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TREASURE HUNT

— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter

Chapter 8
 

The maiden flight of the Zephyr was one week out of Rona.  The crew had taken the ship through a series of experiments, testing the equipment and materials on board and observing the results with satisfaction.  They had also engaged in not a few drills and exercises, resulting in various reactions from the ever-frosty captain.  The new starship was laden with the latest in scientific systems and all were put to the test.  They would not be nearing the edge of the Frontier for another two weeks, so all analyzing had been done in previously charted and sectored space to calibrate and retest all operations.

Things had gone so well that Captain Kehtan had announced a forty-eight hour minimum manning, granting a holiday to all personnel not essential to the immediate operation of the ship.  At the moment, he was in the observation lounge with two of his passengers, near the forward windows.  A huge canine sat on the carpet at his feet, lazily swishing her tail as the talk around her continued.

"I don't believe I've ever seen her take to anyone so readily before," Kehtan said, speaking of Brandon, who was returning from the galley with a bowl of water.  The quiet youth set the container down in front of the creature and affectionately ran his fingers through the large Ronan wolf's rough fur.  Alex smiled and thought back several days when the captain had given them their first initial tour of the ship.  In the commander's quarters, the guests had been greeted by a large animal with auburn fur.

"Meet Red, gentlemen," the captain had said.  "My closest companion for the last four years." Alex was surprised that the man had kept a wild animal such as this as a pet, knowing that the smaller Terran wolves were rarely tamed to complete docility and had often turned violent toward their owners.  The captain had explained, however, that she had taken up with him, not the other way around.  He had given her many opportunities to go free into the wild in the forest near his hometown, but she always returned after a few days.  Odd as it may have been, she seemed to prefer the company of the star sailor.

Brandon slowly stroked the large wolf's fur and wore a contented smile.  Red turned her head toward him and butted him gently.  The youth scratched her ears and within moments, she was lying on the carpet beside him as he firmly massaged the back of her neck.  He knew from his experiences with the Siberian husky, Okami, that it was a fount of great tension in canines.

"Where is Delon - I mean, Rojur?" Kehtan asked, still having trouble calling his former crewmate by a new name.

"He spends most of his time with Sahni," Alex replied, his gaze affixed on the star field outside the bay window, "so I suppose he's hovering about her somewhere."

"Some things never change," the captain mused.

Blackthorne tore his gaze from the stars and glanced over at Kehtan.  "Captain," he said slowly, "what can you tell me about...  Roj, uh...Delon Santrojur."

"Delon? I first met him a decade ago when I was captain of the Two Star, a small science vessel skirting the edges of the Frontier.  I had had enough of combat sorties against the Kirini long before it became apparent that we would never win that war.  Thank Heaven they finally backed off when they did.  Fourteen worlds they destroyed with their planet killers, and Earth was to blame for inciting them."

Alex's jaw dropped imperceptibly, then he snapped it shut, suddenly terrified at the thought of the future.  He nodded, mutely agreeing with Kehtan.

The captain continued, "Delon was one of the security officers assigned to my ship at the last moment before our first expedition.  He was already friends with Sahni, whom he had met several years prior to that." Kehtan gestured toward the window.  "We traveled the outer edges of the Frontier for three years, went through fire and brought back the ashes to prove it.  It was not an uneventful journey, I can tell you." He looked down at Brandon, who had relaxed beside Red and was staring solemnly back at the captain as his fingers found just the right spot on Red's neck to make the wolf sigh in delight.

"During our final mission, the Two Star was placed in a compromising situation because of a foolhardy decision I had made, and the ship and crew were nearly destroyed because of it." He fell silent, as he appeared to be seeing the scene all over again.  "If it hadn't been for an amazing talent that Delon displayed at a crucial moment, we'd have all perished."

"What happened?" Alex urged him to continue.  He had heard nothing of this from his friend, and this captain was apparently no stranger to Rojur's esper abilities - at least one of them, anyway.

Kehtan stood up and walked over to the window.  He turned his back to it and faced his guests.  "One of my interests has been in research on the legendary lost empire of Shraelon." Alex did not know whom or what Shraelon was, but did not mention it as his host continued.  "During our missions, I found numerous artifacts to support my studies and took a notion to do a spot of research while in an area where much of the evidence had turned up." He smiled and narrowed his eyes.  "Most of the tales are merely legend, mind you, but often there is some truth to the myths.  I was right – we turned up further proof which substantiated the evidence and I ordered the ship off its mission to pursue my dream, hoping the payoff would make up for the deviation of our assignment.  I should have sent word to the fleet commander.  I should have thought about it twice." He glanced over at a framed scrap of paper on the wall and added, "I should have done a lot of things."

He sighed and leaned against the window, crossing his arms over his chest.  "I took a gamble and lost – almost permanently.  You see, I ordered our ship into an unknown area that my officers strongly argued against going into.  We were caught in a booby trap I believe was placed there by that extinct empire and the blast ripped open our hull."

The captain crossed the room to stare at the framed paper, a list of names.  "We lost thirteen people to the vacuum before Delon plugged the hole with a psionic shield he was able to generate over the opening.  It drained him," Kehtan explained, "but he was able to hold the integrity of the Two Star intact until a temporary external patch was put in place.  Afterwards, he sunk into a deep unconsciousness that lasted two days, but he had saved the ship with his effort." The captain fell silent and crossed the room again to look once more out into the stars.

No one said anything for long moments until Red yawned widely.  Blackthorne got up from his seat and stood beside the captain.  "What happened after that?" he prompted.

