— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
An hour had passed since the captain's stern announcement that the possible search for Shraelon was to be abandoned. Kehtan waited in the Officer's Lounge with those who held command positions. Sahni, Toco and Maku discussed the crew's reactions while they waited for Dwes and Dr. Tralen to arrive, the only ones not present. The captain did not join in, but merely listened as the others talked.
"I have to admit," Toco said, "that I was a bit disappointed not to be going to Shraelon, but the captain's words made sense. To have the clearance to go is better than jaunting off on our own initiative."
"I'm afraid there are many in the crew who don't share the captain's sense of responsibility," Sahni added. "We shouldn't count on optimum efficiency out of them for a few days, at least."
"I've informed my security staff to keep an eye out for possible troublemakers," Maku said as he sat down on the couch by the window, "but I'm not so sure they can be trusted either."
Toco got up and began pacing around the room. The chief engineer was nervous and he pulled a handkerchief from a pocket to daub at the sweat on his bald head. "I've never served on a crew before that was as obsessed on something as this one is," he said. "Possession of the kind of knowledge that crystal contains is dangerous. The crystal and all the data associated should be jettisoned before there’s more trouble."
"I don’t think Dwes would agree with you," Maku said. "He’d be the first one to remind you that making new discoveries is one of the primary reasons this ship was built."
Toco sat back down beside him. "He doesn’t have to – you just did it for him."
"Do you think they'll hang onto their senses, Captain?" Sahni asked. Her superior officer took a sip of his green coffee and continued to stare out the window toward the blue planet and its moons. Sahni did not feel at all relieved when his only answer was silence.
* * *
"Are you sure?" Ree looked down at the lower level of the command center. He and the rest of the bridge crew stood around the captain's chair, which was presently occupied by Trin.
"All bridge stations are on automatic, which wasn't too hard to arrange since we're sitting idle," the weapons officer replied. He clenched a wooden toothpick between his teeth and smiled. "The command staff is gathering in the Officer’s Lounge, so everything should be fine while we have our little meeting."
"Speaking of which," Dayl pointed out, "it's time."
The turquoise-haired man stood up and led the other three out the door, leaving only the ship's computer to watch over the bridge. They trotted down the hallway and slipped past the officer's lounge quietly.
Two levels down and ten minutes later, they arrived at the mess hall, where a large body of the crew was gathered once again. Only approximately two-thirds of the Zephyr's personnel were present this time.
Trin took it upon himself to preside over the session and moved to the same spot Kehtan had stood earlier. He did not need to call attention as everyone looked to him automatically. "This is Chieko Fotura," he said as the blue-haired woman moved through the room and stepped up on the dais. She clasped her hands behind her. "Listen to what she has to say," Trin said and took a step back.
"Thank you." Chieko ran a hand through her long blue hair and faced those assembled. "My ship was the Silverton, and it was destroyed because of information on a crystal similar to the one you discovered. We were very close to recovering the final clue that would have led us to Shraelon, but we were attacked by an unknown swarm of destroyers that we called Shroomers because of their mushroom-like shape." Chieko closed her eyes briefly as Joska's memory touched her mind. She gathered strength from it and continued a moment later.
"Your captain is right, you know," she began, "but he doesn't realize what he holds." Everyone remained quiet and gave her the time to explain. "The Silverton and her crew were not as fortunate as you are. Your captain has the information that Ensign Ree used to plot out a course to the lost world. You have in your possession priceless data that should be used now!" Trin touched a control and the map was displayed on the mess hall's large view screen.
Chieko crossed her arms and looked at the chart. "Do you think that once you returned to your home base that this would remain a secret? Word of something of this magnitude would be leaked out quickly and then there would be a race to see who could get there first. You may have a superior ship, but it's doubtful you would have exclusive rights to the treasure.
"Bureaucrats in a council room shouldn't be the final authority of what goes on out among the stars," she added. "Most of those on the committee probably haven't even been off-world before, but they can be as greedy as anyone else. That will affect their decisions as they plot for exploitation of the treasure."
"I agree!" Zahn said enthusiastically.
"We can do it better than anyone else!" called another.
"Who needs to wait? We can get it first!"
