, right."

"What are you doing this area, anyway, Montero?" asked Gold's dad, looking up at the mercenary. "Last I heard, you were working outside the Abakansk Sector."

Montero grunted. "Still am, more or less. But I took a break to go home, and we were just on our way back when General Half-Pint interrupted us."

"Home? You mean Dioran-Quad?"

"Yeah." He shook his head and when he spoke again, his voice had a slightly softer, more introspective note to it. "Never know it for the same place, though. The clans are actually beginning to work together instead of fighting. Most of the time, anyway. And things are actually growing there now, too. It's still not as fertile as Dioran-Trey, but it's like a paradise compared to what it used to be. Jayon really has done wonders since he became governor."

"And Ky'al's almost as good a scientist as Cobalt," added Gold's dad. "With her there, I'm not surprised that things are beginning to look up. Though I guess it's partly due to the shake-up the Legion gave the planet." And he laughed, a little strangely.

"By the way," Montero continued, "next time you talk to your sister, tell her that Jayon and Ky'al really want her and Bry to come out for a visit some time."

"I'll tell her, but what with being part of the Honor Guard, they can't get away from Ursa Prime very often."

"And I'm sure we're all okay with these touching conversations preventing us from making our rendezvous with the Wanderer," remarked Gayle.

This woman could give Blue lessons in sarcasm, White thought.

"Right, we don't have much time," agreed General Kenton. "We actually only have a small window of time when the mechs can land on the Wanderer, because there's only a short period of time when it's traveling by absolute space before it moves back to relative space. Your ship," he added glancing back at the Corps, "can travel by relative space too, so you've got a little bigger window. But it's best if we all get there together. Gayle, make contact with Cobalt and work out the calculations on this."

"Sure. Why not?"

"Green-skin buddy--"

"My name is Green." Green pulled his hat down with a motion of annoyance.

"Right--Green--anyway--you're the smart one of your group, right?"

"My intelligence level is considered above standard."

White nodded. Though because of her cybernetic implants she could process information more quickly than Green, he had more raw intelligence than any of them. She had never heard a formal statement, but she was sure his intellect was genius level--and she supposed that was why he had been chosen for the Corps.

"Then I want you to work with Gayle and Cobalt on the theoretical side of this."

For once Green seemed a little pleased. "Working out that kind of calculation would be interesting."

"Cobalt's an expert on this kind of thing," added Gold's dad. "Listen and you might learn something, kid."

White thought she saw Green roll his eyes, but she wasn't sure.

Gold's reaction, on the other hand, was more obvious. "We're not kids. We are the Corps." His voice had fallen several steps from its normal pitch.

"You may be the Corps, Colton, but--"

"Gold! I'm Gold!"

"Look, don't talk to me like that, kid. You may be the leader of the Corps, but you're still--"

"Anyway!" General Kenton stepped forward and shouted out the word more like a command than a transition. "I'll bet you girls are just dying to get a closer look at a mecha, aren't you? Of course you are because mechas are awesome. Montero and I can give you a tour while Gayle and Green work out the route. I'm sure these two have things they need to catch up on. Right! Let's go!"

White wasn't quite sure how it happened, but somehow by sheer force of his enthusiasm, General Kenton managed to break the group up. He and Montero led Black and White down a corridor towards the Mobile Battle Unit docking bay, while Gayle and Green vanished in the other direction. White glanced behind her to see that Gold and his dad were still standing, staring at each other, but they weren't talking. It looked more like the stand-off before a fight than a family reunion.

"Those two still don't get along any better, do they?" commented Montero in a low voice which probably hadn't been intended for White and Black to hear.

General Kenton just shook his head. "I never would have dreamed of talking to my Dad and Mum like that."

"I never had parents, but in the Clan of Kyusak, we had more respect for any elder."

"Somehow I never saw that coming," said Black, in a voice that was low but otherwise like her normal tone. "I never would have pictured Gold in the 'rebellious son' role. You know what I mean?"

"Gold's family relations really aren't any of our business." It wasn't quite true, but White really didn't want to discuss it at that moment--especially not with Black.

Black glanced at her. "You know, you're about as much fun to be around as Gold. Even Green isn't as serious as you two."

"Is that a bad thing?" asked White. But she really wasn't paying attention to the conversation.

