— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
Rojur Delondin pushed away from the breakfast table and set his napkin aside. Alex and Brandon had already finished and were helping Hobbes clear the table. The esper stood up and walked down the hall to the study. On the library desk were several bags that held items he felt they would need on their vacation. Although the future was his real place in time, there were a few things necessary to the journey that he had felt obliged to provide.
He glanced up at a large mirror on the wall and smiled at his reflection. He had removed the colored contact lenses and had washed the dye from his hair. It had been too long since he had seen his real reflection staring back at him.
Brandon bounded into the room, excited to leave. Rojur smiled, for he did not think he had ever seen the boy eager to go anywhere before.
"And how much sleep did you get, kiddo?" Rojur teased.
"Sleep?" the boy responded with a lopsided grin.
Alex walked into the room a moment later as the youth opened the bag Rojur had handed him. Inside were plain green coveralls, with matching undergarments, socks and soft-sided boots. All three bags held identical items, though tailored to each person's sizes in different colors.
"What are these for?" Alex asked as he pulled the wrappings off his set of red clothes.
In the next room, Brandon had already disrobed and was in the process of getting into the new outfit, though he left the door open so he could hear the adults talk. Rojur held his apparel in his arms, where he was going to retire to his room to change. "The inhabitants of the place I have in mind to take you wear garments similar to these; I got these so that we will not look out of place," Rojur explained.
"Ah," Alex remarked, noting that the clothes could not possibly look good on him as age and good cooking continued to take its toll on the millionaire.
"Do not worry about taking an extra change of clothes, as these are self-cleaning and will suit our needs for the duration of the trip. And you see these?" the esper indicated two rows of three buttons on the fronts of the tunics. "Do not touch these. I will explain later."
Without waiting for further delaying questions, the esper retreated to his room to dress. Moments later, he surveyed his appearance in the mirror as he tucked the black cylinder into the top of the blue coveralls. Power to the neighborhood had not yet been restored, so the curtains had been drawn back wide to light the room. Satisfied that the outfit would do, Rojur levitated the clothing he had removed toward the laundry basket. As he watched them settle into the hamper, an idea struck him. He opened the top drawer of his bureau and picked up the silver psi dampener Alex had given him; he saw potential for its use on this trip so he put it in his back pocket. With that done, he felt he was ready to go.
Alex slid easily into his scarlet body-suit, and the fabric seemed to wrap itself around him on its own. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed that his initial belief was incorrect and the clothing actually made him look younger and healthier. Alex looked intently at the weave of the material, but could not identify the technique. Closer still, he realized that it was not woven at all, but a solid piece of material like leather. Even the pockets seemed to blend in naturally at the seams. He suddenly remembered the grey, one-piece garment that Rojur had worn the day he had come to the Blackthorne estate.
He looked down to his son, who was practically performing acrobatics in his green suit to test out the fit.
"This is amazing stuff," Alex wondered aloud. Brandon looked at the fabric moving over his whirling limbs and it never creased, tightened, or restricted his movements at all. If anything, it seemed to move with his body with a kind of liquidity. The two glanced at one another with identical expressions, thinking this was so cool.
|Alex, if you are prepared to leave, you and Brandon need to come into my room,| he sent. |It would not be appropriate to have Hobbes see the three of us disappear from sight.|
|I'll be there in a minute, Rojur,| Alex returned, |I have something to take care of first at my desk.| The esper acknowledged, getting the mental impression from Blackthorne that he was wrapping up some ends in his businesses on his laptop computer. Brandon arrived in the room mere seconds after his sending.
"Ready to go?" Rojur asked.
Fifteen minutes later, Alex still had not shown up. Shrugging his shoulders, Rojur motioned the boy to follow him as they went to the library. Alex was still peering at his laptop and glanced up at them as they entered.
"I'll be just a moment more - almost finished."
Rojur sat in one of the chairs facing the desk and asked, "What is it you are doing?" Brandon hopped up and sat on the edge of the desktop.
"Leaving instructions, as you suggested. If we don't get back as planned, I want things taken care of until our return."
"I know that sounds morbid," Rojur replied, "but you never know what can happen on a trip, even if I intend to bring us back to within a few moments of our departure."
