Friday, March 10, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter Five


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] After our failure to break through the Nadirite blockade and reach Altayra Rex, Prefect Alkyte instructed us to meet up with a Mobile Battle Unit Squad and with them "hitch a ride" on a planetoid called the Wanderer. When we met the squad, I was surprised to find that it included Gold's parents, whom I had never met. Despite the obvious friction which existed between Gold and his father, our two groups traveled together to the Wanderer and landed. After battling an apparently unmanned cannon, the seven of us searched through the trash-laden planetoid for information, only to be confronted by our old enemy, Maxwell Million, the Intimidator--armed with a photon disrupter.


Immediately, all seven members of the Corps phased on their helmets and rose rapidly into the air. Green went invisible and others scattered.

Maxwell raised the photon disrupter and fired in their general direction. Out of the barrel of the weapon shot a beam--a beam which seemed like a mere shaft of darkness. In reality it was a sort of anti-light created by disrupting the essential elements of light. It was one of the few weapons which could, with relative ease, penetrate the armor of the Corps.

White allowed herself one brief moment of fear and worry before she forced herself to concentrate on the matter at hand. They had to take down the Intimidator--and quickly, before he hurt anyone with that weapon. She had to use the advanced speed of her armor to reach Maxwell before he could react. Though his exoskeleton gave him speed equal to the others, it couldn't match hers.

She shot outward in an arc, her armor seeming to change to a mere streak of white light. He knew them and their powers well enough to suspect her plan of attack, but she hoped he would be too busy with the others and, anyway, no matter what he did, he couldn't match her speed.

She had made a half circle around Maxwell and was closing in from behind when it happened. He had just fired, seemingly at random, sending a blast of anti-light into empty air--when suddenly a muffled cry sounded through their comms and Green flickered into visibility and fell to the ground.

"Green!" she shouted, startled.

Maxwell spun towards her when she shouted. (Under the stress of the moment she had forgotten to switch off her outside communicator.) If he had fired immediately as he spun, he would have gotten her, but he seemed to hesitate for a moment. That gave her just time to dash sideways, but she had lost her chance to get close to him.

Gold moved towards Green. "Green! Are you all right?"

"I'm sorry, sir." Green seemed a little more tense than usual--though not so tense that he had forgotten to switch to private communication. "He got close to me, and it startled me. But I'm all right." He hovered where he was for a moment and then went invisible again.

"That's right. You feel really intimidated now, don't you?"

Black turned a summersault in the air. "Well, I would have called it 'angry,' but who's quibbling over terms, right?" As she turned in the air, she extended the blades from her arms and came down, aiming at the Intimidator's cart of weapons.

But the mechog seemed to sense her attack and jerked the cart out of the way. She still connected, but only succeeded in severing the harness which attached the mechog to the cart. Free of this restraint, the animal jumped to Maxwell's side and nuzzled up against him.

"That's a good boy." Maxwell rubbed the animal's back with his unoccupied hand. "White and Green--I know you both think you can sneak up on me, but as stealthy as you are, you can't sneak up on a mechog. You know that, right?"

Black paused for a moment. "So, what, are we fighting you or him?"

"Both. It's called a buddy battle."

"So apparently now there's a fine line between a friend and a pet?"

"Call it ally." He raised the photon disrupter again and fired a blast at Black, who twisted out of the way, but just barely.

White knew that Maxwell's words weren't an empty boast. The mechog's superhuman senses might be able to detect even Green's armor. That made things more difficult. Green's stealth ability had always been their ace-in-the-hole when fighting the Intimidator before. She might be able to zip in before the animal could react to her, but she wasn't sure she wanted to take the chance.

"Gold, what's our plan?" she asked. So long as they stayed on the defensive, Maxwell had the advantage. He had seven targets, and it was only a matter of time before he scored a hit--and she didn't even want to think about what that would mean.

"Our plan?" repeated Gold, his voice cold. "We beat him. Hard."

"Little more specific, chief?" asked Black.

Gold started barking out orders with his usual decision. "Blue, retreat and observe from a distance--see if you can pick up anything that will be helpful. Red, take the outer position and try to keep him distracted. White and Green, go dark and look for a chance to sneak up on him. Silver and me will close in and keep him off balance. Black, stay close too and try to get an opportunity to slash that disrupter. It's a patch job so one good hit should be able to destroy it. Also, try to run that mechog off if you can."

