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Issue Nineteen, MUSE-V is Down

Monday morning, all eyes were turned skyward or tuned into a news station hoping to catch a glimpse of the much heralded test launch of the Silver Arrow Multi-Use Space Vehicle.

Designers and engineers huddled around in the control room, watching tensely as the countdown commenced. A plume of flame appeared beneath the MUSE-V and it rose into the air. Higher it went, higher. The newscaster in the foreground spoke, "Again man reaches out to touch the stars, and -- oh, good Lord!"

The MUSE wavered, then tipped. Rather than rising it was now racing sideways, West into the interior. In seconds it vanished from view and from the cameras of the news media.

A strange sight would have greeted anyone in the 'Parts who had taken their eyes off the tv and gazed outside. A tall ebon alien burst out onto the roof of a buitlding and took to the air, streaking westward, in the direction the MUSE had taken.

	*		*		*		*
In an eclectically furnished parlor, a wizard and a bear watched the TV in horror. "Ragnar," said the man picking up a cloak and swirling it around his shoulders, "fetch the Nissan."
	*		*		*		*
In a smoky pool hall, amidst the "prestigious" morning clientele the cowboy at the bar tilted his Stetson low over his eyes and shed a tear.
	*		*		*		*
At the offices of the Port Alexander Dutchmen, team owner Alexander Crosby emerged from his offices along with Cigna Jackson, the team's starting free safety.

"I really appreciate your OKing this, Mr. C." Jackson spoke demurely.

"Not a problem, Cigna" Crosby responded, "I always have time for my employees. Take the time you need, family's more important than football."

Jackson nodded and shook Crosby's hand before leaving the room. Crosby turned to his personal assistant (and daughter) Lorelei Crosby as she watched the television screen, her attention rapt.

"Still watching the space launch?" Crosby looked at his watch. "Is it your break, Lorelei?"

"Dad, I love you, but the only thing funnier than your wit is that suit." Lorelei quipped.

Crosby looked mockingly at her, then smiled. "You see one of these launches, you've seen them all."

"Suit yourself," Lorelei said dismissively, never looking away from the screen. "Space has always fascinated...what the?!?!"

Crosby turned to look as both of them stared at the screen. The announcers on the television were reacting in horror as the MUSE-V spacecraft tipped towards the west, then spun off into view.

"My God," Lorelei gasped, "Those astronauts. Did they crash?" Lorelei turned to her father as he headed out the door.

"I don't know, but I'm planning on finding out" Crosby said. "Lorelei, I think you know the drill"

"Not a problem." Lorelei said as she immediately scanned her father's appointment book and set out to call the one scheduled appointment he had that day.

	*		*		*		*
As he popped out of the vent and sped along the ground until he was a good distance away, Sting pondered what could have happened. Hijacking? Guidance system failure? All he did know was that there were people on the MUSE-V that could be in serious trouble. After he was a sufficient distance from the complex, Sting grew to full height and sped out towards the launch site.
	*		*		*		*
Max had appropriated a television a month or so ago. He rarely watched more than the local news on it, but left it near the Marketplace so others could make use of the device. Such small comforts were so important for the life their led.

Today had been different. Max held out hope that the stars held the answer to their problems. If mankind could reach beyond this small planet, then perhaps there was hope for them all. He often had to defend his position to others who thought the money could be better spent helping them. Max considered that short-sighted. Military spending, police spending, pork-bellied pocket-lining... these were things that could be cut. Exploration of the Seas and Outer Space... these things mankind needed.

His optimism was running high. Feelings of pride and joy soon turned to empty sorrow as he watched the MUSE veer from its flight path. One or two misguided souls cheered, but most of the Nation was silent. Max motioned for his assembled nobles to attend him.

"I fear that my presence will be required elsewhere for a time. Do you have everything in hand here?"

	*		*		*		*
Alden held Mara as she looked away from the screen. Both were horrified by what they had just seen. Some time passed that Alden's mind could not measure. He pulled away from his wife.

"I've... I've got to go to work."

	*		*		*		*
The Wanderer's beeperphone buzzed, it was Defender on the line.

A harried Wanderer answered, "Yes Defender? I'm putting some feelers out, do you know anything?"

"Nothing on my end. Just tell me where you want me." Defender answered.

"I've a few more calls to make, I'll meet you on site," said the Wanderer.

"Launch site, yes?" Defender clarified.

"I'd imagine the authorities can handle that end, I was thinking about recovery."

