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TREASURE HUNT

— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter

Chapter 14
 

"Bridge to crew! Bridge to crew!" Sahni announced over the ship-wide intercom.  "Battle Stations! All personnel to Battle Stations!"

"Rojur," the captain ordered quickly, "full reverse - give us some distance!"

"Aye, sir!"

 Dwes began a sensor sweep of the alien stations as they moved away, though he already knew the outcome.  The structures towering above the surface were crystalline and were of the same translucent blue hue of the Shraeloni crystals.  He doubted the construction was actually made of gems, but the resemblance was remarkable.  His first scan was completed and he turned quickly to the captain's chair.

"I'm reading an increase in power distribution within both structures, captain," he said.  "Frequencies match that of the Shraeloni Shroomers."

"How soon before they attack?" Kehtan asked.  The doors to the lower command deck opened suddenly when Dayl, Ree and Zahn ran to their posts. 

"Whoa!" Zahn exclaimed as the images appeared on the view screen, both brilliantly illuminated by thousands of lighted ports and bays.  Captain Kehtan reacted quickly and activated the klaxon from the panel in front of his chair.  The alarms whooped and echoed through the corridors of the ship as Maku energized the defense screens.

Dayl stood behind Rojur as she patiently waited for him to complete his maneuvers.  Ree brushed a hand across his face, trying to rid his groggy eyes of sleep.  His hair was in complete disarray, but he paid it no mind as he slipped a headset over his ears and his glasses over his eyes.

"I'm reading portal openings now, captain," Dwes answered.

"Bridge to Fighters! Launch immediately! Shraeloni Shroomers are coming!" Sahni exclaimed over the intercom.

"Up, Rojur!" Dayl said to the esper.  "Let me at my post!" Without a comment, Rojur jumped up from the helm and moved quickly to the weapons station since Trin had not yet arrived.  Dayl took her seat and prepared several systems for a fast possible getaway as her partner calculated the course.

Two minutes later, Ree gave a report without looking away from his panel. 

"The first sets of Shard fighters have launched, captain...  Six more are moving into position to take off and the defense pulse cannons are now fully manned, awaiting their targets."

"Captain," Dwes exclaimed, "the computer counts an advance squadron of Shroomers bearing down on our position.  They will be here within seconds!"

 Dayl had maneuvered the Zephyr so that it nosed directly toward the approaching ships.  Both stations were visible though the clear windows.  The main view screen showed a close-up angle of the nearest space station with tactical overlays supplied by the Weapons Terminal.  Rojur rapidly spoke into his own headset microphone, conveying instructions to the pulse cannon operators.  Several of the newly appropriated armaments were operational under his command.

A bright flash drew Kehtan's attention to the windows.  The fighters had already engaged the enemy in a violent firefight and the sky in front of them began to light up from the energies released.  Dull thumps could be felt in the Zephyr as the pulse cannons came to life.

Rojur's fingers played over the weapons console as he activated their new shock thread emitters.  Bright green beams darted away from the Zephyr in a horizontal wave pattern that increased in width as it progressed.  The path of the energy surge stabilized at a girth of forty meters and hit three Shroomers at a tremendous velocity.  The targets seemed to ripple and vibrate and then simply shook themselves apart without a display of exploding gases.  Visually, the effect was unimpressive, but the enemy ships were destroyed just the same.  Rojur concentrated on his screens and went into action to zero in on another with the new systems.

Kehtan glanced down from the forward windows a moment to watch his command crew.  Though no specific order had been given to do so, Dayl and Zahn were maneuvering the Zephyr away from the main force, though keeping the nose always pointed toward the stations.  Ree was busy dispatching tactical information to the fighters and pulse cannon gunners.  He moved his head quickly from monitor to monitor and his hands were constantly in motion as he acted as a relay to keep everyone tied together.  Every few seconds, he had to push his glasses back up his nose. 

Dwes manned the sensors and transmitted information to all the other stations on the bridge as he kept track of the increasing fleet of Shroomers; more of the vessels had launched and were on their way to join the attack.  Maku left the bridge to help the deck master coordinate the fighters in fuel and weapons. 

Rojur worked smoothly at Trin's station as if he had been there for years.  Briefly, the captain wondered about the esper's past and the hints of trouble that he might have been involved.  Blackthorne had asked Kehtan if he was aware of any reason why Rojur would be in hiding, so it was apparent that someone else had noticed Delon's secretive manner.

An explosion rocked the Zephyr and shook the captain back to the present.  Rojur was countering the attack with one of the shock-waves and Kehtan suddenly realized someone was missing.

"Where is Trin?" he asked Sahni, who was silently tapping out commands on her instrument panel.

The first officer looked up from her task.  "The deck officer said he had reported for..."

"What the...?" Rojur's voice exclaimed suddenly.  Kehtan and Sahni looked up and saw the forward windows blocked briefly, as a ship passed them from behind on their starboard side.  As it departed and headed for the deepest thicket of fighting, the captain recognized the shape.  It was the Hidalgo.

Rojur stood up from his station and shouted at the screen, "Who the blazes is flying my ship?" He turned to the communications officer and ordered, "Find out who's piloting that thing, Ree!"

"Aye, sir!"

As they watched, Dwes changed the main view screen angle to home in on the delta-shaped vessel.  Fiery tongues of bright red light leapt from the craft's batteries as it engaged the enemy Shroomers.  It took numerous hits, but most seemed little more than superficial; the devastation it caused itself was great, however.  Several of the modified Regnas joined in on that center of attack to help out the effort.

Suddenly, an alarm flashed on the science officer's panel.  "We've just had a defense screen burnout – strength over the starboard bridge area is down to five percent, captain!" Kehtan glanced sharply toward him, but Dwes' fingers flew over his controls as he added, "I'm working to compensate for the loss!"

A voice then came over the intercom as Ree piped it onto the bridge audio speakers.  "Zephyr, this is Trin, commanding the vessel our resident Es-Par likes to call the Hidalgo."

Rojur bristled at the voice.  Trin had used a derogatory term from their homeworld of Roswei that denoted a wicked prejudice.  Espers were despised and rejected by Roswein society as being freaks of nature that did not deserve to exist, and those few who discovered themselves as having the abilities usually tried to keep their powers a secret.  This was one reason Rojur had been reluctant to reveal himself earlier.  Apparently, Trin had been holding back his biased comments for fear Rojur would retaliate, but it seemed that since he was now in the middle of combat, it didn't matter to him anymore.

