— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
The captain had registered surprise at first, but he had quickly regained his composure before he thought anyone had noticed. He didn't know if Alex had expected a response, but there was no way he would be able to inform him. Kehtan had no telepathic ability.
|I don't know where you are, but I'm fairly sure there's a mutiny taking place on this ship,| Alex continued. |Most people can receive my thoughts if I direct, but I doubt if you can reply in kind. If you can, indeed, "hear" me, try somehow to get on the intercom and ask for a status report from the bridge. I’ve stationed myself nearby so I can hear a response|
Kehtan frowned. It was too soon since the last time. He stood up from his seat, however, and casually moved to the intercom. He cleared his throat lowly and then touched the control pad.
"May I have a status report, bridge?" he requested.
"Trin, here, captain. I gave you a courtesy status report only a few minutes ago. Nothing has changed." The acting chief sounded a little irritated. The connection was broken, leaving the captain no room for further discussion. Shrugging his shoulders, he returned to his seat.
"What was that all about?" Toco asked.
Kehtan didn't bother to answer, but merely picked up his coffee mug and stared out into the stars.
|Thank you, captain,| Alex's thoughts touched his mind again. |I head Trin's response. I assume you and the other senior officers are being held somewhere. I have been unable to locate Rojur, even through telepathy, so I don't know if he's part of this and ignoring me, or if they've done something with him. I will snoop around a bit and see if I can find out where you are. I don't know what I'll be able to do to free you, but I'll try to come up with something.|
The captain stood up again and moved to the intercom panel. "Bridge?" he asked, "What did you drug Rojur with? There's nothing we have locked up with us here in the Officer's Lounge to revive him."
Trin's annoyed voice responded wearily. "Captain, Rojur was drugged for a reason and will stay that way for some time. Don't worry about him. He's unharmed and will merely sleep and rest. He's probably doing better than you are. Now, we're holding a meeting here, captain. Interrupt us again and we'll disable the intercom from the lounge."
Kehtan walked over and knelt down next to Rojur's unconscious form. If Alex had still been listening, he had just given him answers. He did not have much hope in his being able to help against the rest of the crew, but he was a believer that anything might just be possible.
* * *
Alex nodded to himself and eased back around the corner, away from the bridge. He may only be from twenty-first-century Earth, but his intelligence would work here as well as back home. He did not own many businesses just because he was good with numbers. Blackthorne began forming a plan as he skulked down the corridor toward the officer's lounge.
* * *
Chieko stood in front of the glass windows of the bridge and whispered quietly to herself, "Disanae. Cinaje. Mitievan. Wenoltes. Emagnes..." She shook herself and gestured toward the planets they faced. "I believe we're on the right trail," she said to the others gathered around her. "All the legends have some mention of a nebulous region of five sister worlds. Not much is said of them, but a rough translation of the message on your crystal reveals this:
"'Five sisters guard the realm to Herdantes' heritage. Their ruthless acts have defeated many as they stand in discipline to ward off the trespasses. Neither to the right nor to the left do they wander as the mists envelope them in beauty to cloak their danger. At the orders of Herdantes, they deal out punishment to all who would approach them for spoils.'"
"Who or what is Herdantes?" Ree asked.
Chieko walked to a terminal and sat behind it. She swiveled in her seat to face the bridge crew and answered. "Herdantes is thought to have been the ruler of Shraelon near the time of its mysterious abandonment."
"If this Herdantes wanted to protect his five daughters, or these five planets, as you believe the tale represents," Dayl asked, "could it be that these worlds were storehouses of their great wealth and technology? I've heard it said that no one planet could hold them all."
Chieko put a hand to her chin. "It is possible, though the legends have never been specific on how the five sisters play into the lore. Every clue I've found always seem to point to the mother world of Shraelon as the source and location of their tremendous resources."
Trin leaned back in the chair he occupied and pulled the toothpick from his mouth. He contemplated its frayed end and then looked to the forward windows. "I've been having the techs modify the Crabs and other scout ships with weapons in case we run into trouble, though there's little we can with what we have on hand, and the engineers have been able to boost the power output on them for speed and have improved their maneuverability. Would you recommend that we investigate these worlds, Chieko, or should we press on to Shraelon, itself?"
The blue-haired woman turned to look at the mists enveloping the planets and shuddered involuntarily. She had not told them everything concerning the legend and was uncomfortable in this place, although she had been excited to see this particular landmark in their search.