"Once word leaks out," Trin said above the common sentiments, "corporate conglomerates will use every resource they have to build powerful new ships quickly to get to Shraelon first. We, as individuals, won’t get the chance to get there first, even if our leaders give the captain the authority to prepare the ship and head out again." He smiled at the assemblage and partially raised his right hand in a fist. "We’re already on our way, and the Zephyr has the power to get to Shraelon long before anyone else even knows it truly exists!"
Others joined in the common sentiment and within moments, a plan began to develop.
* * *
Alex watched the sleeping form of Brandon and wondered if it had been a good idea to bring him. The adventure had been a wonderful vacation, but if he read human character right, a series of unpleasant events was about to unfold. This was serious... the fun was over. They had been gone for weeks and the thrill of the new time and place had worn off just as Rojur had predicted it would. Blackthorne sat still for a long time and finally reached a decision. He would find Rojur and have the esper return them to their home on Earth in the early twenty-first century.
He stood up and looked around the room. His first week here had been filled with the excitement of new sights and discoveries and he would remember this as his most unusual trip. Granted, the Zephyr was equipped with artificial gravity, something he still could not understand, but he had spent nearly a month in space. No one would likely ever believe him, but he knew he had experienced something few people on Earth would ever know. He smiled at the thought and wondered if he would ever see it again. Doubtful, he mused. He decided he would take a walk around the ship one more time before locating the esper.
Blackthorne left Brandon to sleep and quietly slipped out the door.
* * *
"This is the stuff," Tiller told Dayl. "It will knock him out for days — which is plenty of time to do what we need." The medic handed a pneumatic hypo to the chesty helm officer. "If he's suspicious of what you're up to, you may not get another chance. You know what he can do?"
"Yes," she replied, brushing a stray lock of her violet hair behind an ear. "I've heard the rumors." She slipped the hypo up her right sleeve and left the Infirmary.
* * *
"Dwes, can you help me with this?" Pip asked when the science officer entered the lab.
The bearded officer headed toward the back of the room, where the tech was bent over a fallen equipment case. "What happened?" Dwes asked. He knelt to grab an end of the container and did not see two individuals move up behind him.
Daniel and Ree hit him simultaneously with gear rods, but the officer was not to be taken easily. Though Dwes was driven to his knees, his honed reflexes were quick and he knocked the legs out from under Ree with a swift sweep of his right foot. Pip and Daniel dove on him and tried to beat him senseless, but he gifted several blows to their anatomy before they were successful. Dwes finally went down and stopped struggling.
All three rebels panted and held bruised limbs as they stood over the unconscious officer. "Tie him," Ree dictated. Pip grabbed a length of shielded cable and proceeded to do as told.
* * *
Chieko walked up the corridor quietly and looked around her for some place to take refuge for a moment of solitude. She stopped near one door and read the label on the panel. Crow’s Nest.
It was not a term she was familiar with, but she thought it sounded a place probably not manned at the moment. She stepped inside the door and found herself in a small one-person lift. She took it upward and soon found herself in a tiny instrument-filled room not much larger than a booth. She sat in the single chair at a console and looked out the domed window. The bulk of the Zephyr was ten meters below the bubble and she surmised that she was in an observation tower. The purpose of the panel's functions was unimportant to her; all she wanted was the view.
The stars were brilliant. Chieko stared out into the depths and felt herself lost in infinity. She had always loved space and Joska had shared that interest. She smiled when she thought of him. His passion for finding Shraelon had matched her own and had often fueled her own determination. There was purpose in her.
Chieko looked upon the ship below her and her eyes glazed over. The Zephyr was the best vessel she could have come upon. It, alone, might actually make the extreme distance to find the treasure of Shraelon, whereas the Silverton had been limited. Her smile turned feral and her eyes remained locked on the stars. She had begun a mutiny with her passion — with Joska's passion.
She still felt his presence even though his body was long gone, and the determination grew.
"I'm doing this for you, Joska," she whispered to the stars.
* * *
Alex entered the forward observation deck and moved toward the bay window. The blue, ringed planet lay low in the left corner and the wealthy Terran gazed at it as if mesmerized. This was a sight he would really miss.
