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    A Leap of Fate
        By G. L. Fontenot

     Approx. 160,800 words

Action…Adventure…Science Fiction
                                        Chapter One

                                       Kaskle Dangarth



       “Pace!” he mentally screamed at his exhausted muscles. “You must maintain the pace!”

       On he ran, his weary legs never faltering under the tremendous demands he placed upon

them. The rhythm of his footfalls was smooth and methodical, nearly imperceptible over the

sound of his labored breathing. His chiseled body glistened, drenched in sweat, salty droplets

spraying off his skin with every step and swing of his arms…a consequence of the arduous

predicament in which he now found himself entrenched.

       He forced his way through the dense underbrush at a blistering speed with no regard for

the obvious trail he left in his wake. Caution and stealth could help him no longer…distance

from his pursuers was all that would save him!

       The fugitive cursed his dilemma while he ran, as he surely would have preferred to stand

and fight. A warrior‟s end would have suited him just fine…but since the recent turn of events,

there was so much more at stake than just his pride and honor, and that set of circumstances

forced his most recent move. The future was in his hands, and not that of a few mere territories,



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no, this had all escalated to a point that encompassed entire worlds, and their inhabitants. He

must survive this day, at any cost.

       The current hell-bent flight was the result of at least one of those he‟d befriended

deceiving him…and that fact ate at the runner‟s perception of whom, if anyone, he could still

trust. This man lived his life primarily by instinct, having always taken solace in his ability to

read the character of another, and see through any facade of pretense, but that comfort was gone

now. A young man who he once thought needed his aid in learning the ways of a woodsman

ultimately used his trust as a weapon against him.

       His thoughts drifted back to that incident as he ran…

       The attack came without a hint of warning…a testament to his betrayer‟s capacity to

delude his mentor. It was well planned, expertly executed, and should have worked perfectly,

but it did not. The runner found himself surrounded, trapped weaponless…or so they

thought…and only by his sheer will and the grace of the Guardian was he fortunate enough to

escape in one piece, still able to make one last dash for freedom.

       On that day, seven soldiers ambushed him at his presumably safe, secluded home, high

up in the treacherously rugged mountain country of his youth. They arrived clad in light armor,

ready for a fight, each sporting a pulse-laser weapon at their belts, as well as a more grisly and

much preferred tool of death, the long sword. It was a bizarre combination to be sure, but these

beings enjoyed the surge of battle most when it was up close and brutal, so the disrupter guns

were only carried as a “last resort.” Those energy weapons were illegal, and to even brandish

them without proper authority was to invite the death penalty, but they had every intention of

stopping him, one way or another, and that overrode all other orders, or penalties.




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       As the runner recalled the event, he felt fortunate he was such an early riser, since he had

at least been fully clothed and fed when his “friend” arrived. The lad joined him that fateful

morning for a hunting excursion, presumably to scout out the best locations for the upcoming

migration of pravort…a large herbivore sought out by the local inhabitants for the use of its meat

and hide.

       The day began bright and blustery, the wind bringing with it a sharp chill in the air, and

the distinct scent of moisture that always accompanied the ground-hugging clouds in the lower

valleys. It was a beautiful, early spring dawn, laden with possibilities, but destined for only one

outcome.

       The attackers desperately wanted to make certain their prey was unarmed before

springing their trap, so they sent in their informant to assess the situation. The leader of the band

was gambling that they might be able to capture him alive, extract some valuable information

which they were certain he possessed, and use it to their advantage.

       The young traitor succeeded in luring their quarry out of his home far enough to allow

them to encircle him…but they overlooked one major detail, which quickly cost them their prey,

three of their men‟s lives, and their informant. That detail lie under the skin of the man who now

ran onward to save his own life, in the hope that he could save others‟. His keen, unflappable

mind, orchestrating through his body‟s perfectly honed nervous system, combined the density of

his heavy-worlder‟s bone structure with the sinewy, corded muscle operating that framework.

Willpower as strong as granite synchronized them all into such an ideal alliance that his body

converted into a blurred weapon of unstoppable fury the instant he realized his peril.

       At the first sign of the enemy band, the intended victim looked to his friend, in shock and

disbelief, but the sly smile on the face of that young man told the runner all he needed to know.




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He morphed into a maniac of utter rage so quickly the traitor didn‟t even have time to react

before the impact of the large man‟s fist against his chest snapped his sternum and stopped his

heart. Their prey then used the dying fellow‟s body as a shield against the charging enemy

soldiers…and for a short while, was able to stand against them. But finally, when the

momentum of the brawl began to teeter, the sword their quarry wrestled from one of the troopers

vanished in a disrupter blast that nearly ended his fight permanently. At that point the runner

leaped down a steep, rocky embankment and set off on the first leg of his flight, which,

currently, was into its third day.

        The body of this man was a model of perfect muscular development, having been

acquired and maintained by virtually nonstop physical exertion from an early age. His life had

been one of hardship, turmoil, and pain, but he knew no other way, so he simply accepted it all in

stride as just the way things were.

        This fellow was a large man but by no means a giant among his peers. His shoulders

were somewhat broader, his arms thicker, his chest more heavily adorned with muscle than the

average male of his height, that‟s true. But one who didn‟t know him, or know of him, wouldn‟t

have considered him overly ominous…and that was a possible advantage for him.

        His calm, almost gentle demeanor easily masked the dangers that lie within. “The eyes

are a window to the soul” would not fit this fellow either, as his irises were black as pitch, his

gaze controlled and unwavering, almost docile…an outward facade belying the unimaginable

ferocity beneath.

        To the enemies that did know him however, he was an unforgiving adversary, a killing

machine who could, when required, take a life without remorse or so much as a rise in his blood

pressure…and he knew absolutely no fear!




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          Scorching across the craggy land, high in the hills, the running warrior did what he could

to take his mind off the pain that pounded in his skull from every neuron in his overtaxed body.

This almost trance-like state of autonomy allowed his mind to drift even further back as he

plowed through the forest toward his objective. His thoughts raced back down the long path

which had eventually led to this moment.

          His ancestry was that of the “Piercellione” (the mountain clans), a primitive group who

chose not to associate with many other natives. They were mysterious, and presumed to be

unsavory, hard and cruel, with many rituals and beliefs too shocking and frightening for

outsiders. His way of life was that of a wild animal, pure and unspoiled…survival! One thing

must be said about this man however. Apart from his time in the „Games‟, he never took the life

of an animal not needed to either fill an empty belly, or to protect himself. He killed out of

necessity, not sport.

          Men were different however. He‟d slain many in battles, unknowingly fighting on the

wrong side…but he left that all behind years ago, resigned to kill only when he must, in defense

of his own life or that of another. And he totally disdained the thought of anyone even striking a

woman or child. In his world females were highly respected, intelligent, and of extraordinary

beauty.

          Once grown, he ventured out of his hallowed mountains seeking excitement in his youth,

brash and eager…and quickly found more than he‟d bargained for. His physical, as well as

mental abilities promptly drew the wrong sort of attention and led him down an accelerated path

that gained him great victory, notoriety, and achievement…and eventually even greater misery.

          The life he so effortlessly attained was famous and far-reaching, but it did not last. His

meteoric rise in status propelled him into the mainstream of a foreign society which he did not,




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and could not, fully understand. But he was no fool, and in only a short time he learned that he‟d

made a pact with the most vile and ruthless beings ever known.

       Once the light of reason and morality shined on him again he escaped them…something

until then unheard of…destroying much of their insurmountable, invincible mystique when he

left. And due to his escape…that simple show of defiance demonstrating a proverbial chink in

their armor…a revolution against their rule quickly arose, with him as a prominent figure.

       The uprising didn‟t last long however; quelled through the horrible, brutal methods of

their superior foe. All who dared to follow him in those days were either captured or killed, their

bodies mounted on pikes outside every city‟s gates. As if fate itself was keeping him for some

new, unknown purpose, he barely survived to slip away, gravely wounded…to heal and bide his

time for a better chance…one he felt certain would come.

       That mighty fighter faded into the wilds of the untamed land until the searchers grew

confident of his death, allowing him finally to return to his beloved, lofty peaks…to his home.

But his homecoming wasn‟t what he expected. He quickly found himself banished from

consorting with the mountain clans in those ancestral lands, and forbidden from marrying within

them…having broken the codes of his people. However, many of the elders acknowledged that

he had been their greatest warrior in his youth, and so they allowed him to live in peace as none

would dare fully condemn him.

       Those who knew him best revered and respected him. Kaskle Dangarth, Champion of the

Rokore Clan of the Aredanz Mountains was a hero; he was a legend!

       The ostracizing forced him to interact with the citizens of the nearby territory of Pelyarn,

for trading, companionship, and the like, so he quietly tried to blend into that life as well as he

could. It was an equitable arrangement which worked for a good while, until politics inevitably




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interceded.

       Many of the inhabitants of Dargone, the predominant city of Pelyarn, where he had most

of his dealings, quickly grew to admire Kaskle, and would have him as their leader in an instant

if he would just allow it. But this man refused to consider himself as others did, and he did not

share in their plans. He no longer sought the praise of his peers, or of strangers…his days in the

“circuit” had broken him of that. He thought of himself as just one of many, a good hunter,

provider, warrior for the communities, no doubt, but that was all. It was always others who saw

more in him. He was a natural leader.

       When an important decision was to be made, many sought him out because his voice

carried tremendous weight, as his views were solid, thoughtful, and unbiased. Several times he

even spoke out against his closest friends, when a differing opinion was for the better of the

whole. Such admonitions were something to draw respect and admiration by many, but not all,

as a few of the group tended to let their own agendas and jealousy broil deep inside, quietly

biding their time to consummate their personal goals.

       These plotting, conniving, pitiful individuals finally took advantage of an opportune

moment to remove him from their pathway to power, and made their move…but they had

failed…he still lived.

       Kaskle gritted his teeth at their traitorous act while he ran, taking time out in his thoughts

to thank the powers of nature for having granted him the body that he was now taxing to its very

limits. He knew if he had not been so favored, he surely would have been recycled long ago,

back to the soil from which all living things originate.

       For the past two days this hunted man had been forced to go without sleep or food,

granted little rest, and that respite gained only by nearly superhuman efforts on his part.




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       At the onset, he led his pursuers on a merry chase by winding his way from his high

altitude, hideaway home through the most treacherous terrain he could find. Down gorges with

vertical cliffs that even experienced mountain men would not have dared descend without an

armload of safety equipment, he willingly pressed. Up and over narrow passes that had long

since closed from winter snows, he forged. He used every trick he could remember or invent, to

evade, slow down, or wear down the posse that followed…but they proved themselves relentless.

       The runner smiled wryly as he recalled the ease with which he had always eluded them in

the past cycles…taking to the wilderness he knew so well. Once in those jungle-like environs,

he could evade the sophisticated electronic devices they relied so heavily on as effortlessly as the

ceatary soared the thermals.

       He saw one of those enormous birds of prey at that moment, while he gazed up at the

deep blue sky through the trees. It was slowly circling above and to his left, on a hunt no doubt,

as he was, although undeniably at the opposite end of it.

       Onward he raced, flashing through the thick forest in a blur and scattering every tiny

forest-dweller within earshot. Normally the runner felt he was in complete control while within

the confines of his beloved woods, but that was not the case this time. He finally realized during

this nightmarish chase, just how badly he had miscalculated, failing to allow room in his

safeguards to deal with the level of treachery his enemies so readily orchestrated, as well as their

newfound determination. Four separate times over the previous two days, he felt certain he‟d

escaped them only to detect the sounds of pursuit shortly thereafter.

       He was aware; at least, of the reason they were so tenacious this time. In the recent past,

relatives of his old comrades discreetly contacted him, and he agreed to rejoin the fight due to a

tremendous opportunity miraculously becoming available. This new prospect blossomed




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through the acquisition of a new ally…a race even more advanced than his former masters.

Their species‟ common enemy, those that trailed him now, was resolute to stop him from

reaching the rendezvous point with this mysterious collaborator…the extraction of information

instantly becoming a nonissue after his initial escape.

       The pursuers‟ spy network stayed well informed, managing to find out “when” the

meeting was to take place, but, to the runner‟s satisfaction, failing to get the exact location of

“where”. He knew not how many had suffered and died for that information, but he was familiar

enough with his adversaries to imagine they spared no one to get what they wanted.

       “They must be more afraid of us than I thought,” Kaskle told himself after the second

long day of this dogged pursuit. “Either that, or they fear what awaits me at the rendezvous!” he

growled as he plunged onward, bolstered by the thought of anyone putting fright in those nearly

omnipotent beings.




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                                         Chapter Two

                                          The Tracker



       Down another ravine the Kaskle flew, across another deep stream he forded, and up a

steep, rocky cliff he scrambled like a deep forest monkey. The champion of the Aredanz drove

himself forward as if the Reaper himself was on his heels…and that was not far from the truth.

No relief was in his future…no more stops for planning or sustenance…this was a pure race for

survival.

       His conscious thought then returned to the present. After such an agonizing, unyielding,

horrendous hunt, and another day‟s exhausting flight, whichever reason the posse had for his

capture made no difference to him. He needed to keep his concentration on the task at hand…the

goal and the chase.

       The goal was rapidly approaching, which should have given him a glimmer of optimism,

but a new obstacle added to the runner‟s problems, barely a billot‟s time in the past. This latest

wrinkle was one that instantly erased all but the slimmest thread of such a luxury as “hope”.




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       Earlier in the afternoon, after heaving his battered body over the edge of a huge

outcropping boulder, he collapsed to the ground at the upper rim of a deep canyon. He attained

that summit only after half a day‟s arduous climbing, and his body trembled from the strain. He

needed a long stop in his rapidly worsening condition, but knew he wouldn‟t get one.

Exhaustion, combined with the lack of sleep and a real meal, were taking their toll, closing the

time span between mandatory…but momentary…rests.

       He expertly used the cover of some large, knotted, tree roots to camouflage himself as he

scanned the floor of the canyon for those who followed. Nothing could be seen moving in the

peaceful, thickly wooded stretch of land, but that, in itself, was not surprising. Stealth was the

very reason prompting him to take that particular route in the first place.

       The breathless, expert mountain man attempted to put his finely honed sense of smell to

the test, hoping to detect the pungent, almost acrid odor of the posse. The wind however, was

less than helpful at his location, so he abandoned that idea straight away and just lie there

listening. That seemingly simple undertaking turned out to be not an easy one to accomplish

over the sounds of his ragged breaths…but he concentrated until he could manage the task.

       The hunters were good woodsman as well, but a group of fourteen armed soldiers were

hard to keep quiet, especially on a hot trail, and he was positive they would not be able to escape

his surveillance. After a short while, having caught his breath and feeling convinced he had

finally shaken the hunting party, he sat up, reveling in his celebratory moment. Even if they still

followed, there was enough distance between him and them to allow some slight relief of the

pressure. From his position, it was only a short distance to the rendezvous point, and plenty of

time to get there.




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       He reclined comfortable, thinking; “I can probably walk it from here and be a bit

refreshed for the meeting.”

       He had won!

       “There‟s no way they can overtake me now,” he said in a loud, confident voice, the first

words uttered by him in the two days following his escape.

       Kaskle‟s self-assured declaration barely left his lips however, before his dream was

shattered as completely as the serenity of the surrounding forest. A long, horrific, piercing shriek

ripped through the cool, midday air and struck him like an energy blast. The echoing resonance

of that cry provoked an instant, panicky outburst from every creature close enough to hear it, and

shook the man to his core.

       Birds took to flight as if a bomb had gone off, filling the air. Animals, small and large

could be heard clambering to find safe refuge from the unfamiliar, yet terrifying utterance.

       “No!” he cried as he leaped to his feet once again.

       He whirled around to face the canyon at once, his body forgetting the pain his muscles

had felt just moments before…every neuron of his senses awake and focused.

       Kaskle Dangarth was a man who did not frighten easily…one who had never felt the

queasiness of panic normal men inevitably experience at some point in their lives. Only once in

all his cycles could he recall an event even close to fright…one which left him to suffer the

agonizing feeling of utter helplessness. Fear brushed past him just that single time…and it was

not for his own safety that he had endured it.

       His entire life in the harsh lands of his forefathers subsisted under the threat of constant

peril…be it man, beast, or nature…yet he always evaluated each encounter and reacted to it with

skill and purpose. Nonetheless, at that moment, as the reverberations of the bestial wail died off,




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he revisited the mind numbing wave of dread. His whole body trembled due to a flood of

adrenaline sweeping through his system from head to foot, and it was so unnatural to him that he

stared at his hands and searched himself over, trying to understand it.

       “A tracker!” he stated, breaking the spell that gripped him.

       The howl of the tracker did not repeat, but the experienced frontiersman didn‟t need a

second one to know his conclusions were correct. He‟d roamed the mountains for too many

cycles not to be able to recognize the cry of a creature so foreign to his home that it stood out

like a beacon of light on a moonless night. Though he had never seen one and had only

overheard some talk about one of the beasts, given his present circumstance, he knew exactly

what was now on his trail.

       Kaskle froze where he stood for several long litas, recalling the tales shared by his former

masters‟ recounting of the rare beasts…of their abilities and strengths. Their stories stated

plainly that no one had ever escaped from a tracker in the history of his planet. Such

recollections narrated how men of great courage and skill had simply given up and lain down to

await their fate when they realized what they faced.

       These thoughts caused an instant wave of despair to pass over him…but that wave flowed

out of his being as quickly as it had come because this was not a normal man. He was not the

type to dwell on a sense of foreboding. The mountain clansman was the sort who used his brain

and body to escape clearly overwhelming situations countless times before, and in his mind this

was just another challenge he must overcome. Kaskle firmly believed that as long as there was

life in his form, there was a chance to prolong that life.

       He then drew in a deep breath, purging all emotional or irrelevant information from his

thoughts, and evaluated his position with cool determination.




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       The fugitive knew the animal was fast, faster in fact than anything he‟d ever seen, so

speed on his part was also a necessity. Furthermore, he had to reach the meeting place on time,

yet unaccompanied by the beast.

       At that point, he returned to his spying position and watched intently as the creature

moved through the canyon forest below at an incredible pace. Kaskle was unable to actually see

the tracker, but could make out the swaying motion of some of the smaller trees as it pushed its

way through the denser areas. If the stories were true, the brute would have little problem

finding a way to scale the canyon wall as well. It was suited best for the open plains of its home

world, but it was adaptable to any terrain, even adept at taking prey from trees, when necessary.

       The beast was powerful as well, big and tough, practically unstoppable. In fact, the

smallest weapon ever known to have brought one down was a Level-80 pulse cannon, and that

had only rendered it immobile, not killed it.

       The runner smirked at himself as he briefly considered his chances of commandeering an

armored vehicle with such a weapon…not likely up here in the wilderness. He then snapped out

of that outlandish fantasy and surveyed himself once more. Without so much as a blink, he

began removing his heavy mountain boots. They had provided him protection from the rocky

terrain he‟d traversed, but now he was in the forest again and the need for speed was great. He

also slipped out of the thick jacket he wore, knowing at that moment he would not have to spend

another night in the frigid mountains. He would either make it safely to the allies, or he would

be dead.

       With the drastic reduction in weight, the runner set off at an even faster pace than before.

He took a circuitous route that he hoped would add sufficient distance to his trail to keep the

tracker busy long enough for him to make the rendezvous and escape.




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       The heartrending knowledge the animal might soon overhaul him lent energy to his

gravely fatigued body. Even at his increased speed, he was able to preserve his pace up to this

moment, late in the afternoon, when he finally found himself within earshot of the river, which

was his goal.

       “Almost there!” he told himself, “The pain will be over soon!”

       He wove his way through the underbrush, his breath now coming in ragged gasps, every

intake of air a burning ordeal to his lungs. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist and read

the countdown sequence. It was a foreign item to his people and, even though he had

experienced such technology during “the training”, he was uncomfortable with it, as were his

friends.

       “It‟s going to be close!” he grunted out loud, pushing through the foliage.

       Finally he lunged free of the surrounding brush and out onto the blinding, sun-drenched

riverbank. For just a moment the brightness was overwhelming to him however, as his optical

senses immediately commanded an insurgence of a thick, ultraviolet absorbing liquid to the

surface of his eyes. That fluid instantaneously fractionated the inundation of light from the blue-

white star above, bringing it to a tolerable level.

       Kaskle didn‟t hesitate even for an instant, pivoting at the edge of the water and dashing

upstream. He continued a short distance until he reached his final destination…a huge, jagged

shard of rock jutting out of the sparkling, green tinged water.

       The peak of that monolith was the “pickup” point for his next journey, one that should

prove to be fascinating, if it came to be as his information boasted.

       The rock thrust upward three times his height from the turbulent waters and he scrambled

up it to the summit as quickly as he could. The way was steep and he had to use his hands and




                                                                                                   16
knees to attain the peak where he collapsed to the hard surface, rolled onto his back, and checked

the timepiece once again.

       “Six borts early!” he gasped before he allowed himself the luxury of some long, slow,

cleansing breaths.

       He laid his head back and looked up at the sky, his body spent and his arms and legs flat

out on the smooth, hot surface of the giant slab of rock. He lie there catching his breath and

collecting himself as the time quickly counted down. The sweat from his overheated body ran

down the face of the rock in tiny rivulets, carrying with it some of the caked-on dirt, grime, and

blood which had accumulated on his deeply tanned skin over the past few days.

       After a bit, the mighty warrior envisioned the impression he would make on the reception

committee. His nearly naked body was covered in filth and dried blood, since the last few miles

saw his light clothing shredded from his body by the thick underbrush he traversed.

       With four borts left on the counter, he sat up, his head reeling from the combination of

fatigue and relief…and then he managed to take a standing position. Kaskle pulled off his

ragged shirt and tossed it aside absentmindedly while he listened intensely and scanned the area

carefully. Feeling safe for the moment, he made his way down to the stream for a drink from the

cold snow melt.

       The water was sweet and clean, and raised his spirits even more, until he saw his

reflection in the pool. He was a horrible mess, and looked more like a refugee than a stalwart

warrior. So, hoping to improve his disheveled appearance and revive himself, he waded into the

thigh deep water of a small eddy. Dunking his head and splashing his face and torso with the

rejuvenating liquid, the Aredanz champion attempted to create a more affable impression. He




                                                                                                  17
would have taken a swim had the current not been so strong and time so short, but instead, he

just climbed back up the rock again and sat at its peak, his head drooping.

       Per his instructions, with only one bort left, he pressed the “locator beacon” on the

underside of the chronograph and set it down on the rocky shelf beside him. Feeling weak and

drained, as well he should, he waited for the timer on the little device to sound.

       “Well, Kaskle,” he said softly, taking one last look around at the glorious mountains of

his homeland, “I suppose you finally managed to win this round.”

       He took in the beautiful surroundings with a slight feeling of nostalgia, not knowing

when he would be able to return. The river was high from the recent rains and he knew the game

in this region would be plentiful all cycle, since it had been a mild winter. His friends would

have ample supplies throughout the coming summer, and should be well prepared before the

snows in the fall. They would be fine without him…of that he was confident…but he would

miss his native soil.

        At that instant, his daydream of victory was ripped from him a second time when a

crashing sound ripped through the forest and the tracker burst forth from the woods at the same

point he had just emerged. Its head immediately swiveled around to face its prey standing on the

boulder, barely eighty paces away, which was much too close for Kaskle‟s liking.

       It opened its enormous jaws and let out another piercing scream, signifying the sighting

of its quarry. The utterance was a powerful blast that vibrated the leaves on the nearby trees and

even sent ripples across the fast flowing water.

       The fugitive man stared at the creature from atop his perch and could not believe his

eyes. His people knew the general description of a tracker, but few had ever seen one in person,

and all of them were now deceased.




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       It had eight legs, arranged in pairs, which were long but extremely muscular. It also

possessed the remarkable capability to run on either set of four by tucking in the others, thus

enabling it to continue a hunt for days without losing its pace. It merely alternated the workload

whenever it needed, switching to a fresh, rested set of limbs. And, when it eventually overtook

its victim, as it always did, the fiendish brute could implement all eight to insure a swift kill or a

short fight, whichever case applied.

       The beast‟s body spanned twice that of a man‟s height, from its nose to the root of its tail,

which was long and thick to give the creature outstanding balance. Its body was feline in

appearance, Kaskle noted, having thick, short fur of multiple colors that dramatically changed as

its muscles rippled back and forth. That dense coating quivered with excitement as he stared at it

in awe; first appearing dark orange, then shifting to almost a violet tint at the end of its

transforming spectrum.

       It had heavily padded feet with long, retractable claws, and as the man watched, the beast

flashed those weapons in and out twice…flexing…preparing. Reputedly, the tracker‟s claws

were able to slice through a reinforced battle suit, a supposedly impenetrable garb, with no

problem. And according to the stories, it was not unknown for as many as ten warriors so

adorned, to die while trying to capture one…massacred like a group of helpless women.

       The creature had five hearts, requiring only two working ones to sustain a lengthy battle.

They were also completely regenerative, so, if the beast survived the fight, it could heal its

damaged organs and return to full strength if given enough time.

       The tracker had only a singular brain but it was extremely large for an animal, lending

credence to the belief the beast was extraordinarily intelligent. That organ lie tucked away in a

skull that was heavily protected against assault, having a massive, heavy-world bone structure




                                                                                                     19
surrounding it. The creature‟s head was clearly canine in construction, seemingly misplaced on

the feline body… thereby lending to the beast‟s terrifying, alien appearance.

       Its spine also was a marvel of biology. The stories claimed the tracker‟s vertebrae could

withstand even the blows of a heavy battle-ax wielded by a professional warrior, but Kaskle had

no way of putting that to the test. As he stared, his fingers itched for the feel of his sword. He

would have much preferred to meet the Creator fighting rather than being slaughtered like a

lowly chinch.

       The animal was equipped with four eyes, each deeply imbedded in the structure of its

skull for protection during battle. Two of those visual organs were forward facing while the

others were arranged on either side, far back along a ridge of bone. With such optical

accessories, the beast was able to see in nearly all directions at once, and its eyesight was

exceptionally keen.

       But by far the most fearsome part of the animal was its jaws. Perhaps because they had

no fleshy covering for the teeth, giving the impression of an oversized, gruesome grin, with

double rows of five inch long fangs meshing together when the upper and lower halves shut.

Those jaws were alleged to have the power to crush a man‟s chest as if it were a pile of twigs.

       The tracker came from a giant, class eleven planet with a surface predominantly

consisting of open plains, having virtually no cover save the tall grasses that grew there, and

plagued with extreme temperature variances. Its home was a place where it would be impossible

to survive unless it was as cunning, tireless, and as fierce as it was…and there it thrived!

       It could see perfectly in the dimmest starlight or the harshest glare of the white star solar

system unto which it was born. The animal‟s genetic evolution honed its olfactory senses to such

a degree that absolutely nothing could fool it, or escape its detection. And once discovered, no




                                                                                                     20
method of elusion other than by air or sheer speed, could evade it…and even the speediest of

prey would eventually fall victim to its dogged persistence after a long pursuit.

        Combining its vast array of attributes with the fact that the beast‟s native world was such

a massive planet, further enhancing its natural adaptive abilities, left a harsh reality…there was

almost nowhere that it did not flourish. It was the ultimate hunter in the known universe.

        The creature‟s latest prey stood atop his granite perch, all of this information blitzing

through his mind in the briefest of time the animal paused at the edge of the river. He had

contemplated this meeting hundreds of times while he fled from it, always resigning himself that

if he were caught out in the open he would have no options. Flight, however futile, would be his

only recourse.

        His brain spun through his choices in a mad rush.

        “Possibly a tree could save me,” he thought, “or deep water…the beast‟s only weak

point,” he added, knowing it could not swim in water of this lesser-gravity planet.

        Neither was within reach now, however. The river, although flowing heavily, was just

chest deep, and the tree line lay in the direction of the beast. Nonetheless he coiled himself for a

dash.

        He never saw the small, football-shaped probe glide out of the forest across the river from

him and hover over the rapids.

        The tracker suddenly flashed into motion…all eight of its legs churning up the ground,

belying its size with the quickness of its movement. It covered the distance separating hunter

from prey in less time than it took for the man‟s heart to beat twice.

        Gone were Kaskle‟s hopes of making the rendezvous, of helping his people, of any

thoughts other than “Run!”




                                                                                                     21
       He whirled and leaped out over the river as far as he could at a sharp angle to the

incoming beast, hoping it would miss him…a last, desperate attempt at self-preservation.

       As his feet left the rock‟s edge, he could hear the sound of claws on hard stone screeching

as they fought for traction. Then came the ear-piercing cry of the creature ripping through the air

once more, completely drowning out the tiny chime that was sounding from the chrono at the

man‟s feet.




                                                                                                 22
                                            Chapter Three

                                             Where am I



Another place: another world...

       “Iiiieeeaashitt!” the man shouted, grabbing the back of his neck before jerking his body

violently into a sitting position and frantically looking about…expecting the tracker to eviscerate

him at any second.

       “Oh, jeez!” he added as the bright light struck his sleep-filled eyes with stabbing pain,

causing them to water heavily, and forcing him back to his previously prone status.

       That pain was only part of what turned out to be an onslaught of sensory overload

hammering away at his brain. Seizing his head with both hands, he forced himself to lie still;

listening as best he could over the incessant thundering in his ears. The blood rushing through

his veins was excruciating, as if every nerve was raw and exposed. The man fought against his

internal assault and, after a brief time, was able to focus his thoughts and managed to calm

himself, forcing his body to relax a bit.




                                                                                                   23
       “A dream!” he told himself. “Just a dream! There‟s no river and there‟s no creature…a

tracker? What the hell is that?”

       The man who lie there on his back, slowly regaining control of his frantic breathing, and

trying to rub the pain out of his overexposed eyes, was wearing a uniform of dark gray material.

The name “Ron Allison” stood out clearly on the front of his shirt, embroidered in fine black

script on a bright yellow label.

       “Man!” he croaked, feeling a throbbing ache from every conceivable tissue of his body.

“I don‟t know which is worse, that dream, or reality.”

       He remained still a while longer, and then began to search his memory of the recent past.

       “I guess I made it to the beach,” he concluded, assuming the incredibly bright light

burning its way through his eyelids could only be generated from the sun bearing down on him.

The reflection off the water and white sand of his previous destination would easily account for

his blinding situation.

       He kept one eye shut, squinting harshly with the other while shading it one handedly so

he could have a look around. When he peeked up, through the cracks between his fingers, he

couldn‟t believe what he saw.

       “Son of a …!” he blurted, finding himself under the overhang of a large tree, plush with

leafy foliage.

       “If I‟m in the shade, I‟d hate to get out in the sun.”

       He abruptly discounted the apparent abnormality, assuming his eyes would adjust after a

while, and ventured a cautious look around.

       By sitting up and turning his still pounding head to the left, a considerable challenge to

his battered form, he found himself resting at the edge of a forest to his back, with a huge open




                                                                                                    24
field to his front. As he looked a short distance off to the right, he caught sight of what he was

searching for…the helicopter. Actually, he saw what remained of it…a twisted heap of partially

painted aluminum, more than thirty yards away in the tall grass.

       The sight of the wreckage put him back prone again.

       “Now I know why I feel so baaaad…I can‟t believe I even lived through that.”

       He lie there slowly concentrating his mind again, a monumentally difficult task in his

present state, until he got a clear picture of what he had to do. He then sat up once more and

systematically began to check himself over.

       Gingerly he moved all of his limbs, finding nothing obviously broken and not nearly as

much general damage as what he felt must surely be the cause of his pain. But he did notice

something odd. His work uniform, which had always been very loose on his lean, six foot tall,

one hundred and sixty pound frame, was now extremely tight. Even his leather work-boots had

clearly shrunk.

       Other than that, he felt relieved to have gotten off with only one casualty…his belt had

broken. He discarded the thin leather pieces, not giving it much thought since his pants were no

longer in any danger of slipping.

       Ron stood up slowly to get a better look at the area, finding his legs to be a little shaky.

He was adjusting for their insecurity when he saw another odd sight…his shirt was missing the

top five buttons, and didn‟t cover his chest or reach his waist anymore…and his pants were an

inch short of his boots.

       “How do you like that? This stuff isn‟t supposed to shrink.”




                                                                                                      25
       Having bigger problems to concern himself with though, Ron shrugged off the uniform

irregularities and began tentatively stretching all the muscles he could for the next few minutes,

probing for signs of some internal injuries all the while.

        Something seemed different to him as he looked down at himself again, but the light fog

in his mind wouldn‟t allow him to get a clear picture of what it was that troubled him. In short

order, he ignored the feeling…after all, he was lucky to be alive.

       There was a cool breeze drifting through the forest, so Ron allowed himself the pleasure

of enjoying it for a while, which was no easy task considering what he‟d just been through

during the previous night. He drew in some of that refreshing air deeply, embracing it, and

letting it revive him. It was laced with the sweet scents of far-off flowers and moist greenery,

and he was almost giddy to still be in one piece.

       After a bit, he forced himself back to the present and stood once more surveying his

environment. By the sun‟s position, the day was well under way, so he twisted his wrist around

to check his watch. It was not there. His memory then clicked into motion, reminding him of

the day-old broken band, which he ruined before leaving for work the morning previous. He

fished it out of his pocket and regarded it. It was registering four thirty four, A.M.

       He thought back to the last time he looked at it, just before the alarm sounded, back on

the oilrig. It had been almost three in the morning.

       “The damned thing must have stopped for a while, then restarted,” he guessed when he

saw that it was functioning fine now.

       By using the sun as a reference, he faced north. In that direction was the forest, at the

edge of which he was standing. The trees growing all around were of the hardwood varieties,

with no sign of pines or firs anywhere, which struck Ron as unusual since he was in pulpwood




                                                                                                   26
country, or rather, should have been. He stood under what he thought was an oak tree, and as he

gazed at it, he noticed that it, as well as all the trees in the forest, were covered with leaves…of a

deep, “blue” color.

          He blinked hard and shook his still throbbing head delicately, not believing what he was

seeing.

          “Man, those trees sure have a lot of leaves for it to be the first of March,” he said, casting

aside the obvious color nonconformity, but unconsciously adding it to a growing list of

unsettling findings.

          His concern swung to the west, along the tree line. Off in that direction, the woodlands

continued for a few miles, ending at the base of a precipitous cliff-face, part of range of

mountains that went southwest to the horizon.

          “What the…” he muttered.

          Ron turned to face east, finding another range in that direction, slightly further away. He

quickly looked to the south where still more mountainous terrain lay far in the distance, beyond

the grassland in which he‟d crashed.

          “How the hell did I get to the mountains? The only mountains around Louisiana are up

in Arkansas, and that little chopper couldn‟t have flown that far, especially without me knowing

about it!”

          He looked again at the snow-topped mountains reaching high into the sky all around him,

denying what his brain was telling him.

          “This is too weird!”




                                                                                                      27
        He remained there for several long minutes, trying to calculate the distance he would

have to have covered, coming to the only conclusion his grasp of reality could fathom. He just

flew at least three hundred miles.

        “There were fifty gallons of fuel on the chopper when I left the rig,” he told himself. “So,

since the helicopter‟s engine consumes twenty-five gallons of fuel per hour, and since I have to

be in either Arkansas or Tennessee, I must have averaged over one hundred and seventy miles an

hour! Then, I climbed to an altitude high enough to clear those southern peaks before crashing

here.

        “That must have been one hell of a strong tailwind!” he added, as memories of the

unbelievable happenings he‟d heard of and read about over the course of his life steered his

thoughts to the “Bermuda Triangle” legend. “I guess stranger things have happened…just not to

me!”

         Ron turned to view the wreckage of the small aircraft that had saved his life, but his

attention was quickly drawn away from the wreck by the tall grass. Again he found himself

blinking hard and rubbing his eyes twice before acknowledging yet another unbelievable sight.

