Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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...

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