Kehtan glanced sideways at him and shook his head.  "With our ship damaged, we abandoned the dream and the rest of the mission and headed for home port.  Delon was awarded the medal of valor, and I rightly lost my command.  The crew was reassigned to other duties and Delon elected to leave the Service.  I didn't see him again for several years.  Six months after I was relieved of command and posted to a supply depot, I was recalled to headquarters with the memory of my colossal mistake still fresh in everyone's mind.  Seems that someone higher up thought I would be appropriate to command their new science vessel that was then in its early stages of construction, in spite of the incident.  I never found out why I was brought back, or who gave the order."

"Captain," Blackthorne hesitated, for he knew he was treading on Rojur's right to privacy, but a question had been gnawing at him ever since the esper had arrived on his doorstep.  "Do you have any knowledge on the kind of falling out that Roj – uh, Delon had with his father?  All I know is that it was bad enough that he's gone into hiding, which is how I met him."

Kehtan turned and locked his small piercing eyes upon him, and Alex was unsure what emotion stirred in their depths.  There was history here, old and painful for the aged captain.  He owed his life to Rojur Delondin.  "I'm sorry," the captain said tonelessly, "but it's not my place to –"

"Captain Kehtan, please come to the bridge," Ree's voice interrupted from the ship's intercom.

Kehtan moved to a wall and thumbed a pad set into a panel.  "What is it, Ree?" he asked of the speaker.

"Captain, we've just picked up a distress beacon from inside an asteroid field we're running parallel to."

"Distress beacon? Is it identifiable?"

"Yes, captain.  It matches the configuration of a lifeboat from a long range personal cruiser.  I've scanned for its mother ship, but the asteroids are playing havoc with the sensors."

"How much metal in the asteroid field?"

"A lot, sir.  Apparently it's gillanium; we can't get too close to it without, "

"I'll be there in a moment," the captain cut him off.  "Continue scanning."

"Aye, sir.

* * * 

Rojur cursed mildly as the intercom sounded.  "Bridge to Sahni, please report to the Command Center," the voice announced.  Sahni disentangled herself from Rojur and reached for the thumb pad on the console beside the bed.

"Sahni, here.  What is it, Ree?"

"We've picked up a distress signal in the asteroid cluster.  The captain's on his way here and requests your presence as well."

"I'll be there as soon as I'm dressed."

"Aye, sir."

Sahni reached over and brushed the turquoise locks from Rojur's pale eyes.  "Duty calls, lover." The esper merely growled in response as she reached for her clothes.  Sahni chuckled and quickly slipped into her uniform.

"What, just like that?" he asked, making a showy display of his disappointment.

She finished, crawled across the bed to him, and planted a kiss on his lips.  "Save that for me. I'll make the postponement worth your wild." 

* * * 

Dayl stared intently at her personal monitor as she guided the Zephyr around the asteroids.  A past generation had calculated the chances of successfully navigating an asteroid field to be approximately three thousand seven hundred twenty to one.  Maneuvering through a cluster even this small was never recommended, as the chunks of floating rock and ice constantly shifted, and often caused the pilot of a ship the stress of watching everything at once.  Dayl was a professional, however, and had been in similar steering challenges many times before.  Over the entire top half of her head rested a black visor connected to the hull integrity system's proximity monitors.  The visor shot a beam of energy through her eyes and straight into her brain that allowed the woman to "feel" the ship and whatever floated in space within a mile of it.  All of the asteroids sailed through space in a relatively straight line instead of the chaotic, "smash" pattern of any other asteroid field, so she knew that there had been a recent explosion in space large enough to propel them out from a central location.  Beneath her hands, a pair of silver balls floated unsupported above the console, one controlling speed and another ship orientation and direction.

Although the main viewing screen clearly showed the frontal view, all attention on the bridge was riveted to the windows to see the spectacle with their own eyes.  Sahni and Rojur stepped out onto the upper command deck.  The first officer moved quickly to her station while the esper placed himself beside the captain's chair.

"I've pinpointed the source of the beacon, sir," Zahn said in a soft voice, not wishing to distract his partner's concentration, "and have fed the coordinates to Dayl's station." He had spoken into the com mike at his panel, patched directly to the captain's.  Kehtan's reply sped back in the same manner.

"Any sign of the mother ship?"

"Some debris floating about, but not enough to compensate for a large vessel the lifeboat would have belonged to."

Kehtan sat back in his chair; He had been leaning forward as he watched the vista before them.  A dull shudder was felt briefly throughout the ship as a small boulder bumped into the rear quarter somewhere.  Dayl bit her lip lightly, the only acknowledgment she gave to the miscalculation.  She compensated with the swift motion of her hands closed over the two silver spheres floating beneath her outstretched fingers as she urged the ship on through the maze of flying, speeding rock.

"Lifeboat on the sensors, captain," Sahni reported.  "Two kilometers off the starboard."

"Bring us to a stop, Dayl," the captain said, "but stay frosty."

"Aye, sir."

Kehtan looked to his first officer.  "Any life signs from the boat?"

"One, though beyond that I can't tell you." Sahni glanced up from her viewer and stared at the window.  "The scanners are still erratic… too much gillanium in these asteroids."

The captain looked down to the lower deck.  "Maku," he said, "take a Crab to retrieve the lifeboat." He then thumbed the intercom pad.  "Doctor Tralen, ready your Infirmary for a possible customer."

"All is in order down here, captain," the medical officer replied.

"Captain," Rojur said as Kehtan looked up.  "Request permission to accompany Maku with the retrieval."

"Go."

Rojur followed the security officer from the bridge as Ree relayed Sahni's orders for the launching bay to have the scout vessel ready.

"We've taken up a position in front of it, Captain," Dayl reported, still shifting the shimmering spheres in her fingers, rotating the ship slightly to keep it safe from a flying chunk of debris.

"Hold here.  Maintain speed, direction and distance from the pod and keep a lock on the Crab," Sahni said. "Zahn, plot the quickest way out of here once we have the lifeboat on board.  We don't want to stay among these asteroids any longer than we have to."

