Monday, July 10, 2017

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 10


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] We had been joined by Altayra's princess, Valencia, in our quest to reactivate the Guidance Beacon. But in the village of Hath'ellah, we were ambushed by Maxwell and the Nadirites. In order to protect the princess and the people of the village, Gold struck a deal--he, I, Green, and Black would fight the Nadirites in the wilderness outside the town, while the princess remained with Silver, Red, and Blue. However, we soon learned that Erybus had a trick up his sleeve--a trick capable of using the unique design of the Altayra System itself as a weapon to destroy the village and our companions.

For just a moment, Gold, White, and Black were all equally paralyzed by shock and horror. Even White, with her ability to process data, had trouble for a second processing what Erybus had said.

Then Gold lunged forward, moving so quickly that Erybus didn't have time to counter the attack. Gold struck him full in the chest, sending him sailing upwards in the air, with Gold close behind. But though he had actually caught the Nadirite captain by surprise, Erybus was far from overcome. He flickered and then vanished, reappearing right behind Gold.

“Look out!” White shouted. She was about to fly to his assistance, but at that moment, she was jumped from behind by two of the power suits.

“Well, um, yeah, so--this is, you know, fun,” remarked Maxwell, in his usual, awkward fashion, as fired his present weapon (a large laser of some kind) at Black, who just barely twisted out of the way.

“Gold--we can't fight them this way--” White shot out from under her attackers and circled around towards Erybus who seemed to sense her attack and teleported out of the way.

“Actually, we can't fight them at all.” She was a little shocked to hear Gold sound so collected. His voice was hard but controlled. “This may all be a trick. We can't trust anything Erybus says. We've got to go back to Hath'ellah.”

“Which may be just what he's trying to get us to do,” thought White. It was so hard to sort through the layers of deceit since they still had no idea what it was that Erybus was really after. Still, Gold was right. They had to find out what had happened to the others--and nothing could be gained by continuing this fight here and now. “So what's our plan?”

“We run away.” Gold sounded bitter. “It's easy enough. These powersuits can't match our speed--and I don't think Erybus and Maxwell will follow on their own. Take the lead, White. I'll cover the rear.”

“That makes me the middle of the sandwich, right?” observed Black. “Hmm, hmm. A Black Sandwich. I like the sound of that.”

Apparently, nothing could shake Black very much.

“Go--now!”

Maxwell and the powersuits didn't even have time to react as the three turned and shot off. Erybus levitated in the air with his arms folded, smiling. He seemed to have expected the move.

“They ran away,” he observed calmly.

Maxwell shook his hair out of his eyes and glanced over at him. “Um, so we, like, you know, just lost a chance to defeat them--and that makes you--happy?”

“Yes,” answered Erybus, slowly coming down to ground level. “That makes me very happy.”

“The comm channel is clear, but I can't raise any of the others--not even Green,” White commented as they shot towards Hath'ellah.

“You sure it's not being jammed?”

“If it is, it has to be near their end--there's no static here.”

“Do you have any idea where Green is? I mean, did you see him during the battle?”

“No.”

“I was kinda busy to be looking for invisible people,” added Black.

By this time they had reached the village.

Well, what was left of the village.

Erybus had been telling that much of the truth, anyway. The village (which less than an hour before had been bustling with life) was little more than scattered heaps of rubble. Most of the buildings had been made of stone, and now they could barely be distinguished from the black stone of the planet. (Though it was very dark now, the Corps' armor allowed them to see as well in darkness as in light.) There was no sound anywhere.

The threesome dropped to the ground in the middle of the wreckage. Gold and White both phased off their helmets and looked at each other.

White had always known that this was dangerous business. The very nature of the Corps meant that they were continually putting their lives in danger. She had been trained as a warrior and had known the loss of comrades-in-arms even before joining the Corps. But somehow she still wasn't prepared for this.

Black's voice, when she spoke, was subdued--for her, anyway. “They're not here, are they?”

White closed her eyes for just a moment. “For once, Erybus was telling the truth.”

Gold had turned away but now he looked back and met her gaze again. His eyes were cold and hard, but there was a strange note to his mouth, almost like a smile, though without humor. “Maybe. But I'm not so sure.”

*

Neither Red nor Silver had understood the danger that caused Blue and Valencia to move so quickly--but they weren't about to be left behind, either. The princess had a head start and the distance was short, so she had reached the base of the hill by the time the others had caught up with her.

The hill of the receiving station rose steep and abrupt from the ground behind the village, more like a wall than a hill. As they reached it, they realized there was a large, metal door set into a deep recess of the wall.

“We've got to get inside, quickly,” she said, turning to face them. “But--” She seemed a little helpless.