"I think we should move on," she replied after thinking over the situation. "We have —"
"Look!" Zahn jumped up and pointed to the main screen; an image appeared in the nebula. The object was moving toward the Zephyr as all eyes were glued to the vision. The shape was in the form of an immense face belonging to that of a man seemingly human. The long, flowing hair was black against the dark red mists and matched a close cropped beard. Only the rugged and gaunt face showed in the image that grew to colossal proportions. The eyes were piercing yellow and the thick eyebrows were drawn together in anger.
"Trin," Ree said in a shaky voice. "It’s only showing up on the screens. I can’t see it out the windows." The others looked at him as if he had told them space travel was not possible and a few glanced out the forward windows."It's got to be just a transmission."
The man’s image began speaking in a language unknown to them, his rich, deep voice emanating from the ship's intercom speakers.
Chieko's eyes flew open wide. Although she had never heard the spoken tongue before, she was somehow able to understand the words. It was Shraeloni!
"Record this!" she exclaimed to Ree. She turned back to the screen when the communications officer did as told and she began a rough translation.
"The path you have followed is doomed to end with your extinction.Warnings have been issued and repeatedly ignored - the payment is destruction. Despite previous attempts to turn away all who would seek us, you have come this far to challenge my reign. Trespassers will not be tolerated. Prepare to die."
Before the last word left Chieko's lips, a pulse of white energy shot out at them from the nearest of the five planets at tremendous velocity.
"Defense screens!" Trin shouted after a heartbeat of hesitation. Despite the distance, the speed at which the bolt traveled was unimaginable and there was no time to react quickly enough. A blast rocked the ship as the beam clipped the edge of the engine section. Had Dayl not instinctively fired the aft maneuvering thrusters, the bolt would have cut directly through the heart of the Zephyr's systems and surely destroyed the vessel. Five monitors burned out on the bridge, including the primary view screen, and the lighting system flickered heavily, though remained operational.
Zahn jumped toward the control readout when an indicator pinged. "We've just lost most of our sensors, Trin," he exclaimed as everyone rushed to their stations. "We only have one long range scanner on-line and it's picked up incoming fire from the third planet!"
Trin clenched his toothpick tightly between his teeth as he stared out the forward windows. A dozen orange fireballs streaked toward the Zephyr at an alarming rate. The defense screens were controlled at his station on the lower command deck, too far for him to reach quickly.
"Chieko!" he called, "there's a control switch on my panel, and to the left of Zahn; it's marked with three yellow concentric rings. Activate it!"
The woman dashed to the console and had to search for the switch. By the time she enabled the control, the fireballs were upon them. All but one of the projectiles impacted harmlessly on the defense screens; the single struck amidships and caused the internal pressure to rise sharply for a short moment. Ree threw his hands to his head and doubled over in a brief moment of agony. He collapsed to the carpeted floor when the air pressure returned to normal. Chieko ran to his side.
"We've had a hull breach in the starboard manufacturing shop!" Trin exclaimed. "Dayl, get us out of here!"
Noting that Ree was merely disoriented, Chieko assumed his station and placed the headset over her delicate ears.
A few heartbeats later, the blue-haired woman gave a report. "One technician was in thatshop when the blast hit, Trin. Four people had severe radiation burns in the adjoining compartments and have been sent to Medical."
Trin closed his eyes briefly at the loss of the machine shop tech. The death of a crewmate hurt, even one he probably did not know.
"I'm picking up a squadron of small ships launching from planet number two, sir," Zahn exclaimed. "They're moving in fast and should arrive in about fifteen minutes!"
"Who are they? Can you tell?" Dayl asked as she tried to get the Zephyr moving. The explosion had knocked out some of her control operations.
"Most of the scanners are down, but I don't detect any life readings," the Navigator replied. "My guess is that they're drones."
Trin ran down the circular staircase to the lower command deck to his station. The Zephyr was an exploration ship, not a military vessel. Its defenses were few, but Trin began to activate the remote operating pulse cannons that were designed primarily for extracting ore from asteroids. He silently cursed the sluggish system.
"Chieko," he said. "Give me ship-wide speakers!"
She looked over the unfamiliar panel and vainly searched for the right control. Ree was up on his knees and shakily reached over to enable the correct switch.
"You have ship-wide," he said to Trin.
"Incoming enemy ships!" the chief announced. "I need pilots now in the converted scouts. Launch ASAP! I also need the pulse cannons manned manually - the remotes are too slow! Get to them —Now!"
Chieko ran to the forward windows and stared at the quickly approaching enemy ships in horror. She turned back to Trin and exclaimed, "It's the Shroomers!"