He was a bit puzzled, for in his walk through the hallways he had seen very few crew members. He assumed they were off sulking somewhere, but for a ship preparing for a long journey home there ought to be more activity. He didn't give it too much thought, however, since he was planning to be gone before much longer.
He had not seen the esper during his stroll through the decks, so he assumed his friend was spending time with Sahni. It was because of this he didn't try a telepathic message to him. He wanted to allow Rojur time to be with his lover before leaving.
Alex sighed as he thought about Chieko. He had grown quite fond of the blue-haired woman in the short time he had known her, but he knew he could do nothing about the attraction. His emotions were in severe conflict, mainly because he knew that Saundra waited for him on his own world. His situation was made worse, however, since the two of them had been drifting apart in recent months. They had not seen much of each other in weeks, more so since she had refused his proposal, and Alex felt guilty.
The stars seemed to extend his mood that night, rather than soothe them. Alex was deep in his thoughts and continued to stare out past the blue world. With his attention lost in the stars, he didn't notice the sounds in the hallway outside the observation lounge.
* * *
Rojur had arrived at his quarters and was about to enter when he heard his name called softly. He looked toward the next cabin and saw Dayl leaning against the door frame. Her uniform was open to her navel and when she knew his attention was hers, she leaned forward seductively, allowing the esper a detailed view of her ample cleavage.
Rojur's eyes narrowed as a lopsided curve crept into his grin. He moved toward her and stopped close enough to smell the liquor on her breath. "You've been drinking, Dayl," he said unnecessarily. She grinned and pushed aside the loose garment covering her chest.
"Kish me, Rah-zur..." she purred. While the esper's attention was momentarily focused on her bared breasts, she slipped her arms around his neck and drew him closer. He reached up to her arms to pull them away, but Dayl quickly pulled the pneumatic hypo from her sleeve and jabbed it against the jugular vein in his neck. Rojur's eyes went wide with shock, but then closed as the drug took immediate effect. He dropped to the hallway floor without a sound.
"Okay," Dayl said, fully sober, into the room behind her. Trin stepped out past her and looked at the esper.
"That was almost too easy," he said. He then turned back to Dayl and grinned. "You'd better hide those before you hurt someone else."
Dayl winked and closed her uniform. "Careful," she chuckled, "you could be next."
Trin laughed and leaned over to grab one of Rojur's arms. Dayl took the other and within moments, they and their captive were lost from sight down the hall.
* * *
"Zahn, not so tight," Tiller said to the enthusiastic navigator, "you'll cut off his circulation."
Zahn looked down at the roll of gauze he had been using to restrain the unconscious Blake and noted that the captive medic's wrists were turning slightly grey. "Oops." He loosened the bindings a bit and retied the wrap as Tiller did the same to Dr. Tralen.
"Help me get them on the gurney," Tiller said. Zahn finished his work and assisted him in the task. "Now," Tiller said, "go find Trin and tell him we've got the last of them."
"Right away!" The navigator ran down the hallway as the medic wheeled his prisoners in the opposite direction.
* * *
Sahni looked at the chronograph on her wrist and said, "I wonder what's taking them so long." Her words were cut off when the door to the lounge opened suddenly.
Two security guards stepped in and pointed blasters at the assembled officers. Before anyone could react, however, Pip and Daniel dragged a groggy Dwes into the room and dropped him to the floor.
"What is this?" Toco exclaimed and jumped to his feet.
"Hold it!" one of the guards prompted with his weapon. The science techs exited to allow Tiller to enter with a gurney. When Maku saw Dr. Tralen and Blake, he jumped for the nearest guard. He should have known better. The other security officer had known what to expect and shot his chief in the leg with the stun setting. Maku stumbled, but managed to deck his target before collapsing to the floor.
Tiller helped the fallen guard up off the ground and backed away toward the door. Captain Kehtan had kept his seat, though his small eyes smoldered in barely controlled fury. This is what he had anticipated, though he had strongly hoped it would not come. He set down his empty coffee mug and then got to his feet when Trin stepped in through the doorway.
"I see I was wrong to think my crew had some common sense," Kehtan commented dryly. "Responsibility is not something to be ignored so easily. Neither is mutiny."
