"White! No!" Gold shot forward and his voice rose to something above a shout (though still not quite a scream). But his armor was no match for White's when it came to speed. Even as he moved, White reached the bomb--and both she and it vanished. Gold came to an abrupt stop at the point where they vanished and for a moment stood immovable, as if temporarily frozen.
"And zero," said Green impassively. He had apparently been counting down inside his head. "It's over."
"I-it's over," repeated Gold. His voice seemed odd and completely unlike his normal voice.
"Blue, did you pick up any readings from the bomb?"
"None. A K-P bomb has a blast radius of two degrees on the fourth dimensional axis, meaning she must have managed to phase it to at least +(2.5)d."
"What are you talking about?" Red seemed about as clueless as usual.
"White used the power of her armor to phase along the fourth dimensional axis, carrying the bomb to a point where it could detonate without hurting us or Altayra Vorphintus." Green spoke with his ordinary, emotionless calm.
"But if she carried the bomb with her--" Red began (and for the first time, the light seemed to dawn on him)-- "then that means that she--she--"
Gold was still standing at the location where the bomb vanished, immovable except for the fact that he had clenched his fists. "She sacrificed herself," he finished, his voice still odd and unnatural.
Green and Blue glanced at each other, but before either one could speak, Red did. "Whoa. I can't believe she'd do a thing like that--it's just--"
Gold spun around to face him. "Shut up! This is nothing for you to blather about. Just--just shut up."
"Gold." Blue's voice rung out with a suddenness and strangeness, very unlike her normal off-hand manner. "This is no time let yourself go. There's still things that need done and throwing a tantrum isn't going to help anyone."
"Listen to the lady," said Black. "She has a point for once."
"Certainly, she does have a certain air of conviction to her words," said Erybus.
At the sound of his voice, all the Corps jumped slightly. There he was, levitating calmly about two feet from the ground, still wearing his robe and approximation apparatus and still smiling.
For just a moment there was a pause and in the round control chamber of the station, a strange tableaux was enacted. And then without warning, Gold leaped forward.
Erybus raised his hands and with a wave threw Gold back.
Gold landed on his feet at the far end of the chamber. Without a pause, he was moving forward again, this time, flying in from above. Erybus turned his right hand downward, sending out a force wave which shot him up into the air. He shot up to meet Gold and, with his left hand, sent a wave of energy which threw him down to the ground. He fell back down, as if somehow to crush the armored figure, but Gold rolled out of the way in time. But the force from Erybus's hands had crushed the floor slightly where he had been.
Gold was on his feet again. Once more, he rushed the Nadirite captain. Erybus sidestepped and, almost as if performing a dance step, moved in a twinkling to stand behind Gold and gave him a push which sent him sprawling to the floor.
"Silver, cover me." Gold's voice rang out suddenly and without warning. "Red and Green, run interference. Black, back up."
Silver leaped forward without hesitation.
"Silver! Stay back; this is my fight," said Gold.
For a moment Silver hesitated, and then Gold's voice rang out again, "Silver, cover me. Now!"
Erybus turned to face the new threat as Silver rushed him. Raising his palms, he sent a shock wave which forced Silver back. But Silver had been observing the battle and knew what to expect. He rolled with the impact and landed in a crouching position.
Erybus seemed about to attack Silver again, but then Red fired an energy star at him. Erybus turned towards him and Red teleported to one side. At the same moment Silver rolled forward. Pivoting, he delivered a punch and moved out of the way at the same time. Erybus whirled and caught Silver's blow with the palm of his hand. But the force still drove him back--
It drove him back and he tripped, tripped over an invisible obstacle behind him. Green had moved into position, using his armor's invisibility as cover.
Erybus was down, but even as Gold and Silver moved for him, he pressed one palm against the floor and, as if from a spring, shot upwards and landed on his feet a yard or two away from the two boys.
But he was close enough now for Black and Blue to move in for an attack. As Black approached, Erybus raised both hands and they glowed for an instant.
"Black, downward slice... NOW!" Blue ordered with unusual intensity.
For once, Black didn't argue but, as Blue said the words, raised her arms and brought them downward, sweeping forward with the blades on her armor. There was a weird sound almost like breaking glass. Black had managed to counteract the shock wave, dispelling it. She rushed forward and grabbed hold of Erybus's right hand. He twisted around and raised his left hand, but at the same moment, Red teleported to a position behind him and fired an energy star directly at his back, causing him to move forward slightly and making him lose his opportunity.
