By Will Greenway
Before the second mate charged, Llelderan saw him crouched in the corridor with his blacked vibro-dagger. Without facing the crewman’s rush, the gold-skinned captain knew within a hairsbreadth where the weapon would strike. Reading Garver’s mind he understood the pirate’s plan; to carve the control matrix from Llelderan’s forehead by ripping the blade through his skull.
Llelderan stayed motionless on the couch as the assassin plunged across the darkened quarters. Poised, still facing away, he waited to see if Garver would hesitate.
Two heartbeats. The mate’s blade stabbed down.
Llelderan’s hand met the assailant’s wrist with a pop of dislocated bone. Garver yelped. The dagger tumbled from his grip. It struck the alloy deck and sizzled in to the hilt. Llelderan jerked the crewman over the chair and slammed him to the floor.
The captain paused, holding the man’s arm in a lock, his foot pressed against the mate’s throat.
Llelderan swallowed. He felt the shaking in his hands, and the ache of the two hearts pounding in his torso.
He would have killed me. Most of the crew think I’m invulnerable, they’ve seen how I heal. How could he have known to go for the matrixes?
“What could you hope to gain?” Llelderan monitored Garver’s mind to make sure he told the truth.
The second mate choked, dark hair framing his craggy face. “Helix point is cursed. We’ll never come back if we go through!”
Llelderan felt a cold chill. Garver’s mind had snapped. The man groaned and strained to break free. Llelderan pulled the dagger out of the floor.
Running footsteps echoed down the corridor. Jherrik, the lanky first-mate, and Massihr the helmswoman, his chunky red-haired fiancé rushed into the room.
Llelderan detected the disappointment in Jherrik’s thoughts. He yanked Garver up, pressed the dagger to his throat, then levered his arm. The man yelled as the bones in his wrist grated together.
“Brig him, Jherrik.” Llelderan kept his voice steady. “After he is caged, confine yourself to quarters. I know you put him up to it.”
“Sir?” Jherrik’s eyes went wide.
“Massihr, if he does not comply, burn him.”
“Yes, Captain.” Massihr’s green eyes flashed. Pulling the disruptor from the worn holster on her broad hip, she jabbed it in Jherrik’s back. “I’ll get the meditech to check Garver.”
Llelderan touched Massihr’s mind, feeling her concern through their rapport. His fiancé pulled him closer, telepathic arms enfolding him in an embrace. In that instant he became Massihr. Warmth spread through them as her gaze panned up Llelderan’s sinewy golden body to his narrow face. Massihr swallowed, appreciating the solid black eyes that looked like fragments of a starry night-sky. Eyes that once made her shiver, now the most attractive aspect of her golden companion.
Llelderan pulled his mind away with a smile. Most of the crew thought the helmswoman unattractive. He found her broad freckled face, ready smile, and plump jiggle appealing. She’d been a companion since the day he’d confessed his attraction for her.
He sent a thought to her. <Be careful. Contact me when they are confined.>
<No problem, Llel,> she responded. Winking, she turned and poked Jherrik. “I warned you, Jher. The cap is psychic. Move.” She led them away. Only Massihr knew that Llelderan possessed telepathy. His ability had helped to alleviate most dissension before it started.
Llelderan smiled, stepped into the hall and watched her sway off. He detected a whiff of her perfume, the sweet fragrance of the star-flower he liked so much.
He switched the vibro-blade off and put it in his belt. Llelderan scanned the corridor lined with conduits and glowing power couplings.
How many more of them are willing to mutiny? The dream is the only link to my past I have. I cannot let them stop me.
He looked down and realized he wasn’t wearing a tunic. Rubbing his hairless chest around the red matrix jewel, he returned to his quarters, passed his hand across the light sensor and sat on the bed.
The gray walls were decorated with a few of his nature paintings, an engraved hide mask given to him by some primitives as a reward for finding their lost child, and three holo-pictures of Massihr. A clutter of handwritten dream transcripts obscured the top of a small desk. In the corner on a round table were three geodes on stands. These he’d found while rock hunting with Massihr during a layover. A dingy blue couch won in a dice game sat in the middle of the room, its top frayed from people sitting on the back rather than on the cushions.
I’m lounging here studying the walls. Need to focus. The coordinates in the dream tie together with those in the signals. What else do they have in common? He let his mind drift back to smoldering images of the burning hold where he and two others fought a Protectorate warrior.
