— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
Captain Kehtan glanced around the bridge as the Zephyr prepared to leave the area. The past week had been spent on repairs to the ship and personnel. The captain was still a little sore beneath his ribs, but the wound itself had been healing well, though there were others on board who were not quite so lucky. Since the start of their journey, eons ago it seemed, his crew complement had been reduced by forty-six individuals, most of who had been on their first real venture into deep space.
The bridge appeared near spotless, a far cry from its condition a few weeks prior after the attack on the Shraeloni fortresses. The repairs had gone well, but slow; the loss of the main manufacturing shop had seriously hampered efforts to overhaul the damages, but materials salvaged from the remains of the silent fortresses were used to supplement their efforts. Voices in the command center were nonstop as each officer coordinated their systems with other departments.
Dayl was once again at the Helm, highly efficient in her duty but her usual cheerful demeanor was gone. Beside her at the newly rebuilt Navigation station was a red-haired girl named Ellis, recently promoted to fill Zahn's vacated position. The two worked together in the capacity as partners in their tasks, but the camaraderie previously present was absent.
At the weapons console, Trin was also grim as he clenched a wooden toothpick between his teeth. There were many of the unfortunate consequences of this journey that he was responsible for and it was guaranteed that he would pay for his crimes upon returning to the Frontier; since the crew was short handed, however, the captain had chosen to keep the man at his post where he was needed.
Personally, the captain would rather have had Rojur on the bridge than Trin, but from the report his security officer had given him concerning the esper's threat, he could not risk having the outsider involved in any further situations of authority. Although Rojur had been a member of his crew on a previous ship, those times were past. The esper was now a civilian.
Despite this, however, Kehtan had recognized the fact that Rojur seemed to know a lot about this particular vessel, although he had never been on the Zephyr previous to this maiden voyage. It was puzzling, because no matter what task he was set to, Rojur seemed to have the knowledge needed to handle the assignment correctly. The Zephyr was too new a design to have become familiar to anyone but those who had the training for it. There was obviously more to Rojur than he would admit to.
"Dwes," the captain said to the science officer, "how soon before operations are ready to proceed."
Without looking up from his monitor, Dwes activated two switches and replied, "Ten minutes. Toco already has the main engines charged for full available warp power. The countdown is going smoothly – everyone is making final checks before the actual launch."
Sahni wandered from station to station, looking over the shoulders of her people. She was tired of seeing the dead hulk of the Shraeloni fortress outside the forward windows and was glad when Dayl maneuvered the nose of the ship to a point coinciding with the trajectory the crystal map had provided.
"Ellis," the first officer said, "are you sure the coordinates are set?"
"Triple checked, sir," the Navigator replied with confidence. She unconsciously ran a finger through her feathered bangs as she kept her eyes on her monitor. She may have just been promoted to officer rank, but she was far from new to her job. "Stabilizers have been extended and all systems are ready for launch."
Sahni nodded and moved on. When she stood behind Trin's chair, her throat tightened. She felt nothing but loathing for this man – an individual from the same planet as the man whom she loved. Her emotions were in turmoil every time she neared Trin, but she reminded herself to stay professional in her thinking.
"It is possible that we may fly right into a trap," she said when he looked up at her. "I want all weapon systems on standby when we make our jump, in case we have to fight our way out of anything."
"Aye, sir," Trin agreed. "Everything's on automatic standby, including our new Shraeloni armaments."
"Good." Sahni looked at the chronograph on Trin’s display. It was only a matter of moments.
* * *
Alex paced the floor of his cabin, ill at ease with everything around him. The vacation had lasted a good deal longer than anything he would have planned, and there was nothing he could do to get started on the journey home. With the countdown currently under operation, the Zephyr was going to take them even further away. Blackthorne was in such dark spirits that Rojur kept away from him, and Brandon seemed almost afraid of him. Even Chieko, the woman he thought he had started a shipboard relationship with, had located other lodgings in the cabin vacated by Rojur. Not only that, but even though he had been a much-needed help in the beginning, Blake had grown tired of Alex's lack of modern medical knowledge and had relieved him from any responsibility in the Infirmary; there were others on board far more experienced that he could rely upon in the event there were further emergencies. Without anything to keep him occupied, Blackthorne was feeling bored and caged.
Brandon walked into the room and eyed him suspiciously. He moved to his own bed, and Alex noticed that the youth kept a respectable distance across the room from him. Blackthorne lowered his eyes and sat on the edge of his bunk.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," he said quietly to himself. "I am so tired..." He closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall beside him. A moment later, he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up and saw that Brandon stood next to him, a mixture of fear and concern in his cobalt blue eyes. Blackthorne managed a smile and heaved a heavy sigh. He knew what he needed to do.
"I need a hug," he told the boy. A small cry of relief escaped Brandon's lips and he quickly wrapped his arms around Alex's neck. When Blackthorne returned the fierce hug, he smiled to himself and kissed his son on the side of the head.
"I'm sorry, Brandon," he said. "I've been a bear lately and I know I haven't been easy to live with. Forgive me?"
Brandon grinned as he looked at him steadily. "I forgive you, Dad." He hugged Alex again in delight. It was the first time the boy had smiled in a week. Suddenly, the deck began to throb deeply. They knew without seeing that the ship had just begun a warp jump.
Alex stood up and put an arm across his son's shoulders. "Let's go see if the mess hall's back in operation and try to sneak a treat."
"Yeah!" Brandon said with a grin.
As the pair passed through the doorway, Brandon stopped and cast a mournful glance toward the observation lounge. The breach in the outer bulkhead had been repaired a few days previously, but nothing had been found of the captain's companion. Brandon had seen her go into the room from down the corridor only a moment before an enemy blast had torn open a hole in the wall of the compartment and he had been disconsolate over the loss ever since. Alex sensed the boy's mood and wished there were something he could do to lift his spirits. He was about to coax Brandon to continue on their way when he noticed a change of feeling from the youth.
"D'ya hear that?" Brandon whispered as he stood as still as stone.
Alex copied the motion and strained his ears. It was faint, but he heard a light scraping noise ahead. He glanced toward the observation lounge door and shook his head. He doubted his thoughts, but he acted on them anyway. He moved to the lounge door, but Brandon stopped him with a tug at his sleeve.
"Not there," he said. He looked toward the next door up the hallway. When they neared the other door, Brandon was positive the sound came from inside. Alex activated the mechanism and the panel slid sideways.
"Red! Red!" Brandon exclaimed. In the darkness of the empty room lay the captain's wolf friend. Both knelt beside the large animal as Brandon began crying in relief. Alex placed a gentle hand on the Ronan wolf's head and noted that she was in poor condition. She looked starved and dehydrated and could barely lift her head from the carpeted floor. Alex guessed she had ducked into this room prior to the blast and Brandon had merely assumed she had been in the observation lounge instead. Her frame was bony and her breathing was raspy, but her weary eyes beheld the love she had for the youth.
Blackthorne gently pushed Brandon aside and slid his arms under the wolf, hoping he could lift the animal. "Let's get her to Infirmary," he said.
* * *
Rojur stood in a dark corner of engineering, trying to keep out of the way. With repairs completed and orders to stay off the bridge, he had plenty of spare time on his hands, but refused to sit around doing nothing.
Actually, he did not blame Captain Kehtan for stripping him of his "civilian authority" (as he had called it). Trin's remarks had made him furious, particularly the comment about his father. Providing they all survived this treasure hunt and got back to the Frontier, he would have to return to twentieth-century Earth as quickly as possible with Alex and Brandon. It appeared that his father had people watching for him, so he could not risk being found again.
Rojur sighed and glanced down at the control panel beneath his arm. Idly, he reached down, adjusted a pressure gauge setting, and toggled two switches. "Sloppy..." he muttered to himself. "Why won't people learn to operate systems to specifications?" He looked up as footsteps approached. It was Toco.
