— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
Blackthorne awoke refreshed and hungry. He did not remember going to bed, but he had been exhausted when he had hit the covers. On a ship without morning sunlight, the room was in total darkness. Alex stared into the blackness as he willed his body awake and slowly began to realize his surroundings.
The first thing he noticed was an arm, slender and obviously female, draped across his chest. A head rested on his shoulder and her hair a mere inch from his nose. Alex swallowed suddenly. He must have been tired, he thought to himself, if he had crawled into bed with someone and didn't remember it. He moved his free hand and placed it on top of hers.
"Mmmm? Joska, what time is it?" a sleepy voice replied.
"Chieko...?" he answered, "I'm not –"
"Alex...?" Chieko lifted her head and tried to look at him in the darkness. Her fingers curled up when she realized she had been caressing his chest.
"Uh...yeah," he replied a little hesitantly. Alex managed to stretch enough to touch the switch pad on the lamp beside the bed. The dim light slowly grew to brilliance, allowing their eyes to adjust easily. When he could finally see, her pale blue eyes stared up at him with flushed cheeks.
She started to get up, but when Alex's eyes stared into hers, she froze and stared back, transfixed.
"Chieko, we need to get up," Alex said after a few moments.
She smiled slightly and sat up next to him. Blackthorne eased out of the bed and frowned as he found himself facing a mirror. His garments should have been wrinkled, but the fantastic material continued to adjust comfortably to his form. Despite this, he felt quite the slob. Sweat from the previous day had not been showered off and a steady growth of facial hair ringed his chin. It was then he remembered the two of them stumbling into his room, both tired from the previous day's events.
The blue-haired woman stared at Alex with an expression he could not read. She stood up and faced him, clasping her hands together behind her back.
"Forgive me," she said in a small voice, "I wasn't thinking straight last night." She tilted her head to the side and shrugged her shoulders. "I was tired and in need of sleep. I did not mean to intrude into your quarters."
Alex walked around the bed and placed his hands on her shoulders. "That's okay," he replied. "I was exhausted last night as well... too tired to worry that a beautiful woman had gotten into bed with me." Blackthorne suddenly remembered Saundra, and what she might have thought of the situation, but then realized that there would never be any way for her to learn. Still, a pang of guilt nipped at him.
Chieko's face flushed and she glanced quickly at the floor as she sighed. "Thank you," she said as she looked up into his eyes. "I normally don't get into bed with someone I barely know."
Blackthorne winked at her and smiled. "Well, I won't tell if you won't tell."
Chieko laughed and nodded her head. "It will be our secret."
"So," Alex added, "how do you feel about finding some breakfast?"
"I think I am agreeable to that," she answered. Chieko took the arm he offered her and they left the room together.
* * *
Captain Kehtan walked into the science lab with Red at his heels. Dwes sat at a computer terminal tapping out keys and talking with Rojur and Maku beside him. Full power had been restored and the ship was a hive of activity once again. The science officer was just about to scan the crystal the esper had brought back from the alien wreckage. A science tech placed the gem onto a nearby monitor pad as the captain stepped up.
"Anything, Dwes?" Kehtan asked.
"There's definitely something imprinted upon it, sir. I spent most of the night configuring the computer scanners to read the encoded information," the bearded man replied. "I'm just now about to try it."
"The monitor's ready," the tech announced.
"Thank you, Pip." Dwes danced his fingers over the keyboard before him while the others watched the large three-by-five meter screen on the opposite wall. Garbled impressions appeared on the screen, alternating patterns of static and rapidly passing symbols in an unknown language. The signal broke up after only a few seconds.
"The fracture in the crystal is making it hard to retrieve anything of value," Dwes explained. He saw Pip fine-tuning an instrument panel, so he called to the other tech who had been watching in silence.
"Daniel," he said, "boost the signal by twenty-five and watch for peaking."
"Aye, sir," the red-haired technician answered as he moved to a terminal at the end of a row of instrumentation.