* * *
The Crow's Nest was named from the tradition of the old sailing ships of the seas and protruded above the topmost deck of the Zephyr. The lift deposited a young, blond man who was barely out of his teens.
Bren wiped the sweat from his brow as he quickly took the seat at the control panel in the domed compartment. His long fingers activated the tracking scanners and noted the enemy was nearing rapidly.
He was nervous when he took the controlling handles of the modified pulse cannon that stuck out of the tower directly below him; he'd had no training for anything like this. A warning beep from his panel sounded loudly in the small room. He jumped at the noise and reflexively tightened his grip on the firing studs. Two bright pulses of blue energy leapt from the gun and narrowly missed hitting the main bridge below him.
"Crow’s Nest!" Trin's voice shrieked from the intercom. "What are you doing? The enemy's out away from the ship!"
Bren mumbled an apology and swung the cannon turrets out toward the approaching ships. This was his first venture into space and he hoped fervently that he would survive long enough to return home.
He gritted his teeth as the drones arrived and began firing on the Zephyr. He reacted quickly and managed to score a direct hit. One of the lavender-colored, mushroom-shaped ships seemed to deflect the bolt at first, but then an explosion ruptured its hull. The resulting flash was blinding to the young fighter's eyes.
"Yeah!" he yelled enthusiastically. A wide grin spread across his face as he swiveled to target in on another. An even dozen of the Shroomers quickly broke away to swarm to his position as he destroyed another of the drones. He frantically tried to meet the coming onslaught with precise control, but there were too many at one time. The Crow's Nest erupted in a ball of flame from combined enemy fire.
* * *
Alex Blackthorne cursed himself silently, an act he seemed to be doing a lot lately. He stood on a table in a small storage room and peered into the grating of an air duct in the wall near the ceiling. In his hands was a long slender tool of a nature he hadn't recognized, but what he intended to use it for should work well enough. He had tried to pry the edge of the screen apart from the wall, but the attachment was too secure. With the hope that no one would notice the noise over the blasts rocking the ship, he swung the heavy metal rod into the grate.
It took four swings, but the screen finally collapsed in on itself. Alex grunted in satisfaction and dropped the rod to the floor. He picked up a small cloth bag that he had filled with various items he had acquired from the store room and slid it into the duct. He may be from another time, but the lives on this futuristic vessel still required air to breathe and ducts were still needed to transfer that air throughout the ship.
He rolled up the sleeves of his outfit and stepped up on a box he had on the table with him. Gently, he tried to squeeze his frame into the vent, but with a maddening realization, Blackthorne discovered it was just too small for him to fit his wide shoulders in through. He tried several ways to get inside, but no matter what angle he put himself in, he was barred from entering.
Leaning on the wall, Alex bit his lower lip in thought. "What do I think I'm doing?" he mumbled to himself. "I've been watching too many action films..." He thought a bit more and gazed back up to the duct. "Only a child could fit up there." He smiled to himself at that thought.
|Brandon? I need your help!| he sent quickly.
* * *
Seven modified Crabs and twelve Regna-class scouts launched from the cargo bay of the Zephyr. They fanned out quickly to rid the marauding Shroomers from the space around the ship. The fighting became intense immediately; each pilot knew that it was his or her life against a machine to keep the mother vessel safe. The Shroomers were fast and highly efficient, but the determination of the Zephyr's crew evened the odds somewhat. The manned pulse cannons took out half of the attackers and the scouts just managed to destroy the rest. Several of the Regnas were lost in violent explosions, however, and that dampened the triumph of winning. In all, the entire battle had lasted not more than ten minutes.
On the bridge, Zahn knew it was coming before his instruments indicated the news. "Oh, no..." he said almost to himself.
"What is it?" Trin asked.
"Long range scanner shows more Shroomers heading our way, launched from the fifth planet this time."
"How many?" Dayl asked.
Zahn looked up and stared blankly at his partner. "The computer calculates close to four hundred."
* * *
Brandon stepped up into Alex's clasped fingers and vaulted up into the air duct, finding it a snug fit even for him, and condensation made it a little slick to move around inside. The shoes he had been given were not made with a lot of traction on them, so he pushed them off his feet for a better grip. Alex caught them, and then tugged the boy by a slim ankle.
"Don't get hurt, kiddo," he advised. Brandon nodded appreciatively.
Alex released the bare foot and handed him the bag of provisions. The boy clambered forward, elbows and knees squeaking now and then as he squirmed his way through the dim air shaft. Crawling as quickly as he could through the cool air, he scuttled through the air duct toward his destination. It was difficult work, and a light film of sweat was beginning to develop.