"Aye, sir...  already working on it." 

* * * 

Maku piloted the Crab between a cluster of small boulders, each several times the size of the flat scout ship itself, and saw the lifeboat dead ahead.  As they neared, Rojur could see dents and scorch marks on the surface of the boat.  After the beating it had apparently taken, he found it surprising that anyone inside still lived.  Musing this over, he activated the controls to the ship's sensors and scanned the approaching escape pod.  "I'm reading one set of life signs, though it appears the survivor has sustained injuries," the esper reported.

Maku eased the Crab's nose up to the craft moments later and tiny thrusters stopped them only a meter away from it.  He touched a control pad and a panel opened across the entire front of his console, revealing a pair of hovering, glowing rings and throwing up a hologram between them.  Rojur watched as he passed his hands through the rings, and on the other side, they came out looking exactly like the pneumatic arms on the sides of the ship.  The holographic display drew out the shape of the lifeboat.  In the image before him as well as the view from the screen, the crab-like limbs reached forward until Maku closed the pincers over support rods on the lifeboat.  Once he secured the controls, he reported in as he pivoted the Crab on its axis and retraced his course back to the Zephyr.

"Lifeboat secured.  We're returning to the ship."

"Acknowledged."

Rojur noted the markings on the side of the escape pod.  "Zephyr," he transmitted, "the lifeboat was resident of a personal cruiser called Silverton, registration number 2H7VI9.  It is scorched and badly dented.  It may have been launched only a second before whatever happened to the mother ship happened," he surmised.

"The wreckage of the Silverton has been located.  We will be moving toward it as soon as you're back on board," Ree replied.

"Approaching the landing pad now," Maku said.  The bay doors were open to receive them, and a moment later the Crab settled onto the deck as the hangar doors closed behind them.  "Touchdown, Captain." Two minutes later, the bay was pressurized and Dr. Tralen accompanied a floating gurney toward the lifeboat.  Maku lowered the pod to the floor as Rojur stepped out the small craft's hatch.  Technicians immediately began cutting away at the boat's portal, but after a few minutes, it was clear their efforts were hampered.

"Captain," one of the techs reported over the intercom, "We've sheared away most of the outer door, but structural damage inside is preventing any entrance to the lifeboat."

"Can you go through a wall?"

"No, sir.  This design has all the power conduits running between the hulls of the craft.  To cut through them might ruin whatever chance we have of getting the survivor out alive, and maybe even detonate the whole thing right here in the bay."

Kehtan fell silent as one of the other techs examined the charred escape module.  Windows were not practically sound on an escape pod, considering their propensity to break with flying debris if the mother or even a combat detachment ship were destroyed somewhere near.  The intended survivors would have a monitor to check outside conditions and required all the security they could get.

"Captain," Rojur said as the tech awaited further instructions, "I may be able to get inside, but I will need everyone out of the landing bay."

"Everyone out?" the captain asked, "Why?"

"Just...  trust me." Rojur was unwilling to announce to the crew that he could teleport inside the lifeboat.  If the captain was opposed to take him at his word without explanation, the person inside the craft may yet die before they could get to him.

"Evacuate the landing bay," the captain ordered, "and seal off the area." Rojur smiled, for Kehtan had no idea what he was about to do.  He was left alone beside the lifeboat within a minute as the captain re-routed the vidcom signal to his command chair and locked out all other circuits.

The esper then walked back inside the Crab...  he did not want cameras or monitors to record his disappearance.  He reached up, removed the dampener from his hair to allow full use of his talent and stuck it in his back pocket.  His eyes glowed faintly in the dim interior of the escape pod as he materialized next to the wounded form.  He barely had room to stand up as part of the ceiling was dented inward.

Rojur knelt beside the silent figure and put a hand on the survivor's chest to feel for a heartbeat.  His face flushed suddenly as his fingers closed around a soft breast.  He didn't linger, however, and sought a pulse from her neck.

He couldn't tell if anything was broken or thrown, but the woman's rhythm was strong, so she did not seem in too much danger and he wanted to get her out to Infirmary.  Rojur picked her up gently and quickly teleported into the Crab.  The esper almost dropped her where he stood.  Her entire body was sprayed with long-dry blood, and an issue of the same had been trickling out of her own mouth and matted in her hair.  He stifled his shock, took her outside to the gurney, and pushed her to the far end of the deck where he thumbed the intercom and reported, "I have the survivor at the door."

The pressure seal hissed and the hatch slid aside.  Dr. Tralen had his instruments in hand and began to examine his patient even as a medic rushed her down the corridor toward Medical.  Rojur followed them closely, leaving the bewildered techs to wonder how he got her out of the lifeboat that was still intact.  As the procession entered the Infirmary, Tralen barked the medics away to continue his analysis of the patient without having to chase her down the hall.

"Quarantine, right now!" A technician tapped a button on the side of the gurney and a glittering white light rippled across the unconscious body. The clothing material flowed away onto the bedding, leaving her bare on the gurney.

"All right people, I want blood type and buckets of whatever she needs! Give me thirty cc's of cybrocetizine straight into her spinal cord and get it yesterday! I want a full body scan with the fluoroscope to see what's broken and a biopsy on this," he indicated a dark bruise on her forehead.  "Last thing we need is some weird alien virus floating around here! Kramer..."

"Doctor?"

"Stop staring at her breasts and get me some blood."

One of the medics placed a small disc on the head bruise and six legs spread out to anchor it as a central needle punctured the skin and took readings.  Seconds later, it detached and the tech slipped into a slot on the gurney.  A small blue screen identified it as only a common impact bruise and suggested a concussion.  It also gave her blood type as CGN and displayed a simple DNA reference.

The other medics watched from a distance to see how the woman fared.  Rojur kept away as well, giving Tralen plenty of room to work, but hovered nearby.  The physician studied the scanner in his hand and raised an eyebrow as he walked to a sink to the side.

