He was the only one close enough to actually hear the explosion. Racing to the window, he saw flames leaping from a warehouse a mile or so away. A faint glimmer caught his eye; something in the sky moving up and away very fast.
Ka-sador raced over to his office's front door, turned the lock and shot out the window clicking off the holoprojector. The winged missile rocketed to the burning warehouse and notified PC so that the authorities could be called in. He arrived and surveyed the surroundings.
PC got the call and found that the authorities had already been called in. A fireboat was coming up the James and sirens were already wailing as ground based equipment approached the scene.
"What's that," said coach Dylan Dermot to Alex Crosby. "Looks like a big fire ." He pointed the flames out to Crosby.
Crosby looked outside the window and blanched. He noticed Dylan looking at him and said "I think we're going to need to table this for right now. My daughter told me she was going to be in Commerce City today visiting someone, and those flames look to be closeby. I'm going to head downtown and see if I can find her, make sure she's alright."
"Um, ok." Dylan said. "We can pick this up tomorrow."
"Or," Crosby said, "finish up and report to me tomorrow morning of what you came up with. That will be fine. " Crosby put his coat on and headed out the door.
From the air, Ka-Sador could see that the point of the explosion had been a largish but non-descript warehouse. It looked like something had blown through the top of the warehouse and scattered flaming debris over a several block radius.
Ka-Sador swooped lower. The explosion had ripped the center out of the warehouse, so he was able to see inside. He looked for survivors and was struck by a familar, hated scent.
[KRAI] he muttered with disgust. Ka-sador realized that the silver streaking object was an escape pod of sorts as the Krai destroyed their base with callous disregard for anyone who was nearby. He could pursue the Krai, but that would be futile; all he had was a general direction and they'd easily outdistance him. Perhaps satellite photos could help, but now they needed him below to check for survivors.
As Sting grew to normal size roughly a mile or so away from the stadium, he radioed PC to let her know what's going on. PC related that authorities were en route.
"Ka-Sador should be there as well." PC chirped. "Do you think we need to get everyone else on the horn?"
"Not yet." Sting replied. "We don't know what this is yet. Besides, our leader just got back, I don't want to press him into duty unless it's something serious. Be ready, though."
"Check." PC said, and the comm link went dead as Sting sped through the city.
Ka-Sador turned to his task, and was soon joined by Sting arriving on foot. The two heroes worked to aid rescue teams and guide firefighters.
Despite the widely scattered debris, the flames were not spreading rapidly. The heroes aided with the evacuation and the rested to watch the firefighters go to work.
Ka-sador looked around to make sure no one but Sting was in earshot. [KA-SADOR SMELL KRAI. KRAI DID THIS, KRAI WERE HERE]
Sting nodded grimly. "Did you see anything leaving here? On foot, in a vehicle, anything?"
Ka-Sador told him about seeing something in the sky and the layout of the warehouse that suggested a launch bay.
Sting opened a commlink. "PC, come in."
"PC online." came the reply.
"I need you to attempt to do a trajectory track. Ka-Sador says the Krai were here, and that they flew away in a certain direction. He's going to give you his best idea of direction and coordinates, and I need you to figure out if you can where they went. Satellite pictures, energy trails, anything you can do."
"I'm not Houdini, dad, but I'll see what I can do. PC out."
PC attempted several things. In addition to the satellite pictures, she also used other mapping techniques to try and figure out not just a direction, but a possible landing point. She also tried to access existing records on Krai technology to determine if there was an energy emission trail that could be followed.
Once she started scanning, she quickly found herself in contact with Wilkins at IPAC. "PC, we've got a tie-in to SAC, and the were monitoring that thing soon after it went up. I've got the report here." PC heard the sound of flipping papers and smiled at the obsolete habits some people held on to. "Small and moving fast. PA air traffic picked it up, but pinged SAC immediately. It was moving ballistically, almost straight up. Some kind of rocket. Ah, here's the quote I wanted, from someone at one of the missile tracking stations, 'the object moved into a low orbit and then vanished.' I made some more inquiries, the thing seems to just have dissappeared; no explosion, no debris, nothing. Just gone.
"I've played nice and answered your questions. Now what can you tell me?"
"At the moment, Mr. Wilkins, not much." PC said. "I'm not stonewalling you, but I'm still working on compiling a few things. I think I'll need roughly an hour to gather our forces, and then we can talk about it. Trust me, it'll be worth the wait...and if my hunch is right, they're either long gone or still up there."
"PC ...," Wilkins seemed to think better of whatever he was going to say. "Allright. I'll be waiting."
PC checked back with Sting and relayed the details of her conversation with Wilkins. "I'm calling a code blue to all available actives to get back to base immediately. I have one hour to come up with something for Wilkins and I need input from everyone on this."
"Got it. We're on our way." Sting said.
PC put out Code Blue signals to both Wanderer and Defender and waited for a response.
The Wanderer picked up the alert apparently in the middle of telling a joke, "...And the duck said 'That's not my bill.' Don't be blue PC, I'm my way."
Meanwhile, Alden Bryce was pacing around the edge of the test lab. A couple of his engineers prepped the new batteries for their first test run in the chair. The success of this project was important, but there was more to his nervous state. Last night he had initiated another test of his own.
"We're ready when you are, Alden."
He nodded and signaled for the test to begin. The test driver on the new mobility chair flipped the switch charge the coils and moved the joystick tied to the actuators on the tracks. It was all going splendidly when the comm unit began it's insistent vibrations.
"Damn," Alden whispered under his breath. "Gentlemen, please proceed with the tests. I need to take this."
He had stepped clear of the room when the first tremors came over him. His strength suddenly fled and he dropped to his knees. Just as quickly as it came, it was gone. "Growing pains, fellas?" Alden asked the tiny nanites that shared his body. For a moment only, he had lost the use of his legs completely. The feeling was not one he enjoyed. It reminded him of something...
The comm started beeping. Distracted from his memory, Alden pushed himself back to his feet and stepped into his office. "Defender here. What's up?"
PC responded to the voice on the other end. "Sorry to call you back into duty so soon, but we've got a code blue. It's the Krai. Wilkins knows somethings up and I have an hour to tell him what it is. The team needs to talk. Can you get here?"
Defender thought to himself as he patted his leg, "No. Too soon. We're not ready yet."
"I can be there in twenty minutes," He said over the comm. "Save me a cruller. Defender out." He sighed.
* * * *Roughly 30-35 minutes after the call was placed, the core group of Protectors were gathered in the main meeting hall. PC had a computer mockup of the information Wilkins had given her on the screen.
"So if Wilkins' sources are correct," PC said, "we can assume one of two things. Either the Krai are still in orbit and are 'cloaked' somehow so that we cannot detect them...or that particular craft eventually left our airspace. In either event, we need to figure out just how much we want to tell IPAC about what we know."
"We need to tell them at least part of the truth," Defender said. "The Krai have gone to a lot of effort to break orbit. I can only think of a couple of reasons and their both bother me. But I don't want IPAC going off half-cocked about an imminent invasion unless we know full well that's what they are trying."
Ka-sador listened to the information and hung his head, [IT HAS BEEGUN.] The alien continued, [MUST BE COMMOONICATION PROBE, KRAI HERE BUT MANEE MORE COME SOON, UNLESS WE INTERCEPT.] He turned to PC, [ANEE STRAYNGE SIGNALS SINCE LAWNCH?]
"No," said PC, "it's almost like a communications dead zone there."
M'Krell suddenly spoke up, surprising the Protectors who had not realized they were there. "There will be no signal. No starfaring race can signal faster than light, they must send ships or message torpedoes. They are there, they must be. Or we are all doomed."
"Two scenarios. One is that they needed to get into orbit to search for something," Defender offered. "Two is that they have prepared a message torpedo. The only other option is that a ship is there and they have gone up to investigate. Do we know anyone who can reach orbit and survive the experience?"
PC got an expression on her face that was akin to a lightbulb going over her head. "The MUSE. I might be off in my recollection...but I remember the fact that it was set up to carry people into space...man, I've got all sorts of theories floating through my head right now, but we need to sort that out as we go."
"The bottom line," Sting said, "is that I think we're going to need IPAC and Wilkins' help to get up there and take a look around."