Black raised her arm and slashed downward, aiming for Erybus's approximation device, but he twisted out her way. By now Gold and Silver had moved in and were closing in from each side. With one supreme effort, he raised his left hand and struck the palm of it against the palm of his right hand. There was a sound like a small explosion, and all of the Corps were thrown back, as for a moment an almost visible sphere of vibrations seemed to radiate out in every direction.
Erybus floated a few inches off the floor. He was breathing heavily and there were signs in his face of exertion. But when he spoke his voice was the same as always. "You fight well when you try," he commented, with something almost like genuine admiration. "Your strength would do well in the service of a better cause. I will make you a bargain, Gold. We will fight--if you win, I will surrender myself and my troops. If I win, you must join our forces and fight in the service of Oblivion."
Gold drew himself up. "I will gamble my life but never my honor," he said in a hard voice but with an almost childish simplicity.
Erybus threw back his head and laughed soundlessly. "Your idealism is so noble, so pure, and so hopelessly unrealistic that it is almost--" he paused, seeming to look for the right word-- "cute." He rose a few inches higher in the air. "But our game has only begun, Corps. Before you have returned light to this beacon, the darkness will have claimed you. I will have great pleasure in offering up the broken remnants of your honor as an oblation to the great void. Until then, farewell." He bowed his head, flickered, and vanished.
"Is he really gone this time?" asked Green, glancing at Blue.
"I think I'm beginning to be able to hone in on that weird radiation of his--and if I'm right, he's gone for now."
Gold phased off his helmet and looked around at the others, his eyes hard and angry. "All right, I just want to know one thing. Who was behind that crazy stunt during the battle?"
"What crazy stunt, chief?" asked Black. "You mean, the part where you couldn't make up your mind whether you wanted our help or not?"
Gold's eyes flashed. "I didn't need your help. It was my job to take him down. Who ordered that charge?"
All the others had also phased off their helmets by this point and for a moment there was quiet as Gold glanced at each of them. Then his eyes met the cold, black eyes of Blue and she shrugged slightly. "I don't like losing," she said dispassionately.
"You did it?"
Her expression didn't change the least as she barked out in a perfect imitation of Gold's voice, "Silver! Cover me!"
"I-I can't believe it." Gold seemed to be caught between anger and astonishment.
"Maybe you didn't remember that my mother is a well-known voice actor. I've learned something about the trade in my life."
"But-but that is rank insubordination. Do you know what that means?"
"It means you're still alive to be angry. If you'd fought Erybus on your own, you'd be dead and it would be a moot point."
"That's no excuse." Gold was so angry that his hair seemed to be vibrating slightly.
Blue shrugged. "We're a team. Keeping each other alive and fighting together is what we do. I was merely doing the logical thing under the circumstances. I guess doing the logical thing is the most likely way to get in trouble, isn't it?"
"That was my fight. You had no right to interfere."
Blue's face seemed to change with just a hint of expression, thought it was hard to say what exactly it was. "Gold, when White gets back, have her explain the meaning of the word hubris to you."
Suddenly, the anger drained from Gold's face and he looked only blank. "When White gets back?"
Red contracted his eyebrows in puzzlement. "But she phased out with that bomb--she's dead."
It was the first time anyone had said the word.
Green pushed his hat back slightly. "Sir, we can't be absolutely positive, but there's a strong possibility that White survived."
Gold turned to him, seeming almost in a daze. "How is that possible?"
"Because the laws of motion hold true for movement along the fourth dimensional axis as well as for the other three. Specifically, even when traveling along the fourth dimensional axis, objects in motion tend to stay in motion--something White would know as well as the rest of us."
"Better, probably," remarked Blue, in something of her more normal manner.
"Therefore, it seems likely that White's intention in flying at the bomb was to set it in motion along the fourth dimensional axis so that it would travel beyond her and detonate harmlessly at some point several degrees plusward. So long as the bomb was traveling at her rate of speed, she could stop and it would continue to move, assuming the friction of the movement did not cause it to detonate prematurely, which is unlikely considering the nature of a K-P Bomb."
"But that would require some delicate timing," Gold objected. "And the force of phasing that quickly would probably kill a person anyway--even with White's armor."
Green looked down and pulled his hat forward. "There are a great many variables and so we can't be certain of the outcome, but that she survived is definitely a real possibility."
"But if she has traveled that far along the fourth dimensional axis, we don't really have any way to get to her--anyway to know whether she's alive or dead."
Green nodded. "I'm afraid so."
Silver's face looked troubled. "Then what can we do?"
Blue and Green glanced at each other again. Then Blue shrugged. "Wait."
Gold nodded silently.