<Juda! Shardak!> Llelderan thought to his Seargas. <Regroup at the rear-deck! I’ll cover.>
Can’t stop him with these weapons.
The air reeked of liquefied metal, burned flesh and ionization. Hearts pounding, he fired a burst at the silhouette charging down the smoky corridor. Hit. A return blast. Llelderan dove. Stabs of white hot agony as fragments of decking pelted his back and tore into his leg.
Dark. A bad hit.
Clutching the wound, Llelderan pushed himself up on one foot. Pasty-white blood welled around fragment in his thigh. Gulping searing air, he ripped the metal free with a gasp. He ducked as more blasts ruptured the conduits overhead. Flames mushroomed around him. Face and arms blistering, he retreated.
Juda and Shardak waited at the exit hatch, their glittering silver armor blast-marred and torn. Star bright pulses from their weapons laid down covering fire for him.
He lurched toward the opening. I have to make it.
A whistle. Something metallic slammed into his back. He howled and dropped, clawing at the weapon. Steaming tears ran down his face as he fought to stay conscious. Must warn the Dasta.
<Go! Get to cen rel 354-214-118. Warn them!>
The two soldiers ran. A lance of red energy caught Shardak in the ribs. The Searga staggered and another beam struck the back of his head. Shardak’s body thudded to the deck.
Icy talons raked Llelderan’s mind. He’s dead.
“No!” Convulsing, he jerked the blade out of his back. He gripped his gun with bloody hands and rolled to aim at the approaching figure.
He can’t be invulnerable. Maybe if I hit him in the eye…
The blue skinned protectorate warrior loomed out of the smoke. Clothed only in breeches and boots, the huge male’s glowing green eyes fixed on Llelderan. His shoulders were broad enough to support a starship. Muscles rippled on his body like armor plates. He carried a sword an arm-span long and two fists wide.
Llelderan squeezed the trigger.
The blue creature grinned. “This isn’t your day.”
The giant sword plunged down—
Llelderan’s body jerked and he clutched his ribs. Running fingers through his black hair, he took slower breaths.
What happened after that?
He knew the Belathi’s crew had pulled his hibernating body from beneath a wreckage millions of cycles old.
Did the Protectorate warrior bury me to keep me from regenerating? Why not simply sever the control-matrix from my body as he did with Shardak.
The matrix on his chest pulsed and he stiffened. A hollow voice rang in his head that wasn’t telepathy. He winced at the volume as each hard consonant seemed to hit his skull like a mallet. **Transponder signal received. Personnel recall in sixty kilorevs. Cen rel 354-214-118.**
Llelderan held his head. The voice again. Where is it coming from?
For ten days now, three times a day, the voice had echoed in his mind. Only the kilorevs changed. Nothing shut it out. Using a chronometer he’d learned the signals occurred precisely 480 TUs apart. Based on that, he’d calculated that the zero time would be TU 1721 tomorrow. The coordinates were identical to the ones in his dream. He’d asked Massihr to check if they corresponded to anything.
They pinpointed the Helix jump-nexus.
It must be a recall from my people. I have to go there even if it means fighting the whole crew.
Llelderan felt a tickle in the back of his mind, Massihr pulling on the rapport they shared.
<Everything all right?> he asked.
<Fine. Jherrik gave me a little static, but I handled him.>
He frowned. <I received another of those signals.>
Llelderan felt her concern. <Are you all right?>
<I think so.> He paused. <Massihr, I can’t let the crew stop me. If these signals keep up I will go crazy.>
<I wish I could help. You going back to sleep?>
<No, I am heading to the bridge to watch things.>
<You want me to come too?>
<On my way.>
Snatching a blue shirt off the bed, he put it on as he exited.
Most of the Belathi’s crew were asleep now. Llelderan had trekked to the bridge so often he knew every one of the 107 steps to the access ladder. Turning the corner he checked the glowing engineering consoles adjacent the head-high climb to the bridge platform. The computer display and status indicators showed everything nominal.
Climbing the double wide ladder, he stepped onto the twelve man command deck. Dark skinned Rhedron loomed at the damage control station, long fingered hands moving over the glowing keys.
The viewport looked out onto the few suns occupying this remote star-cluster. They were so far from possible obstacles, no bridge crew were necessary except during jump.