The long stemmed plants growing in the field for miles around, and what he had originally

thought to be wheat, was a dull red color, and it had yellow buds on the tips of each stalk. He

whirled back to face the forest and quickly reached up and plucked a leaf. On close examination,

he found the leaf, which he thought had a bluish tint to it, was in fact blue.

        “Geez! Blue leaves and red wheat? What‟s going on around here?”

        Once again he glanced at the mangled helicopter, which gave him a viable explanation...a

concussion.




                                                                                                   28
         “I must have bruised my optic nerves,” he thought, feeling almost relieved at that

plausible explanation. “Either that or I have amnesia and can‟t remember what colors go

where.”

         Ron looked up at the tree above him. He followed the limbs to the trunk and down to the

earth.

         “Nothing wrong there.”

         He then surveyed the sky, which was a deep blue, almost indigo, reminding him of the

high altitude air he‟d seen above the Rocky Mountains during a trip to Colorado with his family

two summers past.

         “I suppose everything will be back to normal in a few hours,” he told himself, not

knowing what to think, really.

         He then decided to concentrate on the duties he needed to take care of. Everything else

would have to wait until he went to the wreck and recovered the aircraft‟s logbook and

emergency kit.

         The Federal Aviation Administration would want the log for their records, to do a proper

report of the crash, and the emergency kit would be valuable to help him signal for help if

someone might be out searching for him.

         He laughed at that thought. “Searching for me!” he said out loud as the notion crossed

his mind. “They won‟t even know I got off the platform!” he added, feeling instantly depressed

about his predicament. “And if they did, there‟s no way they‟d go this far to find me.”

         Ron grew even more depressed as he thought of venturing out into the direct sunlight,

especially after that initial shock to his eyes. His hesitation didn‟t last long though since he knew

he had to find the log, and the emergency kit was essential until he could secure some help.




                                                                                                   29
       Bracing himself for further punishment, he struck out toward the wreckage.

       He made it no more than two steps before stopping abruptly. With the normal effort of

his stride he‟d nearly left the ground, as if eighty pounds of weight were being lifted off his back

at each step.

       Ron searched himself over once again, not having a clue to what he should be looking

for. His dark gray uniform was plastered to his skin; that much was true, but other than that, he

couldn‟t see anything out of the ordinary.

       “I‟m “The Incredible HULK!” he said laughing and flexing his arms, which resulted in

the seams of his shirt bursting open straight away, causing him a bit of a shock.

       He stared at the ripped cloth for a few seconds.

       “It shrunk!” he told himself finally, since even the thought of him morphing into a

muscleman made him mentally slap himself. “My brain must be a little loose after the crash!

Some stray electrons are bouncing around and having a good-old-time up there.”

       Once more, he moved toward the crumpled helicopter. The light feeling was still there,

so he concentrated on compensating for it and kept on going this time, more bouncing than

walking. He strolled awkwardly through the cool shade, and then, bracing himself, out into the

sunlight.

       The instant the sun‟s rays struck his face; he stopped dead in his tracks yet again.

       When the brilliance of the light met his eyes, Ron immediately winced and squinted

harshly, raising a hand to shade his brow. Such a reaction didn‟t startle him. What did was a

new (and bizarre) fact…he didn‟t need to. Before his hand could reach up to block the sun, the

scene in front of him changed from a near white-out, so intensely bright was it, to the equivalent

of a heavily overcast day, then brightening up a bit afterward.




                                                                                                  30
        Ron stood there staring out at nothing in particular, wondering what explanation would

possibly fit this latest nonconformity. Of course, there was no answer to his cyclone of swirling

and colliding questions, so, after a short time of pondering, he decided to run a few quick tests.

       He mentally ordered his eyelids to close, finding himself looking at the usual orange

glow one would expect in strong sunlight. When he opened them again however, he didn‟t get

the normal burst of radiance from unshielded sunlight. Instead, he found himself looking across

the field as if through a pair of dark sunglasses, just as before.

       “This…this…can‟t…be real,” he stammered, getting a fresh, queasy feeling in his gut.

       Cautiously, Ron backtracked to the shadow of the tree.

       When he was out of direct sunlight, he saw a definite change. It was like a dark screen

quickly faded away in front of him. He moved forward and the bright scene almost instantly

darkened again.

       Ron could take it no more. With everything he‟d cataloged since awakening under the

blue-leafed tree, he couldn‟t help but feel a rush of frustration, panic, and bewilderment.

       “I‟m in the freaking „Twilight Zone‟!” he yelled, both hands on the sides of his head.

       He stood there unmoving for quite a while, trying to maintain control, calming himself.

This was no place to lose it!

       “Okay…okay! Your brain has turned to jelly, but that‟s okay, maybe even expected in

this situation, but you‟ll be all right in a while…just don‟t flip out. Ignore everything that seems

out of the ordinary for now. Get to a hospital first, and then you can have a nervous breakdown.”

       With that, he continued toward the smashed aircraft. The “shades” for his eyes, however

disconcerting, were a blessing not to be trifled with, but the light feeling was still an annoyance




                                                                                                      31
while he moved about. He brushed aside the other abnormalities, having to keep substantial

concentration just to keep his balance.

       Halfway to the ship, he started feeling the affects of the sun on his dark uniform. The

protection of the tree‟s shadow had been relatively cool, but out in the open he found it to be

much different.

       “Man!” he said, feeling the sweat start to flow through his pores. “It must be a hundred

degrees out here, and judging from the angle of the sun, it can‟t be past ten in the morning. I

must have forgotten what month it is too, because it surely can‟t be March.”

       Farther along, Ron stepped on something black and stooped to investigate the item. It

was the seat belt harness from the pilot‟s chair. Closer study revealed that it had been ripped out

of the framework of the aircraft…the attaching bolts still clinging to the straps.

       “Damn!” he said, wondering at the force it took to tear those straps free.

       Glancing at the blown-out section of the ship‟s windshield and imagining his unconscious

body flying out that hole and tumbling all the way to the tree made his neck ache painfully.

       Ron clamped his jaw tight and pushed those thoughts clear in order to get moving again.

Such details didn‟t matter, and would just distract him. A few seconds later, he managed to

trudge his way through the waist high grass and reach the helicopter, only to be even more

amazed at having lived through the crash. The ship had hit the ground with such force that both

landing gear were sticking straight out to the sides of the craft The belly, which normally stood

two feet off the ground, now sat buried six inches into the soft soil.

       The large, main rotor blades stuck up prominently sixty yards away, protruding from the

tall grass…twisted like a huge pretzel. The front and rear seats, which were typically two feet




                                                                                                  32
apart were touching, and there was a large, jagged hole where the baggage compartment door

previously was.

        “I guess I won‟t have to worry about fixing you anymore!” Ron said to the pile of rubble

that once had been his assigned helicopter.

        He spent the next half hour drenched in sweat, combing through the wreckage before

finding the emergency kit. It wasn‟t in its usual place, under the copilot‟s seat. Instead, it

somehow wound up in the rear baggage compartment, wedged between two bulkheads.

        At first glance, Ron didn‟t think he had a chance of getting it out of there, but as he

applied more and more force to the task, the aluminum skin tore away like paper. He stepped

back quickly, dumbfounded.

        “Huh!” he grunted, swiping his forehead with the back of his forearm. “This damned

aluminum isn‟t worth crap, once it gets bent.”

        He leaned into the hole in the craft and pulled the kit free, hauling it out into the sunlight

and examining it for damage. The container appeared sound enough, so he dropped down on his

knees and broke it open to inventory the contents.

        Inside the orange, football shaped crisis kit were two flares, a small pocketknife, a four-

foot length of nylon cord, a mirror, a whistle, and some Dramamine tablets.

        Ron scooped up the tablets, chuckled quickly as he remembered how flying always made

him nauseous, and then tossed them back into the aircraft. He stuffed everything else into his

trouser pockets, except the mirror. Not wanting to accidentally injure himself, should the mirror

break inside his all-to-cramped pants pocket, he slipped it into his shirt pouch, striking something

in there as he did.




                                                                                                      33
        He pulled out the object and then smiled for the first time in what seemed like forever to

his bemused and distraught mind. It was a laminated picture of his newlywed wife of five

months. Ron always went off to his week‟s duty with that picture, once telling her it was the

only way he could go that long without seeing her beautiful face.

        He thought of her now with a heavy heart, about how worried she would be when she

found out about the oil rig accident. His only hope to avoid that though, was to find some help

and get a message to her before she got home from her classes at the University and watched the

evening news.

        “I‟ll just have to get to a phone before she finds out,” he resolved, suddenly having a

definitive goal.

        Ron inventoried all the items he carried once more, just to make sure. The contents of

the kit added to the meager possessions he managed to have on him when he‟d made his

escape…his watch, a comb, his wife‟s photo, and a six-foot pocket tape measure.

Absentmindedly he fumbled for his car keys, which he quickly recalled were on the oilrig with

his wallet and wedding ring. Cursing softly, he made a mental note to buy another set when he

got home…and hoped his wife would understand about the ring.

        Ron got to his feet once again and began his search for the aircraft‟s log. He desperately

wanted to get going, but his pride in his duty would not let him. If it was here, and he knew it

was in the ship during his flight, then he would find it.

        He scoured the earth around the helicopter in an ever-widening circle for more than forty

minutes before convincing himself that he might have to give up and let the recovery team take a

crack at finding it.

        “It very well could be under the wreckage,” he concluded.




                                                                                                   34
         The heat was beginning to work on his battered and bruised body so he took a deep

breath, stretched his sore back in a big arch, and scanned his surroundings once again, checking

his options.

         Ron found that deciding which way to strike out was an easy choice. With mountains to

the east, south, and west, not to mention the baking sun out on the open grassland, he faced

himself north, towards the forest.

         He was a good distance from the helicopter at the start of his new quest, and didn‟t make

it halfway to the cool, beckoning shade of the trees before catching a glimpse of a dark object in

the grass. He recognized it instantly. It was the book he‟d been looking for.

         “Well it‟s about time!” he blurted with a loud sigh of relief.

         Ron scooped it up and strode quickly on to the comfort of the nearest tree where he sat

down and opened the item. He retrieved the ink pen from the cover pouch and then flipped to

the next open page to make his final entry. For a few seconds he found himself mentally blocked

about what to write. Then, with a quick peek at the crumpled heap that had been his ship, he

wrote:

         “Aircraft officially grounded due to unsafe fuselage configuration. Ron Allison, A&P

4531192381.”

         After the entry was complete, Ron rested against the tree. The official duty part of his

day was over and he needed to refocus to the next phase; rescue. His thoughts however, had

other plans, and couldn‟t help but drift back to the previous night…to the reason he was now so

far from home. The recollection was almost too powerful to concentrate on, especially with his

head pounding the way it was, so in was mostly incoherent and jumbled. Images jumped and




                                                                                                    35
jabbed inside his skull with flashes and emotional spikes that he immediately tried to avoid, but

couldn‟t totally.

        The carnage he‟d witnessed surged to the forefront of his mind in waves, and a violent

upwelling of vomit pushed hard to escape. Those vivid pictures, combined with the smell he

could still taste were nearly overwhelming…so he locked his jaw firmly and fought against it

hard.

        “Why did I make it?” his conscience finally asked, flooding him with guilt. “Why am I

still alive?”

        For a while, the shock and grief tried to break his will…to drag him into a place of

despair and confusion, but then a new surge came rushing in. It was one of warmth and love and

hope.

        “Come back to me, my love!” sounded the sweetest voice in the world, and its message

rang in a rising chorus inside his mind until all else was pushed aside.

        Ron then snapped back to the present, still sitting under that tree at the edge of the strange

field, with the sun beating down in front of him. He found solace in the fact that he hadn‟t lost

his mind, or his memory…although, that night of fire and death was one he wouldn‟t miss if it

would vanish. The two dozen men who didn‟t make it off the oil platform would be in his

thoughts for the rest of his life, especially Hal. Without knowing it, Hal Peterson…his good

friend and pilot…had saved his life, and now there was no way Ron could ever show his

appreciation.

        “Thank you my friend,” Ron said to the memory of his comrade. “I live now only

because of what you taught me.”




                                                                                                    36
        He then considered the question he‟d asked of himself, “Why am I alive?”, and it brought

to mind different news accounts he‟d seen over the years about soldiers, firefighters, accident

victims, and such. They felt just as he did now, and the typical, all too ambiguous answer floated

to the forefront of his thoughts.

        “My work in this life isn‟t over!”

        Ron was a man who believed in destiny…not predestination that alludes to the lack of

free choice…but in “chance destiny” for lack of a better term. He felt life was filled with an

unending series of decisions that guide you along toward your “possible” destiny…if you choose

correctly. He also believed that every once in a while an important, dramatic, life-changing

variation gets thrown at you forcefully. Sometimes you had to have the strength, or show the

nerve, to take that next leap toward your future, or your fate.

        He was positive he‟d been spared for a reason, and silently pledged to discover what that

reason was and achieve it, or submit to it. He felt certain he was headed for a task not yet clear

to him, and so he would go forward with Hal in his thoughts, to see with new eyes whatever that

task may be.

        Ron paused for a few moments in remembrance of all those lost souls, and then refocused

his attention on the present duties. He concentrated on reaching a town or a house, any place that

had a telephone…but at the edges of his mind he still wondered about what had happened to him

out over the ocean.

        “What was that shimmering object…a mirage?”

        Facing the forest with stout determination, he refused his urge to take one last look at the

crash sight, and plunged into the wonderful coolness of the canopy. He was alive and healthy,

albeit a bit disoriented.




                                                                                                     37
He would be on his way home by nightfall, he was sure of it.




                                                               38
                                               Chapter Four

                                          The Nightmare Forest



        When Ron initially entered the forest, he couldn‟t see very well, so filtered was the sun‟s

power, but his eyes adjusted after a while, leaving him with fairly good visibility. In these

confines, the tightly interlacing branches of the trees overhead was wonderful shade, and those

branches trapped more than darkness, as the air was remarkably clean and filled with the soft

fragrances of plants and flowers. Ron felt he could actually taste the freshness of it. This

pleasant atmosphere restored the strength he‟d lost while out in the hot sun, and soon he was

feeling like a tourist in a park instead of the sole survivor of a terrible catastrophe.

        He headed north, keeping his bearings as best he could, and tried to take in the sights as

he went. The first thing he noticed out of the ordinary was the absence of the typical tangle of

thorn bushes, briars, and climbing vines, which were so common in the woods he frequented.

The forest floor was by no means vacant, having plenty of small shrubbery and young trees, all

with leaves of differing shades of dark blue, but between them the ground was clear, except for a

thick layer of leaves. That layer made walking feel as if he were astride a mattress, so deep was



                                                                                                     39
it. In fact, Ron‟s curiosity peaked to the point he even stopped and dug down into the mat for

more than a foot, never reaching actual soil. It appeared as if the fallen leaves had never been

disturbed after they made the journey from the tree limbs, and to reach such a depth must have

taken many years. Ron found it puzzling, but was on his way again directly, his urgency to find

help spurring him forward.

       He continued onward, not knowing what to make of the oddities of this land he traversed,

but willing to enjoy its comforts just the same.

       After an hour of walking, Ron came across a large clearing in the underbrush, in the

middle of which stood a solitary tree. The tree was similar to a very old one growing in his front

yard, at home; only this one was at least five times as big as his. It resembled a maple variety,

but was a good fifteen feet in diameter and stood well over two hundred feet tall!

       “Holy cow!” Ron said, thinking back to the time when his family visited Sequoia

National Forest, when he was just a child. “This sucker would fit right in with those redwoods.”

       He walked around that gargantuan hardwood, staring up at the lowest branch seventy feet

off the ground, wondering at just how ancient it was. The sight of such a thing put Ron in

complete awe of the powers of nature.

       He stood marveling at the tremendous creation for a long while, and hated to leave the

clearing, but knew he had to keep going if he ever hoped to find help, so he forced himself back

to the march.

       While examining the colossal tree, Ron walked around the trunk of that spectacular,

living monolith several times. When he set off again, it took only the slightest of thought to find

the trail he‟d left, and head out in the correct direction. It didn‟t occur to him at the time, but he




                                                                                                     40
performed the task as if by instinct, like he‟d lived in those wooded lands his entire life…but

he‟d grown up a city boy.

       For the next three hours, Ron walked a steady pace that ate away distance quickly with

his long strides. It was a gait he felt he could keep for a lot longer, if need be, but by then he was

beginning to worry. His stomach had been requesting a visit by some food since leaving the

crash sight, and his throat felt as if he‟d swallowed a handful of sand.

       He hadn‟t passed a single stream, which seemed a bit odd, but he accepted the possibility

that it could be just out of sight and he would never know it. However, while he pondered the

lack of water, it occurred to him there were no signs of any wildlife either. Since entering the

forest…and for that matter, since he awakened at the crash sight…he‟d been totally isolated.

       He was so wrapped up with his mournful memories of the tragedy, and the new business

of finding some assistance, that now he felt surprised he hadn‟t detected those things sooner.

       Ron began to focus on these new observations, scanning left and then right as he walked.

The nearly overpowering silence rapidly began to eat away at his nerves, and he tried to shake

off the anxiety that was beginning to build.

       “There‟s a logical explanation for all of this,” he told himself, immediately regretting his

inability to convince his psyche.

       Onward he trekked while continuing to search for some reassurance that he was not

completely alone in this vast land…hoping for a sign that would calm his frazzled nerves once

again, but he found none. It was as if he could only perceive the sounds he made, and nothing

outside could penetrate his auditory senses.

       With the violence of the crash landing, was it possible he‟d suffered an odd form of

hearing loss?




                                                                                                    41
       That thought made him stop in his tracks. He stood still, barely breathing, listening, and

turning his head first one way and then the other. Not a sound could he hear. No squirrels

barking, no birds chirping, not even a pesky insect buzzing.

       Ron thought for a while. Back at the crash sight he could understand if the animals had

been frightened away, and possibly now, the creatures could hear his footsteps as he moved

through their world and stilled their motions in caution. But he always attracted the flying

antagonists like mosquitoes and deer-flies anytime he ventured into the woods, and their absence

was bizarre to him.

       Here, there was nothing except the light breeze sifting gently through the trees, which he

could feel but not hear. He gazed upward and saw the faraway canopy swaying back and forth in

the wind, but still he heard nothing.

       “That‟s too far up there for the sound to reach me,” he rationalized, refusing to accept

what conclusions his brain tried to substantiate.

       Ron glanced around quickly, snatched up a fallen branch, and grasped it firmly in his

hands. He pressed it down across his left knee and was rewarded with a sharp “crack”. He then

took one of the pieces and flung it against a nearby tree twenty feet away, instantly satisfied

when the branch clearly struck the tree trunk with the usual, “thwack”.

       “There!” he said defiantly, his own voice sounding strained and cracked. “At least I

know it‟s not me that‟s screwed up, it‟s this place. There‟s something not right about all these

things being so weird. It‟s as if I‟m in some kind of elaborate dream.”

       Ron had no time to contemplate such a notion though, as the gentle breeze gave way to a

stronger surge of air movement. It was barely enough to lift a tuft of his raven hair, but it

delivered something else all the same. He heard the faint, yet unmistakable sound of laughter.




                                                                                                   42
       “It‟s about time!” he said with a dry croaking tone that was barely a whisper.

       Ron set off at a brisk trot towards the laughter, forgetting the list of inexplicable facts that

had just plagued his mind. He‟d reached his goal…he was saved!

       He ran fewer than fifty yards before being stopped cold by a new sound, the nerve-

rending resonance of a long, blood-chilling scream.

       Someone, Ron surmised, was in a tremendous amount of pain.

       The scream died out momentarily and was replaced with another roar of laughter, similar

to the one he‟d been drawn to. That laughter forced gooseflesh to stand out firmly on Ron‟s

body. Not only was someone in agony, but also, someone else was undoubtedly taking great

pleasure from it.

       Ron‟s stomach churned at the thought of what might be happening, as if recalling some

memory that sickened and nauseated him. He was instantly torn between the notion of turning

around and forgetting what he‟d heard, feeling this was none of his business and he shouldn‟t get

caught up in some unknown dispute…or investigating the presumably dangerous scene.

       Ron would in no way think of himself as the “hero” type, even though he‟d never run

from any problem in the past…but until now, he hadn‟t faced anything close to a truly brutal

situation. He was a calm and thoughtful man, with a deep voice denoting his

steadiness…especially under pressure…but he also shied away from praise, and silently detested

it when his friends and coworkers often called him “a natural leader”.

       He spoke out rarely, not wanting to cause trouble or dissension, even though many

stopped to listen to his opinion when he voiced it. He neither needed, nor sought any

limelight…and the only one he wished to impress was his wife, who practically worshipped him,

as he did her. To him, he was just a guy, and an average one at that.




                                                                                                     43
       Ron pondered his choices a brief second before a repeat of that desperate scream made up

his mind for him. He would not run…he would not skulk away out of fear…he would at the

very least find out what was occurring with this group gathering. Perhaps, he could help.

       Ron advanced quietly toward the sounds, surprised at how silently he could move,

figuring fear was a good motivation toward that silence. It was slow and demanding, but he

made steady progress toward the voices.

       Crawling the last few feet through thick vegetation, he squirmed to the edge of another

large open space in the foliage, although this area did not hold such a beautiful sight as the last

one.

       The clearing in which the trouble was taking place, turned out to be the exact opposite of

the last. It was nearly fifty yards square and devoid of plant growth, creating a natural

amphitheater with high, overhanging branches serving as the roof. But the main attraction was

not one of spectacular, genuine beauty, but rather unimaginable horror.

       Ron eased forward cautiously and peered through a veil of leaves on a thick bush. When

he got a good look at the occupants in the open space before him, he thought his eyes would

jump right out of his skull.

       The scene contained eight individuals, none of which Ron could believe were real,

though in his gut he knew they were. Six of them, apparently, were of one species and the other

two were clearly of another. The two individuals of the second race were captives of the larger

group, and obviously in a great deal of danger…and one of them was a woman.

       Ron felt an instant, protective compulsion toward her and absorbed every detail of her

predicament.




                                                                                                      44
       She was tied against a small tree to Ron‟s right, at the edge of the cleared area. Her

hands were above her head, with a dark rope binding her wrists fast to the tree. That chord then

wrapped around the trunk and securing her at the waist as well. One of the six members of the

other race stood next to her, towering over two feet taller than her petite figure of maybe five

feet, three inches. It was obvious that she was not to escape.

       She had delicate features proportional to her diminutive size, and straight, short, blonde

hair that didn‟t even reach the high collar of her apparel. The garb she wore was a one-piece

design, reminding Ron of coveralls, only tight and formfitting, like a wet suit. It covered her

body from her chin to the bottoms of her feet, and thick padding was evident at vulnerable areas

such as her joints, shoulders, and ribs. Her attire was a dark blue-light blue mottled color, and

seemed a fine camouflage for the surrounding brush, although it clearly had not been good

enough. The only areas of her body that were not concealed by the suit were her hands and head.

       Ron also observed that her form of dress did not hide from view an excellent female

figure, slim and curvaceous. The woman‟s skin tone was light, and Ron got the impression that

it was actually tinted golden yellow. He also felt certain she would be quite lovely, if her face

wasn‟t contorted with absolute, unbridled fury.

       Movement to Ron‟s left, and a repeat of that horrendous scream, forced his attention

away from the woman and focused it at the center of the clearing. He shifted his position

slightly so he might see the main assembly of individuals more clearly. Four of the band of “six”

were spread out in a half circle with their backs to Ron and their attention on the two remaining

figures who made up the scene. One of those two clearly belonged with the band of onlookers,

large and muscular, and he was crouching over the other person who was staked out on the

ground, spread eagle.




                                                                                                    45
       The man pinned to the forest floor looked as if he might be the woman‟s brother, so much

did they resemble each other. He also had bright blonde hair and was wearing a similar suit,

although his was almost completely torn off his body. Ron guessed he would be about six feet

tall and was very thin, as his open shirt revealed. The man‟s face was also contorted…not with

rage, but rather with fear and pain.

        Ron stared at the other six occupants; no seven, he corrected his count when one more

man, whose appearance fit the larger faction, stepped out from behind the tree that held the

woman. Then the other fellow, who was there originally, moved to join the main cluster. These

men were exceedingly different from the two captives. They were all powerfully built, from

what Ron could see, and each stood well over seven feet tall. They were bald, with ash gray

colored skin, giving Ron an automatic feeling of repulsion…as if he already knew they were evil

beings. He puzzled at the deja vu feeling he got as he watched.

       The six men grouped in the center were stripped to the waist, while the newcomer, the

one nearest the woman, wore a sleeveless orange jerkin which was open in a “V” at his chest.

Ron tried to get a look at the face of the man in the shirt but couldn‟t do so without revealing

himself. They all wore dark brown, loosely fitting trousers with the legs bloused at the tops of

their calf-length black boots…giving a stark, military image to them. Each of these men wore a

belt from which hung an object on the left side that resembled a pistol, although different from

any Ron had ever seen. On their right hips hung a long blue rod, reaching down past their knees.

One of the larger men in the semi-circle turned to speak to the one standing apart from the band,

seemingly the leader. That‟s when Ron got his first good look at one of their faces.

       The outstanding impression Ron received, at first glance, was that they were a fierce

bunch. The speaking fellow‟s face was brutish at the very least…reminding Ron of an enraged




                                                                                                   46
gorilla as he gazed at him. The fellow‟s nose was wide and flat, nearly as wide as his mouth,

situated barely over his upper lip, almost joining it…and actually overhung that lip when he was

not speaking.

         His mouth was wide too, at least four inches across, and four evil looking teeth, which

could not be concealed, extended up from his lower jaw. Two of the tusks guarded either side of

the nose, and the other pair grew in front, entering his nostrils when he shut his mouth. There

was a half-inch high ridge of bony looking material stretching from one ear, across the man‟s

scalp, to the other ear, adding to the man‟s overall beast-like appearance. These men

undoubtedly held some strong affection for decorating their bodies also, because Ron could

unmistakably make out each of them exhibiting several elaborate tattoos about them. The fellow

in the orange jerkin appeared to be the most accomplished, displaying the grandest array of the

group.

         But the most unbelievable feature the man had was his eyes. They were entirely silver!

         The big fellow finished what he was saying, which Ron could not comprehend because it

was so foreign to him, and then returned his attention to the spectacle in the center of the

clearing. The leader made no move, and did not reply to the speaker. He just stood there, a step

from the woman, his arms crossed across his broad chest.

         The crouching fellow leaned over and spoke something to the helpless prisoner on the

ground. The blonde man just stared back at him without replying, his eyes showing wide and

frightened.

         That sent the torturer into a mode of hysteria. He shouted a line of words quickly, spittle

falling on the helpless man, and then he lay the blue rod, which he‟d been holding all the while

and was glowing brightly, on the helpless man‟s bare leg.




                                                                                                   47
       With a violent jerk, the prisoner let out another scream that filled Ron‟s veins with ice,

the hair on his neck standing out with a sharp wave of chill.

       The other men in the group all joined in with a round of laughter at the sight of the

smaller man‟s writhing body.

       The leader, still standing apart from the assemblage, suddenly voiced an order to which

all the others turned and regarded the woman.

       With a gruesome grin, the torturer asked a question to the prisoner on the ground once

more, this time emphasizing it by pointing to the woman and waving the blue wand.

       The pain-racked victim just stared back through glazed, incoherent eyes, unable to

respond. The torturer then, apparently tired of questioning the man, drew back his hand as if he

would slap the restrained victim. His action paused for the briefest of moments as two-inch long

claws suddenly shot out of his fingertips like a cat. Then he used those natural weapons to strike

the helpless man a powerful blow across the chest, ripping open his flesh and exposing his ribs

and entrails. The defenseless fellow cried out once more, but it was a weak, hopeless utterance

that only delivered more amusement to the crowd.

       Blood ran out of the terrible wound and onto the ground in rivers, soaking into the leafy

surface while the beast-men roared with laughter once again. Then Ron saw something that

made him have to grip his stomach to keep it from spitting out what little there was in it. The

torturer leaned over and sucked up some of the dying man‟s blood as it rushed from his veins.

       Next, he tore loose a piece of meat hanging from the man‟s shredded chest and stood up,

moving back to allow the others to engage in the act.

       Ron‟s horrified demeanor began turning into something different as he looked

on…something foreign, yet inwardly satisfying. His body began to vibrate at the mere




                                                                                                    48
perception that they were about to start a feeding frenzy…but the leader brought their heinous

actions to a stop with a loud command.

        While motioning with his head toward the woman, he uttered something else, allowing a

huge toothy grin to spread across his hideous face.

        The torturer gulped down what he had in his mouth, and then he too grinned and spoke to

her. He was dripping blood from his hands and chin, motioning to the dying man while he

advanced through his allies, moving in her direction. The guy on the ground gave one last gasp

at life, and then his body stilled.

        The woman just glared back at them, tears running from her eyes at the loss of her

comrade, but anger, disgust, pity and remorse were in those eyes, not fear. Her face was one of

sheer determination, as if her will alone would somehow turn this event around. She spoke

something to the soldier in the orange jerkin and then spat at him in obvious defiance.

        The mere concept of that beautiful woman being tortured to death, and worse, was more

than Ron could take. The feeling that began to sweep through his body moments ago now

intensified rapidly. He forgot the mission he was on, forgot the logbook he‟d spent so much time

searching for, forgot the ordeal he‟d been through, and forgot the fact that the scene he was

witnessing was completely impossible. Anger…no, anger wasn‟t a strong enough

word…complete, unrestrained rage was quickly taking him over. He could feel it growing like a

rising tide within him…pushing all other desires aside and leaving only one…kill!

        Unable to fully understand where it was originating from, but knowing deep down in the

core of his being it was totally justified; he welcomed the feeling sweeping through his figure.

        Normally this kind of unbridled fury would distort one‟s thoughts, leaving a person open

to mistakes in judgment, in timing, and in overall ability…but this was something else! Ron‟s




                                                                                                   49
senses heightened to the extreme. His eyes dilated to take in more light, enhancing his peripheral

view as well as the contrast of the scene by more than twenty percent. His hearing sharpened

until he could hear the woman‟s breathing, thirty feet away…until he could catch the shifting

weight of each person, even in the soft matt of the forest. He separated each scent of the

surroundings, dividing and cataloging them until he positively confirmed there was only seven of

the enemy in the area.

       His thoughts blitzed through complicated scenarios of attack against such a large number

of foes while checking and rechecking weak points in the physical structure of the men.

       Ron‟s heart rate doubled, and then tripled, causing his muscles to swell until they were as

hard as stone! He coiled his legs beneath him like taught steel springs while his vision swiftly

clouded with a bloodred haze, hate ripping through his soul like wildfire.

       Forgetting everything except the burning desire to destroy, he exploded from the brush

like a guided missile.




                                                                                                   50
                                              Chapter Five

                                             Mortal Combat



       Ron tore across the clearing in a blurred fury, his target set; the murderer with the drawn

blue rod. A long, deep, guttural roar was on his lips as he struck with the impact of a

locomotive, catching the much larger beast-man at the waist…and as they went down together,

the rod fell away onto the leafy turf.

       He disengaged, rolled clear, and came up in a crouch. Without allowing his enemy time

to regain his composure, Ron attacked again. He got inside the bigger man‟s reach and delivered

a vicious knee shot to his groin and a straight punch to his throat, slipping out of the soldier‟s

reach after the last blow.

       The larger combatant fell backwards to the ground, then rolled over and tried to get to his

feet while struggling to suck in air through a ruined windpipe. Ron was on him in a flash,

delivering an elbow blow to the back of his neck with all the strength and weight of his body.

The creature‟s vertebrae snapped audibly, leaving the torturer instantly dead on the ground where

he fell…his body twitching uncontrollably.



                                                                                                     51
       Ron quickly regained his feet, his chest heaving as unearthly growling sounds uttered

through his throat like a wild animal trapped amidst its mortal enemy. He then spun around to

face the others, who had just stood by watching, as if stunned.

       A split second passed while all wondered what would come next, but the leader of the

beast-men broke the spell. At a single word from the fellow in the orange jerkin, the group

advanced on Ron…all except him, as he stayed next to the tree where the woman was tied.

       When the five men took a step toward him, Ron‟s memory flashed something he‟d heard

in a movie once:

       “When outnumbered; attack!”

       That is exactly what he did. He charged the five men like a demon possessed, his

quickness and power seeming to baffle the larger, slower men.

       Ron met the nearest enemy with a lightning quick flying kick to the chest, stopping his

charge cold. The fellow managed to sustain the blow, but was clearly shaken, leaving him wide

open to a bone-shattering boot to his right knee. When the giant went down hard on his left limb

with a grunting cry, Ron let him have it with a flurry of punches to his midsection that were so

powerful he felt two ribs explode under his knuckles. He then brought his knee up swiftly with

one last blow intended to send those sharp pieces of shrapnel deep into the soldier‟s body, and he

was not disappointed.

       Ron had to leave that guy by then because his allies were too near, but the blood the man

coughed up showed he would not live long enough to endanger him again. One of the creature‟s

lungs was filling rapidly with the liquid.

       The remaining four came rushing in at the same time, obviously to stop Ron‟s divide and

conquer tactics. He sidestepped the first one, dropped to the ground in a fast tumble, and then




                                                                                                   52
met the next man as his body came around. With an upward kick to the stomach packing enough

force to stop his forward motion and propel him several feet backward, the much larger opponent

flew away from Ron, bowling his fellows aside in his passage.

       When the flying man struck the ground, Ron was already in a midair attack. Using the

momentum of his leap across the ten feet of open turf as added leverage, Ron gripped the bigger

man‟s head with both arms as he flew past. His hold locked like a vise onto the smooth skull of

the enemy, so when he twisted as hard as he could, the fellow‟s neck whipped around with

incredible force. A loud crack issued from the man‟s vertebrae as Ron struck the soft forest

floor. In a blink, he released his grip and rolled clear of the body, readying himself.

       The last three put the pressure on him as that one hit the dirt. They rushed at Ron in an

attempt to overwhelm him with their sheer mass, but he was prepared. He dodged right and

kicked left, catching one of the men solidly in the abdomen, felling him in a huge expulsion of

air…but the other two wheeled toward him while their ally gasped for breath on all fours.

       Ron took the offensive again, picked out his next adversary, and dashed in, feigning a

low assault. At the last moment, he jumped to administer a split kick to the two men‟s faces,

driving them apart with the force of the blow.

       To his right, Ron‟s boot crushed the seven-and-a-half-foot tall man‟s nose and jaw, and

the strength of the strike put him on his knees. Ron darted behind the fellow and hit him with

everything he had square on the spine, choosing the heel of his palm for the punch, and throwing

all of his power behind it. He was rewarded with a loud „pop‟, as the bones separated, shearing

the man‟s spinal cord. The huge fellow fell to the forest floor with a thud.

       Although that move finished off another enemy, his partner was able to get into a position

to avenge his death. The oversized soldier hammered the back of Ron‟s head with his enormous




                                                                                                   53
fist, sending him to the ground hard, his thoughts spinning violently. The big man roared

something at Ron as he took a second to expose his claws, and then he bent down to put them to

use.

       Ron used that second to recover, at least somewhat, and hastily swept the beast-man‟s

legs out from under him with a desperate move. The larger man swatted wildly at Ron as he fell,

just grazing his chest, only to have his arm seized by the smaller challenger when he landed.

       Ron twisted the arm viciously, feeling the brute‟s shoulder tear and separate as he did,

and then he used his position and leverage to deliver a powerful kick to the side of the larger

man‟s head, stunning him. Ron flung the man‟s arm over quickly; leaving him sprawled out on

the ground on his back, moaning from the pain with his eyes unfocused. He then leaped as high

into the air as he could without loosing his hold, and landed on the bigger man‟s chest with all

the force he could muster, his knee sinking sickeningly deep into the soldier‟s body.

       Ron released the dead creature‟s arm, but could not regain his footing before the last foe

had regained his breath enough to voice a thundering battle cry and attack.