Alex smiled as he finished the last of his details and logged off the machine. He stood up and then reached inside a drawer before moving around the desk.
He held out two small black boxes, each the size of a deck of cards, and lifted them toward the esper. "Brandon and I found these in our rooms this morning. They were not there when we retired last night. Do you have knowledge of them?"
"I put them there while you slept," Rojur admitted.
"And their purpose?"
"Let us just say it will help you where we are going."
Alex set them on the bureau and crossed his arms. Rojur sighed. "They are not harmful, if that is what you are wondering."
Blackthorne continued to stare at his groundskeeper until Rojur shifted uncomfortably. The esper sighed in resignation and finally answered.
"They are teaching devices. Subliminally, you were taught to read, write and speak the common language of the Planetary Alliance, so you will fit in better where we are going."
Alex nodded, accepting the explanation apparently much easier than Rojur had though he would. "What do we need to do?" he asked.
"All that is necessary is for you to make contact with me as you've done before," Rojur replied. "Due to the distance, I will have to make a few quick hops in different locations to get us where we are going, but it will not take more than an actual few seconds. You are likely to see brief flashes of images, but pay them no mind."Alex nodded and put a hand on the esper's shoulder while Brandon grabbed his back pocket and closed his eyes tightly for the trip.
Then, a sense of weightlessness, followed by intense pressure as Brandon kept his eyes closed. For a long moment it felt as though the air was being drawn out of his lungs and then placed back again without his inhaling, only to be pulled out again. He gasped, trying to recapture the escaping breath, and suddenly found that he didn't know which direction was up. His mind spun as his equilibrium vanished, like being on a roller coaster without a guardrail. Then an abrupt weight pressed against his body and he felt his soles flatten and realized that he was upright again.
The youth suddenly heard the sound of voices and opened his eyes. The trio appeared to be standing in a deserted corridor, facing out into what looked like a mall. The people in the main aisle seemed to be quite humanoid, with the exception of a rainbow assortment of hair colors and garments. The boy felt simultaneously disappointed and relieved that he didn't see any bug-eyed creatures from the imaginations of Hollywood among the crowd.
Faces and bodies moved forward like an angular, living creature – many parts of a single organism. Headfirst they moved in rhythm, migrating through the tall, monochrome walls surrounding him on all sides. Lights and sounds bombarded his senses and the youth winced at the sense of strange decor that collided against him like a physical blow; all the chromatic dressing seemed to fall like multi-colored ribbons on a flat, grey surface. He noted the soft gurgling of water and turned his face to an artificial waterfall embedded in a nearby wall. Its appeal was somehow stunted, however, by the stout leaden structure into which it had been carved. He looked up to see several structures lost in the seemingly limitless rise above – then through a flock of off-white clouds his eyes caught the blackness high above, and the glowing pearl of a planet beyond. It was nighttime in some strange city. He almost dismissed it, but faint streaks in the night sky caught his attention. He peered up, focusing his eyes on the tiny dots, then drew back as he realized they were people. They were skating on the sky.
A red and blue flash went off near a tall building and its reflection rippled across the sea of stars, momentarily illuminating the people who hung in space. The flash chased across the sky, but curved with the edges of the panoramic view as its source, some sort of vehicle, flew back and forth close behind a darker, violet light. The boy's mouth dropped as he realized the people were not actually zooming across space, but upside down on some sort of transparent dome almost a mile over the ground.
Alex was the first to step into the avenue after he realized what he was seeing was finally stable. He shook his head a moment to clear the image flashes from his mind and studied their surroundings
"If anyone asks your name," Rojur suggested, "just give them your first name. It's traditional and it's friendlier."
"Where are we?" Alex asked as Rojur motioned to Brandon and followed him into the crowd.
"You're standing in the boarding terminal of this star system's main satellite station. It's an important spaceport in this sector - much like the Chicago O'Hare airport in the United States."
Brandon, not paying attention, pointed straight up, "What's that?"
Rojur looked up, searching the sky for anything unusual before realizing that it was all unusual for the boy. His eyes picked out the most obvious. "Oh, that? That's just one of the recreation areas. Those people are skating on an ice field at the opposite side of the station."
