ó by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
"Alex," Rojur said wearily, "I can't take you back now. Can't you see what's going on? We're needed. They've just lost their chief medical officer; you and Blake are the only trained medics they have."
Blackthorne turned his back to the esper and stared out into the blackness of space to watch the approaching fleet of enemy Shroomers. Brandon fidgeted nervously at the back of the observation lounge, waiting for the grownups to finish their argument.
"Rojur," Alex began with a sigh, "this was to be a vacation and it's already run longer than we agreed upon. Right now, there are over two thousand ships bearing down on us, with straightforward intent to blow the Zephyr out of the stars. There is no way we can combat that kind of force ó"
"You're forgetting that power gun the captain used earlier," the esper cut in.
Alex pointed toward the advancing marauders, which were quite easily seen now. "Then what is he waiting for? Another few minutes and we'll have to turn the ship in the opposite direction in order to fire it at them!" He motioned Brandon to his side and added, "My medical skills won't mean a thing when that fleet arrives. There won't be anyone to patch up!"
Brandon looked up at the esper when he stopped by Blackthorne's side and said, "Please, Rojur. Letís go home now?"
Rojur's will weakened when he peered into Brandon's cobalt blue eyes. He dropped to one knee to look at him at his level and took the youth's right hand. He glanced at Alex quickly and then back to the boy.
"I'm afraid I can't... we're too far from any Alliance outpost for me to teleport to, even with the cylinder's boost." He looked back to Alex again and continued. "As long as we were within the Frontier, I could have teleported us back toward Earth by making several hops between systems to get us into position for the trip home, just as we did on the way here. We're at too great a distance to make it. I'm sorry." Rojur was unable to read the emotion in Brandon's eyes. He couldn't tell if the boy was afraid or mad. Brandon looked at him with a fixed stare without a word.
* * *
Captain Kehtan felt the dull thump of an explosion near the bridge, just as the star field smudged in the windows. They had made the jump with no time to spare.
"Zahn," he said, "as soon as the jump is completed, alter heading zero-seven-three and initiate another short jump, distance identical to this one. I don't want to be tracked by our last known heading."
"Aye, sir. Calculating new heading now."
"ETA of current destination, Dayl?"
"Four minutes, Captain."
* * *
Maku walked into the forward observation lounge and saw the Zephyr's passengers grouped together at a table near the window. "Rojur," he said to the esper, "I need to talk to you, please."
"We can go to my cabin across the hall," Rojur said.
* * *
When the Zephyr powered down her warp engines from the second jump, the ship emerged in an area of space occupied only by a dying red giant of a star ringed with a tiny asteroid belt. There were no other planets in the system. Their point of arrival was north of the galactic plane, so they were actually "above" the star system.
"Dayl," Sahni said to the Helm, "bring us level with the rest of the galaxy."
"Zahn, begin long-range scanning for enemy ships or outposts," the captain said, "and then try to pinpoint where we are in relation to our own part of the galaxy."
Maku entered through the doors to the upper command deck and nodded to the captain. Kehtan stood up and turned to his first officer. "You have the bridge, Sahni." He cleared his throat and looked to the lower level.
"Ensign Rosch, accompany me," he ordered, his voice a rumble of low wrath.
The weapons officer swallowed hard and glanced around at the other bridge personnel. No one looked up as he frowned and moved toward the circular staircase to the upper deck.
When he stood in front of the captain, Maku calmly drew his blaster from its holster and aimed it as his middle. Dwes stood up from his station and did likewise. Kehtan snapped his fingers and the ensign was slammed roughly to the floor, clapped into black metal wristbands, hauled upright and dragged from the bridge, all in a matter of seconds. The captain followed with two armed officers bringing up the rear.
* * *
Captain Kehtan stood just outside the two cells that contained Trin and Chieko. Beside him, a thin, mustached man stood tapping keys on a floating console. The official transcript of charges was a necessary evil in such events, and it would ensure that the records of Trin Rosch's treason would be accurate. Maku and Rojur stood against the back wall, observing the spectacle with interest. Each of the offenders had been escorted to the brig and placed in the small cubicles without a word from the officers, and had been left alone in their cells under painfully bright lights for two hours before anyone arrived to interrogate them. The captain scowled darkly and had the attention of both as he stood before them, arms crossed as he trembled with rage. A member of the Area Defense Counsel stood nearby, wrenching her hands. It was her job to make sure the rights of the accused were protected, but this far out into space under these conditions, mob rule tended to arise. The captain nodded to her presence, a silent "I understand" to her being there. The Staff Judge Advocate stood beside her, a sheaf of hastily-scribbled papers in her hands. The SJA traditionally made formal charges, but Kehtan had asked her to step aside.
