Friday, May 19, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 9


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] Our mission in the Altayra System was going badly. We escaped the Nadirite trap at the Guidance Beacon, but I was forced to face the realization that there might be a traitor among us, though Gold was still unconvinced. Hoping to find the materials we needed to fix the Guidance Beacon, we traveled to a nearby village, where we were caught in the middle of a local riot. We were just getting ready to fly away, when the scene was interrupted by Altayra's ruler, Princess Valencia.

Clearly, the last thing anyone expected was the appearance of the princess. The guard took a step back and for a moment seemed unsure whether he should kneel or not--the next, he rushed to stand protectingly at her side, but she waved him away. The crowd froze for just an instant, and then as one man moved back from the entrance.

“Your highness!” one of them exclaimed in surprise and something like awe.

“We are fully aware of your concerns.” Valencia spoke clearly, her voice carrying like a tolling bell in the silence of the night. “Justice will be done. Your complaints shall be vindicated--You have our royal word for that. But this kind of riot will solve nothing. Injustice cannot bring about justice. You know that.” She raised her head. “If you fight the law in Altayra, you fight me, as your princess.”

For a moment or two there was silence. Then, with a strange quickness, the crowd melted away. Only then did Valencia turn away from the entrance. She glanced at the guard. “Thank-you for your service. You may be at ease. I do not think we will be troubled again tonight.” Then she walked down to the table where the Corps, still in their armor, were standing.

“I must apologize,” she said, with a slight inclination of her head. “As visitors, I am sorry that you would be inconvenienced by our local troubles.”

Gold acknowledged the apology with a stiff bow. “No apology is needed, your highness.”

Red gave a bow that was deeper and more polished. “We should apologize for not coming to your aid.” This was spoken in a formal, almost courtly voice that was very different than Red's normal voice. Though the next instant he added, in his usual voice, “Though I guess you didn't need it, did you? Still, we should've helped. We could have cleared out that rabble quick enough.”

“No.” Valencia's face was troubled. “I would not have wanted you to fight them. These are my people, after all. And they are in the right.” And she smiled--it was like the change from a dreary night to a bright day. “But there is no need for you to stand like that. Please, sit down.”

The Corps sat down again. Valencia looked as if she wanted to sit down, but there was no chair, so Red hastily stood up again and pulled a chair over for her, after which she sat down, carefully adjusting her dress. White noticed that she seemed to hold herself back slightly, as if trying to avoid getting too close to the rest of them. It must have been an ingrained response, however, since there was nothing standoffish in her manner.

Red leaned forward. “So did you come here to stop that riot? You knew it was happening?”

“I had no idea that it was happening, but I knew there was tension here in Hath'ellah.” She smiled, a little wanly. “I suppose with your experiences of the vast universe, you find it had to understand how seriously we take our little troubles here in Altayra.”

“No, I think that is only to be expected,” answered White, as the the princess seemed to expect some reply. But she had seen more of the world than any of the Corps, and it had enforced to her the reality that the more one knew about universal problems, the more concerned they would be for local problems.

Valencia seemed rather grateful for the response. “Here in Altayra, we have little unrest. But my royal ancestors, in an attempt to keep the peace, gave the local jailer great powers to protect the public order. They are like little despots, with the power to prosecute and even punish, even without formal trial.” She looked down at her hands, which were folded on her lap. “No person should have such absolute power, not even a king--certainly not a local jailer. That is what I believe.”

Once again she paused. This time it was Silver who filled in the gap. Raising his head, he spoke heavily but with a strange introspection. “No man is good enough to have complete power over another man, be he the purest man the gods ever made.”

White made a mental note that Silver was a more philosophical thinker than she had ever imagined--also, that his background was apparently polytheistic. She was not particularly surprised. Polytheism had had a revival in recent years and not just in rural planets like Silver's home--though usually (as polytheism usually is) it was just a mythological decoration on a deeper theism or a deeper atheism.