The Wanderer bristled at the thought of having to deal with IPAC, "I suppose it is worth a shot, longshot as it is. If it is a message torpedo then," the Wanderer checked his watch, "it is really really far away and streaking to coordinates we don't know. The Krai are star travellers, they possess technological advancements beyond the capabilities of the MUSE-V. But I'm up for a space walk!" The Wanderer pranced around in slow motion simulating zero-gravity.
Suddenly he stopped, "perhaps our friends across the pond could help. I'll call the Round Table, I have been meaning to chat with Lady Boudiccea." The man in black disappeared.
"I don't think it's a torpedo," said M'Krell. "If I heard you properly, the object dissappeared in low orbit? Unless the Krai have acheived some breakthrough recently, that means they could not have gone supralight. To do so close to a gravity well is certain death."
"Then they have to still be up there." PC said. "We don't have much time." She opened a commlink to Wanderer. "If the Table can help, please try to find out quickly, we need to tell something to Wilkins soon."
The Wanderer answered back, "On the tube with them now. They confirm that something went up, but don't have the means or expertise to retrieve it. And they doubt the Queen will go for shooting it down....why yes, Lady Boudiccea I have been wanting to come to Britain but need a lovely guide....oops, forgot something" and with a 'click' the commlink went silent.
Shortly thereafter, the Wanderer reappeared in the meeting room and took his seat.
"Well, that settles it. We need Wilkens on this one," Defender said. Turning to the three people with other-worldly origins, "Is there anything the three of you do not want discussed with IPAC concerning the Krai or matters non-Earthy?"
M'Krell considered and shook her head, "I trust you, Alden. We must see what the Krai are doing and stop them. That is paramount."
"We need not create an undue panic, the last thing we need is every man, woman, and child running off to some bunker," offered the Wanderer. "The situation requires urgency, but we should remain discrete. IPAC is not airtight."
"I agree completely," Defender replied.
"I think, then, we need to make it clear that this is classified information when we talk to them." PC said. "In any event, it's getting close to the time. Boss, I assume you're going to be mouthpiece here? Or am I assuming too much?"
"Pretty much why I was elected to the job, wasn't it?" Defender asked rhetorically. "Let's call'em up."
The Wanderer popped behind Defender and patted him on the back, "Let'em have it! we're right behind you" and added in a stage whisper to the other Protectors, "I hope he yells at Wilkins."
PC punched a few buttons and a moment later, Wilkins was piped in on on the big speakers. "Sting. Defender. PC. Wanderer. Ka-Sador. I assume you're all there. What can you tell me about our shuttle launch?"
Defender said, "We have some info, but this is sensitive information, Mr. Wilkins. I want to make sure that we are on a secure line and that you have no eavesdroppers on your end. PC, could you monitor the signal and tell me if you see anything strange."
"You should know by now that everying coming out of here is as secure as you can get on this planet," said Wilkins.
Shuffling through a stack of papers for effect, Defender continued. "I'm serious about the security issues, here. Anyway, tell me what you know about aliens on Earth."
Wilkins barked a short laugh, "So we're dealing with extra-terrestrials, then? Can't say I'm too surprised. We've got lots of speculation and some hard facts. Stop being coy, Defender. You wouldn't have called me up to milk me for information if you didn't think this was serious, so stop pussyfooting around and fill me in. We're on the same side here, if you'd just admit it."
"Not trying to waste your time, Mr. Wilkins. I just wanted to know how much I was going to have to explain," Defender said with a smirk. "No need to dumb it down if you're a Universe Today subscriber. Okay, here's the deal. Not all the visitors to our fair planet thus far have been peaceful. We're dealing with a warrior culture who's turn-ons include short walks in the park, invading their neighbors, and enslaving other races for fun. Real charmers, if you get my drift. Now you see why I'm concerned for security. If word were to leak out, there would be massive panic both in the populace and our trigger happy military/industrial complex.
"Thus far, we have a handful on the planet who have no easy way of getting in contact with their cousins back home. And we'd like to keep it that way. Our best speculation is that they have launched a shuttle and are hiding under the cover of some active stealth measures. If you check NORAD's upper atmospheric sensor readings, you'll find a dead zone in low Earth orbit. We're pretty sure that's our ET's.
"We don't know what their capacity is or what they are up to specifically. But they have gone to a lot of trouble to get aloft and we need to find some way of stopping it. Oh, and it hasn't been lost on us that the stolen MUSE-V was scheduled to launch right around this time."
"The timing does seem suspicious, you suspect some kind of rendez-vous? Wait a minute." A long moment passed, "PC, we found coordinates at that quarry for the MUSE launch, my boys here tell me that they would put the MUSE into just about the same orbit as our bogey. Or where the bogey would be if we could still see it. Does that jibe with your numbers?"
PC ran a quick check and then answered in the affirmative.
"Just to verify, you're telling me we've got hostile ET's in a earth orbit, and we don't know what they're doing, or how, or why?" Wilkins did not sound happy. "We've got to deal with that and soon. I wonder if I can arrange an airburst ..."
"I hope you are thinking last resort, here," Defender chimed in. "If we start shooting at random... Look, we need to get up there. Since the MUSE-V has been set up to carry passengers, I see no reason we shouldn't take advantage of this situation."
There was a long silence. When he spoke, Wilkins sounded a little shaken. "You guys aren't short on guts are you." The tremor, if it was ever there, was gone, "I think I could set that up. There's the four of you, right? We'll have to send up someone with you, and I think I know who. A pilot! Do I have a pilot on hand?" he asked himself.
M'Krell caught Defender's eye and pointed to her self.
"We might just have an experienced pilot on hand." Defender said. "Hold on. PC, mute the audio for a second. Your Highness, are you sure you want to put your life a risk like this? I mean, I have all the confidence in your piloting ability for a ship you are familiar with, but this is an Earth designed ship, modified beyond it's normal capacity. Not to mention that we would be flying into the very claws of the bear, here."
Ka-sador sat silently, knowing how foolish it was trying to reason with M'Krell in matters of personal safety, especially when she had set her royal mind to something.
"This is more my battle than yours, Earthman," the way she said 'Earthman' it was clear that there was no insult intended, that it was merely a statement of origin. "I am at war with the Krai, you are not. Indeed, by some instellar laws, Ka-Sador is not at war with the Krai but in a state of rebellion.
"Be that as it may, I can not allow you to face these foes without me. I shall take the blaster and do my part, as an Ilani, as a Princess, and as a soldier. I am confident, as well, in my ability to pilot your vessel. I have been fully trained in even the most primitive space craft."
"I think primitive would really sum it up, by your standards. If your will is set on this, I'll stand by your decision. Gimme audio, PC." Defender waited for the high sign and turned his attention back to Wilkins. "We've got a pilot. Did you say you wanted to send one of your men along on this suicide mission?"
"Not 'men,' exactly, but yes. Hold on," the line went dead.
Defender looked at the assembled heroes. "Anyone here want to stay home? It won't affect my opinion of you if you do."
"Riiiiight" Sting said. "Like I'm going to be left behind and have to reform the Protectors. I think I speak for the team when I say we're in on this."
"Check" PC said. "Sting, I need one of your masks."
"Um, why exactly?" Sting said.
"Don't look at me like that." PC retorted. "No, I'm not stupid enough to think I can do any good up there, but if you think I'm sitting on my hands here, you're higher than the Krai are right now. I'll go masked and work with Wilkins at command central. They *might* have the technology to still let me do what I do for you guys in combat even in space."
Defender looked to Ka-sador, already knowing his answer. Here was a danger beyond anything they had faced as a team. He knew this moment could not pass without some sort of special gesture. Defender made a fist, rotated his palm down and thrust it across the table for the others to join him.
"Together we stand, between the danger and our fellow man. A team... a fellowship... a family. Protectors eternal."
Three minutes passed, then Wilkins came back on. "We've got to move quickly, if you're serious. If we don't get you launched within forty-five minutes, we'll have to wait nearly thirty hours. It's a damn good thing we left the MUSE at the quarry while we went over that site. Can you be there in time? Or do I need to arrange transport."
Defender motioned for mute again. "Can anyone fly the jet?" The irony of the question started Defender laughing.