"Ensign," he growled in a low rumble, "as per article 52109 of the Planetary Alliance Code of Military Justice, you are stripped of your commission and you can expect a general courts-martial when we return to Rona for inciting the crew to mutiny. Nothing can change that."
"And nothing should," Maku said under his breath, casting a vicious look at the deflated man. The ADC representative took notes furiously, but dared not look up.
"You were warned of the consequences before you went through with it, yet you defied my orders," the captain continued. "For that you are charged with mutiny, conduct unbecoming of an officer, disobeying a general order, destruction of Alliance and private property, gross criminal negligence leading to the deaths of fellow crewmates that includes Doctor Tralen, assault and battery against a civilian, unlawful imprisonment of senior officers, and placing in jeopardy two other civilians, one of whom is a minor." At that last, he added, "You should note that it's almost impossible to get a jury with no parents on it."
Trin's composure melted and he sank his face into his hands.
Kehtan's expression did not change, "What bothers me the most is that you betrayed me personally. Given the gravity of these offenses, I think it's safe to say that your career in the military, and doubtless your life as you know it, is over. Look at me."
Trin looked up at the captain through red eyes.
"We had to break up an angry mob right outside the brig. Do have any idea how difficult it's going to be to keep the crew from lynching you?"
He set his small, piercing eyes onto Chieko and drew his eyebrows together. "You were the instigator in this mess. Granted, we found the crystal and deciphered it on our own, but it was your compelling obsession which corrupted my crew further." She started to protest, but he continued without letting her speak. "If you hadn't been whispering in their ears, they might have obeyed orders and granted themselves the opportunity to come back to search for Shraelon on official orders from the Planetary Alliance. Now they will go home in disgrace, and my command will be questioned." Kehtan spat the last sentence with venom. "You may be civilian, but the Alliance has penalties which will apply for your part in this."
Kehtan paused for a rebuttal, but none came this time. Trin sat on the bench in his cell, his arms resting on his knees and his head hung low. Chieko paced her cubicle slowly, refusing now to look at him, her expression clearly worried. The captain motioned to Maku, who approached Trin's cell.
"However," he said in a calmer voice, "I am releasing you both back to the crew."
Trin looked up in surprise as Maku opened the transparent door panel. The same was done for Chieko.
"Captain," Trin replied hesitantly, "why are you letting us go?"
Kehtan casually waved a hand to indicate the ship around them. "Oh I'm not letting you go, unless you'd like me to allow the other officers the chance to shove you into an airlock. There are too many repairs to make before we can perform a warp jump. Everyone is needed, yourselves included, so I'm setting Mr. Delondin in charge of watching over you two while you work. You will obey his orders over everyone else's but my own while on duty. While off official duty, any crewman all the way down to E-1 will have authority over both you, so be prepared for some latrine duty. I just have to tell them not to kill you, all else is up to them."
"Delondin?" Trin exclaimed, ignoring the second half of the edict. "But, he's a civilian!"
"So is Chieko, and you followed her suggestions without letting that bother you."
"What about me?" the blue-haired woman asked.
"Same thing," Rojur said as he stepped forward. "You and Trin will be coworkers in the tasks I assign you. The captain was gracious enough to provide me with a list of things for you to do."
Trin chewed his lower lip for a moment and then looked at his fellow Roswein with his white eyes. "Okay, Rojur. I accept my duties."
"What you do or not accept is inconsequential!" the captain boomed. "You gave up the right to free choice when you endangered the lives of my crew! Now get out of my sight!"
Rojur nodded and then turned to Chieko. The woman lowered her eyes momentarily and then nodded as well. The esper walked out of the brig with his two charges trailing silently behind. A still-fuming Kehtan glanced over at Maku and raised an eyebrow. "The long range sensors have detected no other attackers," he said. "We seem to have a respite from our enemy. Get up to the bridge and coordinate repairs with Sahni. I want the damaged sensors and monitors given top priority - the long range scanners can only detect so much. I want finer detail on what's around us."
"Aye, Captain. I'll get on it right away."
"I'm going down to engineering to get Toco's assessment of the structural damage. If you need me, that's where I'll be."
Kehtan turned to the ADC, "I understand that you have a job to do."
"Yes sir," she replied.
"Do your job, Lieutenant Commander. I'll see to your client's safety."
As the captain and ADC departed, Maku stood with the security man tapping at the floating console for another few seconds, the two men thinking the same thoughts. The reporter finished his entry and snapped the floating console shut, bringing it down to his side. "They should be spaced," he growled.