“Yes, that is what I have always thought,” Princess Valencia agreed. “And that is why--since the passing my royal father--I have been working to remove the power from these local officials. But though they had such power, for the most part they did not abuse it--at least, not too much. However, here Hath'ellah, the jailer was a very bad man who used his power both cruelly and selfishly--and when he learned of our royal order to remove his power, he attempted to fight it. He was arrested, of course, and is being held in the jail he once controlled--which is located within that building--” she added, motioning to the building behind the courtyard. “However, the people of Hath'ellah still, justly, are angry with him and are wanting further punishment given to him. That is, I take it, the cause for the riot.” She paused, and for the first time seemed uncertain. “But that is not why I came here. I had not known the tension had reached this level.”

“Then why did you come?” asked Red.

“Because of the Guidance Beacon.” For just a moment she still seemed uncertain, and she raised her head and spoke with decision. “I was concerned with the report you brought that it was inactive. Neither I nor the Sages had heard any report of such a thing. I was afraid that something had happened to our people stationed there. So this afternoon, as soon as I could get away, I took one of our ships and came here. Hath'ellah has the best landing place on this planet; that is the only reason I was in this town to stop the riot.” She paused and glanced up at Gold. “You came to investigate the Guidance Beacon, correct? What did you find?”

Gold seemed a little uncertain how to answer. “It is inoperative,” he said slowly. “We are still diagnosing the problem--but Green--” he motioned to Green-- “believed we could find the materials to fix it here.”

“All the resources of Altayra are at your disposal, such as they are,” answered Valencia quickly. “But what of the workers at the station? Were they able to give you any information?”

Gold paused so long this time that Red answered. “We couldn't find any trace of anyone around the station.”

Gold nodded in confirmation as the princess glanced at him. White knew he hadn't wanted to say that--since the Sages had been trying to keep news of the disappearances from Valencia, Gold had felt bound to avoid the subject, but there was no point in denying it now that Red had made the statement.

Princess Valencia looked truly distressed. “But how could this have happened? You found no one at the station?”

Once again there was an awkward pause.

Valencia drew herself up and looked at all of them with a piercing gaze. “There is something else, is there not? Something you are keeping from me? I understand your loyalty is to Ursa Prime and you must have custody of many secrets--but if this concerns my people, you must tell me.”

“Well, somebody seems awfully obsessive,” remarked Black. This was the first time she had spoken since Valencia joined them, which must have taken a great deal of restrain for her. But she understood the importance of not unduly antagonizing the girl.

“Perhaps I am. But as the ruler of this system, it is my duty to be concerned for its safety.”

Gold took a deep breath. “I think this should be the Sages' job to tell you, but I'm afraid you will find out soon enough, anyway. We have every reason to believe the Guidance Beacon was damaged--and possibly your people were captured--by our enemy, the Nadirites.”

Na-dir-ites.” Valencia slowly sounded out the word, which was clearly a strange one to her. “What kind of people are they?”

“Bad, mostly,” answered Black. “Great tastes in color, though.”

“They are a terrorist cult which threatens the safety of both Ursa Prime and Draxmore,” Gold explained. “We have clashed with them several times in the course of our work.”

Valencia now looked very troubled. “And you say they are here in Altayra?”

“Yes. We were ambushed by them in the station.”

“And they are a powerful force?”

“Yes. They have a great many resources at their command.”

“Why would such people be here in the Altayra System?”

Gold shook his head. “We still don't know that. I had thought perhaps they were simply trying to destroy the link between Ursa Prime and Draxmore, but I'm not sure anymore. It seems that they've been working too long at this project ” He paused and looked at her. “You are not aware of anything that would draw attention to your system, are you? Anything special about your people or your natural resources?”

The princess laughed. “You are thinking of what Rothmar said this afternoon, aren't you? The Sages are rather paranoid with the idea of someone trying to steal our natural resources, but I think it is a pointless fear. We have some small stock of precious ores here in Altayra, but hardly anything to attract outside attention, especially from people as powerful as these Nadirites.” Then she looked thoughtful. “But if such people are here--it will mean war, will it not?”

“For us, it has already meant war, and I am sure we will meet them again. Erybus--the leader of this segment of the Nadirites--made it clear that he intended to fight us again.”