       Ron was caught off guard as he turned around, receiving a vicious slap with a huge

clawed hand, sending him reeling backwards. He shook his head to clear the blur out of his eyes,

scrambling backwards as he did it with blood flying from three deep scratches in his scalp, above

his left ear. When his vision returned to the singular sort, he had just enough time to drop to the

ground before his attacker could repeat the blow.

       Ron tripped the man with a blazing kick, sending the hideous warrior stumbling out of

arm‟s reach and allowing him to take a standing position again, and refocus his defense.

       The beast-man recovered immediately, and came charging in at him again with

outstretched arms. Ron gripped his right arm, pivoted, and hurled the warrior over his shoulder




                                                                                                   54
to fall hard at his feet, directly adjacent to the body of the evil group‟s victim…the blonde

fellow. Ron grabbed the right wrist of the dead man and jerked hard, ripping the stake free from

the ground with ease. The huge soldier looked up just in time to see the last sight he would ever

see, a ten-inch long spike hurtling toward his left eye socket.

       Ron stood up once more as the last of the band of five men went through his death throes.

He staggered back a bit while surveying the battlefield, and then wheeled around to face the

apparent leader of the giants, the one who wore the orange jerkin.

       Ron concentrated inwardly, trying to control his body, to catch his breath and slow his

pulse, while absorbing everything he could about his final foe.

       The commander of the dead troops lying strewn about the clearing had not moved during

the entire conflict, and now calmly allowed Ron to recover. He too was studying his adversary.

He glanced around quickly, uttering something to Ron while gesturing with his right hand. Next,

he motioned at Ron and then at himself, and laughed.

       Ron got the impression that this fellow was looking forward to the fight, and his

triumphant outcome. Whatever his intentions though, Ron was grateful for the badly needed

break. The leader didn‟t wait too long however, before he drew his blue rod and advanced.

       Ron‟s attention focused on the strange weapon as the gap between them narrowed. The

rod was two feet long, an inch in diameter, and had a black handle, seemingly of some insulating

substance, he guessed. It emitted bright blue light along its entire length and, as he watched, the

leader paused his advance and gave a twist to the thing‟s handle, causing it to glow so brightly it

illuminated the area. It looked extremely dangerous to Ron.

       The chief of the evil band, and the only living member of it, circled Ron slowly, moving

closer at every step. Three times, he feigned a thrust, trying to draw Ron into his reach. On the




                                                                                                  55
fourth attempt, he succeeded, only not as effectively as he‟d hoped. Ron drew a back-slashing

lunge from his opposition, danced nimbly away from it, and rushed in, kicking aside the soldier‟s

groping left arm. With both hands, he grabbed the wrist holding the weapon, twisted it over

powerfully, and brought his knee up hard against the elbow of that limb, snapping it like a huge,

dry branch.

        The leader grunted loudly but didn‟t release the weapon like Ron thought he would. He

did realize the grave situation he was in nonetheless, and smashed Ron hard on the back with his

free fist, forcing him into the dangling rod.

        Ron leaped away with a sharp cry of pain, clutching his left arm as if in a death grip, as

blinding white light flooded his vision. The rod barely grazed his shoulder, but the resulting jolt

was excruciating. It felt as if his arm had been literally burned off…every nerve screaming in

agony and his entire shoulder flushed beet red instantaneously.

        Paying no attention to his shattered elbow, the leader retrieved the rod with his good hand

and started his circling strategy again.

        Ron stayed as far away as he could, for as long as he could, but he knew he had to make a

move.

        The beast-man tried to sucker Ron in again, but he knew better now. At each sortie Ron

managed to block the weapon with his booted foot while slipping in a solid kick or two to his

opposition. They went around and around, trading halfhearted blows for what seemed like

forever to Ron, until finally the larger man, with Ron‟s back to a tree, dashed in for the kill.

        Suddenly, Ron was not there anymore. He knew exactly where he was and predicted the

lunge, so when it came, he leaped to the right and lashed out at his enemy‟s torso with his left




                                                                                                     56
foot. That foot connected solidly with its intended target, the soft section just below the ribs, and

forced the surprised soldier down to one knee.

       Ron scrambled to his feet and rushed in from the rear, but the leader of the gruesome

band was good too, and as Ron lunged, he met the blue rod gleaming brightly in his face.

       With tremendous effort on his part, Ron managed to twist his body out of immediate

danger, only to end up sprawled on the ground, barely a yard from his opponent. The leader

pounced at him immediately with the rod, thrusting at his head.

       Ron brought his left foot up to counter the strike and cut loose with his other one in a

wheeling roundhouse kick that sent his rival sailing back six feet.

       They both regained their footing swiftly and then stood facing each other again, each

with one arm hanging beside them, useless. Ron tried to get his to respond but there wasn‟t even

the slightest movement in the limb.

       The two men were breathing heavily from their exertions, each giving the other equal

respect of his ability, and knowing only one would walk away alive.

       After a brief pause, the leader advanced again, this time though, he came directly in,

forcing Ron back until one of the dead members of his band lay a step behind him, and then he

surged forward.

       Again Ron instinctively knew he was being maneuvered, so instead of tripping, he

jumped straight up and kicked the huge creature square in the mouth.

       The leader staggered back several steps, miraculously managing to stay on his feet

somehow, but was visibly dazed.




                                                                                                   57
       Ron moved in swiftly, clubbing the arm gripping the weapon and causing it to fall to the

turf before him. Next, he dropped, whirled, and swept the leader‟s feet out from under him,

which forced the larger warrior down atop the blue instrument of pain.

       Bright flashes emanated from under the huge man‟s body, and an appalling, inhuman,

grunting squeal escaped from him. Another moment saw an end to the grisly scene, to Ron‟s

relief, as the power source of the weapon went out and all was quiet.

       Suddenly, without even realizing what he was doing, an urge so irresistible, so powerful,

so instinctual he could not stay it, took him over. He sucked in a great gasp of air as a prelude to

his next action. Like an unbridled creature of the deep jungle, that gulp of air expelled from his

lips it in a long, vicious, primordial roar which ripped through the forest and shook the air in a

horrifying blast. It was the call of the wild…the challenge of the beast!

       Long moments drifted by without a reply to his unearthly cry, while he scanned the forest

for more of the enemy. His broad shoulders rose a fell quickly…deep breaths flushing his blood

with renewed oxygen while the adrenaline in his system coursed and sped up his body‟s

recovery. All the while his mind seethed for battle.

       When the challenge went unanswered though…when the quiet serenity of the woodland

returned and the heat of the fight dispelled…a shocked and confused man was left, uncertain

about what he should do.

       Ron stood above the leader for a time, swaying back and forth, until he regained enough

strength to turn the soldier over. When he did, the stench nearly knocked him out. The rod had

spent its entire charge into the corpse, leaving a charred, gaping hole where the soldier‟s chest

had once been.




                                                                                                     58
       Ron staggered backward and collapsed into a sitting position. The red haze in his eyes

disappeared and exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and bewilderment, all came racing in on him at the

same time. The pain in his arm was throbbing terribly, but use of it was returning, and that,

combined with everything else, made him immobile for a good while.

       After several minutes, Ron recovered enough so his brain could begin trying to sort out

everything that had just happened.

       “Who are these people?” he asked himself out loud, gazing around the clearing. “Who?

Ha! “What” are these people?”

       He bent down close to one of the dead figures to get a better look at him, half expecting it

to reanimate itself and attack him like in the horror films, but it didn‟t.

       The beast-man was much larger than Ron, and a feel of his skin proved that he was unlike

any race of man on the face of the Earth. It felt like tanned leather, so tough was it, and was

rough enough to use as sandpaper. The ash gray coloring of it made him think of an elephant‟s

hide, but it was lacking any hair at all. Ron looked intently at the tattoos wrapping up and over

the man‟s shoulders, and down his arms. There was a definite scene depicted through the

artistry, although substantially destroyed by the ravages of the wand. Ron further noticed there

were numerous separate designs carefully set into the overall layout. He mulled these items over

as he spent a short while in his examination.

       Ron then turned his attention to the wardrobe of the being. Apart from the color, he

recognized that it was fairly ordinary and could easily have been military issue. He found

himself perplexed at these two opposing facts, considering of course the possibility the military

was experimenting with some genetic changes to create tougher, better soldiers. That scenario




                                                                                                    59
was marginally plausible, but the weapons they carried and the language they spoke were as

alien as their bodies, which pushed well past his rationalization.

       He concluded that these guys did not belong on Earth, and just that thought itself made

his head pound harder than ever.

       “Aliens?” he asked himself sarcastically. “It can‟t be…it just can‟t be!”

       But as he stood there, he could come up with no other explanation. He had always

believed in his heart that life must exist on other planets, given the incredible vastness of space,

but to be face-to-face with it was so far-fetched that he had a difficult time grasping it.

       Ron then started recalling what just transpired in the clearing, the actions he‟d taken and

those done by the others. It all seemed unbelievable to him…even insane. Could such contempt

for life truly exist in any being? It was like being in the coliseum of Rome, watching the

slaughter of criminals, only ten times more disgustingly gory. And if this was all real, how could

he have defeated such men?

       Ron relived the battle in his mind. Every detail was vividly clear…his thoughts, his

reasoning, and his strategy.

       “How could I have done those things?”

       He recalled the last move…the one which saved him…jumping into the air and kicking

the much taller foe. Only then did he realize he‟d leaped so high he actually kicked down at the

man. Such a feat figured out to be a seven-foot jump, straight up!

       “Whoa!” he exclaimed. “That‟s impossible! I mean, I‟ve heard of people getting carried

away with an adrenaline rush and all, but this is ridiculous!”

       Ron looked down at his feet, the same ones he used to perform that miraculous stunt.

The heavy-duty work boots he wore were almost shredded now. Nearly every stitch was burst




                                                                                                   60
and the right heel was broken in two. They were only four months old, yet they looked as if he‟d

worn them for five years in rocky terrain…and then run over them with a bulldozer.

       Ron reached down and slipped off the worthless pieces of leather and rubber, preferring

to go barefooted at this point. He then stared at his hands. They looked larger than normal,

swollen he guessed, but they had just broken bones…in fact, crushed bones, and yet they were

hardly damaged at all. There was some bleeding to be sure, from small scrapes and scratches, as

well as some bruises, but what he‟d done certainly should have ruined and mangled them.

       “What the heck‟s going on around here?” he asked aloud.

       For an answer, he heard a noise from off to his left.

       Ron jerked into motion, startled by the sound, having forgotten there was anyone else

nearby. He sprang to his feet and whirled to face the new danger, ready for battle. But he only

met a vividly distressed face on a delicate female frame.

       Ron mentally put a hold on the expanding quantity of questions he was struggling with

(for the present), and walked over to the woman. Her attitude changed immediately when he

dropped his guard, taking on a more hurried, instead of distressed, appearance.

       At that point he received a fresh shock to go with all the others. When he drew close to

the woman he clearly saw the golden tint to her skin turned out to be a short growth of very fine

hair. Actually, he corrected his observation…it was more akin to fuzz…like on a peach.

       Ron‟s surprised expression faded as he recalled the men he just tangled with. He found

her appearance; fuzz and all, was much easier to deal with than the giant‟s beast-like forms. He

studied her for several seconds, taking in all of her features…and enjoying them.

       Aside from her downy coating, she looked human. She was perfectly proportioned; at

least what Ron could see of her, and was as lovely as he thought she would be earlier on. She




                                                                                                  61
appeared to be in her mid twenties, since there wasn‟t even the slightest hint of a wrinkle or line

on her face.

       Her eyes made the strangeness of her skin‟s covering seem not to matter as he gazed into

them. They were large and oval shaped, with violet irises and no discernible pupils. Her nose

was small and feminine and she had high cheeks accentuated by deep dimples when she smiled.

Her full lips were so pink Ron assumed she wore lipstick, but she did not…and when they parted

slightly in a timid smile, those luscious trimmings revealed perfect, dazzling white teeth beneath.

       Just looking at her made Ron more placid.

       The woman began speaking again while he was standing in front of her. She had a sweet,

soft voice which sounded similar, Ron thought, to musical notes played on a harp, lending a

strumming melody to her words.

       With absolutely no idea of what she was saying, Ron fumbled for an answer of what to

do.

       She saw the bewilderment written across his face, so she motioned with her eyes at what

she was trying to tell him. Ron followed her line of sight, straight to her bound hands.

       “Oh!” he said, when he snapped back from wherever his mind had gone. “I‟m sorry! I

don‟t know what to say. With all the weird shi… uh, junk going on here, I just forgot you were

tied up.”

       He dug into his pocket hurriedly, ripping half of it away in search of the pocketknife he‟d

taken from the emergency kit.

       “Shit!” he voiced, absently wondering why it was that he couldn‟t fit his hand into his

pocket anymore. Then he remembered he was in the presence of the woman.




                                                                                                  62
       “Sorry about that,” Ron told her sheepishly, apologizing like a schoolboy for his use of

profanity.

       Ron retrieved the knife and went to work on her bonds. It didn‟t take long though before

he realized he wasn‟t going to be able to free her with that blade, as it wasn‟t about to cut

whatever the cords were made of. He examined the knife‟s edge, finding it completely dulled,

and then ran his hand across the rope that had ruined it. It appeared to be the same material

mountain climbers used; braided and roughly half an inch in diameter, but it showed no sign of

damage whatsoever.

       Next, Ron searched for the knots binding the woman‟s hands and discovered there were

none. He checked both hands and around the back of the tree. There was no break in the cord at

all. It was as if the giant soldiers had woven the ropes around her wrists.

       “I don‟t know why,” he told the woman, “but I can‟t cut this stuff, Miss. And there

doesn‟t appear to be any way to untie it either. I‟ve never seen anything like it.”

       He closed up the useless blade and dropped it back into his pocket, where it struck

something with a „clunk‟.

       “That‟s it!” Ron exclaimed, digging once more into his torn pocket.

       He pulled out one of the two flares which he also obtained from the emergency kit,

hastily struck it, and went back to work on the rope. The woman had to look away from the

white-hot glow of the flare, and Ron was for the second time, grateful for the dark screens that

quickly faded in to protect his sight. His mind began the questions again, concerning that

peculiar irregularity, with all the others, but he decided to give thought to them at another time

and for now, just enjoy them.

       “Custom welder‟s goggles,” he told himself.




                                                                                                     63
        The flare burned through the cord in short order and the woman, who‟d been so close to a

terrible fate just a brief time ago, was finally free.

        She stepped away from the tree and began flexing and rubbing her hands and fingers, to

restore their circulation. The rope, which formerly was very tight on her small hands, simply fell

away once it was cut, releasing its hold as if on command.

        Ron turned about so he could still see her out of the corner of his eyes while he dug into

the soft, leafy ground with his good hand, barely managing to hold the burning flare with the

injured one. The throbbing in his arm made that simple task painful, and he had to concentrate

hard on his quivering fingers to keep control.

        When the woman determined she had sufficient feeling in her hands again, she strode

over to the body of the man who‟d been staked out and began searching for signs of life. She

knew she would find none, but felt compelled to check just the same. After making certain there

was nothing she could do for him, she voiced a brief statement over him and then went to a small

pile of articles at the right of his body, and began rummaging through them. She quickly found

what she was looking for and rushed back over to where Ron was still digging.

        He watched her constantly while he worked and now that she was returning, he stopped.

After experiencing all the strange things happening around him, he wasn‟t about to turn his back

on anyone, no matter how innocent they looked. He dropped the flare into the moist bottom of

the hole and stood up.

        She noted his caution and held out the object as she slowed her approached.

        It was a tan colored strap, twenty inches long and an inch wide, with a thin metal object

in the middle of it. At either end of the strap was a tiny metal tip.




                                                                                                    64
        The woman put it around her own neck while saying something softly, and then held it

out to Ron again. He took the item and looked it over carefully.

        It was an elastic material with magnets at the ends instead of hooks or clasps. He put the

magnets together several times, to insure he could open them whenever he chose, then he gave it

back to the woman, regarding her intently.

        She gazed up at him with her angelic eyes full of warmth and concern and so, after a

moment of hesitation, Ron decided to trust her.

        “Hadn‟t she just been a prisoner of the beast-men?” he asked himself, trying to

rationalize his faith in her. “And didn‟t I just save her from them?”

        After all, he couldn‟t just walk away now. She might possibly be the key to the entire

bizarre situation he was in, so he took the gamble.

        Ron turned his back to her, dropping down to a crouched position so she might reach his

neck and affix the collar personally. He thought doing so would show her he trusted her, and

since he still couldn‟t raise his injured arm, he thought it practical too.

        “…You understand…now?” she asked, when it was in place.

        Her sweet melodious language instantly transformed into a rough form of dialect which

was somewhat decipherable to Ron, although not quite English. He understood what the device

was at that point, as the sounds seemed to emanate from inside him. The collar was translating

her spoken words and sending the message through his body to his brain…although he could still

hear her native tongue in his ears.

        “Yes!” Ron replied, amazed at the technological demonstration.

        “How in the world does this little thing do what it does?” he asked, lightly touching the

instrument.




                                                                                                    65
        “There…no time…explain,” she said quickly. “We…to get away…here. There

will…other Kreete…soon.”

        “Wait a minute!” Ron ordered. “Who are you? Who are they?” he asked, pointing to the

dead beast-men. “Who are the Kreete? Where are we and how did I…”

        “My name…Cache,” she said, cutting him off. “Those…Kreete,” she added, referencing

the giants on the ground.

        “I…answer…all…questions…we…safe…complex. Now…to get…away…here…we

can.”

        What about him?” he asked, indicating her male look-alike.

        “I…afraid…we cannot…Bnolt now,” she replied. “I...dispose…body.

You…ready…go!”

        Ron checked the flare, not wanting to carelessly start a forest fire, and found it nearly

burned out. He then turned back to join Cache where she was hurriedly spraying something over

Bnolt‟s body.

        “I‟m really sorry about your friend,” he told her. “Before I knew what was happening,

they delivered the death stroke.”

        “I understand. He knew…were up against…he volunteered…me on this mission.”

        She tried to sound stoic, as if it were just one of the hazards of her job. But Ron could

tell she was grieving deeply when a single tear, which she tried to hide, fell from her left cheek

and landed on the deceased man‟s forehead.

        She quickly turned from the dead man and regarded Ron.

        “Your arm,” Cache said, suddenly remembering the blow he‟d received from the Kreete

with the blue rod. “You… able…travel?”




                                                                                                     66
       “Yeah, it‟ll be okay until I can get to a hospital,” Ron told her, “but like you said, we

better get moving if more of those guys,” he added, waving his hand around the clearing, “are

headed this way. I can‟t fight anymore, and you wouldn‟t stand a chance against them.”

       “This way,” she said, and then turned to lead the way.

       Ron quickly went over and kicked some of the leafy mulch over the extinguishing flame

of the small flare and then fell in behind her as she sped off into the underbrush heading west.

       He cast one last glance at the clearing before it was out of sight. The place where Bnolt‟s

body had lain was empty. Not even his clothes remained.




                                                                                                   67
                                              Chapter Six

                                               Cache Kuar



        Ron followed the smaller form of Cache for a quarter of a mile, weaving in and out of

bushes and trees, before she came to an abrupt halt, causing Ron to bump headlong into her.

        “Sorry, but why did you stop?” he asked, glancing about.

        “We…reached our transportation…will carry us…Gammone,” she replied.

         Ron was quickly catching on to the peculiar form of speech the translator was spewing

forth, but he couldn‟t get a fix on why he could so easily adapt to it. It gave him the feeling of

deja vu again, and he pondered that as he looked around the area again.

        All he saw was the same kinds of bushes and trees he‟d seen for the past few hours; no

road, or trail, or sign of any sort.

        “There‟s nothing here,” he told her. “And where is Gammone?”

        Cache stepped up to a nearby bush and started tugging at it, disregarding his question.

The bush gave way to her efforts and a second later the entire clump of shrubbery in front of

them fell away to reveal a small, light blue vehicle.



                                                                                                     68
        Ron stared at the contraption in open astonishment, because it was so foreign in

appearance.

        It was only ten feet long, half that wide, and was diamond…or more accurately, football

shaped, with a blunt point at both the front and rear ends. The sides were three feet high and it

had only one door as far as Ron could tell. There was no covering for the passenger

compartment, which contained one bench-type seat, dark blue in color. There was no steering

wheel and he could detect no wheels under the vehicle either, as it sat directly on the ground.

There were no distinguishing marks or designs on it anywhere that Ron could see. It was

stark…very utilitarian.

        Cache slid the door forward and climbed aboard, with Ron close behind her. She took a

seat at the right side of the little vehicle, touched a pressure switch, and a panel in front of her

slid away to leave a computer terminal at her disposal.

        Ron scanned the terminal looking for some familiar feature, but found none. There were

no “keys” on the unit, just a flat screen sectionalized in a fashion totally unfamiliar to him, using

differing colors and shapes instead of letters, numbers, and words.

        She went to work at the terminal quickly and efficiently, her hands practically a blur.

Soon, she had a bank of digital gauges lit up, the door closed, and a slight purring noise issuing

from the front of the craft.

        The car began rising when she pressed one last button and the two of them headed for the

sky.

        Ron looked up to see there was nowhere open enough for the car to fit through the tangle

of branches above. But Cache too was watching overhead intensely, and when they reached the

problem area, she made a few fast moves on the computer. Ron felt compelled to hold on to the




                                                                                                       69
side of the car to brace himself while the little craft slid back and forth, and side to side, as if it

were doing a fast paced dance step. Shortly after that, they burst out into the sunlight without

once hitting a single tree branch.

        The dark screens returned, easing the burden on Ron‟s eyes, and it didn‟t take long before

he realized the little craft was amazingly stable…even though he had no clue how or why.

Whatever the explanation though, he felt marginally safe for the moment. That allowed the

adrenaline in his system to abate, which led to a period of introspection.

        As they rode along above the treetops, nestled in a sea of deep blue, leafy mounds

swaying softly in the wind for miles around, Ron took time out to study the growing oddities of

his situation. His mind then began searching once more for a possible answer to the impossible

position he found himself in. However, his thoughts quickly stacked so many layers of

confusion upon conjecture that he had to pause.

        After taking in a couple good, deep breaths of the remarkably clean air, he made himself

list the facts of the last half-day in his mind.

        “First: I have some sort of protective filters in my eyes that automatically darken when

I‟m exposed to bright light. Explanation: unknown.

        “Second: I just fought a group of seven guys who were all nearly twice my size and

looked as if they came right out of a nightmare…and I survived the fight! Explanation:

unknown.

        “Third: I‟ve never been in any serious fight before in my life, yet I fought like I was top

dog of the Special Forces. Explanation: unknown.

        “Fourth: This lady next to me doesn‟t exactly resemble the girl next door. Explanation:

unknown.




                                                                                                          70
        “Fifth: I still haven‟t seen, or heard, a single living indigenous creature in the forest,

since I woke up. Explanation: unknown.

        “Sixth: I‟m riding in a hovercraft that makes no noise and blows no air. Explanation:

unknown.

        Ron sat silently while he rode the strange craft, thinking about his list. He knew he could

easily add a few more items to it but kept hoping some logical conclusion would come his way

and relieve him of the strain. He felt a draft as the wind inside the hovercar picked up and

looked down to see that his shirt buttons were now missing down to his waist, and his pants were

split at the crotch.

        “Son of a…” he grumbled. “That‟s just great!” Then he realized the utter hilarity of that

thought, considering all the “real” issues he had facing him, so he chuckled his irritation away.

        As the vehicle gained speed, a small windshield slid upward from in front of the

instrument console, blocking the rising blast of air from the two occupants. Ron found that little

marvel intriguing and reached out to feel it. He jerked his hand back immediately when the

transparent material tickled his skin and discharged a yellowish radiance in the area around

where his fingers touched it. He ventured out again and found the tingling to be only a minor

sensation, and watched as the luminescence lit up again. The device was as solid as quarter inch

thick Plexiglas.

        “It isn‟t a glass windshield,” he thought, “but a force-field of some kind. Item number

seven!”

        Cache worked over her control panel, oblivious to Ron‟s predicament, sending the air car

hurtling over the treetops at an ever-increasing speed.




                                                                                                     71
       Five minutes later, and with no small amount of mental deliberation, Ron came up with

three possibilities that might explain what was happening to him.

       One: He had completely lost his mind.

       Two: He was having a very vivid, yet disturbing dream from which he could not awaken.

       Three: He had somehow been tangled up in some alien invasion effort against Earth, in

which case he hoped either of the other two scenarios was true.

       By that time, Cache finished with her task, so she sat back.

       “We shall…the nearest entrance…twenty borts,” she said, and then, as she turned her

face to look directly at him, she cringed back and cried, “Oh…Creator of …realm!”

       “What‟s wrong?” Ron asked, whipping his head around to see if they were under attack.

He saw nothing coming at them, so instead, focused his rapid search on his own figure, scanning

for signs of something that would have made her react in the fashion she had…and postponing

his question of what a “bort” was.

       “I am sorry…I…startled by your eyes. That is all,” she replied. “I have never …

Caronian before, up close…I knew …people had those…glands in your eyes, but I…not

prepared…I thought I was.”

       Ron just smiled at her and then turned to look ahead again, his mind racing once more.

He‟d always been an open-minded person, or so he thought. He enjoyed reading science fiction

novels, watching the movies, and now found himself intensely reaffirming his belief that there

were other beings out in the universe besides Earthlings.

       He was trying desperately to hang on to his sanity and stay rational, but couldn‟t help but

catch the pragmatic half of his brain quarreling with the imaginative half, questioning itself again

and again.




                                                                                                  72
       “To be actually interacting with people from some other planet is just too hard for me to

swallow,” his cranial orator kept deciding.

       His expression must have shown it too, because Cache commented on it.

       “Are you all right?” she asked slowly, with a look of serious concern on her face.

       Ron gave her a smile, glad at least that he was able to understand her better now, due

apparently to some rapid adjustments the translator was making, and replied, “Huh? Me? Oh

yeah. I‟m just tired, hungry, and thirsty, I guess.”

       Then he added under his breath, “And quite insane!”

       She leaned over in front of Ron and pressed one of the symbols on the console, causing a

small door to open before him. There was a tube in the compartment, the size and shape of a

large toothpaste container, which she promptly removed and handed to him.

       “…bite off the end,” she explained, pointing to the small tip of the tube, “and squeeze

the…into your mouth.”

       Ron was skeptical about whether the food was edible for him, feeling certain she would

have different biological needs than he.

       “Is this stuff safe for me to eat?”

       “That particular…can be digested by any humanoid being … know of, with relatively

small exceptions,” Cache answered.

       “And just how many would that be?” he asked, finally able to get a “crazy” question

answered without allowing her to know how bizarre this all sounded to him.

       “Twenty seven races that…be capable of interprocreation, and another twelve that would

not,” she replied.




                                                                                                 73
       “So that was that,” Ron told himself. “This can‟t be a dream. It‟s too complex. Now

what do I do? She mentioned Caronians, as if I‟m supposed to be one of them. What‟s that all

about? Item number eight!”

       At the moment though, he received a huge rumble from his stomach telling him what he

should do next…eat. He was still skeptical, but food was an unavoidable choice, so he decided

to gamble. Following her instructions, he was surprised to find that he actually enjoyed the stuff.

It didn‟t look appetizing, being a brown, thick paste, but to Ron it tasted like a combination of

peaches and strawberries.

       “That‟s pretty good,” he told her, when she handed him a large, liter size bladder of what

could only be water. He nearly ripped it from her hands and she grinned broadly.

       “Thank you very much, Cache,” he said after draining the entire container of water and

gulping down the paste. “Would it be too much to ask for seconds?” he inquired after a moment,

feeling a bit embarrassed.

       “Of course. Here is…”

       Cache never finished her statement, having it cut off by an explosion that ripped the front

of the aircraft off and put them in a crash course for the trees just a short distance below.

       The hovercar plowed through the canopy in a flash, and plummeted toward the ground

more than a hundred and fifty feet below. Limbs savagely snapped and thrust their way into the

small compartment where the startled couple ducked down for protection.

       Ron grabbed Cache before she could react and threw her to the floor, dropping down on

top of her, shielding her smaller body with his. He braced himself for the impact as best he

could with his one arm still tingling and only slightly responsive.

       “This is not good,” he told himself as they hurtled toward what he thought to be his




                                                                                                    74
unavoidable end.

         An instant before the craft impacted the forest floor however; it suddenly slowed its

descent dramatically with a loud rush of escaping air and a series of violent jerks and vibrations.

A few seconds later, it settled the last few feet lightly, with a jolt no stronger than one might

expect from falling-out of a chair.

         “How did you do that?” Ron asked Cache, still crouching over her, his face barely an

inch from hers.

         “I did not do anything,” she replied, shaking slightly from the ordeal and more than a bit

anxious, in her rather compromising position. “The vehicle is…for an emergency landing, so it

took over control and stabilized itself.”

         Ron could feel her breath on his cheek as she spoke and had a momentary flush come

over his face before he returned to reality…or at least to the realism of their predicament…by

Cache.

         “May I get up now?” she asked.

         “What? Yeah…sure!” he said quickly, regaining his feet. “Uh, sorry about that.”

         “That is all right,” Cache assured him. “Thank you for trying to protect me.”

         Ron nodded at her and smiled, then began examining the air car. The front of it was

sheered off cleanly at the forward part of the instrument console. The rest of the craft looked

exactly as it had when they got aboard.

         “What happened?” Ron inquired. “Did the engine blow up?”

         “The Kreete who captured Bnolt and me must have discovered the vehicle and

planted…charge under the forward compartment,” she deduced. “They probably could not

break…code and wanted to keep any of my people from using it again.”




                                                                                                    75
        “How could they have found it under that camouflage?” Ron asked. “We were right on

top of it and I didn‟t see it.”

        “They must have seen us land, because they surrounded us shortly after we left it,” she

explained, while walking around to the rear of the vessel. “They were cautious about not

disturbing the covering I used though. I did not detect anything displaced when we reached it.

That is why I did not search the ship when we uncovered it. I will know better next time.”

        She fingered a small pressure switch, releasing an aft section of the craft‟s hull which was

much like the trunk of a compact car. Reaching into the compartment, she then removed two

belts, handing one of them, the much longer of the two, to Ron.

        “Now we will have to traverse the remainder of the distance on foot,” she reported.

        The belts were three inches wide, having their entire surfaces covered with pouches and

decorated with the same mottled blue coloring as Cache‟s suit. Those pouches had small color-

coded insignia to distinguish their contents, and Ron stood by as Cache explained which

compartments were for what purpose.

        “This,” she said as she opened one of the pouches and removed a tube of some clear jell,

“will help your arm.”

        She squeezed out a dollop of jell onto her fingertips and moved closer to him, offering up

the substance to Ron for his examination. She then stepped over to his shoulder, where she

could still see the red irritation on his tanned skin.

        Cache felt tiny next to him, especially when she saw how far she would have to reach up

to rub it in…his shoulder being well above her eye level. Her touch was very light at first, and

then grew firmer, rubbing the compound in deeper as she went.

        Ron didn‟t protest at all, even though the area was tender, as he was willing to try




                                                                                                   76
anything if there was even the remotest chance that it would ease the burning throb in his arm.

As soon as the salve touched his skin though, the pain receded to a slight prickle and a huge sigh

of relief escaped his lips.

        “I am sorry not to have tended this earlier, but I thought we would be in Gammone by

now and could do more for you there,” she explained. She searched through her utility belt once

again, pulling out a different item, and after having Ron sit down in the craft‟s only seat, went to

work on his other wounds.

        “That is great stuff,” Ron told her as he flexed the arm and hand which had been

immobile for so long. The feeling in them wasn‟t quite as good as normal, but they responded

well.

        “Thanks.”

        “The effects would have gone away after a while,” she said, examining the many scrapes

and cuts on his torso, “but I did not think you would want to wait.”

        “You‟re right about that!”

        “I do not have the time to treat everything, but I will patch these up,” she told him as she

cleaned up the dried blood and dirt-caked cuts in his scalp. “These are fairly deep. We will need

to get you to the dermal rejuvenation tank as soon as we can.”

        She sanitized the wounds and then sprayed them with an adhesive to keep them from

opening again.

        Ron was thinking of more questions as she worked.

        “Why would the Kreete use a weapon that only has temporary effects?” he asked.

        “I thought you would be familiar with…well it matters not. The “agony wand”, one of

their favorite instruments, administers an electron disrupter charge to whatever it touches. If




                                                                                                   77
utilized improperly, it will kill, as you have seen, but if adjusted correctly, it can be set to cause

extreme pain without permanently harming the person it is used on. In such a fashion, the torture

can go on for billots, or even dactrais, depending on the patience of the operator, before the

victim eventually dies of shock. The Kreete love to see their prey scream and beg as they

demonstrate how powerful they are,” Cache said, adding inflection to that last statement with

open contempt and disgust.

        “They do not want all of my people killed either, even for sport, before they can extract

our secrets. That is why the wand is perfect for their demented purposes,” she continued while

she finished with his treatment and put away the equipment.

        “Oh crap!” Ron exclaimed suddenly, realizing his stupidity, “I should have picked up a

couple of their pistols. We might need some protection before we get to safety.”

        “Do not concern yourself with the weapons of the Kreete,” Cache told him, “they would

not have worked for you. Their energy devices are keyed to the individual to whom they

belong…a fail-safe measure for warfare. If the weapons get lost to their enemy, they cannot be

used against them. If anyone tries to tamper with the coding…the instruments explode.”

        “Not bad,” Ron thought. “Those guys really know what they‟re doing.”

        Cache systematically went through each little compartment in the craft, emptying it of

everything she thought might come in handy in the impending trip. She handed half of the water

and food rations to Ron, and put the rest in her gear. Then, not wanting to loiter in an area that

could easily have been compromised because of the explosion, she stepped out of the air car and

pointed northward.

        “That is the direction in which Gammone lies,” she told Ron. “The mountain range we

are approaching is where we will find safety. It is approximately fifteen hoz from here, and




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when the other Kreete find their friends, they will hunt us with extreme prejudice, so we had

better get moving.”

       “Hoz?” Ron thought. “Is that time or distance?”

       He let it pass however, because Cache was disappearing into the underbrush and he

didn‟t want to aid in his own capture by lack of effort.

       She and Ron struck out at a fast trot, and with the sparse underbrush they made good

time. Ron was amazed at how refreshed he felt since having the food and water, and wondered

what kind of rations the gooey paste was…animal, vegetable, or combination.

       “It sure was what I needed,” he told himself as he ran along, first beside Cache, and then

behind her as they wove their way along.

       He was a little worried at first, wondering how his bare feet would hold up, but soon

realized they were tougher than he thought, receiving no discomfort at all. In fact, he found the

journey remarkably relaxing. He‟d always enjoyed distance running, from when he was a child

on into his adult years. And although his extra long bouncy strides reminded him something was

amiss, due to the “light” feeling still being present, he was grateful for the chance to stretch out

his muscles. After all, they‟d taken a beating in the past few hours. He also reminded himself of

the reason he‟d stayed in such good shape over the years…a rationale which seemed especially

fitting at the moment.

        When Ron was just a young adolescent, his father, who was an officer in the military

during one of the Middle East wars, returned home several weeks late from one of his tours,

looking exceptionally drained and tired. He softly refused to explain the details of his tardiness

on that occasion, citing the Army‟s need for secrecy. After the initial hugs and kisses were

delivered, and the reassurances that he was in good health, he pulled the then teenage Ron aside




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for a short stroll around their large yard. They talked about all the events he‟d missed in his time

away, and he apologized to his son for his absence, always concerned that he was not doing a

good enough job as a father…not being around enough.

       The tall, lean Captain had suddenly stopped walking and just stood there regarding Ron

for a long moment before he spoke.