The others took it that there was going to be trouble with getting the doors open.

“The walls and door are too think for me to teleport through,” commented Red as they stopped in front of the door. (His armor allowed him to “sense” the thickness of things, specifically to enable his teleportation ability.)

“Let me break us a path,” said Silver quietly.

Blue shook her head. “We'll need the doors intact. Maybe I can--” She walked forward and touched the door. There was a slight noise and then the two heavy panels slid back into the wall. “Well, that was easy. But we don't have a second to lose. Everyone in.”

Neither Red nor Silver had ever seen Blue like this, and neither was going to argue with her when she spoke authoritatively. Within seconds, the three members of the Corps and the princess were inside. Blue slid the door shut behind her. “Phase on your helmet,” she ordered, glancing at Red--the only one of the three who didn't have his helmt on. “We should be safe in here, but there's no guarantee.”

“Safe from what?” Red had been rushed along by events up to this point, but now he was getting irked at not knowing what was going on. Still, he did phase on his helmet. “And what is this place?”

That was not an easy question to answer. They were standing in a round, low room--the ceiling was so low that Silver had to stoop slightly to avoid bumping it. It was hewn from the black rock of the planet, seeming as if a natural cavern had been expanded slightly by human work. In the exact center of the room was a huge column of rock, joining to the ceiling--which, unlike the rest of the room, was clearly of human origin and was as smooth as a mirror. There was absolutely nothing else in the room except for an old wooden chair overturned and half broken, and a thick layer of dust on the floor. It was almost pitch black except for a slight glow which came from the column of rock in the center of the room.

Princess Valencia cleared her throat. “I am not exactly sure what purpose it serves; I believe it is used by those who work on the energy system, but I don't exactly know in what capacity.”

Red nodded. He remembered now what the princess had said before about the energy system--though in the meantime it had slipped his mind. Because the Altayra System had no central star, the energy necessary to supply the planets with light and other things was produced in an underground reactor on another planet--and then “beamed” down to the other planets. Receiving stations like the one they had seen before--under which they were now hiding--channeled the energy down into subterranean veins which then carried it around the planet. All of which was interesting, but didn't explain one thing-- “But why are we hiding here?”

Blue seemed tense as if waiting for something. But she answered coolly enough. “Because the Altayra System is practically a natural weapon. Erybus let us stay safely in Hath'ellah for some reason--I'll eat Green's hat if he doesn't plan to use the energy system, somehow, to destroy the town--and us to. Hopefully, this is the one place we'll be safe. But keep your armor on just in case.”

Red glanced from Blue to the princess. “But what about Valencia? If we're not safe here--”

“If we're not safe here, there's nothing I can do.”

Red took a step towards the princess. “There's got to be some way to protect her.”

Valencia drew herself up, smoothing out her dress with one hand. Her eyes were clear and calm. “We are all going to die sooner or later. Death is always an unwelcome guest, but he is still a guest and must be honored as such. What does is matter if I die now or two months from now?” For just a moment, she faltered. “There are just so many things I wish I could have completed first...”

“Don't--” Red began.

And then it happened.

Only Blue was fully aware of it, because of the sensors in her armor. But all the others could hear--far, far away, seemingly--a rush and crackle and roar. And all of them could see the column in the center of the room glow blinding white for just an instant. Though the flash faded, the stone remained glowing brightly, fully illuminating the room.

Blue nodded. “We survived.”

Red glanced back at Valencia. “See? I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

She smiled. “I do not recall you saying that.”

“Well--I was about to. Anyway, everything's all right now.”

Blue was still standing in a slightly tensed attitude. “Not quite.”

“What do you mean?”

For the first time, Blue seemed uncertain. “Something doesn't seem right.” She walked to the door and touched one of the panels.

There was a crackle of energy and she was thrown back about three feet.

Valencia and Red both started. “What--” Red began.

“Was that--” began the princess, at almost the same moment.

“Red, fire one of your energy stars at the door--but be careful.”

“Just watch me.” Red raised his right arm. For just an instant, energy seemed to gather and crackle on the back of clenched hand--and then a spark shot out and hit the door. There was a crackle of energy and the spark shot back, ricocheting off the wall and very nearly hitting Silver--but the boy ducked at the right moment. It bounced off the door again, seeming to become bigger and faster. It was headed towards the pillar in the center of the chamber but Blue moved to intercept its path. Red's energy stars were not that powerful of a weapon and it could do nothing to hurt Blue's armor.

For just an instant there was silence, and then Blue gave vent to her feelings in a very short but expressive comment.

Red phased off his helmet and stared at her. He had never seen Blue like this. And it scared him just a little, though there was no way he was going to show it--especially not in front of Princess Valencia. “It's a good thing Gold isn't here to hear you use that kind of language,” he said carelessly.