As Dwes tried again, Alex, Chieko and Brandon entered the room. Red's attention snapped to the entrance of the youth and she padded over to him to get her large ears scratched.
"Sahni said we'd find you in here," Blackthorne whispered to Rojur as they stopped near the assembled group.
"Ready," Daniel called out. All eyes in the room turned to the screen as Dwes repeated the sequence he had keyed in earlier.
Again, the images appeared on the viewer, but this time the computer compensated for the flaw in the crystal. Cascades of exotic hieroglyphics streamed across the screen, a long dead language with bends and swirls at impossible angles. A linguistic and aesthetic nightmare, it read like nothing they had ever encountered. At the end of the choreographic cacophony, the image expanded to a vista of points of light. Some clustered here and there, while others hung in an inky blackness with faint lines of a color none had ever seen before running through them. Brandon stepped up to look at one of the vague splotches of dots, identifying it as the constellation Leo, at a fraction of its size. Much of space was as yet unexplored, and the chart labeled in that monstrosity language areas not yet reached by the Frontier. More of the symbols were strewn almost haphazardly about the diagram.
As the party of observers silently gazed in confusion at the screen, Chieko stepped up closer for a better view. The captain looked at her as if seeing the woman for the first time and walked up to her side. He noted her features and saw that her lips moved as if reading a book while her concentration focused on the display.
Rojur noticed the captain and realized that through all the events of the past few days the elder man had not been introduced to the woman they had rescued from the asteroid field. He removed his headband and stepped behind the rest of the assembled personnel.
|Captain,| he sent quietly, |her name is Chieko.|
Kehtan glanced over at the esper but made no other notice of receiving Rojur's thoughts.
|We've not had time to get her story - things have been rather busy lately.|
The captain nodded imperceptibly, just enough for Rojur to see he had been understood.
Kehtan watched the woman's lips for a moment and then returned his gaze to the diagram. His eyes widened suddenly as something occurred to him. He stared at her again and a furrow appeared upon his forehead.
"I do not believe we've met," the captain stated.
Chieko did not realize she had been spoken to until he placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked down from the screen and met his small, piercing eyes.
"Excuse me," she replied. "My name is Chieko Fotura."
"I am Captain Kehtan Otani," he returned. "You are aboard the Science Exploration Vessel Zephyr. We picked up your lifeboat pod adrift in an asteroid field near the debris of a ship named Silverton. Would you mind filling in the rest of the details?"
"It was my ship that got you caught up in this, I'm afraid." The woman ran a hand through her long blue hair and glanced quickly up at the view screen before she returned her attention to the subject at hand. "The Silverton belonged to my husband's father. We were prospecting among the asteroids for rare minerals and got caught in some sort of booby trap."
The captain stared at her a moment and then placed his hands behind his back. He paced around the room and looked back up to the data on the screen. He looked back at her and stared directly into her eyes.
"Prospecting for rare minerals is not approved outside the mining guild and doing so in an asteroid field is courting suicide. You're going to have to have a better cover story than that," he said, his voice without tone.
Chieko's eyes widened and the others stared in confusion. "Cover s-story?" she stammered. "It's the truth!"
"No, it isn't," Kehtan countered calmly. He turned toward the screen and pointed to a certain group of symbols near the bottom of the display. "That is the reason you are here. Your ship was searching for artifacts from Shraelon, wasn't it?"
Chieko's eyes clouded over with fear and she choked back a gasp. "How?" she whispered, "How did you know that?"
"I can read a little of that language," Kehtan said, indicating a whirl of oblique angles. He crossed his arms and nodded toward her. "The study of Shraelon has been a personal hobby of mine for years. It was also the catalyst for some trouble I found myself in not long ago. Now, do you want to begin again?"
Chieko walked over to the console where the crystal sat on the monitor pad. Alex moved to stand beside her as the others gathered around the station. She stared at the bright blue gem and appeared lost in thought.
"What is Shraelon?" Alex asked.