"We're in outer space?" Brandon asked in a mixture of delight and trepidation as he peered through the moving crowds. The throng was thinning somewhat as a transport somewhere was boarding its passengers.
"That's right." Rojur led them to the side of the aisle and pointed out a large bay window. The station's slow rotation soon revealed a green, yellow and blue planet below them, surrounded by a backdrop of brilliant stars. Brandon bit back a gasp as he realized it was the same planet that had just been above their heads in the night sky. The station had to be incredibly compact to rotate that fast and still support enough gravity for the high buildings, not to mention its own atmosphere.
"Is that your planet, Rojur?" Brandon asked.
"No, that is Rona, a world of industry much like your own Earth."
Blackthorne seemed hypnotized by the sight and spoke as if in a trance. "Why didn't you take us down there?" he asked.
"Because your vacation begins up here," the esper answered. "We're going to take a cruise."
Blackthorne blinked and broke his gaze from the window. Rojur was facing the crowd and Alex noted the psi dampener sticking out of his companion's back pocket.
"Why did you bring that?" he asked, pointing to the silver device.
"Oh..." Rojur said as pulled it out of his pocket. "I almost forgot about this." He turned back toward his reflection in the bay window and placed the band in his hair. "It's so I won't be tempted to use my abilities out of habit."
"Why?" Brandon asked.
"Let's just say I do not want to bring any undue attention to myself while we're here." Rojur smiled and began to move into the avenue that had thinned out considerably. He prepared to speak again when an enormous crash erupted behind them. Alex instinctively grabbed Brandon and shielded him with his body as a black vehicle trimmed in purple lights screamed by out of control, and slammed into a wall where it accordioned briefly, then crunched back to a wounded version of its original shape. From the same direction it had come, a second vehicle with flashing bright white lights veered to a stop.
A white-haired man in a black jumpsuit rushed from the vehicle at a dead run and tripped over a floating luggage cart with a resounding crash. Out of the second vehicle vaulted two people in sharp blue and white uniforms who tried to grab his arms. The man jumped up, darted a few yards out of their reach, and held up a hand to them, palm facing outward.
A crackling burst of electrical energy seemed to surge from his hand toward his pursuers, but a light green bubble enveloped them and deflected the bolt around them, absorbing its destructive power in the process. One of the uniformed pair, an orange-haired woman, disappeared and rematerialized behind the man. He was startled by her sudden proximity and frantically swung his arm around toward her. The woman moved suddenly, catching the offending arm and whirled a leg up with a resounding CRACK, snapping a bone as she wrenched the arm around and forced him to the carpeted floor.
Her partner drew a circular piece of metal from his suit and quickly wrapped it around the captive's eyes as the woman fastened a thin filament around his wrists. They pulled him to his feet and then teleported away without explanation. The spectators resumed their activities a moment later as if it were a common sight.
"What was that all about?" Alex asked, blinking away the concept of teleportation used in such a public place. He still hadn't gotten used to seeing Rojur doing it in the months he had known him.
Rojur glanced around and noted that all appeared back to normal. "The guy was probably a wanted esper," he said.
"Esper?" Brandon asked, "Like you?"
Rojur cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable as he replied, "Not exactly..."
"Who were the two in the blue and white uniforms?" Blackthorne asked as he gestured in the direction the action had occurred.
"Psion Patrol," a woman's voice answered. "They are an esper force who track down and capture rogue espers who misuse their abilities."
The trio turned together to face the speaker, a woman in a very form-fitting gold uniform with a high collar adorned with some sort of insignia. A diagonal black stripe angled across the front of her outfit, from the left to the right sides with a logo of some sort near the upper end of the stripe. She brushed a finger through her short, curly brown hair and raised her thin eyebrows.
"Hello, Delon," she said. "Captain Kehtan said you'd be joining us."
"Sahni!" Rojur exclaimed as they embraced. He held her back to move his gaze up and down her curvaceous form and said, "You're looking great in that first officer's uniform!"
"Thanks," she replied after giving him a quick kiss. She turned toward his companions and asked, "Who are your friends?"
"This is Alex and Brandon. They'll be along for the ride."