Before he could say anything further, the captain cut in.  "Trin, who's with you,?" he asked.  "One person can't fly that ship."

"Aye, Captain, you're right," was the reply.  Several more bursts lashed out from its guns and several more Shroomers ceased to exist.  "I have Pip and Daniel manning the guns, and Lann as my copilot.  Nice job we're doing, eh?"

Rojur motioned for Ree to key in his com panel to speak to Trin. 

"Take care of my ship, Trin Rosch, or I'll hang you up by your wretched—"

His words were never completed as a violent energy blast hit the Zephyr just below the bridge.  Resulting power surges caused two of the bridge stations to explode with a fierce whoomp that temporarily knocked out the main power of the command center.  Captain Kehtan was thrown from his seat as his panel exploded from the energies pouring from within.  He hit the wall behind him hard and slumped unseen to the floor.  The navigator’s station also erupted as a violent ball of flame leapt from the console.  Shrapnel born of the instrument panel was driven swiftly through Zahn's body and several chunks hit Dayl in the left arm, leg, shoulder and chest.  The room was darkened briefly before the red emergency power lights illuminated the area.

Rojur recovered from the blast momentarily and dropped the psionic shield that he had unconsciously generated around him.  He glanced quickly at the forward windows.  The fighting went on all around them, and from time to time, the sound of a dull explosion could be heard on the ship's hull.  An end to the Shroomers did not seem to be in sight.

"Captain," he exclaimed, "I recommend we charge up the Parasite!"

Sahni turned toward the captain and discovered him crumpled in a heap on the floor.  A cry of dismay escaped her and she ran to his side.  There were severe burns on Kehtan's arms and lightly on his face.  His uniform was stained slick red at the lower right side of his chest and his breathing was ragged.  Dwes knelt down beside him, grabbed the top of the captain's uniform and pulled it apart to the waist.  A small bit of metal was embedded between two ribs.  Sahni hissed through her teeth at the sight. 

She stood up and turned toward the lower deck.  "Ree," she said, "get someone from Medical up here ASAP! The captain's been severely hurt – they'll need a gurney!"

"Tell them to bring two," Rojur suggested.  "Plus a body bag."

Sahni turned toward the esper and brought her hands to her mouth; she choked back and swallowed hard.  Ree glanced toward the front of the bridge and nearly collapsed to his knees.  He caught himself in time, however and sat back hard in his seat.

Rojur knelt over Dayl, who had suffered a great many wounds from the blast, but looking at her unconscious form, he knew that she would be okay with the proper care.  Not so for her partner.  Zahn still sat at his post, his face, chest and right arm severely burned and shredded by shrapnel from his control panel.  The smell of blood was strong.

Somehow, Ree managed to tear his eyes away from the sight and made the call to Medical as ordered.  The esper looked up at Sahni and saw the tears streaming freely down her cheeks.  She turned and knelt again beside the fallen captain.  Rojur set his teeth in a hard grimace and looked back out the forward windows where the fighting continued.  Miraculously, the Hidalgo was still carrying its weight in combat, but its condition was showing signs of the cost for its victories.  Power to the command center came back on abruptly, restoring the bridge illumination to normal and reactivating the main view screen.

Without a second more of hesitation, Rojur teleported to the upper deck and looked over the captain's instrument panel.  It was blasted beyond help, but the command seat suffered very little damage, likely shielded from harm by Kehtan's body, Rojur thought ruefully.  While Sahni and Dwes administered what first aid they could to the captain, the esper flipped up the cover on the chair's right arm. 

Knowing exactly what to do, Rojur activated several switches and then said to Ree, "Give me ship-wide intercom."

"You got it, sir!"

Rojur leaned toward the mike and spoke.  "Now hear this —now hear this — secure what stations you can and prepare for a power drain.  Engineering, divert all available energy to Forward Circuit Alpha-Zero-Zero-Seven."

He made a motion to Ree to disconnect the link and then told him to contact the fighters engaging the Shroomers to have them move away from the forward path of the Zephyr.

Slowly, but deliberately the fighters drew away from the area they knew would soon become lethal and Rojur fidgeted nervously waiting for them to move out of the way.  As a result, the Shroomers veered away from the individual crafts and concentrated their attacks upon the Zephyr itself.  The ship rocked and shuddered with the explosions as the defense screens began to weaken more and more. 

* * * 

On board the Hidalgo, Trin fought the controls of the unfamiliar alien Shraeloni craft as he brought the nose around to face off with another wave of Shroomers.  He cursed himself silently and gritted his teeth as the ship swung around.  The inertia dampeners were a little sluggish and the sharp turns he effected caused unsecured items in the control cabin to slide about in distraction.

Although he knew this was the real thing, Pip acted as if his weaponry controls operated a popular video game and he was excited and vocal about the kills he managed.  "Yeah!" he shouted.  "C'mon...  c'mon...  come on!" His targeting circles centered over another Shroomer and a feral grin spread across his features as he squeezed the firing studs.

Daniel was just as occupied in destroying the enemy, though much quieter.  He was the older of the two and was well aware that this was no game.  His life was on the line with every move he made, and that kept his attention sharp and alert.  Out of necessity, he was fast becoming the warrior he had not wanted to be.

Trin grimaced as an energy bolt struck a rear panel of the Hidalgo and the ship slipped sideways out of his control.  Lann lost his balance and toppled over onto Daniel, who shoved him away with muttered curses. 

Lann returned to his post in the copilot's seat and looked wearily out into the swarm of Shroomers.  "I don't think we can fight all of these, Trin," he said tightly.  "They just keep coming!"

"Don't give up, Lann!" Trin barked.  "If they can get that Parasite weapon of the captain's charged up in time, we may survive yet.  We have to keep the enemy engaged to give the Zephyr time." 

* * * 

Alex and Blake arrived on the upper bridge with a floating gurney.  As they moved to the fallen captain, Dwes reluctantly left his commander's side and went to his post.  He grunted to himself as he checked over the findings his monitor displayed.

Rojur nodded toward Alex and sent a brief mental question to his friend, but received only the emotional feelings of depression and anger from him.  Unsettled, he turned back toward the bridge operations.