       “You‟re a fine boy, Ronnie. I‟m very proud of you. You‟re smart and hard-working and

honest. Your mother and I couldn‟t have asked for anything better! You keep up your studies

and learn as much as you can so you can have a good future. But also son,” he said, leaning in

close to Ron, “you keep your body in as fine a shape as you can, because fate is a fickle friend,

my boy. One day you may find that this,” he patted the boy‟s chest and then gripped him firmly

by the shoulders, “and this,” pointing directly at the young man‟s forehead, “are all you have

with you in the world. Take it from me…from my experience…and remember what I‟m saying,

Ron, because one day it could mean your life!”

       Ron remembered that moment as clearly as if it was only ten minutes past. His father‟s

gaze had been hard and unwavering. It was obvious to the youth that something dire had

occurred in his father‟s life, and Ron was duly impressed by his words. He never learned what

happened on that trip, but he felt a closeness now to his father that he had never felt before.

       Ron and Cache kept their pace for two solid hours, until Cache, who had begun breathing

in deeper and deeper gasps, finally couldn‟t quite get her feet up enough to clear an exposed root,

tripped, and went down hard. Ron stopped and walked back to help her up, but could tell she

was spent…the pace had been too fast. She tried to walk, but her legs trembled terribly and

buckled again.

       “Cache, just sit down for a while,” he told her, holding her still with a little insistence.




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“We can stop and rest until you catch your breath.”

       “No,” she said between wheezes. “We have to…keep moving!”

       She continued to fight to get going again, but Ron worried for her. He was a bit winded,

but far from exhausted, so he scooped her up into his arms and set off again, this time at a brisk

walk, using his long legs to make time as well as he could.

       He was surprised at how easily he could carry her, even though she was a small woman,

because her form felt as if it had more of a child‟s weight than an adult‟s. She threw her arms

around his neck and tried not to shift her body too much, making it easier on him while she

welcomed the ride, even though it embarrassed her dreadfully.

       Ten minutes later, Cache had regained her composure and was no longer drawing in air in

great gulps, so Ron decided to ask her a few questions as they made their way.

       “You seem to be none too surprised at my being here, Cache,” he began. “Suppose you

give me the run down on what‟s going on around this place,” he continued, not wanting to let on

about his complete ignorance of the state of affairs.

       She regarded him with open astonishment. “You know as well as I, and possibly better,

what is happening here,” she replied. “You know the Kreete‟s methods…how best to defeat

them…that is why we asked for you. Oh! Wait! I see. You want an explanation of why you

ended up out here, alone, instead of with us…and an update on the status of our present

circumstances on Rauld, correct?”

       Ron motioned his head to the affirmative, and his tiny thread of hope…that he was

somehow caught up in a dramatic and elaborate dream…went cascading out of his mind when

she answered his question.

       “Well, we could not safely separate you from your flying machine, and the aircraft would




                                                                                                     81
not fit in our emergence facility, so the central computer displaced you to the nearest open space

not under surveillance at the time…that remote field. We went there as quickly as we could, but

you were already gone, so we set out searching for you.

       “Wherever did you get that primitive aircraft anyway?”

       Ron thought quickly but didn‟t have a clue about what answer she needed, so he

improvised. “It was all I could find.”

       “Really? I must remember to search our records of Caron and see why the Kreete are

using such a dangerous mode of travel.

       “As far as our “global” threat…at this moment, the Kreete war fleet is bombarding our

planetary defense shield. The immense power of the Shotal Energy Matrix has held them back

so far, but even it cannot stand against their attack forever. Somehow, they have joined two

planet Lords and have their combined fleets…two Dreadnoughts, at their beckoning.

       “Such a grouping constitutes four Destroyer class ships, eight Cruisers, one

Interplanetary Fighter Carrier with a minimum of fourteen-hundred two-man fighters aboard, and

one supporting fuel tanker. They are all focusing their powerful cannons on a single area of our

shield, trying to burn through it.

       “They managed to get five scout ships planet-side more than a torjourne ago, with an

unknown number of supporting troops. Those soldiers were out looking for you when one of

their squads captured Bnolt and me. When the others find the clearing, they will know you have

joined with our people, and they will spare no one in their efforts to stop us from completing

your mission. That of course means the patrols will redouble their intensity, and narrow their

area of search.

       “One last thing you should know…they will know generally where we are heading and




                                                                                                 82
try to cut us off.

        “Is that what you wanted to know, Kaskle?”

        Ron realized then, as he nodded his approval, stunned as he was from her report, that she

thought him to be someone else, and that he had somehow been transported here by mistake.

        “Who is Kaskle?” Ron wondered, but he was afraid if she knew he was the wrong guy,

she wouldn‟t take him to her place of safety she‟d mentioned, so he decided to play along with

her story.

         “Ended up out here?” he questioned in his mind, recalling her words. “What exactly

does that mean? Where was I supposed to go? Here to this part of the country? Planetary

defense shield? Rauld?”

        He didn‟t want to entertain any larger stretches to his reality, as shaky as it was, so he

kept silent while he walked, not knowing what course of action he should take. His imagination

was busy though, piecing together different logical, and more often illogical, possibilities.

         “How could this possibly be real?” he asked himself again, and then he recalled the

shimmering surface of the barrier he‟d flown into. “A portal!” he theorized. “These people have

the technology to transport objects and people across space without the use of spacecraft?”

        It was a bold leap that Ron‟s intellect was taking, but it seemed the only likely

explanation, no matter how impractical. Everything he‟d ever read or heard about “otherworld”

theories had not, and could not have, prepared him for what he was convincing himself had in

fact happened.

        “Kaskle!” Cache said, for the second time.

        “What?” Ron replied, his mind still reeling.

        “I asked you if you had any other questions.”




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        “Yes, uh, no,” he stammered. “I mean yes that‟s all, and no, I have no other questions.”

        They were approaching a large open area by that time, which Ron could determine by the

intensity of the sunshine pushing its way into the forest. His cerebrum was again waging a battle

of “what ifs” while he carefully set Cache on her feet.

        The sun bathed them in brilliant light as they neared the edge of the forest, and as Ron‟s

eyes did their magic trick again, he decided to give up his efforts to solve this ever expanding

puzzle…temporarily. The sun was close to setting so he shifted his attention to the problem of

shelter for the night.

        He scanned the wide expanse of open terrain in front of them, deducing that a fire had

ravaged this area in the not too distant past. He could find no tree taller than his eye level for a

good half-mile across to their front, and unending from left to right.

        The shadows were growing long, and as he watched the sun dropping almost to the

horizon, he felt comfort in the fact that at least one thing was still a constant in his nightmare of

change. The sun would always rise and set. He could still reassure himself with the never-

ending optimism of human nature…hope that tomorrow would be a better day.

        “Well,” he sighed at Cache, “we‟d better find a good place to hide out until dark, or else

we‟ll be sitting ducks out there in the open. Those Kreete will be able to see us for miles…”

        Ron stopped speaking when his gaze fell back to Cache‟s face, which was staring up at

him blankly.

        “What are you saying?” she inquired. “Why would…oh…I understand,” she said as her

expression lit with a smile. “You are from a single star world.”

        Now it was Ron‟s turn to stare back in confusion.

        “There is no time of “dark”, here on Rauld,” she told him. She then looked carefully




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about the edge of the forest and motioned Ron to join her beside a large tree which was just a bit

further out than the surrounding foliage.

       Ron was at full attention as she continued.

       “Here on our world,” she said, indicating the ground, “as Dersa sets,” she explained,

pointing carefully at the sun that was just then touching the edge of the horizon, “Metash arises!”

She ended her announcement by pointing in the other direction, at a matching star with one third

of its sphere exposed!

       Ron saw the burgeoning glow of the second sun, and his legs collapsed, dropping him

like a sack of lead shot. Cache jumped back fearfully, and then rushed to his side.

       “Are you all right?” she asked, clearly worried by his actions. “What is wrong? Are you

wounded? Have you been injured?”

        She frantically scanned his body for some sign of grave damage, while Ron just sat

there…his mind stunned to the point that he could not respond for a moment. Finally, he

snapped out of it when Cache grabbed his face in her hands and demanded his response.

       “Kaskle! Are you injured?” she yelled.

       Ron blinked his eyes hard and then answered.

       “No,” he replied, his voice weak and shaky. “No, I am not hurt. I was just surprised. I

have never imagined a planet like this, that‟s all.”

       “I am terribly sorry,” she told him, still holding his face in her hands, her eyes filled once

more with concern. “I had no idea that it would be such a shock for an out-worlder to see what is

so commonplace for us. I suppose I should have explained about our planet a bit more

extensively when you were recruited.”

       That was it for Ron. Her words, backed up by the sight of two suns burning at the same




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time, lighting up the ground he was sitting on, was the straw that broke the back of his last

prospect that this was a hoax. It wasn‟t some crazy game, or stunt, or experiment into which

he‟d fallen victim.

         “Then it‟s true!” he said to her, turning his gaze to the eastern horizon once again. “I am

really on another planet. A planet called Rauld.”

         “Of course it is true,” she countered. “Did you doubt that we could actually bring you

here?”

         “Yes,” he answered hesitantly. “I guess I did.”

         Ron was truly awake to the reality of this world for the first time. He no longer clung to

the possibility that he would somehow go to sleep and wake up back in his bed, in his house, on

Earth. He was there, on Rauld, and everything, no matter how fantastic, was actually happening.

That explained some of the oddities he‟d encountered, but far from all of them. His brain went

into full gear again, racing with different possibilities of what to do next. He would have to be

careful of what he said and did from that point on. He would have to play along with whatever

Cache requested until he could find someway out of his predicament.

         “If these people have the enormous technical ability to bring me here,” he thought, “then

they can surely send me back.”

         “We had better get moving again,” Cache told him, getting to her feet once more. “We

cannot afford to rest.”

         She stepped out into the openness of the sparsely covered expanse and, promptly

dropping to all fours, set off across the area on her hands and knees.

         Ron took a few moments to scan the vicinity, his self-preservation instincts in full alert

status once more, and then plopped onto his belly and started out after her.




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       They made their way slowly across the danger area, being careful not to disturb any trees

or bushes that could give away their position. It was an exhausting task, and tedious, but

eventually they reached the other side and slithered into the safety of the denser cover.

       Ron returned to the edge of the marred land, and once again surveyed the region. It was

strange, but he felt uncannily adept at this action, as if it were a subconscious act, and picked up

on every small flick of brush, or sudden bend of a tree branch. He carefully analyzed each

movement and discarded them individually until he felt satisfied there was no pursuit.

       After a while, he and his female companion turned to continue their journey, but halted

immediately.

       Behind them, from the direction they‟d been traveling since escaping from the

battleground with the Kreete, an explosion of a massive flare lit up the sky. Ron and Cache

turned to stare at each other, knowing exactly what the flare meant.

       The clearing had been found!




                                                                                                   87
                                             Chapter Seven

                                           The Master Killer



       “They will close in fast now,” Cache told Ron. “Soon, the Kreete leaders will cover this

area with their scout ships and every man they have.”

       “How much further until we‟re safe?” Ron asked.

       “Still a substantial distance…about seven hoz,” she replied. “We will have to hurry,” she

finished, spinning about quickly and taking off at a dead run.

       “How far is that?” Ron asked himself as he set a gait to follow her.

       He convinced Cache to slow to a more moderate rate, to conserve their energy, since they

were still half a dactrai, by her estimate, from the refuge they sought.

       “Dactrai?” Ron risked an inquiry. “What is that?”

       “Oh, sorry. One revolution of our planet…a “day” on yours.”

       They sped through the forest quickly, Ron relishing the openness of the wooded land

once again. He was even able to let himself relax for a while, having finally come to

grips…somewhat…with the circumstance he was in. He didn‟t fully understand what his role



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was in the complex relationship of these two species, but he was confident he would be able to

deal with it in due course.

       Ron watched Cache carefully, and after another hour had gone by, he sensed she was in

bad need of a break again, so he moved close to her to suggest they walk for a while. Just as he

was about to speak, a slight breeze drifting through the trees delivered a hint of a pungent odor

across their path, and a feeling of dread swept through his body like flipping on a switch.

       Instead of a suggestion, Ron made a silent demand that they stop by grabbing Cache

firmly around her waist and bringing her to an abrupt halt, his free hand clamped over her mouth.

       As weary as she was, she made no resistance, but stood there, breathless, staring at him

with a questioning gaze on her face. Ron raised his index finger to his lips, signaling to her to be

quiet. He changed his own breathing pattern to a slow, deep, methodical rhythm until he had it

under control, and was certain he could not be heard.

       Something was triggering in his mind…a warning…but he didn‟t entirely comprehend

what. He just knew he‟d better be careful.

       Ron listened for a time, and then began to advance slowly through a grove of large trees,

utilizing every sense he had to the maximum…searching…scanning the area. Cache followed

close behind him, trying to remain quiet, her huffing now calm and composed once more, and

she too intently analyzed their surroundings.

       There was almost no underbrush at all in the vicinity and Ron‟s eyes darted from one

gigantic tree to the next, along the ground, and up above…seeking anything out of the ordinary.

He thought of how easy it would be to post sentries up in the lower branches, and be able to

guard a huge area with relative ease. It was a notion which made him even more anxious as he

mulled it over.




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        They passed the enormous trunks of two trees, over thirty yards apart, and were about to

round a third when, out of thin air, a large, clawed hand whipped out from behind it and slapped

Ron across the chest. He was sent flying backwards to the ground, on top of Cache.

        The blow, no doubt intended to cripple, did not do enough damage to keep Ron down,

and so he was on his feet again instantly. He scooped up Cache with one arm and tossed her

behind him as he turned, preparing for the attacker. Ron glanced down at his bare chest; his shirt

having been ripped completely from his body, to see a new set of four, long, nasty cuts oozing

fresh blood down his torso…where the Kreete‟s natural weapons had struck home. They were a

fine set of souvenirs to remind him of his carelessness. He knew then he‟d just gotten

exceedingly lucky, since the creature could have easily used a more punishing weapon.

        The Kreete stepped out from around the tree and stood stoically in the path which Ron

and Cache were traveling. He was even larger than the others Ron had clashed with; standing

nearly eight feet tall, with arms so huge they could have been on an oil derrick as main supports.

His exposed skin was densely decorated with the same types of tattoos the other beastly men had

displayed, but he wore much more of the permanent artistry. His clothing was much the same as

the leader of the first group of Kreete, but his uniform was entirely red…blood red…even down

to his boots.

        “Kaskle, you must beware!” Cache warned in a frantic puff of speech. She was

struggling to recover from having the wind knocked out of her by Ron‟s body unexpectedly

crashing down atop her. Her voice was trembling as she said, “He wears the color of a Master

Killer. Only a warrior who has defeated more than five hundred opponents in witnessed combat

may don that color.”

        Ron took her advice to heart, but showed no sign of fear. He would fight with all his skill




                                                                                                 90
and strength no matter what his opponent‟s credentials were, and since this was an adversary

whose methods were unknown to him, he would use as much caution as he dared.

       The Kreete regarded the two smaller beings who stood before him and then calmly

removed his belt and tossed it, as well as the weapons hanging from it, far to the side.

       “I do not need weapons to kill you, little man,” proclaimed the Kreete. “I am Darrone

Jetal! That is the name of the warrior who will crush you. You made a fatal mistake, helping

those opposing the rule of the Triad. Now I am going to take you apart slowly, and when you are

too broken to move, I will make you watch what I do to her.”

       The red haze flooded into Ron‟s eyes once again as his heart rate accelerated quickly,

adrenaline rushing into his bloodstream in a deluge. He felt a familiar surge of complete hatred

as he regarded this creature. It was as if he‟d witnessed this scene too many times before and

had always been unable to stop those threats from coming true while other men fell before such

creatures. But it was beyond the vile boasts and terrorization of a much smaller woman that

enraged him…it was their total disregard to anyone‟s right to live. That sentiment burned its

way deeply into Ron‟s soul.

       A moment later, as the Kreete closed on him, Ron was practically radiating energy, every

muscle on his lean, hardened frame bulging, ready for battle…and then a deep, rumbling growl

erupting from his throat once more.

       Ron crouched low, one hand on the ground, the other pulled up next to his side, doubled

into a rock-hard fist. Without realizing it, he was taking a nearly perfect defense position, having

unlimited movement potential. His legs tensed and flexed, prepared for the onslaught.

       Ron waited until his foe was within arms reach, and then, with the speed of a leopard, he

flew up at the Kreete and delivered a powerful, spinning kick to his face.




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       The Master Killer was thrown back a few feet, spitting teeth and blood through his ruined

lips. The Kreete showed open amazement that such a small man could move so fast, yet deliver

such a powerful blow, and he shook from surprise and anger.

       Ron took advantage of his shock by initiating another attack. In a blink, he was back

inside the larger man‟s guard, raining punches to his stomach and sides that would have made a

professional boxer proud.

       The Kreete snapped out of his stupor when he felt Ron driving him back, pulverizing his

insides with incredible force. The huge beast-man felt one, and then two of his ribs pop as he

frantically clutched at the blurred maniac that was Ron Allison…a man who was rapidly

destroying his body. Darrone Jetal managed to get hold of Ron‟s right arm finally and pounded

the shorter man squarely between the shoulder blades with his other, massive fist. Then he

began dishing out his own punishment on Ron.

       The Master Killer drove Ron down to his knees with a barrage of blows that felt as if a

mountain was crashing down on him, boulder by boulder. Ron tried to leap for safety with a

twisting jerk, but the giant‟s grip was like being anchored in concrete. Instead of a nimble

escape, Darrone Jetal hauled him back in and rattled him with a tree trunk sized knee crashing

into his chest, blurring his thoughts.

       As the huge creature pummeled him again and again, Ron couldn‟t get his feet under him

for leverage, so he changed his defense. Instead of getting up, he dove down, spun under the

Kreete‟s grip on his wrist and lunged upward with his free hand.

       Ron‟s fist found its target, driving deep into the big man‟s groin. The Kreete‟s last swing

just grazed him when he connected, and that shot threw the giant off balance, forcing him to

double over even further…and for a split second, he let his grip on Ron‟s arm waver. Ron was




                                                                                                 92
hoping for that result and seized his chance to break free, clubbing the Kreete‟s hand and

twisting violently.

       Once he broke that deadly grip, Ron dove clear of the big man‟s reach and whirled

around to keep his foe in sight. He was visibly shaken by the abuse he‟d received from the

massive opponent who was at least a third larger and fifty percent heavier than he was, so he

kept some distance between them.

       After the stars disappeared from his vision a few seconds later, Ron began to plan his

strategy again. He would have to rely heavily on his quickness if he was to survive this battle,

and he could not afford to let those huge hands get their hold on him again.

       The Master Killer recovered quickly from his momentary lapse, and stood to face Ron

once more, showing no signs of weakness, as if he‟d merely stumbled instead of having been

injured.

       “You are impressive,” the Kreete told Ron, staring down at him. “But it is only a matter

of time until I snap your puny spine.”

       Darrone made a display of cracking his knuckles, and then he grinned at Ron and moved

toward him, his muscular, ominously long arms spread out to resemble a wrestler‟s pose.

       The two rivals tested each other several times as they circled the clearing. First, the

Kreete would make a lunge, with Ron‟s quickness always prevailing enough to avoid the attack

and counter with several blows of his own. But Ron could tell the bigger man had plenty of

patience, and time was on his side. Even though he‟d delivered several solid shots at the Master

Killer, he could see no sign of him weakening…just that gruesome, bloody grin taunting him.

       With impending capture threatening him and Cache, the longer this battle continued the

worse it was for her and him, so he decided he was going to have to make a decisive foray, and




                                                                                                   93
soon!

        After a few more of these sorties, Ron felt he knew his enemy‟s reaction speed, and when

the Kreete retreated from his next round of charge and counter, he saw his chance.

        At the first motion of Jetal‟s withdrawal, Ron wasted no time, dashing at him in an

apparent flying tackle maneuver. But at the last instant, he dove down below the big man‟s

knees, cutting his legs out from under him. There was nothing the Master Killer could do but

catch himself face first on the forest floor. Ron leaped onto his back before the giant could

collect himself and landed as hard as he could, forcing the soldier‟s chest to the ground.

        Ron gathered all the strength he could muster and drew back his hand…his focus

narrowing to a single point of his opponent‟s colossal form. He drove the heel of his right palm

down with the force of a sledgehammer, resulting in a thundering “smack” resounding through

the trees.

         Ron hoped he might, at the very least, immobilized the Kreete, but the size and strength

of the creature‟s physical makeup was too much for him. The larger being, instead of

succumbing to Ron‟s blow, rolled quickly, bringing his elbow up to smash into the side of Ron‟s

skull in a retaliatory strike.

        Ron flew through the air nearly fifteen feet, landing hard against a nearby tree, the wind

and his senses knocked out of him. He slumped down horribly, his ears ringing…booming in a

thunderous assault to his brain. His head hung low as he swayed back and forth, and his chest

lurching as he tried to refill his emptied lungs.

        The Kreete sprang to his feet and stepped toward Ron…the fight was done. The famous

Kaskle of Caron…that planet‟s legendary champion…was finished!

        Cache bolted into the fray at that point by leaping onto the huge beast-man‟s back,




                                                                                                     94
clubbing him as hard as she could with her small fists. She looked like a five-year-old child

riding on the back of a professional wrestler, so much difference in size there was…and it

showed quickly.

       The Master Killer simply reached up over his shoulder, grabbed one of her arms, and

then shrugged her off him as if she were a cloak he wore. He tossed her away like a doll, over

twenty feet to the side where she landed badly and lie motionless. Then he returned all of his

attention to Ron once again.

       Cache had intended to buy Ron some valuable seconds to recover, and managed to get

them, only to pay dearly for it in her effort…but was it enough?

       The Kreete came at him like a charging bull, and Ron reacquired the focus of his blurred

vision barely in time to scramble to the side, to keep from being routed by that earthshaking

charge. The huge warrior redirected his lunge just quickly enough to make a diving grab at

Ron‟s ankle, and succeeded.

       “Oh, shi…” Ron thought as he felt the inconceivable clamping pressure of the Master

Killer‟s clawed hand surround his left ankle.

       The Kreete smiled broadly as he watched Ron spin around to see the powerful maul that

stopped his escape. The beast-man was sure he had him this time.

       Ron saw his predicament, saw Darrone‟s gruesome smile, and saw his opponent was

stretched out as far as he could manage…his leverage severely diminished. So, instead of

fighting to pull free of the creature‟s grasp, Ron allowed himself to roll closer to the giant. His

right foot promptly coiled up to his chest and then shot out so quickly the Kreete had no chance

to retreat. That foot contacted the backside of the larger man‟s elbow with a thundering “crack”!

       Jetal‟s expression changed instantly to show the pain he felt, as well as something he




                                                                                                      95
hadn‟t experienced in many cycles; fear! His once viselike grip on Ron‟s ankle evaporated in an

instant, and he immediately drew himself up into a defensive posture, glancing over to the

weapons he so foolishly discarded earlier. The mighty soldier was far from beaten, but he knew

his advantage was gone, and he wanted it back, fast.

       Ron saw his chance, as the Kreete scuttled backwards toward those weapons, and took it.

He rushed in at the powerful fighter feigning a frontal attack, but instead, dropped and slid to a

stop at the giant‟s boots. From his vantage point he swept the larger man‟s feet out from under

him again, this time putting the crippled enemy onto his back.

       The Kreete fell heavily beside Ron but he managed to strike out at the smaller figure as

he landed. Ron absorbed the halfhearted blow, taking it on his shoulder, and then he slipped

inside the Master Killer‟s reach and countered with his own.

       Pouncing on the Kreete hurriedly, in karate fashion, he used the side of his hand to

destroy the only vulnerable spot of the Master Killer‟s immense physique…the creature‟s air

passage. Ron‟s shoulder and forearm fell like the steel blade of a guillotine, feeling the soft

tissue of Darrone‟s throat compress pointedly against his vertebrae with an audible crunch.

       Having delivered what he knew to be a killing blow, Ron hesitated to make his retreat

just a fraction of a second too long. Such a moment of recess however, was long enough for the

Kreete‟s good arm to snap up in a flash, and allow his hand to encircle Ron‟s neck. That huge,

clawed, living vice of death applied enough pressure to crush a normal man‟s throat in the first

instant, but Ron Allison was by far, no longer a normal man. Although agonizing and alarming,

he endured it, his life hanging by a thread.

       Fully aware that he was running low on time before he expired, Darrone Jetal, the Kreete

commander of the elite rank of Master Killer, let go of all else. His plans and goals for the future




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were over. His fears and hopes meant less than nothing. His dire position allowed merely one

last concern, so he concentrated on the only emotion that could possibly remain…his pride.

       This smaller, lesser being would not defeat him and walk away in glory. They would

both die here…now…together. He focused his remaining strength to the single task left for him

to fulfill. His body suddenly shut down, from his feet up, as only his arm, his hand, and his glare

were left to continue the battle. He summoned all that excess energy and channeled it through

those fingers, and increased his grip by a third.

       Ron‟s face was passing the purple stage, headed for blue, as he fought to break what was

unbreakable. The Kreete‟s fingers were so deeply imbedded in his skin that he couldn‟t manage

to grasp even one of them. He tried to strike the massive warrior at some other location, but

found himself to be nearly standing up at the end of a column of iron-hard flesh and bone that

was the huge man‟s arm. He was well out of range to do any damage with his hands, so Ron

rained devastating kicks down on the Kreete‟s face and torso. They fell on an unflinching form,

and that arm never faltered.

       Ron felt his own life energy ebbing as he fought against suffocation, his mind racing all

the while, desperately searching for an escape. It seemed clear to him that he was fading much

faster than his opponent, and at that instant, the answer flashed into the shrinking focus of his

awareness.

       Quickly, he reached out for the Master Killer‟s forearm and grasped it tightly, his fingers

probing the dense muscle mass there. He found the spot he was searching for and, with all the

reserve strength he could still command, he squeezed.

       Ron‟s powerful digits sunk down deeply into the Kreete‟s leathery hide, and at first he

was afraid he‟d missed his mark, but then, a few anxious seconds later, he perceived a definite




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change in the pressure at his neck.

       A spark of hope returned to Ron‟s frantic mind as his efforts struck a nerve center in the

huge man‟s arm. That particular spot nullified Darrone‟s ability to control the hand that was

crushing Ron‟s throat, at last resulting in the release of his deadly grip.

       Ron‟s vision and cognitive powers returned quickly when blood flow resumed, the

pulsing throb clearly felt in his face. He even managed to pry himself loose from the Kreete, but

kept his hold on the beast-man‟s arm until he felt it grow completely lifeless. The ugly face of

the larger warrior was still staring up at Ron as his gasping finally slowed to a stop and his heart

no longer beat.

       Ron was beyond exhausted, and barely cognizant of his surroundings, yet he felt himself

lifting his head to the canopy above, as he had done before, after the first fight. He nearly

bellowed out the proclamation of his new victory in a triumphant roar…the cry of the kill…but

this time he was able to refrain. Somehow he recalled that he and Cache were in a tight avenue

of danger all about, and so his brain was able to override his primal urge. Instead, he just

slumped down into a sitting position, panting heavily and coughing…and enjoying the ability to

do it, so close had he come to never again taking another breath.

       He suddenly remembered seeing Cache‟s still form, and his head whipped around to

search her out, his feet gathering under him to rush to her, but he didn‟t need to. She was

propped up on her knees, one hand holding her head and the other waving at him.

       “I‟m all right,” she declared, staggering to her feet, her head still swimming from her

none too graceful fall.

       Ron stayed where he was, halfway on top of the dead man‟s chest, for a long while,

trying to recover, but too tired to move. His body was once again dripping with sweat, and his




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entire front side was crimson. His hands were shaking and his head hung low as he sat. He gave

a brief thought about what he just accomplished, and then let out a long sigh. The blood lust

which had gripped him so tightly just a short time ago began to slip away and the adrenaline

keeping his senses so sharp went with it, leaving his body weary and drained.

       Cache made her way over to where Ron sat and put a hand on his glistening shoulder.

       “Are you badly injured?” she asked, still trying to steady her head with her other hand.

       He looked up, saw her delicate face filled with apprehension, and couldn‟t help but smile.

       “No,” he replied. “I don‟t think so. I‟ll be fine. I just…need some rest.”

       Cache coaxed him over to a nearby fallen log where he sat and rested while she examined

him for serious damage, and began patching him up again.

       “These are pretty bad,” she told him, lifting the edges of the four grooves the Master

Killer left on Ron‟s chest. “They will have to be sealed for now and repaired properly when we

get to Gammone.”

       She used the same substance she utilized on his scalp earlier, and finished quickly. “That

will have to do for now.”

       Cache took some time to evaluate each bruise and scrape she could detect, hoping she

wouldn‟t find indications of serious internal injuries. She pushed and poked at a few of the

ugliest blue spots, and Ron‟s groans told her what she needed to know. She then had him move

his head slowly in all directions and felt about for any potential problems.

       When her inspection was complete, she regarded him with open admiration.

       “We have chosen well, the man who will stand against these evil creatures and defend

our world,” Cache told him in a deeper, husky voice. Then she slipped close to him, her body

just brushing against his. “Your muscles are so hard,” she told Ron, matter-of-factly, as she ran




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her hands over the bare skin of his shoulders and arms. “They feel like the stone that makes up

our mountain complex.”

       She then knelt before him and looked up into his eyes, her own glistening brightly.

       “Never before have I heard of any one man defeating a Kreete Master Killer in hand-to-

hand combat. It simply cannot be done. Yet you have vanquished eight Kreete in one dactrai,

one being of that elite rank. I never realized you heavy-worlders could be this strong, so fierce.

It is no wonder you can defeat the Kreete so easily.”

       “Easily?” Ron laughed halfheartedly, trying to defuse the direction he felt the

conversation might be heading. “I‟ve been unbelievably lucky, so far. But I can‟t hold out

against more of those guys right now, or any time soon.”

       He rose to his feet with a wincing grunt, hauling Cache up with him. “We‟d better get

out of here before his buddies show their putrid heads.”

       Cache agreeably returned her attention to the predicament at hand and quickly put away

all of her equipment. She turned around to see Ron busy as well. He gripped the Kreete by one

wrist and pulled the soldier‟s enormous bulk into a sitting position. He then slipped under that

huge torso and hefted the creature onto his shoulders, his back complaining to his brain with

torrents of negative messages.

       Ron carried the body a short distance away into the only dense underbrush in the

immediate area, and then dumped it into the thicket. Next, he tucked the Kreete‟s limbs in as far

as he could and stepped back to survey the area. Looking around until he found a branch he

could break off without it being noticeable, Ron began to spread the upturned leaves until they

looked uniform and windblown. Slowly, he made his way across the entire area where the fight

had taken place, touching up here and there as he went…and when he felt satisfied, he faced




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Cache.

         “There,” he said. “Now it looks as if nothing happened here at all. That ought to slow

down the searchers should they come this way…unless they have a tracker, that is.”

         Cache stared up at him fearfully, and his statement, once he thought about it, surprised

even him.

         “Hadn‟t that been just a dream?” he quickly thought.

         “You don‟t suppose they could have gotten one of those down to the surface, do you?”

she asked, turning her head about, first this way and then that.

         Ron knew immediately the “dream” had been some strange insight to this world…a

premonition which allowed him to see a real creature, and to know specific details about that

creature. It was another piece to the puzzle that went unsolved into his memory.

         “I have no idea, really,” he confessed. “But I feel pretty certain they haven‟t,” he told her

as he recalled every detail of the dream, “because if they had, we wouldn‟t have lived long

enough to be having this discussion.”

         Ron motioned for Cache to join him and they began their journey again, although at a

much slower speed. The future seemed dim, knowing danger lurked all around them, and he

considered his chance of ever returning to his home. It was unquestionably bleak.

         He was so tired and incredibly sore from his ordeal so far, but he also realized his injuries

didn‟t bother him nearly as much as before Cache had done her doctor work. That fact alone

allowed a hint of optimism to enter his thoughts for the future. Whatever it held in store for him,

he felt more confident he could meet the challenge. After all, hadn‟t he just escaped nearly

certain death for the third time in the same day?

         “We are still alive,” he thought, casting a sidelong look at his partner, “so there is still




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hope!”

         The two refugees traveled on for a long time through increasingly rugged terrain, taking

much more caution as they went, until Ron figured they‟d placed a few miles between

themselves and the grove. At that time he made a confession to Cache.

         “I don‟t think I can continue a great deal longer,” he told her frankly. “How much further

do you think?”

         “It is hard to tell from the interior of the forest,” she replied, stopping to get a good look

around, and to interpret a small electronic device she produced from her pocket. “I am reading

just under two hoz, but that is a direct route, which we will most assuredly not be able to

manage.”

         She returned her gaze toward Ron, finally seeing the side of his face which had been

away from her all that time, and gasped.

         “Oh...may the Creator help you,” she said as she saw the left side of his face had swollen

considerably, leaving his eye nearly shut. Cache hastily pressed herself against him, lifting her

dainty figure up as high as she could on her tiptoes, and her hand drifted up to touch him

gingerly. “Does it hurt badly?”

         “I can‟t tell,” he replied, managing a slight smile. “The throbbing has numbed my

thoughts to the point that I can‟t separate one point of pain from the other.”

         Cache could see he was fighting to keep his balance by then, and she grew worried.

         “I think you have a cracked cheekbone,” she told him, studying the swelling. “And I am

sure you have a bad concussion. Why did you not tell me before now?”

         “We had to get away from there. We have to keep going,” he said, and then he started off

again.




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        Cache began to search intently for someplace where they could hide out and rest. Ron‟s

body was running on automatic now, his self-preservation drive still keenly watchful for any sign

of the enemy, but moving much slower at this point than before.

        They‟d been climbing in altitude since the fight at the grove and were currently well

inside the foothills of the mountain range…a point made obvious since the landscape was much

more precipitous and treacherous. The harsh terrain gave her hope, and she found what she

needed a short time later, by nearly falling into it.

        It was a deep, narrow hollow, with large, leafy bushes and trees all around. She scanned

the surrounding area for prying eyes and then submitted her plan to Ron.

        “I am sure we are getting close to our goal,” she began, “but the going will be more and

more difficult from here on. I think we had better get you some real rest.”

        Ron staggered to a stop, looked up the mountain with his good eye, then down at the little

hollow. He duplicated her actions, searching the area thoroughly for danger, and then looked at

her again. Her expression was one of deep concern. He knew he would be worthless in his

present condition if they were attacked, so his reason overshadowed his pride-filled desire to

continue.

        Ron nodded his acceptance and allowed her to help him make his way down into the

depression, since his depth perception had grown poor due to his eye swelling completely shut.

They were careful to leave no trail which could be used against them, and a short time later, were

snuggled down securely out of sight.

        Cache found it a bit of a task keeping Ron awake long enough to get some more of the

food concentrate down his throat…that is, until he tasted it. Once the tasty, creamy rations

touched his tongue, he gulped down all he‟d been carrying and, by a tricky slight of hand on her




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part, half of what she was hauling as well.

          She started to apologize about having no water to give him when her eye caught a

reflection of the sun‟s glare off something…a glint which gave her a fresh hint of optimism. She

crawled toward the spot, just a little further down into the hollow, where the space grew tight.

There she found an artesian spring flowing quietly up from the rocky ground and easing down

the slope. It was small, but just what they needed.

          Cache filled her foldout flask and returned it to Ron. Then she borrowed his from his belt

and repeated the procedure, retracing her route back and forth six times before he had all he

craved.

          Ron could feel the pull of sleep rushing in on his weary form and so he settled himself

down into a comfortable, shady spot. He reached out and pulled Cache close to him gently, her

face nearly touching his.

          “Thank you, Cache,” he told her softly, and then he kissed her on the cheek. “You are an

angel.”

          Ron was out so quickly and exhaled so deeply that Cache nearly panicked, quickly

checking him for a pulse, and thinking he may have expired at that moment, right in front of her.

But as his battered chest heaved upward again, she let out a great sigh of relief and hurriedly

went to work.

          She emptied both of their belts out onto the ground and organized all of her equipment.

She was extremely efficient and spent the next hour using every shred of medical knowledge

she‟d learned to repair the body of the ferocious warrior who lie beside her.