Maku's only response was a firm nod. A few minutes later, a general order was issued ship-wide that no member of the crew was to physically harm Ensign Rosch in any way, and any who did would face the captain.
* * *
An hour later, a suited repair team approached damage to the outer hull of the ship. One crew worked to remove the Crab from the remains of the Infirmary, while another moved forward. The second party discovered a Shroomer smashed onto the hull, just behind the bridge area. It was wedged in between two protruding sensor arrays, but it had not breached the integrity of the Zephyr as the Crab had.
One of the technicians approached the front of the wrecked alien ship while the others scanned the craft to decide the best way to remove it without damaging the sensors.
"Captain, this is Ensign Lann," the tech said into his intercom.
"This is Lieutenant Ree," came back the reply. "The captain is in a private conference."
"Then let me speak to the first officer."
"Just a moment."
As Lann waited, he scrutinized what he believed to be the cockpit of the organic alien ship. The glasslike panel was damaged with a myriad of spider web cracks. He reached forward and tapped it gently. The window fell apart in the slight gravity generated by the mass of the Zephyr, and a dark shape was illuminated in the tech's hand light beam. He gasped and backed away slowly.
"This is the first officer," the Sahniís voice sounded over his intercom speaker.
"Sir, this is Ensign Lann."
"Go on, Ensign."
"My team has found one of the Shroomers wrecked and wedged between the sensor arrays, starboard and aft of the bridge," the tech replied. "It still looks organic, as if it might have been grown, but this one is a different design than the usual Shroomers we've been fighting."
"Different? In what way?"
"There are antennae protruding from all sides of this thing, and what I think may be sensor nodules at their bases. We had planned to jettison the wreck off into space, but I've also found the, uh, pilot and wondered if you wanted it inspected."
"The pilot?" Sahni's voice was laced with surprise. "Dead or alive?"
"Dead, I think. Hard to tell in this light, but I hope it is."
"Okay, when you get it loose, take the alien ship and its pilot to landing bay One, Ensign. I'll have a science team ready to examine it."
* * *
Captain Kehtan stifled a yawn and walked onto the bridge. After his meeting with department heads, he had gone to his cabin for a two-hour nap to help clear his mind and had just awakened.
Zahn saw his entrance onto the lower command deck and reported, "Sir, the entire sensor array is operational again."
"Good," Kehtan smiled. "Begin full omni-directional scan of the area, particularly the asteroid belt nearby."
"Aye, sir." The navigator entered the command into his terminal and then turned back to the captain. "Sir," he said, "Iíve pinpointed our location."
"Where are we?"
"The red star weíre orbiting is CSJ1933," Zahn replied, "or more commonly known as Hidalgo, named after its discoverer, Clark Hidalgo."
"Hidalgo?" the captain repeated. "Okay, note that in the log. Good work, Zahn."
"Thank you, sir."
Several moments passed as the rest of the crew continued in their repairs. The captain moved up to his command chair and quietly conversed with Toco over his intercom.
"Sir," Zahn said a few minutes later, "preliminary scans detect no Shroomers in the area, however there are a large number of unidentified metallic objects laced throughout the asteroids."
"Enemy vessels different from the Shroomers?"
"Could be, captain, but I'm getting no energy output from any of them." Zahn looked down at his monitor again and touched a few controls. "They may be totally inactive, awaiting a signal to revive them, or I'm guessing they could be derelicts."
"Derelicts?" the captain repeated.
"Aye, sir. Some of the objects seem to be floating aimlessly and I've detected a few of them colliding with one another."
The captain seemed lost in thought for a moment and then said, "Okay, keep scanning. Ree, do you have a current location for Maku?"
"He called in from the Bio-Lab just a moment ago, sir."
Kehtan thumbed his intercom and called, "Maku?"
"Aye, Captain," the security officer replied a moment later.
"We've detected a large number of objects in the asteroid field that could be derelict ships," Kehtan explained. "Take Rojur with you in one of the armed Crabs and check it out. I want to know what's there and if there are any materials from them we can salvage to use in our repairs."
"Aye, sir. Will get right to it."
"Take extra care not to trigger any traps. It is also possible the vessels we detect could be Shraeloni ships of a different nature just awaiting a signal to attack."
* * *
"You have got to be kidding!" Chieko exclaimed as she peered into the small, darkened conduit. It was roughly a meter in diameter and its walls were coated with a black powdery substance. They were in the very bowels of the ship, where rarely anyone ever ventured.
"Not a bit," Rojur replied.
Trin shined his work light into the opening and then glanced down at the hand scanner he possessed. "Isn't there any other way to it?" he asked hopefully. He and Chieko were already filthy from other dirty jobs they had been made to do and he did not relish more of the same.