"Time, Dwes?" he asked.

Dwes grunted again and answered without looking up.  "Energy reservoir for the Parasite is at ninety-five percent and a full charge will be available in two minutes...  a minute-thirty before our fighters are well away from the firing zone.  Starting a countdown to three-point-five minutes...  mark."

"Sahni," Rojur called.  The first officer was following Alex and Blake out the door as they were quietly removing Kehtan to the Infirmary.  She stopped and looked at him solemnly.  "Sahni," the esper repeated, "with the captain down, you are now in command."

She hesitated in her reply.  She was sorely tempted to have someone else assume command while she looked after the well-being of Kehtan, but the look in his face reminded her that she take her responsibility in hand. 

"Right," she said.  Sahni knew Kehtan would be in good enough hands with the medics without her.  Rojur moved out of the captain's seat and then teleported down to Helm.  Two other crew members arrived to care for Dayl, but Zahn's body would have to wait.  Sahni took the command seat without a second thought and looked over to Dwes.

"Time?" she asked.

"One minute, twenty seconds.  We have full charge now; waiting on the fighters to clear the area."

Rojur adjusted the controls to make sure the aim of the ship's main weapon was true on target.

"Sixty seconds..." Dwes intoned.  Sahni opened the panel in the arm of the chair and positioned her thumb over the firing switch.  "Forty-five seconds."

A brilliant flash off the port signaled the destruction of a fighter still engaged in violent combat.  Although they were withdrawing, some of the Shroomers still pursued them with fatal intent.  Rojur was glad that the Hidalgo was well out of the way, but then a thought occurred to him.

"Ree!" he said, "Tell the crew of the Hidalgo to get into pressure suits immediately! With the Parasite's effect, they'll lose life support, too!"

"Aye, sir!"

"Fifteen seconds..."

Sahni tensed and set her jaw firmly.

"Ten seconds...  eight...  six...  four...  two..."

Without waiting for him to finish, Sahni pushed the firing button.  As before, the blackness of space before them bleached pale grey for a split-second, and then an orange burst of pure energy leapt out of the nose of the Zephyr.  The pulse shot toward the nearest of the Shraeloni stations and hit it to the right of center.  Explosions near the edge of the beam meant the destruction of Shroomers, but all eyes were on the main target.  They could see a mighty blast where the bolt hit the station and they waited expectantly with held breaths.  A minute passed...  then two, and then three.  Nothing.

"I don't believe it..." Ree said quietly. 

Sahni turned to the science officer.  "Dwes, is it possible that we might–"

The bridge suddenly lit up brilliantly with a blinding light and everyone became speechless for a moment.  When the glare finally died down, they saw a massive ring of burning gases emanating from the place the station had been a moment ago and the resulting shock wave rushed headlong toward the Zephyr at an astonishing speed.

"Brace for impact!" Sahni shouted.  Ree scrambled to relay the message over the ship-wide intercom channel, but there was no time.  The Zephyr rocked backward from the force and listed to the starboard as Rojur fought the controls.  The inertia dampeners flickered, and for a heartbeat, the potency of the shock wave was felt throughout the ship in every living person on board.

Later, Rojur would wonder how he had done it, but he managed to turn the nose into the blast and ride it out.  Moments passed before the ship stabilized and calmness returned.  Automatically, he looked around the bridge to check on the others, but his throat tightened when he noticed Zahn's body on the floor now at his feet.  He shut his eyes quickly and turned his head.

"Status report, Ree," Sahni said to the communications officer.

"Contacting departments now, sir."

"Sahni, look!" Dwes pointed toward the windows.  The station they had fired upon was gone and space was littered with massive chunks of debris.  The second Shraeloni fortress had also suffered from the blast and all its lights were dark.

"Captain," Maku's voice erupted from the intercom speaker, "I'm launching six ships to rescue our pilots."

"Proceed with your operations, Maku," Sahni replied.

"Aye, sir."

Ree turned around in his chair and looked up at the first officer.  "Defense screens are down to an average of thirty percent, though in some vital areas they are still holding at one hundred percent," he reported.  "Most departments near the hull have sustained damage, though an estimate won't be ready until time for assessment can be had – everyone's pretty shaken up, but most are in high spirits from the defeat of the Shroomers." He looked up over the rim of his glasses and added, "Infirmary reports thirty-one dead and an uncounted number of wounded they're still treating."

He coughed and then continued.  "The forward observation deck, pulse cannon batteries three and six, and Bio Lab Two have all been destroyed.  Chief engineer Toco reports that it will be necessary to repair the breaches in the hull before we can attempt another warp jump." Ree's hand went to his earphones as another report came in.  "The galley has implemented emergency rationing until they can do a full diagnostic on the food storage units, effective immediately." He glanced over at Rojur.  "Everyone on board Hidalgo got into their suits in time."

Sahni looked at Dwes.  "What about Shraeloni activity?"

The science officer glanced up to the forward windows at the surviving station and then back to his monitor.  "There are several small systems recovering from the power drain and coming back on-line, but major operations are still showing deactivated.  All Shroomers not destroyed are immobile." He stood up and stretched his back.  "I believe we're out of danger for the moment."

"Okay," Sahni replied, "Keep monitoring the enemy and let me know of any change in their status.  We can’t go anywhere right now, and I’d rather not be unprepared for more assaults."

"Aye, sir."

"Ree, have Maku assemble four survey teams.  They should be equipped to penetrate into the remaining Shraeloni station on an information-gathering mission," Sahni commanded.  "I want to know as much about that place as we can find out while the rest of us are making repairs to the Zephyr."

"Aye, sir."

Sahni looked down over the bridge crew and added, "We’ll need relief personnel to fill the vacant stations, too." 

* * * 

Chieko wandered blindly down the dark corridor, wishing she had a hand lamp to find her way to her cabin.  All the passage light panels were inoperable here, and it was likely the repair teams would not be in this area for a while.  As she approached the spot her quarters should be, she thought she heard the sobbing of a child.  To her knowledge, there was only one child on board the vessel.

She rounded a corner and saw the faint yellow glow of a hand lamp beam in desperate need of recharging.  It swung up the corridor at the sounds of her approach and immediately began bobbing as the child ran to her.