"Then you have some idea where it went down?"

"I figure it went down over there somewhere," Defender could imagine the Wanderer pointing off in some direction on the other end of the phone. "Just to be sure, let's see if I'm right. Meet you at the launch pad."

Defender agreed, kissed his wife, hopped on his motorcycle and set out for the launch site.

	*		*		*		*
Ka-Sador flew along what was rapidly turning into a clearly visible crash path. The path ended at the banks of Lake Godluch.

He took a wide arc around the site surveying the area for any unusual movement and sniffed the air.

He guessed that the MUSE, if that was the trail he was following, would have touched down far out in the lake, nearly to the other side. Searching from that point, he saw no trace of the vehicle in the water. However, on the far shore something caught his eye.

Flying over to look more closely, he saw that the ground had been chewed up rather badly by some kind of vehicle. The tracks were large and many, and Ka-Sador guessed that they belonged to trucks, large trucks.

Landing nearby, Ka-sador approached what he believed to be the crash site. Even though he had only seen drawings of the MUSE on the picture box in the days leading up to the launch, he figured he would be able to recognize it if he saw it. Its absence, and the appearance of these trucks were too coincidental. 'Stolen,' he thought, 'someone was waiting for it which means its divergence from flight was planned.'

Ka-sador was banking on the idea that trucks this large could not move fast, and judging by the damage their tires did tracking them shouldn't be too hard. He took to the air to follow the path, periodically sniffing the air for traces of the singed MUSE and fuel exhaust from the trucks.

Ka-Sador took to the air again, this time pursuing the trucks. He quickly followed the only route they could have taken away from the lake, noting that it seemed like a newly cut path. His search became more difficult when the main roads were reached, and he decided that the trucks were splitting up. He made some informed guesses and adjusted his course accordingly.

A spot in the distance slowly resolved itself into a truck of the type he was looking for. He closed in on it.

Ka-Sador followed the truck for another twenty minutes or so, then watched as it pulled into a truck stop. A man got out of the truck and went into the truck stop. He seemed unremarkable, a truck driver.

Ka-sador landed quietly in a deserted part of the parking lot between two rigs and activated the holoprojector. Starzkee Enhutch, private investigator, approached the truck he had been trailing for nearly a half hour. He glanced at the markings and license plate.

Ka-sador, in his guise, walked to the back of the truck to steal a peek inside.

There were no windows, and the truck's door was locked.

Ka-sador grabbed the lock in his hand, dwarfing the contraption, and looked about to make sure no one was watching as he squeezed.

The lock gave way, and Ka-Sador could see into the truck. The entire trailer was empty.

Ka-sador let out a disappointing sigh. If this was a decoy, then perhaps the driver knew the whereabouts of the other trucks and the MUSE. Lowering the door, the alien proceeded toward the truck stop and looked for a phonebooth. There was one in the parking lot.

Awkwardly, Ka-sador stood outside the booth and stretched the receiver where his frame could better speak. He called the number Defender had given him, in case of an emergency.

	*		*		*		*
The launch site was located at Reynolds Field, the local air force base. Access was restricted, of course. When Sting came racing down the road he saw Defender (who he recognized from the papers) sitting on a motorcyle and talking with the guard at the gate.

"I'm sorry, Defender," said the MP, "but I'm not allowed to let you on base."

"I know you have a lot going on," Defender stated as politely as he could manage. "Perhaps someone from the Base Commander's office will feel differently. Is it possible to have one of them come down here? After all, I am here to help."

"I'll call, sir," replied the MP. "I know it would make me feel better." He retreated into his little box and picked up a phone.

Defender stood patiently, hardly noticing the arrival of the new hero.

Sting zipped in alongside Defender. "Locked up tighter than a drum?"

"Yeah. I don't know if I'm going to be able to get us..." Defender turned to face the unfamiliar hero. "And you are?"

Sting saw the guard hanging up the phone, leaned on Defender's cycle, and shrank to one inch before the guard could notice him, so that he was standing on the motorcycle seat. He then ran up to Defender's ear. "My name's Sting, I'm new here, but I'm here to help too. I shrank cause if you're having problems getting in the base, him seeing me may screw it up for you. I'm hanging onto your mask for dear life, so don't move suddenly, ok?"

"Riiight." Defender said, turning his attention back to the guard. "Just try not to get in front of the goggles. You'll block my camera feed."

"Hold on," said the MP as he returned. "Someone'll be along shortly. Can I get an autograph?" he said producing a pen and pad.