M'Krell nodded, "I'm pretty sure I can. It's a fairly simply mechanism. The controls are a little baroque, but I've looked them over pretty well." In response to the stares she received, "I've been cooped up here a month with little to do. I got bored."
Defender motioned for audio. "We're in our fightin' duds and ready to go. Get it prepped and we'll be there shortly."
The screen went blank. "Grab your gear and be in the hanger in three minutes. We'll discuss whether rushing up there is a good idea on the trip to the quarry. PC, radio Max and the Mystic to let them know to be on alert since we'll be gone. Don't tell them where we are going."
Defender raced out of the room. He now had two minutes and change to tell his wife where he was going and why. He was going to need all the time he could scrape together.
As Ka-sador left the room to prepare himself for the upcoming battle, the Wanderer pulled Sting aside. "I don't want to be a spoilsport, but what exactly are we going to do up there? The MUSE isn't armed, is it?" The alien scratched his head, "I suppose we could ram their vessel, but I'm not sure we're prepared or equipped to mano a mano in space."
"If our only option is ramming their vessel," Sting said, "then that's what we do. I'm certain that there is a way into the ship somehow...we just have to find it. In any event, Earth isn't equipped to go mano a mano with a Krai invasion, and if sacrificing six people can prevent that...well, I know I can't speak for an immortal, but I'm ready to do that. However, I do plan on coming back, I have a date later this week...as I'm sure you know."
With that, Sting winked at Wanderer and patted him on the back, grabbed the extra mask he had procured for PC and headed towards the hangar.
The Wanderer watched him run off and shook his head in amazement, and commented to himself, "these are curious people."
Within ten minutes, the group was assembled board the EagleJet and waiting for launch. M'Krell had armed herself with the remaining captured Krai blaster and occupied the pilot seat. PC sat in the co-pilot's seat and watcher her every move with interest.
PC started the launch sequence. The floor of the vehicle dome rotated until the plane was in the launch angle, then the section of floor on which it rested lowered until the plane was well below the rest of the level of the dome. PC asked for verification that the plane was sealed and M'Krell gave it. A panel slid across the floor above the the plane and the vehicle was ready for the first mission launch in twenty years.
PC keyed in the command on her remote.
The heroes were pressed back into their seats as the Jet was fired from the chamber like a torpedo. Moments later, it broke free from the surface of the ocean and the multi-mode jets automatically switched from water to air operation. "PC, get me a bearing," said M'Krell.
"Go to 272 degrees," said PC. In response, M'Krell brought the jet around and once on the beam, opened the throttle.
* * * *M'Krell made a high speed pass over the quarry, before throttling back down and switching the EagleJet to jumpjet operation. The plane made a gentle VTOL landing and the Protectors debarked. The MUSE was already in place on the launch rail and the site was being cleared. Wilkins was waiting for them a hundred feet away.
"That was a blast," exclaimed the Wanderer as he walked toward Wilkins eager for the next adventure.
Wilkins looked at the crew approaching him and nodded to those he recognized. "You must be PC. We've got the command station set up there, in that trailer." He turned to M'Krell. "You, I don't know. You the pilot?"
"Defender, this is your baby. The MUSE is fueled and ready to go. What do you need?" said Wilkins.
"Survival gear, every scrap of information you and PC have pulled together on what we are facing, and all the luck the IPAC has stored up." Defender took the stack of print-outs Wilkins' assistant had prepared. "And about five minutes to look it all over."
While the head honchos talked, Sting whispered in the ear of Wanderer. "Quick question, I'm trying to formulate tactics...when you teleport...can you take people or things with you? Specifically, something, oh...about insect sized?"
"Why certainly," answered the Wanderer, "but I must tell you that it is quite a strain on the old body. Mine more than yours, but there is quite a kick!"
"Well, old bean, we may just need to see how my body can take it." Sting said. "I think getting aboard the Krai ship may depend on it."
PC turned to Defender as the information was relayed. "You know, call it a hunch...but since the original launch crew didn't apparently need survival gear...it kinda gives me the idea that this launch might be a planned rendevous with the Krai. If that is indeed the case...perhaps we won't need to worry about finding the Krai. If we play the cards right...maybe the Krai will come to us."
PC very rapidly finds the nearest terminal and accesses the data recovered from the weeks-ago raid, trying to find any information that could help them if she was right...specifically, a password or somesuch.
As she ran her searches, the rest of the crew went to the MUSE. Wilkins accompanied them up to the entrance. "Here's our contribution to the mission." A pile of rock on what must have been Gargoyle's chair resolved itself into a man-like, shape. "This is Core, the Guardian of the Planet."
In a voice like an avalanche, Core spoke, "If what you say is true, the threat to the planet is great. It is my duty." He shifted, and the Protectors could see that a huge chain-mace was somehow attached to his shoulder.
"Good luck," said Wilkins, "Launch is in five minutes." He backed out of the MUSE and ran for the control trailer.
"We're in your capable hands, Princess. Let's do it." Defender took a deep breath, trying to calm his growing fear and excitement. "I have to admit, this was not on my 'To Do' list today. Everybody ready?"
The Wanderer braced himself, "This is exciting, I've never ridden one of these museum pieces before. I do hope the Krai didn't intend to shoot down the MUSE." He looked around at the glares and added, "of course not." And began whistling to himself.
Five minutes passed, and as the ten second countdown began, PC still had not found any password or similar information.
The countdown reached zero, and the heroes were pressed back into their seats as the MUSE accelerated rapidly up the quarry wall, then shot off the top of the mountain. After just a moment or two, the pressure of multiple g acceleration abated. M'Krell checked their course with ground control, made a few small adjustments then turned to the passengers. "All is well, we intercept the calculated course in 18 minutes."
The minutes pased tensely, and then M'Krell said, "Look." She pointed through the window in the front of the craft. The others followed her gaze, and for a moment saw nothing. Then they saw *the* nothing. Very faint, there was a sort of shimmer outlining a region in space. Before anyone could react, they crossed the shimmer and suddenly before them was a spacecraft.
At exactly the same moment, the MUSE vanished from all the screens at the launch site.
The ship was several hundred meters long, roughly cylindrical and had a number of strange protrusions. "There," M'Krell pointed. About halfway down the ship was a bump that looked out of place against the sleek ship - Ka-Sador and M'Krell recognized it instantly as a Krai lifeboat.
"Okay. Take us in, your highness. Everyone on the alert. They have to know that we are here. Remember, we need answers. Everyone keep their eyes open, especially M'Krell and Ka-sador. You two are the most familiar with the Krai." Defender looked at his friend and partner, knowing what must be going through his head.
[FYNAL STAND,] whispered Ka-sador as he prepared to die, but not before taking as many dead Krai with him.
"No final stands today," Defender answered. "Everyone goes in. Everyone comes back. Boss's orders. Protectors eternal."
"Sounds good to me." Sting said. "I'm going to shrink and hide out in the Wanderer's coat...figure any surprise we can give them is a good one. Besides, you're a science guy." He shrank as he finished his statement. "You know the value of a good pocket Protector."
Defender groaned. "You've been saving that one, haven't you."
"Well, we haven't really been in a possible Kobayashi Maru scenario yet, I figured icebreakers are icebreakers." Sting then set to focus on the task at hand.
M'Krell brought the MUSE toward the Krai lifeboat, not without a few false starts. "Orbital piloting is tricky," she commented. "The lifepod, it looks like a refit of the one from the Lake.. It's at a docking portal, I can bring us in on the other side."
Ka-sador called out to M'Krell in Illani, he was curious. The ship next to the Krai was not of Krai origin, it was unknown to him and he wanted to know if she recognized its design.
"No starfaring race I am familiar of has designed such a vessel. It is not Krai, the lack of weapons alone would prove that."
With a gentle bump, M'Krell brought the MUSE up against the Krai escape pod. "Now, we have a problem. The lifepod probably has the boarding tube we could use to link ourselves to it and thence into the ship, but how do we get to it?" asked M'Krell.
"Wanderer, think you can get in there by teleporting?" Sting said.
The Wanderer looked out across the ships, "I could try to pop over to the Krai pod, release them, and pop back." He looked to the others and added, "but that would be really *really* risky," with a smile.
"True...but I don't see another option personally." Sting said. "I can stay shrunk and pop over with you in case some Krai show up, if that'll help."