“That is what I feared. My people are simple, quiet people. Small riots such as you witnessed here are the closest we have come to war since my royal ancestors founded Altayra--before the fall of the homeworld. Though I think my people have the spirit to fight if need be, we do not have the resources, the weaponry, the vehicles.”

“Don't worry your highness,” Red interjected. “We're the Corps. We can take care of the Nadirites easily. You and your people won't have to worry about a thing.”

White frowned. She certainly hoped that was true, but so far they hadn't been doing very well at it. They had clashed with Erybus twice so far and hadn't been able to do the least damage to him or whatever plan he was working on.

Green had taken off his hat, as if in respect, when Princess Valencia joined them, but now (by nervous habit) he put it back on and fiddled with it. “If we can just get the Guidance Beacon back online, that should solve the problem. With that, we can call in for reinforcements from Ursa Prime.”

“I understand.” Valencia stood up. “Then let us see about that before we do anything else. You say it may be possible to find the materials here that you need?”

“That is my theory, your highness,” said Green, pulling his hat down a little lower. “Hath'ellah, as I understand it, is the largest village on Altayra Vorphintus and has a machinist's shop for the repair of ordinary machinery. I think it would have the raw materials I need to render the beacon active.”

“Then let us go at once. Guard!”

The guard who accompanied into the city had retired to the far end of the courtyard when Valencia joined them, but now he came down and bowed. “Your highness.”

“Take us to the machinist's shop.”

“As you will.”

The Corps also stood up and followed as Valencia and the guard moved towards the entranceway.

The street outside was very dark. Though most of the crowd had dispersed from earlier, there were still a few people out and about--more, really, than seemed natural for as late as it was.

But such people as there were all drew back respectfully and let them past. Many of them bowed or gave other token of respect to the princess, as she led the party down the street.

As they reached the end of the street, White was able to get a closer look at something they had seen from a distance before. When they first approached the town, she thought it was bordered on one end by a hill. As they approached it, she saw it was more like a low butte or plateau, with a flat top. There was a small rise in the street at the end of the town, so that they could get a good view of the top of the hill. To White's surprise, it was not simply more black rock. Instead, the top was a smooth, glistening circle of some metallic substance, something like bronze in color.

“What's that?” asked Red, staring at the hill in surprise.

“That is the receiving station.”

“Receiving? Like a landing strip or something?”

“No. The landing strip is that direction.” She motioned with one hand. “This is where the planet receives its energy.”

Gold frowned. “Its energy?”

“I know this must seem very strange, for I understand that most other systems are constituted very differently from this one. When my royal ancestors founded Altayra, the system seemed uninhabitable because of the lack of a central star. But in the planet of Altayra Conaurah they discovered what they needed. Perhaps you have heard of the cold energy cell which was designed here in Altayra?”

Green and White nodded. Green had mentioned it to the others, but apparently they hadn't remembered.

“It is build around the natural design of Altayra Conaurah. I am not enough of a scientist to explain to you how it is done, but somehow within the depths of that planet, vast amounts of energy can be produced, but only at cold temperatures. In some ways, Conaurah is almost like the stars of other planets, but it can produce energy only artificially and only in certain forms. And so,” she motioned to the hill, “as it passes through our system, it shoots out 'beams' of concentrated energy which strike receivers such as this one. The energy passes into subterranean formations and from there flows out in the veins you can see on the surface of the planet, providing us with the light and heat we require in order to subsist, as well as being harvest for other uses. The farms on Altayra Li can grow crops for us all only by this energy. Without Altayra Conaurah and its 'reactor' of energy, this system could not exist. And that is why--” her face darkened for a moment-- “that is why it must be preserved, at any cost.”

“Is it in danger?” asked Red, sensing a strange note in Valencia manner.

She smiled. “We have experienced difficulty, but nothing which cannot be solved. And talking of that does not solve your problem. Come.”

They moved forward towards a large building set almost into the hill itself.

Green had been trailing behind the others as they walked and perhaps that was why he bumped into one of the people in the crowd. For the most part, the people in the town had been keeping their distance, but this particular one--a man in a full robe--was close enough that he and Green collided accidentally.

Green stumbled and fell to his knees. And in practically the same moment, he phased on his armor and vanished, shouting into his communicator (his voice more high-pitched than usual): “PHASE! It's an ambush!”