Red sounded annoyed. "Come on, Gold, I should take the attack. I can teleport right up to him and--"

"And what? You don't have the strength to take him on, one on one. Stay at a distance."

"But--"

"I'm not asking, I'm telling, Red!" Gold's voice rose with annoyance.

"Not very original, chief, but it does get the point across."

"I think this plan might work better if we stopped talking about it and actually did it," Blue observed.

"Right. Corps, action!"

White couldn't help being a little puzzled. For once, the Corps had been uncoordinated in their attack and had wasted time in battle--that should have given the Intimidator the advantage. If he had pressed his attack, he might have been able to take one of them out. And yet he didn't. He almost seemed to be waiting for them to get done talking before he attacked--even though he couldn't even hear them talking. (They had all switched to the private comms by now.) Was he so confident that he would win that he wasn't trying very hard or was there something else? She wished she could read him, but as usual he seemed inscrutable.

But now there was no more time for thought, as the battle began in earnest. Smoothly and seamlessly, the Corps moved into the positions Gold had outlined. Maxwell fired a blast with the photon disrupter as Gold and Silver moved towards him, but just as he aimed, Red raised the hand of his armor. Red's armor had several tricks. Besides being able to teleport short distances, it could also fire small blasts of energy. They weren't enough to do much damage--certainly not to an enemy like the Intimidator--but they did serve their function, which was distraction. Maxwell paused for just a moment and that was enough for Gold and Silver to move out of the line of fire. And before he got a chance to aim again, the two boys were on top of him.

Gold body-slammed Maxwell in the chest, sending him staggering back, though the attack did no real damage to his exoskeleton. Before he could pull his arm around to fire with the disrupter again, Silver had grabbed onto his arm, using his momentum to swing him around.

Green was invisible again so White had no idea where he was. Blue had moved a distance back, taking up her role as an observer on the battle. White kept moving, waiting for her chance to come in for the attack.

Silver's attack would have been enough to pull over an ordinary person, but since Maxwell's exoskeleton allowed him to fly, it wasn't so easy to throw him off balance. He spun with Silver for a moment and then with an unexpected movement shock him loose. Gold meanwhile was finding his hands full with the mechog. The animal had launched itself on Gold when he attacked Maxwell and now seemed intent on defending its master.

Mechogs were the first and most successful mod--created so long before that history didn't record who created them or whether they had been created intentionally or accidentally. (Technically, there was debate on which was truly oldest, mechogs or mechats, but most sources agreed that mochogs were around first.) Though in many ways like their canine ancestors, mechogs had the ability to exist and even travel through the void of space because of their metal coat. A mechog was a formidable opponent, though fortunately they were not usually vicious. Of course, even a mechog's coat was not as strong as the Corps' armor, and White knew Gold would win against the animal, but it was taking time. (She also guessed that Gold was trying to subdue the animal without hurting it. Though the Code only forbade taking human life, she knew Gold wouldn't kill or even hurt an animal unless he had to.)

She was trying to decide whether this would be a good moment for her to attack when Blue's voice startled her. "One funny thing."

"What's funny?"

"There's no sign of any functional ship around here. How did Maxwell even get onto this planetoid?"

"He can fly, you know--but I'll bet he rode in on his mechog," Black suggested. "I can see him getting his animal to do all the work."

White shook her head automatically, stopping for just a moment. Though she didn't voice her thoughts, she knew Blue had a point--and she knew something the others didn't. Maxwell had been in Centauri City the previous day. There was no conceivable way, traveling either on his own power or by the mechog, that he could have reached the Wanderer from the city in that length of time. He had to have come by some kind of ship. "Are you sure there isn't one hidden around here somewhere?"

"If there is, it's very well hidden. Could be elsewhere on the planet, but I'm not even picking up any residual radiation which would be present if a ship--beside ours and the MBUs--had landed here recently."

Silver's momentum carried him a good distance when Maxwell shook him off. He touched the ground, did a backflip, and in one fluid motion shot back towards Maxwell. Silver's armor augmented his natural skill, giving him an agility and accuracy which far surpassed any of the others. As he came at him, Maxwell raised his weapon, but Silver was faster and struck his arm down with both feet, while, in the same instant, he drove his armored fist into Maxwell's faceplate. If it had been anyone else, that would have been enough to end the fight there. But the faceplate held, and the Intimidator only staggered backwards a few feet. Had the attack shaken him inside? White didn't know just how much protection his exoskeleton really gave him, and there was no way of telling from his reaction.