"Yeah, sometimes." For just a moment, there was a strange note to Black's voice, something unlike her normal tone. "Sometimes that can be a very bad thing."

White was a little puzzled by Black's answer, but she was too deep in her own thoughts to pay much attention. Besides, by now they had reached the docking bay, and there was no more time for conversation.

White did not see Gold again for some time. General Kenton gave them a closer look at his mecha along with those of two mercenaries. (Montero's was a huge white machine armed with a giant hammer, while Gayle's was smaller and was the same gray color as the bay in which it was docked. Kenton explained that it had the unique power of matching its environment for camouflage purposes.) After this, she and Black returned to The Crystallair and waited for Green and Gold to return.

When Gold did appear, he seemed morose and out of sorts. He gave a few curt responses to questions and then settled down at the control panel of the ship, though whether he was really accomplishing anything or was just looking for an excuse not to talk to the others was an open question.

Gold's mood put something of a damper over the entire crew (except Black, of course), and there was mostly silence in The Crystallair. Things did not really return to normal until Green returned.

For once, Green seemed animated. "Your mother is amazing, Gold," he commented with something like awe as he entered the ship. His hat was pushed back on his head, and his eyes almost seemed to be sparkling. "She can do fourth dimensional conversions in her head."

"Well, that's sort of her area of expertise," commented Gold, swiveling to face him. He seemed to have recovered something of his ordinary poise by now, and he spoke calmly if not exactly enthusiastically. "Did you get all the calculations we need?"

"Yes." Green sat down at the table and activated the holocube. "I'll send all the figures over to the main consul. If we're going to make the rendezvous on schedule, we'll have to leave soon."

White walked up behind Gold and watched as he pulled up the figures that Green had fed over to him. Based on these, it wouldn't really take them long to reach the Wanderer and it would be a fairly simply flight, except for the very last part where they had to land on the small planetoid.

"Good." Gold stood up. "Red, are you awake yet?" he asked, speaking into his communicator.

Red made some sound, like a grunt but more disgruntled, which seemed to suggest acquiescence.

"All right, then. Come out to the main cabin. We're getting ready for take off."


As White had gathered from his brief monosyllables, Red was in a rather sullen mood, something which was very evident from his face when he joined them.

Gold stood up and glanced over the group. "So is everyone clear on our mission?"

"We're going to rendezvous with the Wanderer," answered Green without looking up, "and use it to travel to the Altayra System, in the process dealing with whatever may be happening on it. We also have to rendezvous with your parents and General Kenton who will--"

"Whoa, wait, what?" Surprise seemed to shock Red back into his normal mood. "Gold has parents?"

"You missed a lot, crimson kid." Black was playing with a knife, as usual. "Part of the MBU squad we're working with are Gold's mom and dad."

"Morgan and Corena Arrn," supplied Green still without looking up. "Otherwise known as Aurum and Cobalt. They pilot Class-H, standard mechs. The others three pilot Class-O, mechas."

Apparently, he had absorbed a lot of information during the course of the day.

Red smirked a little. "Gold's parents, huh? So this mission is going to be like a family outing?"

Gold took a step forward, and his face darkened. "That's just about enough out of you."

"What did I do?" Red took a step backwards and seemed honestly surprised at the warmth of Gold's reaction.

"What haven't you done? But we're going to ignore all that until after we finish this mission. The takes precedence over everything."

Red made an awkward, almost sheepish smile. "Yeah, well, anyway--about your parents--they're in the Patrol?"

Gold was still tense, though his voice was more normal. "Mom and Dad have been in the MBU division since the war with the Legion. Usually they work a little closer to Diaster City, but with all the Nadirite activity in this sector, they've been transferred here."

Red laughed. "You know, I just can't picture that. You with parents. "

"Though people frequently do seem to have them," observed Blue emotionlessly.

White could tell that Gold was stiffening. Obviously, the topic was not a pleasant one.

But as usual, Red was oblivious. He was strutting around, doing a caricature of the heavy walk of a man. "Gold," he blustered, in an assumed deep voice, "have you finished your homework? Go clean your room. Now listen to--hey!" He brook off with a yelp as Gold lunged across the cabin and half pushed, half threw him against the wall.

"When I want input from you about my family life, I'll ask for it, Stefan Kastoria. Now, just shut up, or I'm going to forget that we need you for this mission."