"Rojur," the bald man said, "I would appreciate it if you would leave my engine room. You don't belong here and the captain has ordered it." Toco placed a hand on the esper's shoulder. "Sorry about that, but you know how it is."
"Yeah," Rojur replied. Since it was now well known on board that he was an esper, he didn't mind using his talents openly. Without another word to the Chief engineer, he brushed the man's hand from his shoulder and then simply teleported away.
When he rematerialized, Rojur was in Sahni's quarters. At least she had not thrown him out. He sat on their bed and looked around the room, but a moment later, he stood back up and moved to her computer terminal. He keyed in a code from memory and was granted immediate access to the system. He worked a few moments more and soon had several specific engineering documents on the screen. He moved straight to a special file that was rigged to allow no one into it without a password. Without hesitation, he keyed in the encryption and had available to him everything within the entire data bank of the Zephyr's computer.
With silent determination, he moved through the database and located the captain's personal journal. Kehtan's own private password was easily overridden and Rojur settled in to read the entries since the beginning of the voyage.
* * *
Chieko arrived on the bridge and walked to the captain's chair. Kehtan looked up at her when she stopped at his left side. "You wanted to see me, Captain?" she asked.
"Yes, Chieko. We will soon arrive at the place the crystal map says the legendary planet of Shraelon should be. Since you are the one who started this treasure hunt, I thought you would want to see it first from the bridge."
"Thank you, Captain," she said, "I would."
"Coming out of warp now, Captain," Ellis reported.
"Thank you," he said. All eyes went to the forward windows. The view screen showed the same images directly in front of the ship, but everyone wanted to see the legend with their own eyes through the clear glass. When the star smudging subsided, the Zephyr emerged into normal space and the sight they beheld was nothing like what they had expected.
Chieko walked to the railing at the front of the upper command deck and leaned against it. Down below, Maku slowly stood up and scratched his head. Kehtan looked over at Sahni and then to Dwes. Finally, his eyes rested back on the blue-haired woman.
"W-where...?" Chieko stammered, "Where is it?"
The Zephyr floated in space, alone. There were no stars within several light years of their position, and no planetary system in sight.
Kehtan rested his chin on his hand and sat in silence as he thought. The rest of the bridge crew became animated in conversation as they all wanted to know what had gone wrong.
"Chieko," the captain said, in a voice barely loud enough for her to hear over the commotion. She turned to him quietly as she heard the condemnation in his words. "It appears the Shraeloni have kept true to their vow and led us astray, possibly in the opposite direction from where the actual planet is located."
"No!" Chieko shrieked. "It's here! It has to be!"
"There's nothing here, Chieko," Sahni said in a soft voice when the entire bridge quieted at the woman's exclamation. "There's not a single star anywhere near these coordinates."
Chieko turned her tear-filled eyes toward the windows and clenched her fists. "Joska," she whispered to herself, "show it to me..."
"Ellis," the captain said, "begin plotting a course to take us back to the Frontier. It appears our adventure is over."
"No!" Chieko yelled again. "It’s here!"
Maku moved to the circular staircase at a nod from the captain. When he got to the upper deck, Kehtan said, "Get her off my bridge, Maku."
"Course plotted, captain," Ellis reported. "We can begin any time."
"Wait!" Chieko exclaimed as the security officer approached her. She held up a hand as if to ward him off. "Remember what the cyborg said? We don't see a star because the Shraeloni sun was destroyed... remember?"
"Jealous of our success, another race of aliens attacked us. They did not attack the planet, 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."
Maku turned to Kehtan. "Sir? What if she's right?"
After a hesitant pause the captain said, "Dwes, do a gravitational scan of the area for an unseen planetary body."
Chieko watched the science officer intently as he worked and held her breath when his eyes widened.
"Captain!" he exclaimed, "I'm reading a planetary mass – approximately twenty-five percent larger in size than Rona, at a distance of only fifteen million kilometers from our present position! It appears to be frozen."
"Frozen?" Sahni asked.
Dwes continued his scans. "With no sun to keep it thawed out, the whole planet is frozen," he said.
"Then even the atmosphere will be frozen solid," Ree commented glumly.
"No," Dwes corrected, "there are no readings of an atmosphere of any kind. It's possible it was burned or stripped away when the star was destroyed."
Chieko turned to the captain. "Sir, would it be permissible to send a ship down to check it out?"
"It would be pointless to come all this way and ignore it," the captain muttered before turning to Dwes."Provide the coordinates to navigation. Ellis, plot a course and drop us into a standard orbit."
"Aye, sir," both said in unison.
"Sahni," he said, "have the hangar prepare a Regna for recon to the surface."
The captain regarded Chieko with a steady gaze. "Maku, gather a team together and take her with you. Search for the island where the command center is supposed to be located and report in any findings."
* * *
As the Zephyr settled into an orbit around the planet, the bridge crew felt uneasy. In the blackness of space, the globe below them reflected no light and was near invisible against the backdrop of stellar bodies that were light-years distant. Only instruments and the occlusion of the stars gave any indication a world was actually there.
The sensors located what appeared to be cities scattered across the surface. They all seemed to be connected to one another by enclosed arrow-straight passages across the vast distances. Dwes immediately launched a series of satellites to geosynchronous orbits around the planet; there wouldn't be time for a thorough mapping, but if this was the lost world of Shraelon, they would need to gather as much information as they could before returning home. The Planetary Alliance council would expect a full report from their exploration ship.
* * *
Rojur had been to Infirmary earlier to be checked out for some near-fainting spells. It was determined he was having delayed allergic reactions to the Amohalkonicin drug he had been injected with during the mutiny. The reaction occurred whenever he drank any of the ship's green coffee, of which he was especially fond of drinking; something in the blend did not like the traces of the drug in his system.
With that done, he quietly watched the flurry of activity in the hangar from his position atop of the Hidalgo. Having nothing else to do with is time, he had decided to give his ship a thorough cleaning and was currently washing the hull. This vessel was not as large as the demolished hulk he and Maku had found before, but its delta shape was identical and it also had warp capabilities. Perhaps it had been a smaller ship originally carried on board one like the larger craft. Whatever its origin, the captain had accepted his claim to salvage rights as some compensation for his deeds that had benefited the Zephyr.
His thoughts focused on his personal issues, the esper rubbed a polish cloth in tight circles on the angled surface of his ship, but he broke from his musing when he heard a small party arrive in the hangar. Sahni headed the group with Chieko, Maku, Dwes, Trin and two others he did not know trailing behind her. The first officer said something to Maku, who took the others on to the Regna-class ship they would fly to the surface. Sahni broke away from them and walked toward Rojur.
"Hello, white-eyes," she purred when he rematerialized by her side. They embraced and Rojur gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Sahni smiled and held him close. "We're going down to Shraelon's command city. Wish me luck."
"Luck," he said as he nibbled her ear lightly. He pulled back slightly to look at her. "Be very careful while you're down there," he cautioned. "There may be more traps waiting for you — I would be more comfortable about it if I could go along."
Sahni smiled lopsidedly. "You know that isn't possible. Trin volunteered for the mission and you know Maku doesn't trust you around him."
Rojur looked past her toward the landing party. They were being issued pressure suits from the dock master. He spied the mutineer and sighed. "Having the talents I do have come in handy a great many times," he said, "but they are also a curse, especially when the entire race of your homeworld despises you for them." He closed his eyes briefly and sniffed Sahni's brown curls.
"Not everyone despises you for them," she replied. "After this is all over, I’ll have a month of personal leave to take. Perhaps you and I could go off together to a remote vacation spot so I can show you just how much I appreciate you."
Rojur looked at her with a smile and an upraised eyebrow. "That’s a tempting offer. It sounds wonderful." He slipped an arm around her and held her close.
"We’ll talk about it more when I get back," Sahni said with a quick kiss on his lips. "I have to go now."
"Be careful, love," he said. "Come back to me."