The six remaining members of the Corps stood in a silent semi circle, facing the location where White had disappeared. For once, even Red was silent. They seemed mostly alone with their own thoughts. Blue was the only one who seemed concerned about the possibility of the Nadirites' return, but there was no sign of this. And still they stood, with the impersonal machinery of the control center staring down at them.
And then, suddenly, without warning, White's armor appeared in the air in front of them. The next instant, it vanished, and White's body fell limply to the ground.
"And that just about takes care of that," said Blue impassively. "You might try to be more careful next time; you've really pushed the capacity of this thing."
White felt herself wading through a mass of foggy thoughts and sensations as she tried to register where she was and what was going on.
"Not that it's any of my business," Blue's voice continued. "Apparently trying to keep people alive is overrated."
White's mind finally began to clear. She was lying in the medical bay on The Crystallair. Blue was sitting behind the diagnostic computer, which formed the heart of the sophisticated medal equipment on the ship.
"W-what happened?" asked White, still trying to force back the fog that was in her mind.
"Nothing very vital. You broke seven or eight ribs, bruised a few tendons, and very nearly crushed your neurocranium. Besides that, nothing much."
Slowly everything was coming back to her. "Well," she said, pushing herself up gingerly, "then it wasn't as bad as it could have been. How long have I been out?"
"About an hour."
"Are we still in orbit around Altayra Vorphintus?"
"No, we went ahead and landed beside the Guidance Beacon." Blue stood up and walked around the computer to stand beside her. "The others are in the station--Green is trying to find a way to get the Guidance Beacon back online."
White slowly stood up. She felt a little woozy but otherwise she was fine. The medial equipment had fulfilled its purposes well. The equipment used on the Corps' ship was some of the most advanced in Ursa Prime, based on scientific principals which had only recently come into common knowledge. There were very few physical injuries which couldn't be cured by this equipment so long as they were treated within twelve hours of occurring.
White glanced at Blue. "Then am I cleared to go?"
"So far as I can tell. But this computer can't diagnose if there are any actual neurological injuries--and since you already have neurological problems... you might want to take things easy for a while. But that's just me."
White nodded. She had been wondering about that.
"I think Gold is going to want to see you if you feel up to conversation," Blue remarked, turning away.
White couldn't help noticing there was a strange tone to Blue's voice. She wondered what had happened in her absence. But all her memories had come back now, and she knew she had to talk to Gold. She had to talk about what she had seen. It was a small thing, sitting inexplicably in the center of her mind, without any kind of explanation or coherence, but it was there and she couldn't ignore it.
"Thank-you," she said as she walked towards the door.
Blue shrugged. "It's nothing. You can always court-martial me for it later."
What? White frowned. Blue was definitely in a bad mood. She hoped it wasn't her fault. But she didn't have time to try to figure it out then.
She walked into the main cabin of the ship--and as she did, Gold entered from the outside. He wasn't wearing his armor, and there was a slight change to his stance that White couldn't help noticing. He seemed a little more... tired? Was it? But as he saw her, his face lit up slightly.
"White! Are you..."
"Blue says I should be all right. There were a few skeletal injuries, but nothing irreparable."
Gold walked down the cabin, his back to her. For a moment he said nothing and then suddenly he spun around to face her. "How could you do something like that?" he demanded, his voice rising with anger. "Why didn't you let me deal with that bomb?"
White took a step backwards, involuntarily. She had never seen Gold this angry, even with his father. She felt a momentary flash of hurt, but she forced herself to suppress it. After all, he did have a point, and she knew how much Gold worshiped protocol. "Gold, I'm sorry--but there was no time to do anything. We had only seconds before that bomb would have gone off, killing all of us--and who knows how many innocent people on this planet. It's always been an unofficial rule with us that, in a time of crisis, whichever one of us can act should act, even without a formal order. I know it's not official protocol, but--"
Gold cut her off with an abrupt motion. "Who cares about protocol? Nobody in this group, obviously." For an instant, there seemed to be an element of bitterness which passed unconnected and mostly unnoticed over the current of his manner.
"Well, then--" White took another step back, placing one hand on the back of the pilot's chair--more for psychological than physical support-- "I still don't see what other choice I had. I'm sorry to have upset you, but there simply wasn't time to discuss things properly."
Gold's voice rose and his fists were clenched, seemingly involuntarily. "We had no way of helping you. You could have been stuck somewhere plusward, and we couldn't have done a thing to save you. We didn't even know if you were alive or dead. If you hadn't made it, we never would have known for sure what happened to you."
"You were--worried?" White dropped into the chair, calling up every last reserve of strength in her body not to express the shock she felt.
"Of course." Gold snapped off the words and then turned around, pacing down the length of the cabin. "I'm the leader of the Corps. I shouldn't let one of us kill themselves--we're not going to lose a member on my watch."