"Shraelon is a fabled lost world of folklore," Rojur answered as he gazed at the crystal. "Legend has it that the knowledge to be found there would advance a planet's technology so far as to make them invincible as well as rich beyond all dreams… a place of power, much like the Cenif of Arcturus, the continent Atlantis of Earth, or the Hjonu of Eridanus. It's been sought for centuries."
"Atlantis," Brandon whispered to himself. He peered at the exotic characters dotting the screen, his mind working feverishly to find a pattern in the lines, crosses and curves.
"What happened to the inhabitants of the planet?" Blackthorne urged Rojur to continue, but it was Kehtan who replied.
"Legend has it that Shraelon was abandoned and their technology left behind," he said, "though no one knows the reason."
"Samples of technology attributed to Shraelon have been found from time to time on remote places around the galaxy," Maku added, "and some of their text has been roughly translated. The booby trap that got us here and that wrecked ship we found was possibly of their origin."
Pip moved over to Dwes' side and motioned to the terminal. "May I, sir?" The science officer stood to let the technician work on his own. Dwes crossed to the screen and stared up at the strange characters. Chieko moved next to him and began speaking.
"There is a message here... a warning," she said. "Can you read it, captain?"
Kehtan studied the screen a moment and then replied. "I can read bits and pieces of it, but I don't think I can decipher the entire text without sitting down with the computer."
Chieko smiled and said, "There was a book published by the Evenil that converted samples of the Shraeloni into their language and my father had visited their world on a military tour before I was born. He began teaching me the Evenil language when I was very young and from there, I taught myself a great deal about the Shraelon language. Although I've never heard the spoken words, I can read the symbols without too much difficulty."
"What does it say?" Alex asked.
She drew her hands up to her breastbone and continued staring at the viewer. "The text here says that the way to Shraelon is filled with danger, but if the diligent seeker manages to make it through the perils, all that is asked for will be rewarded. It stresses the dangers several times throughout the text on this chart and advises the search be abandoned."
Chieko looked at her feet and a tear trickled down her cheek. "This crystal is identical to the one we found in the asteroid field. We rejoiced at the finding, but it was short lived."
"What happened?" Brandon asked.
"After we had scanned and begun translating the information encoded on it, we were attacked by Shroomers. They killed everyone on the Silverton, including my husband, Joska..." Her voice cracked at the vivid memory of Joska's death and she hid her face up against Blackthorne's shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her protectively.
"Attacked by Shroomers?" Pip asked. "What are Shroomers?"
Chieko wiped the moisture from her eyes and replied a few moments later. "The enemy," she managed to say. "What attacked us were robots, or mechanical assassins. We called them Shroomers because their vessels resemble organic mushrooms. I've never seen one of the assassins very close, because they destroyed anything that moved, but I think they are humanoid in shape."
"If you've never seen one up close," Rojur commented, "how do you know they were mechanical robots?"
"Joska destroyed one during the attack. There was no time to closely examine it as more moved in to take its place, but the metal skeleton, charred circuits and wiring were unmistakable even in the midst of the fighting."
"Who sent them after you?" Dwes asked. Chieko seemed on the verge of breaking down again. The death of her family and friends on the Silverton was taking its toll on her as she remembered what she had tried to repress.
"We never knew..." she choked as she faced back toward the screen. "They killed everyone..." Chieko balled her fists and held them out in front of her as she gnashed her teeth and hissed the name through them. "Shraelon… Shraelon…"
Chieko choked back a sob and buried her face in her hands. When she looked up again, she focused her eyes on the crystal's display and then screamed in a loud voice.
As if that fabled name was too much for her, the blue-haired woman’s eyes rolled back and she fainted. Blackthorne caught her in his arms as she collapsed.
The captain sighed. "Take her to her quarters," he said to Alex, "and put her to bed."
"Uh, she hasn't been assigned quarters," Alex said a little uncomfortably. "She's been staying with me." Rojur looked at him in amusement and Brandon offered a lopsided smile before turning back to stand beside Red, but Alex shook his head slightly.