Blackthorne bowed slightly toward her and shook her hand. "Delighted to know you," he replied to her, but his thoughts were to Rojur. |How did she know we were coming?|
Rojur casually put a hand on his shoulder. |I was here last night as you were sleeping to get us passage on a ship for the month-long vacation you wanted.|
Brandon smiled sheepishly at Sahni. "Hello," he said quietly.
"Hi, cutie!" she said with a smile. "Your name is Brandon?"
"Yeah," he replied hesitantly.
"Well, Brandon, let's see what we can do for you." The woman extended a hand and tapped lightly at the buttons on the boy's top. For a moment, his clothing shivered all over, and he nearly yelped aloud as his entire body tingled as though immersed in a hot tub. Alex saw him shiver, and then a confused but delighted smile filled the youth's face.
"Sahni is an old friend of mine," Rojur explained, treating the incident as though it had little significance.
"Who are you calling old, white-eyes?" she scolded and playfully slapped at him. "Let's just say that Delon and I have known each other for a number of years."
Alex tilted his head. "Delon?"
The esper frowned slightly and then smiled again a heartbeat later. "Ah yes, I forgot. Sahni, I am now traveling under the name of Rojur Delondin."
"Ro-jur... Delon-din...?" She thought about it a few seconds and replied, "Okay, I see the connection, though I’ll have to torture the reason out of you later."
"That sounds like fun!" he responded with a grin.
She disentangled herself from him and asked, "How soon until you board? We'll be launching soon."
"We were just heading for the terminal."
"Good," she said. "I would take you aboard myself and give you a quick tour, but I'm due on the bridge right now. Security will take care of you at the terminal." She winked at Brandon and added, "I'll see you all after we've gotten under way." Sahni turned to go, but leaned back to whisper something in Rojur's ear that caused him to blush. She then took off at a trot toward the terminal and disappeared through a doorway after a quick ID check with the guards.
"Delon?" Alex repeated as they resumed walking.
"Huh...?" Rojur replied absently.
"Is that your name?" Brandon asked.
"My name...?" Rojur repeated. He shook his head slightly and smiled. "Sorry about that... she always affects me that way."
"Are you and her…?" Alex tapped him on the side of the head with a finger.
"Uh huh, yes, as often as we can."
Alex gave him a smirk and Rojur averted his eyes with a grin.
"Your name?" Brandon tried again.
Rojur bit his lower lip and raised his eyebrows as he looked down at him. "Delon is part of my real name. I used it as part of my name on Earth."
"What is your full real name?" Blackthorne wanted to know.
"Delon Santrojur, but don't use it, please."
Their conversation quieted as they neared the counter. A young man with red hair in a gold uniform looked up at them. "Yes?"
Rojur pulled a silver square from his pocket and handed it to him. "We have reservations for passage on this ship."
The clerk frowned and glanced toward the two guards framing the doorway Sahni had gone through. "I'm afraid that isn't possible," he said. "This is not a passenger vessel."
"I know that," the esper replied patiently. "The Zephyr is an experimental exploration vessel about to make its maiden voyage. We're guests of Captain Kehtan Otani."
Doubtful, the clerk inserted the square into his reader. A moment later, he grunted in disbelief. He set a small box on the counter and motioned toward it. Rojur placed his hand on it, palm down, for identification. The computer beeped and he smiled slightly. He motioned for Alex and Brandon to do the same.
"I don't know how you arranged it, but you've got clearance," he said. A moment later, he pulled several objects from a slot and handed them to the esper. "Here are your IDs. They have you three down for cabins 84-D and 85-D. Just ask anyone you see and they'll tell you how to get to them."
"Thank you," Rojur answered. He turned to his friends with a triumphant smile and handed their badges to them. He touched hisonto his outfit over his heart where it affixed itself to the material and then motioned for the others to follow him past the guards.
They had not gone very far down the corridor before Alex spoke. "Explain how you were able to reply telepathically to me a few minutes ago. You're still wearing the dampener."
Rojur shrugged his shoulders and replied, "The dampener cuts down the ability to use my talents, but I can still communicate telepathically as long as I'm touching the person. Remember when I put a hand on your shoulder?"
"Now that you mention it, yes."