In the octagon-shaped chamber the two helmspeople sat forward in their wraparound consoles. Four weapons stations, two to either side were on the angled walls. Scanning and comm personnel sat directly left, computer and damage control to the right. At the rear rested the chairs for the captain and first-mate, and the four auxiliary stations.
Rhedron looked up as Llelderan stepped down to the main floor. He nodded, his wrinkled features solemn. “Captain.”
“Rhedron. What has you up?”
“These crazy jumps.” He ran a hand through his kinky black hair. “Since the last one, Vodra and Misa have developed a tick.”
Rhedron had named the Belathi’s engines after his two daughters, both moody and headstrong. Rhedron had been with the ship before Llelderan’s old captain, Fasad, took control of the ship twenty cycles ago. Without Rhedron, the quirky vessel would have been scrapped long ago. Llelderan respected the old spacer, gave him special wages, and took him to Gamis occasionally to visit his daughters.
“Something to be concerned about?”
Rhedron rubbed his chin. “This whole venture concerns me. We’re out past the galactic rim and getting tight on jump fuel.”
Llelderan sighed. “We have to reach Helix tomorrow.”
“Following a dream, boy? Brand’s stuff about Helix being cursed is ballast. What bothers me is not knowing how much fuel the jump at Helix will consume. We run out and we’ll be stuck out of comm range.”
“Your advice is noted.” Llelderan sat in the command chair and leaned back.
Rhedron grumbled something and concentrated on his instruments.
Llelderan stood and approached the helm controls.
“We hit Edge point at TU 0325,” Rhedron said.
Llelderan looked over his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He looked out the viewport. Edge point was the next jump nexus. Through it was point Helix; a phantom mapped by the ancient spacers but never used.
The jump-points fascinated Llelderan. They were weak spots where adjacent folds in space touched, tears in the ether where stars collapsed and left a rift connecting two or more points in space.
A ship’s jump-field interacted with the nexus and pulled the vessel through to the opposite end of the rift. Most points could be charted on a distance-to-fuel curve. There were exceptions to the rule, and Rhedron’s concern was that Helix might be one of the fuel-hungry few.
“I have to tend my babies.” Rhedron headed for the access ladder.
He met Massihr at top rung.
“Talk him out of this,” Rhedron said before descending.
Massihr nodded and looked to Llelderan. “Helix point has some of the men scared. They really think we won’t return.”
“I don’t see Helix eating so much fuel we can’t return.”
“Brand believes it, says that’s why the spacers called it cursed. He’s convinced most of the crew.”
“Are you saying there might be a showdown?”
She sauntered over to him, reached up and put both hands on his shoulders. “Just be careful.”
Llelderan frowned. “I cannot chance missing this meeting. I won’t function long if these signals keep crashing into my brain every 240 TUs.”
She took one of his hands in both of hers, intertwining their fingers. “I’m frightened, Yel. More scared than when you fought for Captain Fasad’s position. Brand and Jherrik are waiting for a chance to get even.”
Llelderan sighed. “I’ve been hurt before.”
“Yes, but now they know how to kill you—“
He heard someone on the rungs and broke away from Massihr. Ito and Brand, the sensor and comm technicians stepped onto the deck.
“It is over a hundred TUs before jump. What has you two up?”
“Garver’s in the brig,” yellow skinned Ito said. “Jherrik’s locked in his quarters. What’s happening, Captain?”
Llelderan folded his arms. “Garver tried brain surgery on me with a vibro-dagger. Jherrik sent him. ”
Brand shifted uneasily, dusky face unshaven and his blue bridge coat buttoned wrong. “We’re still jumping Edge point?”
“I said so at night-mess, didn’t I?”
Jaw set, Brand nodded, he sat at the sensor station. Ito stared at Llelderan with dark almond eyes before following Brand.
Llelderan settled in the command chair, Massihr next to him. At TU 0115 Rhedron returned to his station in silence. After him, reed-like Wavly the computer tech reported to his spot. At little later, Derth the brawny helm operator and one of the weapons-specialists reported to their seats. By 0200 every console was occupied.
Tension hung in the air like a storm cloud. Llelderan’s fists tightened every time he met their stares. All business went on in a hush. No voices, only the sound of console buttons, feet shifting, and the hum of cooling fans. He could smell the nervousness, see the stilted movements.
Massihr took his hand, his platinum ring sparkling on her finger. He felt the dampness in her palm.
What will be at Helix point?
At 0300, the four reserve bridge personnel sat at their auxiliary stations. Three more crew stood at the engineering station by the access ladder.