          When Cache finished patching up what she could, she too drank and ate her fill, watching

Ron closely as he slept. Her anxious gaze caught every twitch and spasm his poor, ragged body




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made, and she hoped to the depth of her being that she had helped him.

       After attending her own needs, she nestled down beside him, giving him one last look

before lying back to seek out some well needed sleep of her own. But before she dozed, she

reached up and returned his kiss…only hers was not on the cheek.

       “And you are my hero,” she whispered.

       Cache rested her head against Ron‟s heavily muscled shoulder and, feeling completely

safe next to his powerful form, drifted off to sleep.



       In Ron‟s slumber, her small show of affection began a remembrance…in perfect

clarity…

       “Did you fix it?” Angela Allison softly asked in a dreamy voice, only half conscious.

       It was 12:30 AM, and Ron was just slipping into bed.

       “Yeah,” he told her as he slid under the covers. “You have hot water again.”

       “You‟re my hero,” she said as she gave him a kiss, drifting off to sleep instantly

afterward.




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                                          Chapter Eight

                                           A Day to Forget



       “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!”

       Ron‟s bleary-eyed, sleep deprived self reached up and flipped off the alarm. It read 3:15

AM.

       “Oh, jeez!” he grumbled.

       Two hours later, after a light breakfast, a quick shower, and an hour long drive, he pulled

into the helicopter base in Cameron, Louisiana.

       Ron checked in as the sun began to peek over the horizon, and then sat in the small Bell

helicopter reading the logbook…the first thing he always did on the initial day of his workweek.

His face fell with a wave of anger and disgust. The mechanic who relieved Ron during the off

time of his seven days on, seven days off work schedule, had left him an entire inspection to

complete, which was due before March 1.




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           He glanced at his watch again, knowing full well what day it was, February 28th…and it

was not leap year. That left him with only one night to do a sixteen-hour inspection, or, he could

let the aircraft sit grounded on the following day and try to blame it on his relief mechanic.

           Ron thought hard about that second option, but it would mean a big headache for his

company and for the men on the platform who needed the chopper‟s services to do their work.

He cursed under his breath.

           “No,” he decided, “the big guys would never buy that one anyway.”

           It was Ron‟s first day on duty, and David, his opposite, was long gone, so there was

nothing he could do but accept the fact that there was a long night awaiting him. This was an all-

too-familiar position to find himself in, and would probably not be the last. He‟d written notes to

David in the past and found they didn‟t help, but he never pushed the issue; not wanting to make

waves. Nonetheless, this was the last straw.

           “If I ever get my hands on you, Davy boy, it‟ll be the last time you screw me over!” he

vowed through clenched teeth.

           Ron then loaded his equipment onto the helicopter and got ready for the long ride out to

the rig.

           The operator of the chopper, Hal Peterson, Ron‟s regular pilot and good friend, climbed

into the ship and started his checklists.

           “Ready for another week of fun and sun?” Hal asked; being completely unaware of the

gloomy start Ron was already having.

           “Yeah, might as well get it over with.”

           Hal quickly picked up on his disposition and decided to let him alone for the present.




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        “Oookay!” Hal told him, switching his attention to his own duties. He finished the

predeparture checks and cranked up the little turbine engine that powered the craft. Once he

negotiated the ship into a hover, Hal called for clearance to depart and then set the five-man Jet

Ranger into forward motion.

        As they left the land base, headed out for deep water, Ron immediately settled down into

a comfortable position to catch a nap during the hundred mile flight.

        Besides facing a tedious day preparing for the inspection, and a hectic night performing

it, he was already in dire need of some sleep. His weary state was because of an unusually

frustrating night he‟d just experienced…repairing a burst water pipe under his “fixer-upper”

home.

        They flew halfway out to the rig with no problems and Ron was just drifting off to a

sound sleep, when a warning light denoting metal in the engine‟s oil system, suddenly came on.

        “Ron!” Hal said reluctantly, as he looked for a place to land, staying calm and controlled

as always.

        “Huh? What?” Ron responded, coming out of the fog of slumber.

        “Chip light…engine.”

        “Great!” Ron said, mentally adding, “That‟s just what I needed.”

        Hal brought them down smoothly onto a small, unmanned platform and shut the engine

off. Twenty minutes later, after burning himself several times on the hot engine, he found the

problem.

        “It‟s no big deal,” he told Hal, “just some metallic fuzz on the plug.”

        They were on their way again soon afterward, but Ron lost out on his rest, and would

have to wait until they reached the platform to try again.




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           As soon as they achieved their destination, half an hour later than usual, Hal went

immediately to work ferrying the impatient oil field personnel to the satellite platforms nearby,

so Ron went straight to his room and straight to bed. This was one time he was thankful to only

work on the helicopter at night, after the daytime flights were done. (The schedule was a safety

measure across the industry…the Gulf of Mexico was a dangerous place at night, and flights

were prohibited.)

           After a brief adjustment of his bed coverings and a few well-placed slaps on his pillow,

he found the perfect sleeping position and let out a long contented sigh. He smiled as his world

drifted away quickly into that dark, relaxing state of preslumber that‟s so comfortable it almost

tickles.

           At that second, a long, shrieking blast sent him shooting out of bed and into the hallway.

It was the fire alarm, which was definitely not something to ignore when you‟re surrounded by

pressurized natural gas and crude oil.

           In the hallway, Ron ran headlong into the platform operator who was strolling by calmly.

He was then informed that the alarms were undergoing routine checks and would be sounding on

and off all day...which they did.

           By sundown, Ron was a red-eyed wreck and extremely irritable. He hadn‟t been able to

get any sleep and the aircraft was finished for the day, which meant it was time for him to get to

work.

           It was days like that when Ron really hated the schedule he had. His body didn‟t respond

well to the night-owl routine, and he briefly entertained the thought about just signing off the

inspection and going to bed. He‟d heard men say things like, “It flew in…it‟ll fly out!” But

when people‟s lives were at stake, certain things must be done, and he knew it. Finding




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problems before they became dangerous was what his job was all about, and he took a great deal

of pride in his work. He would not compromise that responsibility.

       He simply gathered up his tools and parts and trudged up the stairs to the helipad.

       The night was cool with little wind, and promised to be a nice night to work, or at least

Ron thought so at the time.

       By laboring furiously, straight through without a break, Ron completed most of the

inspection by two A.M. Then, he went down to the sleeping quarters and awakened Hal to go

up and run the aircraft while he checked for leaks. During the run-up Ron also had to examine

the tail rotor for any abnormal vibrations, and was nearly heartbroken when he found one.

       “Damn it!” he said out of escalating aggravation. “Can‟t I get just one break today?”

       Following half an hour of adjustments and runs, Ron finally smoothed it out and signaled

his pilot buddy to shut the engine down for the last time.

       “Hey, Ron,” Hal said when he climbed out of the ship. “The rotor brake isn‟t working

too well. Could you take a look at it?”

       Ron felt like exploding, but managed to control himself. After all, Hal had suffered

through a long day too and wouldn‟t have asked if he didn‟t feel strongly about the problem.

       Ron‟s eyes followed his friend down the stairs enviously, wishing badly that he were

going too. When he was alone again, he turned and glared at the aircraft, and only after a few

well-chosen grumbles of anger, he got back to work.

       Once he removed the forward, upper cowling, Ron checked the brake reservoir‟s fluid

level and, sure enough, it was low.

       “Crap! Is everything on this heap screwed up?”




                                                                                                   110
        He filled the small tank and bled out the air from the lines until he felt the brake hold

firm.

        “All right!” he said, halfheartedly…greatly relieved to finally be finished, but too tired to

enjoy it fully.

        Ron was beginning to feel the welcome relief of a job well done as he walked over to the

small cowl panel and lifted it up for reinstallation. But when he started up the ladder, he

remembered that he hadn‟t done a tool check of the work area. It was another irritating delay to

his completion, but since that deck was where all the actuators controlling the aircraft‟s ability to

fly were, he sat the cowl down yet again and climbed back up. Even though it cost him an extra

few minutes, he absolutely would not allow his fatigue to cause him to miss this vital step. Any

obstruction to those components could potentially result in substantial damage to the aircraft or

endanger the passengers.

        It was a good thing he double-checked too, as it turned out, because he found the wrench

he‟d used to repair the rotor brake resting next to the cyclic actuator, which controlled the

directional lift of the helicopter. Ron scooped up the smooth, metal tool without realizing it was

still covered with brake fluid, and the wrench practically jumped from his hand.

        He made a quick grab for it but was too late. All he could do was watch as it bounced off

the helicopter‟s upper deck, struck the helipad, and ricocheted over the edge into the blackness of

the night.

        “Aaaaaaaah!” he roared. “There goes my per diem money for this week!

        “Why me?” he yelled at the black waters splashing against the rig‟s pilings over a

hundred and twenty feet below. “That was a thirty dollar wrench!”




                                                                                                    111
        Ron ranted and stomped around for a while, releasing pent-up anger from the long day,

never worrying about waking the rig‟s crew. The reason for that was simple. The platform they

were on was a gas production rig with two massive engines, each of which produced over one

thousand horsepower. They were used to compress the natural gas coming from deep beneath

the ocean‟s floor, and send it into the primary pipeline which fed the mainland refineries more

than a hundred miles away. The platform also had two large diesel-powered generators to supply

the electricity for the operation, regulation, and occupation of the rig. All four of these engines

ran nonstop, day and night, and the roar of those powerful machines easily drowned out any

sounds Ron might make. The sleeping and habitation quarters were so heavily insulated that one

couldn‟t even tell when the helicopter came and went, so any noise he made mattered not at all.

        Ron dejectedly climbed down the work-stand he‟d used to gain access to the seven-foot

high upper deck of the small helicopter. He was wondering what his wife would say when he

told her she wouldn‟t be getting the new jeans she wanted because he had to replace the tool he

just lost.

        Ron reached down for the small cowling once more, but stopped short because of a long,

piercing wail that ripped through the air even over the blast of the running engines.

        “There‟s that damned fire alarm again! Will this agony never end?”

        Normally, he would have immediately gone to the north side of the heliport and rushed

down the stairs to the main level, the compressor level, where the emergency escape capsule was

located. There he would take his place in the capsule as he‟d been instructed during the safety

orientation on his first day aboard the rig. But a day riddled with false alarms had lulled him into

a feeling of apathy toward the warning, so instead of following protocol, he walked calmly to the

south side of the deck to have a look around.




                                                                                                  112
       From his vantage point he searched the lower level area around the #2 compressor and

the two generators. There was nothing out of the ordinary going on…all was normal.

       “Just as I thought…no fire!” he said out loud, scornfully. “Well, let‟s see how much they

like it when they can‟t sleep!”

       Suddenly a door opened on the floor twenty feet below Ron, spewing forth men wearing

various amounts of clothing and footwear. They began stumbling down another twenty-five feet

of stairs to the main deck with sleep filled eyes.

       The scene was quite humorous to Ron, who peacefully watched from high above. He

continued observing and laughing, until he saw Hal come out and try to walk down the grated

stairway without any shoes on. Ron could tell by the way he flinched at each step that it was

murder on Hal‟s feet, and felt pity for his friend.

       Most of the men proceeded across the platform, between the two generators, and to the

launch deck where they would board the emergency escape capsule. Some of them though,

broke away from the group and went in search of the problem that had set off the alarm…they

were the fire crew.

       Ron strolled over to the west side of the heliport, still chuckling a bit, to watch the rest of

the scene unfolding beneath him. As he reached the western edge of the steel deck however, his

quiet laughter abruptly died in his throat. There, on the main level next to the #1 compressor,

was the clear answer to what had caused the alarm. A ten-foot tall tower of blue flame shot out

of the main gas line that fed the huge compressor‟s starter with propellant.

       The flame was directly under one of the massive engine‟s cylinders and totally engulfed

it. The cylinder was already glowing bright red and Ron could tell that it wouldn‟t be long




                                                                                                   113
before it would blow off the engine block like a missile if someone didn‟t shut the machine down

first.

         He quickly checked the direction the huge block of steel would take should it let go, and

instantly saw an appalling sight. Just twenty yards away, protected by a thin heat shield, was the

three thousand gallon holding tank for the helicopter‟s jet fuel. Another ten yards further along

this path was the tiny escape capsule, swinging slightly from its descent cable as the men loaded

into it…and Ron watched in horror as Hal quickly disappeared into the little craft.

         “Oh, no!”

         There were two men battling the fire with extinguishers as Ron focused once again on

that scene. They were edging around to the far side when one of the extinguishers ran out of

material. The man threw the cylinder down and yelled something to his partner who replied with

a vigorous shaking of his head in the negative fashion. The first man ignored the warning and

dashed forward. The second fellow reached out to stop him but couldn‟t.

         It was clear that the heat from the blaze was extremely intense. The second man tried to

shield his partner from the fire, but the extinguisher he wielded was nearly worthless, and the

first fellow‟s clothing burst into flames as he passed too close to the inferno. While Ron

watched, sickened by the scene, the firefighter ran on, ignoring what must have been

excruciating pain in a mad dash to reach a control panel, just yards ahead. The burning man

slapped at the panel and leaped over the railing in one motion, his blazing form disappearing as

he plunged eighty feet to the water below. Ron then realized what the man had done. He

managed to trigger the automatic shut down of the compressor, which would cut off all gas flow

to the huge machine and rob the fire of fuel.




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        The second firefighter backed quickly away, dropped the extinguisher and bolted for the

capsule.

        At that moment, Ron remembered his training. The round escape boat would not launch

until the person in charge accounted for everyone, so they would be looking for him when the

count came up short.

        He spun around and sprinted for the stairway…flying down two flights before an

explosion rocked the platform violently, sending him sprawling on the second floor landing.

Ron regained his feet in a flash and virtually jumped to the main deck, touching only one of the

thirty stair-treads in his haste. He ran to the corner of the crew‟s quarters and pulled up short,

cautiously peering around the edge of the structure that had shielded him from the blast.

        The engine‟s cylinder hadn‟t been able to hold long enough for the gas to bleed off and

cool down. It ripped from its mount and shot across the platform like a two-hundred pound

cannonball…but Ron noticed that somehow it avoided striking the fuel tank. Instead, it hurtled

off to the side, tearing a good deal of metal and piping, but little else.

        There were a few small fires here and there, but it seemed as if they could count

themselves extremely fortunate. He let out a great sigh of relief when he saw the escape capsule

still hanging, and that last firefighter climbing in.

        “You‟d better hurry,” he scolded himself.

        Ron started out across the deck just as the light wind gliding over the Gulf pushed an

odor toward him and he froze again. It was a familiar smell... jet fuel!

        Frantically, he scanned the platform. He saw liquid running across the deck in a sheet,

and raining down to the lower level. The tank hadn‟t been struck, but the plumbing to it was torn

out, rupturing its skin along the lower seam. He followed the path of the fuel and immediately




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knew the situation was bad. One of the smaller fires was burning down below, and there was no

way to stop the jet fuel from reaching it. As the droplets fell, the flames grew in a huge rush,

surging upward to the main deck.

       “Noooo!” Ron screamed as he whirled and dove for the safety of the building.

       The next instant was a mix of sound, heat, and shock wave. The explosion rocked the

platform so violently that the building next to him shifted suddenly and tossed him over the

handrail. The accompanying heat wave flashed out viciously, so intense that it ignited the paint

on the railing just ten feet away.

       Ron was somehow fortunate enough to be able to entangle himself in the safety netting

which surrounded the platform, and not fall the eighty feet to the ocean. He lie there a few

seconds, dazed and disoriented, trying to focus on what to do next. After his faculties returned,

he dislodged himself from the net and climbed back over the rail.

       Once again he peered around the edge of the structure that had preserved his life.

        The sight before him was one of pure carnage. Jagged shards of metal were imbedded in

the building next to him. Fires were burning everywhere. The jet fuel tank had exploded like a

hand grenade, sending shrapnel from its half-inch thick skin flying in all directions. There was

an immense hole in the platform‟s decking where the tank had rested and nothing remained

untouched by the blast. Pipes were torn at every turn, spewing fuel, oil and water out onto the

deck, propagating even more fires.

       Ron stood there and searched for the capsule. It was gone, or at least most of it. The

spherical craft had been sheared in half and torn from its mooring. The upper half was some

distance further away, crumpled and twisted, and in the reflection of the fires‟ light he could see

men, or parts of them, mingled in with the twisted metal. He anxiously looked through the deck




                                                                                                   116
grating and could just make out the sight below. The remainder of the escape capsule was there,

in the water, bobbing up and down in a sea aflame. The capsule was burning fiercely as a

mixture of oil and fuel continued to rain down onto it from the rig, and as the fire spread, Ron

found it impossible to imagine anyone could have survived.

         Ron then came to the realization that he alone was still alive…so far.

         He backed around the corner of the building again as the heat of the growing fire

intensified. He‟d never witnessed anything worse than a bad traffic accident before this, and

now everyone he worked with and joked with was gone in one terrible event.

         Ron leaned against the wall of the crew‟s quarters, exhausted but filled with adrenaline

and wracked with remorse and sorrow. His mind was just spinning…and for a while he found

himself unable to get past the shock.

         Finally though, his precarious circumstances broke the trance. A shift of the decking

smacked him against the building hard, and the sound of heavy machinery falling pierced the

howl of the fire as the supporting legs of a crane succumbed to the heat and collapsed. The

boom of the crane scraped the corner of the building next to him and folded over the edge of the

platform, tearing out the handrail and the safety netting as well.

         “I‟ve got to get off this platform!” he ordered himself, kicking in his mental focus once

again.

         Ron desperately glanced about and found a life preserver ring still hanging to the railing

up on the next level. He blasted up the stairs, grabbed it, and flung it over the side, preparing to

climb down the rope fastened to it. But then he looked after it…and when he saw where it

landed, his hopes for escaping in that fashion were crushed. The surface of the water was an




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ever-spreading pool of fire while more and more diesel fuel, oil, and jet fuel poured down. The

burning slick surrounded the rig for two hundred yards.

        “Not that way!” he concluded as another explosion flashed blindingly bright and put

huge, floating, blue blurs in his vision, forcing him to slam his eyes shut for several seconds to

make them fade away.

        All around him was nothing but certain death.




                                             Chapter Nine

                                         Timing is everything



        “This is not over!” Ron growled at himself as tears welled heavily in his deep brown

eyes. The fumes of burning oil, kerosene, natural gas, and no telling what else swirled and

mingled to create a thick, black, noxious mixture that was difficult even to breathe. “I will not

die on this Godforsaken rig!” he ordered himself, refusing to give in to the hopelessness of the

situation.

        He looked around again, concluding the only place not in immediate danger was up…the

heliport.



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       “The chopper!” he cried, and then sprinted up the stairs, taking them three at a time.

       Ron went immediately to the large work stand resting beside the helicopter, and threw it

over the side of the deck.

       “I won‟t need that anymore,” he said as it disappeared.

       He then turned to the tie-down straps, which secured the aircraft during high winds and

storms, and began releasing them. He worked quickly, knowing that every second counted

dearly, and recalled a conversation he had once enjoyed with Hal.

       The pilot offered Ron a few rudimentary lessons of flight during some slack time over a

month in the past, and Ron of course immediately bragged about how he could fly the ship if he

absolutely had to. At the time, Hal took it all as a joke and merely laughed it off…Ron too, until

now.

       “Well, buddy-boy,” Ron said out loud as the last strap fell away, “you‟ve got your big

chance now!”

       With the tie-downs free and clear, Ron ran around to the pilot‟s side, shading his face

from the heat of the fire, and climbed into the cockpit. He then placed his feet on the rudder

pedals, reminding himself that they were not the brake and the gas, but rather the side-to-side

directional controls. He gripped the cyclic stick…the main rotor‟s thrust directional control (the

steering wheel) Ron told himself, with his right hand, and his left encircled the collective arm.

       “The throttle and lift of the ship,” Ron said, assigning each of his hands its proper duties.

“The gas, and the up-down.”

       Ron then began the start sequence. He had to do it from memory, since there was no time

for the normal five minute preflight.




                                                                                                    119
          “You just push in the circuit breakers,” he recited while he tried desperately to calm

himself, “turn on the battery, press the starter button, and dump in some fuel. Hah! No

problem.”

          Ron had watched Hal start the helicopter more than a hundred times and felt totally

confident…until he pushed the starter button. The roar of the blaze and the explosions that kept

erupting every time a gas pocket ignited drowned out the usual whine of the starter motor.

          Ron tried to see the engine gauge, but the lights were not on in the instrument panel and

the glare from the fire was casting the compartment into deep shadow.

          With no other alternative, he released the starter and dug into the door pouch in search of

the flashlight which he always kept there. As he pulled it out, he looked through the right

window at the fire.

          It had spread across the lower deck, consuming everything, and melted through the safety

valves, releasing the limitless supply of natural gas the rig was meant to harness. The blaze was

almost reaching the heliport‟s edge with a soaring flame engulfing the entire main level.

          Ron could feel the heat from the inferno as it began to bake his skin, and his eyes watered

furiously. Wiping away the tears to clear his vision, he placed the light in a position where it

would illuminate the instruments, and jammed the starter button again. His heart was beating

furiously as he watched the engine speed begin to climb.

          “Come on! Come on! Come on!” he urged, thinking it had never moved so slowly

before.

          The small needle moved up past 10%, then 15%, and when it finally reached 18% Ron

rolled the throttle open with his left hand. Nothing happened.




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       “Shit!” he cried, his eyes rapidly scanning the instrument panel for the problem while his

thumb held the starter engaged.

       He spotted the problem almost instantly.

       “The fuel valve is off, idiot!” he screamed at himself, flipping the switch to „on‟.

       At once he was rewarded as he heard the engine light off with a sound that was the

sweetest music to his ears…at least at that moment. The tachometer needle then sped up and

climbed rapidly toward 40%, and Ron‟s stomach got the chance to relax a bit. He saw the blades

start flashing by above the cockpit before he focused his attention back to the tach. Everything

was normal.

       As he watched the engine gaining speed, a feeling of dread knotted in his stomach, just as

the memory of a warning Hal had given him triggered in his mind.

       “With the fuel control on this aircraft, you can just open the throttle and the system will

control the initial start for you,” Hal coached. “But, if you don‟t roll the lever back to idle, after

you reach 60%, the engine will speed up too fast, over-torque the ship, and spin the helicopter

like a top on this metal deck.”

       When Ron completed that thought, he snapped the throttle back just as he felt the aircraft

begin to twist.

       “Whew! That was close!”

       He released the starter button and wiped his arm across his forehead again, which by then

was dripping with sweat.

       “Oh shit!” he exclaimed, jerking his arm close to his body.




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       He had accidentally leaned his elbow against the Plexiglas window nearest the fire and

received a sharp reminder of his situation. When he examined the place where his arm had

touched the pane, he saw several layers of skin and some hair stuck to the hot plastic.

       He sat there cursing and rubbing his arm, wasting valuable seconds, until another

explosion rocked the helicopter and sent burning debris flying up onto the deck, beside the small

aircraft. The fire had finally consumed the last of the diesel fuel tanks, and ignited it.

       Ron then returned his full attention to his personal task. Putting his hands back on the

controls, he brought the engine speed up to 100%. One last look out the window convinced him

he had run out of time to think…it was time to act. Flames were licking over the edge of the

heliport and the corner of the steel pad was drooping downward.

       “It‟s now or never!” Ron said. “Just pull in the collective, add some right rudder, and

nose it over.”

       With that plan to go by, Ron tugged hard at the collective lever, and the helicopter took to

the air. The moment the skids cleared the deck it immediately started rotating to the right. Ron

pushed the right pedal to counteract the rotation, and the ship shifted harshly and began rotating

to the left. The torque meter jumped quickly past the redline. He had overcompensated.

       He fought with the pedals another few seconds, and then decided he needed some

forward motion to help him out. With his right hand, he pushed the cyclic stick forward and sent

the aircraft speeding off into the cool blackness that surrounded the platform…not fully

understanding exactly how dark it got out there…until then.

       Ron waged his battle with the controls for several agonizing moments, managing to stay

in the air only because of his quick reflexes, and it would have been a comical sight if any




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observers had been around. The helicopter kept wagging its tail back and forth until it gained

enough forward speed to allow the aerodynamics of the ship to help keep it steady.

       By then Ron was clear of the oilrig and enveloped by the ebony cloak of the open ocean

at night. It was cool and peaceful, and wrapped around him like an enormous, shimmering

shroud. It also allowed the small lights of the instrument console to shine brightly enough to

feed him the vital information he needed to fly the aircraft.

       As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he quickly found the one reading most critical to his

task…the altimeter was showing fifty feet!

       “Whoooaaa!” he let out, as he pulled hard again on the collective, sending the small craft

skyward once more.

       The altimeter readouts steadily rose while Ron made constant adjustments with the

controls, fighting against his apprehension in an attempt remain calm and input smooth motions.

When he finally got the helicopter reasonably stabilized, he chanced a look back at the oilrig

platform. It was tilting at a sixty-degree angle, and totally engulfed in flame. If he had delayed

another minute, the helipad would have sagged down and dumped him and his aircraft neatly

into the ocean.

       Ron felt his heart pounding so hard he could hear the blood rushing through his ears.

Three times now had he been spared by the smallest of margins, and he fleetingly pondered the

meaning of the miracle of his survival for a moment, before shrugging it off.

       “Timing is everything,” he told himself.

       A small gust of wind pitched the helicopter up abruptly as Ron‟s mind wandered, and he

refocused his attention on the newest challenge…flight!

       “You‟re far from safe, pal.”




                                                                                                 123
       Ron determined he could make it to the nearest manned platform, which happened to be

just thirteen miles south of the one on which he had been stationed. When the helicopter took

flight, it was pointed in that direction, so the plan seemed the logical course of action. Too, he

was sure he could see its lights for a moment…but then they vanished.

       “What the hell?” he said before realizing he‟d flown into a cloud, as the water droplets

condensed on the windshield and reflected his faint lighting.

       Ron searched out the altimeter again, and soon found he was slowly climbing past two

hundred feet, so he manipulated the ship into a descending attitude to get under the cloud cover.

These adjustments took only a few moments but by the time he was back in the clear, his beacon

was gone. Scanning all around anxiously, he saw nothing but the slight reflection of starlight off

the water‟s surface, far in the distance.

       He leveled off the chopper and held his altitude in a fairly smooth flight, and then

checked his speed and direction. The answer made itself apparent straight away…he‟d been

traveling in a slow circle at sixty miles an hour and now faced a northern heading. At that point

he had to make a crucial decision. He could try to turn around and find the nearby oil-rig, and

then hope to live through his very first landing on a platform which would look about as small as

a notepad…at night! Or, he could continue to the mainland, forty miles away, and pray for some

“extremely” good fortune to present itself.

       He looked at the blackness all around him and suddenly felt pathetically small, as if he

could just disappear without a trace so easily. That vastness made up his mind for him.

       “I guess I‟ll just have to head for the beach,” he determined, not even a little confident of

his decision. “At least I know I can‟t miss it as long as I stay on this northward course…and you

never know, I just might just be able to ditch in the surf and walk the rest of the way.”




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       Ron looked again at the compass, saw that he was drifting off to the east, and brought the

ship back on line.

       “If I only had someone who could talk me down through the landing, I could do it,” he

told himself, thinking about the different movies he‟d seen where the control tower instructed the

person how to land an airplane.

       “The radio!” Ron shouted suddenly, rebuking himself for not thinking of it sooner.

       Cautiously, he tightened the friction control on the collective so the aircraft would neither

ascend nor descend, and then slipped on the radio headsets, dialed the frequency to the

emergency and distress channel, and keyed the microphone.

       “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” he announced on the radio, trying not to seem hysterical.

       “This is Phil fifty-one, November one-seven-one-niner Charlie, requesting assistance,”

       He paused for a long moment waiting for a reply, but got only static.

       Three more times Ron tried to reach someone. He checked the radio, saw that it was

functioning, and then tried different frequencies…nothing but static. He double-checked the

headset‟s operation, and could hear himself clearly when he broadcast, proving it was fine.

Hastily searching his memory for anything that might cause the trouble, the answer hit him like a

bolt of lightning. The small, upper deck cowl he never replaced had the communications

antennae mounted on it!

       “Damn!” Ron shouted, slapping his hand hard on the instrument console. “So much for

calling for help!”

       Ron stewed on his misfortune for a while, but then settled down to the fact that he was on

his own. Once the realization of his predicament locked in his mind, he consoled himself with a




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simple fact: he‟d already been blessed with enough luck to get him to this point. He resolved he

could make it on his own from here. He would stick to his earlier plan and hope for the best.

       “It‟s only forty miles and I have plenty of fuel, so there‟s nothing to worry about,” he

assured himself.

       Ron kept the helicopter on course, flying eighty miles an hour, at one hundred and fifty

feet above the water for what felt like an extensive period…but was only about fifteen minutes.

At that point he ran into a bank of settling clouds, crowding his position. Carefully he dropped

his altitude until he could make out the starlight reflections in the distance once more, and

leveled off again. The altimeter then read one hundred feet. The water was too close for his

liking, and Ron tensed up again.

       “Come on baby! I‟m only twenty miles out. Don‟t close up on me now.”

       His plea of desperation went unanswered nonetheless…to his frantic discontent. It was

only a few minutes later when the tiny reflections he was using as a reference were gone, and the

sweat began to drip from his brow once more. He would have to fly wholly from the instruments

now, and that little detail was unnerving to Ron since such equipment could be damaged, not

accurate enough, or just malfunction at any given moment. He wanted a visual reference badly.

       “How about some headlights,” he thought, quickly reaching down and flipping on the

landing lights.

       The powerful beams lit up a large area of the waves below and forward of his ship, and

Ron let out a new sigh of relief. His reprieve was fleeting though, since he could see just how

poorly he was flying. He likened it to a porpoise‟s swimming stroke…up and down, and up and

down. The mechanic-turned-pilot focused harder yet, and was able to flatten out his

movements…somewhat.




                                                                                                  126
       To further add to his misery, the low cloud ceiling continued to drop with every mile

closer to the mainland, causing him to feel as if he were slowly being squeezed down into the

wave crests by some merciless foe. His heart rate climbed with every foot the helicopter was

forced to concede, and his grip on the controls tightened until his knuckles almost glowed white.

Luckily, the longer he flew the steadier and more confident he grew, so he was able to deal with

the narrowing margin of safety.

       Ron was down to a maximum altitude of seventy feet after another ten minutes. He was

beginning to wonder just how long it would be before there was no more room to fly under the

clouds, or he ran headlong into a rig that was taller than seventy feet…which nearly all were.

       “I can‟t be more than five miles out now,” he reassured himself. “If I can hold out

another few minutes, I‟ll be fine.”

       He then forced himself to draw in a large breath, hold it, and then release. That quieted

some of the vibrations his body was undergoing and cleared his head. He‟d been running on

pure adrenaline for too long and knew he was at the brink of a collapse of his willpower.

       Ron‟s eyes were in a steady relay, first a glance at the water, then at his heading, and then

back at the water. When the lights turned fuzzy, he dropped down a bit on the collective and his

stomach would tighten another notch. On he went in this fashion for what seemed like an hour,

his eyes open as wide as they could get and afraid to blink.

       This rash and desperate way of travel changed his life forever, as it caused him to fly

right up to the edge of the portal before he ever saw it.

       Ron took a quick look up at the compass and, out of the corner of his eyes, caught the

helicopter‟s lights playing against a shimmering surface directly in front of him. It reflected the

powerful beams like a vertical sheet of water, smooth yet gently rippled.




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        The first mental impression he received was that it was a waterfall, but he was well aware

of the impossibility of that, so he blinked to refocus his visual input.

        “What the…” he blurted.

        Before he got those two words out of his mouth, he was pulling back on the controls with

all his strength, trying to stop his forward momentum, to avoid whatever it was…but his

desperate efforts were to no avail.

        His move had come too late…the helicopter struck the reflective surface and was

consumed by it. Immediately, the small craft began straining and shuddering violently, trying to

stay in the air. The low rotor speed warning light flashed on, causing Ron to push the cyclic

stick forward and drop the collective to keep the rotors from ripping free of the aircraft. Those

adjustments helped the vibration, but the rotor speed continued to bleed down quickly, as if it

were trying to spin through syrup. The torque meter on the engine rose right through the redline

and pegged against the maximum reading. The engine groaned horribly as its inertia was

dragged down fast, and then it exploded with a vicious, booming cough.

        Ron was sure he‟d lost his gamble for life as the ship began falling rapidly. Then he felt

the affects of the portal on himself. His first sensation was as if an army of ants was sinking its

pincers into his flesh from his scalp to his toes, his nerves bombarded with signals from every

inch of his skin. Next, his eyesight went totally black, leaving him hanging onto the controls in

an impenetrable veil of darkness. He struggled to ignore the increasing irritation and to uphold

his sense of balance, still trying to guide the aircraft‟s controls to a stable attitude, unable to see

the flashlight right beside him, burning brightly.

        A feeling of panic rushed in at him, forcing its way into his consciousness like a pry bar.

As the conditions overwhelmed him, he had to use every shred of the remainder of his will to




                                                                                                     128
fight against his growing need to scream…to run…to escape. At that point, the air in the small

ship seemed to disappear, adding one more foe to the list of others in the losing battle he was

waging.

       “Is this what death feels like?” he asked himself. “Am I already dead?”

       His answer came instantly. He jerked his hands from the controls and clutched his head

tightly. It felt as if a thousand needles were driving into his brain.

       Convinced that his mind was being ripped apart, his body gave up the fight and he

collapsed into unconsciousness.




                                                                                                  129
                                                Chapter Ten

                                                 The Last Leg



           Ron awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath and his heart racing like he‟d just run a hundred

yard dash. He very nearly shouted out in his frenzied state, but the lovely blonde bundled in his

arms restored his perception of time and place, so he stayed the urge.

           That comprehension was almost as unsettling as the recollection though, because it

solidified his grasp on reality…and he found such knowledge infinitely more harrowing than the

memory.

           Metash had risen to, and past her zenith by the time he forced himself awake, and when

he first tried to rise, he did so with a soft groan, feeling every conceivable muscle complain as he

moved. The noise he made brought Cache back from slumber-land as well, and she too sat up

stiffly.

           “I‟m sorry,” Ron told her, speaking in a barely audible whisper. “I didn‟t mean to wake

you.”

           “No,” she replied in like fashion. “That is all right. Let me look at you.”


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           Cache shook the sleep from her head and examined Ron‟s cheek. It was much better

now, better than she had even hoped for. The swelling was down to a mere lump, although it

was an ugly purple color, and his eye was almost totally open again. She checked the lacerations

on his chest and found no redness at the edges, giving herself a pat on the back for her medical

efforts.

           “How do you feel?” she asked him, again quietly.

           “Much better. In fact,” he continued, stretching out his limbs cautiously, “I feel pretty

darn good.”

           He grinned broadly at her and she returned it happily. The duo then took a few minutes

to limber up their stiff muscles and joints, and drank once again from the stream. Afterward,

they began the slow crawl back up the rocky slope of the hollow, the same way they had entered.

           Ron stopped as he achieved the lip of the depression, and peered about for any signs that

would indicate they were not alone. It was a glorious afternoon, with a cloudless sky, brilliant

and beckoning from above, outlining the majestic peaks all around. There was a slight breeze

winding its way through the hills and it felt good to Ron as it moved through his hair, clear and

refreshing. After a short period, feeling sure the spot was deserted, he advanced.

           He barely moved halfway out into the open though, before the wind died off and the

unmistakable sound of footsteps echoed into his ears. Whoever was out there was close…too

close for them to retreat into hiding…and approaching. Ron froze where he was, trying to

pinpoint the exact location they came from.

           To his left, not more than fifteen yards away, a Kreete sentry stopped and looked around,

backing up to get a better perspective of the rising terrain in front of him. Ron gathered his feet

under him, his bare toes gripping the rough rock beneath him well, and then, when the soldier




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was only ten feet away with his attention in the opposite direction, Ron launched himself.