He looked up and saw Rojur gazing at the patient.  "Know her?" he asked.

"No," the esper replied.  "I don't recognize her."

"Prepare a wrap," Tralen asked as he dug into a storage counter.  "She's bruised up pretty bad, but I think we can take care of that.  Nothing broken or bleeding, thank goodness.  See what was on her clothes."

Rojur stood over the gurney and tapped some switches, a readout scrolled across a small monitor.  He reported that the blood splattering her clothing was AAG and therefore not hers.  It had been blasted into the fabric and there was evidence of excessive smoke, probably some inhalation in the patient, and several cuts and warps in the fabric apparently from the abuse the lifeboat had taken.  Rojur's eyes drifted up despite himself.

The woman appeared to be in her early thirties.  She was slender, though not petite, and in spite of the bruises on her small, pointed chin, Rojur thought she seemed rather pretty.  Her waist-length light blue hair spilled out over the gurney and onto the floor.  Her thin eyebrows were a slightly paler shade of blue and were drawn together as she winced at some pain.  Rojur drew back suddenly, but the woman remained unconscious.

"You're staring, Rojur," Sahni said dryly.

The esper raised his eyebrows and looked at her sideways; he hadn't heard her come in.  "Just helping the good doctor," he replied.

"That's what the medics are for," Sahni countered.  "How is she, Tralen?"

The physician continued to apply a special balm to the patient, but answered, "She's received some nasty bruises and there's a blaster burn mark on her left arm.  A narrow escape, that.  Otherwise she'll recover. There's nothing seriously wrong with her, but the life support systems on board the lifeboat may have been damaged and the shock to her system may be keeping her unconscious."

"Blaster mark?" Sahni asked.  "Then her ship was under attack?"

"It does look that way."

Alex walked into the Infirmary and stopped beside Rojur, trying to keep his eyes off the naked woman on the gurney.  "I have medical training, Doctor," he said.  "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Tralen looked up at Blackthorne with a frown.  "I don't know you," he stated.

"He is a guest of the captain's," Sahni supplied.

"My name is Alex."

The physician looked around at the gathered faces of other medics.  "Call me Tralen, but I think me and my very complete and certified medical staff can handle the situation all right." He motioned for the door and said to the first officer, "Sahni, if you have nothing else, could you get all these people out of here?"

"Right." She hooked arms with Rojur and his friend to lead them away, but the doctor stopped Blackthorne with a touch.

"Stay a moment, Alex."

Rojur and Sahni walked out into the corridor and headed for the bridge.  "We've found what's left of the Silverton," Sahni told the esper.  "The captain sent a team of scouts to survey the wreckage and to look for other lifeboats that may have been launched."

"Any idea as to what happened to her?"

"We probably won't know anything until the good doctor's patient regains consciousness." Sahni suddenly turned a corner and drew Rojur down a hallway, away from the bridge.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"The captain wants to have a private talk with you.  He wants to know how you got the woman out of the lifeboat," she answered.  "The techs still can't get inside to check its log."

"I thought he might wonder about that."

"Does it have anything to do with what you did on the Two Star."

"Are you going to be in on this interrogation?" he asked.

"No, he wants to talk to you alone."

Rojur looked at her and shook his head.  "Sorry, love.  Professional secret." Sahni snorted in reply as they approached Kehtan's quarters. 

* * * 

Blackthorne stood beside the woman's bed, waiting for the doctor's stimulants to take effect.  Tralen had asked him to wait with the patient because, in the physician's opinion, Alex was better looking than he was and their guest might have a more favorable reaction waking up to him.  The doctor also admitted that he did not really trust his two medics, especially Kramer, around a helpless and attractive young woman.  Blackthorne felt silly, but he had offered his services, no matter the capacity.

At Tralen’s behest, he had helped clothe the woman in one of the gold liquid uniforms of the ship's crew, as her own garments were too damaged to reconstitute.  Idly, Alex wondered if he should exchange his red coveralls for a gold set to fit in better.  As he mused, the woman drew in a long breath and opened her eyes sleepily.  Blackthorne kept his distance but smiled lightly as her eyes focused on his face.

"Wh-who...?" she whispered as she tried to sit up.  Blackthorne lent her his support so that she sat on the edge of the bed, her legs dangling toward the floor.

"I am Alex, a friend."

She looked at him long and hard and decided she did not know him.  Her eyes darted around the room and then stopped on her clothing.  The pale blue of her eyes matched the color of her hair and Alex almost felt lost in them as she looked back up at him.  "My name is Chieko," she said, "Chieko Fotura.  Where am I? The last thing I remember was Joska..." Her eyes flew wide and she shrieked in anguish, "Joska! No, no, no, no..." She collapsed into Alex's arms and sobbed, her shoulders heaving in distress.  The loss of her husband suddenly returned and hit her hard, though Blackthorne knew nothing of this.  All he could do was hold her as long as she needed his shoulder and try to provide comfort. 

* * * 

The scouts from the Zephyr had abandoned the wreckage of the Silverton, having found no other survivors.  On a nearby asteroid, however, they did discover a strange mechanical device of dark metal embedded in the rock and emitting a low radioactive signature, but it was not of an origin they could identify.  They had radioed their finding to the ship and were trying to free it from the stone that surrounded it.

"It appears to be coming loose," one of the scouts said.  Indeed, the two-meter sized object seemed to work free of the stone as they rocked it back and forth.

"Wait, what's this?" another scout said.  He reached into the alien machinery and closed his hand over a bright blue crystal that seemed out of place in such a dreary setting.  As soon as his gloved fingers came in contact with its multifaceted surface, two rods of metal clamped together over his arm and jerked him halfway into its interior before the others knew what was happening.  His screams of pain and panic were carried over the headset radios of each team member as they tried to extract him from the snare.