White gave a quick intake of breath. Gold was definitely unusually upset. She had never seen him so angry that he actually called one of the Corps by their real name. And though she didn't blame him for being a little annoyed with Red at present, there was nothing in the situation to warrant that kind of emotion.

"Heh, heh." Red chuckled nervously.

Gold still seemed livid and kept him pinned against the wall. "Do you really think this is a laughing matter?"

Green stood up suddenly. "Sir--if we don't leave within the next five minutes, absolute time, we will be unable to reach the Wanderer at the agreed rendezvous time. Though we will still be able to land after that time by moving to relative space, it will cause a ripple in the Wanderer's inertia frame which will make it impossible for the MBUs to land."

Gold released Red and spun around on his heel. "Huh," he grunted and gave no other response. He sat down at the control panel and made some quick adjustments. Then he stood up again. "White, you can take control of the flight. The flight schematic is right there on the consul. Since you all know the situation now, the rest of you can be at ease until we reach the Wanderer. Except you, Red--go back to your room. I'm still not forgetting your stunt in Centauri City. I'll be in the viewing room if you need anything," he added over his shoulder as he walked out of the room.

Red rubbed his shoulders, wincing slightly. "What did I say wrong?"

The flight to the Wanderer was a simple one. After take off, the group dispersed, and White was left alone with her work and her thoughts. (Well, technically, Green and Silver were still in the cabin with her, but Green was busy doing more calculations and Silver was sitting immovable as usual--so it wasn't that different from no one being there.) She would have liked to talk to Gold, both about their mission and about... other things... but she couldn't leave her work. And she couldn't quite escape the feeling that Gold had given her the job of piloting the ship to prevent such a conversation.

Was he ashamed of his outburst? She found it difficult to imagine Gold being ashamed. But then, she never would have pictured him acting in a lot of the ways she had seen him act in the last two hours.

She forced herself to concentrate on her work for a moment. She was losing focus. She was allowing things to get her stirred up emotionally. She was supposed to the level-headed member of the team. She was supposed to be better than that. When she was thirteen, she had promised herself--and had promised God--that she wouldn't ever allow her emotions to control her actions again. Not after what had happened that time. If she wasn't careful, she was going to end up breaking that promise. This mission was proving much more stressful than she had imagined.

She should have remembered her training. The Tremonsirs had always said that when things looked easy, then was the time to be especially on guard. 'Let he who is standing be careful because he may fall.'

Anyway, the worst should be over now. They were almost to the Wanderer and no matter what mysterious phenomena was going on there, she couldn't imagine it would provide much problem for them--especially when they had the five powerful MBUs along for the ride. Of course, once they got into the Altayra System--well--it was anyone's guess what would happen then. Still, her biggest worry was taken care of. They were safely out of Centauri City, and so there was no more danger of an encounter with the Intimidator. And maybe once they reached Altayra and finished up this mission, Gold would return to normal--once this stress was out of the way and, also, once they were no longer working with his parents.

Her thoughts were suddenly scattered as a voice roared through the ship's comms. "MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

"General Kenton?" She really didn't need to ask. "This is White on The Crystallair. Are you and your squad ready for the rendezvous?"

"Yeah! We've reached position, but according to my tech people, you have to land first or it will--do something to the--well, anyway, basically, it'd be really bad. Right, Cobalt?"

A weird giggle sounded through the comms and then a woman's voice spoke. "Cobalt says you should listen to her advice. Or everything go boom!"

"What?" White started slightly in surprise.

"Don't worry." Gold's voice spoke unexpectedly behind her. "That's just Mom."

"That was--but she sounded different before--" Green was clearly puzzled.

"It's her thing. I'll explain later. Are you ready for landing, White?"


"Then land. Corps! Suit up!"

White phased on her armor, and she assumed the others had also. This was a slightly dangerous maneuver. The Crystallair was a small, light ship, and there was some slight danger that when they landed, the hull would be fractured, compromising the internal atmosphere, causing the ship to collapse.

By now White had a good view of the Wanderer on the monitors. It was large as planatoids went and unusually spherical, looking more like a small planet than anything else. However, she couldn't get a good view of the surface of the planetoid itself. There was something surrounding it that looked like brightly colored clouds, which obscured most of the surface.