* * *
When Sahni walked into the small vessel, Dwes looked at the chronograph on his wrist impatiently and said, "We were waiting on you, Sahni." Although she was second in command on the Zephyr, they were of the same rank so he had no second thoughts of grumbling to her a little.
Sahni smiled and merely began to put on her pressure suit. Dwes frowned at her silence and then turned toward Maku at the controls to the small craft.
"Let's go," he said.
Sahni sat in a seat next to Chieko and remained quiet as the craft lifted from the hangar deck and moved quickly toward the stars outside the ship.
"We've cleared the landing bay," Maku reported.
At the back of the craft sat two of the crew that Chieko had only recently met. Kizu was a computer technician with very little hair and a scarred face, and it appeared his life prior to the Service had not been a peaceful one. He somehow seemed out of place in his vocation. The other was Shokko, a tiny woman with tightly curled lavender hair. She was a mechanic with skills that were surpassed by few on board the Zephyr and Toco had suggested she would be of great use when they reached the capitol city of Shraelon in helping to get systems operational.
Chieko glanced out the front view port but could see nothing. With no sun to illuminate the planet, they would have to go in purely on instrumentation. She was a little disappointed, because she had wanted to see the lovely world of legend that she had devoted so much to find. Despite this, however, she was slightly giddy. She had found Shraelon! Joska would have been proud of her accomplishment.
Thirty minutes later, the Regna dropped down over the island at the top of this world. The land mass was tiny, resembling a lily pad in the midst of a frozen sea in the computer replication. A quick scan showed it to be roughly two kilometers in diameter. A single structure was drawn on the monitors. From what they could detect, it appeared to be a large geodesic dome. The computer said a meter-thick crust of ice covered what scanned to be an outer crystalline material, of a type very similar to the small crystals the crew of the Zephyr had found along their journey.
Maku set the Regna next to the structure and shut down the onboard systems after reporting in to the Zephyr. Dwes continued his scans, but nothing more was to be learned until they got inside. He turned to the others and gestured toward the hatch. "We're here," he said unnecessarily. "Chieko, do you want the honors of placing the first step on Shraeloni soil, however frozen it may be?"
Chieko smiled widely. "Yes, I would. Thank you."
"Scanners show that we're resting on a three meter base of ice and snow, so watch for any soft spots where you walk," Dwes said.
"Soft spots?" Kizu grunted in a gravelly voice. "This snow hasn't had a warm thaw in centuries!"
"All the same, be careful."
For the first time since departing the Zephyr, Sahni spoke to the team. "We have run into Shraeloni traps all along our way and we should expect more inside this building. This is a standard reconnaissance mission for information before we bring any other ships down to the surface, so watch everything around you and be careful of what you touch or activate." She locked eyes with each party member briefly and nodded to each. "Make sure your suits are properly sealed and that you have a full charge of oxygen. We all have a two-hour reserve, so keep an eye on your indicators. We have a large supply of bottles on board if you need to return to get them."
She watched as everyone helped to check one another's suits and then nodded to Maku when all were ready. Chieko stepped toward the hatch as the security officer opened the portal.
In the bright light of the Regna's exterior lamps, her boot settled onto crusted ice and held as solidly as she'd hoped. She wondered briefly if she should say something profound for being the first from the Planetary Alliance to step onto the legendary planet. Instead, she shifted her equipment pack on her shoulder and proceeded toward the frozen dome, feeling a little lightheaded in her euphoria. Just as delighted, the rest of the group followed closely behind.
As Sahni stepped out from the confines of the Regna, she shined her light to the sides and studied the surrounding terrain in the beam. Briefly, she wondered how the barren landscape originally appeared before the destruction of Shraelon's sun. The hologram recording Chieko had made of the images the cyborg on the fortress had played for her had shown lush forests of massive trees with thick foliage and vast flowered plains of beauty. She did not think this polar island would have had much topography itself, but the rest of the planet had once been a wonder. She shook herself from her musing and followed the rest of the group toward the structure.
During the initial scans, Dwes had found several small entrances to the dome, but without power or a way to get to it through the ice crust, they would have to force their way into the one they had landed beside.
He and Kizu carried a large trunk between them and set it down next to the structure. As quickly as they knew their task, it only took a few moments to set up the portable pulse cannon. It's muzzle rested three meters from the curved wall and Dwes nodded to Sahni when they were ready.
"Go ahead," she replied. Everyone retreated behind the Regna as Kizu activated his remote. A low-intensity beam emitted from the cannon in a series of deep blue pulses of energy. Where it touched the ice, the thick crust instantly vaporized in a ten meter diameter area. When it did nothing to the crystalline material beneath, Kizu increased the pulse strength. The results were evident as the crystal became brittle and broke apart in small puffs of dust, but it took the beam several minutes to melt through the wall.
When it finally pierced the interior, a fierce gust of wind came spewing from the opening in a thick mist with strength enough to knock Shokko onto her rear. When it subsided nearly two minutes later, Sahni peered around the corner of their transport and gasped.
"There was a pressurized atmosphere in there!" she exclaimed over her headset.
"An atmosphere?" Maku exclaimed.
"I was scanning during the cannon's cutting," Shokko added, "and managed to catch a reading on the air that came out of there." She fell silent as she studied the readout.
"So, what does it say?" Kizu asked impatiently.
"The temperature of that escaping mist was thirty-two degrees Celsius and its composition was quite breathable!"
Sahni turned to Dwes quickly. "Can we set up a shield of some kind to seal it back once we're inside?"
"Yes," the science officer replied."I have just the thing."
"Everyone pack your equipment inside, quickly!" Sahni ordered. Dwes went back to the Regna, retrieved a small octagonal sphere, and then set it on the ground in the opening they had made. He thumbed an instruction on his belt remote and instantly a rainbow-hued sheen shimmered across the hole in the darkness.
"Why the shield?" Chieko asked.
Sahni turned on her helmet lamps and answered. "The heated air means that there may be atmosphere generators here, though I can't imagine how they would still be running after all this time. If so, it might be possible for it to build up the air pressure again that we released."
One by one, the team members began to shine their lamps around them. What they saw might have been a storehouse of alien artifacts. Nothing they saw looked remotely familiar. Shapes and even colors of the objects were foreign to them.
"I think the treasure hunt is over," Maku said with a smile.
"Looks like a warehouse," Kizu grunted. He did not seem impressed by what he saw.
Chieko ran to a large device and began to read the Shraeloni inscription set into a metal plate on its side. "Tarthusiastin inperlet-urmanetotor... whatever that is..." she said. As they looked around them, they noticed that devices of many unknown origins and functions were lined up in long rows and stacked in four layers above them.
Dwes turned toward Sahni and said, "I think we can report in success."
"Agreed," the first officer replied. She keyed in a change of frequency on her belt remote and spoke into her headset mike. "Zephyr, do you read?"
"Zephyr reads clearly, Commander. Lieutenant Ree here."
"We've found the command structure and have gained entrance," she said. "The place is filled with alien equipment that will take some time to figure out. It looks like a storehouse."
"Aye, sir!" Ree replied enthusiastically. There was a pause and then the Lieutenant said, "Captain Kehtan wants to know if you think it safe to send out other recon ships to the surface."
"We haven’t located or activated the main computer yet, but reconnaissance of other areas should be okay so long as the recon parties are careful."
* * *
"This is it," Shokko stated, "the planetary computer." It had taken the team forty minutes to locate it in the midst of the warehouse, as Kizu had described it. All around was the wealth of technology from an advance civilization and they had become so awed by the sights that the search had slowed. It was actually by chance that Shokko had stumbled across energy activity on her scanner that eventually led them to their present location.
Surprisingly, in the time they had taken to explore, the air pressure had risen to near ship-normal. An incoming cargo ship had discovered an airlock into the structure on the far side of the building and had begun operations to haul the legendary Shraeloni wealth and technologies back to the Zephyr. More ships had been sent to the other major cities on the planet, in the hopes that differing treasures would be found in them.