"Sahni!" Ree reported to the first officer, "Ensign T'kay's been caught in an alien machine! It caught him like a trap!" The captain arrived on the bridge and heard the news before the first officer could respond.  Rojur stepped in behind him and moved over to the railing to look down at the lower deck.

"An alien trap?  No, it can't be!" The captain thumbed an override pad on his terminal, connecting him directly to the scouts.  "Get out of there, Search Team, NOW!" he commanded.

Just as he uttered the last word, the asteroid field and the stars beyond seemed to bend, stretch and shrink, all at the same time.  "On no..." Kehtan whispered.  The space around the device was beginning to warp, something the captain had come in contact with once before.

"SECURE ALL STATIONS!" he shouted over the intercom, "Brace for impending asteroid collisions!"

"Captain!" Ree exclaimed, "The Search Team–"

"Is beyond our help..." Kehtan replied as he stared at the vision on the screen.  He shook his head slowly as the bodies of his crewmen were torn apart by the sudden emergence of a small singularity's event horizon right beneath their feet.  Their bodies became impossibly long and thin, and then were gone.  The ship lurched suddenly as a strong gravitational field increased around the asteroids.  In the center of the phenomenon, the twisting, warped space became a small vortex and everything near it was drawn into its heart.

"Reverse thrusters!" the captain commanded as the ship was drawn toward the hungry maw of the alien phenomenon.  Massive asteroids and boulders whizzed by the ship, narrowly missing the Zephyr's nose by a few hundred meters.  Several smaller chunks did strike the rear drive section and the floor seemed to slide sideways a second before the inertia dampeners could compensate.  The whole vessel shuddered and the walls seemed to throb as the thrusters worked at maximum to free them from the snare.

The lights dimmed abruptly and blinked a few times before shutting down completely, and the red emergency lamps activated within seconds.  No one asked what had happened.  They knew that all reserve power was being fed back into the system.  Dayl fought with her controls, desperately trying to keep their flight true, but the forces that held them were too strong.  A low rumble became audible which ended after only a few seconds with a loud whump.  The ship gave a sudden forward lurch and shot toward the vortex.  Anyone and anything not secured were thrown about with the sudden acceleration.  Dayl struggled with her controls but met no success.

"What just happened?" the captain demanded.  The Zephyr neared the maelstrom with frightening velocity and was battered from nearly all sides from asteroids that were pulled along with them.

"A direct hit from an asteroid knocked the engines off line!" Dayl reported, nearly shouting.  "My instruments are…!" She screamed half in pain and half in panic as the visor sent a signal it was never meant to process into her brain.

Kehtan pulled open a compartment on his armrest.  Inside, a broad, blue button flashed beneath a pane of glass.  He smashed his hand down on it, activating a flickering pad before it that read, Hawking System Operative.

The ship received another tremendous hit before the captain could respond.  The emergency lights went out and the blow sent the ship into the vortex at an oblique angle.  Artificial gravity was lost for a moment, and when it cut back in a number of airborne objects tumbled back to the floor.  A portable data recorder pak clipped Kehtan on the right temple and the captain never saw what happened next.  The ship shimmered in space and vanished. 

* * * 

Chieko lifted a hand to her forehead and wiped away the blood that trickled into her left eye.  All was dark in the medical lounge, the only light visible from the stars outside the small window.  She peered around the compartment, holding onto her left arm.  When the ship had accelerated, she had been thrown up hard against the back wall of the room, taking most of the impact on her left side.  She didn't feel anything was broken, but it seemed that more bruises were added to those still healing from her last incident.  She tried to stand, but her right ankle would not take the weight.  With a sigh of pain, she sat heavily on the carpet and leaned against the wall.

"Chieko?" a nearby voice asked.

"Over here, Alex," she replied.  "Are you okay?" She saw his silhouette pass in front of the window as he moved toward her.

"Just a little shaken.  The couch pads cushioned me," he answered as he knelt beside her.  He leaned close to her face and pressed a folded piece of cloth he found to her forehead.  She drew back in pain, but he persisted.  "Hold still," he scolded lightly.  "You're bleeding."

A moment later he asked, "What happened?"

Chieko looked over his shoulder toward the window and saw a small chunk of frozen rock and ice drift lazily by, as a curious cow might stare at strange creatures on the edge of its field and walk on.  Beyond were more asteroids, though they were no longer flying crazily by them.  "I think we were caught in a Shroomer trap," she suggested.

"A Shroomer trap...?"

Chieko repositioned the cloth Alex held to her brow and sighed.  "Yes, but I've never encountered one like this before..." She fell silent, assuming he knew what she meant, though Alex was still confused.  He checked her wound and noted the bleeding had stopped.  The cut on her head was small and was not as serious as it had appeared to be. 

"It seems you're getting a lot of medical attention today," Alex teased in the darkness.

"You have a nice smile," Chieko said.

"How can you tell?" he replied, amazed.  "It's almost pitch black in here."

She chuckled and brushed a few strands of hair from her face.  "The stars give me plenty of light to see by."

"Then your eyesight is better than mine," Blackthorne conceded.  "All I can see of you is your silhouette..." His words trailed off as something caught his attention at the corner of his eye.

"What is it?" Chieko asked.

"Let's go to the window," he requested cryptically.

"What do you see?" she asked as she threaded an arm around his middle.  Her question was answered as soon as he lifted her up and took her to the small port.  Gazing out the glass, they saw a ringed, blue gaseous planet nearby and could easily see its three satellites in various phases.  From Alex's point of view, that world was as large as Earth's moon appeared on a clear night near the horizon.  Even as they watched, they could see bands of clouds move across its surface.

"That wasn't there before," Alex whispered.  "Where are we?" Chieko didn't answer as she stared at the blue sphere in silence.