He stopped at an intersection before him, wondering which way to go, but then he could smell someone's cologne from one and recognized it as one of the captive officers.
* * *
|Captain,| Alex sent, |try to remove the grating from the air duct into your lounge. Brandon's coming though it with a few presents for you.|
"The air duct!" Kehtan jumped up and pointed to the vent screen. "Maku, remove that grating, quickly!"
Maku stood up confused, but went to the closet to see what he could use. Sahni laid Rojur's head gently on the carpet and then stood up. The other officers looked up from their boredom and wondered what idea the captain had just had.
"What is it, Captain?" Toco asked as Maku returned with a sensor stake.
"Help is on the way," Kehtan said without further explanation.
"That duct is too small for anyone to crawl through," Dr. Tralen replied.
Maku pounded the screen and managed to pull one side loose. The rest held, but he was able to bend the grate back enough to permit a small person to pass through. Seconds later, the weary face of Brandon appeared as he struggled toward the opening. Maku helped the boy out into the room and set him down on the countertop beneath the air duct.
Brandon clutched the bag Alex had filled earlier and handed it to the captain. "A gift for you," the youth said with a lopsided smile.
"Thank you, son," Kehtan said. He set the bag on the lounge table and opened it carefully as the boy vaulted effortlessly to the carpeted floor. Sahni looked over his shoulder and whistled at what she saw.
"Brandon," the first officer said, "How did you know what to bring us?"
"My dad knew," he replied.
"Maku, help me get this set up," The captain said. "Blake, you and Toco set up some barriers for us. Sahni, you and Tralen get Rojur over to the far wall."
* * *
The security guards stood near one another and talked between themselves about the sudden lull in the blasts that had rocked the ship earlier. Both of them had wanted to respond to the call to man either the modified scouts or the pulse cannons, but they had had their orders to stand by the Officer's Lounge to make sure no one got past them. They were more than prepared to stop anyone who approached them from the hallway, but they never expected the assault to come from the rear.
In an explosion that rivaled the ones the Shroomers had afflicted upon the exterior of the Zephyr, the lounge doors blew outward into the corridor in a ball of flame and black smoke. A moment later, Blake and Maku emerged cautiously through the haze and surveyed the damage to the guards.
"I think we could have used a smaller charge," Blake said unnecessarily. The rest of the freed officers came out of the lounge quickly and Tralen moved to the fallen guards.
"Ensign North is dead," Maku said as he straightened up from kneeling beside the still body of his fellow security officer.
"This one will recover, though he may never walk again," replied the doctor of the other guard.
"Take care of him, Tralen," the captain said as he and Sahni carried the unconscious esper between them. "We've got to get to the bridge!"
"Dad!" Brandon exclaimed. Blackthorne rounded a corner in the hallway as the youth ran to him. They embraced quickly as the officers neared them.
"Thank you, Alex," Kehtan said. "We owe you one."
"Here, let me take Rojur so you can get upstairs," Blackthorne said. The captain nodded and let his guest have the esper.
"Maku, Blake, Toco, Dwes... let's go!"
* * *
"Here they come!" Ree exclaimed.
Trin punched his intercom button and shouted into the microphone. "Engineering! We need a lot more power to move the ship! Snap to! Snap to!"
"We HAVE the power, Trin," a tech snapped back at him, "but we're having trouble rerouting it past the damage to get it TO the engines!"
The ship lurched to the left abruptly as an advance drone fired at them. Immediately, a volley of pulses from the cannons fired to eradicate the attacker.
At that moment, the bridge doors opened and the captain stepped in with his officers. All but Tralen and Sahni were with him, and they were armed with blasters aimed at the mutinous crew on the lower deck. Trin turned and a look of relief actually crossed his features.
"Captain!" he exclaimed.
"I want my ship back!" Kehtan demanded.
"It's yours!" Trin exclaimed. Things had gotten a little too hot for him to cope with and he was actually glad to have the old man back in charge. His elation came to a screeching halt when blasters remained pointed at his head.
Satisfied, the captain took his seat while the other freed officers kept the blasters trained on the bridge crew.
"Ree, give me ship-wide intercom," Kehtan commanded.
"Got it! You're on, sir."
"This is Captain Otani," he announced, "As of this moment, I am resuming command of the Zephyr, given up freely by your Chief." He paused to let the information sink into the crew. "Engineering, reroute all available power from the engine generators to Forward Circuit alpha-zero-zero-seven, maximum priority!"