A few moments later, a jeep pulled up driven by another MP with an officer in the passenger seat. The officer stepped out, "Defender, I'm Captain Roberts." He pulled out a cell-phone and spoke into it, "Go ahead."

Defender's IPAC beeperphone went off once. Roberts smiled, "Great. Just wanted to do a little ID verification there. Either you're Defender, or you mugged him on the way over. Heh. Mount up and follow me, unless you'd rather ride with us?"

"Nah. I'll ride," Defender said.

"What do you think," Sting whispered into Defender's ear, "Should they know about me now or later. If now, acknowledge me to them."

Defender thought for a second. "Captain, could you give me just a second? I need to make one more call before heading in."

He stepped a few paces away. "Computer. Call Sting."

"Unable to comply. Unknown name," Mara's simulated voice said in Defender's ear.

"Sting," Defender said loud enough to be heard by the MP's. "I'm going to be able to get in for a look around. Under close supervision, of course. If you get here, like right now, I might be able to get you in on my credientials. Otherwise, you'll have to deal with the IPAC guys yourself. Computer, close connection."

"No connection open, Sexy."

"I didn't program that," Defender said as he shook his head gently. Whispering as he turned around. "That's your cue, Sting."

Sting bolted over and jumped off of the receiver, then grew, making it look to the officers as if he just grew out of the phone. "Always wanted to do that." Sting thought to himself with a chuckle.

Once at full height, Sting went to the officers and shook their hands. "Gentlemen, I'm Sting. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances, but it's still a pleasure." Sting looked over towards Defender. "Hey, thanks for the call, but you need to give a guy a couple of seconds. I almost did a head-on as you were closing that thing."

"Captain. My associate, Sting. I'll take responsibility for him. Just as I suspect I'll be taking responsibility for the Wanderer when he shows up," Defender said.

"All right," said Roberts, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Hop aboard." After the heroes mounted the jeep, the MP drove them onto the base. A few minuted later, the jeep pulled up in front of what looked like a cross between a blockhouse and an air control tower. Two MPs stood guard outside the door. Roberts hustled the heroes inside. The interior reminded them of pictures of Houston control from old moon shots, but the equipment was much newer and zoomier. The room was filled with military men, scientists and dignitaries. The heroes recognized Senator Paul Page and Mayor John Elhill. Defender also recognized Richard King, one of the scientists kidnapped a few weeks ago from the convention. Other faces looked familiar, but the heroes couldn't put names to the faces.

An officer approached, "Gentleman, I'm Colonel Bill Mayall, base commander. Welcome."

Sting leaned forward and shook the commander's hand.

"Wish we were meeting under better circumstances, Commander. I'm Defender and this is my associate, Sting. What can you tell us about this situation?"

"Not too much, I'm afraid." He led the way over to where men were crouched in front of radar screen. "As you know, this was the first test of the MUSE-V, an unmanned flight to shake it loose a bit. Shortly into the flight, the vehicle stopped responding to telemetry and radio control. We tracked its westward path until we lost it near Lake Godluch. I've scrambled a helicopter which is already enroute, and another is being prepared."

"Do you know for sure if it touched down?" Defender asked. "What sort of population base are we talking in that area?"

"No, we aren't sure, but that's where we lost it on radar. The near side of Lake Godluch has recreational access, but the far side is inaccessible and not likely to have any one much in it," said Mayall.

Defender gave Sting a look. He had suspicions and wanted to see if the new hero had them as well.

Given the fact that Sting wore a full face mask, he certainly couldn't confirm to Defender what he was thinking...but there was something about all this that really raised the hairs on his back like a static shock.

"Did you detect any interference or perhaps competing signals?"

"For that matter," Sting added, "is there anything on board the MUSE that would have given you a camera read on what was inside? I've had experiences with teleportation, what's the likelihood that someone MANUALLY took over the controls?"

Colonel Mayall looked surprised, "I hadn't thought of a manual take-over. Do we have any internal cameras?"

"Not on this flight, sir."

"Pity. As for the interference ... we might not detect it here if there was a strongly focussed signal," continued the Colonel. "We didn't pick anything up did we?"

"Nothing conclusive, sir. A couple things looked a little off, but within normal variation."

"Is this the only control center,or do you have redunancy elsewhere?" Defender asked. "I hate to imply a lack of security, but what are the chances of an inside job?"