"Of course," repeated White, blankly. Of course, she knew how concerned Gold always was for the safety of his teammates. Of course, she knew that he would be worried about her given the risky nature of her attempt. But he had been angry--she had seen the light of a white hot anger in his eyes--he had been angry because he had been worried. The idea seemed ludicrous to her, but she couldn't come up with any other explanation for his attitude. Well, extreme emotions did tend to affect people in odd ways and to be expressed in odd ways. But she had seen Gold before in tense situations, in times when the life of one or another of the Corps had been threatened. And he had never reacted like this before.
Maybe the stress of everything was beginning to wear on him? Something at the back of her mind tugged for her attention--a nagging thought that there might be some special explanation for Gold's reaction in this case. But she didn't have time to examine it right then.
"Gold, I'm sorry--but it was the only thing I could do."
"Understood." It was almost a shock to hear Gold bark out the word in his normal tone, as he paced back up the cabin, once again cool and competent as usual.
"But there's something else you need to know." This was harder than she had thought it would be. After seeing his last reaction, she was almost afraid to see how he would react to this piece of news.
He just looked at her, attentively.
"Do you remember the Nth Dimensional Holocube--the one we found on the Wanderer?"
He nodded. "Yeah--the one that somehow disappeared during our fight with Maxwell."
"Well--" She trailed off. This was far harder than she had expected. "You've never phased, of course." Traveling along the fourth dimensional axis was something almost unknown in Ursa Prime. Though some development was being done on it, only she (with the white armor) and the Tremonsirs (with their phaseships) had easy access to all that lay plus and minusward along the fourth dimensional axis.
"No, but I understand the basic concept," replied Gold, coming to stand opposite her. He took off his jacket and carefully folded it on the table. Smoothing out the surface, he placed his hand on top of it. "My hand exists in all three dimensions, but at present it can only move around on top of my jacket--in other words, it can only move in two dimensions, though it exists in three. If it were conscious, it wouldn't even be aware that a third dimension existed so long as it remained on this plane. But if it were a different kind of object--a needle, say--it could push through the layers of my jacket, going deeper to other planes where it could also move around in two dimensions. And in reality, everything exists in four dimensions, even though we are only conscious of three and, generally speaking, can only travel in three. We exist on a three dimensional space located at a certain point along the fourth dimensional axis. Your armor has the ability to pierce through that space and moved 'up' and 'down' along the fourth dimensional axis, to other spaces. For that matter, even though you're the only one of us who can move along the axis yourself, all of our armor can phase like that." He glanced up at her, with a smile. "That's about right, isn't it?"
White was impressed. Even among the Tremonsirs, who had essentially discovered phasing, she had seldom heard it explained so accurately. "Yes, that's about it. If you travel minusward along the axis, you reach other levels--other worlds, you could say--which are very similar to ours; spaces with planets and stars and basically the same physical makeup of ours. But plusward is different." She stood up and paced away from him. She somehow felt that she could concentrate better when she wasn't looking at him. "It's hard to explain if you've never been there. The levels plusward are like--like empty spaces, like canvases that are yet to be filled in. The Tremonsirs believe," she added, almost to herself, "that God left us blank worlds to give us a contrast with the worlds He filled so fully."
"But they're not truly blank, right? I mean, they have matter--oxygen, particularly."
"Yes, at least +(1)d has an atmosphere almost identical to that of the homeworld. The air we breath while in our armor comes from there. But aside from that, it's empty." She turned around to face him again. "Imagine being in a large, well-lighted room, painted white and absolutely empty. That's what it feels like to be in +(1)d and, to some extent, all the levels plusward--at least, as far as I've ever gone. No matter how you enter +(1)d or where you travel in it, it's always exactly the same. That's why, if I want to be out of the way, I always phase plusward. If you go minusward, you're in danger of running into the things of that space. But plusward there's nothing--nothing except--"
She trailed off.
"Except our armor," finished Gold. "Right? That's what happens to our armor when we phase it off."
"Exactly. If I travel to +(1)d and the rest of you don't have your armor, I see your armor floating by itself in white space--and moving around just as you move in this space. And--" somehow all this scientific explanation hadn't made it any easier to explain-- "anything we stow in +(1)d using our armor also appears there, floating alongside whichever us puts it there."
"I assumed it was something like that, but I never knew exactly what it looked like. But what does any of this have to do with the ND Holocube?"
White closed her eyes. "It was there. I saw it."
"What?" Gold bounded forward so that he confronted her face to face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that when I was traveling back from detonating that bomb, I saw that holocube floating there in +(1)d, right where the six of you were waiting in this space. Which means--which means that one of the six of you had taken it from the Wanderer and stuck it there."