A fist slamming a console cracked through the room like a gunshot. “Got you!” Rhedron stood up.
Fourteen crewmen froze, eyes large and faces stark.
Llelderan spoke into the silence. “What did you get, Rhedron?”
Rhedron looked pleased, his wizened features pulled into a toothy grin. “Vodra’s fuel capacitor got knocked out of sync during entry. She and Misa have been fighting over the flux dispersion.”
Llelderan raised an eyebrow. “Is it serious?”
“No, I can have it nailed down in ten TUs.”
Rhedron nodded and left.
Llelderan could feel the attention of the crew. “We will make the jump at 0325. Anyone who wants to argue my order can speak now.” He stood and dropped the dagger onto the chair-seat behind him. In the back of his mind he felt Massihr’s alarm.
Derth coughed and stared at his controls. The weapons people found other things in the room to study. Ito sank down and started running a comm diagnostic. Wavly began playing a computer game.
Brand stood and stared at Llelderan. “You’re not immortal, Captain. You can die like anyone else.”
Through the rapport he saw Massihr reach for her weapon. <No.>
Llelderan focused on Brand, reading his thoughts. He’s in this with Jherrik.
“But are you the man who can kill me? You stole my medical records and studied them with Jherrik. You have the knowledge and the weapon,” Llelderan pointed to the dagger on Brand’s hip. “Do you have the courage?” He folded his arms. “Either kill me or sit in the brig.”
“Doesn’t anyone have the guts to help me?” Brand demanded, face livid. “He’s going to get us lost light-centuries from help!”
Llelderan scanned the assemblage, his gaze coming back to Brand. His hearts hammered. If Brand cuts loose, the crew might mutiny. All together they could bring me down.
“Brand, don’t waste my time. Drop the weapon or use it.”
Brand trembled, his fists clenched. “Cowards!” He ripped the sheath-belt off and flung it on the floor.
“Derth, Wavly, escort Mister Brand to the brig.”
The two men stood and looked at one another.
“Is there something in that order you gentlemen don’t understand?”
They came to stand behind Brand. He could feel their tension.
Not quite ready to rebel.
“Don’t make me repeat myself. Move.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “Signal the deck when he is in.”
They took Brand’s elbows and moved him to the ladder.
Llelderan picked up the vibro-dagger and returned to his seat. He felt Massihr in his mind.
<You can’t put the whole crew in the brig.>
<I’m open to suggestions.>
<If I think of something, I’ll tell you.> She squeezed his hand.
At 0315, Wavly and Derth returned. Llelderan stationed Wavly at Brand’s post. The tension on the bridge had eased.
“Point Edge on scan,” Wavly reported. His words put a ripple through the chamber like a stone dropped in water. Heads came up and fingers stopped their motions.
He punched the comm button. “Rhedron—jump to pre-charge.”
**On-line, Captain,** Rhedron’s voice echoed. **Vodra’s purring now. I’ll give her a tickle to make sure she behaves.**
Llelderan smiled and snapped the comm off. “Massihr, station please.”
She patted his hand and went to her console next to Derth.
“Mister Derth, set flux from beacon. Mister Massihr, half gee approach to the con. Let’s coddle Rhedron’s babies.”
Derth worked on the board. “Sync to twelve PPS. Ready for plot.”
Massihr’s plump fingers flickered across the console. “Plotted.”
Llelderan saw the distortion of Edge point, and the winking strobe of the jump beacon. On comm he said, “Rhedron, going in at half-gee to keep Vodra and Misa happy.”
**My little girls send their love, Llel.**
The ship approached Edge-point at a crawl. The flashing beacon and the vague black spiral of the warp-nexus grew larger.
“Secure for jump. We commit in five TUs.” His voice echoed on speakers throughout the ship.
Moments passed. Llelderan gripped the chair-arm. He’d done the jump procedure hundreds of times but never one this important.
“Power to the grids, Derth. Jump-plot to helm, Massihr.” He counted breaths as the helm adjusted for the plunge into sub-etheral space. “Ten count to jump.” He pulled the strap over his shoulder and buckled in, as did the other bridge crew. Ahead, the nexus had sprung to life, a colorful flower spreading petals of energy. “3…2…1… Jump.”