As the advance team filed into the small control room, Shokko walked straight to a row of instruments as Kizu headed for the main console. As with the rest of the building, the computer room was vacant of the Shraeloni, though the group had been constantly on guard for them.
"Just as I thought," Shokko's voice wafted from behind a panel she had opened. Maku and Trin gathered around her. "As we've seen from the rest of this place, there is a little power still in reserve to help operate minor systems, but the eons frozen in space without a star have locked up some of the components."
Sahni and Chieko looked over Kizu's shoulders as he vainly tried to operate the controls at his board.
"She's right," the tech said. "I'm getting a few blips of power, but not enough to get the main computer up and running."
Trin knelt next to Shokko and gazed at the circuits. "Is it the whole system, or could it be just reserve power?" he asked.
"It wouldn't matter," Maku commented, "if it's the circuits themselves that are locked up."
Shokko thought for a minute and then smiled at Trin. "There are probably only reserve batteries powering what we have here... If the main energy source were reactivated, it might be enough power to push the circuits up to operation. I've been studying the Shraeloni equipment we brought over from the fortress, and although its operations differ slightly from ours, I think I can get it up and running with enough juice."
Maku looked over at Trin. "Let's see if we can find the main generator."
"I'll go with you," Shokko said. She closed the panel and stood up beside them.
"We will keep trying from this end," Sahni said.
"Aye," Maku said. The other two followed him out of the room and disappeared into the darkness as Kizu moved over to the panel Shokko had earlier opened.
* * *
A fleet of Regnas and Perseus-class freighters flew over the frozen surface of Shraelon toward the largest of the ancient cities. The towering structures appeared to be a combination of organic and crystalline materials and were of varying shapes, though all massive in size and encrusted with a meter of ice. A predominant obelisk design to the structures appeared everywhere they went. Of immediate note was an impossibly high triangular tower at the North end of the city with a relief carving of the now-familiar face of Herdantes. The visage overlooked the city as if the grand ruler watched over his people. The images were recorded on the lead Regna's scanners and stored for future historians to ponder over.
As they flew over the city, those inside the advancing ships were caught up with a fever. Their fantasy of reaching the legendary planet of Shraelon had been fulfilled. Each had their own dream of wealth and self-importance for when they returned home as heroes. In their excitement and impatience to reach the fabled treasures, the ships began to race one another for the prime areas. The group split up and each vessel dropped in for landings. The doors to the ships opened as soon as their crews were suited up and the figures rushed from them toward the buildings as if their lives depended upon reaching the glories inside. One crew member of a Perseus freighter was too obsessively impatient to wait for the internal pressure of the ship to drop to zero before disabling the safeties and activating the door mechanism; the explosive decompression blew the ship apart violently in a bright fireball that dissipated within seconds in the vacuum.
Another Perseus flying overhead reported the incident back to the Zephyr, but quickly moved in to take the other's place at the structure believed to be a warehouse. Its crew made it to the building safely, mindful not to duplicate the mistake of the other ship, and rushed inside with howls of excitement and exuberance. There was very little in the way of technological devices in this particular building. It appeared to be a storehouse of jewels and precious metals fabricated into ceremonial clothing of the finest materials.
One crewman ran to a crystalline figure that wore one particular outfit that caught his eye. The mannequin itself was of indescribable beauty. Though made of crystal, the details of the woman were finely seen. The Shraeloni figure with softly pointed ears was tall and slender, with hair that reached nearly to her knees. The face was smooth and set in an expression of bright-eyed joy as she gazed toward an unfamiliar object in her upraised, six-fingered hands.
The crewman ran his gloved hands over the curves of her body and smiled to himself delightedly. He wanted this figurine for himself and tried to pick it up. The weight of the crystal was too great for him to lift, so he called over another crewmate to help.
In another city of the planet, a technician was studying the symbols etched into what he surmised were temple walls of a structure resembling a crystal pyramid. His scanner, configured to read Shraeloni text, had trouble translating the inscriptions, but his glee at finding such treasure tempered his disappointment. He recorded the information and moved toward the center of the room. Two other techs were struggling over a golden altar, as each had wanted it for his own. Each had various gold and platinum ornaments decorating their pressure suits, all spoils of the treasure and that was not enough. They were greedy and were fighting over more. The first technician had had enough of the other two's bickering and radioed a report back to the Zephyr. A moment later, Kehtan's voice sounded in their headsets.
"This is not a personal excursion, men," the captain's voice said wearily. "Get back to work on your assignment and stop collecting personal souvenirs!" Both men released the altar and glared at one another as they moved away warily. Neither trusted the other and a rift between the partners had begun.
Back on board the Zephyr, Captain Kehtan sighed and shook his head. He had known there would be obsessiveness in this operation and knew it was not over yet. To make matters worse, he felt the urge to get down to the planet's surface himself very strongly. He had spent much of his free time in years past studying the lost world of Shraelon and wanted to witness the sights with his own eyes. That dream was impossible, he knew. As commanding officer of this vessel, he was required to stay within its safety and allow others to go planetside.
* * *
Being a civilian during a major operation such as the one the Zephyr conducted, Alex did his best to keep out of the way. While his help had been welcomed at the beginning of the voyage, no one seemed to want much to do with any of the passengers since Rojur's death threat upon Trin. Granted, Trin deserved punishment for his mutinous actions, but the esper was an outsider to the crew and the ship's personnel watched out for one another. Word traveled fast on board of what had transpired, and since Alex and Brandon were companions to Rojur, they had been snubbed as well. The captain and his first officer were the only ones who would even talk to them, it seemed.
Since Red had been discovered alive in the empty crew cabin next to the observation lounge, Brandon had spent more time with Kehtan than with Alex lately. Since the wolf had been found days after the end of the battle, near starved and dehydrated, Brandon had made it his personal mission to nurse her back to health. Alex was glad, for it gave Brandon a purpose and kept him from getting too bored.
Blackthorne idly walked the halls of the Zephyr, desperately wanting to find something to do. Perhaps he should go to Rojur and try to patch their friendship. The esper who had once been his groundskeeper had had another allergic attack and was seeking some relief through Blake's pharmaceutical stores.
He smiled to himself at the thought. He was Alex Blackthorne, president of nearly half the industrial businesses in Oklahoma City, a small city on Earth —twenty-first century Earth, that is. He was a man who made his living thinking with a cool head and looking at things from all sides, yet the past few weeks of this voyage had left him unfit for even clear thoughts.
He stopped in the corridor and saw an open door to a cabin. The marker on the occupant panel stated that the crewman who had lived here had died in battle; the room was scheduled to be cleaned and his personal effects stored away for relatives back home. Alex frowned and walked inside.
In the flurry of activity that had possessed this vessel, the crewman named Bren had not kept his room in order. Solemnly, Alex picked up some of the items from the floor and placed them on a mirrored stand. He looked at his reflection and noted with a start just how unkempt he appeared. He was unshaven, his hair was uncombed and there were dark circles under his eyes. His mouth felt pasty and he generally felt dirty all over. Alex crooked the side of his mouth and said to his reflection, "No wonder no one wants to have anything to do with you. You look awful!"
He gazed around the room he was in and noted that several cups of the wonderful liquid uniforms were stacked in the open closet storage. He walked to them, pulled one out held it up as if it were a wine toast.
Alex grimaced again at his reflection, walked into the head, and shut the door. He needed a good cleaning, and he thought it would do his mind wonders as well.
Fifteen minutes later, Blackthorne exited the head dressed in a gold uniform. The garment adjusted to his size, though it fit slightly snug across his shoulders. He walked back to the mirror and studied his image. He smiled at himself and combed the damp hair in his usual style.
He felt much, much better and even looked in good condition. He would probably be more useful to those around him, too. Silently, he thanked Mr. Bren for the use of his uniform, though he did remember to remove the rank insignia from the outfit. That done, he quickly straightened the room out of courtesy, and once it was in order, Alex nodded to himself and prepared to leave.