"This is the only place for this run," said Mayall. "I don't like to think it could have been an inside job."

"Not a situation I would..."

Defender's IPAC beeperphone buzzed.

"Excuse me for a moment, gentlemen." Defender stepped away from the group. "Computer, pick up call from Beeperphone. Defender here."

A hushed but familiar voice came across the speaker, [FRENDT DEFENDR, THIS IS KA-SADOR. HUNTING FOR MUSE AND FOWND CLUE]

"What have you got, big guy?" Defender asked.

Either Ka-sador's English was getting better or the hours spent talking together allowed for Defender to decipher quicker as the alien explained. He started with his pursuit of the MUSE probe and how it led him to Lake Goodluch where there was a crash landing. Unfortunately there was no signs of the MUSE as apparently there were several large trucks waiting to remove the spacecraft. Ka-sador filled Defender in on his tracking of the trucks to the highway where apparently they split up and how he was currently calling from a truck stop where one of the trucks had stopped. The investigation of the truck, however, turned up empty. [ME WAIT FOR DRIVER, AND BREAK HIM DOWN BARETTA STYLE] assured Ka-sador.

Defender had to stifle a laugh. "Try not to break him too bad. In fact, if you can keep the truck from going anywhere, we'll be closer to an answer."

Stepping back over to the group, he spoke to all assembled. "My partner has found the crash site. As we suspected, the vehicle was hijacked. Our hijackers have removed the vehicle in trucks. Colonel, can you get your people to lock down the crash site? We'll see about apprehending one of the trucks."

"Ka-sador, grab the driver if you can, but don't let that truck leave. Put holes in the tires or something. Tell me the name of the truck stop and we'll be there as quickly as possible."

[ROGER THAT] answered the alien as he named the truck stop and told Defender he would disable the driver and truck.

And with that, Ka-sador hung up the phone and went back over to the truck to wait in the shadows.

	*		*		*		*
As the MP on gate duty walked his patrol a knock on the inside of the chainlink fence near his post rattled. There stood the hero known as the Wanderer asking "Let me out!" with a grin. Then a moment of composure overcame the alien and with a pop he was standing in front of the guard. "Excuse me, I was supposed to meet Defender here. He hasn't stood me up, has he?"

"Ah, nossir. He's inside with the Colonel. Shall I all Captain Roberts for you?" asked the rattled MP.

"Indeed you shall," said the Wanderer with a bow. "And I'll be sure to tell the Colonel how you captured me so swiftly." The Wanderer paced around with a jaunty whistle awaiting the arrival of Captain Roberts.

As the Wanderer waited, a jaunty figure descended from a nearby public bus and jogged toward him. It was the Beggar King.

"Your excellency," bowed the Wanderer. "Looks like the gang may be all here. Don't worry, I'll make sure you get the proper fanfare."

"As always, your efforts do not go unnoticed," Beggar King said. "What's the score here? What's next?"

A jeep pulled up near the gate, "Ah, Wanderer. I'm Captain Roberts." Roberts did the trick with calling Wanderer's beeperphone. "Who is your companion?"

"I am Duke Maximillian Immungrun and I am at your service," Beggar King said with a bow and flourish.

"This esteemed gentleman is royalty, but I will forgive your improper protocol due to the circumstances. Next time I expect an honor guard. He is the Beggar King, and I will vouch for him. A more nobler chap you would be hard pressed to meet!" beamed the Wanderer.

"Yes. I see. Well, would you care to ride," asked the Captain.

The heroes mounted up and soon were outside the control room and passing the MPs. They arrived just as Defender and Ka-Sador hung up. Introductions were quickly made, and it was decided to take a helicopter to rendezvous with Ka-Sador.

	*		*		*		*
Soon, Ka-Sador's prey came out of the truck stop and approached his rig.

Ka-sador waited until the man was to his truck before stepping out of the shadows, his raincoat perfectly rumpled. [WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?] he asked.

"Geez!" The man jumped backwards, and then recovered himself. "Who the hell are you and what the hell business is it of yours?" he countered belligerently.

[YOO NOT SPOSED TO STOP!, WHAT BOSSES THINK?, IF I FOLLOW YOO, THEN OTHERS MAY HAVE TOO] he looked over his shoulder to see if anyone else was around. [BOSSES RIGHT NOT TO TRUST YOO].

"Hey man, they said there was no rush, and I had to use the can, you know?" said the man.