The ship shuddered and surged forward, sucked into the void. Llelderan often wrote descriptions of what he saw in the instants spent jump-space. They differed each time. Everything appeared to him as though skewed at right angles, three dimensional objects somehow folded in upon themselves. Others read his transcripts with puzzled expressions, not having seen anything other than blackness.
Llelderan’s stomach tightened, and his head ached as light flickered and contorted. The ship burst into real-space with a lurch. The crew gasped, and released their hand-holds.
He cleared his throat. “Plant a beacon, Ito. We will be back.”
Heads turned and looked at him.
“Plot for Helix point, Massihr. Lay it in.” He thumbed the comm. “How did your babies do, Rhedron?”
**Fine. Half-gee made the difference.**
“Good, run your diagnostics and cool them off.” He fell against the back of his chair. “All right, stand down. Get some sleep.”
The crew finished their tasks and filed out. He watched their eyes and minds. Can I keep them under control?
Massihr came and sat by him. “You took a big chance.”
“It was either stand him off then, or get torn apart later.”
“Helix point is the real test.”
“We’ll pass.” He took the hand with his ring and kissed it.
* * * * *
**Transponder signal received. Personnel recall in 45 kilorevs. Cen rel 354-214-118.**
Llelderan jerked upright in the rumpled bed in his quarters, passed a hand over the light switch and rubbed his eyes. Massihr stirred next to him.
Now the sequence is changed! It has only been 15 kilorevs.
Massihr opened her eyes. “What’s the matter?”
He sighed. “The damn voice. It’s started sending every 200 TUs. It’s impossible to sleep through. Sounds like someone yelling in my ear.”
She pulled him down for a kiss. “I can’t make it stop, only tell you how much I care.”
Llelderan kissed her. “It helps to know someone is on my side.”
The locked cabin door erupted inward shattered by a disruptor burst. “She’s the only one, Captain.”
Massihr grabbed for the gun on the night stand.
“Freeze!” Jherrik’s voice. “Move away from it. The ship needs you too much for me to kill you.”
Massihr sighed, rolled away, and sat up with the bed sheet wrapped around her nakedness. Brand and Jherrik stepped into the room, weapons in hand.
Dark, why did I let this happen?
“Jherrik, Brand. What a surprise.” Llelderan stared at the two men.
Jherrik ran a hand through his blond hair. Light glinted in his ice blue eyes. “You don’t need to be psychic to know why we’re here.”
Llelderan took a breath, keeping himself calm. They’re committed, they’re ready to do it. “The meditech will need to be psychic to tell where the pieces belong if I get to you.”
“Not again. I’ve still got scars from five cycles ago.” He pointed his weapon at Massihr. “Move away.”
<Do it,> Llelderan thought to her.
She climbed off the bed and went to the corner of the room near the geode display. Jherrik aimed the disruptor at Llelderan’s face.
Have to confuse them somehow. Think.
<Massihr,> he thought to her. <Be ready to run.>
<I’m not running.> Through his mind’s-eye he saw her hand close on one of the geodes.
Llelderan probed their minds, looking for something to cause dissension. “You know, Brand is a bad ally. When I am dead he plans to kill you.”
“Shut up!” Brand snarled.
The best weapon is the truth. Llelderan did not look at Brand, he kept his eyes on Jherrik. “Giving Brand the magkey to your locker was a mistake. Your suit has been sabotaged. Next time you use it they’ll find decompressed shreds of you all over the inside of the airlock.”
Brand’s eyes widened. “He’d say anything to get out of this.”
Jherrik narrowed his eyes. The gun didn’t waver. “How do you know this?”
Keep him off balance. “How did I know you sent Garver, or that Brand stole my medical records? I knew.” Llelderan’s hand tightened into a fist.
“He’s cracked like Garver,” Brand rasped. “Burn him. We’ll dump him in the airlock and flush him.”
Brand is worried. Jherrik is starting to believe me. One more.
“I suggest you check your suit before you do.”
“I think I will. That doesn’t save—“
Llelderan saw Brand’s aim shift toward Jherrik. He twisted and vaulted. Two blasts shrieked out. The first-mate howled in pain. Llelderan yelped as white-hot talons ripped through his shoulder, and pasty-white blood sprayed the wall in front of him. Massihr heaved the stone hemisphere. A crack. Brand groaned. Llelderan rolled, clutching the shattered arm and shoulder.
Massihr lunged toward the bed. Brand fumbled for his weapon. Llelderan kicked him in the ribs. He crunched into the wall and fell to all fours with a gasp.