The Corps all turned to face him, confused by this sudden change. Almost automatically, they donned their armor, even though, for a moment, it seemed as if Green had been spooked and given a false alarm.

And then the man threw off his robe, revealing a figure inclosed in a glistening, metallic exoskeleton.

“Surprise!” said Maxwell, smiling.

“You're idea of a surprise attack is certainly fresh and novel,” remarked Erybus, appearing from inside a nearby doorway. “But I'm not sure entirely affective. Perhaps your strategy requires some more thought.”

“I thought we were supposed to be anarchists, right? So, you know, we shouldn't be using strategy and thought.”

“That is merely another trap of reason, Maxwell. In reality--”

“What are you doing here, Maxwell?” demanded Gold, almost rhetorically.

“Um, as he just said, this is a surprise attack. So I'm, you know, surprising you. And attacking you. In that order. I mean, that's pretty much implied in the term 'surprise attack.'”

“He does have a point,” agreed Black.

Princess Valencia seemed confused more than frightened, but she took a step back. “Are these the enemies of which you spoke?”

“One of them is,” answered Gold in a low, cold voice.

“The other is more like a minor annoyance.”

“Come on, really? Shouldn't you say that Erybus is at least, you know, a major annoyance? He is a high officer in the Nadirites. You should show some, you know, respect.”

Black face-palmed.

White's breathing was fast. Maxwell's patter was distracting them from their danger. She knew it. Something was wrong. Her head tingled as she glanced around and then she knew--there was something different about the townspeople than before. In the dim light she hadn't thought much about it, but it was there. These weren't the same as those they had seen when they entered the town or even those who had mobbed the courtyard earlier.

“Look out! We're surrounded. They're not alone.”

Four of the men in the crowd stepped into the light and stood at attention beside Erybus and Maxwell. In the light of the lamp directly above them, it was easy to see that though they wore rough tunics like those of the men in the village, these had only been thrown on over the black Nadirite uniform. Almost two dozen more moved in from the sides.

An instant later, out of darker shadows, six more figures moved to take a stand behind the Corps. These couldn't be disguised, since they were wearing the somewhat bulky powersuits. White was fairly certain these were some of the same who had attacked them earlier inside the station.

All in all, White didn't like the odds. On the trip to Hath'ellah, Gold had filled her in on some of the details of the battle they had with Erybus while she'd been absent. In that battle, they'd barely been able, with all their power, even to threaten the Nadirite commander. Having that threat combined with Maxwell and the power suits made for bad odds--even for the Corps. But that wasn't the main thing that worried White. Maxwell's specialty was using hostages or noncombatants as leverage. And not only where they in the middle of a crowded village, but they had right in the middle of them a perfect example of a hostage.

The princess.

She could sense that Gold was tense also. “What are you after, Erybus?” he asked, his voice cold and hard.

“It is nothing you could comprehend, Gold. There are realities that transcend the narrow confines of your little Code--your morals and your logic. As a great sage of the homeworld said, 'There are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”

“I don't think my philosophy dreams of anything,” Black remarked. “If I had a philosophy, I don't think it would be able to sleep that well.”

The Nadirite commander took a step forward, folding his hands together so that they become invisible in the sleeves of his robe. “However, you are practical people so let us move to practical things. My true goal here is beyond your comprehension. But if I said I want to beat you and your little play-army into a state of helpless pain--that is a comprehensible objective?”

Maxwell shook his head. “I think you're trying to be too, you know, high-class and distant. That's not really all that intimidating at all. I'd be more like 'You're going down, Corps,' and they'd be like 'We won't go down without a fight,' and I'd be like 'Even if you fight, you'll still go down and once your down I can, you know, step on you and push into the dirt' though it wouldn't be dirt on this planet, but more like rock but that'd hurt even more if someone was, you know, stepping on you and--”

“Silence!” For once, a flicker of annoyance shot across Erybus's face.

White couldn't help smiling behind her helmet. Maxwell could even break Erybus's urbanity.

Gold had ignored Maxwell and his interruption. “Yes,” Gold answered in a low, rough voice. “Yes, I understand that all right. But that assumes you can do it.”