"Come on, why don't you just stand still and be intimidated already?" asked Maxwell. Silver's attack had pushed him down to a crouching position, but now he rose to his feet, levitating more than standing up. He glanced down at the photon disrupter, which had been damaged by Silver. White guessed it wasn't beyond repair, but it wouldn't work at full efficiency any more. "It's just rude to break other people's property, you know that, right? It's like, you know, criminal." He shook his arm, and the photon disrupter separated from his arm and dropped to the ground. "Let's try something else, huh? Let's see about my other weapons."

"What other weapons?" asked Black. "You mean the ones lying in little pieces next to your cart?" With the mechog fighting Gold and Maxwell fighting Silver, it had been easy for Black to dash in and dispatch the entire cart of weapon with one of her blades.

"Yeah, those weapons. You know, for being the good guys, you're awfully sneaky. And you say I fight dirty. Anyway, I've still got my photon disrupter."

"This photon disrupter?" asked Green, who became visible for just a second to show that he held the damaged weapon. While invisible, it had been no trouble for him to streak in and snatch the disrupter, since Maxwell was distracted with Black.

"I think Green is copying my tactics," Black commented. "Just saying, nobody likes a copycat."

At the same moment, Gold finally managed to push the mechog down, holding its head and front paws against the ground. He glanced up at Maxwell. "Face it, Maxwell. Your weapons are gone and your dog is down for the count. You're alone now, meaning that it comes down to a straight-up, old-fashioned fist fight. And you know you can't possibly win an ordinary fight against Silver, to say nothing of all seven of us. The only question is whether you want to surrender as you are or with a lot of bruises."

Maxwell frowned. "You're copying my material, aren't you? I used almost the exact line on some guys in Serioc Y that I was intimidating last month. I think you just violated a trademark law, or something. Anyway," he took a step backwards, "you're the good guys. You're not supposed to be intimidating. You're just supposed to stand around and say stuff that sounds good and then I come in and intimidate you and, you know, kill you."

"Really?" Gold stood up, still keeping one foot on the mechog's torso though the animal seemed to have little fight left in it. "Funny you'd say that. When you were firing that photon disrupter, you were shooting awfully low. A direct shot of that through the head or chest would kill a person instantly--yet you seemed to be aiming for the legs."

"Sure. Because if you die instantly, you can't be intimidated. Getting hit in the leg hurts a lot more and so it's more, you know, intimidating."

"Either that or you don't have the guts even to be a killer."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Abstract anthropological ontology will definitely scare him into surrendering," remarked Blue impassively.

Gold left the mechog and slowly advanced towards Maxwell, as Silver came along beside him. Instinctively, the other five formed a circle formation. This was the closest they had ever come to beating the Intimidator. White just couldn't help thinking that Maxwell still probably had a trick of some kind up his sleeve, though she couldn't imagine what it was. If he didn't, then this would probably be their chance to finally defeat him once and for all. This was the first time all seven of them had faced him down in a scenario where there were no innocent bystanders around for him to use as hostages.

Maxwell stuck out his bottom lip with an expression of annoyance. "OK, I really wanted to save this for later in the battle, but you guys aren't giving me much choice. You realize you're ruining the whole, you know, artistic affect of this fight, right? Talk about an anticlimax. Oh, well, here goes." He rose a few inches off the ground and then made a pose, striking his left fist into his right palm in front of his chest. "LEGENDARY MNEMIC SYMBIOSIS INTIMIDATION POWER! FORM OF... GIANT ROBOT!"

"What?" But Black's question was hardly out before things started happening. The giant motor on which Maxwell had been standing suddenly began to rise from the ground, carrying Maxwell with it. A large atmosphere compressor, buried among the junk to their right, seemed to shake off it encumbering blanket and rose to join it, floating up like bubbles on a strong updraft. A compressed plastic bubble (probably the window from a turret of a space ship) shot up almost directly beneath White. She zipped sideways to avoid it, and even as she did, she noticed something. She had the ability to process information quickly, but even with that, she barely noticed it with everything else going on. But she did notice it, and even with all the worry and surprise she had about Maxwell and his sudden new... whatever it was he was doing... there was still a corner of her mind that was filled with shock and confusion by what she had seen. Still, she forced those thoughts to remain only in that corner of her mind. There was nothing she could do about that now, and even in the short space of time it had taken to think all this, Maxwell's strange transformation was almost complete.