Alex tore his eyes from the sight and motioned toward the other side of the room.  "Think we'd better check on Dr. Tralen?" he suggested.

Chieko nodded as if in deep thought and then turned toward him.  "What?" she asked.

"Dr. Tralen," Alex repeated, "shouldn't we check to see if he's all right?"

"Yes," she answered, her thoughts back to the crisis at hand, "but I'll stay here, if you don't mind.  I'm in no shape to stumble about in the dark."

"But your eyesight is better than mine," he whined jokingly.  She looked back at him quickly and then laughed as he helped her to the couch.  "I'll try to be back soon," Alex promised.  Without another word, he moved through the darkness toward the lounge doorway.  He slipped through the partially open aperture and was gone.

Chieko let her head rest on the back of the couch and silently stared out the window, her thoughts suddenly on a different dark-haired man who had only been married to her for three weeks.  Her shoulders began to shake as she silently cried into her arms. 

* * * 

When Kehtan returned to consciousness, he was leaning forward and flanked by several silhouettes in the darkness.  Sahni knelt beside his command chair and placed a rolled towel beneath his head as he hauled himself upright in the chair, thanking good fortune that he had remembered his seatbelt.  He blinked a few times, but could not focus his eyes on anyone other than her close face.

"Captain?" a worried voice spoke from his other side.

"Aye, Rojur," the captain answered.  "How long have I been out?"

Sahni sat back on her heels and said, "About fifteen minutes, sir, at least from what we can tell."

Kehtan looked past her toward the forward windows and saw the blue, ringed planet.  "Wormhole," he stated to no one.  The captain surveyed the smashed blue button on his console, running fingers around its broken edges with appreciation.  The good professor had been right.

"Aye, captain," Dwes responded.  "I've estimated a jump of seventy-two light years beyond the Frontier Rim, though my calculations are only approximate.  The main computer is off-line."

"Seventy-two...?" Kehtan pushed Sahni away from him and stood up.  He had only been dazed and was fully alert again.  He concentrated on the planet and its moons a moment before looking down at his instrument panel.  He stabbed a few touch pads, but received no response.

"Status?" he asked as he turned back to his first officer.

"Power is down to minimal life support, sir.  Toco's engineering staff is working to restore what they can, but the damage to the ship is more than just the engines or computer." She paused as the red emergency lights came on abruptly and dimly illuminated the bridge.  "We have a hull breach spanning three compartments in the aft section, just forward of the engine room.  They've been sealed from the rest of the ship, but a greater repair job should be made before we make any jumps.  Until the com lines are restored, we can't get an estimate on further damages to the Zephyr...  or her crew."

"How many were in the compartments?"

"Unknown, sir," she answered tonelessly.

Maku came forward with a dozen hand lights he had found in a storage panel as the captain turned and faced his bridge personnel.  "Anyone here unable to get around?" Kehtan asked.

"No one severely injured, captain," Dayl answered.  "We're just bruised up a bit." Their commander looked to each one to make sure and gingerly rubbed his temple where the data recorder pak had clipped him.

"Well then, fan out to all sections of the ship and get me status reports by runners.  I don't want any electronics used if we can help it.  Give me estimates of damages in physical systems, life support, main energizer drives, personnel and provisions.  And get the chaplains out," he said.  "Ree, I want you to stay here to work on the com lines from this end."

"He'll need some help, Captain," the young navigator pointed out.  "If it's okay with you, I will,"

"No, Zahn, I'll help him myself."

"Sir?"

Kehtan frowned.  "A captain is capable of doing more than sitting on his tail giving orders to everyone else around him.  I'm quite skilled enough to give a hand working on my own ship."

Zahn gulped and replied, "Yes, sir.  I should have realized that."

"Then let's get going," Sahni said to the others.

Two hours later, both power and communications were restored, most having little more damage than burned relays.  Reports from all over the ship were the same: most of the crew was slightly injured and delicate systems had taken severe damage from the impacts.  There were no fatalities, though several had escaped death by only sheer luck.  The only lives lost were those of the Search Team in the asteroids now far away.  The captain ordered the entire ship on double shifts until the ship was back up to minimum specs. 

* * * 

"What… happened?" Brandon asked, terrified as he nestled in a corner with Red.  Alex's sudden emergence through the cabin door had startled them both.

"You're not going to believe this," Alex breathed slowly, "but we just traveled through a wormhole and came out seventy-two light years away from where we were."

"You're right," the boy replied.  "I don't believe it.  When an object approaches a black hole, the gravitational force is so strong that as you get closer to the event horizon between it and regular space, time and space collapse in on themselves and create a vortex that compacts things to infinite density and infinite time.  The result is what Professors Hawking and Penrose called 'spaghettification', where things are stretched out lengthwise and squashed together on the sides.  So, why are we still in four dimensions?"

Alex blinked. He sometimes forgot that his son had a brilliant mind for his age, and this was also the most that Brandon had spoken at once in years.  "Because of Hawking."

"You have got to explain that," Brandon said.

"Well, apparently a few years after our time one of Dr.  Hawking's students will develop a theory in which certain gravitational and time fields can be manipulated while going through the black hole.  That person made that theory into an experimental technology.  The captain was very brief about it, but it involves anti-matter and something to do with time.  Basically, we passed the speed of light and time slowed down to a point where it became almost aqueous.  I suspect the captain invoked the new technology and actually cut out the time period when we traveled through the black hole, like traveling from one wave crest to another without following along the wave valley, and we ended up on the other side.  Basically, we skipped spaghettification by leaping from before it to a point after it.

Brandon considered that for a moment, and then remembered the frail, smiling man in the wheelchair whose prose and wit he had adored for years.  "Doncha just love that guy?" the boy concluded. 