Brandon threw himself into her arms and she held him close.  Poor dear, Chieko thought to herself, he's probably never been around so much fighting before.  Brandon trembled as he cried.  After a moment, he pulled away from her and grabbed one of her hands.  She followed him down the passage until they stood in front of their cabins.  It was the doorway across the hall he faced, however.

Brandon pointed a trembling finger at the door and tried to talk though the gasps in his voice.  "She...she's in there!"

"Who?" Chieko asked.

"R-Red!"

Chieko looked at the door marker and saw it was the forward observation lounge.  A blinking light on a panel near the door drew her attention and she leaned closer to read it: 

Chamber Depressurized 

She swallowed involuntarily.  There would be no saving the captain's wolf.  She looked back at Brandon and slowly shook her head.  The youth knew her meaning and began to cry again.  Chieko held him close and did what she could to comfort the child.  In the darkness and the midst of the destruction, she began to regret starting this whole affair again; the number of deaths of the Silverton's crew, her husband and those who had died from this great ship were mounting.  She began to wonder about the Shraeloni legends and prayed silently that the treasure to be found at the end of their journey would be worth the blood spilled to get it.  The price was getting high.

Suddenly a bright beam of light cut into the darkness and illuminated them both.  Rojur stepped forward and knelt beside them.  Brandon looked up at him with tear-streaked cheeks and when he saw Alex behind him, the child jumped up and ran to his waiting arms.  As Blackthorne stroked the boy's hair and spoke soft, soothing words of comfort, Rojur turned to Chieko.

"We're gathering teams to go over and inspect the Shraeloni fortress," he said, "and since you have knowledge of their past culture, I wondered if you would be interested in being a part of my team."

Chieko looked at him suspiciously.  "Is this another one of your dirty assignments for me?"

Rojur shook his head solemnly.  "No more assignments, this is entirely up to you.  I won't hold it against you if you decline the mission.  I just thought I would give you the chance to go along."

She nodded her head after a moment's hesitation. "Thank you, I would like to go. What do I need to do?"

Rojur opened his mouth to speak, but closed it when a hand touched his arm. 

"Count me in," Blackthorne told him.

Rojur lifted an eyebrow.  "It'll be safer for you if you remained on board the Zephyr."

"You're our ticket home, Rojur," Alex replied.  "From now on, where you go, I go."

"Me, too!" added Brandon's quavering voice.

"Wrong," the esper countered.  "I'll feel better if I know you're safe here, rather than having to make sure you don't get lost or trip some booby trap in the fortress."

"Mistakes you could make yourself, leaving Brandon and myself stranded here!" Blackthorne shot back, poking the other man in the chest with a finger.  "You've already given us more than we bargained for with this trip, Rojur.  You owe us the opportunity to make our own decisions."

Rojur put a hand lightly on Chieko's shoulder.  "Not this time, Alex."

The esper vanished abruptly, taking the blue-haired woman with him.  Blackthorne stood mute for a moment in the blackness of the corridor; Rojur had also taken the lamp.  The temptation to drive his fist though the bulkhead was strong, but Brandon resumed mourning for the loss of his canine friend. 

* * * 

Rojur was waiting in the control room of the landing bay when the Hidalgo touched down.  As soon as the hangar doors were sealed and the craft's systems shut down, the esper teleported onto the ship's bridge.  The only person still in the compartment was Trin, who was bent over a display.  Rojur deliberately made a sound as he walked up behind him.

Trin turned at the noise and Rojur hit him in the jaw with a powerful punch of pent up anger.  The weapons officer spun around and fell over the command chair.  Before he had time to even wonder what had happened, the esper grabbed his uniform collar and dragged him to his feet.  Rojur released the garment and hit him again.  Trin fell hard to the deck and grunted as the air was knocked from him.

Trin looked up from his prone position and squinted through his left eye.  The other eye refused to open through the pain.  A trickle of blood escaped his nose and dribbled down onto his uniform.  "I should have been expecting you, Es-Par...." he managed to say around swelling lips.

"You dare to provoke me further?" Rojur exclaimed.  "Get up! Get up, you mutinous filthy beggar! I'm going to knock your teeth down your throat and then stuff you inside a warp generator!"

"Why should I fight you?" Trin replied with a hard glare.  "You would only use your...  demonic magic to defend yourself.  Save us both the trouble and go kiss a Shroomer, freak..."

"It's bad enough to have to live with the knowledge that my own race despises me," Rojur said through clenched teeth, "but I have to have one of you stinking bigots hounding me on a ship I can't get off of!"

"Tell me, Delon Santrojur," Trin said as he rose up on his elbows.  "Does your father know you're on this ship?" Rojur's eyes grew wide in shock.  "Oh, yes, I know who you are.  I wonder what kind of reaction Rayce Santrojur would have if he knew you were back."

Rojur leaned down, grabbed Trin's uniform again, and hauled him up to his feet.  Trin did not resist, nor did he attempt to fight back, despite his own anger.  "My only real relief from you would be to shove your body out an airlock!" Rojur growled.

Maku stepped into the room at that moment and heard the esper's last remark.  The large security officer dashed in and grabbed Rojur's arm and gave it a hard enough squeeze that he released his hold on Trin.  Maku pushed them apart and glared at them both.

"I don't know what your problem is, Rojur," he said, "but Trin is still a member of my crew until he stands trial and I won't have you threatening him with bodily harm! You heard the captain's order!"

"This has nothing to do with the mutiny," Rojur replied.  "It is a personal matter."

Maku motioned for Trin to leave.  "Get down to medical and then report to Sahni." Trin nodded and left silently.  The security officer turned back to face Rojur.  "Listen," he said sternly, "You are a guest on this ship – a civilian.  Captain Kehtan has given you a little too much freedom and authority in the affairs of this vessel, in my opinion.  I've worked with you and have come to enjoy your help, but beware...  I have no tolerance on my ship for the kind of action you proposed a moment ago.  Now, are you going to abide by our rules on board, or do I have to sedate you and place you in the brig for the remainder of our voyage?"

Rojur forced himself to calm down, and though when he spoke a minute later his voice was steady, his blood pounded loudly in his own ears.

"Understood." He offered no further explanation or excuse, but just merely waited until Maku was finished with him.