         He spanned the distance in the air and collided with the unsuspecting enemy like a

battering ram, driving his right knee deeply into the soldier‟s ribs, and smashing the larger man

at the right temple with his forearm, simultaneously.

         The force of Ron‟s attack carried the unknowing scout to the ground, and he lay still

where he fell, dead…his C-3 vertebrae crushed by that violent collision.

         Ron and Cache quickly scrutinized the surrounding forest again for the Kreete‟s allies.

When they were satisfied the coast was clear, they dragged the body into the hollow where

they‟d slept, and left it there.

         “We better get back on the move again,” Cache said. “The longer we are out here, the

less chance of escape we have.”

         “I know what you mean,” Ron agreed, “and our luck can‟t hold out forever.”

         With both of them rested, they set a grueling pace as they wound their way further up the

steep slopes. Ron was careful to stay watchful of possible ambush areas or routes which might

leave them too little cover. In the end, his diligence added some time and distance to their

journey, but kept them clear of two enemy posts he was able to identify and circumvent.

         An hour more and Cache announced that they were within half a hoz of their intended

entry point. Ron was thrilled to hear it while he searched out their next path, one having little

help in the way of concealment. The sun was shining on more of the ground as they went, as the

trees became fewer and farther between.

         He got the definite feeling they‟d been dealt their last lucky card back at the hollow when

he found he could see at least a hundred yards in every direction. Because if he could, they

could!




                                                                                                    132
       “Stop!” he whispered to Cache, placing his arm out to restrain her. “We better slow

down even more and be extra cautious. The ground cover has grown thin, and if the Kreete have

any brains, they‟ll have men stationed in those trees,” he concluded, pointing toward the lower

branches, farther to the east.

       “I see what you mean. One scout could see over a quarter of a hoz from up there.”

       The two of them slowed to a snail‟s pace then, moving from one bush to another,

stopping to scan the trees before they continued to the next patch of scrub brush. As a result,

half an hour of this brought them only a few hundred yards closer to their sanctuary.

       In the end though, their vigilance paid off as Cache abruptly halted Ron just before he

was about to move forward again. She pointed through the leaves of the shrub that shielded

them, off to the left. There, sixty feet up a tree growing only eighty yards away, was a scout with

some odd looking image enhancers. To some extent, they resembled a pair of binoculars.

       Ron studied the man‟s routine of searching, first with his eyes, and then with the ocular

augmenters. Binoculars are great for verifying something spotted with the naked eye but too

distant to clearly identify; however, they have a narrow coverage area when used.

       Ron memorized his roughly repetitious pattern and then, when he moved the binoculars

to his face, Ron moved swiftly with Cache in tow. They continued in this fashion for what

seemed like forever to Cache, until they were sure they‟d passed out of his field of vision, and

then they refocused their attention to the front again.

       The fleeing pair were well up the mountain by then, and had left nearly all organic

shielding behind, relying on boulders, crags, and overhangs for cover. Even Ron‟s work

toughened feet were getting sore when, as they edged around one large, rocky outcropping,

Cache announced they were within sight of the doorway into Gammone.




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       Ron looked ahead at the side of a sheer rock cliff over a hundred feet tall and turned back

to her with a puzzled expression on his face.

       “Where?” he asked in disbelief.

       “Right there,” she replied, smiling and pointing to the rock wall which was only thirty

yards away. “You do not see it do you?” she asked triumphantly.

       “No,” he told her, trying to spot any break in the rough surface. “I don‟t.”

       “I designed that camouflage, myself,” she explained. “There is a projection of rock onto

an energy field that makes it impossible to detect without either knowing exactly where it is, or

having a locator unit.”

       She showed Ron the tiny instrument she‟d been using to guide them to the entrance. It

was the size of a pocket watch and, as she skipped through a few of the functions, he saw that it

contained an inordinate amount of information.

       “I will use this to lower the energy shield,” she explained, changing the surface of the

small device to a new display. “And then I can access the door controls at the entrance.”

       They both carefully surveyed the nearby area. There was nothing between them and the

wall that could possibly hide them, or anyone else…and they were now far from the tree line, so

danger from that source was gone as well. It appeared as if their long ordeal was finally over,

yet Ron hesitated.

       “I don‟t see anything,” he told Cache. “But I have a feeling, just the same.”

       He gave the area one more scan before turning to her again.

       “Go ahead and drop the shield…and get the door open,” he told her hurriedly. “Go!”

       Cache obeyed his order by turning off the energy shield and scurrying toward it, still

watchful as she moved out across the barren ground. Ron followed her quickly, looking over his




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shoulder.

       “Aaaah!”

       Ron‟s head whipped around to see what had happened, and his heart sank.

       A huge figure now stood in their path. He was clipped to the end of a long rope, which

he quickly released. Ron‟s eyes instantly followed the line up and over the sheer cliff wall above

the entrance to the mountain complex…the point from where the soldier repelled…and he cursed

his luck.

       The Kreete was gigantic!

       Ron guessed he was at least equal in size of Darrone Jetal, which was more than

disheartening. His body, which was stripped to the waist, was covered at every conceivable

point with the strange artwork designs Ron recalled from the other Kreete soldiers. That lent

credibility to Ron‟s impression of a tattoo artist‟s wildest fantasy come true. The massive,

ferocious looking fellow now blocking Ron and Cache‟s path to safety had one other marked

similarity to Darrone Jetal. He was dressed entirely in blood red!

       The Kreete Master Killer turned and dropped some small object into the newly exposed

alcove where the doorway lay, and then he drew his agony wand…rotating it to full power.

       “Nooo!” Cache cried, trying to regenerate the protective barrier, to no avail.

       “He has placed a disrupter unit in the field path,” Cache told Ron. “I cannot reestablish

the energy grid!”

       Ron regarded the newest threat carefully before he leaned over close to Cache‟s shoulder.

       “When I engage him, you get to that disrupter and get rid of it…and then open the door

and wait for me.”

       Cache nodded quickly and Ron was off, moving out into the open, away from the door.




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He took a moment to assess his situation and plan his strategy, although a glance at himself told

him he was in grave trouble. Nearly every part of his body was badly bruised, or cut, or

damaged in some fashion. The throbbing from the left side of his face reminded him of the

cracked bone there, and even making a fist was painful. His tissues needed time to heal, but

would get none. During the fight with Darrone Jetal, he‟d sustained too much collateral damage

and could not afford to go through that again.

         “This is going to hurt,” he told himself.

         The sun was beaming down on the two combatants as they faced each other under a

beautiful, cloudless sky. Ron took a deep breath and looked up at it, his eye‟s protective shields

fully active.

         “Take a good look at it Caronian!” the Kreete told him. “This is the last dactrai you will

have the chance!”

         The Master Killer wasted no time after making his proclamation, and lunged at Ron‟s

chest.

         Ron dropped instantly to the ground, face down, and rolled to the right, every muscle

screaming in agony under the stress. He came up and made an attack of his own by grabbing

hold of the Kreete‟s left leg and heaving upward as hard as he could. His rippling dorsal muscles

strained tremendously under the weight of the huge creature, yet performed flawlessly, as his

motion was smooth and unimaginably swift.

         The Kreete went flying up and backwards to land with a resounding thud on the rocky

ground.

         A long howl issued forth from the Kreete, announcing his surprise, and his anger.

         Ron followed up that move without hesitation, but had to alter his attack at the last




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second when he came face to face with the soldier‟s glowing blue weapon. Instead of a flying

body slam to the bigger man‟s midsection, Ron short-stepped his charge and leaped up high

enough to be out of range of the wand. The Kreete missed on his first sweeping strike at Ron‟s

attacking figure and then again on the backstroke as the quickness of his opponent just barely

outpaced his swing.

        When he came crashing down on his prone adversary, Ron‟s whole focus was on the arm

gripping that terrible weapon, and he seized the Kreete‟s wrist as the big fellow‟s guard opened.

The rest of Ron‟s body landed half on and half off the soldier‟s chest, causing a large exhale

from the Kreete, but doing no real damage.

        The Master Killer immediately realized he couldn‟t get to his feet with his clearly

smaller, yet immensely tenacious foe grappling with him, so he simply began bashing Ron with

his free fist, over and over.

        Ron had no chance to counter those punches without releasing the Killer‟s wrist, so he

held on like a bulldog, trying to think of a solution as the rain of incredibly savage blows

smashed against his back and head.

        “I have the door open!” he heard Cache scream at him.

        Ron could barely understand that sentence as the shock waves from the repeated

battering, vibrated through his body. Before long, he could feel his grip slipping as one of the

Kreete‟s punches struck his shoulder, partially numbing it.

        He knew he was lost if he didn‟t escape immediately, so he pushed off with his feet,

attempting to dive free of the larger man‟s reach, but the Master Killer would have none of that.

The Kreete warrior forced his left knee up and into Ron‟s lower back, while slugging him hard in

the right thigh to thwart his getaway.




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       Ron gasped from the force of the blows, his head snapping back abruptly, the feeling in

his right leg now completely gone, but as his momentum carried him forward only a few short

feet, his faculties lit up. Through the barrage of signals bombarding his brain, he targeted one

thought.

       He saw a rock. It wasn‟t a large stone, about twice the size of his fist, but it was there.

He continued his push forward, knowing he could not escape as he‟d planned, by using his speed

and quickness. Instead, he employed his body‟s mass and the surge from the Kreete‟s own

volley, to help him plunge downward just a mere two feet away. Ron positioned himself to land

with all of his weight on top of the Kreete‟s arm, the one holding the wand. The beast‟s grip on

that weapon evaporated instantly as the joint between his forearm and hand burst against the rock

with a ghastly, audible crunch.

       The Master Killer howled again, this time, though, not out of anger or surprise.

       When the agony wand rolled away, Ron released his grasp on the shattered limb and

leaped for his hard-won freedom. There was a sudden, loud report of a blast from inside the

doorway Ron was headed to, causing the opening to disappear in a cloud of vaporized rock. The

debris peppered him thoroughly, but he didn‟t delay or deviate from his goal in the slightest. His

right leg was barely moving, but he scrambled as quickly as he could away from the demon bent

on his destruction.

       The Master Killer regained his composure instantly, ignored his useless hand, and rolled

to his knees, scooping up the blue wand as he did so. He saw that he couldn‟t reach his

adversary before Ron could gain the safety of the complex, so he heaved the wand at Ron‟s

departing frame.

       The throw was perfect. The rod struck Ron at the center of his spine…and not a glancing




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blow. It hit solidly, shorted out every neural function below his chest, and sent a surge of

unbearable agony up and into his brain. Ron fell forward, somehow managing to break his fall

with his hands, and then just lied there where his body slid to a stop on the highly polished floor

of the entrance.

       The throw came too late for the Kreete to succeed in stopping him however. Ron landed

just inches inside the doorway, and at the touch of Cache‟s finger, the door slid shut and the

energy field reengaged, returning the scene to a solid, impenetrable stone cliff once more.

       Inside the granite fortress, Ron fought desperately to remain conscious. He waged a war

against the pulsing pain coursing through his body as the affects of the horrible weapon ravaged

his neural pathways, but it was a losing battle. That torture, plus his exhaustion, won out over

even his iron will.

       Ron‟s internal systems began to shut down, one by one, until his lungs no longer filled

with air, and a brief time later, his heart no longer pumped blood.

        Cache was at his side at once, checking for his vital signs. She felt Ron slipping away

quickly and responded straight away.

       “Emergency!” she shouted at the smooth hallway walls surrounding her. “Medical team

to this location, now!”

       She opened a panel in the wall, under the door controls, and brought back an emergency

kit. Two more panels dislodged themselves from the same smooth surface, and slid aside,

revealing a pair of mechanical assistants. They glided swiftly, yet quietly over to Ron‟s prone

form. Together, the three of them began to operate Ron‟s pulmonary and cardiac functions.

       Less than thirty seconds later, five doctors of differing specialties and four more

cybernetic attendants were on the scene.




                                                                                                   139
       Cache stepped back, tears welling in her eyes, her desperation clearly evident on her

lovely face. She moved over to the corner of the door to the outside world and, bending down

slowly, tenuously lifted the still glowing agony wand. The autonomous circuitry of the device

snapped into action and it turned itself off at her touch, but she held it gingerly just the same,

constantly watching the team crowded around Ron‟s unresponsive body.

       She stared at the scene in utter anguish, an overwhelming sense of helplessness sweeping

over her. But then a thought sprang into her mind and shocked her back to animation, sending

her bolting for the transporter at the end of the hallway, the Kreete‟s instrument of pain still in

her hand.




                                                                                                      140
                                           Chapter Eleven

                                               The Plan



       Metash had long since slipped away beyond the horizon, and her sister star, Dersa, was

well into her climb when:

       “Bring the fool forward!” bellowed Yeasten, summoning forth the last of his men to have

actually seen their primary prey.

       As he waited impatiently for the soldier to join his conference, he couldn‟t help but call

to mind the beginning of this mission while he worried about its future; and possible

failure…and what that might mean to him personally.

       Yeasten Rytonian was the former captain of the Kaardore, an Intergalactic

Destroyer…the Kreete‟s heaviest and most powerful warship. His authority was temporarily

forfeit to the Fleet Commander, who had assumed his position on the bridge of that vessel. The

Kaardore was now acting as the flagship of the twin Dreadnought battle group, until now an

unheard-of quantity of Kreete starships. It was they who now waged battle against Rauld.




                                                                                                141
        Yeasten was the most experienced warrior in the fleet, beneath the Fleet Lord of course,

and held the esteemed rank of “Reaper”. Therefore, his appointment as the Septuagent, or Siege

Commander of the Kreete assault troops deployed to the surface of Rauld seemed logical and

was not questioned. His mission, although not simple, was straight forward…disable the Shotal

Energy Matrix. The temporary demotion he accepted was just one of many, as the Kreete

warriors eagerly volunteered to be in on the capture and sacking of this planet and its

civilization, whose projected technological worth was vast.

        His assignment was now paramount since, as of yet, the fleet could not break through the

Raulden‟s space shield on a sustained basis.

        His specific mission was to marshal his ground forces and destroy the “Grid”…the power

generation facility which supplied the energy for the planetary shield keeping the fleet at bay.

He was granted leeway to proceed by whatever means he and his men could come up with, but

they were having little luck in circumventing the localized energy barrier that surrounded the

immediate area of the Grid Complex. They were “officially” only plan B.

        The fleet…plan A…high above the outer atmosphere, was finding an equally difficult

task of achieving their intended goal…to get one of their heavy Destroyer spacecraft inside that

outermost defense barrier. Their only means of accomplishing the objective was by burning a

hole in the shield with a constant barrage of supercharged plasma firepower from their combined

warships. They felt that once inside, the Destroyer could obliterate the Energy Grid‟s smaller

defense shield with its awesome energy weapons, and then the ground troops could overrun the

facility.

        However, since their short-lived initial breach of the planetary shield, when they

managed to squeeze five scout ships inside it and thought total victory was within their grasp, the




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shield had been recalibrated…strengthened against their particular disrupter fire. So far, the

projected time of penetration was indefinite, if ever.

       The Shotal Energy Matrix protected the entire planet by converting the atmosphere itself

into an enormous defensive barrier which could absorb immense amounts of charged matter.

The outermost layer of it, combined with the perpetual fusillade of cosmic radiation from

Rauld‟s twin suns, formed a shell so powerful that it would vaporize anything trying to pass

through.

       The Rauldens‟ ingenuity didn‟t stop there either as this “matrix field” could be

configured for many different uses. It constituted the planet‟s force field, the power grid‟s

protective barrier, and all the safety protocols at the entrance doors of the complexes. The only

weakness in their system was that it was the only one. There was no redundant safety measure.

If the Grid Complex was bombarded at close range with enough firepower, the matrix would

indeed collapse, and its failure would leave the entire planet, not just the power facility, open to

the Kreete.

       For Yeasten however, as leader of the ground offensive, the plan of destroying the Grid

had recently become secondary. Because of the powerful barricade around their target, and the

time schedule of the armada, the Fleet Commander…Senibre Meashone… placed new duties to

the forefront of his command.

       With the confirmation that Kaskle Dangarth had been successfully transported to Rauld,

Senibre ordered Yeasten to focus on preventing the Raulden‟s one offensive weapon…an

“advanced, tactical spacecraft” from ever taking flight.




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       The communication the Kreete‟s intelligence group intercepted boasted that it was far

beyond the current capabilities of any of the Triad‟s crafts…and the Kreete were extremely

apprehensive that the Rauldens could make good on their claim.

       Yeasten‟s newest orders, delivered in just the past few billots, were to stop Kaskle from

reaching that warship, period! Yeasten‟s current uneasiness was confined to that objective as

well, because in the past two dactrais, the Reaper‟s army had lost nine warriors to the abilities of

the man he thought to be Kaskle of Caron.

       The last person to see him alive was just then walking into the room, or rather the tent, as

Yeasten was holding meetings in a temporary shelter which doubled as his sleeping quarters. It

was a thirty-foot wide, twenty-foot tall portable domed enclosure, at the center of the main

Kreete encampment.

       Kale Vitrauge, recently demoted (voluntarily) from the esteemed rank of

Krosepten…master of a Legion of Kreete troops, to Tusepten; Strike Team Leader, strode into

the tent. He, like all the others who‟d joined this mission expected a successful rout of the

planet‟s technological resources would enhance their status of class and rank. However, he now

found his position further diminished to that of Septenant, Squad Leader, due to his inability to

kill the man from Caron. He was a failure in the eyes of his commander, Yeasten.

       His punishment did not include the removal of his status as a Master Killer though, so his

blood-red uniform stood out boldly as he entered. Kale was a large fellow, even by the Kreete‟s

standards, and was both revered as a warrior and feared as a threat to anyone who might be in his

way up the military ranking ladder. He paid no attention to the broken wrist, hanging at his side,

even though the pain was intense and the swelling had tripled the size of the limb.




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        After his conflict with the man he believed to be Kaskle, he dispatched his report on a

hoverbot, and then walked a billot back to his camp only to find new orders there waiting for

him. He was to meet with the Siege Commander at the main encampment, to give a full report

on his efforts to find and eliminate Kaskle.

       Presently it had been more than eight billots since he last saw the Caronian. It was a long

march to the camp, since even though he was injured, he was denied air transport to allow him

time to reflect on his disgrace. Yeasten even made him wait for an additional time outside the

tent under heavy guard, while he allowed many others in ahead of Kale. Finally, the Master

Killer had been summoned.

       By the time Kale entered the tent, which was filled with all the other Strike Teams‟

leaders, Yeasten was infuriated.

         “I have heard the reports of all Tuseptens and Septenants, except for you, Kale!”

Yeasten roared. “I know that I have lost nine men to the vigilante from Caron. Now, I want to

know what you did to prevent his escape.”

       Kale recited the story of how he located the entrance to Gammone with a portable

scanning unit. Its range was severely limited, but it worked well enough to confirm the entry

point‟s location. However, he could not break the force field‟s coded security protocols, so he

laid a trap for the man, hoping he‟d chosen the correct locality. He explained that the Caronian

was not alone, and how one of the Rauldens aided him in his escape. He ended his report with

his last sight; Kaskle‟s collapsing body inside the entrance of the complex.

       “What of the field inhibitor you claim to have gotten into the force field‟s stream?”

Yeasten pressed.




                                                                                                  145
       “There was a pulse blast, just before the Caronian cleared the entrance,” Kale explained.

“It must have been a weapon from inside the complex. I never saw it, but the inhibitor failed, so

it must have been destroyed.”

       Yeasten paused for a moment, his chest heaving, panning the room with his glare. He

knew what his fate would be if he were unable to complete his mission.

       “This man has defeated nine of our Kreete warriors,” he repeated to the entourage,

“supposedly the best fighters in the known galaxy…killed them in fact…and one of them being

of your rank!” The commander ended his proclamation with a gesture at Kale, one of the few

under his command who were of that elite crimson status. “Then he bested you, even when you

had the clear advantage, and he did it all without a single weapon?” Yeasten questioned in

disbelief. “Kale Vitrauge! Can you offer some explanation for this?”

       “Yes sir!” Kale replied. “Septuagent, the man, Kaskle, is known for his fighting abilities

on his planet. He proved himself in the Caronian Games, which is the only reason he has been

allowed to live as long as he has. He was even given his freedom because of his

accomplishments, after he pledged his allegiance to the Triad. He underwent training at our

finest facilities and became an expert in several of our in-atmosphere fighters. He is adroit in the

use of all known weapons, and even though he is of an inferior size, he has been decorated for

his courage, his power, and his speed in battle. When he eventually broke that oath, he became

an instant leader and hero in several skirmishes against the Triad‟s control, on Caron. It is

believed that he even captured one of our ships once and sent it back to the primary vessel

reconfigured as a bomb, destroying both crafts.”

       “Are you going to make a point about all of this?” Yeasten interjected, “Or are you just

going to keep spewing out information on how much of an embarrassment he has been to us?”




                                                                                                 146
       “Sir, my point is that he is from a planet which is of the same atmospheric class as ours,

but much higher up the scale in mass. That gives him some physical advantages we do not

possess, especially on this planet.”

       “I refuse to accept your opinion of the situation!” Yeasten screamed. “The Kreete Triad

is the most powerful force in the galaxy. Our warriors are the best! Our equipment is the best!

We cannot allow one man to govern our success. He must be stopped!”

       Yeasten then got up and strode over to a shipping container at the rear of the tent. He

reached into the container and removed a weapon.

       “The Fleet Commander is sending us new weapons, like this one,” Yeasten said to the

group. “Since our matter disrupters are useless under the influence of the Energy Matrix, he has

found some of these old solid projectile accelerators from the ancient dactrais of war. They are

bulky and much heavier than a real gun, but they shoot explosive pellets that will be effective

enough to deal with the Caronian, even if Kale would like us all to believe this traitor is some

demigod.”

        Yeasten shot the Master Killer a look of disgust before he spoke on.

       “You Squad Leaders will issue these weapons to your men when you rejoin your units.

At that time, you will announce these plans,” he said, holding up an information crystal, “that I

have made toward the effort of securing this planet. When that is completed, it will be up to the

fleet to take out the defense shield, which is only a matter of time now.

       “We will be the first to storm the Rauldens‟ complex, and therefore, we will get the best

choice of the spoils, and the glory. Every man here should receive a substantial reward for the

taking of this world, as well as a promotion, so we have a lot riding on the success or failure of

this mission.




                                                                                                   147
       “I hope each of you realize this fact,” he stated in a menacing tone.

       “As for you, Kale!” the Reaper barked. “I am not going to be able to deal with you as I

normally would, due to the shortage of men, so you will be spared, at least until the mission is

finished. If, in that amount of time, you have not made up for this disgrace, you will be sent to

the public torture arena.

       “Now go have that arm repaired and start making your plans for stopping Kaskle of

Caron!”

       Kale left the tent, followed by the rest of the Septenants, and went directly to the medical

station at the edge of camp. He had only one thought on his mind as he walked.

       “You will pay dearly for this humiliation, little man!” he vowed at the Caronian.




                                                                                                   148
                                              Chapter Twelve

                                            Welcome to Gammone



        Ron dreamed of floating in a sea of gelatin, with nothing touching him and without the

ability to either see or move. It was a mixed feeling of utter calm and utter confusion. He wasn‟t

sure whether he was awake, asleep, dead, alive, or passing somewhere between. He just

floated…it tasted like kiwi.

        Ron woke up feeling like he‟d slept for a month. His mouth was as dry as the summer

dust of a soybean field he‟d played in as a child, and his head pounded to the rhythm the old

tractor‟s engine made as it plowed the field. He enjoyed that simple memory for a moment,

surprised he could even recall it at all.

        After a short time of recollection, he managed to break through the fog gripping his mind

and settled into the usual list of questions; “Where am I? How did I get here? How long have I

been unconscious?”

        To his dismay, however, there was no one to answer those queries for him, so he set out

to gather what information he could on his own.



                                                                                                 149
       His first reaction to the environment in which he found himself was that of relief. He was

in a cool, completely dark room, lying on a soft bed with a thick blanket covering him. The

room had the smell of absolute cleanliness, with no identifiable odors at all, which led him to the

conclusion that he was in a hospital.

       “Holy cow!” Ron said as he called back his memories of the last two days. “That was the

most realistic dream I‟ve ever had!”

       He felt around the edge of the bed, and then the pillow under his head. The familiarity of

the surroundings made him sigh with relief.

       “Someone must have seen the helicopter crash and brought me to this hospital,” he

surmised. “I must have been unconscious the whole time and dreamed all of that weird, science

fiction crap. Oh, thank God!”

       He tried to sit up in bed and received a stab of pain from every part of his body. It felt

like the day after the roughest college football game he‟d ever played. His muscles were all

protesting harshly, so stiff and sore were they. He swore to himself that even his hair hurt.

       Then he remembered the last part of the dream, when his back was injured.

       “Maybe,” he thought, “I received some spinal cord injury in the crash and shouldn‟t be

sitting up!”

       A moment later he realized his feet had already moved, although painfully, and he would

surely be strapped down if he‟d suffered that sort of damage, so he let his concern slip away.

       “Geez!” he said out loud, as he checked each part of his anatomy for operation, and every

part reported clear distress. “That must have been a hell of a crash!”

       He ran his hands down his body, feeling a snuggly fitting fabric covering his figure, even

his feet. It was like a second skin, close, yet giving.




                                                                                                    150
        “I‟ve never heard of a hospital gown like this,” he thought. “It‟s like a grown-up-sized

baby suit, complete with booties!”

        Suddenly, the lights popped on, blinding him. He slammed his eyelids shut and then,

squinting severely with his hand over his forehead, he took a look around the room.

        It was a small, private room and had pastel pink coloring on everything he saw, except

for his clothing, which was a light green color. The room was about seven feet wide, with the

bed spanning the width at one end, and ten feet long, having a nine-foot high ceiling. Ron could

see nothing in the room other than the bed. The walls were totally blank and he was forced to

look to the ceiling to find any visible appliance at all, which was the light. His eyes quickly

adjusted to the radiance, which was not as bright as he first thought, just a shock to his wide

opened pupils. A few seconds later, after one more sweep of the room, he realized there was no

door.

        Not wanting to panic, he sat there, taking in the oddity of the place, assuming there had to

be some explanation to it. He didn‟t have long to wait either, before a section of the wall, at the

other end of the chamber, went sliding smoothly into the floor.

        Through the opening walked a tall, very slim, blonde haired man. He strode so calmly

and smoothly that it made Ron imagine this man had never been in a hurry in his entire life. He

was wearing a pair of long-sleeve, green coveralls which hugged his form snuggly, as Ron‟s did

with him.

        Ron felt as if he would faint when he regarded the man‟s face. The fellow had short

yellow fuzz covering his skin!

        “It „is‟ true!” Ron said for the second time in two days. “I‟m actually on a planet called

Rauld, and we „are‟ under attack from some extremely large and ugly creatures.”




                                                                                                  151
        “Yes,” the blonde man told him. “I am afraid it is, and we are. Cache told me you were

having a hard time believing that, but let me assure you, you have indeed made it safely to our

world. Although after your arrival, I understand safety has been hard to find.”

        There was an oddly long pause of total silence before:

        “How are you feeling?” the Raulden asked.

        Ron didn‟t respond. He sat there, dazed by the truth. Even though he‟d already worked

through this reality struggle out in the wilderness with Cache, his mind was still rebelling against

the incredible amount of evidence he saw all around him. It was as if by refusing it, he could

somehow return to his prior, peaceful existence.

        Ron concentrated on the tangible facts, and since he‟d always been able to adapt to big

changes in his life, he knew he would get past this one too, no matter how unbelievable it might

appear. As hard as he fought earlier to not believe this was all occurring, he now had to fight to

keep the truth of the reality in perspective. It was the only way to stay sane and in turn, find a

way back to his home world. He ended his mental battle with a single judgment.

        “I‟m here now,” he told himself. “This „has‟ happened…no doubt about it. I have to

move forward from here!”

        “My name is Fortell,” the stranger said after he received no reply from Ron. “I have been

looking after you since you arrived here at Gammone. You got here in rather poor shape, I might

add.”

        Fortell held up a small device he had in his hand, and then read from it.

        “Along with your having been struck by an agony wand, a blow which should, quite

frankly, have killed you, or at least left you paralyzed, you had a substantial list of injuries.”




                                                                                                     152
       He looked up at his patient, but received no input at all, so he continued. “Let me see

now, six broken ribs, a skull fracture with a bad concussion, and both hands having several

chipped bones.”

       Ron merely sat and listened, astonished by what he was hearing.

       “Several bad bruises and four deep lacerations were on your chest, head, and abdomen,”

he went on. “Your hands also exhibited deep bruising, as well as both feet and your right

thigh…and your knees showed evidence of having been hyper-extended.”

       Ron looked at his hands, remembering all he‟d done with them during his many

struggles. They were a mixture of yellowish-green and blue, and were sore, but didn‟t look so

bad to have broken bones inside them. He flexed his legs, finding them stiff, but not to the point

of what he just heard.

       “They must have me on some pretty powerful pain pills,” he thought.

       “You are very fortunate that Cache kept her head and called for us so quickly, or you

would not be sitting up, and possibly not even breathing,” Fortell told him. “And if she had not

thought to analyze the wand immediately, we may have taken too long to figure out exactly what

damage it was doing inside your nervous system. It is doubtful that you would have lived.”

       His breakdown of Ron‟s condition snapped his patient back to an animated state.

       “Yeah,” Ron replied, “Cache is really quite a remarkable lady. She‟s smart and she‟s

tough. You know, she didn‟t once show any signs of panic or hysteria, even when it looked bad

for both of us. I ran her into the ground twice, and she didn‟t utter one complaint. I passed out

on her, and instead of getting the rest I know she needed, she stayed beside me and patched me

back together. She is truly something else!”




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       “Yes,” Fortell agreed. “She is definitely one of a kind. And from what I have heard of

you, she was only repaying the favor when she saved your life. It seems you are a fairly

remarkable person in your own right.”

       “Well, things have been a little strange for me, lately,” Ron told him, recalling his recent

physical exploits. He looked again at his body, flexing his arms and hands. Something just

didn‟t seem right to him. “It really feels like I‟m not the same person I was on the oil platform,

back on Earth,” he thought.

       So many aspects of his life had changed in the last few days that he hadn‟t been able to

catalog them all…and he wondered if he would ever know their limits.

       “I have put you on pain suppressing medication, for the present time,” Fortell explained.

“Most of your more serious injuries have apparently healed enough to become only minor aches

and stiff muscles, since you do not act as if you are in a great amount of suffering, so I will

terminate the meds. It is best not to overuse that medicine.”

       “That brings up a question, Fortell,” Ron said. “If that list of injuries is correct, and you

have already removed the casts from my hands and the wraps from my ribs, exactly how long

have I been out?”

       “Approximately one dactrai. That is one complete revolution of our planet, Rauld,”

Fortell replied calmly.

       Ron simply stared back at the physician, unable to make any comment.

       “You have been healing extremely fast,” Fortell continued, “of which I can take only

partial credit. The medicines we have, combined with the Flarinca Immersion Tank, accelerate

your body‟s own healing process, helping you to recover more quickly, but your particular

physical make up is incredible from what I have seen.




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       “Possibly the lack of your heavier, and therefore more strength draining, gravity has

allowed you to mend your damaged body easier here on our world.”

       “Flarinca tank?” Ron inquired. “What is that exactly?”

       “Jasmine Flarinca was one of our greatest doctors,” Fortell explained. “She pioneered

and perfected a way to increase the regeneration of cells, the healing process if you will, by a

factor of one hundred. It is a tank filled with a thick substance which is nearly a living thing

itself, so complex is its make-up. This material carries oxygen to every part of your body,

including your lungs, so you do not even need to breathe for yourself, although your auto-

response systems continue the motions.”

       Fortell paused for a moment, seeing Ron‟s bewildered expression, and then continued.

“Obviously it does much more than that, so let me just say your own body‟s incredibly strong

regenerative capabilities were made even that much more effective.”

       Ron didn‟t understand all of what he just heard, but was grateful to be recovering so

quickly.

       “These people must have an extremely advanced medical knowledge.”

       Ron then turned his attention to himself, mainly his attire. He threw the blanket back to

one side to get an unobstructed view, finding he was indeed wearing a garment much along the

style of an infant‟s nightwear. It was a sleeveless, full-length bodysuit, made of some light, thin,

and very soft material. It felt like foam rubber to him, but allowed air to pass through it like

cotton. He followed the material down to his feet, and apart from a fine slit at each hip, for

pockets no doubt, he could see no break in it at all. There was nothing to denote socks or shoes,

or for that matter, a distinction of a way out of the clothing, since he couldn‟t find a zipper. He

then looked at Fortell‟s garb and saw the same thing. He wasn‟t wearing shoes either.




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       “Maybe they don‟t wear them,” Ron speculated.

       Fortell noticed his confusion and stepped closer.

       “Is your apparel acceptable?” he asked.

       “Yes,” Ron replied. “I was just wondering where the shoes to this get-up are.”

       “You are wearing all you will need, here,” Fortell said. “The footwear on you now is

very durable and should support you quite well. It is composed of our best impact absorbing

material and has been modified with your own unique necessities in mind, so even your heavy

frame should not adversely affect it.”

       Ron looked down carefully, and seeing no seam anywhere on his leg, asked; “How do

they come off?”

       Fortell smiled at such a simple question but realized this was all completely foreign to

Ron, and so he crouched down and demonstrated on his own feet. He pinched a spot on the back

of his lower calf, and then pulled the material to the side.

       “You see,” he said, as the rear of the boot separated. “It is a magnetic seam.”

       Ron bent his left leg slowly, with a painful retaliation on his muscles‟ part, and copied

Fortell‟s example. The top pressure point was hard to find at first, but a couple of tries had him

working it like an expert. He marveled at the tightness of the seam. It really could not be seen.

       With that question answered, Ron decided it was time to try out those new shoes. He

swung his legs over the side of the bed and eased out onto the floor. His legs wobbled for a

second, and then held firm. He straightened his back to stand erect and received a stabbing jolt

from the place where the wand had struck, but managed to get himself to the desired position

with a squelched groan. There was no doubt he still needed time to heal, but he hoped his body

would loosen up after moving around for a while.




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        “Are you all right?” Fortell asked, seeing his expression.

        “Oh yeah,” Ron replied. “It‟s nothing a little morphine wouldn‟t cure.”

        “Morphine?” Fortell asked, puzzled. “I am afraid the translator you are wearing is not

advanced enough to transfer that term into our language. Would you care to explain?”

        Ron had forgotten he was wearing the device around his throat. Absentmindedly, he

searched for the strap, but didn‟t find it as he replied.

        “Never mind. I was only making a joke,” he said, and then he questioned his new

companion. “I don‟t feel the translator strap anymore. How is it that I can understand you?”

        “The garment you wear has the translator formed into the collar.”

        “Very efficient,” Ron thought, as he nodded his acknowledgment of the information.

        Ron raised his wrist to check the time and saw that his watch was missing. Then he

remembered the broken strap and that he‟d put it in his pocket. He reached down to search his

pants and discovered they were empty, and its absence reminded him of the other items he‟d

been carrying.

        “Where are my possessions that were in the clothes I was wearing when I got here?” he

asked, trying to be polite but finding himself just a slight bit anxious.

        “They were placed in this compartment,” Fortell replied, stepping up to the bed.

        He bent and opened a small panel to reveal Ron‟s belongings, including the gray pants he

was wearing outside. The only change was now they were cleaned and folded neatly…but not

repaired.

        “Thank you.”

        Ron transferred all his goods into the pockets of his new pants before experiencing a

frantic moment as he searched for the picture of his wife. A moment later he recalled his shirt




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being ripped off his body by the Master Killer, Darrone Jetal, who‟d given him the first set of

souvenirs across his chest. Her picture was in the pocket of that shirt, and now when he realized

it was gone, he suddenly felt strangely alone. Silently he pledged to recover it one day, if he

should have the good fortune of surviving that long!