As he headed out the door, he glanced at the Lieutenant's computer console and had an idea. He took the seat and cued up the system. For what he wished to do, he would not need an access code or password, so he should have no problem. All he wanted to do was learn more about the layout of the ship so he could be more help, so he called up the Zephyr's schematics.
Suddenly, Blackthorne sat up straight and his eyes opened wide. He stared at the monitor in disbelief as the opening page of design credits scrolled past. He keyed in the command that Chieko had once showed him to have it replay information that had already moved past the present screen. When he found what he had just seen, he froze the screen and stared mutely at the information.
A minute passed and Alex seemed to get a grip on himself. He had been thinking continually, rapidly digested the data. He stood up quickly and shut off the terminal.
Captain Kehtan should know about this, if he doesn't already, he thought to himself as he left the room.
* * *
The lights in the command room came on abruptly. Sahni smiled and looked first at Kizu and then to Chieko. "The entire system is online," the tech reported to her. He had been studying the controls for the past hour and thought he knew how to get the startup sequence in operation.
Chieko walked to the doorway and looked out into the warehouse. Their small head-lamps had not even begun to show what the structure held. Her mouth dropped open slightly in awe. In rows upon rows in line with the computer room's door, there were pallets that held what appeared to be solid blocks of material, metal, organic and otherwise. Some were polished gold, others were the color of platinum, while yet others were burnished copper or brassy. There were also bins of uncut diamonds, lanthels, zyolints and even the ultra-rare tysenium – all in abundance. Chieko did not have to guess what they were.
"The wealth of Shraelon!" she exclaimed. "Those are the precious metals of the universe - wealth from every possible race the Shraeloni dealt with, and all stored here for us!" In excitement, she dashed out between the large metallic blocks and ran her fingers over the name plates, reading each of the Shraeloni markers with glee. As she danced through the aisles, she saw a large round alcove set into the wall that had raised symbols adorning the surface in colorful relief.
She approached it with a smile and read the inscription set into one side. The chamber inside was a religious temple. She glanced at the symbols and gingerly placed her hand on one. When her skin came in contact with the cool metallic surface, she felt a mild tingle. The wall of the alcove spiraled in on itself and opened to permit entrance into another chamber. The room beyond was dimly lit, and as she stepped inside, she caught her breath and raised her hands to her chest.
She stood in another side alcove to a large domed chamber. The curved walls around her were decorated in all the lush colors of the rainbow, depicting scenery of a natural, unmolested forest, with a lake far in the distance on one end and a high mountain range on the other. Above, the sky was a pale blue that deepened to a rich azure, and then to star-filled black. It was as if she were looking up through an atmosphere into space itself.
Chieko forced herself to look down again at the forest. Through the trees, she saw other alcoves such as the one she stood in, though none of the others contained doorways that she could see. The flooring of the room resembled wide-bladed grass with small yellow and blue flowers sprouting here and there. In the direct center of the room was a raised wooden dais. Reverently, Chieko walked across the field toward it. The platform was half a meter tall, and as she approached, she saw a small, green-leafed branch lying across its surface. The octagonal-shaped leaves were wilted, but still held their color as if it had been placed there only a few days prior. Chieko knew that was impossible, as no plant life had lived on Shraelon for centuries.
She reached down to touch it, but saw a slight shimmer above it before she had extended her gloved fingers. She smiled to herself as she recognized the characteristics of a small stasis field surrounding the branch. She stepped back a pace. She looked at the indicators inside the helmet of her pressure suit and saw the readings of the conditions in the room. Chieko smiled and reached up to unlatch the fasteners of her headpiece. It released with a tiny hiss and she instinctively held her breath.
The air in the room was sweet and comfortably warm and she could feel a slight breeze. She did not know if the breeze was simulated to match the mood of the room, or if it was just the atmosphere compensators of the building restoring the air they had released earlier. As it was, she felt comfortable and at peace in the surroundings. She released her breath and quickly removed the rest of her pressure suit.
Chieko looked back toward the outer perimeter of the chamber when she had finished. There were five alcoves along the wall, each with a small display of some kind. She walked to the one opposite the opening she had entered through and stopped in front of it. Before her were five crystals similar in appearance to those that had been found throughout their journey, but each one was of a different, vibrant color. She hesitated, for she knew it had been trouble in the past, but her obsession for knowledge overruled her internal warnings. She reached forward and lifted one of the gems above its cradle. She held it in her hand a long moment before deciding no trap had been sprung. A feral smile crossed her lips and one by one, she took them and placed them in the specimen bag she carried over one shoulder.
She started in surprise when she moved to the next alcove. She had not noticed it before, but a figure of exquisite beauty made of clear crystal stood upon the carpet and gazed serenely out into the trees. She could not know that it was a replica of one seen by a technician in another city on this world, but she was taken in awe just as well.
Chieko studied the woman's image and noted that the surface was flawless and the detail paid to the features was fine. Her attention moved from the face captured for eternity in crystal to the garment she wore. The cloak was not crystal, nor was it attached to the figure, but set about the shoulders as if resting upon a mannequin.
The material was of the finest quality Chieko had ever seen in her life. The patterns depicted tranquil life on the planet and the joy of nature. She remembered from the visual images on the fortress that the Shraeloni had long ago learned to use their technologies in harmony with nature. In the threads of the garment were woven plant fibers in addition to what appeared to be strands of gold and other precious metals. As she studied it, light reflections shimmered from the material as if moving.
Chieko smiled and stepped up to the figure. With only the slightest hesitation, she took the cloak and wrapped it around her own shoulders. It was almost a perfect fit. The garment hung to her ankles and the weight was so slight that she was almost not aware that she wore it, despite the metals woven into it. She felt like a priestess in the temple of Shraelon and wondered if she would have fit into the world of Herdantes.
With the exception of Captain Kehtan, she was probably the most learned person in the galaxy on Shraeloni culture, but when she really thought about it, there was very little she actually knew.
Chieko gasped. The thought of Kehtan reminded her why she was there and she looked hastily at her chronograph. She had been gone too long. She glanced around the chamber once more, disappointed to be leaving before checking into the other alcoves, but she knew she would be needed in the control room presently if they ever got the main computer online.
* * *
Maku and Shokko arrived at the control room carefully carrying a near-unconscious Trin on a makeshift stretcher between them. His neck was padded with some sort of rubber-like sheeting they had found.
"What happened?" Sahni asked as they set him in a vacant chair.
"We found the panels for controlling the main power source in an alcove not far from here," Maku explained. "As we guessed, the Shraeloni had tapped the thermal energies in the core of this world for their power, but had shut everything down except the trickle-down backup circuits during the mass evacuation."
"Great," Sahni said. "Kizu's trying to get the main computer restarted. That doesn't explain Trin's condition."
"Right. We've got to get him to the Zephyr as quickly as we can," Maku replied. "There was a booby trap guarding the power panels, and Trin stepped into it."
"He must have triggered a large voltage of energy when he neared the panel," Shokko supplied. "The force of the shock blew him across the room into a wall. I think his neck may have been broken."
Sahni put a hand on the injured man's neck and felt for a pulse. It was there, but weak, and his breathing had become very shallow. His face was getting awfully pale and his skin cool to her touch. "I think he's going into shock!" she exclaimed.
"Do we have time to get him back to the ship?" Shokko asked frantically.
Sahni and Maku worked quickly to stabilize his condition. The security officer shook his head as he said through his teeth, "I don't think so. Only a matter-transport could get him there in time, and there aren’t any on the Zephyr."
"Rojur can do it," Chieko's voice said from behind them. "Alex told me Rojur can teleport over extreme distances."
After a swift glance at the ceremonial cloak Chieko wore, Sahni hissed and scrambled to pull out her Com unit. "Zephyr, this Sahni. We have an emergency!"