"That isn't what worries me, " the Wanderer strained to see inside the pod. "I need to know exactly where I'm going, it gets quite painful if there is something in my way." He began to jog in place and threw a few punches and uppercuts, "but I'm feeling lucky."
"The other option is me taking a deep breath and going for a walk." Defender said. "I'm up for it if you are concerned."
Sting adopted his smallest size and hopped up onto the Wanderer's shoulder. With a soft pop, the pair dissappeared. The tension thickened until the Wanderer's grinning face appeared in the Krai lifeoboat portal. A moment later he was asking for instructions on how to dock the ships and a few moments after that there was a hiss as the pressure between the two shuttle craft equalized.
The Krai lifeboat was a rough cylinder with hatches in two opposite side walls. One of these was now docked to the MUSE, the other to the unknown ship. A single hatch separated the Protectors, M'Krell and Core from the dangers that lay within. M'Krell drew her blaster and Core gripped the shaft of his chain-mace, the large crystal weight at the end coming loose from his body and swinging free.
"We need to find out what they are doing here and how much danger the Earth is in. Any suggestions where to find this information?" Defender asked M'Krell and Ka-sador.
M'Krell shook her head, and clenched her blaster tightly.
"Then let's stick together until we have some idea as to what we are up against," Defender said. "Let's do it."
Ka-sador sniffed the recycled atmosphere for scents. [SHIP NOT KRAI, THEN KRAI ALLYZE DIE TOO]
"I've no taste for killing, my friend," Defender said. "Sting, if you would be so kind as to scout ahead. Wanderer, watch our backs. M'Krell, you stay in the middle, please. Ka-sador, you're in front. I think you're keen senses will be invaluable. Core, do you prefer the front or back?"
"At my height, the back would seem preferable," Core rose to his full height which was about the same as Ka-Sador's nine feet.
Ka-sador nodded in the affirmative and grabbed the bolo from his belt.
The Wanderer stretched briefly and added "Right-o, bringing up the rear."
Defender signalled Ka-sador to open the hatch and watched the shrunken Sting disappear out the hatch.
A moment or two later, Sting returned to report. "This airlock opens into a cargo bay or something. There's a bunch of Krai in one corner behind what looks like some kind of force field. And there's a big robot, with claws and things."
Ka-sador looked to M'Krell wondering who or what this ship was. He asked her, "Did this vessel respond to a Krai distress signal, I do not recognize any of this!" in their shared language.
"I begin to doubt it," she replied. "That does sound like a war robot or a security robot, though." She switched to English, "What were the Krai doing?"
"Nothing," said Sting. "They seemed almost like prisoners."
"There we have it," said the Wanderer in jest, "the Krai are captured and we can go home."
"I'm not so sure. Let's see if these new folks are the enemy of our enemy. If we take this robot down, can one of you two interrogate the imprisoned Krai?" asked Ka-sador and M'Krell.
[MAYBEE MORE ROBOTS] commented Ka-sador. [DETROY ONE, MORE COME, FREE KRAI...BIGGERR PROBLEMS] he added.
"Never suggested freeing them," Defender responded. "But we might be able to get some answers. There might be other options. Sting, did you see anyway past the robot or any other exit from the hold?"
"I don't know about past, but there were several exits. A couple on this wall and a couple on the far wall," said Sting.
"Then let's try one of the doors on this wall. On the chance we are forced to fight the robot, Wanderer and Sting try to get behind it while the rest of us engage it from the front."
"Actually," Sting said, "if there's a crack or some other way to the inside of the robot unit, I think I could drop it without it knowing what the heck is going on...remember, folks, it's what's INSIDE that counts."
"If it's a war robot, it's probably sealed against that sort of thing," said M'Krell. "At least anything vulnerable would be secured against liquids. It might work, though ... you're stronger than most liquids."
"Too risky," Defender chimed in. "You might get electrocuted, or worse. I'd venture the power supply for the robot would be monumental. Let's try to get to the first door."
Ka-sador concurred, turning to Sting. [HOW BIG ISS ROBOT?]
"As big as you are," he said.
Ka-sador reattached the bolo to his belt figuring the bioelectric may be powerless against a mechanical foe. He looked to Defender, [WYSE TO DEFEET ENEMY AS WE GO, CANNOT SNEEK TOO MANY OF USS]
The heroes swung the hatch wide and ran for the hatch nearest them on the right. They saw the robot, 8 feet tall, vaguely humanoid and clearly menacing rotate its head toward them and start to charge. From its speakers issued a noise that was presumably intended to convey some information, but was unintelligable to anyone in the party.
The 'bots eyes glowed red and a burst of energy shot toward the Wanderer, taking up the rear. The laser missed, melting a small divot in the wall. Then the lead heroes reached the door, opened it and were through. A moment after, the Wanderer was through and the hatch closed again.
They found themselves in a long corridor with what Ka-Sador and M'Krell recognized as life pod hatches along the outer wall. Some distance away was a staircase and what looked to the aliens like a lift tube next to it. The lights were dim throughout the ship, as if it was on standby rather than full power.
Behind them the robot reached the hatch and began to try to open it.
The Wanderer looked to the escape pods. "Looks like one is missing," he peered into a second one. "This one is empty, shall I investigate and lay a trap for Mr. Metal Britches back there?" he thumbed back to the irate robot.
"Yes. You and Sting. We'll draw it's attention. Once you engage it, we'll attack using wolf pack tactics." Defender made sure his video feed was recording. Mara would want to see this.
The Wanderer saluted and disappeared, his grinning face peering out from the window in the nearby escape pod.
Ka-sador, at his size, looked around for a suitable place deciding that he would best be part of the decoy group.
Defender, Ka-Sador, Core and M'Krell moved down the corridor. The door behind them slammed open and the robot came through the hatch. It locked onto them and closed, firing a laser blast as it came. M'Krell gasped as the bolt seared her flesh and a stench of burning fur rose. She looked shaken but not down.
"Ka-sador, trip it up! Hit it high, Core. Princess, stay behind me. Gentlemen, now!" Defender yelled for the ambushers.
Behind his portal the Wanderer began to concentrate. The robot fired another laser blast at Core and began to close in. Core and Ka-Sador moved down the 5 meter wide corridor, and were surprised as the robot began to behave sluggishly.
Core swung his chain mace, but the blow sparked and glanced off a few centimeters short of the robot's body. Ka-Sador's blow likewise was repelled. The bot swung back, but the blows seemed slow and erratic. A strange grinding came from with the bot, then one knee buckled and collapsed. The heroes watched as the metal decking began to buckle underneath the robot.
The Wanderer maintained his concentration as Ka-sador quickly closed ground to attack the robot with a series of kicks.
Ka-Sador's blows landed, but were again deflected by the shield, Core's blow smashed into the robot's head and through the shield denting the side of the bot's head. With a sudden pop and fizzle, the legs or the robot crumpled complete. At the same time, the decking gave way and with the gravity generator in the area. The robot, Ka-Sador and Core found themselves in free-fall.
The robot lashed out, striking Ka-Sador with his clawed arm and grappling Core with his chest tentacle. A laser beam directed at the heroes down the hall went wide.
Defender suggested M'Krell take cover in an escape pod which she did, then he leapt down the hall toward the free-fall region and the fight.
Core swung his mace again, but he found the lack of gravity particularly disorienting and missed. Ka-Sador had been knocked back a few feet by the claws that raked his chest, but he returned to the combat with a vengeance landing a couple of blows on the robot's armoured skin. He noticed with some satisfaction that the force-field seemed to be disabled. A spinning kick detached the robot's leg completey and it floated down the corridor in a gentle cartwheel until it reached a region where the gravity worked and fell to the deck. Defender arrived and slammed a fist into the bot's face, causing a spray of sparks. Ka-Sador followed his lead and landed his next punch to the bot's head as well. A larger spray of sparks was the result, as well as a lack of motion on the part of the robot.
The Wanderer returned to the corridor with a pop and looked on at the conclusion of the melee. "Well, that was different," was all he could offer as he helped pull the heroes back into the gravity field.
"Press on, or return and interrogate the Krai?" he asked Defender returning him to "solid" ground.
"I think we should have a few words with the Krai captives. And no, Ka-sador. You can't kill them yet." Defender replied.