The security officer took a deep breath and nodded, fully aware the esper had not actually answered him.  "Go take a break, Rojur, and get ready for your assignment – should you decide to continue to grant us your help.  I have a crew already working to recharge and repair this ship for a quick turnaround.  Go clear your head and try to calm yourself so you'll be worth having around for the mission."

"Of course," Rojur said, "you're right.  I have a small request to make, however."

"What?"

"Keep Trin away from me."

"I believe that can be arranged."

"One more thing..." Rojur hesitated when Maku's eyes darkened, but then continued.  "Earlier, Trin called me an Es-Par.  I just want you to be aware that the term is the worst possible thing someone can call a Roswein.  I'm sure you probably don't realize just what it means to a person, but it has driven men to violence." 

* * * 

Sahni sat down gently on the edge of Kehtan's bed.  The captain was sleeping soundly and Blake had informed her that he would be back up in a day or two, as soon as the wounds had time to begin healing properly under his care.

She reached over and brushed a strand of hair from Kehtan's forehead as she studied his face.  There were many more lines there than had been when she had first served with him on the Two Star, and she thought he looked a decade older than his actual age.  She assumed it was the worry of command that had done this to her friend and once again began to wonder about the outcome of this particular adventure.  There were too many variables here to harbor even a guess at the results.

She looked across the room toward another bed.  Dayl was sitting up with her back to a pillow, reading an electronic magazine that someone had thought to bring along on the journey.  The helm officer glanced up when she felt the first officer's eyes on her.

"How is he?" Dayl asked.  Sahni got up and walked to the other bed.  She sat at the foot and smiled slightly.

"He'll be okay, with rest.  How are you doing?" she asked.

Dayl ran the fingers of her right hand through her short violet hair and crooked her smile sideways.  "Alex says I will probably be up and about in three days if I behave...two days longer than I would have thought." She leaned closer toward Sahni and added with a smirk, "Personally, I think he just enjoys giving me a sponge-bath too much to let me go so soon!"

Sahni laughed and smiled the first smile she had in several days.  "Possibly," she replied.

Dayl then sat back on her pillow and assumed an air of pouting.  "What I can't understand is why Zahn hasn't come to see me yet.  He's such a sentimental kid and I had expected him to fall over himself to see to my every want!" She chuckled as she visualized the scene.  "Have you got him so tied up in repairs that he can't visit me for even a few minutes?"

Sahni frowned and looked down at the floor.  "Dayl...  Zahn is..." She fell silent for a moment, not knowing how to break the news.  "Zahn is..."

"He's dead...  isn't he?" Dayl asked in a whisper.  Her eyes were moist, but she held back the tears that threatened to come.  "Somehow, I knew - even though everyone else refused to talk about him.  Zahn..." She bit her lower lip and looked up at the ceiling.  "He was...  uh...  a good man." She cleared her throat and looked at the first officer.  "...and a tender lover."

Sahni moved closer to her and then Dayl found she was not as strong as she believed.  She took the arms offered to her and wept. 

* * * 

Three hours later, the Hidalgo's bulk eased out of the landing bay of the Zephyr and moved toward the remaining Shraeloni fortress.  Three Regnas with a Shard escort each had gone on ahead with their teams, each group's destination a different specific part of the fortress.  The Hidalgo's mission was to seek out the main systems and master computer controlling the station.

Rojur was in charge of this particular team, which consisted of Maku, Chieko, Daniel and Pip.  The power systems on the Hidalgo were fully recharged, including its armament and, in spite of the beating it had taken under Trin's command during the previous battle, the ship had held up well.  It only took moments for them to reach the fortress.

"Scanners have pinpointed the main power source," Maku said.  "It's trying to recharge itself, but if I read these indicators correctly, the damage may be too bad for it to compensate; the waveform keeps fluctuating." He looked up from his monitor and gazed out the forward window as they approached what appeared to be an open launch bay.  "Unless some backup systems can kick in and reactivate everything," he added, "I would say that all operations will go dead within thirty hours."

"Then we won't have much time to explore the fortress thoroughly," Chieko commented.  The Hidalgo entered the open bay doors of the station and flew up a long and dark featureless tube.  Maku activated the forward beams to light the way.  They soon passed through another set of massive open airlock doors and then into the main landing bay.

Pip let out a whistle of astonishment as the others stared open-mouthed.  Maintenance stalls stretched for nearly as far as their forward lights could penetrate, nearly all still full of the relentless Shroomers.

"We never even saw the beginning number of these things!" Daniel exclaimed.  Chieko's heart leapt into her throat at the sight.  If it had not been for the captain's Parasite, the Zephyr could not have survived a full-scale attack by these stations.  How incredibly fortunate they had been so far.  What other hidden dangers awaited them still? What was it the captain had said? "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." How true, she thought to herself.  It was doubtful that anyone was truly prepared...  Maku's voice broke Chieko out of her musing.

"Uh-oh, folks - we've got a couple of live ones!" he exclaimed.

At the far end of the bay, two Shroomers hovered directly in their path.  Upon closer inspection as Pip and Daniel jumped to the armament controls, the drones' behavior was erratic. 

"Looks like they're not fully recovered, however," Pip remarked.  "Permission to take 'me out?" he asked Rojur.

"You may sauté the mushrooms," was the man’s deadpan reply.

Two well-placed shots blew the Shroomers out of the wayso the Hidalgocould exit the landing bay and head into a smaller corridor.  Though no one noticed the slight fluctuation of an indicator, their ship passed through a thin energy field.  Maku scanned for further pursuers, but there were none.

"Look up at the ceiling, Rojur," Maku said.  "Main power conduits are running the length of this access way.  If we follow them, they should lead us toward the main systems of the fortress."

Five minutes later the passage came to an abrupt end and the Hidalgo was forced to set down in order for them to continue on.  Rojur locked the systems down as Maku tested an air sample with an external collector.

"I don't believe it..." the large man said.  "We have acceptable air pressure and a breathable atmosphere!"

Rojur stepped beside him to study the monitor.  "Why would an automated station need an atmosphere?" he asked.  "According to legend, the Shraeloni all died out a thousand years ago."

"No," Chieko corrected, "The legends only said they mysteriously disappeared.  Could some of them still be alive...  even after all this time?"

"If the air pressure and atmosphere are correct for us to operate without suits," Rojur said as he handed an equipment case to Daniel, "we'll be able to move quicker in our limited amount of time."