Trin did not bother to answer the captain's remarks. He merely motioned to someone in the hallway and stepped to the side. Dayl and Ree carried the drugged esper into the lounge and set him down next to Maku.
Trin clenched a toothpick between his teeth and merely looked at the captive officers. He set the doctor's medical bag on the floor next to the door and, without a word, turned to leave.
"You've all gone mad!" Sahni shouted at him. "You have no sense of duty or loyalty, Trin - fame and glory don't await your return to the Frontier — a court-martial does!"
Trin looked at her a moment and a brief expression of doubt crossed his eyes. It passed quickly and he turned away silently. The guards followed him out and shut the door behind them. A moment later, there was the sound of low-level blaster fire on the locking mechanism to the lounge entrance.
The captain walked to the sealed hatch and raised his fist to pound angrily at it, but stopped himself before actually doing so. He turned around and knelt next to Maku, who was beginning to throw off the temporary effects of the stun.
"Make sure the others are okay," he told his officers. Sahni quickly grabbed a knife from the table and cut the wrappings that bound the physicians and then looked to their health.
Maku shook his head and leaned against the wall to rest a moment before attempting to stand up. "I was afraid of this," he said.
Captain Kehtan nodded his agreement. "An obsession is a powerful force that plays havoc with a person's reasoning," he replied. "I speak from experience."
Dr. Tralen groaned as he eased himself off of the gurney. He slipped to the floor and felt of the lump on the back of his head where he had been struck by Tiller. Sahni knelt next to him and looked at him in concern.
"Will you be all right, Doctor?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied, "I just got a good knock on the noggin', is all. I'll be okay – just let me rest."
Toco helped Blake sit up and used some of the gauze wrappings to bind the medic's forehead where he was bleeding slightly. "What about Dwes and Rojur?" the engineer asked.
Kehtan moved to the science officer as Sahni went to the esper and rolled him on his back. "I think he's been drugged," she said. The first officer cradled Rojur's head in her lap and brushed the turquoise locks from his face.
"They probably used Amohalkonicin on him," Dr. Tralen guessed. "If so he'll be out for some time, depending on the dosage he was injected with."
Dwes opened his eyes with an effort and shut them again quickly. "Mutiny..." he breathed as he felt the back of his head. Dr. Tralen moved to his medical kit and studied the contents.
"They left me enough material to deal with our injuries, but not much else." He glanced over at the esper. "I'm afraid there's nothing in here to counteract what they've given him."
Maku stood up shakily, but managed to get to his feet. He moved to a storage locker set into the wall near a status panel for the ship's systems. He opened the door angrily and searched through the meager items inside, hunting for something he might use to pry open the lounge door.
The captain personally checked on the health of those deposited in the room as Maku approached the door. The security officer held a metal broom handle in his hands as he tried to wedge it into the hatch panel, but he only managed to bend it. The broom had not been designed for such work. In frustration, he hurled the worthless tool back into the locker.
Sahni continued stroking her friend's hair unconsciously. She looked to Kehtan and asked, "What do we do, now?"
The captain took his seat again and picked up his coffee cup. "We don’t seem to have much choice right now," he said as he stared out into the stars.
Sahni stared at him for a long moment, privately noting the captain's silent, but smoldering, fury. He could not officially sanction the journey, and he wanted to go as much as those under his command did, but he also could not accept this situation as an alternative for the authority they needed. The first officer noticed that he was doing well to keep his composure in an act of calm in the midst of the storm.
* * *
Preparations on board the Zephyr for immediate departure were handled flawlessly by the experienced crew. The Bridge personnel were all in their places, awaiting confirmation from each department that systems were ready. Trin's weapons control was in order, so he occupied the first officer's seat, overseeing the final operations. He was younger than most of the command team, but he had a natural charisma that was often found in leaders. Though it had never come to a vote or discussion, Trin was accepted as their chief in Captain Kehtan's absence from the center seat.
Ree monitored the ship's intercom panels and one by one, green lights glowed to indicate department readiness. The young communications officer swiveled his seat around to face the upper deck. "All sections now accounted for, sir," he said to the pale-eyed chief.