        Ron snapped back to the present when a loud grumbling noise from his stomach erupted

to redirect his attention to more immediate matters.

        “What time is dinner served around here?” he asked abruptly.

        “You may partake of our nutrition center whenever you please. If you are ready now, I

will guide you there.”

        “Lead on!” Ron said in a hearty tone. “I‟m starved.”

        He followed Fortell out of the small room and into a long, narrow hallway. The corridor

appeared as if it had been cut out of the solid rock of the mountain since the walls were a light

gray color with the myriad swirls and undulating darker grains commonly found in granite.

Those walls were smooth, but not shiny, and were interrupted only at the center of the ceiling

where a foot-wide ribbon of light spanned the entire length of the hall in an unending strip of soft

brilliance.

        There was no one in the hall, and nothing on any of the walls that Ron could see.

Although he did have to admit there could have been numerous cabinets and doors which were

undetectable, so precise was the quality of these people‟s construction. He glanced back to see

the door to his room slide up into place and noted a small, six-button keypad just to the right of

the door. The buttons each bore a symbol he couldn‟t identify.

        Ron wondered about the keypad since he hadn‟t seen a similar device inside the

room…and the door remained open for the entire time of Fortell‟s visit. He suddenly couldn‟t




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help but speculate whether he‟d just come from a typical hospital recovery room, or if it might be

something altogether different, like a holding cell.

       Ron tried to relax while they strolled down the hall, and he began to see more of the

keypad type control panels. They were set into the walls, flush with the surface and infrequently

spaced along the passage. He heard not one sound save for the muffled steps he and Fortell were

making, and that gave credence to his uneasiness.

       The two of them continued down the passage for what Ron felt was at least a hundred

yards, until Fortell moved aside to operate one of the keypad units. As the man reached for the

code pad the door became transparent, and Ron gazed into the space beyond it in amazement.

       “I guess this is a substitute for windows,” he guessed.

       Fortell swiftly punched in a five-digit code and was rewarded with the sliding motion of

the door as it vanished into the floor. He stepped through it and Ron followed.

       They entered a large room having the remarkably common appearance of a cafeteria.

There were tables scattered about, and each had several chairs around it. The far walls were

colored with a soft orange hue and the chairs were a light yellow, giving the place a resemblance

to the high school eatery Ron remembered. He found the familiarity to be somewhat comforting,

but hoped the meals were better here.

       Fortell took a right turn, just after he moved inside the door, and walked to the wall there.

Stopping in front of a two-foot square niche that was a foot deep, and in which bore the imprint

of a hand on its lower surface, he turned to his guest.

       “In order to receive the proper nutrition, you must place your hand on the outline, here,”

Fortell instructed. “Then you wait a few lita. The computer will take a blood sample, analyze it,

and furnish you with the required food.”




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       Ron didn‟t know what a “lita” was, but assumed it was a short period of time, and so did

as directed, feeling a light sensation on his ring finger. He left his hand poised for a moment,

and then, since nothing else seemed to be happening, withdrew it.

       “The scanner now has your profile cataloged, and your blood is processing,” Fortell said

as Ron checked his finger for signs of a needle, but found none. “With this information on file,

the sample will not need to be taken again because it now has your genus information. The

rest…your levels of sugar, protein, toxins, etc…, is read from a simple scan of your hand. For

example, when I stop your medication, it will collate that change and adjust your meal

accordingly.”

       “That‟s great,” Ron told him. “How long will it take for the cook to whip up my dinner?”

Ron asked, feeling the need to eat more than the need to learn.

       “Step to the next alcove,” Fortell urged. “The „cook‟ is inside these walls. You see, our

central computer takes care of all the commonplace needs we choose to have done for us.

Cleaning, preparing meals, transportation, and such, are all automated so we may be free to do

more stimulating and rewarding duties.

       “You see, here is your meal now.”

       “But I didn‟t even order yet!”

       At the rear of the niche, a panel slid aside to allow a plate to pass through. It had a single

patty of some unfamiliar substance (at least unfamiliar to Ron), several potato-looking objects,

and a tall glass of gold liquid. Also on the plate were two instruments, apparently utensils, and

beside the plate was a neatly folded yellow cloth.




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       The food didn‟t appear too strange for Ron to try, and in fact, he was reminded of his first

personal stab at cooking steak and potatoes. But the gold fluid in the glass resembled the

synthetic oil he used in the helicopter‟s engine, and that worried him a little.

       Ron took the oval plate on which the food and drink sat, and went to one of the tables.

He chose one nearby and sat down while Fortell slipped into a seat across from him quietly. Ron

picked up a two-pronged utensil from the plate and poked the patty. He then lifted the knife and

was about to dig in when he saw the doctor was just sitting there across the four-foot wide table,

casually watching him.

       “You‟re not eating?” Ron asked.

       “No, I dined earlier.”

       Ron was a little self-conscious, but figured he would get over it, and moved to cut the

meat-like substance. He placed the knife up to his food and immediately noticed it had no sharp

edge. He turned it over and examined it twice before asking for assistance.

       “This is a knife, right?” he asked.

       “Yes,” Fortell replied. “It has a compressed light cutting edge. You must press the end

against the platter to activate the edge. It is a safety feature. You cannot accidentally cut

anything that is not on the plate.”

       Ron followed the instructions and immediately caught sight of a tiny laser beam along the

knife‟s edge. It cut through the “steak” with no problem at all, and without a trace of its passage

left behind. He sliced up the patty for a while, more interested in the blade than functionally

cutting the food…but then, without any further stalling, he tasted the material.

       “Hey!” he exclaimed. “This is pretty good. It tastes like prime rib.”

       “I am pleased that you approve of it.”




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         “What do you call this stuff?”

         “It is balg. It is a hybrid mixture of plant and animal proteins.”

         “Well, you sure have mixed it into a nice combination,” Ron said, between bites.

         Ron had half of the eight-inch round patty devoured before he could force himself to

sample the oil-like drink. Finally though, he was too thirsty to wait any longer, so he raised his

glass and took a sip.

         He cautiously swirled it around in his mouth for a moment, just in case he needed to spit

it back out, but his taste buds didn‟t reject it at all. In fact, he found it quite good, having a taste

similar to that of orange soda, although it wasn‟t carbonated.

         Next, he gave a poke to one of the potato objects. It surprised him greatly to find that

they were actually potatoes, exactly like the white potatoes from Earth. The meal, from that

point on, went very fast, as Ron was exceptionally hungry and he practically inhaled the food.

When finished, he felt much more at ease and was ready to face whatever he had to, providing it

wasn‟t more of those seven and eight foot tall monsters from outside.

         He wiped his mouth for the last time, then pushed the plate away and leaned back in the

chair.

         Fortell, who sat by watching him diligently, yet silently, suddenly came back to life.

         “Now that you have had your meal, there are some people who would like to meet you

and discuss your mission,” he told Ron.

         Ron hastily began thinking about when Cache had mentioned a mission back when they

were running from the Kreete. He didn‟t know about any “mission”, but knew he had to talk to

someone about returning him to Earth. He maintained his hope that since they brought him here,




                                                                                                      162
and it was none of his doing that he wasn‟t the correct person, then he should have nothing to

worry about.

       “These people who want to see me,” Ron said, “I suppose they are high ranking

officials?”

       “Yes,” Fortell replied. “The highest here on Rauld.”

       “Great! I‟ve wanted to see someone in authority. I have a few questions to ask for

myself.”

       “Very well then,” Fortell said, standing up. “If you would be kind enough to follow me, I

will show you to the meeting room.”

       “If it‟s all right with you,” Ron said as he got to his feet, “I‟d like to clean up before I

meet with your leaders.”

       “That will be fine,” Fortell replied, totally unruffled. “Follow me.”

       The doctor led him out into the hall again, after Ron replaced his plate and utensils in the

second niche, and the two of them turned back in the opposite direction of the room where Ron

had awakened. They passed a few more of the invisible doors before Fortell stopped again.

Instead of punching in a code this time, he merely placed his hand on a light blue, raised disk

beside the doorway. The panel opened silently, and the two of them continued inside.

       The interior was arranged in a pragmatic order with no regard to any artistic

intervention…extremely utilitarian, as was the obvious theme of the entire place. There was a

row of ten closet size booths, five on either opposing sides, like stalls in a men‟s room on Earth,

only a bit wider. They were lined up leading to the far wall, allowing a mere four feet of aisle

space in front of them to pass to the next one…and that seemed a bit tight. Fortell approached

one of them and the door to it opened automatically, revealing the interior.




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        “You may use this sanitizer to clean yourself,” Fortell told Ron.

        The blonde guide stepped back, allowing Ron to enter. The door immediately slid shut

behind him, leaving Ron alone to study the room. It was stark white and smaller than the

hospital room, but there was no bed to take up much of the space, so it didn‟t seem unduly

cramped. Instead, Ron saw what he assumed to be a commode protruding from the wall on his

right, and an open shower stall at the rear. To his left was a niche in the wall, similar to the one

in the cafeteria, except that it had a mirror above it. Beside the niche was a small yellow panel, a

foot square, which offered no observable clue about its purpose.

        Ron stepped up to the shower stall to have a look inside. He saw no knobs, no

showerhead, and no drain. Confused, he turned back to the commode. It was equally barren,

having no tank, no handle, and, as he looked at it closer, no water. It was just a bowl, sticking

out of the wall with the seat down.

        He searched around the room again, finding nothing to hang his clothes on, and stood

there confused. Since he was getting nowhere, Ron decided he‟d better get some help. He

turned back to the door through which he entered, but could find nothing even resembling a latch

on it, or beside its smooth, light gray surface.

        He was about to shout through the door to ask Fortell how to open it, when, as he

approached, the panel slid aside. Ron stepped out, still wondering how it worked.

        “You are ready to proceed now?” Fortell asked.

        “Not exactly,” Ron replied. “I couldn‟t even figure out how to work the door, much less

anything else in there. Would you kind enough to tell me how to operate this „sanitizer‟, as you

call it?”




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         “Certainly,” Fortell said. “I am sorry I did not anticipate this, but these appliances are so

common here I completely forgot they are not standard on your world.”

         The two of them entered the unit and Fortell began training Ron.

         “This,” he said, indicating the commode, “is the depository. It is an automatic device that

will sterilize itself, and your backside, when you are finished with it. You simply step away

from it and the central computer will take over. Now over here,” he continued, turning to face

the yellow panel next to the little niche, “is where you place your clothes while you clean your

body.”

         Fortell placed his hand on the small door and it opened, revealing a portal much like a

laundry chute.

         “You may want to remove the articles you have in your pockets before putting your

clothing in, however. They should not be harmed even if you did not remove them, but one

never knows until it is too late. You may store them here,” he told Ron, sliding a smaller panel

aside directly beneath the chute.

         “This,” Fortell said as he stepped over to the niche, “is for cleaning one‟s hands. You

place them inside and wait for a moment. The sensor will disperse a cleaning solution spray, and

then will dry them with a warm flow of air. As for your oral cavity, you place your hand flat on

the surface of the opening to trigger it, and then just say what you want. „I would like cleanser

for my mouth.‟ A container of a different solution will be delivered. You merely swirl it around

in your mouth for a few lita, then expel it back into the cup, and place that in the alcove again.

Do you understand me, so far?”

         “Yes,” Ron answered. “But what happens if I accidentally swallow the solution?”




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        “It is a combination of solvents which attack and breakdown dead food matter, germs,

bacteria, and the like. If ingested, it would dissolve whatever was in your stomach at the time,

but would not hurt your living tissues. You are in no danger.”

        “Okay, I was just checking. What else is there?”

        “This is the full body cleaner,” Fortell told him as he stepped to the stall that appeared to

be a shower. “It works just as the hand cleaner works. You step into it, position yourself in the

center, and then after a brief moment, a cleaning solvent will be administered to your body.

Once it detects no more foreign material on your person, it will dry you off with a flow of warm

air. After that, you are free to get dressed again. Your clothes, by then, will be in the same place

you left them, only cleaned and repaired as necessary. Does that explanation suffice?”

        “Yes,” Ron told him; unable to think of anything else they may have missed. “I believe I

understand how it all works now. Thank you, Fortell.”

        The doctor tilted his head a bit and then turned and walked out. Ron observed the door

opened and closed without any action on the man‟s part, and assumed a proximity switch

triggered it.

        When he was alone again, Ron followed Fortell‟s instructions, emptying his pockets and

placing his articles in the appointed place. He stripped down quickly; finding the top of his

coveralls contained a similar magnetic clasp as his boots, and opened in a slightly diagonal

direction, down to his right thigh. He placed the clothing in the laundry chute, attended to his

bodily functions, and then stepped into the booth.

        Ron enjoyed the shower greatly as it was warm and soothing. He even experimented and

learned something new. It responded to his verbal commands, so he was able to increase the




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temperature of the stream until it was just perfect. His aching body relished the hot liquid and

when he stepped out of the unit, he felt like a new man.

          Ron stood at the entrance of the shower and stretched himself thoroughly, twisting one

way and then the other, his spine releasing loud, running pops as the vertebral column realigned

itself.

          As he let out a huge sigh of satisfaction, he opened his eyes and realized why he felt like

a new man. To his right was a mirrored wall, from floor to ceiling…one he hadn‟t noticed

before since he was concentrating on what Fortell was explaining…but there it was, and he was

absolutely shocked at what he saw.




                                                                                                   167
                                           Chapter Thirteen

                             The Raulden Council of Planetary Affairs



        Standing in front of him was not the reflection of Ron Allison, the aircraft mechanic and

newlywed husband. This person at whom he stared was not the slim, almost slight, unobtrusive

Ron he remembered. The fellow he saw was truly awe-inspiring, having thick, powerful arms

and broad shoulders that rolled with heavy muscles. He was extremely wide across the chest,

which had no small amount of the sinewy flesh covering it either, and further down was an ultra-

toned abdomen, rippling onward to a slim waist. Every muscle looked as if it had been

intricately chiseled out of a solid block of bronze.

        Ron blinked hard at the reflection, and then rubbed his eyes.

        “Holy crap!”

        He looked over his shoulder, but there was no one else in the room, and he made a few

motions which convinced him that he was actually staring at himself.

        “I look like a real, life-sized picture of one of those comic book superheroes,” he said out

loud.



                                                                                                 168
         Ron was stunned at his obvious, prominent transformation, and even questioned that it

might possibly be a trick, until he made out the four long scratches running horizontally across

his chest. He moved closer and inspected his face carefully, finding it only slightly changed. He

turned his head slowly, checking every angle he could. It looked somewhat wider, especially at

his thick neck, and his jaw was squarer; or seemed that way under his three-day-old beard. He

stepped back again and continued his survey, wondering at the strength of the body now standing

before him. He saw long corded muscles running down his legs, and even though he‟d always

possessed muscular legs from his days as a distance runner and football player, he marveled at

the size of them now. Ron was looking at someone who could definitely pull his weight in a

fight.

         After the initial shock faded, however, his eyes began seeing the dark patches that

marked bruises. The awe he felt earlier was replaced by memories of the pain he‟d incurred

when battling with the Kreete. No, this man was no superhero, but rather a powerfully built

vessel of self-preservation. The awe immediately turned to gratitude to whatever force had

granted him the strength and quickness to survive the ordeal he‟d just lived through.

         “One does what one has to do to survive,” Ron recited from a distant memory. It was

from one of those “believe it or not” news articles he‟d read on Earth, showing ordinary

individuals accomplishing extraordinary feats to preserve their life. “But does that include

physical alteration?” he pondered. “No…somehow these people…the Rauldens...have done

this.”

         Then, the actuality of this inconceivable change in his physique stopped being a

perplexing notion, and struck home in his brain like a bell ringing inside his skull.




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        “What the hell is going on around here?” he shouted, his mind reeling. “How can this be

real? Is there no end to this freaking nightmare? No wonder my clothes didn‟t fit me anymore.

How could I not have spotted this sooner? What am I going to tell my wife? Not that she‟ll

complain, I guess,” he added looking at his reflection again.

        After a short time of ensuing panic about having been so dramatically altered from his

old self into this new one, Ron managed to settle himself down, to some extent, by rationalizing

the situation.

        He felt no ill affects since his arrival, other than a terrible headache, which meant that, at

least for the present, there seemed to be no immediate danger from it. At that point, he began to

get extremely curious about exactly how he‟d been changed. He knew these people controlled

vast, seemingly unlimited technological abilities, so maybe they did this to aid him in defeating

the Kreete.

        “They kept speaking about the mission to save their planet, and were obviously willing to

do whatever it took to ensure their own survival,” he theorized.

        Just then, he remembered the circumstances he was in, and the meeting he was going to.

Ron forced himself to postpone the questions about his new body, to focus on why these

Rauldens ever brought him here in the first place…and how they could return him to Earth.

After those matters were cleared up, he would address this new problem.

        He went to the panel of the laundry chute and opened it. His pastel green suit was there,

just as Fortell had described, and he hurriedly dressed, remembering to return his sparse

possessions to his pockets. Hastily, he ran a comb through his thick, shaggy, black hair and took

stock of another change in his appearance, although a minor one, considering what all he just

became aware of. As he leaned forward to inspect the side of his face, where he was displaying




                                                                                                    170
the fading memory of a broken cheekbone, he saw that his brown eyes were no longer brown,

but gray, like brushed stainless steel. He stared a while at the reflection of the man before him,

and then remembered the sunshades!

       “Make the room brighter,” Ron spoke to the walls.

       The room brightened a bit.

       “Maximum illumination!” Ron ordered and the white interior turned to a blazing

radiance.

       The shock was brief, though, as he watched his eyes darken almost instantly, like black

ink suddenly flooding in, and the scene was viewable again.

       “This is unbelievable!” Ron whispered.

       Then he thought about what he just said.

       “Right! Like anything I‟ve seen or done in the last few days „is‟ believable!”

       Ron shook his head quickly, trying to get back on track.

       “The meeting!” he scolded. “Turn the lights back to normal.”

       The room‟s luminosity returned to its previous setting, and so did Ron‟s eyes. He looked

at his unshaven face and started to leave anyway, but then a thought struck him, and he placed

his hand back on the panel at the front of the niche.

       “I need to shave my face,” Ron said to the little alcove.

       There was no response. He repeated his intent several different ways, but received no

action from the device. Finally, he abandoned his attempt at a shave and summoned up the

mouth cleanser. Ron repeated the directions Fortell had given him and enjoyed tingling, fresh,

minty breath just moments later, with no flossing needed. After that, he stepped back, ran a

quick check over himself, and then moved to rejoin Fortell in the ante-room.




                                                                                                 171
       “Do you feel better now?” Fortell asked politely.

       “Yes,” Ron answered, “much better, in fact. However, I couldn‟t find a way of getting

any equipment to shave my face with. Is there some specific terminology I need to use on that

machine?”

       Fortell‟s expression was so blank that Ron wondered briefly whether his translator was

malfunctioning.

       “I do not understand,” the Raulden physician stated softly.

       “You know,” Ron told him, a bit surprised, “I want to shave,” he said, motioning with his

hand by rubbing the stiff bristles of his wiry growth of hair.

       Fortell didn‟t budge.

       Ron suddenly understood the problem, as he stared at the doctor‟s face.

       “These people don‟t need to shave,” he realized. “They don‟t grow facial hair.”

       “I want to remove this short hair from my face,” Ron explained in a more direct

approach.

       “Oh!” Fortell uttered, finally getting the idea. “We have nothing here to perform that,”

he told Ron, indicating the sanitizer, “but,” he continued, looking closely at Ron‟s furry chin, “I

will come up with something as soon as I can…all right?”

       “That will have to do then,” Ron admitted, stepping toward the doorway.

       As they exited the sanitizer and reentered the hallway, Ron announced, “I‟m ready now,

if you are.”

       “All right then, since we are on such a tight schedule, we will go there immediately.”

       The tall blonde guide turned and moved smoothly off down the corridor once again, and

briefly after that, stopped beside another of the control panels, where he punched in a code and




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then stood back. A few seconds later, the door opened and he and Ron stepped into what Ron

thought to be an elevator.

       The device was seven feet in all directions, forming a perfect cube. The walls were the

color of sand, and shimmered as the interior light played against them. The ceiling was all white,

and it appeared to Ron as if its entire surface was luminescent. The floor of the cube was dark

brown and made of some stiff, yet giving material, and as he leaned against the wall, he found

the walls were well padded too…soft to the touch. He had the urge to duck in the confined

space, as his head was only a few inches from the overhead light, but fought against it and

watched Fortell operate the unit.

       Ron saw him input a code into the elaborate control panel at the side of the doorway, and

then he stepped back against the wall of the elevator and said, “Begin.”

       The door closed and the small cube began descending into the mountain complex. Ron

saw several symbols in differing combinations above the door. They changed as elevator

traveled at an ever-increasing pace, until the floors were flashing by. Then the descent began to

slow until it came to a stop, just like he normal. Ron stood clear of the wall, ready to disembark

when suddenly, instead of the doors opening; the elevator took off to the right…sideways! Ron

was thrown off balance and went slamming into the wall to his left.

       “Whoa!” Ron exclaimed as he caught himself against the soft surface. “What the heck

happened?”

       “I do not follow your meaning,” Fortell replied, having not moved from his chosen

position.

       “The elevator is going sideways! How can it do that?”




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       “The cubic transporter can move in any direction in which there is a passage to allow it to

pass through,” Fortell explained, totally unruffled.

       “I wish you‟d warned me about that! It‟s a good thing you padded the walls.”

       “Again, I must apologize. I had no idea that you did not comprehend the movement of

the transporter. With the more pressing matters to encumber my thoughts, I am afraid I have not

been a very good host,” Fortell said, sounding embarrassed.

       “Don‟t sweat it…I‟ll survive. Besides, it‟s like you said, you couldn‟t have known that I

would be so ignorant of your everyday machines.”

       The transporter slowed down again and Ron braced himself in a corner, but found such

preparation was an unnecessary precaution when Fortell told him they had arrived at their

destination.

       The door opened silently and Ron followed his guide out into another hallway, much like

the one they just left, where they continued down the mundane corridor.

       “How is it possible for that thing…the transporter…to go in all directions?” Ron asked.

“Where I‟m from, they only go up and down.”

       “The device rides on a magnetic flux. Therefore, it has nothing to keep it restricted to a

singular axis. Ah…here we are.”

       They were at the meeting room then, so Fortell stopped and punched in another, longer

code while Ron put aside his plans for a lengthy discussion about the technological marvels he‟d

been witnessing.

       The door slid down and Ron followed his guide into the room. It wasn‟t a large

space…about twenty feet square, and had the same stone walls as the hallways. There were no

wall hangings for decoration, no cabinets, and no trimmings of any kind. The only furniture was




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a single, long, half-moon shaped table with seven chairs positioned about it. Six men and

women sat in those chairs, apparently waiting for him to arrive.

       Ron scanned the area quickly and noted one familiar face and the fact that there was a

single empty chair. At a motion from his guide, he paused at the center of the table, across from

the people, and watched as Fortell walked around the thick slab of deep blue, highly polished,

unidentifiable material to take the open seat. Ron got the impression the table was a solid sheet

of pure sapphire…but knew that was impossible.

       Cache rose from her position and quickly circumnavigated the table to greet him. She

was wearing a light purple coverall suit, instead of the dark blue one she‟d worn in the forest,

and was displaying a warm, beautiful smile as she approached. Ron‟s heart raced at the sight of

her. She was stunning.

       He broke his gaze at the lovely form of her to complete his survey of the room, taking in

all the people, and the obvious lack of décor. He didn‟t completely understand this urge, but

something in his subconscious told him it was important to note everything in the room, so he

did, as if planning an escape route. He found himself growing anxious until Cache reached his

side, and then he became more at ease.

       “I am pleased to see that you are well,” Cache told him as she reached up and gently

touched the side of his face where it had been so badly swollen just a short time ago. She was

standing very close to him, which made the temperature of the room seem slightly high to Ron.

“You have healed extremely well.”

       “I owe my good health to you, Cache…and to the staff of physicians who treated me, of

course,” giving a nod to Fortell. “But from what I‟ve heard, if you hadn‟t acted so quickly, I‟d

more than likely be dead, so let me thank you now for your speedy actions.”




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        He leaned down to her, to give her a friendly kiss on the cheek, but took note that when

she lifted her face to him, she also gently pressed her body against his. Too, she parted her

moist, luscious lips expectantly, with her violet eyes misty and half closed. Ron couldn‟t help

but detect the sweet fragrance she wore and how well her clothing clung to her exquisite figure,

with the color of that suit exactly matching her gleaming eyes.

       He placed one hand on her slim waist and felt her vibrate at his touch, her breath short,

and her right hand moving to hold the back of his neck, to draw him to her. Her left hand slid up

his torso, caressing each ripple of his abdomen until she reached his chest.

       To the others in the room, the scene lasted only a quick moment, and appeared simply as

a genial hug and thank you of two friends who‟d just come through a great ordeal. But Ron

could feel there was quite a bit more going on than that.

       He was torn in an instant, between what his male urges wanted him to do, and what his

mind told him he must do…but he didn‟t understand those urges either. He knew almost nothing

of this woman, and had always been deliberate and cautious with the opposite sex, so his feelings

were almost bizarre to him…totally out of character.

       In the end, the audience, as well as the memory of his vows to another beautiful lady,

helped him to regain his composure. He managed to override his desire enough so he lightly

brushed her lips with his own cheek and kissed her on hers, the corner of their mouths touching

warmly. It didn‟t escape him either, how his own body was vibrating at her touch, as if there

were an electric current running through both of them.

       He used all of his control after a moment, to disengage their embrace…and as he did, he

caught a quick look of disappointment flash in Cache‟s stare. But then she was smiling warmly




                                                                                                   176
up at him again, her neck craned back so she could regard him from her close proximity, since

the top of her head, with its bright, honey-golden mane of hair, barely reached his chest.

        Ron managed to return her smile with his own, hoping he was able to mask the improper

feelings he‟d so nearly let free.

        “I appreciate your kind words,” Cache said to him in her sweetest voice. “Now let me

welcome you to the Raulden Council of Planetary Affairs.”

        She slipped her hand into his, admiring the rough hardness of it. Ron‟s fingers enveloped

hers so completely that she flushed with the pride of a schoolgirl introducing her new boyfriend

to her family for the first time. She squeezed his hand tightly and escorted him to the right side

of the room, to stand in front of a woman who sat on the other side of the six foot wide, blue

slate table.

        “Kaskle of Caron,” Cache announced so all could here, “this is Aanlis, operator of the

Kuar Starflex Matter Transfer Portal. The portal is the device that made it possible for us to

bring you across the stars to our planet. She is also head of Interplanetary Communications.”

        “I am pleased to meet you,” Ron said to her, smiling and bowing slightly as he did.

        Aanlis smiled back at him, not with warmth, but more like skepticism. She wore a

similar uniform, if you could call it that, as Fortell. Hers was light blue and accented with a

cream cape which draped from her shoulders to the floor in a smooth, almost fluid appearance.

The front of her wrap also exhibited a strange symbol, where the clasp gathered the material

together.

        Ron had a flashing wish to berate her for getting him into the mess he was in, but smiled

politely instead. She was a small, attractive woman, he guessed to be five feet tall at the most,




                                                                                                    177
with hair as bright as Cache‟s and large, soft blue eyes. He bit his lip, dismissed his urge to

rebuke her, and moved on with Cache.

       The next person was a man. He looked much like Fortell in general build, but he had a

different, more direct way of looking at a person. He, like everyone at the table, had blonde hair

and was slim to the point of seeming undernourished. This fellow however was not the timid

sort. He looked at Ron with a glare that was almost an accusation, and the set of gunmetal gray

coveralls gave a hint of seriousness without a word spoken. There was a deep charcoal design on

his left shoulder similar to the one on Aanlis‟s cloak, and Ron could easily tell that it signified

some noteworthy status.

       “This is Gerdanz. He is head of all power producing facilities, such as the Shotal Energy

Grid, which harnesses solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric means to both supply, as well as

control, the planet‟s myriad of uses for such power. The defense shield and the atmospheric

governors, as well as the more personal uses of heating and cooling the complex, all come

through the Grid.”

       Ron leaned across the wide table easily and put out his hand to shake Gerdanz‟s, but the

man merely nodded to him and did not offer his in return. Ron‟s temper flared for the briefest

instant, before he considered that every group of people had their own way of greeting a person.

He smiled, and calmly withdrew his hand, then tilted his head to the man before he and Cache

moved on.

       “This is Hoaldniz,” Cache introduced. “He is the eldest of the Council and has great

knowledge in many fields. He is our chosen spokesman.”

       Ron inclined his head to Hoaldniz. He could see that this man, although not showing

great age, possibly fifty years, had a certain intensity about him. His dark clothing was nearly




                                                                                                      178
navy blue color and was dramatic against his fair complexion. The matching cape which

dragged the floor added a sense of royalty and esteem to his countenance. Also, his insignia was

slightly different from the others of the group. He would be the man to speak to concerning the

task of returning Ron to Earth.

        Cache moved down the table to the next person, another woman. She struck Ron as

being very intelligent, as did they all, but she had a gaze which was sharp and piercing. Ron also

observed that she could easily have been Aanlis‟s twin sister.

        “This is Vaclaar. She is in charge of research and development of new technology.”

        Ron gave her the same greeting he bestowed on each of the others, and she returned it.

        “These two ladies are so much alike, they could be clones,” Ron thought as he

straightened up. “If it were not for her burgundy attire under that cream cape, she could be a

mirror image of the communications director. Maybe after I‟ve known them a while, I‟ll be able

to see their individual traits, but for now, I‟m going to have a tough time keeping their names

straight.”

        Cache then stepped to the next Council member.

        “This is Ketlical. “He has the responsibility of the entire Gammone Complex. He

maintains the computers, the water supplies, and the construction projects. From the

subterranean shuttles to the food processors, and just about any mechanical device in

Gammone…everything needed to live comfortably is all controlled through his division.”

        Ron nodded politely to him, feeling a familiar kinship to this man of the maintenance

field, as they had a similar interest. His garments were chocolate brown with a light tan collar

and a tan cape.

        The next seat was Cache‟s, and they moved past it to the last position.




                                                                                                   179
       “And you have already met our Chief Physician, Fortell.”

       “Yes, he and I are acquainted.”

       At that time, Cache released her grip on Ron‟s hand and stepped around the end of the

table to take her seat, leaving him standing in front of the assemblage, which made him feel a bit

uneasy. Before she sat down, she introduced herself.

       “And I am Cache Kuar, Strategic Commander of the war effort against the Kreete

Armada.”

       Ron was visibly surprised. He hadn‟t dreamed a woman would be in such a militarily

powerful position, especially a woman who was so completely feminine. He stood where he

was, contemplating the situation for a moment, until the overwhelming silence broke through his

thoughts, forcing him to return his attention to the Council as a group.

       He walked back to the center of the table, across from Hoaldniz, and faced the seven

Rauldens, wondering where he should begin.

       Cache sensed the stress in the air, so she quickly stood up again and broke the silence.

       “Council members of Rauld, allow me to introduce to you the man who will save us from

the scourge that has infested our planet. He is a great leader on his own planet in the ongoing

struggle for independence from the Triad, a master at hand-to-hand combat, and one of the finest

in-atmosphere fighter pilots in the known galaxy. This is Kaskle Dangarth, of the Aredanz

Mountains on Caron!”

       Ron‟s heart skipped a beat at her announcement, only now knowing just who they

thought him to be…a highly skilled fighter pilot…and he felt a wave of chill race through him.

He worried for a second about how they would react to the truth, but knew the facts had to be

cleared up before these people went too far. They already expected him to go to war,




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presumably single-handedly, against the Kreete, and he hated to think it could get worse, but he

got the feeling that it would if he didn‟t correct the mistake they‟d made. He scanned the faces

of the people before him, took a deep breath, and began.

       “I am truly honored to be addressing the Raulden Council of Planetary Affairs,” he said,

trying to smile. Then he swept his gaze back down the row of dignitaries to settle on the one

person he hated to disappoint, and said. “I only wish that I could give you better news than I

have…but the truth is plain and simple. I am not the person whom you undoubtedly sent for. I

am not Kaskle of Caron.”




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                                        Chapter Fourteen

                                               Choices



       Ron paused a moment to get a reaction from the group, but was surprised by their

seeming lack of concern. Cache continued beaming, her smile radiating out at Ron. He was

shocked, and looked up and down the table twice before he thought to continue.

       “I don‟t know who this man, Kaskle, is,” Ron explained, “and I don‟t know where Caron

is, but I do know that I am not him. My name is Ronald Allison. I‟m not a savior, I‟m an

aircraft mechanic, and I‟m not from Caron, I‟m from a planet we call Earth. And to be quite

frank with you all, I don‟t know how the he…heck, I got here!”

       Again, Ron stopped to allow some feedback, but received none. They just sat there like

statues. Even Cache, who he thought would have been the most surprised, didn‟t flinch. Ron

failed to understand why they weren‟t speaking, so he continued.

       “Somehow, you people brought me here, and I would be extremely grateful if you would

send me back to my own world.”




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        Cache was the first to move after Ron concluded his request. She turned to look at

Hoaldniz.

        “I told you we could trust him!” she said. “You see, I knew it.”

        That brought the other members to life as well. They started talking quickly among

themselves, in tones too low for Ron‟s translator to pick up. Then Hoaldniz stood, instantly

silencing the others, and faced their guest.

        “Please forgive us for distrusting you, Ronald Allison of the planet Earth,” he began.

“We were placed in a difficult position and had to be absolutely certain about you and your

intentions. We knew that you were not Kaskle when our medical team treated you. Although

similar to that of Caronians, your body is not identical with theirs.

        “Let me also apologize for my next bit of news. I am afraid that we cannot grant you

your wish to return you to your planet.”

        Ron felt his heart sinking. His stomach began to constrict and he could feel the bile start

to back up into his throat as visions of his home, his wife, and his family flashed through his

mind.

        “We realize that you did not travel here on your own accord, and we feel like criminals

for having plucked you from your world without your consent, but we are severely limited on

our possible routes to correct the error.

        “The enemy fleet, which is at this very moment threatening us with global annihilation,

has demonstrated the ability to deflect the Starflex‟s beam away from our intended target.

Furthermore, we do not, at present, know where you came from, and therefore could not send

you back even if they were not there.”




                                                                                                  183
       Ron listened closely, not believing the way things were working out. He‟d wondered

how his situation could possibly get worse, and now he knew.

       “However,” Hoaldniz added, “we are working on the problem, and in time we feel that

we can locate your solar system.”

       “In time,” Ron said. “How much time?”

       “A few Raulden dactrai, possibly a torjourne, which is ten dactrai,” Aanlis replied. “But,

please understand. Once we find it, we still will not be able to use the Portal to return you, as

exact coordinates must be known, and they will be impossible to calculate. The best we could

hope for would be to place you somewhere inside your solar system, which would, of course, be

disastrous for you.”

       “But if that‟s true,” Ron responded, “how‟d you do it the first time?”

       Aanlis cast an embarrassed look down at the polished surface of the table and then

answered, “I do not know.”

       She looked up at Ron again, sorrow heavy in her eyes.

       “The mathematical odds of sending the signal out into the expanse of the galaxy with no

planned target, such as what has happened because of the deflection by the Armada, and finding

a star system with advanced life…then finding a single point on the surface of that world in

which to focus its relatively small aperture…and then having a being enter it in the short few

moments it opens…is just not even remotely possible.”

       Ron tried to imagine what she was saying and he knew she was right.

       “I am afraid even our advanced technology could not begin to calculate such a scenario,”

Aanlis continued. “For those of us who believe in this sort of thing, I can only say the Guardian

has opened this road to you. You were destined for this, as surely as you stand here before us.”




                                                                                                    184
       Ron let that thought roll over in his mind for a moment, wondering to what purpose it

might lead…and remembering his oath to his dead friend.