"That's good news, since I don't have a pressure suit with me," Alex replied.

Rojur spun around and saw his companion step into the bridge compartment.  Blackthorne wore an expression of defiance.  Chieko smiled and moved to his side.

"What is he doing here?" Maku growled.

"He's going to guard the Hidalgo for us," Rojur replied tight-lipped.  "Aren't you, Alex?"

"Nothing doing, Rojur. From now on, where you go, I go."

Maku turned to the esper.  "You're both civilians, and shouldn't even be here," he said, "but I have my orders to follow your command on this mission, so it's up to you."

"If you had your wish, we'd both be locked into the aft compartments?"

"That's right."

"Not this time," Rojur said with a sigh.  "He's coming with us.  He may yet be useful."

Without another word, the rest of the team gathered up the items they would need and followed Maku to the airlock.  He had tested the air twice more before becoming satisfied that they would be safe, but he still opened the door with reservation.

The security officer was the first out the door, his blaster held ready.  At the foot of the exit ramp, he stopped and sniffed the air.  It was stale and had a strange odor, but it was breathable.  The temperature was chilly and he tapped out a pattern on the buttons of his uniform.  The material warmed a bit and he nodded to the others in satisfaction.  Without another word, he motioned them forward after they had all adjusted their uniforms likewise.

"There’s gravity here," Pip whispered in surprise.

Rojur hung to the back of the group and sent to Alex, |I should teleport you back to the Zephyr, but beyond my better judgment, I'm letting you go with us.  Try to stay out of trouble and don't touch anything!|

The corridor beyond was dim.  There were glowing light panels in odd places along the walls, though only a third of them seemed to be operational.  Rojur shut the airlock to the Hidalgo.  The team headed down the passage, following the power lines as quickly as they could. 

* * * 

The team stopped at a massive grey door in the corridor.  The power conduits passed though the wall beside it and they surmised the power plant was beyond that portal.  Pip found a control panel and activated it.  The barrier slid down into the floor silently.  Chieko gripped the blaster she had been issued, and then she took the first step into the next room.

They saw a compartment filled with row upon row of instrument panels and massive power generators in the expanse of the room beyond.  As they advanced closer, they could see crescent-shaped indicators operating they interpreted as an attempt to recharge the station's main batteries.  A dull throbbing could be felt in the deck plates as they stood and watched.

Maku pointed to a lighted glass partition on an upper level above them.  "I'd gamble that's the main control room for this facility." As it was the only room set apart from the rest of the generator complex, there were no takers on his wager.

Alex located a small transport on tracks that led up toward the control room, but they were unable to get it to function.  Obviously, all nonessential systems on the station were shut down until further power was available. 

"How do we get up there?" Daniel said.  "I see no other ladders or elevators."

Rojur drew Pip and Daniel away from the others and said, "Each of you put a hand on my shoulders." They did as instructed, guessing what he had in mind.  They disappeared from sight and Maku saw them rematerialize on the platform above them.  A moment later, the esper returned for the others.

"Okay, team, do just what I told them," Rojur ordered.  Maku, Chieko and Alex each made contact with him and they were rejoined with Pip and Daniel an instant later.

"That… was surreal," Maku remarked, rubbing his eyes.

"There are what appear to be several sentries near the control entrance," Pip reported.

"Are they humanoid?" Chieko asked.

"Only in general shape," the tech answered as the team crouched behind a bank of machinery.  "The head of that thing resembles the head of an ant and has what I would guess to be a solitary camera eye mounted in the middle.  There's no human head in there; it's a robot, all right." He knew the woman was hoping for actual Shraeloni on board since they'd discovered the breathable atmosphere, but it was in his own opinion that after the fortress had been abandoned to automation, the life support systems were merely forgotten and left operational and recycling, even though no air breathers lived there any longer.

Rojur dashed away from the group to another instrument panel nearer the control room.  Two of the sentries in dark red armor reacted instantly and fired volleys of blue-white energy beams at him.  The console he hid behind sparked and issues a little smoke, but otherwise afforded him protection; the beams weren't very powerful, but he was sure they would be unhealthy to a living body.  He waved back at the others that could see him in his crouched position at the same time he sent a message to Blackthorne.

|Alex, Pip is toting a device similar to a grenade launcher.  Make a suggestion that he use it on the guards.|

He saw Alex lean toward the tech and Pip's resulting nod.  Pip slipped the long-barreled tube from his shoulder pack and keyed in a code on the small panel on its side.  He hefted it up on his shoulder and took aim.  Alex grabbed Chieko's arm and pulled her to the side, out of the line of fire.

When Pip fired his weapon, a metallic sphere leapt from the tube with a sound not unlike a violent cough.  The projectile soared over Rojur's position and lobbed directly into the nearest of the guard robots.

Whoom! Two of the sentries flew into pieces, scattering their parts around the area, confirming Pip's assumption that they were constructs.  The remaining five guards opened fire on the team's position, driving everyone further under cover.  Pip took a quick risk and popped up long enough to squeeze off another shot.  Only one robot went down this time, as the sentries had spread out away from one another.

Alex had been studying the sentries and noted just how smoothly they moved; they didn't have the slow, though exacting reflexes of the early mechanical robots of his time, but moved as naturally as any living being. Had he not heard his companions refer to them as robots or constructs, he might have thought there were live people inside those metallic suits.

A sudden idea came to Rojur as he shielded himself from flying debris of blasted consoles.  He reached into his pack and pulled out a handful of small metal globes, each the size of a golf ball.  He held four of them in one hand and returned the others to his pack.  On those he held, he flipped a tiny switch on each and then prepared himself.  He fixed the image of the robots in his mind and then teleported to a position behind them.  With adrenaline-powered reflexes, the esper affixed globes to the backs of two robots before they detected his presence and spun around to take care of him. 

Rojur was ready, however, and teleported back to his previous position.  When the guards returned their attention to the intruders, he repeated his maneuver and attached the remaining globes to the others.  One of them turned swiftly and fired at him pointblank, but Rojur's shield saved him from harm.  The blast drove him back against the wall of the control room and he felt the psionic barrier weaken.  Before it had a chance to fire another shot at him, Rojur pulled his sleeve up and thumbed a button mounted into the side of his chronograph.