"Forget it," Maku said in disgust. "Trin is his enemy."
* * *
Rojur looked up in surprise from under the console he was working on. No one else was in the Hidalgo with him, but he heard the voice plainly in his head as if the speaker were right beside him.
|Rojur,| Alex's thoughts said, |They need your teleporting skills down on the planet - Trin's been badly hurt and it's an emergency that he's brought to the ship's Infirmary. It's the only chance he has to live!|
Rojur frowned and set his tools down. Without even a reply to Alex, the esper disappeared.
* * *
Shokko had joined Kizu at the computer terminal. She stood beside him and offered helpful hints on what to do. Together they worked as an effective team to try to figure out the Shraeloni system. "...and after Maku dragged Trin out of the way," the small woman was saying, "I disabled the trigger with a rubber-like mat I had seen in the warehouse. It only took a moment to activate the power transfer equipment, and only a minute more for the levels to reach optimum peak."
A bleep sounded and a blue light lit up the panel. "We're in!" Kizu exclaimed. He turned to Sahni and grinned. "The system appears to have been activated properly. We should have access to the data banks within a minute, provided the information hasn't degraded and is still intact."
"Let's all hope the sun exploding didn't send out an EMP strong enough to wipe out their data," Shokko muttered.
"Would an electromagnetic pulse affect crystal data?" Kizu asked with a shrug. "I guess we're about to find out."
"Very good," the first officer replied. Her mind was distracted as she and Maku tried to make Trin as comfortable as they could.
"He's not coming," Maku said bitterly. "I told you he wouldn’t."
"Don't judge me prematurely," Rojur remarked dryly. Everyone in the room whirled at his voice as he knelt next to the fallen man. Sahni helped to hold Trin's head so it would not cause more damage. "Come with me," he said to her, "and keep him stable. Blake and a team of medics are waiting with the proper care for him."
"Why are you here?" the security officer asked. "I thought you wanted him dead."
The esper fixed him pointed glare. "Again, you've misjudged me. I'm no killer," he said flatly. Without another word, the trio disappeared. Maku looked at Chieko in surprise and received an equally confused gaze from her.
"I don't understand," the blue-haired woman said softly.
"Got it!" Shokko exclaimed. "We have full access to the planetary computer data bank!"
Chieko dashed over to Kizu's seat. The tech got up and offered the chair to her, knowing that this moment was hers. She sat down gratefully and opened her pack. With reverence, she removed a slim tube and then opened one end. Her face was aglow as she removed the long, slender green crystal and held it up to the light.
A quick glance at the terminal showed her exactly where to insert the stone. A receptacle the exact shape and size of the crystal rested near the top of the console. All she would have to do was to place it horizontally and lock it into the metallic prongs that rested at each end. She reached forward and was about to click it in its socket, but then she hesitated. A memory surfaced in her mind, and suddenly, there was fear.
She sat back in her chair and looked up at Maku, still holding the crystal in her hands.
"What's wrong," he asked.
"There may be a danger," she replied in a quiet voice. Before explaining further, she operated her Com unit and asked for the captain. A moment later, his deep voice answered.
"Yes, Chieko, what is it?"
"Captain," she began hesitantly, "Everything is ready down here to access and upload the data to the Zephyr - however, I want to wait until all personnel are off planet before I insert the crystal."
"Why? What has happened?" he asked quickly.
She bit her bottom lip and replied. "Something the cyborg said when he gave me the crystal bothers me. This planetary system has been down a long time and there could be another trap set up when I activate it. I want to make sure everyone is safe before I try it. There's no need to risk more than just one person. It could just be paranoia on my part, but I would feel better if I was alone on the planet when I do this."
"I agree with your precaution," the captain said after a moment, "We'll let you know when we're ready."
"Aye, captain. Thank you." After the channel was disconnected, she turned to the others in the room. "You, too," she said. "Thank you for your help, but from here out the duty is mine."
Kizu started to protest, but Shokko gave him a light jab with her elbow. "It will be a couple hours yet," Maku said. "We still have time to load up our own Regna. Blue Team said there's an airlock not too far from our landing place that we missed. We can bring the ship in through there and try to take some of these blocks of treasure right outside our door here. I thought I saw something like a power-suit out there that was probably used to move them."
"Right," Chieko said, "but if it's the same with you, I'll stay here."
"Okay. Let us know if you need anything," Maku replied.
* * *
Rojur watched as Blake operated on Trin, occasionally offering assistance to the medic, which was always politely turned down. He did not need the esper's distraction so he finally asked him to leave the room. Sahni waited for him in the lounge.
"The captain wants to see both of us in his quarters," she told him. Rojur glanced back over his shoulder at the Infirmary doors and then smiled weakly at her. "He'll be okay. Let's go," Sahni said. Rojur grasped her hand gently and then teleported both of them directly to the designated meeting place. She shook off the effects, rubbed her eyes and looked around at the other surprised faces staring back at them at their sudden appearance.
In the room were Kehtan, Alex and Brandon. The youth sat on a floating stool with Red resting on the floor at his feet. Alex sat on the edge of the captain's bed, while the commander sat behind his desk with a pot of green coffee and several cups.
"You wanted to see us, Captain?" Rojur asked. There were two empty seats in front of the desk. Kehtan motioned for them both to sit.
"First off," the captain began, "I want to thank you for helping Ensign Rosch. Doubtless, he would have died before the shuttle could have gotten him back here to Infirmary. I know it must have been a hard decision for you to make."
Rojur raised his eyebrows and frowned. "What hard decision? It was a medical emergency."
"You threatened earlier to shove him out of an airlock," the commander reminded him.
Rojur sighed. "What I say in anger doesn't always mean it will happen. I had no intention of killing Trin - I only wanted to frighten him because of his attitude toward me." He stood up and began pacing. "You cannot know all of the social customs and prejudices we have on Roswei, Captain. What he called me went beyond just an insulting name. It isn't easy to put into words, but it was the same as if he'd pointed a pulse rifle at my head and was slowly pulling the trigger. I'm no killer, Captain... just a simple someone who just happens to have talents that the rest of his homeworld considers a disease to be destroyed."
Kehtan digested that and then his eyes went to the monitor on his desk. "Well, no matter what your reasons, I still thank you for your help. Trin has a court-martial to attend and I'd like to get him there still alive. However, I have just found out that you are not quite as simple as you claim." Sahni looked over at her friend and then back to the captain. Rojur swallowed and waited for Kehtan to continue.
The captain swiveled the monitor to face the esper. On the display was one of the opening credits pages to the schematics of the Zephyr. In the middle of the screen were the words:
Zephyr Class Scientific Exploration Vessel
Dunkn Shipyards, Rona
A Division of
Rayce Santrojur Industries, Roswei
There were more names to the list of designers and engineers, but that first name and title stood out above the others. Rojur shrugged and looked straight at the captain.
"So now you know," he said.
Sahni faced him with surprise on her face. "You mean, you designed this ship?"
"Yes," the esper answered. "It was a longtime project that I began right after my first voyage on the Two Star. After my time in the Service ended, I went to my father for a job. We were close when I was younger, but he and I never really got along after I grew up – mainly due to his ties with his industries – but he was intrigued by the plans I submitted, and he authorized the construction of the Zephyr."
He smiled and relaxed in his chair. "Through rumors, I had heard about a revolutionary new warp engine the Planetary Alliance had developed, but at the time they had no ship in which to test it. Before going to my father with the idea, I contacted representatives of the Alliance about their engine. They told me that if I could convince Rayce Santrojur to finance such a project, the engine could become part of the vessel. It was a joint project, one that promised a large payoff for both my father and the Alliance."