"Just… get her into somebody’s bed," Kehtan grumbled irritably. He turned to Dwes and gestured toward the crystal. "When you've recorded all the data from it, bring the gem to me. I will lock it up in my vault." He looked around at everyone and added, "The information we've found here does not leave this room. Is this understood?"
The captain looked back up to the screen and frowned. He could see trouble ahead.
* * *
Brandon's eyes passed across a screen of scrolling text. He had requested, and with Rojur's approval the captain had granted, a copy of the Evenil translation. The Evenil language was easily decoded into English; once he got the vowels down everything else fell into place. However, the Shraelon language proved an intricate puzzle wrapped within an enigma. Most languages proceeded from the basic tenet of noun, verb, object, pronunciation, and tense. However, the Shraeloni script also included vocal range and speed. A recurring symbol dictated these two aspects of the language. In thirty-six hours of non-stop study, Brandon learned fluent Evenil and what he believed was conversational Shraeloni.
Then, at the end of his studies, he fell to the carpeted floor of his cabin and fell asleep.
* * *
"There, I think that's got it," Zahn said two days after initially decoding the signal. He keyed in a few commands to the computer terminal to show the results on the wall screen. The navigator was in the science lab with Pip and Daniel, using the recorded information from the crystal and the translations Chieko had later provided them with to study and plot a possible course to the legendary planet.
The display presented the crystal's map on one side of the split-screen and a navigational chart on the other. The two images began to move toward one another to form an overlay as the trio watched in anticipation. The doors to the lab opened as the projection came to completion. Kehtan and Sahni stepped inside with Rojur and Maku in tow.
The navigator and technicians did not notice the arrival, but were intent on the image they saw on the viewer. "Yes!" Pip exclaimed. "You've done it, Zahn - we have a real map to a mythical planet!"
Zahn cracked his fingers in satisfaction and gestured toward the screen. "Any navigator worth his sextant can plot a course with the right information," he boasted. "Why, if I had the permission, I could have us there in —" A cold chill ran up his spine as his eyes caught the edge of the room.
"Captain, I didn't hear you come in!" He jumped to his feet at attention and Kehtan merely looked at him with an upraised eyebrow.
Sahni studied the processed map and shook her head. "Zahn," she said after a moment, "you're needed on the bridge."
"When you get there," Kehtan added, "use that navigating expertise of yours to plot a course back to where we're supposed to be."
"Repairs are finished and it is going to take us a while to traverse the distance the wormhole flung us to in mere moments." Zahn nodded to the captain and left with the first officer.
Kehtan nodded silently and handed a wooden box to Pip. "After we get under way, I want you to do an extensive analysis on this crystal," he said to the tech. "It may yet yield more information just by researching the way the gem was grown."
"Aye, sir, I'll get on it right away."
Kehtan then turned to Rojur. "Remove your dampener," he said quietly. The esper did as requested and held it out to him. "No, hang on to it," the captain replied. "Just don't wear it for a while."
"Okay," Rojur said. "Is there a special reason?"
During their meeting following the rescue of the girl, Kehtan had wanted to know more about Rojur's special abilities. The esper felt he could trust the captain after all their past adventures and had confided in him. The commander of the Zephyr was now aware of the dampener and its purpose.
Kehtan lowered his voice and drew the esper out of the others' range of hearing. He motioned toward the now-darkened screen and explained, "I don't know if your particular talents will be needed, but I smell trouble on the air. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything."
"Are you expecting difficulty from the crew?"
The captain nodded. "Possibly. There are a lot of young officers on board who are full of fire and wind and looking for a fast track to promotion. In addition, the legend of Shraelon has a strong lure and we've been handed an important clue to its validity. Do you remember my obsession on the Two Star?"
The captain began walking toward the door and added as the esper followed, "I'm wiser now, but still vulnerable to the fantasy. While I think I can quell my personal desire to pursue our new-found treasure map, there may be others on board who are not so strong."
* * *
Twenty-four hours passed on the ship passed before the captain was seen again. During that time, word of Shraelon spread throughout the crew and everyone began to get excited at the prospect of permission to pursue the dream. The legend of Shraelon was well known.