"In fact," Sting said, "it might be a good idea if both Ka-Sador and the Princess were not seen when we interrogated the Krai. They might be a little more forthcoming if they don't know yet that you're allied with us."
Defender looked at the disabled robot. "What exactly happened?"
The Wanderer looked at the floating carnage and then glanced to Defender, "Heavy man, reeeeaaaaallll heavy."
"Hmm... Odds are good that they saw us, so it might be moot. But let's approach them with the translator disk first. Assuming you don't mind, Princess."
"Not at all, Ka-Sador and I can explore," she said, handing the disk over.
The winged alien nodded in agreement and softly patted Defender on the back to wish him luck with the barbaric fiends that had ravaged a thousand worlds.
Ka-Sador and M'Krell began to explore the ship as the remainder of the party returned to interrogate the Krai. The hall they were in contained three lifeboat bays, one of which was empty. There was a staircase leading up, and unobtrusively located behind the stairway was another hatch.
Ka-sador observed the corridor, staircase, and hatch. "Whoever constructed this ship and robot must be humanoid in shape," he whispered to M'Krell. It would be foolish for a race to design something of this technological advancement that did not suit their shape or form -- plus, mechanized devices almost always resembled their builders.
He then slowly ascended the staircase, perking his ears for the slightest of sounds and his nose for any telltale odor which may give a hint as to what was ahead.
Upstairs, they found themselves in what they both recognized as a lounge area. Another row of escape pods were visible, as were a number of doors which looked like they were non-pressurized internal hatchways, that is to say doors designed as partitions rather than for structural or damage control reasons.
Ka-sador approached carefully, sniffing the room. Any kind of scent would make him feel more comfortable, robots didn't need areas of relaxation nor escape pods. There were living beings on this ship, or at least there had been and he was hoping to find some evidence. A quick survey of the room just may find a datapad, clothing, or something to help them identify who had made this ship and how it got into earth space undetected.
There was a scent present, of something organic. That made sense, since the ship had a breathable oxygen atmosphere. He was halted in his investigations when M'Krell called to him. She had opened one of the doors to reveal a small stateroom, although constructed to a scale Ka-Sador was comfortable with, as indeed, the entire ship was. When he came to look, he saw a pair of mummified corpses in the two beds. The aliens were bipedal, with two arms, no head to speak of and a cluster of tentacles in their chest region. They looked very dead to both Ka-Sador and M'Krell.
Ka-sador whispered the traditional mantra associated with death he had been taught from a very early age and looked around for anything else which may help the group. Without knowing this race it would be impossible to determine how long they had been dead, maybe there was some writing or something which M'Krell could decipher.
The alien passed through the portal and asked M'Krell, "Do you think all are dead or gone? that robot could have been operating on instructions giving eons ago."
"Could be," she said. "Or some catastrophe could have taken them days ago." She opened another door, and pointed, "More corpses." The began to check the rest of the rooms. Corpses everywhere.
"And all in bed," said M'Krell. "Was it a sleep cycle?"
"Perhaps, we should find others elsewhere though. A ship this size would not have its entire crew in sleep at the same time." Ka-sador approached the staircase, "they could have been in stasis for long travel and something went wrong, maybe the ship received the Krai signal and approached."
"We should find the others and tell them what we have found. Maybe their talks with the vile dogs will assist us."
Back in the cargo hold, the heroes cautiously approached the trapped Krai. Using the translator, Defender spoke. "Looks like you a little stuck."
A large and strong Krai stepped forward, "I wish the warbot had destroyed you. My crew would enjoy seeing your mutilated corpses."
"Charming," Defender responded. "But you're captured. Did the warbot get you instead?"
The Wanderer decided that trying to look intimidating was not going to work so he explored a bit around the room, careful not to touch anything.
The hold was large, twice the height of the passage they had been in, which is to say it was neary ten meters tall. It was only about a third full, and the crates were labeled in a language he did not recognize.
There were large loading doors in the middle of the wall opposite the one they had entered by, two doors near where they had entered, one of which led to the corridor where they had engaged the robot, and two doors one on each side at the far end of the hold.
"As you see, monkey," said the Krai, in answer to Defender's question.
"Ah... So we succeeded where you failed. We beat the robot that captured the mighty Krai warriors. I really thought you were more dangerous than that. Or were you just playing decoy while you waited for allies."
"The Krai Empire will find us, and your pathetic civilization will furnish more slaves for the Empire, as the Orionids did. You and your friends would be most amusing in the arena," said the officer.
Satisfied with his little exploration, the Wanderer ventured back over to the interrogation to see if he could lend a hand.
"And how do you expect them to find you, trapped here in this little force field? Are you using your great Krai mental telepathy? Or do you expect they will hear your whining?" Defender said, baiting the combative officer.
"The will search for us and the little Royal Illani whelp. The will not rest until we are found."
"What makes you think you are so important?" Defender said with a chuckle. "It doesn't matter. You'll either be imprisoned shortly. If my Orionid friend has his way, you'll be dead before that. After that, we'll find someway of tricking the Krai to stay home. If they are all as arrogant and stupid as you, it should be hard."
Defender turned toward his companions, pretending to ignore the Krai.
The Krai seemed willing enough to be ignored.
"They don't know anything, I'm guessing," Defender said after removing the translator. "Someone should go find Ka-sador and the Princess. Maybe they can shed some light on this mystery."
Meanwhile, Ka-Sador and M'Krell speculated about the rooms, they had found. "These don't look like crew," said M'Krell. "There are children, there. Passengers maybe? And ... statis, perhaps in beds for the normal space conversion after FTL travel? That is standard in most cultures."
As they walked back toward the others they passed what looked like a kitchen and a second staricase down was visible. "Should we try it?" asked M'Krell. "Or return the way we came?"
Ka-sador looked toward the second staircase, "Securing this area as best we can is a priority, besides I doubt the Krai will be cooperative if they see us." He stalked off quietly to the descending staircase.
The second staircase led back down to the lower deck, and M'Krell Ka-Sador agreed that two decks was probably all there were based on the size of the ship. They found themselves in what was clearly the engineering section of the starship.
Here, M'Krell was on more familiar ground. Although the design of much of the equipment was unfamiliar, she was able to identify most of the equipment, quoting an old saw which was common to all space-faring cultures, "Form follows function." The fusion plant, life support equipment and so on, were all easily identified. The StarDrive was completely unknown to her and discovered only by process of elimination. It was also fused and melted into a puddled ruin. A few more bodies were also found, these did not show the calm positions of the passengers above, but instead were strewn about in attitudes that both aliens thought indicated pain or confusion.
They found a hatchway which led back into the cargo space, and another which led to the bridge.
"Something unexpected and frightful carried these to their demise," observed Ka-sador. "It may still be here," he continued as he approached the bridge. "You will be most valuable in deciphering how this ship came to this location, especially if there is no crew left alive."
"I would guess there was some accident involving the drive and the return to normal space," said M'Krell. "A catastrophic failure of some kind. There was at least one survivor, I think, since a lifeboat was launched. Still ..." her voice quavered slightly, "it is eerie."
The bridge was what they had come to expect: more bodies at their posts and unfamiliar variations on standard equipment. After a moment, M'Krell stepped up to a console, "I think this is the communications station. If I am reading this correctly, they have emergency message torpedoes, but none have been fired. If that is true, whatever disaster befell them was so swift that they could get off no cry for help or of warning."
Ka-sador looked at some monitors and asked M'Krell, "Is there any way to determine when or where that escape pod was launched? Could they now threaten the earthlanders? the possiblity that they could have had something to do with all this," he waved his hand toward the dead bodies, "cannot be ruled out."
"Once I figure out how to read the logs, I should be able to determine when the lifeboat was launched. I should be able to figure out how to launch a message torpedo, as well. And Ka-Sador," she turned to face the Orionid. "When I can, I must. My presence here is a danger to the Earthlanders and my duty is to my people."
Ka-sador understood. He was without a home, having been raised in the slave pits and arena, the Princess had an entire planet and was Truce-Bonded to the Meg of Bolusci -- she did not belong here, defeat of the Krai hinged upon her return home.
He continued to scour the bridge, maybe there was a security station or something which showed the floorplan of the ship.
He quickly found what he was looking for, although the labelling was not in a language he understood.