[CALL OTHER TRUCKS NOW, SEE IF THEY STUPID AS YOO AND STOP!] said the man in the rumpled raincoat with a stern look on his face, gesturing to the cab. [IF MILITARY FIND US, THEN ITS FIRING SQWAD FOR SURE, CAN YOO DIG IT?]

"Go ahead and call 'em, man. If it's a big deal, I'll get moving." The man headed for his cab.

With an enveloping grip on the shoulder that felt very large and very strong, the man was turned around. [I SAID YOO CALL THEM AND ASK WHERE THEY ARE! SEE IF THEY WERE FOLLOWED AND IF ON SKEDULE. IF MUSE LOST THEN ALL YOO MUST BE DEALT WITH SEVERELY.]

"How the hell am I supposed to call them?" A light slowly dawned in the man's eyes. "Aww crap," he said, then his hand darted toward his jacket.

In what was a visual paradox the man's arm moved in a blur and long before the fist he saw struck him, he felt what seemed like sledgehammer smash into his head.

The man fell to the ground unconscious.

Ka-sador leaned over and reached inside the man's pocket to see what he was going for.

He found a pistol, a large caliber revolver. Ka-sador tossed the gun under the rig and fished around in his pockets for the keys to the rig. Upon finding them, he opened the cab and shoved the body inside, and looked for a radio.

There was a pretty standard issue CB [JUZT LIKE BJ EN THA BEAR] but nothing else particularly interesting.

Ka-sador searched the man for identification, and turned on the CB while he looked for anything of significance.

The chatter on the CB was what he expected, while the truck itself provided information but no surprises; there was licensing and registration information for both the man and the truck, and the names jibed. Ka-Sador wasn't sure, given the gaps in his knowledge, but it looked like the man was an independant owner/operator, which fit his television schooled model of how trucking worked.

Ka-sador placed the information on the seat and grabbed the man by his collar and pulled him from the cab. To the back of the truck they went.

Where they found the same nothing Ka-Sador had previously found. The alien lifted the man into the back of the rig and dragged him to the front. Gingerly Ka-sador patted the man across the cheeks to revive him.

"Wha ... wha ...," his eyes cleared. "Who are you?"

With a firm enveloping grip on the man's throat he spoke, [WHO DO YOO WORK FOR? WHERE IS THE MUSE?]

After gasping for a moment, the man coughed out, "I don't know. I was hired for a simple transport gig. Then my truck was sent out empty. That's all I know."

[YOO LIE!] he said matter-of-factly, since criminals never told the truth at first on any of the shows he watched. [NO MONEY FOUND, WHERE YOO GET PAID? WHERE OTHER TRUCKS? YOO TELL ME ALL!] and then in a soft whisper [OR I GET HUNGRY] At this he touched what appeared to be his belt and suddenly the trucker felt he was in a nightmare staring into the eyes of a winged alien.

"Ohmig ...," the trucker's eyes got very large. "It's the truth, truth! I got some advance payment and the rest is hidden in the cab. I showed up this metal thing came crashing down, the freaks loaded it into one of the other trucks and I was told to drive south for a couple of days."


"Four of 'em. One was a chick in a blue suit with some kind of bird on the chest, she was the boss. There was a big guy, really big, like 14, 15 feet tall. Some guy in a yellow suit with a white sun thingie. The real freak was just some sort of grey thing. Man sized, but that's about it."


"Don't know. The freeks and the MUSE got in one truck. The we all left and split up pretty quick."

Ka-sador looked curiously at the man, sniffing the air. [HOW FREEKS FIND YOO?]

"How the hell should I know? Yellow Pages? Employment agency? Previous employers who liked my work?"

[SAY GUDNIGHT GRAYCIE,] said Ka-sador seconds before an Orionid chop landed to the side of the man's neck.

	*		*		*		*
A military helicopter landed in the parking lot outside a truck stop, and Defender, Wanderer, Sting, Beggar King and a squad of MPs bailed out near a parked semi-rig.

Defender began looking for his partner, while Beggar King immediately headed toward the semi.

Upon hearing the helicopter and seeing Defender, Ka-sador switched off his holoprojector and approached. He eyed the newest hero Sting suspiciously, soaking in his scent with a series of sniffs.


"But if this truck was at the site then we still have evidence. Fiber analysis and finger-printing and that sort of thing." Defender extended his hand. "You did well, regardless."

"Quite right" Sting chimed in. "You got here. The rest of us were caught flatfooted. That kind of bravery I respect."