"That's really all it takes," Rojur grinned back, and then his attention was drawn away by the sight of Brandon stabbing at the buttons on his top. Frustrated, he could not get it to do that strange thing Sahni had done a few minutes prior.
"Like this," Rojur explained, effortlessly tapping a series of buttons. Once again, the thrill washed over the youth, who squirmed in his clothes.
"What's that?" Alex asked, concerned.
"Yours does it too," Rojur said, setting off his employer's suit in a similar fashion. Alex found himself caught off guard when a rush rippled across his body; it felt like bathing in seltzer.
"It's just a little addition to your suits."
"How can these clothes do that?"
"Well," Rojur began, pausing for a moment and drawing the pair behind a pillar and out of public scrutiny, "technology has advanced to the point where we now control the atom in ways you cannot imagine. We don't have time for a formal lecture, and I don't want to give you too much future information, but suffice to say your clothes are made of something like mercury."
"Mercury?" Brandon gulped, rubbing the perfectly dry material.
"Well, a liquid metalloid that isn't quite so toxic. It's solid, like ice, but without slowing down the atomic activity. It's like meniscus on the top of a full glass of water, that invisible skin on the surface that prevents it from spilling over the side. Only it's a glass a fraction of an inch tall and wrapped all around your body. All living, carbon-based things create their own magnetic field. These controllers," he indicated the buttons, "make it conform to the microscopic changes of the metals in your body reacting to celestial forces. That is how the fit is so good, since it is constantly adjusting to your movements. It is powered, so to speak, by the kinetic energy produced when you move; walking, running, breathing, or even just your heartbeat will produce energy. It is also designed to react only to trace elements of metal, so if you pick up a golf club you will not find yourself suddenly naked. That feature I just showed you is called a fizz, and other combinations control hot and cold, pressure, and the like. I can show you the combinations later, but don't use it too often because it has to recharge, and that will affect the state of your clothes."
Brandon and Alex exchanged glances again, this was the coolest thing in the history of cool.
The trio neared the end of the long carpeted hallway and they were stopped by two more of the guards in gold uniforms. Alex surmised the color was the official dress of the ship's crew. The sentries studied their IDs and inspected them and their luggage with a hand scanner before letting them through the entryway to the ship itself. The esper began talking with one of them in apparent familiarity. As he waited, Alex noted that beside the door seal was painted these words:
Scientific Exploration Vessel ZFR-01
Then he blinked. He looked closer at the words and discovered that they were written in characters and a language he did not recognize... though he could read and understand them. As Rojur finished with the watchman, Alex listened to their voices and found the same was true with their speech. He remembered the box he had found beside his bed and knew his ability to understand these people was due to the device. Rojur was no longer speaking in accented English and Alex suddenly wondered how long since their arrival that the esper might have reverted to this intergalactic tongue.
After a few moments more, they passed through the portal of the ship and continued along a narrow corridor. The trio passed a large, lower level area where a tall, young man stood on a small round stage, addressing a gathering of perhaps a thousand people. He nearly filled the stage with his presence, gesturing with his hands as holographic images slowly spiraled before him. Alex called them to a halt to listen.
"Now I know that not all of you are volunteers. Some of you are just here on your first assignments, but we don't tolerate slackers. From the senior staff all the way down to the newest, greenest recruit I'm expecting 110% to get this lady to her destination and back home. Is that clear?"
"CLEAR, SIR!" they responded as one.
"You all could have joined the army," he added, "but your IQs were too high." Laughter. "You could have joined the Marine Corps, but I'd rather have people who don't eat dirt for a living. "More laughter. "You could have joined the Air Farce, but I require men and women who actually do something for a living." The crowd erupted with catcalls and howls, posturing gestures and chants of loyalty to the fleet.
"I am the flight commander of this ship," the burly man said, "That means I'm momma and daddy for as long as you're all walking its decks, second only to the captain. What can you expect from my command?"
"BEST COMMAND IN THE FLEET, SIR!"
The image changed to a slowly rotating ship superimposed over another man dressed in a fine, white uniform. "This is Admiral Dorian," Boos and hisses from the crowd. "He was the last captain to go as far out near the Rim as we're going, and he thinks that it'll take us a month and a half at top speed to get there. What say we make it in three weeks?" More exuberant applause.