The large plastic bubble had landed on top of the motor, covering Maxwell like a shield. The compressor joined to one side of the motor like an arm and to the end of it, a kinetic energy cannon (also clearly a relic of a patrol ship) joined. One the other side, a couple of barrels (White couldn't even guess what they had been) formed a second arm and to them was attached energy sphere blaster--White thought it was of Draxmoorian origin, but she wasn't sure. More and more junk rose and somehow attached to the figure and in less time than it takes to describe, in front of them stood a giant, humanoid figure, towering far above them, composed entirely of pieces of junk.

"Really, Maxwell?" Black cocked her head to one side. "I was expecting something more subtle from you. Giant robots are so campy."

"Actually," Green corrected, "it's not a robot, which requires some form of artificial or at least independent intelligence. Since it's being controlled by an outside force, it would be more like a Mobile Battle Unit."

"And since Maxwell's the one driving it, there's really no intelligence involved at all."

For once, Gold seemed a little awestruck. "How in the Cosmos is he doing this?"

"Sir, it's what we saw with that laser canon. Mnemic Symbiosis. The unique properties of his exoskeleton allow him to merge with any metal-based object. Apparently, this forms a symbiotic bond which continues to function without physical union, allowing him to transfer attributes and--"

"Short answer, Green," ordered Gold impatiently.

"He can apparently control anything he's formerly merged with, even if he's no longer touching it."

"Well, that's just great. At least it looks like we've solved the mystery of the Wanderer now. "

"Testing! One, two, three--you guys can hear me, right?" Maxwell's voice boomed out of an auditory unit lodged about half way up the strange figure.

"Loud and clear and just as annoying as usual."

"OK good, that was the one thing I wasn't sure about. So anyway, how do you like it? Every good boss has a second form, you know--I just didn't want to bring it out this early in the game."

The Corps had risen to a point where they were about head level, still keeping their circular formation, surrounding Maxwell. White glanced at Gold, waiting for him to give some kind of order. He was silent for a moment. White supposed he was trying to gauge the situation. If Maxwell could really control his new form, it was a dangerous situation. Those weapons were meant for space battles and so would be strong enough to do serious damage even to the Corps's armor.

Gold made an exasperated growl. "If only we had access to the Matrix, this would be simple. White, is there any chance?"

White shook her head. "I've already checked that. The Matrix still won't activate. I'm getting no response at all."

"Figures. Then we just do this the old fashioned way. Green, if we physically dismantle that thing, will it continue to function?"

Green's frustration was clear in his voice. "I don't know, sir. We don't have sufficient data."

"Best guess."

"Guesses aren't good enough."

"They're better than nothing."

"I think so, as they are not being held together physically in the first place. However, if the individual components are damaged, their functionality will be compromised."

"What does that mean?" asked Red, sounding puzzled.

"If we cut that canon off his arm, he can still fire it--but if we break the canon in half, he can't. That about it, isn't it, Green?"

"Yes, sir--but I'm not absolutely positive--"

"Understood. Corps, we've got to keep him off balance. Red, White, and Blue--take the outer position. Silver, Black, and me will take the inner position. Green, stay dark and look for a chance to close in."

"Why do I always get stuck on the outside? It's like you don't trust me."

"Why should I trust you, Red, after the last couple of days? But you're the only one of us that has a long range weapon. Corps, fight!"

The basic set-up was one they had used many times before, and it was the most effective one against a very powerful enemy.

"Are you guys gonna stop stratagizing and start being, you know, intimidated pretty soon?"

"We're going to be intimidated in your face," answered Red. He teleported sideways and then fired an energy star at the plastic bubble.

"Um, that's not actually my face--it's just a bubble. And those energy stars of yours can't actually penetrate this thing and reach my actual, you know, face."

"And that line sounded really bad," added Black. "Just for the record."

Blue had risen to a high vantage point above the battleground. "Because good comebacks are really relevant to winning this battle."

"Less talking, more fighting," Gold ordered.

"Really?" Black back-flipped to avoid a blast from Maxwell's cannon. "That line was already old a thousand years ago."

Black had been forced back in avoiding the attack, but Gold and Silver were in close now. And then in one motion of his "arm," Maxwell smacked them back, throwing them back past even where Red and White were floating--in fact, Gold very nearly smacked into White. She avoided him only because of her quick reflexes and the speed of her armor.

"Now, that's what I call intimidating. And this too." He raised his other arm and fired a sphere of energy directly at Red. Red teleported sideways--and the sphere moved sideways at the same time.