The esper shook his head. "No, the maintenance robot is stuck in the primary junction near the main energy transfer unit. This is the only way for you to get in to repair it. The crawl will be slow and cramped, but I'm afraid it's necessary. Just hope we donít have to jump into warp while youíre in there."
Chieko looked back at him and glared silently. She reached up and braided her long hair quickly into a tight bun at the base of her head so that it would not be a problem in the tight passage. When she finished, she looked at Trin and motioned for the tube.
"After you," she said.
"Ladies first," Trin countered.
"I don't know my way through a conduit tube."
"Well, neither do I."
Rojur snorted heavily as Maku walked into the dim corridor. "Get going, both of you!" he commanded. Chieko took Trin by the shoulders and shoved him toward the opening. The turquoise-haired man gave her a dark glare with his white eyes and picked up his tool bag. With a low-throated grumble, he crawled into the pipe and scooted into the darkness. Chieko bit her bottom lip and eased herself in behind him, cursing the powder that immediately clung to her clothing. A moment later, noises of their passing diminished as they proceeded on their long way.
"Rojur," Maku said to the esper, "the captain has a mission for us." Rojur pointed into the crawlway and made a question with his eyebrows. "If they're going to do what I think they are, they'll be busy for a while."
Maku then explained the assignment as the two of them headed back up the dimly lit corridor.
* * *
Alex sat down next to the sleeping form of Blake, exhaustion trying to set in. While the crew injuries had been long taken care of, he and the medic had been cleaning up the mess in the first aid station that now served as the Infirmary. Work on the main medical lab was progressing slowly as the techs tried to repair the damage done by the collision of the Crab, so there was nothing the physicians could do about it in the meantime.
They had been at the cleanup for several hours, and coupled with the stresses of the past few days, both were ready for some rest. Alex knew that Chieko had gotten into a bit of trouble, but was unaware of the severity of the problem. He thought about her and wondered if she had any thoughts of him in return. He had not spent much time with her lately, but he found he had grown quite fond of the blue-haired woman.
* * *
On the bridge of the Zephyr, Brandon helped Ree as the communications officer worked on a control panel at the back of the upper command deck. The boy had no technical knowledge to assist in the repairs, but he was able to aid in handing the tech such tools as was needed and to fetch parts for him.
Brandon wished that he could have helped Alex, but Ree had taken an interest in the youth and had encouraged him to learn more about the ship. Though the boy had no practical experience, he was a fast learner and paid attention well to the lessons Ree tried to teach him. He was not merely an aid in this repair, but he was a student as well.
* * *
The tiny ship vaguely resembled the nickname given to it, an organic mushroom, with the control center located at the end of the "stem." Captain Kehtan watched silently as Dwes approached the cockpit of the Shraeloni Shroomer with gloved hands and carefully removed the shards of what looked to be ordinary broken glass. Once the sharp panes were set aside on a work cart, the science officer shined a work light into the opening. Kehtan stepped closer to view the pilot of the enemy vessel.
"Just as we suspected," Dwes said as he pointed at the humanoid shape within the interior of the ship. "It's a robot drone." The head of the device was smashed beyond all recognition, but the "body" was unmistakably humanoid in shape and appearance. It was possible the ship was originally designed for a human pilot, but replaced with an automated machine when the Shraeloni mysteriously abandoned their domain.
Kehtan studied it for a moment and then picked up a pair of long tongs from the work cart. He reached into the smashed chest of the robot and when he drew it out, he held one of the blue crystals that were now known to be common in all complex Shraeloni devices. He set it gently in a tray on the cart and then reached in again. He pulled out another and then two more.
"I'll take these to the science lab," the captain said. "Continue your examination of the ship and let me know if you find anything else of interest."
"Aye, sir," Dwes replied as Kehtan headed for the door with the tray of gems.
* * *
The Crab moved toward the seventh dead ship in the asteroid cluster and stopped several meters from it. Maku keyed in several controls, locked in the proximity distancing to keep them close, and then nodded to Rojur. The esper checked the oxygen supply in his suit and then disappeared.
He materialized inside the derelict and headed toward the bridge of the rather large ship. As with the others they had visited, there was no real visible damage that he could detect, and it appeared that the vessels had merely been deactivated and abandoned.
Rojur arrived at the control center of the vessel, and though it was alien in design, he recognized enough to get a good idea of what he was looking at. He located a panel marked in bright blue, contrasting against the dull brown color scheme that showed in the beam of his helmet lights, and operated a switch. The bridge was illuminated in a soft blue glow and he moved over to another panel. With high caution, he operated another set of controls but then smiled in satisfaction when the power levels of the entire room came up as desired.