Satisfied, Ka-sador felt comfortable maneuvering throughout the ship. That would prove useful once the group reassembled, the alien took up a position facing the door and waited for M'Krell to finish looking over the logs. There was still danger in the air, and he was not going to leave her alone. He hoped the rest of the party had grown tired of the Krai and were preparing to eject them into the cold reaches of space. The thought alone brought a smile to his face.
"Ah, perhaps ..." M'Krell toggled a switch. A Tri-D tank began to play back what looked like a log of some kind. Naturally, they could not understand it. M'Krell consulted a readout by the panel, then pressed another few switches. "Ka-Sador," she called. "If I am correct, this ship has only been in orbit here for a few years."
The Wanderer found them there, hunched over the scanner trying to decipher the logs.
"Years?" Ka-sador repeated, upon seeing the Wanderer enter the bridge area he went back to the earthlander language so as to not appear rude. [WHY HERE? STARR CHARTS TELL US?] the alien asked, hoping that a map could at least tell them if this ship was lost or intended to be in this sector. And why were the Krai here, did they intend on stealing this ship and making their way back home.
"I can't tell," said M'Krell. "When the Ilani team arrives, they may be able to tell us more."
For the first time in his life Ka-sador felt true joy, the Illani would see to it that the Krai were properly dealt with. The thought of his new home being safe gave him such a relief, but there was still much to do. This ship remained a mystery, and mysteries often caused trouble. He turned to the Wanderer, [KRAI DAWGS HELP ANEE]
The man in black answered as Ka-sador expected, "Not a bit. They were ornery and extremely uncooperative."
Ka-sador agreed, [OTHERS STILL INTERROGATING? KA-SADOR GO HELP].
The Orionid left the Wanderer to watch over M'Krell and found the others.
Ka-sador entered the hold. Defender handed him the translator. "Let me see. They were exactly like the stories you and M'Krell tell. Not that I doubted you, but it was still a pain in the ass. Oh, they did tell us that we'd be great sport when the all mighty Krai Empire made us slaves. Beyond that, I suspect that this is as far into the ship as they have gotten. What have you found?"
The alien nodded to his old friend as he accurately assessed the Krai and then proceeded to tell him about the corpses, M'Krell's analysis, and the bridge. He relayed the revelation that the ship had been for years according to the logs which M'Krell was currently reviewing. The translator continued to function as he spoke, "There is still much mystery here, we have not determined why this vessel or the Krai are here but suffice it to say -- we will."
"I think the Krai are here for the same reason we are. They spotted this ship here and came up to get hold of the message torpedoes. Odds are good that this is the original crew that followed you and Ragnar rebelled against. I'm also willing to bet that our mysterious MUSE-nappers were acting independently from the Krai. Wonder if they managed to get their hands on the person who escaped."
Defender looked at the prisoners. "You know, it would be easier to kill them, but it's not our way. That's the sort of thing they would do. But we are left with a small problem. What are we going to do with them?"
"Defender, my friend," Ka-sador said through the translator putting his hand upon the hero's shoulder, "I am not like you. I am not part of your 'royal our.' Death is my way, it is the way of the Krai. They must be dealt with in a way which assures the safety of your planet. M'Krell is hoping to contact her people. If she can, then they can have the Krai. If not, then I will slay them."
"Then lets hope that she can contact her people." Sting said. "Defender, you may have noticed something I missed...but I don't think we can apply Earth law in this case, because as of yet the Krai haven't committed any Earth crime to my knowledge. In this case, it may be best for the Krai to be judged by people within their jurisdiction. My distaste for killing is just as strong as yours, perhaps even stronger...but we cannot judge them of crimes that weren't against Earth. Their crimes against Ka-Sador and M'Krell's people are well documented, and it is their tribunal they should face."
"But these Krai did commit crimes against Earth laws, or have you forgotten the damage they did when their escape pod left that warehouse," Defender responded. "I've no doubts they committed other crimes while on our planet. But I agree that I'd rather they were turned over to the Illani. Frankly, I can't come up with a good way to get them back to Earth. My only concern about the plan is whether the Krai might intercept the message torpedo aimed for the Illani.
"Right now, we need to fully explore this craft to make sure it poses no danger to the planet. And someone should keep an eye on the Krai, just in case they figure some way out of the force field."
"I shall guard," offered Core.
The Protectors explored the ship more fully, finding more corpses in bed and little else beyond what M'Krell and Ka-Sador had already found. They met in the bridge to discuss their next move.
"So, how long would it take to get a message to your people? How long do you suspect it would take for them to get here?" Defender asked M'Krell.
"I think I have figured out the controls on the emergency torpedo, they are naturally designed to be as simple as possible. Assuming I fire it in the correct direction, then ... perhaps, three weeks?" said M'Krell. "A week or so, to get there, a week or so for the party to return here, and a few days to organize a force. They would not delay overmuch, I am a Princess."
The Wanderer asked, "Princess have you been able to determine if any of the logs indicate that someone has contacted this vessel lately?"
"No, it will be some time before I can decipher any of the more complex workings of the ship," she said.
"Well, it appears that we have time. Just tell us if we can help," Defender said. "Meanwhile, we should try and get word back to Wilkins that we are okay for the moment and to point the missiles elsewhere."
"Good idea," said the Wanderer while straightening his hat. "That could really upset my date plans. You know, I doubt the intergalactic junk yard will pick up this ship. What do we do with it?"
"The Stardrive is fragged according to what we've been told," Defender stated. "So, it's a satellite for now. A shame we don't have a teleporter. This could be one hell of a World Watch One. I suspect the Ilani will take possession of it. My major concern is keeping the Krai prisoner for three or more weeks while we wait for the White Hats to arrive."
"Why not put them in the cells at the Fortress?" asked M'Krell.
"Getting them back to the Fortress is the hard part. The MUSE-V only has enough seats for us." Defender said. "One of the other pods might be better, but we still have the difficulty of getting them from the prison field to the pod."
"Getting them back to earth could be tricky, Your Highness." The Wanderer opined, "They seemed a tad disagreeable, and the MUSE-V is not exactly equipped for prisoner transport. We'd have to disable them for quite a period not to mention the safety issue." The Wanderer thought of M'Krell, Mara, and PC there alone with the beasts and shivered.
"Perhaps get food and supplies up here, then," she said. "We can find places to sleep and set up housekeeping."
"That seems to be our only good option," Defender agreed. "Now, the question is whether we can get to and from the surface easily."
"I didn't see anything that looked like a transmat," said M'Krell. "Perhaps the MUSE?"
"Is it easily relaunchable?" asked the Wanderer turning to M'Krell in her role as pilot. "IPAC may not be cooperative if they are asked to make significant modifications and refuel our borrowed craft."
"I don't know," said M'Krell. "Anyway, getting down is easy - we can use a lifeboat. Getting back up is the hard part."
"Let's hope it isn't a three week long hard part," quipped the Wanderer. "Nevertheless, I'll be glad to hang out among the stars if you're looking for volunteers, boss."
"Don't the Krai have a transmat?" Defender asked aloud. "I mean, the Krai that we theoretically have prisoner in the cargo hold."
A quick discussion with Ka-Sador and Sting suggested that the Krai transmat had been in the warehouse and was completely destroyed.
Defender thought for a long time, losing himself in the alien technology that surrounded him. "We need to check out how the Krai are imprisoned. But we are going to have to find a way to keep them here, I'm afraid. We can't risk their escape on Earth. Ka-sador, can you tell if this is the entire group?"
Ka-sador sniffed and winced as if the stench was oppressive, [ALL KRAI HEERE, EXSEPT FOR RAGNAR] he confirmed.
Having satisfied themselves that the ship was a ghost ship, inhabited only by themselves and the Krai, the Protectors and their allies gathered on the bridge to consider their options. They came up with a basic plan and then called Wilkins and IPAC to outline it.
Presented with the options, Defender knew there were only two choices. He called up Wilkins to outline it.
"Let me get this straight," said Wilkins, when Defender finished. "You've got twenty or so alien would-be-conquerors prisoner in an alien spaceship, built by a different bunch of aliens, and are calling in the galactic cavalry, a third bunch of aliens to take care of them. That's going to take about a month."