“That is a comeback born of defiance and defiance is born of doubt. You should doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs--even if your beliefs are nothing but doubts.” Erybus withdrew his hands and placed them at his side. “But that is a matter to be settled by conflict. And there is something to be decided first.”

White was trying to gauge the man. He certainly seemed to love to talk. The most logical explanation for his long dialogue was that he was stalling--waiting for something or someone to arrive--or that he was trying to get them off guard so that his soldiers could come in with a sneak attack. Yet, his attitude didn't quite seem to match such a scenario, and there was no sign of anything like that happening.

“What?” Gold seemed tired of the parlay.

“My conflict is with you, Corps--and with the government you represent. Not with the Altayra System. It was unfortunately the place fate chose to be the arena for our battle, but the battle does not concern it--or its ruler.”

Princess Valencia stepped forward. “If your conflict is not with my people, than why are you here?” she asked, her voice perfectly calm. If she was unnerved by this mysterious enemy, she wasn't showing it.

“As I said before, none of you can comprehend the full scope of this conflict--none of you have grasped the sheer majesty of Oblivion enough to see the vast empty vistas of nothingness which comprise that which you call reality. But--” he added, as Gold moved impatiently-- “though it is impossible at the moment to move the theater of our battle, I have no wish to involve your highness. And that is why my men have not yet attacked, though we could have easily swarmed in and taken her before you seven had even had time to react.”

“What are you saying, Erybus?”

“I am saying that I will allow her highness to leave in peace before this battle begins. I have no reason to involve her in this conflict and you have my word that she will be safe if she leaves.”

Gold gave a short, ironic laugh, that was more like a grunt. “Your word? The word of a man who cheerfully admits that honor and morality mean nothing to him? Why in the Cosmos should we trust your word?”

“Well, it is all you have to trust at the moment, now isn't it?”

“I personally like letting my enemy smooth-talk me into a trap,” remarked Blue. “But that's just me.”

White had to agree. There was no reason to trust the Nadirite commander. She couldn't imagine any reason why the Nadirites would be concerned about not involving Altayra in their conflict. It wasn't as if the small, rural power could pose any threat to them. The only reason she could imagine for his wanting to protect the princess was that he hoped to win her over to his side. But that went very much against the usual modus operandi of the Nadirites. They were terrorists, not diplomatists. No, it seemed much more likely that this was some kind of trap.

Gold spoke into their private communicators, his voice low and quick. “I'll distract him for a few minutes--while he's off guard, White, you get the princess and fly her out of here as fast as you can. That's the only option.”

“But they're watching us too closely,” Red objected. “And if they shot the princess--she has no protection.”

White didn't like it, but she had to agree with Red. It wasn't a good enough plan--especially not if the Nadirites could perform a target lock on her again as they had before on their ship.

“It's the best shot we have,” answered Gold shortly--but White thought he didn't sound exactly pleased either.

“We can't do it.” Red's voice rose slightly in pitch. “They'll kill the princess if we do. We can't let anything happen to her.”

White sighed. The affect of a girl like Valencia on a boy like Red was one of those things so certain as to be practically predictable using basic math. But this situation was already complex enough and delicate enough without factoring in any emotional entanglement on Red's part.

Gold didn't answer Red immediately, which enforced the idea that he wasn't happy with his own plan. But before he could come up with another plan, the matter was taken out of their hands.

Princess Valencia strode forward to confront Erybus directly. “You say that your quarrel is with Ursa Prime and its representatives--not my people?”

Erybus bowed and nodded. “You are quite correct, your highness.”

“Then do not fight your battles in our villages.” Valencia spoke demurely but with a clear note of firmness and command. “There is no reason for it, is there? Your attempt at an ambush has failed and there is nothing to be gained by fighting here. There are vast stretch of empty territory on this planet in which you could fight without endangering either me or my people.”

For once, a flicker of surprise crossed Erybus's face. “That is a good deal to ask, your highness. Still, if that is your wish, we will fulfill it--if the Corps is willing.” He turned back to Gold. “Will you do it, Gold? You would leave the princess here and meet us just outside of Hath'ellah. As her highness points out, there are vast, unpeople sections of this planet where we can fight without endangering anyone but each other.”