Blue seemed preoccupied. “White isn't here so he wouldn't care. Even Gold's ideas of protocol aren't that idealistic. It's only because it bothers White that he would care.” She phased off her helmet also and glanced around. “But unfortunately we've landed ourselves in a neat little trap.”

“So the door is rigged?”

“No. If it was just that, we could break through one of the other walls. It isn't just the door--it's this entire place.”

“I do not understand.”

“I don't suppose there's any point in getting into advanced physics here and now, Princess. Apparently, as I suspected, the Nadirites used the energy from Altayra Conaurah to attack us. They intensified and magnified the energy beam, but its epicenter was still here at the receiving station--or close, anyway. That much raw energy striking around the receiving station, combined with certain qualities in the rock of your planet, has caused a somewhat rare occurrence--though by no means unheard of.”

“What do you mean?” Princess Valencia seemed more unnerved by Blue's calm tone than she would have been by any frantic rhapsodies of fear.

“That energy has created a natural force field around us.”

“Force field?” repeated Red.

“I would imagine you're familiar with the concept. If not, imagine it like a mirror. A mirror reflects photonic energy, so that you can see a reflection. A force field reflects all kinds of energy, nullifying any direct attack. Usually, it's an expensive matter to generate a force field--but we happen to be standing dead center in a natural one. There's no way for us to get out. I don't think Erybus planned this, but he couldn't have caught us any more neatly if he had planned it.”

“Can the others break us out?” asked Silver. He had phased off his armor and now sat cross legged on the ground, with his head bowed.”

“Probably. Dissolving a force field is relatively simple if you know what you're doing--White or Green would both know how. Maybe even Gold. But that's assuming that Erybus didn't finish them off already. And assuming they knew we were here. But they don't. If they come back to Hath'ellah and we aren't there, they'll just assume we were killed in the blast.” She turned away and paced a few steps. “And even if they did know we're here, they might not guess it's a force field--not without my sensors to guide them. They'll just think it's some kind of natural energy barrier and try to break through. If the kinetic energy of their armor is rammed into that field full force, I'm not sure what will happen, but probably nothing good--considering how much raw energy there is around here. And since that energy would also block our communicators--even if they were were working, which they weren't earlier--we don't have anyway of telling that where we are or what to do.”

“So what are we going to do now?” asked Red after a minute.

Blue paced a few steps further. “Sit down and wait to die of dehydration.”

“This is what you call--sarcasm?” asked Princess Valencia, speaking in a low voice to Red.

Red shook his head. “With her, I'm never sure.”

There was a moment of silence. It was very quiet in the room. There was a slight whine from somewhere, probably from the stored energy all around them, but this slight sound only seemed to intensify the silence.

Red seemed annoyed by the quiet. He walked across the floor, stomping his feet unnecessarily (though even his armored feet made little sound on the dust-covered floor). He picked up the broken chair and examined it. “I guess this thing is pretty much busted. I'm afraid I can't give you place to sit, Valencia.”

She smiled and then sat down gracefully on the ground. “There is still the ground.”

“You'll get all dirty.”

“I think that is the least of our concerns.”

Red suddenly dropped to one knee and picked something up from the dust. He wiped the dust from it on the sleeve of his jacket (he had phased off his armor by now) and then held it up. “Look at this! It's a Nadirite medallion.”

Blue had been standing with her back to them, but now she turned and took the object from him. They had all seen such objects before--a smooth, round black stone on a chain--inlaid with a silver figure eight on its side with a line struck through it. Most Nadirites--even the foot soldiers--wore one of these. “So they were here.”

“Do you think they set up this trap?”

“I don't see how that's possible.” Blue turned the medallion over in her hand and then stowed it in her pocket. (She had also phased off her armor.) “More likely, they used this as a hide out while setting things up on this planet. It is a perfect place to hide. Too perfect for us.”

“You don't have to remind me.”

There was another moment of silence and then suddenly Red began pacing nervously. “It's too quiet. It's as quiet as a--”

He faltered, but Valencia finished primly. “As a tomb? I believe that is the expression?”

“Do you have to put it that way?”

“Are you afraid?”

“Of course not.” Red spoke so quickly, he practically choked himself. “It'd take more than a spot like this to scare me. You don't know the kind thing the Corps does every day. If I were scared by this--”

“But you are, aren't you?” Valencia insisted.

Red clenched one fist involuntarily and his voice almost cracked as he answered. “I just don't like small, enclosed spaces, OK? Growing up on Kastoria, I had a whole planet to roam around on. And with this armor, even walls can't usually hold me. It just feels--so--weird to be here in one place and not be able to get out.”