"Are you absolutely sure? You were badly hurt and very nearly unconscious. Are you sure you could see things accurately?"
"I wasn't delirious, Gold. I was in pain, but I could see things clearly. And, anyway, that's the last sort of thing I would hallucinate about."
Gold was clenching and unclenching his right fist, more in puzzlement than anger. "But--but that doesn't make any sense. Are you sure it was the same holocube?"
"I didn't have time to examine it, if that's what you mean. But it was very definitely a Nth Dimensional Holocube." Really, White had no doubt that it was same device. Everything fit together too well. The only rational explanation for the disappearance of the holocube on the Wanderer was if one of the Corps had taken it. And the only rational explanation for the appearance of an identical holocube in +(1)d was if one of the Corps had put it there. Besides-- "Besides, even if it wasn't the same, why would any of us have a ND Holocube? After all--"
"It's illegal for a private citizen to own one," Gold finished. "Yeah, I know that." He was staring in concentration at his hands. "But I still don't get it. You're basically accusing one of us of stealing it. Right?"
"That--would certainly seem to be the case, yes. Of course, I'm not sure it'd be stealing technically since Maxwell had no right to it, either."
"And we would have authority from the Prefect to confiscate something like that. Probably I should have confiscated it--but I didn't. And if one of the others did, they didn't tell me."
Suddenly Gold glanced up. "What about Erybus? I know Moreland's Intersect works on trans-dimensional physics, but wouldn't it also give him the power to travel along the fourth dimensional axis?"
"Probably," answered White slowly. "You're suggesting he put it there?"
"Well, he was around not long before you got back. And it seems clear that Maxwell is working for or with the Nadirites, meaning that Erybus very likely knew about the holocube. For all we know, he might have been watching that whole battle on the Wanderer."
"It's possible--but why?"
"I don't know." Gold frowned. "But there's a lot about Erybus and his schemes that we don't know yet." He threw his shoulders back and walked down the chamber. "There's only one thing to do, though. I'll gather all of us together and then you phase. If the holocube is there, you should be able to trace back which of us put it there, right?"
"We need to take stock of the situation, anyway." He spoke into his communicator. "Corps! Assemble in main cabin."
Blue had joined them almost before Gold finished his order. It was almost five minutes later before Black, Silver, Red, and Green trooped into the cabin from outside.
"Green, status report," Gold barked, standing with his back against the pilot's chair.
Green pulled his hat down. He seemed more than usually out-of-sorts. "I have been unable to determine the cause of the station's break-down, sir."
"But we've scoured around and there's no sign of those workers the princess said were stationed here," added Black. "Which mean they've disappeared. Which means that they were probably taken by ghosts and that ghosts also hexed the station."
"More likely your ghosts are Nadirites," Gold grunted.
White noted that all of the others were out of their armor, except Green. That would be perfect for what she wanted to do. It would be a simple matter to match the holocube with whichever member of the Corps had taken it.
She took a deep breath, phased on her armor, and pushed herself plusward to +(1)d. In an instant, the scene inside the cabin of The Crystallair faded away and she was floating in a white void. All around her, the unworn armor of the other members of the Corps floated likewise, moving in a strange pantomime, mimicking the actions of their owners. White was used to this sight and it was not for this that she had come. She was looking for one thing and one thing only.
And it was the one thing that wasn't there.
"I see you're still able to phase smoothly," remarked Gold as she reappeared in the cabin. "You were probably wise to try again as soon as you could--you have to prove to yourself that you can still do it."
White knew that Gold was trying to cover for her, explaining to the others why she had so suddenly decided to phase. She didn't like it. It was too much like lying. But she was too nauseated by the phasing to argue. Besides, he did have a point. She was glad to know she could still do it--and it was a good idea to try again as soon as possible after a traumatic experience such as she had had.
"So, Green, you were saying that you need parts to fix the station?" prompted Gold, turning the attention of the group away from White.
"This mechanism of this station is unlike anything I've worked with before, but I believe there is a solid chance that with the right equipment I could bring it back to functionality."
"But what are the odds they'll have any of that kind of equipment in an out-of-the-way hole like this system?" Black prodded.
"Hey, it's not that bad," Red interrupted.
Black looked at him with a quick, sharp glance. White noted it. Apparently, for once, even Black was surprised by something.
"Never thought you'd take a shine to this kind of place. Or maybe it's not just the place."
"Green, do you think you can find the necessary equipment here in Altayra? With the Nadirites blockading the void, it's going to be very difficult to return to Ursa Prime to get any equipment--we could go to Draxmore, but even in The Crystallair that's going to be a long trip, and I want this cleared up as soon as we can."