* * * 

Alex sat down on an unoccupied bench in the Infirmary to catch his breath.  For twelve hours, he had been helping Dr. Tralen's two medics, Blake and Tiller see to the injured personnel that had been coming into the ward.  Only one individual had been severely hurt and the physician had worked on him in surgery.

Blackthorne was glad for his past medical training, but it was only barely enough to help in this age of technological advancement.  He was not familiar with the methods or instruments this time period had developed, but general First Aid worked in most cases and his efforts were not refused, no matter how primitive they may seem.

Blake walked over to him and sat on the other end of the bench.  "Why don't you get some sleep?" the medic suggested.  "You've been a great help, Alex, but I think everyone's taken care of.  Tiller and I can watch over the Infirmary for a while." The red-haired man gestured to a snoring form on a gurney across the room.  "Even Dr. Tralen's finally getting some rest."

Blackthorne looked at him wearily.  "How come you're not ready to collapse? You've been at this longer than I have today."

Blake yawned and smiled.  "We're a little more used to this hectic pace, but then again someone has to be on duty and that's what we get paid for."

Alex nodded and stood up.  "Okay, I'm going to bed.  Call me if you need me again.  I'm in cabin 85-D." The medic nodded and Alex left the room.

He nearly bumped into Chieko as he rounded the first corner out into the corridor.  "Oh, hello," he mumbled.  The blue-haired woman looked at him with a smile.

"I saw you helping the others, Alex, though I didn't recognize half the procedures you used."

He looked at her with half-lidded eyes.  "I'm not really a member of this crew," he explained.  Chieko favored her ankle and leaned on the tired Blackthorne for support as they resumed walking down the corridor.  "I just helped out the only way I knew how." It was an effort to stay awake long enough to talk to her.

"I don't know what system you're from," Chieko replied, "but thank you for all you've done."

Blackthorne laughed meekly, but could not muster any more enthusiasm.  "Finding my bunk will be thanks enough.  I am so tired..."

"We'll both rest once we get to your cabin," she promised. 

* * * 

Brandon and his wolf-friend were in the observation room above the landing bay, where they had departed to wait for things to unravel since the wormhole.  Brandon sat at the central table and stared toward the window to observe the activity outside this area of the ship, the large canine at his feet.

Repair work had been going on for over twelve hours with no real end in sight.  Damage from the asteroids would take several days to fix, at least.  Red nosed up to the youth's side and Brandon absently stroked the fur behind her ears.  His attention was on the landing bay.

One of the Crab ships moved out of the hangar and plotted a course toward the nearest of the ringed world's moons with orders to search for anything that may help explain their current predicament, or at the least, help provide materials for repairs. 

* * * 

An hour later, the Crab skirted over the surface of the semi-dead moon, its sensors scanning for anything out of the ordinary.  Once again, Rojur accompanied Maku in the small craft to operate the instruments while the other piloted the vessel.  Maku dropped them down to an altitude of thirty meters.

"Anything?"

Rojur was bent over his panel, looking at the score of readout screens.  "A rather unimpressive rock we're flying over," he replied.  "A virtual depository of everything drab and mundane." Maku smiled and altered their course by five degrees.  They sped on for several kilometers.

"Nothing here.  Try another sector," the esper suggested.

The Crab lifted out of the low valley they had been gliding over and shot up a canyon between two high mountains.  The atmosphere of this satellite was thin, though it had enough substance for updrafts between the peaks to cause the craft to heave about.  Maku compensated and gained altitude quickly.

"Unusual metal deposit detected a half kilometer ahead," Rojur announced.  The security officer slowed their speed and listened for his partner's instructions.

Rojur matched the topography on his monitor with the graphic image simulated by the computer.  He matched the scales and overlaid them together.  "I'm feeding the coordinates to your terminal," he said.  Maku read them a second later and prepared to take the Crab in slowly.

They saw it through the front glass before their instruments said they had arrived.  They could hardly have missed it, though.  The object the sensors had picked up was the remains of a massive ship, half buried in the mountain side on their right.  From appearances, the vessel had crashed while navigating the narrow canyon.

From what they could see of it, the ship was roughly delta-shaped and was large enough for several internal levels. It didn't match the configuration from anything in the interstellar database, but at this distance from the Frontier, it could be an alien design.  A gaping, tattered hole dominated the aft end, likely from engines exploding on impact.  The color of its metal skins was light blue, though the alloy seemed to be weather worn and pitted in places.  Although vegetation was scarce on this moon, a mottled brown vine had found purchase on the side of the artifact nearest the canyon wall.  It looked as if it had been here for some time.  Maku brought the Crab down onto a small ledge just slightly above the vessel and shut down its engines as soon as he was sure the rock shelf would support its weight.

Rojur was already into his pressure suit by the time Maku had secured the systems and joined him in the back of the room.  They checked each other’s connections and seals, and when both were ready, the esper touched a control that vented the cabin atmosphere.  The small door on the back of the craft opened and the two stepped out onto the grey rock.

Gravity on this moon was light, so the rappel down the cliff face to the alien ship was fairly easy to navigate. The thin cable they used might have snapped under their combined weights in normal circumstances, but it was reliable in these conditions.  Rojur touched down first and fastened the line to a protrusion on the metal surface.

The pair of scouts approached the ragged hole and peered inside.  They would have to go into the vessel this way as no other door or hatch was visible.  Maku took the lead this time and swung over the edge with ease.  Rojur turned on his hand scanner and followed him a moment later. 

* * * 

"Message coming in from the Crab, sir," Ree announced to the captain.

Kehtan crawled out from under an instrument panel and brushed his hands on a wipe cloth lying next to him.  "Can we get a visual?"

"I'm still working on those circuits, sir.  All I have is audio."

"Let's hear it, then."

The reception was still laced with static on communications outside the ship, but Maku's voice came in fine.  "We've penetrated the wreckage of an alien vessel, sir," he reported.  "The ship apparently crashed into the side of a mountain."