Blue nodded. “Claustrophobia. I should have realized that--the way you reacted when Maxwell trapped you inside his robot this morning.”

“Let's not talk about that--” Red interrupted hastily.

Silver raised his head heavily. “The limitations of the body need never cause fear, so long as your mind is free.” He bowed his head again--and to Red's utter amazement, Silver began to sing. At least, it was more like singing than anything else, though it had less tune in it than singing usually does. It some ways it was more like chanting or even recitation, yet it still had a certain, distinctive note of song.

Red couldn't have told later the exact the words Silver sang or how he sang them. The only distinct impression he had was of a series of images which the song seemed to conjure in his head. He saw broad planes and meadows, where grass glowed green in the golden sun; he felt himself running along the side of rushing blue rivers with cool breezes blowing against his cheeks. He saw powerful cascades, singing and laughing over rocks and boulders, and above them towering gray mountains which seemed to reach towards the stars. Aged trees, hung with heavy vines, clustered in green forests while beyond them the broad blue sea foamed and crashed against steep black cliffs.

Red felt himself so caught up in the song that he barely knew it was a song, and for an instant or two after Silver stopped singing he didn't realize that he had stopped. It was just a little bit of a shock to glance around and realize that he was still in the dark stone chamber beneath the receiving station on the barren planet of Altayra Vorphintus.

“Most... interesting.” Valencia seemed unsure what to say but to feel that something was required.

“I-I never knew you could sing, Silver,” said Red, sitting down and staring at the older boy with admiration and puzzlement.

Silver still sat with his head bowed. “It is how I learned to live with the silence and isolation. Your body can sit alone in its tiny cell and still your mind may rove the world. My song allowed me to travel my whole world even while I waited in my small prison--and now I carry it with me across this universe.”

Besides the shock of hearing him sing, this was also the most Red had ever heard Silver speak at one time before. He was surprised--and also puzzled. “'Your small prison'?” He repeated the phrase. “You mean you were once imprisoned in your own world?”

Nobody was there to remind him that he had just broken Gold's rule about not asking each other about their past.

For a moment, Silver didn't answer. It wasn't so much that he seemed unwilling to answer as that he seemed so deep in thought that he didn't hear the question.

“Tell them, Silver,” said Blue quietly. “You told me your story once, and I think it is time the others heard it. More than hear it--see it. Once they have seen it, this place will seem as vast and spacious as her highness's palace.”

Red was momentarily distracted, trying to figure out whether Blue was being sarcastic and if so what her sarcasm meant, but his mind was not one that stayed on these kinds of questions very long. “Show us what?”

Silver raised his head to look at them. And then with slow, methodical movements, he raised one hand to his neck. Red was not the observant type, and so had never noticed the fine silver chain that was usually hidden under the collar of his jacket. (White had noticed it, but never thought much about it as such necklaces were far from uncommon.) But now Silver pulled on the chain, drawing from underneath his shirt something which hung on the end of the necklace like a pendant. Pressing a catch of some kind, he separated the object and held it up. It was a metallic sphere, hardly more than a centimeter in diameter, with no break in its surface except for the hook at the top. The outside was smooth and bright, glistening even in the dimness of the cave.

He held it for a moment in his hand before he spoke. “For many, many hours of my life, this was my prison--and my home.”

Both Valencia and Red started. “I-I don't understand.” There was something almost of fear in the princess's voice.

“Do you really mean that--that you could fit--inside that--that little thing?” Red was not quite so awed, but he was still confused and intrigued.

“Many years ago, the sages of Bellas--my home world--developed a way to allow a person to shrink in size and then return to normal size. Only one who has been conditioned from birth can do it--I was one of many who were so conditioned.”

“But why?” pressed Valencia.

“And why into that little sphere?” added Red.

“The sphere is the only known way of achieving the size change. Why the custom began at all, I do not know--that was countless years ago. But it has a very practical use for those who want to keep their slaves where they can find them--and transport them easily.”

For a moment there was silence. That one word--slave--had fallen heavily on the dim room. This time nobody asked Silver what he meant.

“You must understand,” began Silver again, after a long pause, “Bellas is a planet of great beauty, of great natural resources--a place where great art and science has been achieved. But before all, beyond all, above all--it is a planet that honors, that worships, that revels in combat. It was the warring of the gods that brought us into being--or so the legends say. It is in strife and fighting that the life of the world continues. And so on Bellas, the only thing of true interest and value is fighting. All our arts celebrate that--all our science promotes that--our rolling plains and ancient forests are only backdrops to that. Any honor or achievement that can be gained in other pursuits are nothing to the honor and achievement of victory in combat.”