"What in the Cosmos!" Gold had stopped his flight and was now about parallel to White. "A homing sphere?"

"That's not possible." Green was clearly astounded and confused.

Red was teleporting quickly, and each time the sphere seemed to know exactly where he was and continued to follow.

"That's certainly no ordinary sphere blaster, that's clear." White had never seen an energy sphere behave like that. Usually they could only travel in a straight line. That thing was behaving more like--more like one of Red's own energy stars.

But Gold wasn't waiting for further analysis. He dropped like a stone to the ground and scooped up a large sheet of metal. Flying upwards he closed in on Red. "Red! Teleport to my location."

"Coming." Red sounded scared. He vanished and reappeared directly beside Gold. The sphere came towards them, and Gold threw the sheet at it. As the crackling sphere of energy and the piece of metal met, there was a pop of expanding energy and an explosion whose shock wave threw both Gold and Red backwards.

"Oh, wow, that was so awesome." Maxwell seemed unusually animated. "You know, I've been hanging out on this planetoid for quite a while--when I'm not out, you know, intimidating people. And I've done a lot of tinkering--you know that's my hobby, right? I thought that little thing would be perfect for Red because he thinks he's such a big shot--and it was a big shot--because, you know, it's like a gun and a gun shoots, so--"

"It's no good if you have to explain it, Maxwell," Black interrupted.

"I still don't understand." Green's voice was rising slightly in pitch. "That's not possible. A homing weapon shouldn't be able to close in our armor, because we don't leave a traditional energy signature."

"Maybe that's why he attacked Red?" suggested White. "His energy stars would give him a little bit of a signature."

"It wouldn't be enough.

"I can trace all of you," Blue pointed out in a voice that was quiet and unusually serious.

"But there's no way in the Cosmos that Maxwell could replicate that ability. It doesn't make any sense."

"Don't stress about it now, Green," Gold ordered. "We've got our hands full." He paused for a moment to dodge a blast from the cannon. "We've got to readjust our thinking. We're not fighting the Intimidator any more. With this--whatever it is he's done--he's as powerful as a small ship. We've got to approach this more carefully. He's actually managed to even the playing field--but that doesn't mean we can't still win."

"I always like pep talks in the middle of battles."

"We've got to coordinate. Green and Black, take out that blaster. Everyone else, run interference."

"Right, chief. On it."

"Yes, sir."

White knew she had done very little in this battle. It was funny that she had the power of speed and yet things had been gong too fast for her. She forced herself to shut out all her thoughts and feelings and concentrate on the battle. She was still amazed that Maxwell had power like this, but still, they ought to be able to beat him. After all, they were the Corps.

Concentrating all her thoughts on her movements, she shot forward, zigzagging through the sky towards Maxwell like a flash of jagged lightning. Even with the speed of her movement, she could take in what all the others were doing. Not that there was much to see. They were all deliberately trying to keep Maxwell's attention divided by making feint attacks from various points. So long as he was distracted, he couldn't focus his attack on any one of them.

"Wait a sec--time out, guys. I forgot something." Inside the bubble, Maxwell looked puzzled for a moment and then smiled. "Oh, there it is. Activating... now!"

By the time he said 'now,' White had circled around him several times and had found the point that looked most vulnerable to her--the protective bubble around Maxwell. Even though it had no function, it did prevent them from attacking the Intimidator himself, which would have otherwise been the most obvious course of action. And while the shell was strong enough to fend off most direct force attacks (after all, it was constructed to hold off the vacuum of space), if she hit it just right at a high enough speed, it should shatter like glass. But when Maxwell said 'now,' something happened. A device in the "back" of the figure activated and sent out a wave of auditory vibrations which rippled outward in a circle. White was familiar with the device. It was a maintenance device which used vibratory energy to clean ships without damaging them. But even though she knew what it was, she didn't have time to stop herself. The circle of vibrations struck her in flight, causing her to stop dead in the air, as if she had run into a solid wall.

"Oh, right, there you are." A coil of heavy cables shot out the "back" of the giant figure and tangled around White. She tried to force her way out of them, but they held her with a strength that seemed impossible to counter. "I thought you'd know better, White--I mean, you ought to know that it's rude to sneak up on people."

White didn't bother answering. At least Maxwell couldn't possibly hold her. Taking a deep breath, she forced her armor to phase minusward along the fourth dimensional axis to +(.5)d. She effectively vanished, leaving the cables clutching nothing.