When the ship's view screen came to life, he said into his microphone, "Maku, I'm ready to initiate the test."
"Moving away," the other's voice replied. The Crab slid out of Rojur's view and withdrew to a safe distance. The esper studied the controls as he awaited word from his partner. This ship was of a completely different design from the others he had been on, and much larger. He had no idea what purpose this one was built for, though the others had been simple to identify.
"Okay, Roj, anytime."
Rojur's eyes changed from their usual pale white to an internal soft blue that, coincidentally, matched the room's lighting. It was an outward sign that his talent of shielding was in full effect as he prepared himself for the test. Making sure the control was the one he wanted to try, he positioned his index finger over a particular touch pad and then sat down in the cushioned chair next to the panel.
He glanced up at the forward view screen as he activated the control. There was no sound on the large ship as a bright-red pulse of energy flashed out of a hidden orifice in the nose of the delta-shaped vessel and shot out toward a nearby asteroid. The rock had been roughly twenty meters in diameter before the blast enveloped it in a ball of flame. The explosion was snuffed almost immediately by the vacuum of space, but the fragments of the pulverized asteroid were driven deeper into the surrounding rocks. Rojur figured that there were no chunks larger than his fist left of his target. So far, this ship had the onboard weapon with the mightiest firepower of any of the others they had checked.
Maku's whistle sounded on his helmet speakers. "I'm impressed!" he said. Rojur smiled, even though he knew no one could see him.
"Let me test the engines..." the esper said. "With weapons functioning and obviously drawing on a good power supply, surely this ship has engines that work!"
"I'm keeping my eyes crossed for luck," Maku deadpanned. Though the other vessels had proven to be in good shape, none had engines that Rojur could make operational. They doubted they were damaged, but merely disabled. Either that or Zahn's original assessment that they could be awaiting some Shraeloni signal to activate them for computer-controlled battle was correct. Whatever the reason, Rojur was never able to get even a spark of propulsion from them.
After a few moments of experimenting with the ship's controls, his luck with making this vessel operational was practically nonexistent. He did manage to get the maneuvering thrusters to move the ship a few meters to the left, but the main engines remained silent. Rojur sighed and stretched his arms.
"Anything?" Maku asked.
"No luck," he answered.
"Bleh... At this rate, I think my hover bike back home could outrun this fleet of ships," Maku supplied. "I guess we move on to the next one."
"Okay, I'll check a few other systems and then shut everything down in about ten minutes," the esper reported.
The speaker fell silent for a few moments and then Maku's voice sounded again with a tone of awe. "Rojur," he said quietly, "I think I recognize that ship you are on..."
The esper was scanning the readouts on a triangular monitor. He paused and looked up at the room beyond. "Recognize? Where have you-?"
"Remember that burned-out hulk where you found that first crystal?"
"You're on board its smaller twin."
Rojur thought about it for a moment in silence. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"The one we were on had crashed into a mountain. We never saw its true shape because the front was smashed and the back end was blasted from the explosion, but if you take that into consideration, it might have held a shape similar to the one you're on. The surface is vaned just like the other one was."
Rojur's face lit up in sudden realization. "If that's true," he said, "then there should be another chamber like the one I found undamaged..."
"Just what I was thinking," Maku explained. "You may be able to get the engines back online from there."
Rojur finished his scanning and nodded his head silently. "Okay," he replied, "but I'll need to review the recording I took on the other ship to get an idea where this one might be."
"Back on the Zephyr?"
"Correct. I'll be back on the Crab as soon as I lock everything down here," Rojur said. "Go ahead and inform the captain what we've found - about this ship as well as the others - so he can get salvage crews out here for scavenging parts and operable weapons off them."
"Got it." Maku's voice came back a moment later with a question. "The ship you are on is most probably Shraeloni. What about the others?"
The esper shut down the main control panel and gazed over the darkening room. "The monitors and panels here are marked in the same written language we've associated with Shraelon, but the other ships had labels of completely different symbols." He wandered toward the door to the bridge and added, "Personally, I don't think the others were made by Shraeloni. What race built them, however, is beyond me."
* * *
Chieko walked down the corridor wearily, looking forward to a shower and a fresh change of clothes. She and Trin had finished their assigned duties and they were released from anything further for two shifts by the captain. She wiped a dirty hand across her forehead, noting not for the first time today that the temperature inside the Zephyr seemed unusually warm.