Princess Valencia turned to Gold. She stood erect and regal, with her hands at her side and her head lifted just slightly. “I must ask you to accept his terms.”

Gold shook his head. “Your highness, you don't understand the Nadirites. The very idea of keeping a promise is foreign to them. If we leave you here, we will be putting you in danger.”

“And if you don't, you will be putting this entire town in danger. The choice is simple.”

Red's voice sounded desperately through the communicators. “It's clearly a trap. We can't risk it.”

Blue's voice was still emotionless, but it did have a certain emphasis to it. “But she has asked us to leave. We don't have a choice.”

“But--”

“SHUT UP!” Gold barked shortly. For just a moment there was silence, except for Green's heavy breathing. White knew he hated these kind of situations as much as Gold did, even though he didn't have to make the decision.

Then Gold drew himself up. “Broken Moon.” He spoke the words through their communicators in a low voice. Then turning to Erybus, he said, “As diplomatic representatives of Ursa Prime, we have no choice but to accept her highness's proposal.”

Erybus smiled, a little mockingly, but he accepted the concession silently with just a nod to show he understood.

“However,” Gold continued, in a cold, calm voice, “to ensure her highness's safety, I'm leaving Silver, Red, and Blue here with her. Green, White, Black, and I are more than sufficient to take down your little army.”

Erybus threw back his head and actually laughed. “Well played, Gold. If you are happy with the terms, I will accept them.”

Maxwell rubbed one hand against the back of his head. “But doesn't bargaining with your enemy sort of ruin the whole idea of them being your, you know, enemy?”

“You live by bargaining with your enemy, Maxwell,” Erybus answered shortly. “Now, come.”

“Corps! Action!” Gold ordered as Erybus turned to deliver order to his own troops.

The next moment, Green, White, Black, and Gold were in the air, flying at an angle out of the village, leaving Princess Valencia, along with Red, Silver, and Blue standing in the middle of the street--the street which was now empty as Erybus, Maxwell, and the Nadirite soldiers had begun their move also. Though Maxwell, Erybus, and the Nadirite powersuits all had the ability of flight, they seemed to chose to move along the ground, perhaps to keep pace with the Nadirite ground forces.

Broken Moon.

It was a phrase White hadn't heard in a long time. Very early in their time together as the Corps, Gold and Green had worked out a set of coded terms to be used by the Corps in battle. As time passed, their battle commands had become more simple and streamlined, and the old code words had faded away. But she still remembered what it meant. Gold's home planet had two moons, though traditions said they were only two fragments of a larger moon. Most of the time they remained so close together in the sky that they seemed a single satellite, but at certain points in their rotation, they separated and so could be seen from both sides of the planet at the same time. The phrase was a coded command for Green to use his armor's invisibility to be, seemingly, in two places at once--in this case, to keep watch on both the princess and her guard as well as staying alongside Gold and his group. It was a reasonable strategy. In the event that this was a trap, Green's unsuspected presence might be able to thwart it. White wasn't at all surprised at that--what seemed strange was Gold's decision to revert to the old code to give the order, when he could have just have easily spelled out the plan.

Was it possible that he was beginning to doubt the security of the Corps' communicators?

Her thoughts were strangely echoed when Gold spoke sharply through the communicators. “We're going to go dark. I want complete comm silence unless absolutely necessary. This should be a simple melee, win or lose. Just one question, Green.”

“Sir?”

“If Erybus is using Moreland's Intersect to battle himself, can he still syphon off part of it to protect his the power suits--as he did at the Guidance Beacon?”

Green had apparently already through through this, because he answered promptly. “We can't be certain without further data, but given that he doesn't have full access to Moreland's Intersect, it is highly doubtful that he can share much if any of its operation with his troop and still have any functional power left for himself.”

“Understood.”

“Really? Because I didn't understand a word.”

Gold didn't even bother answering Black. “Silence. Starting... now.”