Green adjusted his hat slightly. "Sir, according to my data, there is a large village on this planet, a short distance from here. It seems probable that the basic materials I need could be obtained there. I might need to improvise a little, but I believe it would be a workable solution."
"All right. Is the distance short enough that we can go by foot?"
"That would probably be simpler than trying to fly the ship there, yes."
"We'll leave in five minutes. Get anything you're going to need. White, could you meet me outside to take care of a few other arrangements?"
"Well?" he asked, once they were alone together outside the ship.
She shook her head. "Nothing. It was gone."
Gold turned away. "So you can't be 100% sure you even saw it."
"Gold, I saw it."
He didn't answer for a minute. "Well, we still don't have enough evidence to come to a conclusion on the matter. That's what Green would say. It's possible it was some kind of trick of Erybus's. It could be that somehow you did mistake it--maybe something in the atmosphere of +(1)d, combined with your injuries, created some kind of mirage. Or it could be--"
"That one of us did put it there and then in the interim took it back."
Gold clenched his fists. "I don't want to believe that."
"Belief is conditioned by truth, not by emotion," thought White, but she didn't say it out loud. "When you allow your emotions to determine your beliefs, you are headed towards madness; though once you have a belief, your emotions may help you understand that belief."
"I know what you're thinking," Gold interrupted. "Just because I don't want to believe it doesn't mean it's not true. But--but why would any of them steal that holocube?" He shook his head. "White, don't say anything about this to any of the others. We don't have anything to go on, so we'll just have to let this slide--but we can keep our eyes open. There's something strange going on around here."
With a flash of insight that was almost like pain, thoughts linked themselves together in White's mind.
Once again, Gold seemed to read exactly what she was thinking. "Don't even think that. Red and Black may have their crazy side and even Blue has her moments--but none of them would betray the Corps."
"Of course not."
It was silly. But White couldn't help thinking--thinking of that missing holocube--thinking of the fact that the Nadirites and Maxwell had done things to the Corps which shouldn't have been possible--thinking of the fact that the Nadirites and Maxwell had seemed to know exactly where the Corps would be before they knew it themselves--thinking of the fact that Maxwell had known to use a photon disrupter against them--thinking of the fact that all of that would be exactly what one might expect if one of them were a...
But Gold was right. Whatever faults the other members of the Corps might have, none of them was a traitor.
'Jehovah's vision is not the vision of a human, for human vision can only perceive the visible, but Jehovah penetrates to the very heart.'
The words ran through her mind by automatic habit, but she pushed them away. Of course, only God could see people's hearts, but that didn't mean human perception was totally useless. Understanding people was her job. If she couldn't do that, what good was she to the Corps?
But by this time, the others had put in their appearance and they set off.
This planet was almost identical to Altayra Rex. It had the same black, glossy rocky surface veined with white stone which glowed slightly. And other than this--nothing.
"Is it just me, or is the light dimmer than it was before?" White asked, glancing at Gold.
Green was walking behind them. "It is probable that the light on these planets goes through some cycle of diminution and return, similar to the day-night sequence of other planets."
"That makes sense. In which case, we'd better hurry. I'd assume it'll be night soon."
"So where does the light come from, anyway?" asked Black. "I mean, I can see it comes out of the ground, but how does it get there? Is it some kind of geothermal energy?"
Gold shrugged. "Search me. I've never heard of geothermal energy being harnessed like this, but there're a lot of things about this system that are unique. You don't have any data on that, do you, Green?"
They walked on in silence
Normally, they might have taken to the skies to cover ground more quickly. Though they could walk at about the same speed they flew, flying was generally more direct. However, this planet was so bare that there were no obstacles to impede their progress. There was nothing except the bare, glossy rock and the occasional patch of moss. At least, for the most part.
But after they had traveled for almost half an hour, they came across the first break in the landscape. The light had ebbed quite a bit by now, but it was still light enough to make out things around them clearly. The ground seemed to buckle slightly, forming a round, shallow indentation, almost like a crater. On one side, a low wall had been built from stone, forming a large, square enclosure which opened out into the crater. Milling around this crater and slowly making their way into the enclosure was a flock of sheep. And along with the sheep was the first human being they had seen since the battle with Erybus.
It was a boy of ten or eleven, wearing a loincloth and holding a long staff--the staff seemed almost ludicrously long because it was so much taller than the boy himself. He seemed too small to be controlling the large flock of sheep, but clearly he was, using his staff to direct them as they made their way into the stone enclosure.