Her partner had already gone off in search of his own quarters, and had graciously taken both their equipment bags to the tool crib, leaving her to wander the halls of her own free will. Chieko had been using Rojur's quarters since the esper had moved into Sahni's room, but it was close to the bridge, nearly three-quarters of the ship's length away from where she had been, so she took her time to move along at her own pace. She had a lot on her mind.
Chieko rounded a corner and heard voices coming from an open door and she discovered that her wandering had brought her to the science lab. One of the voices belonged to Dwes, one of the officers who had been locked away during the crew mutiny. She didn't know just how the man would react to seeing her, so Chieko hung back in the shadows behind a row of instrumentation to listen in on the conversation in progress.
"There, Daniel, is more information for your treasure hunt," Dwes said. "Now, are you going to jump me again for it?"
The freckle-faced science tech unconsciously rubbed his ribs, still sore from his fight with the older man during the takeover. He looked up at the view screen, which held the translated data of one of the Shraeloni crystals. This particular gem was a storehouse of information, pinpointing certain booby traps and snares along the way to the fabled lost world. Daniel looked down at his feet and took a seat beside his superior officer at the terminal.
"Even if I had the full support of the crew," the young, wiry tech replied as he ran the fingers of both hands through his rusty-red hair, "I don't think I would want to go." He sounded sincere.
Dwes was genuinely surprised at the answer. The fire in the tech's eyes was gone and he seemed ill at ease. The science officer scratched his black beard, momentarily studying his subordinate. "Have you learned your lesson about rank and following orders?" he asked tonelessly.
"Yes, but that's not why I said what I did." Daniel looked at Dwes and then up to the display. "I'm not a... warrior, sir. All this fighting - the death and destruction - I'm not cut out for this... I'm just a technician." He looked back to Dwes, but his eyes were looking far away. "Several of those who died were friends of mine."
"You didn't think that the fabled world of Shraelon would be unprotected, did you?" Dwes said gently. "Daniel, when you follow someone blindly without thinking through the possible consequences, you'll almost always end up in trouble. It wasn't wisdom you were pursuing, but blind obsession."
"I realize that now, sir, and so have many others on board."
Dwes put a hand on the youth's shoulder. "You made a mistake, mister, and I'm afraid when we get back you will have to pay the price for it, but it won't be the end of your world. You have learned a hard lesson. Let's hope it stays with you."
In the shadows, Chieko sighed quietly. From what she heard, her chances for ever getting to Shraelon with this ship now was practically gone. She had worked so hard to get this far and her enticement of the crew had gone well until they had run into the Shroomers. She reached up, untied her hair, and let it fall freely. With a frown and a slump to her shoulders that was caused by more than just fatigue, she slipped away unseen and headed back up the corridor.
* * *
Trin looked up as he neared his cabin. His steps were heavy from the dirty labor Rojur had assigned him and he wanted nothing more than to find his bunk and find some rest. His mind was numb as well, and it took his fogged senses a moment to register what awaited him.
All over the door to his quarters were hand-scrawled messages of profanity and descriptions of what should be done to him for his actions. Apparently, those who had not taken part in the mutiny were getting back at him for the trouble he had caused. Everything from curses to suggestions of perversions was splayed from floor to ceiling, and in the middle of the door in large, block letters were the words: ENSIGN TRAITOR!
Trin moved into the room and touched the switch for the lights. The interior of his cabin was destroyed. Everything breakable was broken, all clothing was either shredded or soiled by body fluids and his uniforms were missing the rank insignia. More graffiti adorned his walls. The only item in the room still intact was a framed photo of his parents, but beneath their smiling faces, a caption had been added. "To Junior, the backstabber".
The young officer sank to the floor and buried his face in his hands.
* * *
The captain once again called the crew to the mess hall for an assembly meeting. For those who were needed in the immediate operation of the ship, the announcement would be carried on ship-wide screens. Although Chieko had no present assignment, she opted not to attend, but listen in from the bed the quarters that had been assigned to her.
In the mess hall, the captain pointed toward the large view screen. "One of the crystals we have just acquired has provided us with some valuable information concerning the location of Shraelon," he said. He watched the crowd closely as he continued. "As you can see from the diagram on the left, several key points along our route are marked with a symbol that resembles the shape of the Shroomers we have encountered. If you track it back the way we came, you will notice that as we have followed the directions given toward Shraelon, we have been led through a series of traps laid for anyone seeking that route."
Kehtan held up one of the blue gems, the first one they had found. "Nearly all complex Shraeloni devices contain one of these. We have often wondered why each crystal had coded information showing the route to the planet that we have otherwise received warnings to stay away from approaching. After careful study of the most recent stone, we have come to the conclusion that the others were designed to draw anyone who deciphered them into traps that were set specifically for those who would pursue the legend. With each new crystal, we gained information on taking us to our goal, but the true purpose was to destroy us."