Rojur leaned forward and placed a hand on the desk. "Captain," he said in a soft voice, "I am the one who put you in command of this ship." Kehtan looked startled, but Rojur continued before he had a chance to say anything. "The Alliance was shocked when I told them I wanted you as the Zephyr's captain. After the incident with your last command which resulted in the deaths of a number of your crew, you had been busted down to a fairly harmless duty. They refused to accept you as captain of the ship that would house their engine, and told me to select someone else. I threatened them with my father's dismissal of the project, and after a greatly heated discussion, they reluctantly let me have my wishes."
Kehtan put a hand under his chin and rubbed it lightly as he appeared to be in deep thought. "I always wondered who had recommended me," he said, "but I still don't know why."
"Because you were good to me while I was under your command on the Two Star, despite the troubles we got into. I knew you to be a good commander and knew that the situation with the Two Star would have taught you a lesson about your duties. After watching you on this mission, I'm convinced I made the right choice."
"Ever since I've known you," Alex said, "you've always been mysterious about your past. You've never mentioned any of this, though you've told me many other things. Somehow, this doesn't seem all that bad. Why hide it?"
Rojur shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "One month before the maiden voyage of this ship was to begin, I had a falling-out with my father. Do you remember the prejudice I told you of concerning espers on my homeworld? My father is one of those who have a true hatred of espers. You see, I didn't develop my psionic talents until I was around fifteen years old. By then, I knew enough of our society to never display or mention them to anyone – particularly to my family; my grandfather was a violent rogue esper and had killed a number of innocent people. I hated my powers, but there was nothing I could do to be rid of them."
Rojur stood up and began pacing around the room. "I was in my office finalizing some business transactions and needed a particular book from my library. Rather than get up and walk across the room to get it, I felt lazy and used my talent to levitate it from the shelf and float it over to me. It was at that point when my father walked into my office and saw the whole thing. He flew into a rage and tried to kill me right there. It didn't matter that I was his only son, and that I had financially helped his company with my ship designs. All he saw was an Es-par, a despised and wretched creature who had to be destroyed."
Rojur stopped pacing a moment and silently scanned the faces around him. When they remained mute, he sighed and continued. "To save my own skin, I fled. I teleported away to the other side of the continent, for that talent is my strongest, and I went into hiding. I started going by the name of the one you now know. A week later, I was wandering the streets of Serna on a cold, rainy night and came upon a man about my age that had just been robbed and beaten in an alley. I took him to the apartment I was renting and helped bind his wounds. Later, he told me where his home was and I took him there."
He stopped again and rubbed his temples. The whole affair of remembering gave him a headache. He picked up a cup of coffee and nearly drained it in one gulp. "Without making this story longer, I'll keep it short and say that due to several incidents in the following days where I helped hunt down and teach a lesson to the men who had beaten him, the man felt inclined to help me for my troubles. He was surprised by my talents, but instead of hating me for them, he revealed that he had a couple of weak abilities himself that he had tried to cultivate. He was an inventor and had developed a device which boosted an esper's ability to teleport."
He pulled open the top of his uniform and drew out a black cylinder on a chain to show them. "He gave it to me as a gift for helping him."He purposely neglected to mention that it also allowed for time travel into the past. Neither Alex nor Brandon pointed this out to the captain and his first office, much to his relief. He continued his tale as he placed the cylinder back inside his uniform.
"Unfortunately, those who attacked him in the first place returned for revenge for my involvement in the matter and brought in reinforcements. They caught us off guard and killed my new friend. It was only a blind reaction to shield myself with my talent in that saved me from serious harm. In the struggle, one of the men fired a gun at me. The projectile ricocheted off my shield and hit one of the other men in the mob. The man died instantly and the group scattered. Knowing someone would have heard the shot, I also left the scene of the crime.
"The next day, I saw a report on the news broadcast that a rogue esper was responsible for the death of the hood and also that of the inventor. I knew I'd been set up; the primary witness interviewed in the telecast was the same one who had actually fired the bullet that killed his associate. The composite drawing they showed on the channel looked nothing like me, but it had been dark during the fighting, so I wasn't surprised. A manhunt, however, had been initiated by the populace to find and destroy the Es-par... me." Rojur stared up at the ceiling and took a deep breath.
"I didn't know if they would actually find me, so I left Roswei and fled to Earth, where I met Alex and Brandon." Again, he neglected to tell Kehtan and Sahni that his companions were from the twentieth-century Earth, not the Earth of the current time.
"Why did you come back?" Sahni asked. "Especially since the manhunt would still be fresh in the minds of the people. I saw the broadcast you described, transmitted from Roswei."
Rojur shrugged and gestured toward Alex and Brandon. "They wanted–"
"Captain!" Ree's voice from the intercom interrupted, "The deck sergeant reports that the cargo hold is now loaded to maximum capacity, and some of the ships in the landing bay are still full with what they brought in."
"Are there any ships still on the surface or in transit?" the captain asked.
"None, sir. Chieko is the only one on the entire planet. Everyone else is accounted for."
"In that case, inform Chieko to stand by for our signal to begin transmitting."
Kehtan looked at Rojur and frowned. "Duty calls. We'll have to continue this later."
"That's fine, captain. Alex, Brandon and I have some things to discuss anyway, so go ahead and do what you need to."
After Kehtan and Sahni left them in the corridor outside the captain's cabin, Rojur turned to his companions. "Let's head down to the Hidalgo," he said, feeling weary and not looking forward to the discussion. "We can talk privately down there and won't be in anyone's way."
As they rounded a corner in the passage a few minutes later, Rojur slowed in his steps and suddenly looked toward the ceiling, putting a hand on the wall to steady himself.
"Rojur? What is it?" Alex asked.
The esper tried to answer, but collapsed to his knees instead. Alex tried to catch him, but he was a step too far away. Rojur fell over and slumped onto the deck. Brandon dropped to his knees beside him and shook his shoulders gently.
Blackthorne looked around him and didn't see an intercom control anywhere nearby, so he made a quick telepathic call for help as he turned the esper over. He grumbled to himself when he did not get a response, realizing that the captain would have no way to reply to him, nor would he know if his call had even been received in the command center at the far end of the ship. He peeled Rojur's eyelids back and saw the pale eyes darting about as if in REM sleep.
"Brandon," he said, "run as fast as you can to the Infirmary and get a medic down here! I think Rojur's had another reaction to the coffee!"
"I'm gone!" the boy said, jumping to his feet; Alex began first aid procedures as he awaited help.
* * *
"You may begin transmitting as soon as you are ready," the captain's voice came over the Com unit. "We've freed up space in the science computer for as much data as you can upload to us."
"Aye, Captain," Chieko answered. "I'll be ready in just a moment." Once again, the blue-haired woman held up the crystal to the light. As she studied its faceted surface, she kept thinking that something about the cyborg's choice of words bothered her. She bit her bottom lip lightly and decided it was time to stop brooding and fulfill her dream. With the information uploaded to the Zephyr, they could decode it and study it at their leisure for years to come.
She picked up her Com unit and contacted the ship. "Ready to transmit," she said.
"Ready to receive," reported Ree.
She moved forward and set the crystal on its socket. With a smile, she pushed it between the prongs in the receptacle with a satisfied click. At first nothing happened and then the screen in front of her lit up with a brief high-speed video transmission, which then slowed to show multitudes of Shraeloni hieroglyphs.
"Receiving a compressed high-speed string of data now," Ree reported.
Chieko watched the information quietly, but her attention was suddenly focused on a set of characters in one corner of the screen. They were in a written text that she was unable to read. They were not Shraeloni, at least not like the rest she had studied over the years.
Another monitor on the wall of the room lit up and showed a graphic diagram of the planet. Slowly, Chieko stood up and walked to the display. The same strange characters were all over the screen, apparently marking specific areas. As she watched, a wire-frame representation of the Zephyr appeared in orbit over the world, and then, one by one, the orbiting satellites that Dwes had launched were depicted too. Her eyes flashed back to the characters and noted that one set was continually changing.
Like a countdown.
"Oh no," she breathed. Chieko ran across the room and grabbed up her Com unit.
"Captain!" she exclaimed.