The images switched to visions of a vacation spot, luxurious bodies stretched languidly in the sun or playing in the water. Awed murmurs from the audience.
"When we finish our tour of duty, shore leave will be on Laviah, where the weather is warm," the image dissolved into that of a scantily-clad woman sipping a green drink and a chiseled, glistening bronze male in shorts so tight a person could count his pulse, "and so is the culture!" All the males in the audience howled and females blew wolf whistles and ovations.
The holograms dissolved into points of light and vanished. The man stood tall and proud. "Are you ready?"
"Are you mean?"
"What are you?"
"MOTIVATED DEDICATED HARD WORKIN' TEAM, SIR!"
"Then let's do it!"
Another eruption of pride and vigor filled the hall as the crew filed out of the briefing room, eager to get underway.
* * *
Sahni arrived on the bridge and noted that besides the captain, she was the last to get to her post. There were three stations on the upper deck that overlooked the lower level of the command center. Hers was to the right of the captain's chair. She patted the officer of special sciences on the back and peered over his shoulder at his monitor.
"Are we ready, Dwes?" she asked the bearded man. He was in his early fifties, though his shoulder-length black hair showed no signs of grey. He lifted his thick eyebrows as he glanced up at her.
"Yes, sir," he said with a smile. "All we need is the word." He gestured toward the command chair that was positioned between his station and the first officer's. "The captain said he had to do a final inspection on the engine room, though everyone knows he's inspected it and given it his approval a dozen times already in the last three days."
Sahni smiled without a word and walked over to her own terminal. She sat down and tapped a few controls, tying into the dockyard's external viewers. From different angles, she admired the sleek beauty of the Zephyr, noting its long and narrow grey hull accented by the various lit ports and the reflective double white line that ran its entire length.
The Zephyr was the Planetary Alliance's first ship designed to travel beyond the known parts of the galaxy for serious exploration and mapping. Her engines were experimental, theorized to make longer jumps without tremendous loss of power, and were the captain's pride and joy. "Take care of your ship," he had often said, "and she'll take care of you." Not exactly original, but fitting.
The only thing that worried the first officer was that the ship was not a military battle vessel and therefore had few armaments. There were defensive pulse cannons and a new experimental energy screen, but Sahni would have felt more at ease taking more firepower with them into the unknown. They had a number of small science recon ships that were also equipped with minimal defenses, but nothing she would have confidence in if they had to be used for that purpose.
Although an exploration ship, their maiden voyage was prearranged for a short expedition to the Railon Cluster, twenty-seven light years beyond previously explored space. There would be no deviations along the way, which Sahni personally thought hampered the ship's original purpose, but it was because of an event in the captain's career that the orders were restricted as such. Still, orders were orders and this was only its virgin run. There would be more exploration after the ship had been fully tested on this assignment.
Sahni switched off her personal viewer and looked out over the lower deck of the bridge. The rest of the command stations were arranged in a semicircle facing the main viewer. Below the giant display screen were transparent panels that let the personnel look upon the star field directly. The bridge was set back enough that the softly pointed nose of the ship was in sight below the windows.
The first officer walked down a circular staircase to the lower level and stepped to the station on the right side of the room. She approached the brown-haired communications officer and stood beside him. He was cleaning his wire-rim glasses; they were archaic, but the man was allergic to all other medical procedures for vision correction.
"Are all personnel on board, Ree?" she asked.
He slipped his spectacles onto his nose and danced his hands across his panel in response to her inquiry. "Yes, sir. Everyone's accounted for, including the captain’s three passengers." He scratched his mustache briefly and looked up at her. "All hatches and airlocks were sealed just a moment ago. All stations have reported in and I have green lights across the board."
"Very good, Ree." Sahni moved to the next station and stopped between two seated officers.
Zahn leaned back in his chair with hands behind his head. "How soon before we launch?" the blond Navigator asked.
"Anxious to go, eh?" she smiled.
"Anxious?" Dayl chuckled, running a hand through her short violet hair, "He hasn't been able to sit still since setting his butt into that seat today!"
"Is Helm ready?"