"Those are some psychedelic clouds," remarked Black. By now the entire Corps had gathered in the main cabin and everyone but Silver was gathered around the monitors.

"But they can't be clouds," White objected. "That planetoid is too small to maintain an atmosphere."

"Actually," Green corrected, "the Wanderer has an abnormally dense core which allows it to hold an atmosphere of nearly pure oxygen. However, what you see in the monitor is actually an aura of photonic energy formed by the planetoid's unique relation to the--"

"Can we fly through it?" asked Gold brusquely.

"Yes. It--"

"Then we don't need to worry about it."

White nodded. Flying into a situation without being able to see was not a new thing for her. Though the aura seemed to interfere slightly with the ship's instruments, they should still be able to guide her in.

Gold's voice barked out again. "Green, are we still on schedule based on your figures?"

"Two seconds short, but we calculated for some discrepancy like that."

"All right then."

The ship slid downward, cutting through the darkness of space like one of Black's knives. The next instant it had passed through the brilliant aura and was within the atmosphere of planetoid.

As they came for the first time within clear sight of their destination, White allowed herself one short gasp of surprise. She had been unconsciously expecting the surface of the Wanderer to be like any other planetoid she had seen--an empty wilderness of barren rock, wrinkled and pockmarked. Instead, the surface of the Wanderer seemed to be very smooth and homogenous, almost like the surface of a metal baring. And almost as surprising, this surface was cluttered--she could think of no better word--with strange objects, objects that were clearly alien to the planetoid.

"What in the Cosmos--" Gold began.

"You know what it looks like?" added Black. "It looks like one giant junk yard. Only the floor is too smooth for a junkyard."

"The smoothness is part of the unique composition of this planetoid," explained Green.

"And the junk?"

"Probably relates to the unusual phenomena General Kenton was telling us about."

"Huh.” Gold grunted. “White, can you see your way clear to land?"

"Yes." After a little searching, she had found a section of the planetoid which was relatively free of clutter--a section big enough for The Crystallair to touch down. Fortunately, the ship could land and take off horizontally, vertically, or nearly anything in-between.

The next moment, they were nestled safely on the surface of the planetoid. "General Kenton? We've landed. You and your squad can come in now." White turned in her chair and glanced at Gold. "Now what?"

"We'll disembark. Green, you said this planetoid has an atmosphere--can we breath it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you verify that?"

Green nodded. In addition to the various powers of his armor, Green's also had a built-in computer which allowed him to gather various kinds of data as well as jamming communications when necessary. After a moment, he spoke: "Yes, the atmosphere exactly matches what we believed it would be."

"Good. Then we won't need our armor, but we'd better have them on--we don't know what we may be dealing with here."

The Corps disembarked just in time to watch the five MBUs slowly descend to the surface of the planet. Each machine was surrounded by a sphere or aura of radiation which allowed it to fly, though not with the same speed of an ordinary spacecraft even in absolute space. Supported by this radiation, they dropped slowly through the sky, scattering the weird multicolored energy as they passed through it.

"All right!" General Kenton's voice roared through their communicators as his mecha's feet touched the surface of the Wanderer. The five machines had landed about a quarter of a mile away from The Crystallair. "How long are we going to be here?"

A woman's voice spoke. "It should take about two hours absolute time for the Wanderer to pass through the Void and come out in the Altayra System." White could barely recognize it as the voice she had heard before--the voice of Gold's mother--the one they called Cobalt. Though the voice itself was the same, the tone was totally different. Now she spoke calmly and efficiently, with just a note of good humor.

"Right. That gives us some time to investigate things here."

"So you kids might as well get back in your ship and wait, while we look around," commented Aurum. "Not much you can do--not much that we can't do--"

"Why--" Gold's face darkened and his eyes narrowed. (All of the Corps had phased on their armor, but they hadn't bothered to phase on their helmets since the atmosphere was breathable.)

General Kenton seemed to sense what was about to happen and stepped in quickly to avert an argument. "Anyway, this planetoid isn't very big, so it shouldn't take long to search. Gold, how about--"

General Kenton didn't have a chance to finish his sentence before it happened.