Defender said, "Yes. How soon do you want the MUSE-V back? Before you answer, let me explain our situation. We need to leave guards here for at least the next three weeks. Our pilot is one of the people that needs to stay. Now, if you want the MUSE-V back before then, we are going to have to come back, relaunch with two pilots on board so that the second pilot can bring the MUSE-V back. If leaving the MUSE-V here works then the pilot can bring it back after the three weeks time period. Tell me how you want to work it."
There was a long silence, then a sigh. "I wish I had better options. You're sure that if these, uh, 'Krai' just dissappear, more will come looking for them? Never mind, never mind. Allright." There was another silence. "I'll get the ground crew here prepped for a quick turnaround. Bring your pilot down and we'll get you back up there as fast as we can."
That settled, the heroes watched as M'Krell carefully worked the controls for the emergency message torpedo. She flipped a toggle, then spoke quickly and precisely in High Ilani into what must have been a microphone of some kind. She leaned back, "Now we are comitted," she said in English and pressed a button. "Torpedo away."
The heroes split into two groups. Core, Defender and the Wanderer were to stay aboard the ship. M'Krell showed them how to get water from the kitchens, but advised them to stick to the food the Krai had brought.
M'Krell, Ka-Sador and Sting returned to the MUSE. With a last promise to return as soon as possible. They decoupled from the Krai shuttle and began to return to Earth.
* * * *The next week flew by as the heroes in space kept themselves occupied however they could and the heroes on Earth prepared for the next jaunt up. After some debate, PC talked her father into letting her go up with the next launch, and so it was that M'Krell, Ka-Sador, PC and three IPAC representatives found themselves on the refueled MUSE hurtling spaceward.
After docking, the MUSE dropped down to the Earth again, this time carrying Defender, Core and the IPAC pilot, leaving the rest to wait until the presumed arrival of the Ilani in a couple of weeks.
PC spent her time dumping as much data from the ship as she could, while Wanderer and Ka-Sador moved crates aside in the hold and sparred. The IPAC men went over the ship with a fine toothed comb cataloguing everything they could.
* * * *The nominal crew of the alien starship had very little warning when the Ilani arrived. They had not completely figured out how to run the scanners and the Ilani were cloaked anyway, so it came as a surprise when the comm console suddenly lit up and an alien voice began chattering. PC was on the bridge alone while M'Krell caught a catnap. Ka-Sador was in the hold sparring with the Wanderer, and the IPAC folk were busy doing their own things.
After a moment's shock, PC realized she had the translator, and activated it as she called M'Krell. The hail suddenly became intelligable.
"... ified alien ship. We are responding to a distress signal originating in this sector. We are preparing emergency rescue procedures. Please reply. Message repeats. Ilani strike cruiser Scintillant calling the unidentified alien ship. We are ..."
"Scintillant, we copy." PC said. "Receiving your message clearly."
" ... emergency." The loop was cut suddenly, "Identify yourself and your ship, please. What is your status?" snapped a different voice.
PC spoke in calm yet firm tones. "My name is PC, I am an ally of Princess M'Krell, who is on her way to the bridge and will speak with you in moments. Short version, however, is that I have no idea of the name of the ship, but we have close to two dozen Krai captive in the cargo hold. The Princess will explain when she arrives. Please stand by for Princess M'Krell."
PC needed no translator to understand the Ilani for Krai, the distaste with which the speaker spat the word was clear. "We are preparing a marine troop for transmatting."
M'Krell entered the bridge, "This is Princess M'Krell, to whom am I speaking?" Soon, M'Krell had explained the situation and a few moments later, there was the humm of a transmat and an Ilani marine detachment and the Scintillant's Second Officer appeared in the lounge where the current inhabitants of the ship were gathered. The new Ilani looked fearsome and effecient in their battledress, but they bowed low upon sighting the Princess. The Second Officer bowed lowest of all, then approached. "Your Highness, we had feared you were lost. For over a year ..."
"Yes, Commander, over a year. During that time, these have been my friends, aided me and helped me. Now I am rescued and they are to be honoured."
"Of course," said the Ilani. "But business first. Where are the Krai?"
Arrangements were quickly made to transfer the Krai to the Scintillant's brig and bring the entire party across as well to dine with the captain.
The Iliani brought retrieval belts over to the derelict, as wel as some clothes changes for PC and the the Wanderer. At the appointed hour, they gathered in the lounge and spent a moment admiring each other. The Wanderer was in a High Ilani uniform, minus insignia, and cut a dashing figure. PC was in a gown that would have fit M'Krell beautifully, but with the appropriate belting and tucking here and there, still gave her a certain regal charm.
None of the Ilani clothing would fit Ka-Sador so he was faced with the choice of his own battle togs or of wearing one of the alien uniforms from the derelict, whose people were roughly his own size.
M'Krell herself looked every inch a Princess.
A hum, and a bo'sun's mate materialized in the lounge with them. "Are you ready, Your Highness?" M'Krell nodded assent and in unison, everyone pressed the button on their retrieval belts. A moment later they appeared in the trasmat station of the High Ilani ship.
The Ilani engineering was open and airy, favoring support arches and trellis-like work over heavy bulkheads - though of course they had such things where needed for safety. Their guide led them along a corridor and into a room where fifteen or so other guests waited. They rose and bowed as M'Krell swept into the room. She nodded graciously, went to her seat, sat and the meal was underway.
The Wanderer felt a little left out. Most of the conversation was in High Ilani, and PC had the only translator. Still, some things seeme to be universal and he was soon flirting with the female officer next to him learning the name of each dish, the words for "spoon", "glass", and possibly "you're sexy for an alien."
The food itself was odd but not unpleasant. Several dishes had a slightly gamey taste, and one was so tart that PC couldn't actually eat it.
The conversation turned on many subjects, but the dominant theme was the war. It seemed to be stalemated. When M'Krell was lost both sides had launched an intensive search effort, but neither had had any success. Now, though, the effort would be called off. M'Krell asked if the war was likely to come to Earth, and the captain said he thought it very improbably. "Now that you are found, there is no reason to come here at all. Begging your pardon," he added with a nod to Lorelei and the Wanderer. "It's off the star-lanes and has no strategic importance. Even if they did come here, I doubt the Krai would devote the resources needed to conquer it.
"Now, my Lady, we must plan for the return. We must get you home as soon as possible and spread the news of your return."
"Yes," said M'Krell. "I know. We may depart this evening. There are only a few things that must be done. Arrangements must be made for my friends to return to the planet. You have a shuttle, I assume."
"Yes, Your Highness," said the Captain.
"Good. One thing further. Ka-Sador. Do you wish to return with me? I would have you as the Captain of my guard."
A commotion ran around the table. The Captain said in a loud whisper, "Captain of the guard? He is not Ilani!"
"Ka-Sador has proved himself a valiant warrior and my truest friend on Earth. If he desires the position I will have no other," said M'Krell.
Ka-sador let loose with a series of whistles and chirps that brought laughter from the Ilani and the translator PC wore paused before cobbling together an English translation of "Mama Mia!"
The winged alien stood, smoothing the strange alien officer's outfit he had procured, and addressed the assembled group. His speech was slow and deliberate out of a combination of astonishment and nervousness speaking High Ilani.
"Princess, your offer is far beyond what anyone could expect or dream of, much less an Orionid who grew up without family, without peace, and without hope. I am humbled by your graciousness and have been awed by your fierce devotion while on the earthlanders world especially in times of great distress." Ka-sador addressed the Ilani crew, "You have been blessed with a highly capable and worthy leader who will surely lead you to unimaginable prosperity."
Ka-sador turned and approached the area occupied by the Protectors, "As a youth, I expected to perish in the arena. There was never a thought of escape or freedom; little did I know that fate would open not only the gate of the pit but also my heart. Deprived of a family, you provided all that anyone could ever need, with this I am sure the Princess would agree. All I have ever known is the battle, it is what flows throughout my body. Each of you along with Defender, Sting, and Max revealed much more to me. I have experienced emotions which I thought myself incapable. Many I enjoyed, but Ka-sador is bound to honor and duty, it is who Ka-sador is."
He then turned to face M'Krell and kneeled, "Your Highness, I am honored by your offer." Ka-sador turned slightly to look at the Protectors with a tear, "and I accept the position."