Llelderan knocked his gun away and threw out a hand to stop Massihr. “No!”
Her gun flared.
Too late. Brand’s faceless corpse collapsed to the deck. Llelderan grabbed Massihr’s gun and threw it on the bed. He regretted it as agony exploded down his side. Blood pumped from a fist sized bite taken from his shoulder.
“He was going to—Oh no.” Her face went ashen and she rushed for the blanket on the floor.
Llelderan staggered and sat on the bed. Massihr folded the material and pressed it to the wound.
He let out a hiss through clenched teeth. <Take it easy. Just keep blood in me until the matrixes kick in.>
“Damn, you scared me.” Massihr’s heavy chest heaved, beads of perspiration trickled between her pale breasts.
<I scared me too.> He winced as the matrixes throbbed. His body grew hot, his flesh feeling as if insects were swarming all around the skin of the wound. Sparkles danced in his vision. <You know what?>
<It would have been safer if I’d locked the whole crew in the brig.>
Llelderan labored up the rungs behind Massihr at 1530 and dropped into the command chair, arm hanging in a sling. Garthe, the meditech gave him a local anesthetic for the pain. It would be a day before the matrixes repaired the exacerbated nerves.
Massihr took her position at the nav console.
“Holding station. Helix is marked. Data is downloaded.”
“Good.” Llelderan nodded.
He studied the blinking strobe in the view port and the black swirl of Helix point. The stars beyond this point were 25000 light-centuries away.
“Mister Massihr, jump-plot to the helm.”
“Plot to helm, aye.”
“Take us in.”
Helix point sucked them in. The ship shook violently and the sub-etheral realm flashed into being. Time in jump was subjective. A ship plunged through and reappeared. Sometimes time passed, other times it didn’t. This jump felt longer than any he’d experienced.
The Belathi slammed into real-space, throwing everyone against the restraints. As equipment came back on-line, the viewscreen showed the massive pinwheel of a galaxy.
Llelderan swallowed. “Mister Ito, mark us.” Into the comm he said, “Rhedron, how did we do on fuel?”
**Not good, but we can reach Edge point.**
“Start an econ plot to get us to Daver’s point. It is four weeks normal space to a depot from there.”
“We’re marked,” Ito reported. “Wherever here is.”
“A damn long way away,” Wavly grumbled at the computer.
“Care to share your thoughts with rest of us, Wavly?”
“Sir,” he swallowed. “That’s M84, a twelfth magnitude galaxy from the Gamis observatory.”
“Can you translate that, Massihr?”
“About two million light-centuries.”
A couple of whistles.
“Everyone heard Rhedron. We can make it back to Daver. Let’s relax and see if we can find anything. If not we make our calcs and go home.”
“What are we looking for?” Wavly asked.
“Anything out of the ordinary.” Llelderan sighed, thinking about the possibilities if he couldn’t stop the signals. “Massihr, plot us a flower course, 20 TUs per rev, fifteen degrees of axial variance per loop.”
One circuit, then two. They were still several light-cycles best speed from the nearest star-cluster.
He checked the chronometer; 1625.
Halfway into the fourth loop, Wavly spoke up. “I’m picking up what could be a sub-etheral carrier.”
“No guess, it doesn’t originate from anything in range.”
“Patch the line into nav.”
“Derth, hold station.”
Wavly worked at his computer and the sensors, animated for the first time since they’d headed toward Helix point.
“Plot to nav,” Wavly reported.
They followed the line. Nothing in sensor range. Llelderan checked the chronometer; 1710. “We stay on this until 1730.”
Wavly gasped. “Tar—”
The ship toppled as though caught in a tornado. Crewmen slammed against consoles. Llelderan clung to the chair arm as the vessel spun.
“Station thrusters!” he yelled.
Massihr and Derth fought for control.
Blasts from the retros stabilized the wild gyrations.
Men were scattered across the deck, bleeding, some unconscious. Llelderan staggered to Wavly, who clutched at the blood spurting from compound fracture in his arm.
“Get us off the line!” Wavly yelled, mouth bloody. “Go! Go! Go!”
“Derth, hard over. Ten burst.”
Derth didn’t move. Massihr, hands and face bloody, reached across him and slammed the ship into motion.
Llelderan ripped his shirt off and staunched the flow of blood from Wavly’s arm. “What kind of weapon was that?”
