Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 7


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold glanced at Green. “Is that possible?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man bowed. “Of course, m'lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold nodded. “And that is?”

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

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

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

Rothmar only shrugged.

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

Once again, Rothmar only shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You left them alone?” repeated Gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the five MBUs,” White reminded him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they had reached the ship by this point.

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

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

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

“Eight minutes, absolute time.”

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

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

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

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

“Given that, what?” Black prodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turn all monitors to approach mode.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

“Green?” Gold prodded.

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

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

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

“Understood.”

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. Corps, advance.”

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don't! I'm warning you!”

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

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

The wall had seen better days, though.

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

They had been ambushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Obviously.” This from Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seemingly, the Nadirites gave up any attempt at pursuit.

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

Erybus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That's a--” she began.

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

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

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

And there was one slight chance of preventing it.

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

To be continued...

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