*

There was an eerie feeling of anticlimax in the streets of Hath'ellah after the Nadirites and the four Corps members had left. Princess Valencia turned around and looked uncertainly at Red, Blue, and Silver. Her poise seemed to leave her for a moment. “I-I hope I have not put your friends in danger.”

For a moment, there was an expressive silence.

Valencia still stood with a note of regality, the note of someone used to giving commands. But she had placed one hand to her temple, as if trying to hold her head up. “But I do not see what other choice--”

Red interrupted her. “Don't worry about it, your highness. They'll be fine.”

“They're not the ones I'm worried about,” remarked Blue quietly.

The princess had folded her hands in front of her in an instinctive motion and was looking at them introspectively. She didn't seem to have heard either Red or Blue. “I do not see how--after all, with the safety of my people at risk--”

“I'm not worried about them, either.”

This time, Valencia definitely heard Blue. She looked up and there was a flash of hurt in her face. But she spoke gently. “Of course, I understand, you are strangers here--you have no reason to care what happens to the people of this town--”

Blue still spoke in a low, impassive voice. “I'm not worried about them because they aren't here.”

“What are you--”

“Be still!”

For a moment, nobody said anything. Valencia--who had stopped talking seemingly more out of shock at Blue's ordering her to than in obedience to the command itself--glanced around and her face took on an expression of awe. It was quiet. Deadly quiet. Not a single sound of any kind could be heard. Red had phased off his helmet and he and the princess both glanced around. Except for the lighted spheres along the street, there was no light in the city. And there wasn't a single person to be seen anywhere.

“I-it is late,” began the princess, a little helplessly. “I wouldn't expect there to be many people out--” But her words were weak and she knew it.

“This place was rioting a few minutes ago.” Red was awed and maybe a little scared. “And now--everyone's---everyone's gone.” He turned suddenly on Blue who stood with her helmet on. “They've disappeared! Just like the Sages said--just like what happened at the Guidance Beacon.”

“Disappeared?” repeated Valencia, almost as if the word were unfamiliar to her. And she added, “The Sages? Wait. Was this what they were speaking to you about this morning?”

Blue phased off her helmet for a moment and met the princess's gaze. “I'm from Ursa Prime and I don't know a lot about royalty or how to treat them. Maybe it's right for the Sages to keep you in the dark--Gold seemed to be willing to go along with them, anyway. But I think you're about to find out a whole lot of things whether you should or not.”

Valencia's eyes narrowed. “I will have to speak with Zortan and Rothmar about this later. But what is this thing they were keeping from me?”

Blue didn't answer immediately, so Red hurried into the gap. “Valencia, there have been mysterious disappearances around the Altayra System--ever since the Nadirite ships were sighted in the system, a couple of months ago.” He spoke quickly, but with an unusually (for him) subdued tone. He seemed unaware that he had slipped into calling the princess by name.

“Disappeared?” once again, Valencia repeated the word, almost as if she had never heard it before. “But--that's impossible. I have been told nothing.”

Blue nodded.

Valencia's eyes flashed for a moment. “The Sages have no right. I am the ruler of Altayra, no matter what the future holds. I cannot leave any unfinished business before the end.”

“The end?” repeated Red, blankly.

Valencia either didn't hear him or chose not to answer. “But--but if the people of Hath'ellah have disappeared--if the Nadirites have somehow stolen them away--then why did that Erybus agree to move his battlefield? There was no one here to endanger. My people may have already been... and does this mean I have placed your friends in danger for naught?” Valencia placed both hands on her head and for a moment swayed as if she were about to faint.

Red moved forward as if to catch her. In an instant, her poise was back and in one, instinctive motion she slapped his face.

Red stumbled back and his face turned red--both from emotional rather than physical causes. At the same moment, Valencia flushed also and she seemed confused and embarrassed. “I-I'm sorry. But it is forbidden for a stranger to lay hands upon a royal personage. I know you meant well--but the Sages could never forgive such a thing. It would mean trouble for all of you.”

Red's breathing was heavy. Blue phased off her helmet to give him a warning look.

It was lost on Red who was looking at the ground. For a moment, there was only a tense silence, and then he spoke simply in a low voice. “I understand. Sorry.” Then he glanced up. “Are you sure you're all right, though?”