Wavly spit out a broken tooth. “Not a weapon.” He grimaced. “A ship. It passed us so fast, the wake hit like a bank of nova-cannons.”
Llelderan examined Derth. The big helmsman had a large bruise on his forehead, but he still breathed. He checked on Massihr, the helmswoman favored her ribs and licked at a cut lip, her wrist looked badly bruised.
He called to engineering. “Rhedron, report?”
“Massihr, hold the con!”
He ran to the ladder, leaped to the primary deck, helped two bruised crewmen to their feet, and dashed to the engineering access.
Rushing into the vaulted engine-room, he found Rhedron crumpled in the corner. The man’s legs were twisted at an odd angle from his torso. Llelderan listened for a heartbeat. A feeble stutter.
He leaped for the intercom. “Meditech to engineering! Rhedron is down, broken back.” The ship shuddered and he staggered. Llelderan switched to the bridge link. “What is going on up there?” The Belathi rocked again.
Massihr came on-line. **It’s a nav aisle. Some kind of vessels are passing through so fast we can’t even clock them.**
“Back us off 50,000 clicks.”
Garthe, the red-faced meditech, limped in with two helpers. He set down his box and started treating Rhedron.
“I have to move him soon. Get the ship stable or we’ll lose him.”
Llelderan nodded and jogged back to the bridge.
People were scattered around the command station, medical kits thrown open, and men busy with pseudo-skin and laser sutures. Massihr sat in the command chair taping her wrist.
“Okay?” He asked.
He sat in the mate’s chair. The chronometer read 1720.
“Show me mercy.” Wavly, his arm in a sling looked to Llelderan. “Don’t ask me how. One of those ships stopped dead out there. She’s come about. Damn, she’s at least fifty times our size.”
The huge vessel loomed in the view port. From its needle prow, to the swept wings, the gleaming silver giant looked made for speed. Strobes and multicolored beacons winked on its mirror surface.
“Now what?” Wavly muttered.
“I doubt it would be advisable to attack.”
“Let them look us over. If they can build such a ship, their scanners can learn more about us in a TU than we could tell them in a cycle.”
Speakers all over the ship crackled. **This is the Kriar vessel Philosopher, Shargra Khsargis commanding. Our scans show a Kriar citizen aboard. Are you in need of assistance?**
Seeing that Ito was barely conscious, Llelderan walked to the comm station and switched on the transmitter. “This is Captain Llelderan of the vessel Belathi. I am here in response to your signal. However, we wandered into your nav corridor and have a medical situation.”
**Acknowledged. We have a medical technician ready. Permission to come aboard with two personnel.**
Llelderan scanned the startled faces of the bridge crew.
It’s what I came here for.
**Boarding in ten revs. Please do not be alarmed when we appear.**
A moment passed and three shapes appeared on the command floor without a flash or sound. The biggest male wore a shiny crimson uniform, unfamiliar black markings stretched down the left and right sleeves. He carried a formidable looking sidearm. Another male garbed in a similar green costume had two marks on his sleeves. The last, was a woman with ankle-length hair dressed in blue.
The skin tight uniforms showed the muscular perfection of their bodies. They all possessed the same ebony hair and eyes, and jewels were enfleshed in their gold-skinned foreheads identical to Llelderan’s.
Khsargis nodded to him. <Captain, if you permit, I will have Relavia examine you first, then tend the others.> He nodded to the female Kriar.
Better let them work on me first to reassure the crew. Llelderan took a breath, then nodded. She came to Llelderan and took out a gray device and passed it back and forth over his shoulder.
<There is matrix damage,> she told him. The Kriar woman’s thoughts were musical, wonderfully clear and concise. <The shoulder should have mended more quickly.>
She removed the sling from his neck, and made more passes with the device. His arm glowed and a tingling went through the shoulder. Putting the device back in her belt, she grabbed his deltoids in both hands. He flinched. Her hands were much warmer than Massihr’s. Relavia pushed the shoulder through the range of its motion. <Pain?>
<Good. You should have a matrix technician look at your stones. They are not functioning nominally.>
Llelderan nodded. Relavia dipped her head and headed to Derth.
“It’s okay,” he said aloud. “They’re here to help.” He turned to Khsargis. <Shargra, I came here because a signal has been disrupting my mind for days now.>
Khsargis frowned. <Do you not know how to turn the receptor off?>
Llelderan shook his head.