Sting walked over to Ka-sador and extended his hand. "My name is Sting. I'm here to help. You said your name was Casadore?"

Ka-sador approached cautiously and took his hand after receiving a nod from Defender, [ME KA-SADOR, YOO MAN CALLED STEENG. NICE TO MAKE AKWAYNTENCE] The greeting was awkward, but earthlanders used it quite frequently on the television so Ka-sador thought it was appropriate.

After this, the alien looked to Defender and motioned for him alone to come with him out of earshot of the others. A few metres away he filled him in on what had happened. The driver, he told Defender, came out soon after their phone conversation. Ka-sador recounted how he had questioned him as if he was part of the gang and the man admitted to being part of the heist. Then the driver attempted to 'throw down' on the alien, Ka-sador pointed to the pistol an MP had found and then continued with what he had discovered. The driver was an independent trucker, hired to be a decoy along with another truck. He was hired by a group of four 'freaks'; a woman leader in a blue suit with a bird on her chest; a 5 metre tall man; a man in a yellow suit with a sun emblem, and a grey man-shaped creature. They rode with the MUSE. [DRIVER IN TRAILER] he finished.

Defender popped open his wrist comp and made notes quickly. None of the people sounded familiar to him so he dutifully filed the data away.

"You snagged the driver. Did he stop here for a reason? Or did he say?" Defender asked. "Wait. Did you say five meters tall? Wow. That's big. We'll let the Wanderer take him."

Ka-sador answered Defender, [DRIVER LAZEE]

Defender scowled and shrugged.

Meanwhile, Beggar King was shoulder deep in the side of the truck.

"Let's have a look inside," he said as he stuck his intangiable head through side of the truck.

Inside the truck was what looked like an unconscious trucker and nothing else.

"Well, that's boring," he said as he slid back out. "The truck is mostly empty. Just one sleeping trucker. Think I'll take a stroll."

On the odd chance there were accomplices present, Beggar King decided to circle the truck stop. The arrival of the chopper doubtlessly stirred the locals and a good accomplice would be using the confusion to either gather info or slip away. Nothing caught his eye as he made his pass.

Unnoticed until now was the disappearance of the Wanderer, but this was rectified as the alien in black walked out of the truck stop carrying a plate of cheese fries with what looked like chocolate syrup on top. "Ah, that Dixie. Such a handsome woman, if I were only a couple of centuries younger..." he trailed off and asked, "Do we have any leads? There can't be a fence in Port Alexander wealthy enough to deal in this kind of stolen property."

"I can't think there would be a fence in the world rich enough... Chocolate syrup? Ew. I can't believe you are eating that," Defender stated. Thinking aloud, "Why would someone steal an unmanned spacecraft? They certainly went to a lot of trouble. Either they plan to ransom it back or they want at the technology inside. Checking out the crash site wouldn't be a bad idea. Otherwise, I think it's time to pow-wow with the folks at mission control."

"Boys, your truck driver is out cold in the back of the truck." Defender walked back toward the chopper. "Ka-sador. Could you lead us to the crash site?"

Ka-sador hissed a [YESSSS] and waited for the order to lead.

The heroes and most of their escort re-entered the helicopter and followed Ka-Sador who led them back toward Lake Godluch. He swooped down and indicated a clearing on the lakeside. Parked near the clearing was a Nissan Pathfinder and two men were standing near it. The Wanderer and Defender recognized The Mystic and Ragnar.

Ka-Sador circled the two on the ground, then suddenly dove down and slammed into Ragnar! The man slammed back into the Nissan, Ka-sador hopped to his feet and launched into a spinning back kick and double thrust to the man's upper chest. A littany of chirps, hisses, and squawks came from the winged alien as his native language echoed with each strike.

The Mystic raised his arms and shimmering bands of golden light sprang into being around Ka-Sador pinning his arms and wings to his body.

[RELEESE ME BEFORE HE KILLS US ALL] squawked the winged alien.

"What are you talking about?" asked the Mystic. "I shall not release you! You have injured, possibly killed my associate for no reason. Explain yourself!"

[KRAI ENSLAYVE MY PEOPLE, HE HERE TO KILL ME AND PRINCISS!] Ka-sador shrieked adn immediately realized that he shouldn't have mentioned the Princess. The emotion of having his oppressor so near had caused him to speak without thinking.

Defender leapt from the chopper before it touched ground. He angled for near the ruckus.