"White, are you all right?" Gold called out.

"Yes," was also she could manage for a few moments, as she fought against the nausea that came with phasing. "But that thing is stronger..."

"Than we thought," Gold finished. "I know. But--we've got a hit."

White could still observe what was going on, and she saw that Gold was right. While Silver and Gold were attacking one arm of the figure and Red fired energy stars at random at it, Black and Green had snuck in and attacking from opposite sides had managed to reduce the sphere blaster to mass of rubble.

"Aw, you broke it. You guys really don't play well with others, do you?" Maxwell seemed disappointed. "So you, what, don't have any respect for other people's property? That's like, you know, the cornerstone of civilized society. But I guess that a sign that you're really intimidated, am I right?" As he spoke, the wreckage of the blaster dropped from the end of his "arm." And at the same moment, something else rose from the junk of the planet to attack itself in its place. It was a laser, similar to the one that had attacked the mechs earlier. "Now, how's that for int--"

Black arched around to avoid a blast from the laser. "If you say the word 'intimidate' one more time, I'm going to scream. Just so you know."

"Well, I am the Intimidator. What do you expect me to say? Though after this battle, I may change my name to something else. I was thinking 'The Corps-Killer' had a nice sound. Or maybe something more simple and elemental like 'The Destroyer.'"

"And by simple and elemental you mean campy?" Black had closed in again, but Maxwell smack her with one of his "arms", sending her flying almost out of sight before she could regain control of her flight. It did not make her lose her train of thought, however. "Do you know how many different enemies called 'The Destroyer' the Corps has fought over the last thousand years? 'Corps-Killer' is at least a little more original."

"This isn't working, Gold." By now, White had overcome her nausea. "It looks as if he can control nearly every piece of junk on this planet. Attacking the weapons isn't effective. We've got to go for Maxwell himself. Do you want me to go in now? As long as I stay in +(.5)d, I can pass right through his protections."

"But you won't be able to fight him once you phase back to =(0)d and, anyway, on your own you can't take him on anyway--not in cramped quarters, at least."

"Let me try," urged Red. "I could teleport in and--"

"It might be a plan," White said, before Gold could speak. "Having an enemy that close would distract him at least. Since that things is controlled by his exoskeleton and his exoskeleton is linked to him personally, if we can break his concentration enough, the whole thing may collapse."

"Noted, but it's not good enough."

"Now you're beginning to sound like Green," commented Black. "This is a battle, you know, chief. Nothing is perfect in a battle. You're not going to come up with a fool-proof plan."

"It's too dangerous."

"And having a giant walking junk heap animated by an immature thug wannabe around isn't dangerous?"

"Um, I'm still here guys," commented Maxwell, looking at them. "And it looks kinda stupid for us to be having a battle when you're not fighting. I mean, I know we all know you're gonna lose, but it'd look better if, you know, you put up at least a little bit of a fight. Or are you really that intimidated already? I knew Red was yellow, but I thought the rest of you had more guts than that."

"What! I've had it!"

"Red! No!" Gold shouted, but Red was beyond paying attention.

He teleported sideways and then forward, and the next instant was inside the bubble with Maxwell.

"You're gonna pay for saying that."

"Whoa! This is getting violent." Maxwell whirled around and met Red's attack. For an instant, the two wrestled in the tight space of the bubble--and then Maxwell made a sudden movement and was able to throw Red down. And as he did, the giant engine on which they were standing split in two and Red fell into it--and then it snapped back together.

"Hah," Maxwell chuckled a little nervously. "There, that worked. I was wondering how long it'd take for one of you to try that. Oh, and that thing's too thick for him to, you know, teleport out. In case you were wondering."

"He's right. I can't get out of here." Red's voice came through their comms, rising in pitch with desperation. "Guys, do something. I'm trapped."

"And it's too strong for him to break through," added Maxwell. "Of course, if all of you attacked, you could break him out, but first--well--just theoretically, you know, if the two halves of that started pressing together, that could create pressure great enough to--"

"We get it," interrupted Gold, his voice calm and emotionless. "It's your old pattern, all right."

"That'd kill me!" Red's voice was getting higher now. "Get me out of here. Come on, do something."

"Red! Don't panic! That's an order!" Gold fired off the words brusquely.

"Oo! Say 'Keep calm and carry on.' That would give a really retro feel to this situation."

"Black! Shut up! That's also an order."