As White had noted when they landed, nearly the whole of the planetoid was covered with junk, with machines of every description and every stage of completion--Black had called it when she said it looked like a giant junk yard. Among the piles of junk, was a large laser canon mounted as if for the turret of a war ship. The canon was old but still serviceable, though the mounting was partly missing. But at that moment, as General Kenton was speaking, the canon rotated slowly on its base. It moved only a few degrees--a few degrees which meant it was pointing directly across the field at the MBUs--and then a row of lights along the back came on one by one.

And that could mean only one thing.

Though it seemed to take a lifetime for it to move, it was only a matter of seconds. But as fast as it was, Gold was faster. He shot forward, slamming his whole armored body against the side of the canon, knocking it sideways. It changed the trajectory of the shot, but it didn't stop it. With a slight whine and a crackle of raw energy, a beam of concentrated red light blasted out of the canon, instantly melting everything in its path.

One of the things it melted was a cask which exploded with a loud boom, showering red hot fragments of--something--everywhere.

In an instant, the five MBUs had shot forward to the location of the disaster.

"That's solid rocket fuel." Cobalt's voice was still calm but came with a note of urgency. "If it ignites--"

"The entire atmosphere will catch on fire," finished General Kenton.

"Only if they're still in the atmosphere," Montero responded.

The five MBUs moved almost together, as if synchronized. Fragments of the solid fuel had been scattered throughout the surrounding area, but without a moment's hesitation, they headed for various pieces, and using the massive "hands" of their machines, they gathered the pieces and threw them upwards.

Gold and White rushed forward to join, with the rest of the Corps coming behind.

"Stay back," ordered General Kenton. "Your suits are too small to deal with this. It's a job for mechas. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

"But if they do ignite while you're working with them, your radiation shields won't protect you," Gold pointed out. "And without those, your vulnerable. But it can't hurt us in our armor."

"You'll just be in the way," drawled Aurum. "This is no place for kids."

"We're not just kids--"

"I always enjoy having meaningless arguments in moments of intense danger." This from Gayle.

"Yeah, you two keep quiet," agreed Montero. "In the time it takes you to argue about it, we can have this cleared out."

The mechs really didn't seem to need the Corps' help. White was impressed. Even though they were not a standard squad and two of them were mercenaries, they seemed to function as one. It was a degree of cooperation even they, as the Corps, didn't always achieve.

"That's the last of 'em," commented Aurum, as the last piece of the solid fuel vanished into the shining aura above the planet.

"Because this one doesn't count?" asked Gayle, as she unearthed a piece which had been partially buried.

"Now, that's the last one." The "head" of General Kenton's machine glanced upward to watch this piece vanish and then turned to face his squad. "Now, wasn't that totally awesome? Yeah!"

"No." This was Gayle again.

The Corps had now moved forward and joined the MBUs. "But what made that laser fire like that?" asked White.

"It must've been old and defective," answered Aurum. "We probably knocked it around somehow when we landed--this place isn't use to visitors, you know--and that made it go off."

"No." Gold was floating a few inches off the ground and his voice was serious. "It wasn't an accident. It was aiming--at you five."

"Oh, come on, Colton, this is no time for stories like that. A laser doesn't just aim all on its own."

"No, but somebody--or something--could have been aiming it," Montero pointed out. "Let's have a look."

A few minutes later, the seven members of the Corps and the five MBU pilots were standing around the laser canon, examining it. Well, most of the examining was being done by Cobalt and Green. This was White's first opportunity to see Gold's mother outside of her machine. She was not a tall woman, though slightly taller than her husband. She had a petite build and girlish looks, though her black hair showed a few signs of gray.

She finally stood up and shook her head. "There's no way that thing was controlled remotely. It simply doesn't have the capabilities for that. There's no way any outside force could have connected to it. You must have been right--" she added, turning to Aurum-- "it must somehow have been a byproduct of our landing here--that must have caused it to release a charge."

Green still was kneeling on one knee beside the machine, examining it. He didn't say anything.

But Gold shook his head. "No. It couldn't have been an accident. It actually aimed. We all saw it."

Aurum placed his hands on his hips. "Look, kid, I know this is a high-tension situation, but you've got to learn not let your imagination get out of control."

White started to speak and then stopped. She had a feeling it wouldn't do any good.

Gold's eyes sparked and for a moment, it almost seemed as if he were going to attack. And then his faced hardened and he spoke in a cold, calm voice. "So the Prefect sent you to investigate machines working on their own and yet you don't believe it when you see it. Tell me again how you got to be a Colonel?"