Each of the globes split into halves and released a strong mixture onto the surface of the robots' outer layer of metallic skin.  The chemical produced a terrific heat and melted through their armor quickly with a bright white light; the guards were immobilized without the chance for them to fire another shot.

Rojur let out a sigh of relief and wiped a hand across his forehead.  It was getting difficult to maintain constant shielding, so he dropped it altogether to conserve his strength.  He had not been eating regularly and the events in recent days had not left him very well rested, all of which affected his control on his psionic abilities.

As the others rushed up to him, they all heard a crackling of energy.  Alex pointed to the door of the control room at an electrical barrier that suddenly appeared to block their entrance.

Daniel rummaged through his pack briefly and removed a spherical object the size of a baseball.  "Let me have your launcher," he said to Pip.  He took the gun and loaded the new ammunition into it.

He crouched down in a stable position and aimed the launcher toward the nearest of the generators.  "Permission to fire, sir?"

Rojur smiled and nodded.

The gun coughed again, but this time a bright blue ball of light shot out from the end.  The glowing orb hit the target and released a powerful sheet of energy.  The result was the immediate shutdown of the generator.  No explosion, no meltdown, just an interruption of power.  Lights in their section of the fortress went out and all systems began to quiet, including the control room barrier.

"That should disrupt things for about five minutes," the tech remarked.

Rojur nodded to Maku.  The security officer picked up a fragment of metal from the still robots and tossed it at the control room door.  It bounced harmlessly to the floor.  The energy barrier was down.  Satisfied, Maku opened the door and jumped inside, his blaster at the ready.

Rojur followed him in with the others trailing behind.  The control room was large, but not expansive, and only a few emergency light panels glowed to illuminate it.  There were monitors and instrument panels arranged in a circle around a metal column in the center of the chamber.  In front of the twenty stations were chairs, and in each chair was a robot.  These robots were different from the others they had had seen so far.  Their armor was dark blue, but one in particular was green, apparently designated for a different function.

Although the rest of the area was temporarily immobilized, the robots of this room jumped up from their seats as the invaders entered their domain.  The Zephyr team immediately found themselves fired upon.

Pip clenched his teeth tightly as he dove for cover behind a console and quickly reloaded his launcher.  Rojur and Maku fired their blasters as Alex and Chieko retreated back out the doorway.  Daniel dropped to the ground, his right leg hit by one of the robots' beams.

Daniel yelled as he dropped.  The beam had clipped him just below the knee through the fleshy part of his leg, but immense pain attacked his nervous system and he began to spasm uncontrollably.  Chieko gulped back a scream and tried to reach the injured tech, but the firefight was too intense for her to get to him.

Pip launched a small explosive grenade into the thickest part of the robots and the resulting detonation destroyed six of them; Rojur took out two more and Maku got three.  The robots continued the defense of their control room with determined violence.

A near-blast on the console in front of Maku pelted his face with debris.  He dropped back and swiftly picked a few hot metal fragments out of his check that had stuck to the soft skin.  His face stung, but otherwise he was unharmed.  He afforded a quick glance at Daniel, who had stopped moving.  He shook his head and was filled with new determination.  Pip lobbed off another grenade as the security officer returned to the fray.

The launched grenade went up to the ceiling that time and blew a number of instrument monitors from their mounts.  The debris rained down upon the robots and drove them to the floor.  The firefight came to an abrupt end.

The Zephyr team stayed on the alert, but once the dust had settled there was no movement from their attackers.  Generating his shield around him, Rojur stood up and advanced toward the main console.  His steps took him past the fallen green robot, but he gave it only a cursory glance.

One by one, the members of the team emerged from their protection and moved into the room.  Alex went to Daniel and examined him.  The man’s face was frozen in terror and the muscles of his body were seized up in the contractions of his death throes.  His eyes were bulging from his sockets and Alex picked up a small piece of metal that lay aside and placed it over Daniel’s face gently.  He shook his head solemnly when Maku quietly placed a hand on his shoulder.  With nothing that he could do, Blackthorne stood up and joined the others.

Chieko stopped near the green robot, and knelt to examine it.  The body was humanoid in appearance, but the insect-like head had a reflective panel across the front, rather than the solitary camera they had seen on the others.  Curious, she holstered her blaster and grabbed the head.  She turned it slowly and noted that the mirrored glass was broken.

Pip joined her side and held out a small hand lamp.  He shined it into the interior of the helmet and gasped suddenly.  Chieko tried to get back up quickly, but she bumped into Pip's arm and knocked the lamp from his hand.

"What is it?" Rojur asked.

"It - it's human..."

"What?" Maku exclaimed.  He moved to the green figure's side and looked into the faceplate.  Inside was a pale human head with two eyes, a hooked nose over a small mouth and real flesh, although grey in color.  He examined the helmet and found two quick-release connectors.  He removed the covering and exposed a completely hairless head with softly pointed ears.

Alex jumped suddenly when the power came back on in the control room, though the resumed energy seemed weaker than it had moments ago. All the consoles that hadn't been damaged in the firefight lit up in a rainbow of color, though there were no overhead lights.

The humanoid's eyes snapped opened and Chieko started with a small gasp.  Rojur quickly looked around the room, but none of the other robots stirred.  No, he corrected himself, they apparently aren't robots...  He looked back to the green-armored one and noted that a small damaged panel was partially open in the middle of its chest.  A compartment inside revealed circuits, wiring and other mechanical devices, including several blue crystals.  No flesh and blood body parts in there.  A cyborg, then, Rojur thought.

The cyborg looked at each of those in the group and then finally settled its dark grey eyes upon Chieko.  It (he?) began to speak the language of Shraelon, but the voice was raspy and difficult for her to understand.

The cyborg stopped, obviously realizing that it was unable to get its message across to them.  Its eyes rolled upward as if thinking and then in a barely-audible raspy voice, it said two words in their own language.  "Crystal look." It moved its right arm and immediately everyone on the Zephyr team went on the defensive. Its hand moved the damaged panel in its chest aside and then reached into the open compartment.  They heard a small click and its six-fingered hand emerged with one of the Shraeloni crystals.  Slowly as so not to startle anyone, the cyborg extended his hand toward Chieko and offered the gem to her.