"Anxious to go!" Dayl reported with a quick salute in a voice that mimicked Zahn's. The chesty woman laughed and winked at her partner who was nearly ten years her junior. This voyage would be the twenty-five-year-old navigator's first venture into deep space; It would be her eighth, though her first into unknown space.
Sahni rolled her eyes and moved on to the last station. The weapons officer was just as reluctant to travel mysterious destinations without more firepower that the first officer was, but his job would be no less important if trouble sought them out. The young man with turquoise hair sat relaxed in his seat, but alert to the impending start of the excursion.
"How is everything, Trin?"
He moved his white eyes to look up at her and stuck out his square jaw, smiling as he could with a wooden toothpick clenched between his teeth. He removed it and simply replied, "Ready." He reminded her of Delon... Rojur, that is... in that he was from the same planet as her dear friend. This guy did not have a beard, however, and his long hair was pulled back into a pony-tail that hung to his mid-back. Trin was almost a decade younger than the esper and his youthful face was just as handsome.
A door swished open on the lower deck and a tall, muscular man walked in. "Maku," she hailed him over. "We have three passengers aboard," she began.
"I know," the security officer interrupted as he handed her a datapak. "I've just shown them to their quarters." He lowered his voice and added, "I can't fathom why the captain authorized their presence." He crooked up one side of his mouth as he looked down at her. At six foot five inches, he was easily the tallest man on board the vessel. He was a large man, but he was all in proportion so that no one was actually aware of his size until standing next to him. "Are they here to watchdog our mission?"
Sahni put a hand on his left arm and shook her head with a smile. "No, one of them is a personal friend of the captain's, to whom Kehtan owes a favor." She glanced at the datapak and added, "I served with him once before, when Kehtan and I were aboard the Two Star."
"Lovely," Maku rumbled, "now we're a tourist vessel. Did the supply officer remember to order little umbrellas to go in their drinks?"
The upper deck door opened and the captain walked over to his command chair. He touched a control pad and then placed his arms behind his back. All eyes turned to him as he stood in front of his console and surveyed the bridge crew. Captain Kehtan's hard angular features, his small penetrating eyes, high forehead and thin black mustache gave him the appearance of a man who was as rugged as the old sea captains of the oceans. Despite his harsh appearance, however, he was a decent and understanding man, but he knew his place as commander of his ship and made sure his crew knew it. He was experienced and the grey that peppered his black hair seemed to accent that fact. His deep voice rumbled as he spoke over the ship-wide intercom.
"New ships and new lands, ladies and gentlemen. In just a few moments, we will be setting out on this new ship's first venture into unknown territory. We have all been trained on its systems and now is the time to put our preparations into physical action." He leaned forward and rested his hands on the console before him. "We know what to do. We know where we're going and we know we're going to conquer when we get there." He smiled a little as he added, "I'm not much of an orator, so let's all get to work. Prepare for launch." He closed the intercom channel from his panel and took a seat.
Without questions or comments, the staff returned to their tasks at hand, preparing for departure.
"Zahn, extend the stabilizers and light her up," the captain said to the Navigator. "Ree, get me the dock master."
* * *
One flight level below the bridge was the conference room and observation lounge. It was deserted, save for three figures at a table nearest the forward windows. Their assigned quarters were just across the corridor, so they decided to await the launch from where they would have a good view. The ship slowly, lazily spun away from its docking port, as a leaf set on a delicate current would flow off into a stream. The land masses of Rona curved into view with a silver arc of light slicing across the sky to outline its perimeter when the planet turned its face from night to day. The enormous blue-white star that shined warmth and light on Rona spun thousands of times further away than Earth's sun, but that world greeted each new day with its own star in the heavens. Brandon watched the planet's surface as a ripple of white snaked across a long section of blue. He turned and tugged at Rojur's arm and the esper explained that an Earth storm was nothing like a similar one on Rona. Terran lightning was a spark compared to what brewed in thunderheads on the world below them. The boy returned to his seat, eyes wide as he mentally calculated the distance from this ship to that planet, and estimated how long and broad that lightning bolt had to be. The final figure caused him a shudder.