"Can this thing go any faster?" Sting shouted, not being used to being stuck in the air when there was a problem on the ground. He wondered to himself if his sting had the range to do any good from here.

The Wanderer vanished from the helicopter and appeared next to the Mystic.

Defender landed just on the ground near the brawl as the helicopter dropped closer to the ground. Sting dropped to the ground when it got low enough, and then sped PAST Defender with a beeline right to the Mystic, aiming for a trusty right hand and landing it solidly spinning the Mystic back into the car.

Just as the Wanderer appeared next to the Mystic and said "Hello, my friend" Sting struck the Mystic. Shocked, the nearby Wanderer exclaimed "What the...." and retaliated likewise against the newcomer. Smacking Sting a good one and sending him back a few feet.

Defender yelled at the top of his voice. "Everybody stop! Right now!"

Once he had everyone's attention, he continued. "We are all more or less on the same side. Ragnar and Ka-sador. Come with me now, please. Everyone else, please start looking for clues."

Sting paused and called out "You know these guys, Defender? All I saw was K.C. howling in pain and Doug Henning here pulling the strings."

"The Mystic is a friend of the Wanderer. Ragnar is..." Defender started. "With him. The rest is a sticky situation at least partially my fault."

Sting nodded and backed away from the Mystic. "OK, if he says you're OK...I'm fine with that for now. You OK?"

The Mystic looked at Ka-Sador, "If I release you, you will leave Ragnar be? He needs help, by the look of it."

[KILL HIM! KRAI WILL ENSLAYVE EARTH, YOO ALL IN DANGER!] yelled Ka-sador as he struggled in his bonds. With burning hatred in his eyes he looked to Defender for understanding.

"I'll take that as a no, then," commented the Mystic drily. He turned to the unconscious man on the hood of the car and did something to his chest. The man's form flickered out and the body lying on the hood was revealed as a tall, bear-like creature bleeding from the mouth and nose. The Mystic bent to provide first aid. "Defender, you said you could help sort this out?"

Sting rose to his feet, impressed by the Wanderer's punch but growing very impatient with the whole situation. "Yes, Defender, please help sort this out. Considering I've seen this guy attack someone on our side and I've BEEN attacked trying to defend our side by someone on our side, before I turn over one solitary leaf for a clue...please, Defender, help...sort...this...out."

The Wanderer extended a hand to Sting, "Sorry about that, it appears a grand misunderstanding has set us temporarily against each other. Defender, the floor is yours."

"And here I thought these misunderstandings only happened in comic books." Sting said as he took Wanderers hand and shook it firmly. "Nice shot! That strength come from the french fries or the chocolate syrup?"

"Clean living," he replied. "And lots of women," he added with a wink through his goggles.

Defender took a deep breath. "Let me give the brief explanation. Ka-sador's people were enslaved by Ragnar's people. You can naturally understand the enmity my partner would feel toward this being. Ragnar, on the other hand, has turned his back on his people and joined with the Mystic to do good for a change. I doubt Ka-sador will believe it, but that's what has been proven to me."

Taking a moment to look around, Defender stepped over to his pinned partner. "I'm sorry that I did not tell you about Ragnar before. I was afraid of how you would react. I was hoping that we would never cross paths with him. I'm sorry I didn't say anything until now."

Defender turned back to those assembled. "The rest, is simple misunderstanding. The Wanderer was defending his friend, the Mystic was doing the same. And Sting jumped at what was obviously an enemy."

"Ka-sador, I will understand if you want no part of this investigation. I can say the same about the Mystic and Ragnar. However, there is a major plot here and hundreds of lives could be at stake. We need to get past this now and get on with what we came here for."

The Wanderer clapped his hands together, "Well that makes it all clear as mud. Defender, you should write for Reader's Digest."

Ka-sador stopped struggling and whispered to Defender. [MY PEEPLE ALL GONE, THE FATE OF YOURE PEEPLE IS ON YOOR HEAD NOW], and with that warning he bowed his head in submission as he had done many times to the Krai whip.

The Mystic looked closely at Ka-Sador, "Of course, you must be the, ah, Orionid? that Ragnar spoke of. Much becomes clear. Allow me to second Defender's attestation. Ragnar is, in fact, as much a fugitive from the Krai as you are." He gestured and Ka-Sador's bonds vanished.

Sting stared at everything. This was quite an initiation to the group dynamic of Port Alexander's heroes.

"OK, now that that's been spelled out...what's our next move?" Sting said.