White was the only one of the Corps who had much experience with sheep. On Coulair, the Tremonsirs had kept quite a few sheep ,and there were times when she was was younger that she had watched them in the field just like this boy. She walked forward to get a closer view of the sheep, when suddenly the shepherd turned from his work and rushed towards her, waving his staff.
"Keep away! Keep back!"
White took a step back.
The boy stopped and stood protectively in front of the flock, holding his staff threateningly. "Keep back!" he repeated. "Leave us alone."
"Awfully protective, isn't he?" commented Gold in a low voice.
"It's a shepherd's job," White responded, also in a low voice. "And he may never have seen someone from another planet before."
Green adjusted his hat nervously. "Ask him if there's a village near here. We should be getting close."
The boy heard the question. "Hath'ellah," he answered, motioning with his staff. "A few minutes that way."
"Hath'ellah?" repeated Gold, questioningly.
"That is the name of the village we were searching for," Green explained. "We're getting close."
"Then let's go. We wouldn't want to bother the sheep."
They moved on in the direction the boy had indicated (roughly the direction they had already been going). The boy watched them suspiciously until they were out of sight.
"So those were sheep?" remarked Gold, not really as a question. "I've seen pictures before, but never the real thing."
"The real thing is a little bit of a shock, isn't it? The sight and the smell--" White stopped abruptly. "Those sheep didn't smell."
"Do sheep usually?"
"Yes. Sheep usually have a very strong, distinctive smell. But those sheep didn't."
Green adjusted his hat again. "Apparently, something in the atmosphere of these planets suppresses distinct smells."
When he said it, White realized that was one of the things which, subconsciously, had struck her as strange about Altayra. She really didn't remember smelling anything since they had reached the system. "Is that even possible?"
Green glowered at her. "I just stated that it was apparently actual, at which point the question of possibility is irrelevant. Everything that is actual is, of necessity, possible."
"Of course." Green was evidently in a worse mood than usual. This mission was proving unusually stressful on all of them.
"OK, I know I'm the city-girl here," Black began, "but I thought the basic idea of grazing sheep was that they, you know, ate grass. And I haven't seen a blade of grass on this planet."
White frowned. "We have seen moss. Maybe they eat that."
"Or for all we know they're mods and can eat rock materials--like ambients." This from Green. "You notice that they were out in a sort of hollow--maybe they had eaten it away."
"That sounds like a dangerous kind of sheep," remarked Black. "And trust me, that's a phrase I never thought I'd be using."
A few minutes later, their path was interrupted by a deep trench or canyon. They used their armor to fly across it and when they landed on the far side they found themselves standing on the boarder of a village--apparently, their destination, the village of Hath'ellah.
It was a large village, though not as large as the town they had passed through on Altayra Rex. The buildings were made of stone and mostly sat low to the ground. Primarily, the town seemed to be built along one street which ran straight from the trench where they stood to a large hill on the other side of the town. A few spherical lamps were set on posts along the street and they came to life just as the Corps arrived. (It was now nearly "night.") There were only a few people out in the streets.
As they moved towards the town, one of the men in the street detached from the scene and moved towards them.
"Who are you?" he demanded as he approached.
White noted that he carried a small sidearm and guessed him to be a soldier or constabulary officer of some kind.
Gold stopped. "We are the Corps." And seeing that this did not seem to suggest anything to the man, he added, "And we are here as representatives of Ursa Prime."
The man nodded, though otherwise his face remained wooden. "I understand. You are here because of the Guidance Beacon?"
"Exactly. The beacon has become inactive, and we believed that we could find the materials needed to fix it here."
The man bowed. "I do not know if we can supply what you need, but I bid you welcome in the name of her highness." He gave a short call and another man came towards them. "We have visitors from Ursa Prime. Make sure everything is ready." He turned back to Gold. "If you will follow me--"
Gold nodded. "Of course."
As they moved into the town, the inhabitants eyed them strangely. "I take it they don't get strangers around here much," Gold observed. "Do you really think you'll be able to find anything helpful here, Green?"
"I hold to my supposition, but it's impossible to say without further evidence."
The guard led them on to a courtyard halfway down the street, where some tables had been set-up under a large awning. It had something the look of a restaurant or cafe, but it was empty except for themselves. "If you will wait here--" and with that, their guide vanished into the building behind the courtyard. An instant later he reappeared, carrying a tray which he set on one of the table. "This is the best Hath'ellah has to offer."
The tray contained seven blocks of prefood. White could tell by the slight sheen on the outer coating that the food had already been given its flavoring. She realized that she had not eaten since that morning, which seemed somehow years away now.
Gold bowed slightly. "Thank you for your hospitality."