Once again, he paused. In that pause, Red couldn't help thinking that though Silver was taciturn enough usually, once he started talking he did an awful lot of it--and did it well, too.

“There are the great championship fights, but fighting is not reserve to that. Affairs of honor and pride are settled by fighting. Many business contracts are settled by fighting. Even wars are often decided by fighting--by the combat of only a few individuals. On Bellas, you can seldom walk anywhere for more than two miles without at least one fight. But none of this fighting is done by free men, by the men concerned in whatever the object of the fight is--it is all done by their proxies, by the slaves they train to fight for them. I was born to that life.”

“So you were--basically--a gladiator?”

“That is not the term we used on Bellas. And if the myths speak truly of the gladiators of the homeworld, their sport was mere butchery. On Bellas, the goal was to win--not merely to kill. And with our science, there were few men so badly hurt that they could not be got back on their feet after the battle.” After pause, he added, “The medical machinery on The Crystallair is based on the healing techniques of Bellas--which were brought into common use in Ursa Prime after my world was annexed and all this I have spoken was undone, for then the slaves were set free and a strange peace fell on the green fields and forests of Bellas. It was after this that Prefect Alkyte found me and offered me the opportunity of joining the Corps.”

“So for your whole life before that, all you knew was slavery and fighting?”

Silver nodded. “There were several classes of warriors. Some wore heavy armor and carried dangerous weapons of one kind or another. But I was of a different class--one who fought only with their own body. Weaker and more vulnerable for that reason, but also swifter and more adaptable. My young master dreamed of winning the championship battle of Bellas, and so he gave me and my fellow slaves--the rest of his team--the best training he could. We spent much time in battle and much more in hard training. The rest of the time, I spent in here--waiting.” He tapped the small silver sphere.

Red understood now--understood why Silver was the fighter he was and why he had been chosen to bear the silver armor which augmented his already great natural skill. But one phrase caught his attention. “Your 'young master'?”

“He was only twelve when we were set free. Children were allowed--were expected--to train and battle their slaves as well as adults, for their own protection if nothing else. But since victory depended on the strength and skill of the fighter, a child had as good a chance as an adult if he knew how to train his slaves properly.” For a moment, a strange, sad look entered his face. “I am sometimes sorry that we never had the chance to fight in the championships. It was a great disappointment to him--he had lived for nothing else.”

Red's eyes flared. “Some little kid owned you, bossed you around, and kept you locked up in that teeny prison--and you feel sorry for him?”

Silver smiled, a slow, thoughtful smile. “You could never understand. I do not understand myself. The gods made this world a very strange place. My master was always kind. But--” his face became stern and set-- “he was still a master. And I was still a slave. And that is a thing which should never be.”

“I-I-I can't imagine that,” Red admitted. Slavery was something he knew about--it existed on many primitive worlds, even those officially within Ursa Prime's authority (even though Ursa Prime had outlawed slavery from the beginning); it was practically a way of life in Draxmore, people said; and it hadn't been that long ago (though not within Red's lifetime) that it had existed even on his home planet of Kastoria. But it was still not something he could imagine. In his life, he had known a lot of privileges and freedom--and he couldn't imagine having none of that, being completely at someone else's beck and call. And the fact that, in Silver's case, it had been some kid younger than him made it seem even worse.

While Red was thinking all that, Valencia was apparently doing her own thinking, for after a long pause, she commented: “You spoke from experience, then, when you spoke earlier--that no man is good enough to be the absolute master of other men. I have always believed that. And I am glad that my royal ancestors never allowed slavery to exist here in Altayra. But I cannot help but wonder--wonder if there is that much difference between the slave and the poor.” She glanced around, as if somehow her gaze could pierce the walls of their prison. “For instance, here on Altayra Vorphintus, many of the poorest people are shepherds, keeping their flocks in the areas outside the cities.”

“We saw one of those shepherds on our way to the village,” Red said. “Just a little kid.”

Blue nodded and asked abruptly. “By the way, what do the sheep eat? There's no grass on this planet.”

“They--they--that is hardly the point,” Valencia spluttered, seeming more confused and upset by this question than by anything else that had happened over the last several hours. Red couldn't help thinking that for all Valencia's poise and knowledge, she apparently did not know some of the basic facts about the everyday life of her people.

“The point,” she continued, “is that many of those who work as shepherds are born into their work and barely make enough at it to feed themselves and their families. They have no money to pay for training at any other and better kind of work and are doomed, for all purposes, to spend all their days as shepherds. And if they have no choice, are they really all that different from slaves? I know, of course, they cannot be subjected to the cruel treatment which slaves may receive--that they have the dignity and honor of being their own masters. But in the final analysis, is their quality of life any different?”