"Hey, watch it, kid. There are lines you know." Now it was Aurum who looked like he was about to attack.

Until Montero grabbed the back of his flightsuit and lifted him bodily a few feet off the ground. "Look, Aurum, I'm being paid a lump sum for this job, not by the hour, and so I don't want it to take any longer than it needs to. If you want to have a family feud, do it on your own time."

"Right, anyway!" General Kenton seemed equally anxious to prevent a quarrel. "As I was saying before I was interrupted by a laser--I mean, lasers are my thing; who else gets to use a laser around here?--this planetoid is pretty small. How about we split up? Gold, you and your troops can take one half, we'll take the other."

Gold seemed calm again. "That should work."

"All right, then. Let's go. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

A few minutes later, the five MBU pilots had reboarded their machines and moved off. And Green was still kneeling by the cannon.

"You heard what General Kenton said." Gold turned to face the rest of the Corps. "We've got to move out and investigate this planetoid."

Green suddenly pushed his hat back and glanced up. "Sir--I've figured it out. It was remote resonance caused by some kind of mnemic symbiosis."


Black shook her head. "Just for curiosity, does anybody understand what Green says when he talks? Because, if not, how do we know he isn't just making stuff up?"

"Green, are you saying you've found a link?

"Yes, sir. But I've never seen anything like this before. I can't understand what would cause a machine to form this kind of resonance with anything else, but it clearly did. It's as if it 'remembered' being part of something else and acted according to that memory." And then he launched into a scientific explanation that went even over White's head.

Gold cut him off. "Right. Any idea how we find what caused this?"

"No." Green pulled his hat down again and seemed a little miffed. "As I said, I've never seen this kind of phenomena before."

"Then all we can do is search this place for anything suspicious. Blue, have you picked up anything strange?"

Blue shook her head. "We're standing on a planetoid that can travel by means that defy the laws of physics covered with machines that seem to be able to operate all their own--I can't find anything strange about any of that."

"I think I have a theory about why these machines are here, though I can't understand their functionality." Green had stood up by now. "Do you know where that cannon came from?"

"I would guess a space ship of some kind."

"It was from a Titan Warstar, Class A. To be exact, it was from The Gryphon."

Nobody bothered asking Green how he knew that. "But the Patrol scrapped The Gryphon a year ago," Gold pointed out.

"Exactly. Somebody obtained some of the weapons from it, though. If I'm not mistaken, many of these machines were stolen from scrapped Patrol ships."

Gold and White glanced at each other.

"Pieces stolen from the Patrol." Gold frowned in concentration. “Then I understand what all this means.”

White also understood. "Then you're saying--"

"This is what we've been looking for," finished Gold.

"The black market arms manufacturer?"

"Um-hum, that's what it looks like. Somebody is stealing parts from the Patrol and refashioning them for their own purposes. And what a better place than an abandoned planetoid?"

"And since we thought some of the Nadirite weapons were obtained from that black market dealer--"

"Then there maybe some connection here to the Nadirites."

Black was glancing back and forth from Gold and White. "It's actually a little creepy that you two can finish each other's sentences like that. Just saying."

Gold ignored her. "All right, Corps, arc formation. Let's go forward and see what else we can find. Anything will be helpful."

"So we're searching for something in a junk yard." Red yawned. "Really not my idea of a good time."

"Careful, or I may decide to leave you here," answered Gold.

As they moved forward, White was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of articles which was scattered around the planetoid. Some things were clearly weapons. Some were parts of engines. Some were other machines from inside a space ship, like half of an atmosphere simulator. And with some she couldn't even guess as to what they were or where they came from. Some were almost in perfect condition, while others were torn and dismembered. A few even showed signs of oxidation. (Most metal was treated so as to resist oxidation, but in this kind of atmosphere, even this couldn't protect it forever.) Most were not of any particular interest.

One small machine, however, caught her attention as soon as she saw it. It was in a small cleared space, sitting on the back of an old generator as if it were a table. It was a half sphere of translucent blue with a clear cylindrical stem sticking out of the top. A number of chrome dials and terminals were mounted around it.

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked, stepping forward to examine it.