<How much do you remember?>
Llelderan glanced at Massihr who looked pale. He felt her presence in the back of his mind. <One short dream, and my name.>
Khsargis looked to the male dressed in green. The other responded with a nod. <We have picked up other personnel who have suffered similar memory loss trauma from the war. If you wish I will get your identification signature and have Zhorim find your records.>
Llelderan nodded. <Yes, please.>
The Kriar commander stepped up and touched Llelderan’s chest stone. Llelderan felt the two Kriar communicate. Zhorim took a black box off his side and punched some buttons on it.
He checked on Derth. The helmsman sat on the deck holding his head. The Kriar meditech was unwrapping Wavly’s bindings. The computer tech’s arm looked fully healed.
<She is very efficient.>
Khsargis nodded. <Relavia is our head medical technician.>
Zhorim pulled a square object from the black box and handed it to the commander. Khsargis closed his eyes and rubbed the object between his fingers. The Shargra swallowed and Llelderan detected a hint of apprehension, immediately capped. <Llelderan Mavros Techstar, still living are your Mother Itvia, and younger sister Ivral. It is all here.>
Llelderan heard Massihr draw a breath. He sensed her immediate thought.
What if I have a wife?
He held his breath. It never occurred to him that members of his family would still be alive.
Khsargis handed the blue chip to Llelderan. <I will ensure you get the necessary study materials.> Khsargis glanced at Massihr as she stood and came to stand next to Llelderan.
Llelderan put his arm around Massihr. The woman’s fair skin had paled so that her freckles were even more prominent. He didn’t need the rapport to read the apprehension in her green eyes.
<Comrhadin Llelderan, will you—> Khsargis paused, studying Massihr. <—and your intended, be returning with us?>
Llelderan felt Massihr stiffen. He gave his fiancé’s shoulder a squeeze. She looked up. He smiled and kissed her forehead.
<I do not believe we are ready for that yet. I need time to relearn what I have forgotten. I do request two favors, however.>
Khsargis bobbed his head. <How can I serve?>
Llelderan took note of the Shargra’s response. What was a Comrhadin? <My engineer’s back is broken and needs Relavia’s help if he’s ever to walk again. I also need a tow. We nearly ran out of jump fuel getting here.>
Khsargis nodded. <Easily done. We will tend all your injured. I will have a matrix technician warped over to check your stones.>
<I want to understand, Shargra. What was I hearing in my head?>
<We still have over six-hundred personnel unaccounted for in the Protectorate war. Your stones must have only recently healed enough to pick up the homing signal. The warp was a central navigation point during the war. We have a beacon set so that it provides intercept times with scheduled convoys. We check this point every run for wakers.>
<Many of the soldiers are still in stasis, kept asleep by some environmental havoc; being buried for instance. After millions of cycles; erosion, the evolution of life on different worlds, and other factors are contributing to the uncovering of their bodies.>
Khsargis took a breath and held out his hand.
Llelderan took Khsargis’ hand. He noted the Shargra’s powerful grip.
<Welcome back to the Kriar, Comrhadin.> Khsargis smiled. <I am certain there are many who will be glad to see you alive.>
Llelderan nodded. <Glad to be alive, Shargra.>
* * * * *
The Belathi sat parked at the massive floating fuel depot at Daver’s Star. Other ships of all shapes and descriptions were parked around her. The Kriar vessel had pulled them into a cargo hold, and only sixty TUs later delivered them a short distance from Daver.
Llelderan stood in his quarters stuffing the few changes of clothes he possessed into a carryall. The layover in Daver would be two weeks and he planned to enjoy it.
Massihr knocked at the door frame. He stopped and looked at her.
“Are you ready yet?”
She nodded. “I still don’t understand why you put them off.”
He picked the commander’s care-package off the floor and set it on the bed. The large black case contained all the apparatus necessary to call home, to learn about his lost people, and to restore his memory.
He patted the container. “You heard me tell Khsargis we weren’t ready. Once he returns to Homeworld, I’m certain my family will be notified. They’ll probably come looking for me.” He came across the room and put his hands on her shoulders. “We have a lot to learn before then.”
“I look forward to it. I was afraid when—well, I saw how you reacted to that woman, I mean I—“
He put a hand across her lips.
“I would not take back my ring simply because I saw a nice looking female of my own race. I love you.” He sighed. “There is one thing that worries me though.”
“What is that?”
He kissed her on the nose. “Taking you home to mother.”