Trin swallowed and stood up. "Acknowledged." He stepped toward the captain's console, but could not bring himself to sit in the command chair. Instead, he glanced over the instrument panel, touched a few controls and then looked out over the bridge.
"Heading programmed in?" he asked Zahn.
"Aye, sir," the navigator replied.
Trin returned to Sahni's seat and sat down. "Helm, engage main engines. Let’s begin." His voice sounded a bit steadier than he actually felt inside.
Trin felt the low pulsing heartbeat of the ship as the Zephyr slipped away from the blue planet. There was only a momentary hesitation in the apparent movement of the star field before it erupted into white smudges of light. The low pulse was replaced by a throbbing that could be heard as well as felt as the scientific vessel hurled itself through warped space.
* * *
Chieko had stationed herself close to the heated glass dome of the Crow's Nest and had her hands clasped together near her heart.
"Shraelon... Shraelon... Shraelon..." she kept whispering to herself. This was the fulfillment of the dream Joska had shared with her. The legendary lost planet would be hers!
* * *
The first few moments of the warp went smooth, but a shuddering began buffeting the ship as if it were an atmospheric craft fighting air turbulence. The space around the vessel buckled violently and light bent around them. All hands on the ship were taken by surprise as the vibrating increased with every second.
Kehtan grabbed onto the table for support to raise himself back to his seat. The intense jarring had thrown everyone about and anything not secure was dangerous debris. Sahni tried to shield Rojur against damage as he was in no condition to protect himself.
"What's happening?" she shouted above the roaring that seemed to emanate from the walls.
The captain managed to pull himself up to the systems status panel. He jabbed two pads and examined the readout. "Neither the secondary inertia dampeners nor the warp field stabilizers have been activated!" he exclaimed.
Toco nearly lost his grip on a wall support as the ship shifted quickly from side to side. "If they're not enabled, the Zephyr will be literally shaken apart!" the engineer yelled. The din was getting louder.
* * *
On the bridge, Dayl was shouting into the intercom. "Engineering! Are you guys down there lost without Toco? I told you to extend the warp field stabilizers! I can't activate the secondary inertia dampeners until that system is operational!"
The shuddering of the ship and the combined roaring made it near impossible to hear the reply, but she managed to catch just enough of it in her earphone. "What? I can’t do it from up here!" she shrieked. "The systems are down there!"
Zahn's knuckles were white as he gripped the arm rests of his seat. "We're all going to die..." he moaned to himself.
* * *
"Captain, look!" Blake shouted. Kehtan and the other officers crowded up to the sole window to look out at the smudged, shifting starlight from the starboard side of the ship. A long rod with a cluster of machinery on its end was telescoping out away from the Zephyr. They knew that a matching rod was doing the same on the opposite side of the vessel.
"It's about bloody well time," Maku muttered into Sahni's ear. When the rod had fully extended, the cluster began pulsating with a yellow glow. The vibrating shudder of the ship subsided somewhat and the warp-generated noise began to quiet almost immediately. Ten long minutes passed before the Zephyr planed out to a smooth ride. All ears on board were ringing and everyone was shaken by the experience.
"Whew!" Tralen exhaled and sunk down against the soft cushions of the lounge couch. "Irresponsible mutineers..." he grumbled. "We may not survive long enough to die in any alien booby traps!"
Only Blake remained at the window, silently watching the stars. He wondered about the outcome of this sidestep in their orders. He thought he had known Tiller, as they had gone through the Academy together, but this mutinous action was beyond anything he had thought his friend capable of doing.
Sahni knelt down next to Rojur and cradled his head in her lap again. She was aware of only one of his special abilities, but she felt that he would have been able to increase their chances of survival were he awake to help them. He could be fairly resourceful when he had to be, such as when he got Chieko out of her damaged lifeboat.
Captain Kehtan's thoughts were also along the same lines. He moved to Tralen's side and put a hand on the physician's shoulder. "Is there anything in here you can use to revive him?" he asked, indicating the esper with a hand.
"There's another medical kit stowed here in the lounge," Tralen replied, "but there isn't anything in there either to counteract the drug they injected him with." The doctor brushed a hand across his white hair and sighed. "He isn't hurt. All we can really do for him is to make sure he has a place to sleep it off out of everyone's way."