“What does a princess like you know or care about the problem of poor people like that?” asked Blue.

“Do you have a greater right to know and to care, then? Are you the daughter of shepherds?” There was no scorn in Valencia's words--but there was a hint of something like sarcasm.

“Actually,” Red answered, “she's from a rich family in Ursa Prime.”

“But knowing who my parents are and where my home is--doesn't tell you who I am,” said Blue. Her voice was quiet--and yet somehow fierce.

“And the same is true of me,” answered Valencia.

Blue didn't seem to have a response to that.

Seeing Blue silenced was almost as great a shock to Red as hearing Silver make long speeches.

But Valencia was talking again--her short interchange with Blue seemed to have no particular interest for her. “But perhaps you are right to speak slightingly of my feelings. I cannot understand the poverty of these people from the inside. And my pity will do nothing for them while I live--and certainly no more when I am dead. But I believe there is a better way. Every world has its poor, they say, but there has to be a some way to open the possibility, at least, of a better life to those who will take it, though I am not sure yet how that is to be made possible. I have Keisai doing extensive research on the life of people in Altayra, though, and I hope from that data to be able to create a plan.”

“Keisai?” repeated Blue, turning her head quickly towards the princess. “That servant we saw at the palace yesterday?”

“No--yes--does it matter?” Valencia seemed flustered again for a moment. And then she glanced back at Silver. “So as a slave, you spent much time in that tiny sphere?”

“Yes.” If Silver noticed how abruptly she had changed the subject, he didn't show it. “That is how my master would carry me--and, in other spheres, the other slaves--whenever he traveled. That way we were always at hand if he wanted to fight or to train.”

“What is it like inside?”

“Warm and silent and dark. Even when shrunk, there is very little room to move within the sphere. For the most part, we would only sit... and think.”

Red nodded. Now he understood why Silver tended to sit in that same, hunched attitude whenever they were on the ship.

“Wait.” Blue raised her hand and for a moment there was silence. Then she snapped her fingers. “Silver, you said only certain people conditioned from birth could be placed inside the sphere. You could do it once--can you still?”

“Yes. I still sometimes return inside--with Gold's assistance. To--to remember.”

“What do you need to do it besides the sphere itself?”

“Merely someone to hold the sphere, touch the spring at the top, and call me back to it. From inside, I can emerge at will, but I cannot enter it alone.”

Blue nodded very slowly. “Then we may have a way out of here.” She held out her hand. “What is your real name, Silver?”

Silver seemed to sense her idea, for he dropped the sphere into her hand. “I was born a slave. I suppose I have no real name. My official name in battle was FistBlight. But my master nicknamed me Eo--the name of one of Bellas's moons.”

Blue nodded and touched the small mechanism at the top of the sphere. “Eo--come!”

For an instant, nothing happened. Then there was a slight fuzziness in the air, as if a cloud of hot steam had risen over their eyes. And then Silver was gone, and the sphere in Blue's hand seemed to glow, just slightly.

“And that,” said Blue, calmly, “is our ticket out of here. Assuming that Gold actually uses his head for once. Though Green and White should be out there too, which helps our odds a little.”

*

“How could they have survived?” asked White, looking at Gold, after he announced his opinion. “This village is in ruins and there's no sign of them.”

“Exactly.” Gold's face was hard and slightly worried, but there was certainty in his posture. “Look around you. Look at this place. It was destroyed--but not annihilated. There are still mounds of rubble and ruins of houses.”

Suddenly White began to understand. “Of course. The force of that energy was great, but not great enough to destroy everything.”

“I don't know the exact force. It might have been enough to kill them. It might have been enough to crush their armor. But there's no way in the Cosmos that it was enough to destroy the armor without a trace--not when rock and stone could survive somewhat intact.”

“Unless somehow Erybus specially targeted the armor in someway,” White thought. She didn't say it aloud, and even as she thought it, she knew she had to stop thinking that way. The Nadirite commander definitely had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but he wasn't all-powerful. She wondered if that were the real point of this game of his--to corrupt their thinking with fear. “But if they weren't killed, where are they? There's still not sign of static on the comm channel--except a little which is to be expected under the circumstances--so why haven't they contacted us? Why aren't they here?”

“Maybe they disappeared--just like the workers at the Guidance Beacon,” Black suggested in a tone that was slightly (but only slightly) more serious than usual.

“We left them with Valencia,” added Gold. “Maybe our little princess isn't as sweet and innocent as we thought.”

White hated to say it, but there was another thought hammering in her mind. “And maybe they weren't even in their armor when the attack came.”

“Why would they have taken it off--”

Black didn't even finish her question, before Gold cut her off with an impatient motion of his hand. “There's no point in speculation--not when we can confirm that with certainty.”