Although looped in the safety belt, Brandon sat reversed in his chair with his arms resting on the seat back, silently staring at the much-easier-to-handle outer structure of the space station. Alex sat quietly as well. The new wonders of this future were not as exciting to him as the amazement of actually being in space. Rojur checked a chronometer on the wall, then got up from his seat and walked to a wall storage unit, looking for something to drink. He had done this many times and the thrill of space travel had worn off for him years ago.
Alex and Brandon stared transfixed out the window as the Rona Space Station slowly slipped sideways out of view, though there was no sensation of the ship actually moving away from it. The star field turned quietly as the Zephyr nosed toward its destination. Then a low pulse could be felt in the ship, much like a heartbeat; it seemed as if all motion forward had ceased.
"Why did we stop?" Brandon asked.
Rojur returned to his seat with a cup of something that smelled like hot coffee, though its color was bright green. "We haven't stopped moving," he replied. "In fact, we're traveling quite fast now by your standards. You won't see anything else until we've moved far enough away from the planetary system to be of little danger if something goes wrong. When they activate the main drive, then you'll see a difference." The esper flipped a switch on the console armrest and the chair detached from the floor, hovering in mid-air.
"How long will that be?" Alex wanted to know, still transfixed by the stars.
"I dunno. It depends on how fast we're moving right now. If we get away quick enough, it could be–"
Alex's eyes went wide and Brandon yelped in surprise as the all the stars in view became elongated for just a second, and then the starfield streaked toward them in a dazzling display of light. The ship gave a slight shudder and the low pulse was replaced by a throbbing that could be heard as well as felt.
"Wow..."Brandon gulped air twice after voicing that opinion.
Alex looked over at Rojur and smiled widely. The flight of the Zephyr had begun.
* * *
As inertia slowly fell, the streaked stars settled down to mere smudges and the trio sat up from their chairs. Brandon was ecstatic! He wanted to see the ship; its engines and weapons, cargo holds and recreation areas. Rojur checked a timepiece on the wall and told him to stay put where he was. The boy reluctantly returned to his seat and buckled himself in as the esper returned to his cup. The esper tapped some controls on the armrest and a holographic display unfolded in front of him, reading off statistics and numbers.
Rojur grinned, adding, "The Sooners won their game on Earth last night."
Alex smiled, delighted that the home team was still around. He unbuckled his seat belt and stood up to stretch his legs.
"Sit down, Alex."
Blackthorne looked at Rojur with concern. It had been an order, punctuated with a silent "or else".
Rojur checked the time on the wall again. The numbers cycled over to zero.
Suddenly the room went red and a siren screamed from the wall. A voice cried out over an unseen intercom, ENEMY VESSEL IN FIRING RANGE! ALERT! ALERT!
A blast rocked the ship, sending Alex tumbling over onto the floor. Brandon gripped his chair, terrified at the crashing explosions that filled the air.
Rojur calmly sipped his drink and continued reading, his floating chair unaffected by the violent shaking of the ship.
Fighting a sudden flush of gravity, Alex hauled himself back up into the chair and strapped himself in, teeth clenched and knuckles white as he fought to keep his wits about him. He felt Brandon's hand on his own as the youth tried to calm him, then he cast his eyes over to the apparently disinterested esper.
"What's happening?" Alex shouted.
"Don't worry," Rojur replied, waving him off.
Gravity suddenly released, and the two passengers felt sick as the walls vibrated harshly.
"They cut the gravity, great!" Rojur cheered. They both looked at him as though he had lost his mind.
The esper chuckled and tapped more buttons on his console. A holographic display fizzled up to fill half the wall before them and they saw the bridge of the ship where Captain Kehtan snarled at his officers.
"Well what are you waiting for? Don't you know an alarm when you hear one?" Bodies were flying everywhere and the captain would snatch a collar here or a boot there and whirl them in odd directions. "Seat belts! Why are you at your posts without them fastened? You have to be prepared for anything! Even though we're not a fighting vessel doesn't mean we won't run into any!" Only a handful of officers remained at their posts, belted in. They worked feverishly at their consoles, jamming data and shouting information over the explosions.
Alex and Brandon looked at one another. It was a war game, dropped into the crew's lap completely by surprise. This was no science and exploration captain; this was a battle commander.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.