"What is it, Chieko?" the captain's relayed voice returned.
"Captain, you've got to break orbit and get away from here as fast as you can!" she exclaimed. "The ship is in serious danger!"
Quickly, she explained what she saw on the monitor and revealed her fear at what it meant. As she spoke, she walked back to the screen and saw a flashing red line circle around one of the orbiting satellites.
* * *
On board the Zephyr, Ellis and Dayl were already preparing to move the ship away at the captain's order. Kehtan listened to Chieko's words and his face registered surprise. Suddenly a bright flash of light erupted in the main view screen.
"What was that?" the captain exclaimed.
"One of the science satellites just blew up," Dwes answered. "A shot from the surface got it!"
"Captain!" Chieko said, "Another satellite has been targeted on—" Another flash of light flared out on the screen.
"Dayl, take us out of orbit - pronto!" Kehtan ordered. "Chieko, can you stop the process?"
"I don't know, captain, but I'll try!"
* * *
On the targeting wall monitor, a red ring appeared around another satellite. Chieko ignored it as she rushed to the main console and frantically deciphered the control labels, hunting for some disabling switch for a planetary defense system that had become active. She saw nothing helpful, so she did the one thing she thought should stop everything. She reached for the crystal to pull it from its socket, but a blue-white arc of energy shot out from the receptacle and knocked her back away from console.
She hit hard and her head bounced on the floor, but it only dazed her for a moment. She got up shakily and rushed back to the panel. She never made it, however, when she discovered a force field had been generated over the console. She tried to push through what felt like nothing more than an invisible sheet of glass, but nothing she could do would get her past. She looked for her pack to get her blaster and noted with shock that it was sitting on one end of the console –inside the force field – right next to her Com unit.
Chieko screamed in frustration and rushed back to the wall monitor. Only one satellite remained on the display, and even it winked out of existence as she watched. The Zephyr itself was no longer shown, so she had no way of knowing if the ship got away in time or if it had been destroyed too.
She looked around the room in desperation to find anything she might use to get through the force field, but there was nothing. Chieko dashed out of the room and ran down the aisles of the near-empty warehouse. Nothing she saw that was left could be used as a weapon.
She cried out when the floor began to shake. A deep rumbling that could be felt as well as heard shook the building. She then ran back across the shifting floor into the control room and looked at the monitor.
A red line was encircling the planet.
On one side of the screen was another representation of the world, but shown in cross-section. The core of the planet was depicted with tiny starbursts flashing near its center.
Chieko understood. The Shraeloni held to their vow that none would ever have their world.
* * *
"Try again!" Kehtan shouted in anger.
"No response at all, Captain," Ree said in frustration. "She won't answer or she can't answer."
Dwes had just reported his long-range scans of Shraelon. A massive reaction was taking place within the core of the planet. There was no doubt that it was going to explode.
"What about Rojur, can he get to her from this distance?"
"I haven't been able to reach him on the intercom, either," Ree said as his voice cracked. The stresses of his job were getting to him. "He doesn't answer any of my hails."
"Then broadcast it on ship-wide, blast it!"
* * *
"Rojur Delondin! EMERGENCY! You are needed on the bridge immediately!"
Alex glanced over at the unconscious esper and frowned. Due to his incapacitation, no one would get any help from Rojur. He cursed loudly and pounded the floor. None of his first aid techniques had any effect on Rojur and he had nothing even resembling a medical bag with him. His sending to the captain also went unanswered as if he were out of range.
* * *
"How long before the planet blows?" Kehtan asked rigidly.
"Fifteen minutes, Captain." Dwes looked up from his monitor and frowned deeply. "We have to make a warp jump soon, or we'll be caught in the explosion."
"What about Chieko?" Sahni asked.
"If Rojur doesn't show up soon, there will be nothing we can do," Kehtan replied solemnly. "Ree! Where's that blasted esper?"
Before his com officer could reply, an intercom signal flagged his attention. "Captain!" Ree exclaimed, "Rojur has collapsed down near engineering, cause unknown. Blake is on his way there now."
Dwes reacted quickly and nearly tore the bridge door from its track as he bolted from the command center with Sahni close behind. On the lower level, Maku raced from sight to assist.
"Ellis!" the captain shouted, "Set coordinates to get us away from here! Dayl, prepare to make a jump!"
Kehtan rose from his seat and moved to the sciences station. He touched a few controls and then looked back to the planet. "Dayl," he said in a suddenly calm voice, "Begin a countdown from my mark to make the warp jump."
* * *
Back inside the Shraeloni temple again, Chieko sat on the floor with her head and arms resting on her knees, the ceremonial cloak still around her shoulders. Her eyes were closed as she waited for the end to come. The quakes were more frequent and the structure creaked and groaned with every heave of the ground. She could not have stood up if she had wanted to. The lovely crystalline figure had crashed to the floor moments before and shattered into a thousand brilliant shards.
Her eyes were red from crying and she wiped the back of a hand across them. Nearly the entire image of the planet on the screen had been marked with the tiny red starbursts before she had left the now-useless control room. She knew it was just a matter of minutes before she would pay for the sins she had committed in order to get this far.
Chieko closed her eyes again and prepared herself with a silent prayer that she might see Joska soon.
* * *
"He's coming around," Blake announced. Rojur opened his eyes groggily and frowned at the group gathered around him in the small room. Before he could even ask what happened, Blake tried to explain.
"You've had another allergic reaction to the coffee that the Amohalkonicin induced in you," he said. "I told you to stay away from the stuff." He was about to say more, but everyone else began talking at once.
"You've got to hurry!"
"Rojur, there's no time—"
"Chieko is trapped on Shraelon, and..."
"It's going to blow up and kill her, and—"
"Hold it!" he snapped. He turned to Sahni and grabbed her by the arm. "You - tell me!"
In the briefest of explanations, the first officer just said, "It's another trap — the planet’s about to blow and Chieko’s still down there! You’ve got to teleport down to the planet and bring her back! Hurry!"
The esper started to get up, but in the sudden silence of conversation, everyone noticed it at once. The sound of a dull throbbing was increasing in intensity.
"No!" Alex shouted. He pushed his way past the crowd and dashed down the hall to the engineering room. The others followed at his heels as they realized what was happening.
Blackthorne raced to one of the few clear windows in engineering, one that viewed aft into space, and saw the familiar smudged stars associated with traveling through a warp jump. The smudges quickly resolved back to points of starlight as the Zephyr dropped back out of warp and all eyes stared out the window.
Far in the distance, they saw a bright flash in a dark area of space. Alex clutched a hand to his chest and let an unconscious gasp past his lips. Sahni and Rojur held onto one another and Brandon moved to his father's side. Blake stared mutely out the window as Maku leaned heavily against a wall. There was nothing they could do.
Chieko… and the legendary world of Shraelon... were gone.
* * *
Kehtan stood up and stared silently at the screen for several minutes. No one on the bridge breathed a word. Purposely, the captain then walked to the spiral staircase on his right and descended to the lower level. He moved past the other officers and stopped in front of the forward windows.
Tears ran freely down Dayl's cheeks as she stood behind him. During the long voyage, she had gotten to know the blue-haired woman well and felt the loss heavily.
Ellis sat quietly out of respect, for she had not really known her, but Ree wept openly. He'd developed a secret crush on Chieko and felt the pain especially hard. He could not keep his composure for long and collapsed into his chair. He buried his head in his arms and cried as the captain lowered his eyes and walked over to him. Kehtan didn't say a word, but merely placed a comforting hand on Ree's shoulder.
After a moment, he turned to Dayl and said, "Hold position here. We're not going anywhere for a while."
"Aye… aye, sir," Dayl managed to say.
* * *
Two days later, the Zephyr was on a course back to the Frontier. With nothing else to do in the vicinity, Kehtan felt it pressing to head home. It would take a long time to reach it from their present distance, but there were no more traps or known dangers to slow them down.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.