"Captain?" Zahn asked as Kehtan unlocked and opened a panel on the right armrest of his command chair. "What is Forward Circuit alpha-zero-zero-seven? I've never heard of it."
The captain ignored the question. "Infirmary," he said.
"Tralen, here, captain," said the doctor's voice.
"Secure all of your sensitive equipment and fire up your generator. There will be a large power drain as all main power cells will be rerouted momentarily and I don't want Medical damaged by the action."
"Aye, sir. Securing now. I'm also doing the same with the forward and aft first aid stations."
"Very good, doctor." Kehtan closed the intercom connection and glanced at his panel. The light of the bridge dimmed by half as power was redirected as per his orders.
"Power transfer is eighty-seven percent, Captain," a voice from engineering said.
The captain turned to Toco. "I think it's secure up here. Get down to engineering and make sure every extra drop of juice is available for me."
Toco smiled and put away his blaster. "Aye, sir."
Kehtan looked down at the one who had led the mutiny against him. The turquoise-haired weapons officer would be court-martialed, to be sure, but the time was not right. The Zephyr still had need of him.
"Mr. Rosch," he said formally, "give me a status report."
The officer swallowed hard and dutifully responded. "We've arrived at an area that Chieko identified as part of the Shraeloni realm, or at least an advance outpost. She said that in her research..."
"I'll get a history lesson later," the captain retorted sharply. "I want to know about the situation at hand! You can fill me in later on how you got my ship into this mess."
"Aye, sir. We've been fired upon from the Shraeloni outposts before us, each planet sending out a different form of attack. We've sustained damages that we're still estimating. We lost Ensign Gat when an energy bolt destroyed the starboard manufacturing shop and several others suffered heavy radiation burns." Trin looked back at the long range scanner data displayed on Zahn's monitor beside him.
"The last attack was from a small squadron of drone ships launched at us. Chieko says they are Shroomers, the same type of organic ships that overran and destroyed the Silverton. We've been modifying the Crabs and Regna-class scout ships into fighters, but we've not had much to scavenge for them. We managed to fight off the Shroomers with pulse cannons and the altered scouts, but we lost three men, plus one in the Crow's Nest." He looked at his toothpick as if it had lost its flavor and tossed it onto his console in disgust. "Most of our sensors were burned out in the first blast, captain. All we have useful right now is the long range scanner, and it shows a massive force of ships on its way to us, with the Shroomers numbering close to four hundred."
"Has anyone tried to hail them – try to reason with them?"
"No, Captain," Chieko answered. "When we arrived in the system, we got an immediate holographic warning from them only seconds before they launched their attack. There was no time for talking to them."
"Sir," Zahn offered, "I did a long range scan for life forms from the biosensors before they knocked them out and detected nothing but plant life on any of the worlds before us. If there are people or animals there, they're shielded from our sensors."
"Captain," Tralen's voice came from the intercom speaker. "Rojur has been revived and is on his way up to the bridge with the first officer. Everything down here is now secure and ready."
"Thank you, Doctor," Kehtan was about to thumb another button on his intercom panel when the overhead lighting shut down completely and red emergency lamps came to life.
"Captain," said Toco over the intercom, "Nonessential systems are disabled, all available power rerouted and storage capacity is sitting at maximum. You've got it all, sir."
"Thank you, Engineer." The captain looked down at the panel in the left arm of his chair. He flipped up the covering over a shielded switch and positioned his middle finger on it lightly.
"ETA of the Shroomers?" he demanded.
"Eight minutes until the advance ships arrive, sir," Zahn reported without looking up from his instruments.
"Dayl, orient the nose of the Zephyr so that it points directly at the incoming enemy. Trin, order all of your modified ships back into the landing bays."
"Captain," Trin protested, "it will take nearly fifteen minutes to get them all inside. Wouldn't it be better to have them stay out to protect the —"
"Recall those ships!" Kehtan shouted in anger. "They'll be useless against four hundred enemies!"
"Captain, orientation set," Dayl reported. "We are staring right down their throats."
"Lock this position with auto-adjust for drift."
"Position now locked, sir."
The doors of the bridge opened as Sahni and Rojur both rushed in to the first officer's terminal. The esper gave a hard glare to the back of Dayl's head and thought private dark thoughts at her, but said nothing. Sahni keyed up several commands on her panel and then looked up at the forward windows as Kehtan's small eyes took in every detail of the bridge.
"Trin," he said, "are any of your fighters in front of us?"
"None directly, captain. They still require another ten minutes before everyone's in the landing bays."
"Enemy ETA, Zahn?"
"Four minutes, sir."
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.