When it became apparent that word had leaked regardless of the need-to-know classification of the information, the captain scheduled a general Commander's Call for everyone not in a critical crew position. His statements would be broadcast to the rest of the ship via intercom, but he wanted as many bodies in the ship's massive entertainment room as possible.
Twelve hours later, Kehtan walked onto the rotating stage in the center of the gathered crew. It was impossible to tell what he was about to say by the expression on his face. He appeared unconcerned and many took that as a sign of hope. The silent room waited on his words.
"The last several days have been filled with numerous events and I want to put any rumors down right away," he began. "We passed through a wormhole and ended up some seventy-two light years from our previous position. The reports of something of value recovered from the asteroid field are true: we've found what appears to be a navigational chart to an as-yet-unknown location in space. Yes, the location is rumored to be the legendary planet of Shraelon."
Murmurs and looks of surprise filled the audience, but only for a moment before the captain continued. "I've heard the talk and agree that an important opportunity has been dropped into our laps." He placed his arms behind him and studied the faces of his crew.
"However... We are well out of communication range of home base to ask for guidance from headquarters, so the judgment rests fully on me. This decision has not actually been an easy one. So far from home, shelter and supplies we really cannot risk this sort of thing with the ship in its present state. Thus, we will be returning home at maximum speed. Prepare —"
Voices and shouts of anger cut off his speech, just as he had anticipated; the young officers and unmarried enlisted, he realized. He had known what the reaction would be, but he felt his decision was the best course of action.
"We have the map - we should use it!" someone shouted.
"We'll never make it in this condition!" a second voice replied.
"This is an exploration ship!" yelled another.
"We have the means..."
"Will this mean hazardous duty pay?"
"Our duty is to explore-"
"This far outweighs anything we could find in the Railon Cluster!"
Captain Kehtan waited patiently, having heard all the arguments in his mind already. Maku stood up on a chair to make his presence known when two crew members began shouting in one another's faces. The confrontation was about to come to blows before the security officer made his presence known in the most direct way he could.
"BE SILENT!" he shouted to the crowd, "Or be silenced." Maku held over his head a gleaming silver ball with a red switch on the top, a technology that could tame a howling mob in a big hurry. When the captain was sure he could continue, a dark look crossed his eyes when he spoke.
"Listen to me. I don't have the authority to grant a treasure hunt, no matter how promising the rewards." Someone at the front glared, but the captain's burning stare turned that face away.
"Yes, this is an exploration ship, and we do have the technology to make the trip work, but we don’t have the capabilities to ensure success." He pointed out into the crowd and locked eyes with many of them as he continued. "Each of you swore an oath of loyalty when you joined. You've been trained in your respective fields and entrusted to the best ship the Planetary Alliance has ever built. Like it or not, rules were not meant to be broken, but were created for a purpose."
He sighed and softened his composure a bit. "Think on this. The Zephyr is the only vessel capable of a journey required for something like this. After we've refreshed ourselves and made repairs, reported back with positive results on the capabilities of this ship and crew, it is very likely that our next mission will be to investigate the existence of Shraelon. Be patient. We will yet make the voyage with those who want to go, just give it time." Kehtan paused and took a deep breath. This was the longest speech he had given in quite a long while. Very few people on board had any knowledge of his trouble on the Two Star, and he wanted to make sure the mistake he made was not repeated by others, especially those under his command.
"It's difficult to let something like this go... so hard to be patient..." he said in a soft voice, "but if we do it without authority, we run the risk of losing everything and disappearing without a trace. These are sections and quadrants unvisited for probably centuries or even millennia and there's no way of telling what has happened since the information we have was current. A lot of you have families who might never see their loved ones return, and I cannot take that chance."
The assembly was quiet. No one spoke. No one argued. The captain moved to the door and then added, "Make ready to return home, maximum speed." Kehtan exited the room and left his disgruntled crew to their thoughts.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.