White nodded. She was surprised that she hadn't thought of that herself. “Just give me a few minutes.” She phased her helmet back on and then, after a moment of concentration, phased to +(1)d. For a moment or two, she was too nauseous to take any real observations of her surroundings. The vast, white, empty world of +(1)d surrounded her, as always when she phased this direction along the fourth dimensional axis. She wasn't sure if it were the barrenness of the place or some other weird quality, but she always felt as if distance were different here--or, at any rate, that she could see farther here than in =(0)d. And when she looked around, she easily saw something--the thing she had feared she would see--something which sent a cold feeling into her stomach. It was a suit of armor--Blue's armor.

And then she frowned and flew towards it. As she did, she knew her worst fears were unfounded. The armor was moving, which meant that Blue was still alive. But the armor was moving in a peculiar way--seeming to point to something. It wasn't until got close that she saw something else--something next to the armor at which it seemed to be pointing. A small sphere, hardly more than a centimeter across.

It was clear that Blue had put it there--whatever it was--and she seemed to be trying to indicate its location to her. Of course, it might mean something else, but she decided to act on it. She took the sphere and with it flew back to her original location--she could see Black and Gold's helmets, though they had the rest of their armor phased on.

Holding the strange object, she phased back to =(0)d.

Even though she couldn't say anything for a few moments, Gold seemed to understand everything. He took the sphere from her and looked at it carefully. And then he smiled. “This could be a message, but I'm guessing it's the messenger. He may not know where he is, so let's call him. Eo! Out!”

For a moment, nothing happened. And then there was a slight shimmer in the air. And then Silver was standing in front of them. He looked relieved to see them.

White and Black both took a step back in surprise.

“It's a long story,” said Gold, glancing at them. “Maybe we can go over it later. Silver, what's your status?”

“Everyone is alive, but the others are trapped.” He briefly explained everything that had happened since the groups parted.

Gold nodded, with a grim smile. “And Blue thought you would be the perfect messenger--a good way to tell us about your situation. And it never occurred to her that White could just phase back when she saw the armor and learn it all in person. Leave it to Blue to overthink things like that.”

White didn't quite like Gold's tone. He seemed almost pleased by Blue's miscalculation. Besides-- “I might not have thought to do that. And I think she's right that if we had tried an ordinary assault on that force field it would have led to trouble--it could have caused an explosion which would have injured the planet and the princess, even if it had not hurt us.”

“Regardless, we don't have the equipment to get them out here. We'll have to go back to the ship. Though I really would have thought Green could have found a way to get you out of an ordinary forcefield, even without the right equipment.”

“But Green is not with us.”

“What?”

“We assumed he was with you.”

“Then where is he?”

Silver, Gold, Black, and White looked at each for a moment.

“He could be anywhere,” commented White. “I didn't see his armor, so he may still have it on--but if he's still invisible--”

Gold shook his head. “Unless we can raise him on the comms--or unless he shows up--there's only one thing we can do. And that's get Blue out of there. With her armor, it should be simple to track him down. And to get them out, we'll need equipment from the ship. White, take Silver back to Blue. Silver, tell them to hold tight and we'll get them out of there eventually. Black--White and I will go back and get the ship. I want you to search the village and make sure there isn't anyone here. It doesn't look like it, but we'd better make sure. And also clear some of that rubble so we can get a clear shot at that forcefield once we get back.”

“Right-O, chief.”


In a few moments, White and Gold were flying away from the ruins of Hath'ellah, more or less retracing the path they had followed earlier. “I can't figure out where in the Cosmos Green would be,” Gold commented, as they skimmed low over the dark ground of the planet. “From what Silver said, it doesn't sound as if he ever came back to Hath'ellah--but it doesn't seem as if he was with us for very long, either.”

“He was invisible, so there's no way to know for sure.”

“I know.” Gold's voice was strangely hard. “He'd just better be all right.”

White didn't answer. She didn't want to be the one to say it--but she was beginning to feel that was very unlikely. It was possible that something had gone wrong with his communicator or that some electrical freak was interfering with the signal--but it was more likely that he wasn't communicating for a more serious reason.

Gold clenched his fist. “If the Nadirites have done something to him, they're going to regret it.” And in almost the same breath, he added, “I never should have let him go off on his own. Aside from his invisibility, he's the most vulnerable of us all--and with everything else Erybus and Maxwell have done, we can't dismiss the possibility that they've found some way to target Green even when he's invisible. I should have thought of that earlier.”

“You can't think of everything.”

“I'm the leader of the Corps. I have to think of everything. Or something like this will happen.”