“There is no need to trouble yourself. Perhaps the Sages were right that I am not strong enough to be out like this.” She turned back to Blue, who she seemed to view as the leader of the threesome. “But we cannot worry about that now. And we have other things to think of.”

Blue had phased her helmet back on, but there was a strange note to her voice which implied a frown. She still spoke in her ordinary impassive tone, but there was a definite undercurrent of concern. And she wasn't using sarcasm, which was almost as striking and dramatic as any positive she could have said. “There's nothing but static on the comm channel. Something's interfering with the signal. Which shouldn't be possible. Like most of the things Erybus and Maxwell have been doing. I can't pick up a trace of anyone in the area--but I'm not sure I can even trust that anymore, though.”

“What are you saying?” Valencia didn't know Blue well enough to realize how atypical her behavior was, but she could clearly tell that something was wrong.

The frown in Blue's voice deepened. “Erybus wanted all this to happen for a reason.” She took a sharp intake of breath and for a second there was dead silence. Then she spoke rapidly. “You told us about how this system of yours works. Your natural reactor on another planet 'beams' energy down into that receiving station back there. Right?”

“That is the basic set-up, yes.”

“When does that happen?”

Valencia closed her eyes for a moment in concentration. “For this planet it would be--well, any minute.”

Blue nodded. “That's what I was afraid of. We're going to have to run for it.”

Red and Silver both turned to Blue questioningly, clearly not understanding what she was talking about. Valencia's face seemed to freeze for a moment and then she turned. “Quickly. I know where we can go.”

She ran straight towards the gleaming hill of the receiving station.

*

The battle was both easier and harder than White had expected. Easier, because without Moreland's Intersect to protect them, the Nadirite powersuits weren't nearly as powerful as they had been the last time they fought. Erybus himself seemed more content to watch the battle than actually participate. Maxwell was active, but he didn't have a whole field of junk metal to work with this time and no bystanders to involve, so White didn't count him for as much of a threat as at their last encounter. On the other hand, the sheer number of the enemy made things difficult (she was certain more forces had appeared from somewhere during the course of the battle). Moreover, they were short-handed. She hadn't realized before just how much they depended on Silver for these kind of melee battles.

They had fallen into a simple pattern for the battle. Black went after the powersuits. The blades on her armor provided the quickest and easiest way to take them out, and she was agile enough to move in, attack, and move out without being in too much danger. White spent her time handling the Nadirite foot soldiers. Her speed allowed her to outmaneuver their weapons and take them out before they could react. Gold ran interference with both groups, but his main goal seemed to be to get to Maxwell and Erybus and take out the trouble at the source.

All in all, the three of them (White had seen any sign of Green since the battle began, so she wasn't sure where he was) were doing well, but the battle was no by means won. Things went on like this for some time, when suddenly it happened. There was a flash of light far away that, for a moment, made the night seem like day. At the same time, the ground around them seemed to shake and a low wall of rock (which ran along a side of the battle field) shuttered and collapsed.

For just a second, everyone seemed to pause. “What in the Cosmos was that?” asked Maxwell, glancing around.

“That was the broken chord of life--and of death,” Erybus answered with a strange smile.

“Was that one of your tricks, Erybus?” Gold moved forward slowly.

“Hardly that, Gold. That was the beam of energy from Altayra Conaurah, filling the core of this planet with the energy it needs to supply itself with life.” He bowed his head slightly. “Unfortunately, I fear we left some refuse in space which may have intercepted the beam and changed its intensity and trajectory, as light when it hits a convex surface.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Black. The three members of the Corps had fallen naturally into a sort of formation, facing Maxwell and Erybus.

“I mean, I fear that ordinary harmless beam has probably wiped the entire village of Hath'ellah off the surface of the planet, destroying your one hope of fixing the Guidance Beacon. Also no doubt destroying her highness and your three friends.” He bowed his head farther. “May Oblivion have mercy on their non-existent souls.”

Maxwell glanced at him with a look of shock. Obviously, he had no more idea of Erybus's plans than the Corps did. “So that's what all this was about? Huh.” He turned to look at White, Black, and Gold--and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, then. Surprise!”

To be continued...

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