While they talked, Maku had been examining the ceiling panels. "Toco," he said to the engineer, "do any of the control conduits for the door mechanisms pass over us?"
"Aye," the bald man replied after a moment of thinking. Toco squinted yellow catlike eyes at his large companion and shrugged his shoulders. "Wouldn't do any good to reach them, though. They fused the door panels together, as well as melting the control circuits."
"Then we're trapped in here while our mutinous crew flies off further into unknown space on a wild treasure hunt."
"It appears that way."
* * *
Alex awoke to the licking of a wet tongue on his cheek. He looked up into Red's yellow eyes and smiled. "Hello," he said. Blackthorne sat up and gingerly rubbed the back of his head, where he had struck it on the back wall of the observation lounge. He did not know how long he had been unconscious, but the ship seemed to be flying smoothly again. A quick glance toward the forward windows told him the ship was in warp as the stars streaked by at a rate that still fascinated him.
Red butted her head against him and Alex gladly scratched the wolf behind the ears. The animal's mouth curled up in an apparent grin as she soaked up the petting.
Alex stood up and looked around him. Chairs and other items that had not been secured were strewn about the floor from the previous commotion. It was time to locate Rojur and get back to Earth. He had more than enough of this.
"C'mon, ol' girl. Let's go find Brandon and Rojur." As he turned to depart, something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Alex turned toward the forward window and noted that the ship was slowing. They had arrived in a dark red nebulous region of space, almost as if they were approaching a thin patch of fog. He could see through the gaseous area and he felt his jaw drop open.
They were nearing a small yellow star and he could see five vividly colored planets in extremely close alignment to one another. All of the new worlds were roughly the same size. Blackthorne knew a little of astronomy, just enough to be amazed. How could so many planets exist in such proximity without their opposing gravitational forces tearing them apart? The distance between each one could not have been more than a paltry few million miles!
Entranced by the spectacle, Alex forgot about his task and wandered slowly to the window. Absently, he made a mental note to add astronomy to his areas of study.
* * *
Blake had his nose up against the glass as he gazed at the new planets. The officers were gathered behind him again, each trying to see past the medic. Kehtan drew away from the window to allow the others room to see and walked over to the status panel. The Zephyr had slowed and was approaching the nearest of the worlds, a multihued globe in various shades of green.
"Captain," Trin's voice said over the room intercom, "I just thought I'd let you know your ship is fine and that we've reached the first stage of the map's directions." There was a slight pause, but he continued before the senior officer could reply. "We are going to stop at this present location for a breather to discuss a further course of action."
"Do you plan to release us?" Kehtan asked tonelessly.
"Would you try to stop us from going on?"
There was a pause on the other end. "I didn't expect otherwise, Captain. I'm sorry, but you will have to remain where you are."
Kehtan glanced toward the window again. "How far was our jump this time?" he asked.
"Fifteen point three light years," Trin answered. "Is everybody all right in there? That was a bit of a bumpy ride we had."
"It would have been a lot smoother if you had paid attention to your jobs with the stabilizers!" Toco exclaimed into the intercom.
"No argument there," Trin replied. "Sit tight." The connection was broken and the engineer scowled at the captain.
"Sit tight... huh! I'd like to shove him out an airlock without a suit..." he muttered.
Sahni took a seat on the couch and crossed her arms. "What now, Captain?"
Kehtan walked to the food dispenser, ordered up a small meal, and remained silent until his food was ready. He walked to the small table, sat down and looked to his officers.
"I'm afraid we can do nothing but wait some more. It looks like we'll be in here for the duration of the ride."
Sahni gazed at the captain. She was a little hungry, herself, but did not have much of an appetite. Suddenly, Kehtan's eyes went momentarily wide as if a thought had occurred to him, but he regained his composure almost immediately. Had she not been looking directly at him she might have missed it, for he now just seemed lost in idle thought. She could not know he had just received a telepathic sending from someone else on board; someone other than Rojur Delondin.
|Captain Kehtan? This is Alex Blackthorne. This is probably a surprise to you, but it's an emergency that calls me to reveal myself...|
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.