"Have you found anything of interest?"

"Nothing of value, so far.  There are signs all over of a massive fire, probably from an explosion during the wreck.  Very little is recognizable, though I'm not sure if it's from the destruction or just because it's alien. Some of the walls look like they might have been grown…  We've found no bodies of the crew, if it had one.  Rojur's scanning practically everything, but I'm not sure this stuff will help." Maku went silent for a few seconds and then replied, "We've arrived at a junction in the corridor."

"I'll take the passage on the right," the esper's voice cut in.

"Okay, I'll take the other.  Captain," Maku said, "we're splitting up and are switching to a clearer local channel.  We'll report in if we find anything."

Kehtan frowned at the thought of them separating, but didn't mention it.  "All right, Maku.  Be careful of what you touch.  We don't want another booby trap sprung.  Just take it easy, and even if you have nothing of interest, I want you to report in at fifteen minute intervals."

"Understood, Captain."

"Right-o, Cap'n," added Rojur.

Kehtan looked out the main windows toward the blue planet and spied the small moon where his men were.  Silently, he wished them luck and returned to his work under the main sensors console. 

* * * 

For the past two hours, Rojur had been working his way forward in the craft, but the vessel was in sorry shape.  The back half was blasted from the engine explosion and the front half had been crushed from the impact of the crash.  It was impossible to tell what the original inhabitants had looked like because there was nothing left to use as a frame of reference.  The further forward he went, the harder the way became.

He climbed in through a narrow crack left open from where two opposing walls had been shoved nearly together and a warning beep sounded near his ear.  He knelt on the buckled floor and thumbed a pad on the side of his headpiece.  A holographic digital readout appeared in front of his nose on the faceplate and informed him that his oxygen supply had reached the halfway point.  The forward lamps mounted on both sides of his helmet also flickered briefly.  The batteries were getting low, too.

"Rojur," Maku said over the com set, "My batteries and oxygen levels are at the midway indicator."

"Mine just beeped at me, too," the esper replied.  "I'm going to look around for five minutes more and then I'll head back."

"Look around if you want, but I've seen nothing the whole time to make me believe there's anything to find.  I'm starting back to the Crab."

"Acknowledged." Rojur stood up again and pushed his way around another crumpled bulkhead.  On the other side, his lamp fell upon an object that looked rather out of place here.  He made his way closer and inspected the bright red, oval shaped door panel that barred his path.

Its surface was smooth and unscathed, despite the destruction all around it, and did not appear to have any kind of mechanism to open it.  Rojur's first reaction was to report it to his partner, but it meant nothing as of yet.  He examined it carefully, but had no better results.  Out of habit, the esper looked around to make sure no one was watching him, though it was a silly precaution in this instance.  He readied himself to possible danger and teleported to the other side of the door.

Rojur materialized inside a room the size of a handball court.  He was silent as he moved his light around and took in the sight of undamaged machinery.  Nothing seemed out of place and there was nothing there to indicate anything had happened to the rest of the ship around it.  The devices appeared to be operating, though he could not fathom what any of them might be doing.  He assumed everything was on automatic and had its own power source, because no one had stepped foot into this compartment for a long, long time.

He moved toward an apparatus that stood in the heart of the area and looked at it closely.  A transparent bubble housed a gadget that contained a slowly rotating, multifaceted crystal in its center.  The covering had a hole with spider-web cracks broken into one side, something he had not seen when he first assessed the room.  The crash of the vessel had not damaged the mechanisms in this reinforced compartment, but the fragile casing of this particular contrivance was not so lucky.  The esper leaned closer and studied the gem.

He recalled that crystals were often used to store information on, so he surmised that the race that built this ship might have used it for the same purpose.  Finally, he had found something in this pile of junk to take back with him.

Rojur started to reach in and grab the crystal, but remembered the fatal trap Ensign T'kay had been caught in.  Rather than extending his hand into the device and therefore triggering a deadly snare, he used his telekinetic ability to levitate the gem above its cradle and float it out to him.  Only then when nothing happened did he close his gloved hand around it.  Upon closer inspection, its surface also had a small fracture and he hoped the damage would not hurt retrieval of any data it might carry.  Gently, he placed it into a leg pouch and closed the pocket securely.

"Maku?" he said to the air.  He didn't get a response, which was probably due to the walls of the chamber.  After using his hand scanner to record everything around him, he teleported back out to the wreckage of the corridor and tried again.

"Maku?"

"Rojur?" Maku's voice sounded instantly in his ears.  "I've been trying to raise you for ten minutes.  What happened?"

"I found a room with functioning machinery," the esper explained, "but couldn't figure out its purpose.  I removed a data crystal and am bringing it back to the ship with me."

"Functioning! In this heap of junk?"

Rojur laughed.  "Unbelievable, isn't it? Anyway, I'm on my way back now."

"You'd better hurry, Rojur," Maku said seriously.  "The last halves of the oxygen bottles seem to dwindle faster than the first half.  I might have five minutes to spare by the time I get back to the Crab, and I have a ten minute head start on you."

"Don't worry about me," Rojur replied.  "I can get back in plenty of time.  Just make sure you don't tarry any."

"Okay, I'll see you back at the Crab.  I'm going silent to conserve my air."

"Understood." The esper made his way down the corridor as quickly as he could in the wrecked passageways and after a few moments became impatient.  A heartbeat later, Rojur was standing just inside the opening he and Maku had originally rappelled.  Teleportation was a rather handy ability to have, he thought to himself.

While he waited, Rojur withdrew the crystal from his leg pouch and examined it.  The translucent blue gem was as large as his hand and roughly icosahedron in shape.  If it indeed held data, its size would allow it to store quite a lot of information.  Perhaps there was something there to explain what had happened to them.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.