“Gold--you have to face reality. Doing the kind of work we do, even if you do everything right, the odds are high that one of us going to get killed sooner or later. You just have to accept that.”

Gold was so surprised that he stopped dead in the air for a moment and glanced at her. “Really? I would have expected that from Black or Blue, but not from you. What kind of leader isn't concerned for the safety of his troops? Do you think I shouldn't care about them? Is that what you want?”

“No--of course not.” White paused. What did she mean? Obviously, Gold was right--no good leader would be apathetic about danger to his followers. But there was something--something about his attitude that worried her. Partly because she was afraid of how he would react if something did happen to one of them. But there was something else--somehow he just seemed to-- “You just seem to take it all so--so personally.”

“Isn't that part of being a leader?”

“I'm not sure.” White couldn't put her finger on it, but there was just something that bothered her in Gold's attitude. “Are you sure that there isn't more to it for you than just trying to be a good leader and being concerned with our safety?”

For a couple of seconds, White thought Gold wasn't going to answer her at all. And then, without warning, he spoke in a strange, quiet voice. “White, I told you that my parents fought in the war with the Legion.”

“Yes.” White remembered him saying that. Not that she was particularly surprised. Many people of their age had.

“But I didn't tell you on which side.”

“What!?” Now it was White's turn to stop in surprise. She could barely take in what Gold had said. “Do you mean that they--they--”

“They fought for the Legion--against Ursa Prime. They were traitors to their own people and to the human race itself. They very nearly helped to bring about the end of the world. Yeah, that's what I'm saying.”

“I--” For once, White was at a complete loss for words.

For a moment, there had been a flash of passion in Gold's voice, but now he spoke calmly and almost disinterestedly. “Of course, like most of the people who fought for the Legion, they didn't understand what was really at stake in the war--if that's any excuse. Dad was always a fighter by disposition. He was born to be a soldier--and I'm sure he would have fought just as willingly for Ursa Prime as for the Legion if they had gotten to him first. But his sister had bought into a lot of the Legion's propaganda and she was responsible for bringing him onto the Legion's side. Mom was sort of the same way, but she especially wanted training in science, and in the part of the Cosmos she was from, fighting for the Legion seemed to be the only way to get that training. It was in fighting for the Legion that they met, actually.” He paused, and added, “Before the war ended, they did realize just what was at stake--they realized that the victory of the Legion would mean the end of humanity; the end of the world. So they switched sides and actually helped to stop the Legion. And like most of the people who fought for the Legion, they ended up getting pardoned after the war--especially since, as I said, they did do a lot to stop the Legion once they switched sides. And that's how they ended up piloting MBUs for Ursa Prime.”

“I-I'm sorry, Gold. I didn't know any of that.” She should have thought of the possibility, of course. Everything he said made perfect sense, given what she knew. “But what does that have to do--”

“You don't understand.” Both Gold's fists were clenched now, and his voice was harsh and almost raspy. “He was there.”

White knew by the tone that he meant Gold's father--but she wasn't sure what Gold meant by there.

“You know the legend of the Corps--how in every generation, seven teenagers with aptitude are chosen to take control of the armor and of the Matrix--and so carry on the legacy of the Corps. Sometimes one incarnation of the Corps will pass the baton simply enough--they meet in a peace conference with their successors and pass on the armor. But that wasn't how it happened for us. When we gained control of the armor, there had been no Corps for several years. Do you know why? Do you know what happened to the last incarnation of the Corps?”

“No, not exactly.” Growing up among the Tremonsirs, her knowledge of affairs in Ursa Prime had necessarily been a little more spotty than Gold's.

He turned away (even though, with his helmet on, she couldn't see his face anyway.) “Well, you're better off not knowing exactly. But the bottom line is that they were killed--all seven of them, seven teenagers like us who had taken control of these suits of armor and who were trying to protect the universe--they were cut down without mercy. By the Legion.”

White forced herself not to make any sound or movement to show the shock she felt as she finally understood what Gold meant.

“And he was there,” Gold repeated, his voice so low and rough, that she barely recognized it. “He was didn't have a major role in that battle--he was still in training for the Legion then--but he was there. He had a part in it. And that's why I've always been determined to become the leader of the Corps and why I'm not going to let anything happen to us.”

A lot of things about Gold and his attitudes made sense now to White. But she was so shocked by his revelation, that she didn't know how to respond.

And then, the next instant, she was too busy being shocked by something else.

As they talked, they had still been moving--and coming suddenly over a slight rise of rock, they saw the gleaming hull of The Crystallair and, behind it, the form of the Guidance Beacon. That she had suspected. But there was something else which she hadn't expected. Directly in front of their ship lay a figure in a strange heap.

And the figure wore green armor.

To be continued...

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