"Gold, do you--"

"There's nothing you can do, White." For a moment Gold hung motionless in the sky and then he turned to Maxwell. "What are your terms, Maxwell? I know you have them--and it's got to be something other than killing us all, which wouldn't really be an effective bargaining option at this point."

"You're going to bargain with him?" asked Black in amazement.

"We can't risk a life on this battle."

"It's just Red. It wouldn't be a big loss."

"Hey! That's not funny!"

"I told you to shut up, Black. Maxwell, what do you say?"

"Huh, well, now you really do sound intimidated. Let's see, um, how do we want to play this now?"

White felt helpless, hanging in the sky, watching the massive pile of junk and knowing that Red was trapped inside it. A stray piece of junk was spinning randomly around his prison as if to remind her of where he was, an asterisk to the footnote of his predicament.

Actually, come to think of it, that was a very odd piece of junk--it didn't seem to belong to the general tone of things at all. Almost as if--

And then without warning a beam of purple light flashed across the field and struck the motor, obliterating about half of it. And at the same moment, a loud, rolling shout echoed all around them "MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! Oh, yeah, that was totally awesome!"

"General Kenton?" Gold spoke the words more as a statement than a question.

"I knew you kids would need us to get you out of trouble," drawled the more arrogant voice of Gold's father.

White glanced back to see all five of the Mobile Battle Units floating behind them, General Kenton's purple machine in the forefront. Of course, it had been his laser which had made that attack.

"Lasers solve everything! That's my philosophy of life."

"And interfacing with my shuriken in order to pinpoint the target was totally irrelevant, I suppose?" remarked Gayle impassively.

With the engine half gone, Red was able to dart out and teleport to safely before Maxwell even had time to react.

"Yeah! Ha! I knew that would happen. I wasn't worried for a minute," he commented, as he joined the Corps, which had formed a rough line between Maxwell and the MBUs.

"Sure, maybe someone will believe that," agreed Black. "I don't know who, but in a Cosmos this big, there's got to be somebody."

"Hey, the mechs." Maxwell didn't seem unduly surprised. Of course, he had to have known that they were on the planetoid, and with the small size of the place it was only a matter of time before they stumbled onto the battle. White was surprised she hadn't thought of it herself. "Let's see, General Kenton--a couple of mercenaries--and Gold's mom and dad. Hi, Gold's mom and dad. Nice to meet you." He laughed his strange, self-conscious chuckle. "It's really got to be embarrassing when your dad has to show up to help you in a fight. I bet this happened all the time when you were younger, didn't it?"

"Save you manipulation tricks for somebody else." Gold's voice was calm and deadly. "Thanks for the assist, General. But we can take things from here."

"Come on, kid, don't be stupid," Gold's father interrupted. "You can't hope to win this battle. Blue filled us in one what's going on when she called us."

"You called them, Blue?" White could almost hear Gold's jaw drop open in shock.

"Because I don't happen to like losing battles," answered Blue in an even voice.

Gold spluttered for a moment and then managed, "We'll talk about this later. Dad, just stay out of this."

"Who's giving orders here, kid?"

"I'm the leader of the Corps."

"Yeah, and I'm your dad--and a colonel."

"Um, well, I'm a general and I have a laser, so I'm pretty sure I outrank everybody here," General Kenton pointed out.

"Yes, General," said Gold and his father almost in unison and almost in the same tone of voice.

Montero shouldered his giant hammer. "I'd say a free man of the clan of Kyusak outranks a general any day--but we can fight that out after the battle. What's our move, General Half-Pint?"

"We'll attack that thing. Gold, you and your troops be ready to close in on the target once we've cleared out some of his shielding."

"Yes, sir."

"All right, everybody, let's do this. MEEEECHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

The five MBU's moved forward. White had to admit she felt better. Maxwell had essentially used his power to create a giant MBU for himself, so having the other MBUs fight him made the most sense.

Maxwell fired a blast from his laser. Cobalt moved her mech directly into the laser's path. For a moment, her machine was surrounded by a strange cloud-like aura--which had the affect of reflecting the laser blast directly backwards, disintegrating the laser on contact.

Before Maxwell could react, Aurum and Montero had come up on both side of him. Aurum lashed out with a long, golden whip at one of his "arms," while Montero caught the other with his massive hammer. Moving together, they managed to yank the "arms" from their place. Though Maxwell was able to pull them back the next instant, they had suffered serious damage. And while he was dealing with that, Gayle fired a large metal shuriken from her machine, targeting the canon on Maxwell's other "arm." She scored a direct hit, and while it wasn't enough to destroy it, it gave Montero a chance to smash it with his hammer without danger.