The crowd began to talk among themselves, but the captain was not finished. "The information you see on the screen is from a crystal that was undoubtedly not intended to fall into our hands. We have on board the wreck of what we suspect is an information-gathering drone that this new crystal was found in. It shows specifically where each trap and eachdanger is lying in wait for the unwary - and there are many. With this information, we will be able to continue our journey to Shraelon with the knowledge of which areas to avoid."
The captain paused there, and it took a moment for the information to sink in. Once it did, the resulting uproar was nearly deafening.
"We're going to Shraelon...?"
"What about the court-martials?"
"I thought we were returning home!"
"But you said..."
"We're going? We're going!"
"I don't believe he just said..."
"To Shraelon after all!"
The captain stood quietly with his hands behind his back as the questions and exclamations around him began to build in intensity. He allowed them their moment of exaltation and merely watched them. Only when they quieted on their own, eager for more information, did Kehtan speak.
"Although this voyage began under a mutiny and against all orders, we have traveled so far and have come so close to the goal that it would be foolish to turn back now without further investigation." The captain put his hands behind his back and gazed momentarily at the view screen. "After we discovered this valuable information, I consulted the senior officers and though the decision was not easy, we have chosen to go on, under my command.
"Keep in mind that your mutiny will not be forgotten, but if we reach our goal and bring back proof of the wealth of Shraelon, your punishment may be lessened. The knowledge to be gained will be priceless, and if we are successful, the deaths of our fellow crewmates will not have been in vain."
He saw the expressions of those before him. To get his point across, he stretched out his arms in front of him and said one word in a deep, booming voice.
"However..." He paused and then dropped his hands to his sides. "Although we have a key to avoiding their traps along the way, the closer we get to Shraelon, the more likely it will be heavier guarded. You can count on more battles, so prepare yourselves and our ship! This is supposed to be a science ship, so many of you are not fighters, but you may have to be before this journey is over." He touched a control panel and darkened the view screen. "There is still much to be done in repairing this vessel. At the moment, we have a respite from fighting with the Shroomers, so we will take the time to strengthen our defenses... and offenses.
"Near us are a number of derelict ships with operable weapons systems that our techs have decided will be compatible with our equipment. Science officer Dwes will be assembling teams to salvage parts from the derelicts. Work with him and each other - do a good job, but do it quickly. We may be running out of time."
* * *
Chieko sat at the edge of her bed, scarcely believing what she had just heard. After all that had happened, they would still be going! A wide smile crossed her face Ė this was cause for celebration. She fervently wished Joska were there, but since he was not, someone else would do for the time. She jumped out of bed and slipped into a clean uniform. Alex would be in the forward first aid station, she knew. She made that her destination as she left the room.
* * *
Two days later, ship time, most of the repairs and modifications had been finished. The crew's enthusiasm to get moving again fired their efforts, though they made certain to do quality work; their lives may well depend upon it. The large delta-shaped vessel that Maku and Rojur had found barely fit into the landing bay, but the captain had granted the permission to bring it along. Rojur had christened it the Hidalgo, in honor of the star near where they found it. Under normal circumstances, there would be plenty of room, even with the Zephyr's full complement of Crabs and Regnas, but a number of the small derelicts that someone had dubbed Shards had been made operational and were stowed on board for future use. These tiny, one-person ships were fighters and their stores were surprisingly fully charged. Once Rojur had discovered how to get the Hidalgo fully functioning, it was an easy task to get the others running as well. They took what they could and salvaged systems from the rest.
As Rojur dropped out of the hatch, he looked back up at the Hidalgo and smiled. Though small enough to fit on board the Zephyr, it was still a largevessel compared to the others. It had firepower to spare, and if they had to make use of it, he and Maku had spent the last two days learning its systems and controls. They had taken it through tests and maneuvers and the two of them had been impressed with its ease in learning and use, and its capabilities. Though it was not official by any means, the esper had begun to consider the Hidalgo as his own vessel. He fully intended to file an interstellar salvage claim on it.
Rojur wiped a film of sweat from his brow. Perhaps it was all the work that everyone had been intent upon doing, but for the past few days, the interior of the ship had seemed unusually warm to him. The climate controls probably needed repairs as well.
The esper saw one tech across the hangar having difficulty reattaching a panel to the side of a Crab, so he headed over to help.