Suddenly very tired, Defender spoke. "We need to spread out and look for any clue or possible trail that might lead us to our MUSE-nappers."

"Not a problem, boss." Sting said, and immediately he began (at super speed) to buzz through crash site and the surrounding area, looking for anything that might look untoward...a trail, a stray piece of equipment, anything like that.

As Sting zipped into action the other heroes contributed in their own fashion. Sting hit first, alerting the others to his discovery of a business card from Delmar Nautics.

The Beggar King came up with a high end TI Calculator and near it a promotional screwdriver from Bluhardt CompuTech.

Ka-Sador discovered a perfumed invitation to a party on Friday night at the house of Marie Vladistock, there was no label on the invitation and no envelope.

"OK, I'll bite." Sting said when the heroes reconvened. "Three things, with little or no connection. Any input from anyone on this?"

The Wanderer scratched his head. "I'd say a band of nerds stole the MUSE, hid it at the docks, and have excellent tastes in soirees!"

Eyeing the card, he added "The docks are my balliwick. I know this place, I can investigate."

"Sounds good." Sting said. "With my powers, it puts me in a good position for espionage. Defender, where do you think that would be most useful, the docks or the tech place?"

"Hard to say. I'm sure the Wanderer would appreciate back-up, especially if it's pocket-sized." Defender looked over the calculator. "I suppose I'm the only tech geek..."

"Someone should stakeout the party," commented the Wanderer. "I would, but my formal trenchcoat is at the cleaners."

Beggar King looked at the invitation. "Somehow I don't think someone of my stature would be looked upon kindly attending this affair. However, I think I might be able to slip into the area and snoop around."

"How about this..." Sting chimed in. "Wanderer, perhaps you and His Excellency case out the docks. Defender, do the tech place. I can crash the party easily. That leaves Mystic, Ragnor and Ka-Sador."

Ka-sador eased over toward Defender, [KA-SADOR GO WITH DEFENDRR]

Sting pondered for a bit. "Your Highness," Sting began, "if we were to partner up on the soiree...with your OK, I think I'd be able to set you up with enough...credentials...that no one would think twice about seeing you there."

Beggar King smiled and bowed. "Believe me, my friend, I tend to do my best work while unseen. However, it could be quite interesting to attend this party. Would be interesting to see my nation finally represented in high society."

Sting looked over at the Mystic and Ragnar. "Which would leave you two to wander the docks with the Wanderer...that is, if these teams meet with our leader's OK."

Defender looked from left to right then realized Sting was speaking to him. "Who, me? Sounds excellent to me."

The Mystic nodded, "I would happy to work again with the Wanderer. As for Ragnar," he indicated the still unconcsious krai, "I think perhaps he should stay at the Condominium Sanctorum under Shar-Chi's care. Not only should that ease tensions somewhat, but he could use the time to recover. Ka-Sador is clearly a mighty warrior."

Ka-sador shrugged off the compliment and spat out in the direction of Ragnar [THWEET SSSIKA LUKKREEIOAZ] (translated "We are not finished. I am watching you." from the original Krai).

"OK, my next question," Sting began, "is how can I get in contact with you guys if something goes wrong where I'm at." Sting showed the comm device on his wrist. "You'll forgive me for being *so* forward, but can we trade numbers? I also have the IPAC phone, but I tend to have this with me more."

"You have two choices. We can sync freqs on our respective comm units. Or I can give you a cell phone number that I've set up to forward to this." Defender pointed toward his wrist comp. "As for Ka-sador, do you have a way of hanging onto this?"

Defender unsnapped a small communicator from his belt. "This is my proto-type. I fear it's not fitted for you. I'll have one of those for you soon." Looking around, "Should I make a few more next time I sit down at my work bench? The process is a little complex, but I can probably set up something to tie this in with the IPAC phones."

"As long as it doesn't have a block on 900 numbers, I'm all for it," remarked the Wanderer. He disappeared and popped back near the Mystic. "Shall we visit the docks tomorrow and see what we can find?" he asked.

"Certainly, do you want to come by or shall we rendez-vous somewhere?" asked the Mystic.

"Oh..." the Wanderer teleported multiple times all around the Mystic until he became woosey "...I'll pop on over."

Interlude 19.1: The Wanderer and the Mystic at Delmar Nautics
Interlude 19.2: At BlueHardt CompuTech
Interlude 19.3: Marie Vladistock's Party
Issue 20: MUSE-V is Down! Part II

Last Updated 10 March 2002