"Heh, heh," Maxwell's chuckle sounded just a hair more nervous than normal. "Um, you guys do realize that I can control any of this junk, so destroying any one given piece isn't all that, you know, effective?"

Cobalt giggled--that same, strange, mad giggle White had heard her use before. "He, he, he. But it's all metal. And Cobalt finds metal very--he, he, he--attractive." Once again, her mech seemed to be surrounded by a dark storm cloud of energy, and Maxwell's whole contraption seemed to shutter for a moment.

"What's she doing?" asked White, speaking over the private comms.

"Magnetism. That's the special power of mom's mech. I don't know that she can really pull the metal out of Maxwell's control, because I don't understand how his powers work--but it will make a struggle."

"But why does she sound so crazy? She didn't sound that way before." Green was very puzzled.

"You did say you'd explain that," agreed White.

"Right. It's something she learned a long time ago--back in the war with the Legion. She found out that if you act crazy, it really throws off your enemies. And so she does it in battles--and sometimes out of battles, just for the fun of it."

Clearly, whatever Cobalt was doing was causing Maxwell to have some struggle in maintaining control of his equipment. And with the other four MBUs attacking from every side, it was only a matter of time. They were built on the scale for this fight--something the Corps, with all their powers, weren't.

"He's vulnerable now," called out General Kenton, as he blasted away Maxwell's bubble. "We'll keep his machines out of the way--you get him, Corps. Oh, yeah, this is the way a battle should go."

"Corps, stand down," Gold ordered, shooting forward. "This is my fight."

"Gold, I--" but White didn't bother finishing. She knew there was no point in arguing now.

Besides, Maxwell didn't have much fight left in him. She guessed that whatever he did to control the other machines drained him in some way, and he had been using it a lot over the course of the fight. Gold slammed into him, knocking him backwards off his perch on what was left of his machine. For a few minutes, they wrestled back and forth in the sky, but Maxwell was weak and without any weapon, he was outmatched.

With one final movement, Gold slammed him to the ground and pinned him there--at the same moment, all that was left his machinery also fell to the ground, as cold and lifeless as the junk it was.

"All right, for once, we've got you," said Gold, his voice calm and businesslike. "You're a prisoner of the Corps--and of Ursa Prime."

"Wow, that actually sounded a little, you know, intimidating."

The rest of the Corps had closed in now, landing in a circle around Gold, who still held Maxwell pinned to the ground. The mechs came to rest in a circle around them. White noted that despite his position, Maxwell seemed unaltered in his manner. It was as if this defeat didn't matter to him.

"We've got you now," added Red, triumphantly. "How does it feel to be the one who's trapped?"

"Yeah, well, about that." Maxwell's exoskeleton receded slightly so that he could shake out his hair. "You do realize that I've worked with pretty much every single piece of machinery on this planetoid so I can, you know, manipulate all of them, right?"

"You're too weak to do anything with them, so don't bother bluffing us."

"Well, sure, sort of. I couldn't do very much with them--that'd be extending my powers too far, anyway. But a lot of stuff on this planet is volatile. And that, combined with the high oxygen content of the atmosphere, makes this planetoid pretty much, you know, one giant bomb--which I can basically set off anytime I want."

Gold shook his head. "Sure, go ahead and try blowing it up. If it could hurt us, it could also hurt you--and I know you'd never risk hurting yourself in order to hurt us."

"Oh, yeah, your armor would protect you just like my exoskeleton would protect me--and probably the mechs' radiation shields would protect them. But, um, this planet's core is the only thing holding this entire inertia frame together. If this planetoid blows up, the inertia frame would collapse, dumping us all out of relative space back into absolute space. Right? And, well, you know, if you could get back to your ship, you'd be all right, because your ship can travel by relative space anyway. But the MBU's can't."

"What is he saying?" asked Red, blankly.

"He's saying that if we push him, he can blow up this whole place and maroon the mechs--and maybe us to--out here in the middle of the Void with no way to get out," answered Gold, not bothering to try to explain the exact details of the science at the moment. "Green, is he right? Can he do it?"

"It's conceivable," answered Green, cautiously. "But there's no way to say whether it's really possible or not."

For a long moment, Gold remained in his position without speaking.

To be continued...


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