Green was already beside it, his face covered with an expression of awe and even a subdued ecstasy. She'd never seen Green look so emotional about anything. "Yes," he said finally in a low voice. "Yes, it is."

"What are you two so excited about?" Red was looking at it blankly. "It looks like some kind of fancy knickknack--like something my mom would stick on a shelf for decoration."

Green was still staring at the device, and even his retort to Red didn't sound as disgusted as it usually would have. "This is an Nth Dimensional Holocube."

Red--and most of the others--still looked blank, but Gold registered surprise. "But that's illegal."

"Well, we just decided this place was cluttered up by a criminal, so that's no big surprise," Black pointed out.

Gold ignored her. "An Nth Dimensional Holocube--a computer capable of doing advanced calculations in trans-dimensional physics. And the Nadirites now are doing experiments with Primitive Warp Drive Technology, which is also a form of trans-dimensional physics. Another sign that there's a link between the Wanderer and the Nadirites in some form. We'd better confiscate this, though. This would be one the hottest pieces of tech on this planetoid. Lots of people would kill for one of these things."

Red was still looking in puzzlement at the object. "But it's a holocube--it's just a glorified computer. Why would anyone want it so badly? All it does is make calculations."

Green seemed back to normal, and he adjusted his hat with a characteristic motion. "When you're dealing with non-spatial dimensions, there is no strong line between calculations and reality. An Nth Dimensional Holocube isn't just a computer but an intersect capable--to a limited degree--of access and controlling trans-dimensional energy and other properties. If this device is fully functional, it is rare enough and powerful enough to merit--"

Abruptly, Gold motioned him to be quiet. His eyes had caught on something just ahead of them.

White followed his gaze and suddenly she felt the blood draining from her face. They were not alone. About fifteen feet ahead and a little to their right, a figure was sitting on top of some large machine. It was turned away from them, so they couldn't tell much about it. But White took in one fact immediately. It was someone wearing a hoodie.

That made her suspect the truth even before he moved slightly and she caught a glint of light off metal which told her the figure had a prosthetic hand.

They had avoided him in Centauri City but somehow, inexplicably, he was here--the last person in the Cosmos she wanted to see.

Maxwell Million--the Intimidator.

"Let's go," hissed Gold and he rose a few inches off the ground and flew forward, the rest of the Corps falling in behind him.

As they approached, the figure seemed to sense their presence, for he stood up and turned around.

When he stood up, he seemed ludicrously short because of the comparison to the machine on which he stood, though even without that, he was not a large figure, shortish in stature with a lean, almost skinny build. White knew he was about eighteen, but whenever she saw his face, she couldn't help thinking that he couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen. His hair was brown and fell in banks over his forehead, almost hiding his eyes. His eyes were also brown and slightly larger than average. As he turned around, he looked morose, and his eyes had an expression of hopeful sadness, an expression which seemed to invite pity--like the look one sees in some animals. But as he caught sight of them, his whole face lighted up. "Hey, guys!" he exclaimed, taking a step forward.

"Hey, Maxwell," responded Black. "How are you doing?"

"Great now that you're here. It gets pretty lonely around this place. I knew you were going to show up sooner or later, but I figured it'd be a while still." And then he stopped and a pained, annoyed expression filled his face, shining with full force out of his eyes. "No, no, no--this is all wrong! We shouldn't be talking like this. I'm your, you know, archenemy. You should be all like: 'How did you get here, you fiend?' and I'd be like, 'You'll never know, Corps, because you'll be dead, bwa ha ha' and you'd be like 'We can't hope to beat him but we won't go down without a fight' and I'd be like 'If it's a fight you want, then a fight you'll get'--and then we'd fight and I'd, you know, kill you."

"Let's not and say we did," suggested Black, irrepressible as always.

He frowned, almost pouting. "You don't look very intimidated. It's the hoodie, isn't it? Nobody's intimidated by a hoodie anymore--should've thought of that. All right then." In a quick motion, he pulled the hoodie off. Under it, he wore a tight fitting black shirt. It was sleeveless and one could see the metal prosthetic which extended up to his right elbow. He took a step back and made a few passes, as if shadow boxing, ending by striking a pose with his arms cross in front of his chest, the wrest of his flesh arm and the prosthetic just touching. "ULTIMATE INTIMIDATION MODE ACTIVATE!" he called out in a loud voice.