The guard also bowed. "Once you have eaten, we can discuss the materials you require." And with this he moved off to the far side of the courtyard, as if to give the Corps some privacy while they ate.
"Sir, I'm not sure we should eat here," said Green in a low voice as they sat down. "We will be back to our ship shortly, and we have provisions."
Gold shot him a sharp look. "Is there something wrong?"
Green adjusted his hat, uncomfortably. "I'm just not entirely sure we can trust these people."
"We don't have any reason to doubt them. If we refuse the food without good reason, we'll definitely offend them. And if we do that, we may not have any chance to get the materials we need. Remember, these people are under no obligation to help us."
Red was already munching away on one of the blocks. "Tastes fine to me. You're just nervous, Green."
Green slouched in his seat, disgustedly. "You could put anything that looks even remotely like food into your mouth and say it tasted fine, Red."
"Hey, just because you don't like eating doesn't mean the rest of us can't."
"Though some of us are going to end up fat, at the rate you're going," added Black.
"Personally, I prefer starvation, but that's just me," Blue remarked. There had been seven blocks of prefood but since Green didn't eat, that left one extra. Just as Red as reaching for it, Blue picked it up and handed it to Silver. "You probably don't want this, but you'd better have it anyway."
Silver ate very slowly so he was still only a fraction of the way through his first block. But he accepted the block Blue gave him respectfully and sat beside his own partially eaten block.
White glanced at Blue. It was good that she was making sure to look out for Silver, since his own laid-back, quiet personality made the others forget about him most of the time. But she couldn't help but wonder about it. Blue was a hard one to read, but she couldn't help wondering whether it was more than mere compassion or even friendship which was prompting her actions. That was probably silly, but still...
But she didn't have long to think about it, because at that moment she noticed something else.
When they first came into town, she had noted that there were very few people out on the street. This seemd right enough, as it was after dark on the planet and would have been nearly pitch black except for the lamps along the street. (There was next to no light coming from the ground now.) But now the street was crowded. In the dim light of the lamps, she could see a nebula of faces crowding the streets.
"There's nothing I enjoy quite so much as having hordes of strangers staring at me while I eat," remarked Blue laconically. White was not the only one to notice the crowded streets.
"Curiosity I would expect," said Gold in a low voice. "As I said, I'll bet strangers are rare here. But they don't seem just curious. They seem angry."
"And they actually aren't looking at us," added White. She had switched to their private communicators--it was safer than talking out loud. "I don't think we are the main thing on their mind."
Suddenly, the guard sprung up from his place at the far side of the courtyard and ran towards the entrance. Even as he did, one man pushed through the entrance. The man from the street aimed a blow at the guard who ducked, took a step back, and drew his weapon. "Stand down!" he shouted. "I'll drill the next one. What do you want here?"
"You know what we want," shouted one of the men in the crowd. "The Jailer. We know he's in there."
Black glanced at Red. "You wouldn't happen to be a jailer and never told us, would you?"
"Why are you looking at me?" asked Red, honestly confused.
"Don't start you two. I'm pretty sure this has nothing to do with us. We're just getting caught up in it."
"Keep back!" repeated the guard, as the press seemed to increase outside of the courtyard.
"Looks like we're in for a fight," remarked Red. "This should be fun."
"I always enjoy fighting unarmed peasants," agreed Blue. "There's so much honor in it."
"No." Gold's voice was quiet but firm. "We are strangers here, remember? We have no right to get involved in this conflict. Besides, there's no reason. We can easily fly out of range. It's not as if anyone here would have long-range weapons--even if they were after us, which they aren't."
"But if there's a riot in this village, it may ruin our chances of getting the materials we need," White pointed out. She agreed that they couldn't fight the Altayrans--but she couldn't help wondering if there was someway they could stop the riot.
"We'll have to take that chance. And, no, White, there's no way we can stop this thing. Not without knowing more about what's going on."
White hated to admit it, but he was probably right.
Once again, one of the men in the street tried to strike at the guard, who dodged. The guard struck back, using the handle of his gun as a weapon, but it didn't connect with anyone. He took several step backs and raised the gun as if to fire. All seven members of the Corps stood to their feet and, instinctively, phased on their armor, getting ready for flight.
But before they could move and before either the guard or the crowd made their next move, a figure rushed through the courtyard from the interior building and came to a stop directly in front of the entrance. "If you want into this place, first you must strike me down. Are you willing to do that?"
White gasped in amazement. She would have recognized the figure by its dress and voice alone, but as it stood there in the light of the torches, it turned slightly so that from her position she could clearly see the profile of its face.
It was her imperial highness, Princess Valencia.
To be continued...