PC looked on in a strange yet acute combination of pride and sadness. She was happy that the Orionid had finally found his peace and a role in life he could wear with honor. And yet...
She stood and walked over to Ka-Sador, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Congratulations. I would say 'keep in touch', but...well, you know..."
Ka-sador looked up with a smile, [THAYNK YOO, KA-SADOR THEN BE SPESHUL GESHT STAR IF PATHS CROSS AGIN]
* * * *Alden and Mara were in their shared quarters, packing to return home. The day had been blissfully uneventful and the two were playfully making a bigger mess than they were cleaning up.
"You were here for a month. How did you get all this stuff here?" Alden asked as his loving wife buried him in a shower of casual clothing.
"What did you expect me to bring, a pair of pajamas and a robe?" Mara fired back.
"Well, now that you mention it..." He was interrupted by the Intruder alarms going off in the Fortress. "Stay here! Lock the door!"
Grabbing his mask, Defender rushed from the room toward command. To his surprise, the alarms died before he reached the door. Swinging into the room, ready for action, he was greeted by his companions all mysteriously standing around, dressed for a formal dinner.
"Wha... What's up, guys?"
The Wanderer straighted his jacket and quipped, "When the Ilani say an after dinner stroll, they really mean it!"
Ka-sador broke ranks and in a flying hop stood before Defender and hugged the small human lifting him off the ground.
"Ka-Sador can explain." PC said sadly. "I need to get Dad over here."
With that, PC walked over used her personal comm unit to casually punched in Sting's code on his old comm unit. Although Sting was wired to the team comms, she still used this one so that he knew it was her.
"This is Sting." came the voice on the other end.
"Sting, it's PC. Are you alone?"
"Fairly so, I'm in my office shuffling papers. What's up."
PC forced herself not to break down, but her voice betrayed that something was not right. "You need to come to the fortress. Now. Ka-Sador's leaving."
"What do you..." Sting started.
"Just come." PC said as she closed the commlink.
M'Krell greeted Alden and Mara warmly. "My people have come, and the threat of the Krai is over for the foreseeable future. There is more news, but ..." she broke off as PC returned. "You have called Sting?" she asked. When PC nodded, M'Krell nodded, too, an Earth mannerism she had picked up. "We shall wait till he arrives, then for the ... briefing? Yes, briefing."
There was an awkward silence.
* * * *As Sting travelled to the Fortress, he was lost in thought. After the promise of the holidays, things seemed to be back to it's usual stress-filled norm. The decision process of whether to retain the Dutchmen's head coach now that his contract expired weighed on his mind...as did the death of Jade Tiger. He wondered what she was doing in the Himalayas...and what caused that avalanche. He hoped to have time to do so, as he owed it to the memory of one of the few comrades that remained from the Peacekeepers.
Finally, Sting arrived, to a grouping of somewhat somber heroes. He saw PC's face and knew immediately something was wrong.
"I'm here." Sting said. "What happened?"
Ka-sador stepped forward and awkwardly told the rest of the Protectors his opportunity and decision. Tears formed in the alien's eyes as he spoke of the foreign, yet pleasant feelings and memories of family; which all of them had become to him. He recalled the joy of earthly celebrations and the adrenaline rush of fighting side-by-side with them for more than just survivial. They had taught him much about fighting for principles and a goal, and that was a factor in accepting M'Krell's offer.
[PROTECT EARRTH, PROTECT ALL PEEPLE, PROTECT FREEDOM], Ka-sador summed up.
"I never thought we'd open a Ilani franchise," Defender said, trying to help keep the mood from becoming too somber. "I can't think of anyone better to do the job, my very good friend. I'll miss you. Both of you."
Pulling off his mask, he embraced both of his friends and stepped back to let Mara do the same. Once she was finished, Alden stepped next to her and gently put his arm around her waist. Both were smiling, but there were tears in their eyes.
Ka-sador nodded, and handed his friend the Super Bola. [YOO TAYKE, TEKNOLOGY HELP YORE WORLD.]
"No, you keep it," Alden replied. "You'll need it more where you are going."
"He'd just hurt himself with it," Mara chimed in.
Sting removed his mask as well, and shook Ka-Sador's hand. "You know, all my life, despite the powers I've been given, I've always wanted to fly. There was always an exhilaration that I imagined that went with it. I may never be able to do so on my own...but hitching a flight with you has been nothing short of breathtaking. Thank you for that. Until we meet again, our loss is the Ilani's gain." He then took M'Krell's hand and kissed it in a gentlemanly fashion. "Princess, our time was brief but memorable. Do me a favor and kick some Krai butt for me, ok?"
PC came forward and hugged M'Krell. "I'm going to miss you, it was great having someone to talk to around here. Thank you for everything...I hope someday we will meet again."
PC then stepped closer to Ka-Sador, her voice slightly quaking. Ka-Sador was her trainer, and her friend, but Sting could also sense the tinge of heartbreak that his daughter seemed to be going through at that moment. "Your bolo and battle armor...will you need it as captain of the guard or do you have access to others there? I ask only because...well...we need something of yours for the Wall of Heroes..." She then stepped forward and hugged him. "Remember our talk at Chrismas? If you need us, somehow, someway, we'll figure out a way to get to you. Until then, know that you will be missed."
Ka-sador hugged PC and got down on one knee to look into her eyes. [YOO GOOD STOODENT, AND VERRY BRAYVE. THAYNK YOO FOR BEEING SISTRR KA-SADOR NEVER HAVE.] He pulled her head close and placed a kiss on her forehead as he had seen many do on television. The honor of being enshrined with the legendary Protectors overwhelmed him as he removed his wing armour. With bowed head, he lifted the lightweight armour to Sting.
[THE KRAI WILL NEVER HARRM YOO, KA-SADOR PROMISES] As the alien stood he commented with a smile, [KA-SADOR REMEMBRR HOW TO GET TO EARRTH, JUST FOLLOW MY NOSE!]
Sting's face suddenly had an expression as if a lightbulb went off. he raced to another room...and came back with a package. "I meant to give you this when you came back. Remember I told you your Christmas gift was delayed?"
He handed the box to Ka-Sador. He opened it to find roughly 50 different DVD recordings of many of the classic television programs that he had watched and enjoyed during his time on earth. "You had no idea how hard it was to find 'Starsky and Hutch' Season 1. Princess, I would assume that the Ilani have the technology to play these, but if I'm wrong, I can send a DVD player back with him. But I thought you might want these to remember your time here."
M'Krell finished embracing her friends and stepped back. She raised a communicator and called the ship. A moment later four Ilani crewmen appeared in the dome. M'Krell gestured to the to follow her. "Ka-Sador, we should pack and go."
"As you wish," he responded in Ilani and went to his quarters to pack his things and memories.
Two crewmen went with him to help fetch and carry, and two more accompanied M'Krell herself.
The Wanderer broke the awkward silence, "Port Alexander and the Protectors are losing a valuable asset, we cannot replace, but we can reload. I will undertake Ka-sador's usual patrols in the 'Parts."
"I'll pitch in where I can," Alden responded.
The paucity of their possessions meant that the packing took only a few moments, and then the aliens gathered again in the residential dome. "PC," said M'Krell. "This is an Ilani communicator. When we return to this system, we will call on this device." She took a notebook sized package and gave it to PC. "Now, goodbye, my friends. Until we meet again."
A hum filled the room, then the Ilani and the Orionid were gone.
"Bon chance, mes amies." Defender had not felt like this since the night he lost Thomas. Over the months, he had grown close to the two aliens and he knew things would be different now. "If you all will excuse us, we have some packing to finish ourselves.
Mara and Alden finished gathering their belongings quietly; quickly. Once the bags were packed, Mara broke the silence. "I think I'll miss this place a little."
"It does grow on you," Defender replied.
The two slipped out of the base and headed for home. They discussed the weather, the up-coming convention and the color of the stripes on the road. What had happened was left alone, the sense of loss still to raw. The house was just as the two had left it, just dustier. Alden carried in their bags and left Mara in the bedroom to begin unpacking. He went to the kitchen to grab a drink. After fifteen minutes, Mara had to come look for him. In the kitchen is where she found him.
Alden sat ate the bar, staring at a single can of fruit cocktail left on the counter.