White knew what was coming next, but she still wasn't ready for it. As they stared at him, the silvery metal of his arm began to move, spreading from his prosthetic to his flesh arm as well as up over the elbow of his other arm. It traveled across his chest, seeming to absorb his shirt. Before you could have counted to ten, his entire body had been encased by metal which formed a sort of exoskeleton. The only thing that remained untouched was his face, though the metal formed a sort of helmet which protected--though it did not hide--his eyes.

"Now, that's a lot more intimidating, isn't it?" he commented, glancing up at them. His eyes almost seemed anxious and pleading.

Black shook her head. "Your arm just ate up your body. Freaky, yes. Disgusting, yes. Intimidating, not really."

Gold rose slightly so that he was on a level with him. "Maxwell, the only reason you ever intimidate anyone is because you fight so dirty. In a fair fight, even Red could whip you."

"Yeah, that's right--wait--hey!"

Maxwell shook his head. "What's a guy gotta do to get a little respect around here? I think you're just jealous."

"Don't kid yourself. Now, are you going to talk or are we going to make you?"

"Hey, wait, that's supposed to be my line. I mean, that sounds really intimidating. Or at least, it would if I said it--because, you know, I'm the Intimidator and you're not."

Gold moved forward slightly.

White realized she was holding her breath. She knew she shouldn't be worried. They were seven to one and for once they were facing the Intimidator one-on-one without any innocent civilians around to worry about. But she also was afraid that Gold was underestimating him. Despite the name he had chosen, Maxwell's chief power seemed to be the opposite of intimidation. His childish mannerism and those soft brown eyes tended to make people underestimate him--and that was a grave mistake. Yet even though White knew all that--knew that his exoskeleton (10% Syrian aluminum; 90% unknown metal) gave him powers almost equal to that of their armor, plus some unique abilities--knew that his strategies were ruthless and that he had no compunction about threatening and harming innocent people in order to obtain what he wanted--knew that in his career as a free-lance enforcer, racketeer, and self-appointed archenemy of the Corps he had broken most of the laws in the books of Ursa Prime--yet somehow, she could never quite believe it when she was face-to-face with him. Yet, despite that, something deep within her was scared of him--for many reasons, but largely because he was one person she could not read at all. Most people, good and bad, friend and foe, acquaintance and stranger, she could guess as to their thoughts and feelings based on their expressions and body language--but Maxwell was a complete mystery to her. She knew his normal appearance and demeanor had to be a front, but what his real thoughts and attitudes were she couldn't even guess.

Meanwhile, Gold was still moving slowly forward and Maxwell was moving slowly backwards. Suddenly he leaped sideways off the machine where he stood, landing on the ground in front of the Corps. He gave a strange whistle and called out: "Here, Timmy. Come on, boy."

After a second, a large mechog trotted out from behind one of the machines. White supposed it was the same animal she had seen with Maxwell the day before in Centauri City. It nuzzled up against Maxwell who rubbed the back of its neck with his hand. "That's a good boy."

"Timmy?" repeated Black incredulously. "You have a pet mechog and you named it Timmy?"

"It's short for Intimidation Dog. It has a nice ring but it's too long."

"Granted, of the two of you, he does seem the more intimidating."

But now the animal moved forward and White noted something she hadn't seen before. It had a harness on its back and by this it was pulling a small cart--a small cart piled full of weapons. Maxwell leaned down and pulled out an object. White started in surprise and unease as she saw what it was--a photon disrupter identical to that she had seen in the Nadirite ship.

He picked it up in his left hand and then tossed it to his right hand. Even with his exoskeleton, his right hand remained unformed, like the stump of his prosthetic, and it would have been difficult if not impossible for him to grasp the handle of the gun. But as he caught it, the metal of his exoskeleton extended and absorbed the weapon so that, the next instant, it seemed as if were an organic part of his body.

That was the power of Maxwell's which made him especially dangerous. Any weapon--pretty much anything--that he picked up could be absorbed by his exoskeleton so that it became a functional part of him, as much a part of him as his own arms and legs.

"These things are pretty nifty, aren't they?" He held up the photon disrupted and gave it an approving look. "I hear you guys really like these things."

Gold narrowed his eyes. "Corps, evasive maneuvers," he shouted, even as Maxwell raised his weapon and fired.

To be continued...

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