* * *
Another day had passed and the Zephyr was once again ready to launch. All duty personnel were in their places, while the rest prepared themselves for the journey. On the bridge, the command crew was going over their checklists to make sure green lights were across all boards before enabling the systems. Dayl was moving the ship slowly away from the asteroid field as so to orient them for the jump and was chatting merrily with her partner, Zahn.
On the upper command deck, Dwes was checking systems to find out why the climate control had not compensated for the increased heat inside the ship. He had run diagnostics on the device several times during the past few days, but nothing wrong had turned up. He was beginning to run out of patience. The gold uniforms of the Zephyr crew were designed so that the sleeves were easily removable and the entire bridge crew was presently all in short sleeves, including the captain.
Rojur stood beside Trin's console, going over final preparations with him. The weapons officer had his wooden toothpick again, clutched between his teeth as he filled the esper in on news from Roswei. Rojur had not been to his homeworld in several years and was interested in what Trin had to tell him.
"Captain!" Dwes exclaimed. "I've found the source of our rising temperatures."
"What is it?" Kehtan asked.
"I can't believe I've been so ignorant!" the science officer said in disgust. "I've been a complete fool!"
The captain sighed. "What is it, Dwes?" he repeated.
"We've been so busy repairing the ship and salvaging parts from the derelicts that we've forgotten about the star we're orbiting," the bearded man explained.
The captain looked to the main screen, which was focused on the star field directly in front of them. The sun was out of view to the left. "Port angle on the main screen," he commanded. The viewer immediately polarized as the red giant appeared before them. Dwes placed a spectral analysis readout at the lower right-hand corner of the display. The captain's jaw dropped slightly. He turned to the officer and asked, "How long?"
"The star's internal temperatures are rising exponentially and it's expanding. It could be any time now, perhaps even within the hour. Blast it! I should have been monitoring it! It isn't often we get to witness a star going nova firsthand."
Dwes looked at him with a strange expression on his face. "Sir, do you think that's another trap by the Shraeloni?" he asked gravely. "That would take out a lot of enemies."
"No, I don't think even they would destroy a star just for that, and it could only be used once if they did. All the same, I think we should vacate the area."
Sahni sat speechless as she stared at the readouts displayed on the main viewer. The captain had assumed she would give the order, but as she remained mute, he looked down at the lower command deck and said, "Zahn, if your coordinates are set, I suggest we vacate this area."
"All systems ready, sir."
"Dayl, take us away from here before we get sunburn."
Dayl smiled at the captain's words and replied, "Aye, sir."
A moment later, the familiar deep throbbing of the ship was accompanied by the sudden shift of starlight. The smudges announced that they had entered warp. In Zahn's navigational calculations, he had used the charts that were encoded on the special crystal. Over the course of two days, they would bypass at least six of the deadly traps put out by the extinct Shraeloni people through multiple jumps. Their distance from the Frontier was rapidly growing as they flew deeper into unexplored space and all thoughts of returning empty-handed were left as far behind as the exploding star they had just departed.
* * *
At the end of the second day, the bridge was manned by the barest of personnel as the others slept. Though reluctant at first to have anything to do with her, Rojur had taken Dayl's post and was currently at the helm of the Zephyr. Sahni sat at the navigation terminal and Maku was monitoring communications and sensors. It had been a quiet ride without the threat of Shroomers, though an alert watch was kept for them continually. All but the most essential of the crew lights were off during the "night" shift on board and the soft green glow of the station displays lit the room dimly.
Sahni was in the middle of a yawn when an orange light lit up on her panel. They would reach their destination in ten minutes. Quietly, she got up, walked to the com-station, and called up the captain to inform him. This was to be their last jump for a while to give the engines a rest, and the crystal's map had indicated this region of space free of any set traps.
By the time they dropped to sublight speed, Dwes and the captain had arrived on the bridge. The operation was routine, so none of the other bridge crew had been awakened.
"Time, Rojur?" the captain asked.
The esper glanced down at the chronometer on his board and replied,
"Thirty seconds, sir."
Dwes began scans on the area just as the smudged star field returned to normal, and the throbbing of the ship's engines reduced to its normal slow pulse. Rojur decreased their momentum and brought the Zephyr to a gentle halt. Nothing could be seen through the forward windows but the distant stars.
"Activate main viewer," Kehtan said.
"Aye," Maku replied. The scene remained unchanged as the screen came to life. A gasp from Dwes, however, drew all attention up to his station.
"What is it?" Sahni asked.
"Change angle of the viewer ninety degrees starboard!" Dwes replied.
Maku did as requested and this time they all gasped in surprise. In the blackness of the dead area they rested, the Zephyr floated approximately fifty kilometers from two of the largest space stations any of them had ever seen.
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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.