Chieko nodded and took the crystal.  She told Maku what the cyborg had said and held up the gem.  Maku opened the case he had brought along, and inside was a receptacle specifically designed to house the crystals they had accumulated during their journey.  Chieko handed the newest one to him and he set it in the cradle.  He worked the controls for a moment and then activated a switch.

The computer in the case scanned the information encoded on the crystal and began processing a translation.  A moment later, it issued a holographic projection above them.

A planet with three small moons appeared and the image closed in on the green and blue planet.  It showed forests, seas, plains, mountains and valleys and reminded both Rojur and Alex of the Earth, though the land masses in the oceans were different.

The cyborg then began to speak, but this time it was completely in the language of its conquerors.  Maku glanced sharply at the cyborg, but it continued its narration.

"This is Shraelon, as it was untold eons ago..." the cyborg announced in an accented voice with a strange mechanical quality to it, "It was a perfect world.  One race developed on the mother planet and wars were unheard of throughout its long history.  The sky was clean, as was the land and seas beneath it.  The inhabitants were long-lived and therefore reproduced rarely, and so their time was spent in learning and discovering the ties of harmony between nature and science. 

"The Shraeloni were brilliant and the rise of their technologies advanced over time much more quickly than any other race had ever achieved - so much that they began to trade their knowledge for other worlds' rare, natural resources.  In just a few short centuries, the accumulated wealth of Shraelon far surpassed everything any other world had ever known." The cyborg continued on for several minutes, his words matched up with the images that continued to display above them, as it told them of other encountered civilizations, some familiar and others so alien to be almost incomprehensible.  When the images and narration reached an end, the grey man glanced around at the invaders and then said,

"Since you have survived all our attempts to stop you, and that you have defeated the mighty forces of Shraelon, the knowledge and wealth of Shraelon shall be yours." Stunned silence surrounded the team.  "However," he continued, "you will receive no further instruction on finding its location from stolen data.  You will have to locate it with no more clues.  I can no longer allow..."

The cyborg's head dropped onto his chest and Chieko knelt next to him.  All his movements ceased as she touched his cheek.  "I think he's dead," she whispered.

She stood back up and looked around the room.  Maku replayed the silent images of the crystal and all of them watched it as though in a trance.

Chieko moved to Alex's side and embraced him gently.  "We never found out about the original inhabitants," she said.  "I wonder what happened to them."

"Jealous of our success, another race of aliens attacked us," a voice answered.  The group saw a cyborg in dark purple armor approaching them from an alcove on the far side of the room.  His helmet was off and a stain of dark crimson blood was smeared across his pale grey head.  He carried no weapons that they could see.

"They did not attack the planet," he continued, "but Shraelon's star.  They were jealous of our successes and wealth, but instead of an involved invasion to take what they wanted, they merely destroyed our life-giving star.  We retaliated, of course, and utterly annihilated them and their homeworld, but with all the technologies of our race, the Shraeloni still could not live without their sun.

"By this time, we had already begun to lay out our traps, snares and false leads, and had distributed our drones throughout the galaxy, so we set them to a task before all was lost.  It was vowed that none would possess the secrets of Shraelon unless the traps could be passed."

"What happened to the inhabitants?" Alex asked.  "Are you Shraeloni, or one of their creations?"

The cyborg fixed his gaze upon Blackthorne as he stopped a few feet from him.  "Most died, but those who did manage to survive were changed by the sun's death.  It was necessary to bond with machines to stay alive.  The others you see in this room, plus those who were in our other stronghold, were those who had lived on in this manner. We are all that were left."  The cyborg looked saddened as he shifted his gaze to Chieko.  "With the destruction of these two strongholds, our life-link is gone.  There are no more of us and we are dying."

Two more of the cyborgs rose shakily from the rubble and managed to get to their feet with trouble; various limbs were either damaged or missing. They moved slowly toward the gathered group and Rojur and Maku were instantly on the alert for a sudden attack, their weapons up and ready. The cyborgs drew no weapons of their own, however, and maintained a safe distance from the intruders.

"One final warning is for you, however," the purple cyborg added.  "Providing you can locate it, Shraelon is yours for the taking, but heed this advice and abandon your quest for our wealthy and technology.  It was the cause of the destruction of the Shraeloni, and no other world should have to follow that path.  So much power and knowledge will only disrupt your civilization and cause its own premature collapse."

Chieko moved forward and put a hand on the cyborg's arm.  "But, we must find Shraelon! The knowledge of your race is needed!"

The cyborg looked into her eyes with a penetrating, unblinking stare.  "Realize that you could be deciding the fate of your entire civilization if you continue your search.  You must be completely at peace with yourself to take on such a responsibility."

"I have already accepted that responsibility in my heart!" Chieko exclaimed.  "I am...  willing..." Her gaze seemed almost far away, though she stared directly at him.

The cyborg stared at her and heard one of his Shraeloni companions collapse to the floor beside him.  He did not look at his fallen kin.  He knew his own time was short – the life-link with the stronghold was gone.  He was saddened.  Firepower and vast resources could not stop these people, and neither could his words of wisdom and reason.  Knowing what he must now do, the purple cyborg reached into his chest compartment and withdrew one of the blue crystals.  He handed it to Chieko.

"A new decision.  This contains the final and direct map you will need to find Shraelon."

Before Chieko could speak, however, he reached inside and drew out another crystal, though this one was different.  It was deep emerald green and was long and slender.  He placed it in her other hand and then looked into her ice blue eyes. 

"When you get to Shraelon, you will find an island above the northern magnetic pole.  Inside a structure there, you will need to insert this crystal into a receptacle in the planet's primary control system.  This will instruct it to give what should be given to you..." As the last word left his lips, the lights on the panels in the control room flickered.  The cyborg's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed onto the floor at Chieko's feet.

The power of the station shut down completely then and the room was plunged into stygian darkness.  Alex activated his hand lamp again; the other team members did the same.

Rojur aimed his lamp at Chieko as she gazed at the two crystals in her hands.  A tear was streaming down her left cheek, but when she looked up at him, she smiled and radiated extreme joy.

"This...  is what we've been waiting for!" she exclaimed.

"Was it worth Daniel dying for?" Pip asked coldly.  Chieko's smile faded as her eyes went to the fallen tech.  She bowed her head, but made no response to the question.

"Let's get back to the Hidalgo," Rojur said.  Our job here is finished."

NEXT CHAPTER

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