       “No, Ronald Allison,” Aanlis concluded, “I am afraid if you choose to return to your

world, you will have to do so in an intergalaxian spacecraft.”

       “That brings us up to the purpose of our gathering here this dactrai,” Hoaldniz said,

taking over the conversation again. “We made an agreement with Kaskle. He would come here

and fight off the Kreete with our spaceship, and in return he would be allowed to take the highly

advanced warship back to his world to defend his own people. We would like you to take his

place, and in return you will be given whatever you wish, even the ship itself if you so desire.

You could go wherever you choose.”

       Ron could see where the conversation was headed long before it reached this point, but

he was astonished just the same, at the proposal they made.

       “Now, before you get the wrong impression,” Hoaldniz continued, “we are not trying to

trap you into the situation confronting us…but it would appear that you are, in any event.

       “Please understand, we are merely trying to survive, and should we not, many other

planets will suffer with us. Also, I am afraid you do not have much of a choice. We have only a

few dactrai left before the Kreete destroy our defense shield. After that, they will take over

complete control of the planet within a matter of billots. In the end, few on Rauld will be

allowed to live, and if they gain our technology, they will be unstoppable.”

       “What about that guy, Kaskle?” Ron inquired. “He sounds like the person you really

need. Why don‟t you just try again to get him?”

       “We have tried, on many occasions,” Aanlis explained. “After the last attempt however,

when you were caught by our portal, we received word that he had not been seen for several




                                                                                                   185
Caronian days, and our allies claim the Kreete unleashed a tracker on his trail. We do not know

positively what exactly did happen to him, but the Caronians were certain he could not have

escaped the beast. Even he had limits. Besides the fact that nothing has ever escaped a tracker,

should he have become the first, we do not have time to wait and see, and the Transfer Portal is

unreliable. We must act now!”

       “That is where you come in,” Hoaldniz broke in. “From Cache‟s report, you are perfect

for the assignment. You have the strength of three men your size, the abilities of a star-class

warrior, and have a body which can take tremendous punishment without breaking.”

       “Wait a minute!” Ron protested. “I‟ll admit I did some things that could have seemed

extraordinary, but that‟s exactly what they were! I don‟t know how I was able to do that stuff.

I‟ve never been in a fight to the death in my life, not to mention against seven and eight-foot tall

animals like the Kreete. In fact, there have been a lot of strange changes going on with me that I

don‟t understand, and I haven‟t had the time to figure them out. I don‟t know what your Portal

did to me, but I don‟t feel comfortable with all this.”

       Fortell took the opportunity to enter the conversation.

       “Are you saying that you are not now as you were when you left your own planet?”

       “You got it!” Ron exclaimed, taking the opportunity to vent his frustrations. “I‟ve got an

automatic pair of sunglasses that appear anytime I get hit with bright light. I got clobbered on

the head and chest by those Kreete giants and barely got cut, even though they have those long

claws that should‟ve ripped me to pieces. And besides that, I‟m nearly twice the size I was. I

was just an average guy back home before your „portal‟ captured me, and now I‟m like „GI,

frigging Super-Joe‟!”




                                                                                                   186
       Hoaldniz turned to Aanlis, the Starflex Portal expert. “Is that possible? Could the Portal

have altered his physical makeup?”

       “No, not to my knowledge, but I am checking with the central computer now,” she

replied while she labored over a small keyboard and display unit she produced at her station.

       Everyone paused as she continued to work for another few seconds, and then she slowly

looked up from the screen to regard Ron. She wore an odd expression on her face, a mixture of

fear and wonder.

       “I have found the solution to his not being, now, as he was,” she told Fortell and the rest

of the group. “I should let you hear what the computer has just informed me,” she stated,

pressing a button on her keyboard.

       At that time, a new voice resounded through the room as the master computer explained

the event in a soft, feminine voice.

       “On the fourth dactrai of the third santari of Rauld, on the two hundred and fourteenth

dactrai of the cycle six-zero-five, Post Abandonment, at exactly three billots, twenty borts, fifty

litas, past Dersa Apogee, the Kuar Starflex Portal appeared on the planet of Caron and a foreign

world, presently uncharted on our star maps…location; unknown.

       “Two humanoid beings entered the portal, one of them accompanied by an ancient

mechanical device for atmospheric flight. One humanoid was Caronian; the other was of a race

similar to fifteen known races, Selasion, Tregetion…”

       “It will not be necessary to list the similar races,” Hoaldniz told the computer.

       “Very well,” the voice replied. “The Caronian‟s physical structure was not able to

maintain life on the planet Rauld due to a severed spinal cord, between the third and fourth

vertebrae.”




                                                                                                 187
       Ron suddenly remembered the burning pain in the back of his neck when he first

awakened at the crash sight, and his hand unconsciously drifted up to that spot again.

       “The second humanoid was not able to continue life on the planet Rauld because of

inferior bone and muscle composition of a class zero-six point five-planet inhabitant.

       Mission of computer control: To transport humanoid to Rauld for battle with attacking

enemy fleet in order to preserve existing life on Rauld.

       Conclusion of computer: Humanoid must be able to bear life on Rauld to complete

desired outcome of battle. Adjustment of humanoids is necessary. Aircraft is of no use to

Rauldens…no action taken.

       Solution of condition: Convergence of two humanoids. Genetic level combination is

unsatisfactory. Molecular level is not possible. Subatomic level match is point nine-nine-nine-

nine-nine percent. Execute!

       Result of convergence: Humanoid is able to sustain life on Rauld. Mission complete.”

       Aanlis stood up to address the assembly, switching off the computer.

       “This man who stands before us is both Ronald Allison of Earth, and Kaskle Dangarth of

Caron,” she said calmly. “He has traits of both individuals. Wherever there was room, such as

with the protective eye shields, which Caronians need with their white star, Ronald received

Kaskle‟s traits. Everywhere else, the two were compressed together. Perhaps that is how Ronald

is able to display such feats of strength and the fighting abilities he now possesses. He has his,

plus Kaskle‟s muscles and bone densities, and undoubtedly Kaskle‟s basic survival skills and

combat abilities are now part of him as well.”

       Hoaldniz‟s expression never wavered with the news. Ron, on the other hand, felt sick to

his stomach.




                                                                                                 188
       “Is the combination stable?” Hoaldniz asked the Chief Physician.

       Ron snapped his head quickly around to regard Fortell, hoping his new body wasn‟t a

walking time bomb, waiting to explode internally.

       “As far as I could tell, yes, although I did not do an in-depth examination of this

contingency,” Fortell replied stoically, “he is as physically perfect as a man can be. He seems to

have absolutely nothing wrong with his body, outside his recently suffered injuries.”

       Ron let out an audible sigh of relief. “So that‟s why I looked so different in the mirror,”

he thought, while the Rauldens discussed the matter among themselves. “I‟m no longer just me.

Now I‟m two men crammed into one body. Well, at least I kept my face and memory. The other

guy didn‟t get much out of the deal, but I suppose since he was dead anyway, he wouldn‟t have

minded.”

       Ron felt rather gruesome when he thought about how he gained his new chance at life

from a dead man, but there wasn‟t much he could do about it now. He took a few moments to

silently thank the poor soul, and hoped he could learn to live with it.

       Ron walked over to Aanlis when a new thought sprang up. “Just a second,” he said. “If

your computer put us together, then it can take us apart, right?”

       “I have run that possibility through the processor,” Aanlis replied. “It feels that

separation would prove to be fatal, now. Your bodies have made adjustments to survive,

combining beyond the convergence in many ways. You have injuries which have now healed as

one organism. It is now impossible to separate you two. I am sorry.”

       Ron knew then that he was stuck as he stood. There would be no chance of returning to

normal, and it appeared to him that he had a remote chance, at best, of ever returning to Earth.




                                                                                                   189
He thought back to when he first awakened after the crash. He told himself then that he‟d been

spared for some reason. It now appeared as if he‟d found the reason.

       “Well, Ronald,” Hoaldniz said to him, as the discussion quieted. “We have accidentally

created a very complex problem for you. We have torn you away from your world, changed

your body drastically, and have exposed you to our plight. Then we ask you for your help in

solving our problems. I must admit we have not been very polite hosts.”

       “You forget that your people did save my life,” Ron said, trying not to seem totally

ungrateful for the position he was in.

       “Yes, but it was us who caused you to be endangered in the first place, so do not feel as if

you owe us anything. And before you make up your mind whether to help us or not, I have

something else I wish to tell you.

       “The mission we brought you here for, although accidentally, may cost you your life, so I

would like to be as honest with you as you have been with us.

       “We are a desperate people. Rauld is a planet of scientists. The strength, drive, and

willpower that it takes to be warriors have been carefully bred out of our race centuries ago, so

we might live in peace.

       “Before the coming of the Kreete, we were content to turn our backs on our sister worlds,

leaving them to be vanquished by the might of the Triad. We possess technology that could have

helped them, and many of them begged us for aid, but we felt they should be left alone to

develop their own protection. We thought that interfering in their natural evolution was not

meant to be…but we did not consider the fact the Kreete had already disrupted their natural

course of development. In any event, we did nothing to assist them, allowing a great number of

worlds to be enslaved, pillaged, and even entirely destroyed due to our noninterference.




                                                                                                190
       “We sat on our world, ignoring everyone, safe behind our indestructible defense shield,

and were so confident in this device that we did not bother to supplement it with land-based

defensive weapons of any type. Now, this race of powerful warriors, the Kreete, has shown us

we are far from safe.

       “That gets us to the recent past. It was too late to build weapons needed to repel such

creatures once we learned of the weakness of the shield, and if it had not been for the foresight of

Cache, we would be, at this moment, totally defenseless. But she has constructed a ship that is

capable of driving off the fleet currently attacking us.

       “Now, to finally arrive at my main point…what we need is a pilot for her ship…and if

that were not enough, the person who is to fill our requirement must first reach the hangar

facility where the ship is located. To do that…due to the enemy destroying our subterranean

transport connections with that facility…he or she will have to travel overland on foot to the

complex known as Jametid. It lies forty hoz to the east, across the Doriean Valley which

separates it from us here in Gammone.

       “It is a mission fraught with danger…that is without question…but the individual who

can make the trip will be the liberator of many worlds besides Rauld. You see, through our own

circumstances, we have seen the error of our myopic, isolationistic outlook. We have since

pledged our help to the multitudes out there who are, even now, dying at the hands of the Triad.

       “Now that you have a better understanding of our position and what you will be up

against, I am afraid you must make a choice.”

        Ron was stunned. The planet of Rauld, and perhaps the whole galaxy, awaited his

decision. The importance of the situation was almost too great to comprehend. A few days past,




                                                                                                 191
all he had to worry about was himself and his wife. Now, suddenly billions of people were

potentially his responsibility.

       “No pressure, right?” Ron said, his mind reeling. “How am I supposed to answer you?

„No thanks. I‟m just going to worry about myself and my own puny little problems, and you and

all the other planets full of people can just be killed and enslaved.‟ Oh, yeah. That‟ll help me

sleep at night.”

       The Council members said nothing, understanding his need to vent. Ron‟s mind was

running so fast he couldn‟t stay on track of one particular topic as so many variables and

contingencies overlapped that they coalesced into a blurred collage of emotional gibberish in his

brain. He finally brought himself back with a powerful, jolting order.

       “Stop!” he screamed inside his head. He‟d been staring down at the blank surface of the

beautiful table during his silent deliberation, but then looked up at Hoaldniz.

       “Anyway, the way I see it, I don‟t have any other choice but to help you. To reach Earth,

I have to get to the ship. To reach the ship, I have to cross the valley. It all works out to the

same thing until I‟m actually in the spacecraft. After that, who‟s to stop me from taking the ship

and leaving you to the Kreete?”

       “Absolutely no one…other than yourself,” Hoaldniz told him stoically.

       Ron could clearly see that any hope of his survival would depend on someone eliminating

the threat to this world from the Kreete. He knew he had almost no chance of living through this

conflict with his „vast‟ knowledge of fighter tactics to rely on, but he also knew that he would

not walk away from the plight of these people. He wouldn‟t be able to live with himself if he

did. He could never face his wife and family, or for that matter, the person in the mirror, if he

were to even think of such a decision.




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        Ron finally returned his full attention to the Raulden spokesman.

        “I‟m not sure if I can accomplish all that you ask, Hoaldniz,” he said. “I have no idea

how much of my hapless predecessor‟s skills I retain, if any. I don‟t even know if my mind and

body can act together in the long run. Also, I used to know my physical limits, which have just

been blown out of the ballpark. I don‟t know if I can count on myself; much less have your

whole world count on me. Do you understand?”

        “Yes. I see your problem,” he agreed.

        Ron innately perceived there was great apprehension in the body language of several in

the group, as well as on their falsely stoic faces.

        “Let me try to set your minds at rest before we go forward,” Ron told them. “You are

placing a remarkable amount of faith in a total stranger, and I want you to know that I have no

intention of using the situation against the people of Rauld. I have always been a man of my

word, and I tell you now…all I want is to return to my own world when all of this is over,

providing of course that I should live so long.

        “I don‟t hold you people responsible for the turn of events which have led up to this

moment, either. I feel much like Aanlis stated earlier…that a power greater than we understand

has stepped in to reroute my life. Fate has changed the path I was on for some unknown reason

of which I won‟t even bother to try to comprehend. Our destinies are written in the fiber of the

universe, and whatever they may be, they remain to be fulfilled.

        “But apart from all of that, whether you believe as I do or not, I will not betray you,”

Ron reassured them, moving from person to person with his gaze locking onto theirs in a way

meant to prove his sincerity to them. “I will do all that I can until either victory, or defeat, is

total and absolute.”




                                                                                                      193
         Hoaldniz looked at Ron with a different expression after his speech…respect.

         “As the representative of the planet of Rauld, we accept your word as a warrior,”

Hoaldniz told Ron. “And I have an idea. What if we could work with you and help you

reestablish your physical boundaries. Would that aid you?”

         “Yes,” Ron replied. “That would be a huge advantage for me, and it might even keep me

from getting myself killed. Any information you can compile to help me adjust to the „new‟ me

will definitely increase my chances.”

         “Fortell, can you come up with a program that will assist Ronald in this area?” Hoaldniz

asked.

         “I am sure that I can, with Cache‟s support.”

         “You have it,” she spoke up eagerly.

         “Very well then,” Hoaldniz concluded. “We have so little time that, if you are up to it

Ronald, we should start right away.”

         “All right,” Ron returned. “But just how much time do we have?”

         “Approximately twelve dactrai,” Aanlis replied. “After that, we will be defenseless.”

         “Then let‟s go!” Ron announced.

         Fortell calmly stepped around the table and led Ron out of the room, toward a future that

was unsure and, most likely, deadly.




                                                                                                   194
                                         Chapter Fifteen

                                        Astronaut Training



        “Step forward, Ronald,” Fortell said.

        Ron and the doctor were standing in a room which was a perfect sphere. It was thirty

yards in diameter and had a light blue surface as smooth as glass. They‟d entered the round

chamber through a door that was six feet thick and contoured on the inside to match exactly with

the shape of the room. The only thing Ron could see in the oddly intriguing space was a small

vehicle resting in the exact center of it.

        “This device is the Borel Runner,” Fortell explained. “Since we already know you hold

up well under mental stress, we will now test you for the physical sort. This machine will

produce the same forces you will be subjected to while piloting the warship.

        “First, we will apply positive pressure…that being the same direction as the normal pull

of gravity. Then we will exert negative forces against you…those being as if you were hanging

upside down against the planet‟s gravity. You will wear a helmet which will transmit the data

we need from your brain to our control room.



                                                                                                195
         “I will personally monitor the experiment, so you need not worry. You are perfectly

safe.”

         Ron recalled film footage of the first astronauts‟ training program. They were tested on a

gravity-producing machine also, and became extremely sick after their first ride. He wasn‟t

looking forward to that, but said nothing. Instead, he was busy hoping Fortell would be able to

shut the machine off before he was crushed to death by the centrifugal loads.

         “Are you ready?” Fortell asked.

         “Sure,” Ron responded softly, feeling the butterflies swarming through his stomach. He

took a deep breath to calm himself and then stepped forward.

         Fortell helped Ron get ready by placing thirteen straps over various parts of his body.

When the doctor finished, he couldn‟t move a single muscle, not even his fingers, which were

inside gloves built into the chair.

         “It will be a few moments before we start the test,” Fortell said to Ron as he closed the

top portion of the small craft. “I will inform you through the speaker in your helmet when we

are about to begin.”

         The Raulden then left the room, allowing Ron to speculate on what was going to happen.

His mind went sprinting into the possible situations which could arise now that he was

completely helpless, and his thoughts were laced with apprehension. He considered the

likelihood that these seemingly innocent people could have tricked him, and that they had just

lured him here to do experiments on him and dissect him.

         The confines of the small car drove him to think of all sorts of horrible tortures they

could inflict on him, now that he‟d allowed them to strap him into this chair. He began to




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breathe faster, adrenaline surging through his body. He was on the verge of launching an attempt

at escape when Fortell‟s voice came to his rescue.

       “Ronald!” he shouted. “What is wrong? Are you all right?”

       His words snapped Ron‟s train of thought, letting him return his attention to the test.

       “Yeah!” Ron replied, getting control of his faculties again. “I just got a little case of

claustrophobia I guess, being strapped down and all. I‟m fine now. And by the way, I go by the

name, Ron, instead of Ronald. Hearing my full name reminds me of what I was called whenever

I was being punished as a child.”

       “Very well then, Ron,” the physician responded.

       Ron was able to think rationally again by then. He remembered the Rauldens had plenty

of time and opportunity to inflict any experiment on him they wished, during the period he was

unconscious when he first arrived at Gammone. Besides that, he trusted Cache implicitly and he

saw no signs of distress on her lovely face when they brought him here.

       “I don‟t know what‟s wrong with me,” he said to himself. “I‟ve never had a problem

with confined places before. It must be a side-affect of the „new me‟.” Then he spoke to Fortell

again. “Ready when you are!”

       “I am beginning…now,” Fortell said.

       The only input Ron could make out was a slight whirring sound coming from the nose of

the vehicle to which he was joined. He glanced around at the small, strangely shaped machine

supporting him and then felt it move forward.

       The Runner had no visible wheels and was little more than a tubular frame supporting a

chair, with a thin shell surrounding it. It was constructed with a teardrop shaped front and rear,

which gave it the appearance of an enormous egg, and the bottom was more or less elliptical, as




                                                                                                   197
it was a perfect match to the concave shape of the room. The machine‟s outer hull was painted

to match the walls exactly, and it possessed a clear bubble top which allowed Ron to have an

open view of his surroundings, although, as he found out, there was nothing to see. The

featureless sphere provided nothing to focus on at all, and Ron guessed by the end of the test, he

would be enormously grateful for that.

       The Borel Runner began its journey, going around and around the room, gaining speed.

Ron closed his eyes, concentrating on the only tactile feedback he had; the mounting pressure

and the sound of the machine humming. He opened his eyes once during the test and couldn‟t

even tell he was moving. The unbroken color of the walls made it impossible to see that he was

advancing at a rate of well over eighty miles an hour, so he just closed them again and fought

against the growing weight of his body. That load increased rapidly.

       Ron felt his insides sinking deeper into his stomach, so he tried to compensate by

tightening his muscles, but that only had temporary results. Soon he was starting to worry about

the crushing pressure, hoping Fortell would stop it before he was just a broken heap of dying

flesh strapped within this death machine. Further still, he struggled to breathe, even in shallow

gasps, straining to keep hold of his thoughts…to stay coherent.

       Ron knew he could not sustain much more, as he was having great difficulty stringing

together enough information to complete a thought. He understood, vaguely, that he was losing

control, blacking out…to the point that he felt as if he were dreaming. His mind incoherently

drifted from one subject to another, while his body fought on against the results of the lack of

blood-flow to his brain. He tried to maintain focus by opening his eyes, hoping he could use

some reference to concentrate on, but he saw nothing but gray, and then he was out.




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       Suddenly, the pressure decreased, and Ron‟s heart was able to force an adequate amount

of the oxygen-carrying fluid up high enough to revive him. It took a few seconds, but he

managed to gasp and blink his way back to full alertness as the tiny machine glided to a stop.

       “Wow!” Ron exclaimed, “What a rush!”

       “We will allow you five borts for your body to stabilize before trying the negative

position,” Fortell announced.

       “Great!” he replied, adding silently to himself, “A whole five borts, whatever that is,

before I go through it all over again.”

       The time went by much too fast for his liking, but there was little he could do about it so

he remained silent. He was feeling the affects of the strain on his sore body when Fortell came

back on the speaker telling him that they were ready to begin again.

       Ron wanted to request an additional five borts, but didn‟t get the chance. The chair he

was confined to quickly flipped over, leaving him hanging upside down, and then it set off on its

journey once more.

       “Too late now,” Ron told himself.

       This time he had even less to see, as the bottom of the sled was now directly in his face.

He merely closed his eyes and put all his strength against the growing force that wanted to send

him through the straps holding him in the chair. His body tried to regulate the pressure of blood

now rushing to his head, but had little success. His resistance was not as strong against this

position, so, accordingly, he didn‟t last as long before he began graying out again.

       Just as quickly as the first time, the machine slowed down and stopped, and after a brief

moment, the chair swiveled over to the upright position and Ron‟s equilibrium swam to a normal

attitude. He was terribly dizzy, but in good shape overall.




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       The Runner stopped just in front of the entrance door, although Ron couldn‟t tell until

Fortell began opening it. He saw the giant wedge gliding inward before drifting apart as his

vision split the view into sliding, skewed halves. Ron tried to blink the view back together, but it

wasn‟t quite that easy.

       The doctor stepped through smoothly, triggered the release of the Runner‟s dome, and

then began removing the straps confining him, all as if this were just another day‟s humdrum

schedule. Ron slapped his lids shut and gave his head a good shake to stabilize his thoughts.

       “How did I do?” Ron asked.

       “Fine…you did just fine. We will give you the exact ratings at the end of all the testing.”

       Ron was thrilled to get out of the chair, until he tried to stand. His brain spun crazily and

sent him to his knees. After several long seconds, he was able to gain his balance and walk, but

he was dazed for ten minutes more before his faculties returned to normal. By then, he and his

guide were out of the spherical chamber and well on their way to the next phase of the testing.

       They rode one of the cubic transporters deeper into the complex, giving Ron time to

reflect on the tests which had already been run on him.

       After the meeting with the Raulden Council, Ron and Cache followed Fortell to his

laboratory where a team of six other doctors…three men and three women…assisted the chief

physician in a meticulous examination of Ron‟s body. They took samples of every part of him,

inside and out, and when Ron protested about some of the more personal probes, Fortell simply

shrugged it off and continued anyway.

       “We do not often get a subject such as you, Ron,” the doctor told him. “You are a

combination of two worlds…a once in an eon chance at learning about the life of a truly unique

individual…one of a very different sort than our own.”




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       They continued to ultrasonic scans, radio wave probes, and even superintense light

analysis. Ron couldn‟t believe how many different exams they could come up with, and had no

doubt they would know everything about his physiological makeup when they were through.

       Finally, after Fortell and his band of overzealous helpers at last finished with him, Ron

was escorted back to the cafeteria, to the sanitizer, and then to the pink room in which he‟d

originally awakened. Their schedule allotted him six straight hours of sleep, according to his

watch, before he was disturbed.

       Following a quick meal and a shower, he was hurriedly shepherded to the first test of the

new day, which turned out to be the Borel Runner.

       Ron‟s thoughts returned to the present when the transporter slowed, stopped, and then set

off forward, sending him crashing against the rear wall.

       “Fortell!” he said, a bit agitated. “Why didn‟t you warn me that we were going to go

forward?”

       “I am terribly sorry,” the doctor told him. “I have been preoccupied with the tests. I will

explain how to avoid such an instance again.

       “You must observe the direction indicators, up there,” he said pointing to the upper left

wall, “whenever the transporter stops.”

       Ron had noticed them before but didn‟t understand their function. A digital gauge with

some Raulden symbols on it accompanied the indicators, and as the transporter moved, the

symbols changed at a rate he couldn‟t keep up with. Since none of the writing was

distinguishable to him he‟d given up trying to figure them out on his own.

       “The arrows point in the direction in which you are going, or, when you stop, the

direction in which you are about to go,” Fortell instructed. “If you are going to move backwards,




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just the dot in the center will light up. If you are about to go forward, all the lights will

illuminate. The numbers above the arrows let you know where the transporter is in relation to

the center of the complex.”

        “Thank you for that information,” Ron told him.

        “I hope I have not unduly upset you, Ron,” he added. “If I have, I assure you, that was

not my intention.”

        “No,” Ron said, feeling bad because he‟d gotten angry. “You didn‟t really upset me. I

guess I‟m just edgy because of all the strange things I‟ve been thrown into lately. I apologize.

I‟ve never been out of my home country, much less the whole planet, you see.”

        “Yes,” Fortell agreed, “that would be a rather large step; especially for someone whose

planet knows so little about space…and travel through that space.”

        The transporter slowed to a stop, and Ron looked at the arrow indicator. It didn‟t register

any change of direction, so he guessed they had arrived at their destination.

        The doors slid aside to expose a wide, empty space, flooding the cube with brilliant light.




                                                                                                   202
                                             Chapter Sixteen

                                            Testing the Limits



        Ron blinked hard at the scene before him, and then followed Fortell out of the cube and

into a large arena directly in front of them. The ceiling of the complex was very high, possibly

three hundred feet, and provided excellent illumination, but he couldn‟t even begin to guess how

it worked. The whole area just seemed to glow, and brightly enough to make the floor as

brilliant as daylight, yet not glaringly harsh if one looked straight at it. The radiance also focused

only on the floor of the arena, and there appeared to be nothing above the walls.

        The arena was over one hundred yards across, perfectly circular, and had a smooth

surface apparently made of some sort of rock. This surface was deep red, the color of blood, and

was intrinsically impressive. The wall that enclosed the huge space was fifteen feet high and

built of a light beige material, with intricate carvings cut deeply into its surface.

        Ron clearly saw the carvings depicting scenes of men competing in different types of

athletic contests, and that high barrier was divided into numerous sections; each segment of the



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structure having a different venue illustrated. At the forefront of each carving was a single

individual miraculously recreated to show, undoubtedly, the most celebrated athlete of the

particular event. Ron became aware of another peculiar fact; the men did not resemble the

Rauldens he‟d met, but rather a more massive, fiercer, strain of their race. They were large men

of substantial musculature and wore clothing which accentuated their physiques instead of the

bland, utilitarian garb Fortell and the others chose to wear. These must be the ancestral,

“athletic” Rauldens Hoaldniz had referred to.

       Several pieces of equipment were arranged around the floor, each matching the event on

the respective wall carving…equipment entirely unfamiliar to Ron.

       “This used to be a sporting event coliseum more than six centuries ago,” Fortell told Ron.

“Now, we use it for lectures and large meetings.”

       Ron tried to look into the stands above the walls, but the direction of the light, with the

fact the seating area was dark, made it impossible.

       “Cache has brought out a few of the ancient toys that were last used here,” the physician

continued. “Our ancestors played many games to test the strength, endurance, bravery, and

coordination of the participants. We will ask you to operate some of the equipment so we may

monitor your abilities.”

       “We?” Ron asked, looking around. “Who is, we? I don‟t see anyone else.”

       “There are technicians in an observation booth, above the walls,” Fortell replied, pointing

to a spot, off to the left. “Also, there are nearly a hundred thousand citizens in the seats, above

us. They have all come to see the man who will defend our planet… you!”




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        Suddenly Ron felt extremely nervous and butterflies swarmed his gut immediately. He

grew up active in sports on Earth, but this amount of pressure was a great deal more intense than

he‟d ever faced.

        “Fantastic,” he said.

        Fortell led him along the wall to the right, and stopped at a spot that was lacking of any

apparatuses. Ron was about to question him on the purpose of the locale, when he turned and

held out his hands to a hole in the wall beside him…and a ball rolled out into his open palms.

Fortell then stepped up to Ron and handed him the ball. The slight man acted as if the object had

quite a bit of weight to it, but Ron found it to be fairly light.

        It was the same size as an Earth racquetball, but weighed as much as a baseball, in Ron‟s

estimation. Its surface was roughly textured and therefore easy to grasp, but it contained no

seams or ridges.

        Fortell pointed at a small wall, about twenty yards away, and told Ron to hurl the ball at

the target, which, Ron noticed, was the silhouette of a man.

        “This is a test of your hand-eye coordination,” Fortell said, stepping out of the way.

        Ron took a few moments to stretch out his arm, and then he threw the ball. It flew high

and wide. He tossed it half strength, not wanting to strain his arm, but he didn‟t know if he was

going to get more than one shot, so he aimed it too much.

        “Do not worry,” the doctor said, seeing the disappointment on Ron‟s face. “You will be

allowed some practice throws before we judge you. Here,” he said, pointing to the hole in the

wall. “Place your hand there, and another sphere will be dispensed.”

        Ron did as he was told, forcing himself to relax as much as he could. After another try,

he zeroed in on the target and began striking it on every attempt. Once he displayed his




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accuracy, the target began sliding backwards, extending the distance he must throw, and thus

decreasing the room for error.

       Ron hit it repeatedly when it was halfway across the arena. He even did well when it was

three quarters of the way across, but when the target reached the other side, he could connect

only one out of three tries, although his misses were very close.

       “That‟s about as good as I can do, Fortell,” Ron said. “I‟m afraid I just can‟t throw that

far and hit such a small object.”

       “You did very well, Ron,” Fortell told him. “Now let us move on to the next event.”

       They proceeded to another part of the arena, farther down along the wall. Fortell told

Ron to remain where he was, and then he stepped to a control panel inset in the wall and began

manipulating it. Ten feet in front of Ron, a barrier slowly rose out of the floor, until it reached a

height of six feet, and then it stopped.

       “I would like for you to jump over the wall,” Fortell explained. “You need not fear

colliding with it because it is only a holographic image which appears solid. Also, the typical

laser bar at the top of the device is not functioning for this test. We would not want to have you

injured during these experiments, as you know.”

       “Laser bar?” Ron thought. “What kind of laser do they normally use that could hurt

me…a cutting laser? No, I must have misunderstood what he said.”

       Ron went to the wall and felt it, or rather, tried to feel it. It looked solid, but was merely

an image, as Fortell had described. He then inspected the landing area. It wasn‟t what he

expected. There were no mats, or padding at all.

       “These guys like to play serious games,” he muttered to himself as he tapped his foot on

the rock floor.




                                                                                                   206
       Ron then backed off from the wall and bent to stretch out his legs and limber up. He

thankfully discovered that all of his joints seemed almost as good as new again, and silently

marveled at the speed of his recovery. When he felt he could move freely enough, he told Fortell

he was ready and set off toward the pseudo-wall.

       Ron cleared the six-foot high projection by five feet, and landed in a crouch, lightly and

well-balanced, three yards beyond it. He stood up and gasped at the deed he‟d just performed.

       “Whoa! How in the world did I do that?”

       Fortell calmly punched in a new code, and the barrier rose another four feet.

       “I will raise the projection a little each time, until you can no longer achieve its height,”

Fortell told Ron.

       Ron returned to his place of preparation and watched the wall. When the height was

fixed in his brain, he dashed forward once again and hurled his body up and over the object, with

room to spare.

       Ron repeated the maneuver three more times, until he reached his maximum, at least the

maximum that would still allow him to land on his feet once he cleared the bar. He then walked

over to Fortell with a big grin on his face.

       “Not bad for a beginner, huh?” Ron asked.

       “Yes,” Fortell agreed, with his usual stoic demeanor. “You are quite remarkable.”

       “And if I would‟ve had a mat to land on,” Ron told him, “I could‟ve done even better.”

       “Yes, that is probably true, but there will be no mats on the trip to Jametid, so it is better

to become accustomed to this way instead,” Fortell returned.

       Ron knew the doctor spoke wisely, so he immediately dropped his back-patting attitude

and followed the man to the next test area.




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         They stopped at a point no less than fifty feet farther on, and the only thing Ron could see

there was a large, wedge shaped block, resting against the wall. It was eight inches long and four

inches thick at the back, tapering to a point on the edge which was away from the wall. Fortell

stooped and grabbed the wedge, separating it into halves, and handed one half of it to Ron.

         “These are devices to help you accelerate from a fixed position, out across the floor,”

Fortell explained. “They were used in events where men were pitted against each other to reach

a designated objective over a given distance. Of course, the same rules do not apply here now,

since there is only one participant.”

         “I understand this concept,” Ron told him. “We have similar contests on my world. We

call these things „starter blocks‟.”

         “I was not aware that your planet was so barbaric,” Fortell told him. “You do not seem

of that type.”

         Ron was thrown for a loss about what he meant by that statement, but he let it slip aside

for the moment, and concentrated on the immediate task. He took the starting blocks and

examined them.

         “How are these wedges held in place?”

         “Press here,” Fortell said as he demonstrated. “This controls the attraction function of the

wedge to the floor. Place it where you wish it to be and then press the switch. It will stay in that

spot.”

         Ron did as he was instructed and quickly set the blocks into position for the sprint.

         Fortell showed him the course he was to traverse, and said the timers would begin when

the pressure was removed from the blocks. The finish was nearly three-quarters of the way to




                                                                                                   208
the opposite side of the arena, where two slim poles were set. When he ran between the poles,

the timer would stop.

       Ron was never much of a speedster in high school and so had always elected to run the

long-distance races, where endurance was important. Now that he was to try this, he wanted to

make the best showing he could. He loped out across the floor and back a few times, stretching

his legs and loosening up his shoulders…just like he‟d done in school.

       He got into position at the blocks, and set his thoughts solely on the run. When he felt he

was situated as well as he would ever get, he took three long, deep breaths…to purge the carbon

dioxide from his lungs and replace it with oxygen…and then he coiled his muscular legs into a

crouch. He concentrated on his timing…bringing his focus to a pinpoint of his goal…and an

instant later, he launched himself out across the arena.

       The race was over before he realized it, and he was catching himself against the far wall

with outstretched hands. He assumed his psyche job had been successful because he felt as if

he‟d covered the distance incredibly fast.

       Fortell asked him to repeat the run twice more before they moved on, and Ron thought he

did even better on his last attempt than on the first. He was feeling good about his performances

as he approached the final event, and downed a large amount of water the doctor offered as they

moved toward it.

       Fortell brought Ron to the last section of the arena that was prepared for their use. The

venue was equipped with a long, padded bench, having a bar placed across two stands on either

side of it. Ron recognized the setup as that of a weight-lifting contest, but he saw no weights.

       “This task will gauge the brute power of your newly acquired body,” Fortell told Ron.

       “Where are the weights?” Ron asked. “I know this is a weight bench, right?”




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           “Yes, but there are no more parts to the device,” Fortell replied. “It is complete as you

see it.”

           “I don‟t understand how I‟m supposed to try my strength without any weights,” Ron said,

clearly puzzled. “I think I can lift that little bar easily enough.”

           “The tips of the bar contain a substance we call vacandin,” Fortell explained. “This alloy

has the strongest attraction to a magnetic field ever found in any material. To increase the load

on the participant, we merely adjust an electromagnet in the floor to a more powerful setting.

You see? It is quite simple.”

           Ron looked at the equipment suspiciously. He recalled seeing the strength of magnetism

at work on Earth. An entire car could be lifted with its power, and he didn‟t appreciate the

thought of himself being pinned under such a force, with no control over it.

           Fortell noticed his hesitance and guessed at the reason.

           “If you are worried that you could be crushed by an accidental overcharge of this

machine, let me calm you. We have incorporated safety protocols into the apparatus which will

prevent anything such as that from happening. The Master Computer will monitor you and the

force applied against you, and if it should become hazardous to you in any way, the computer

will automatically shut the device down.”

           “I guess there‟s not much chance of a computer failure, is there?” Ron asked.

           Fortell looked as if Ron had just insulted his mother…as if that possibility was so remote

it was too absurd to even contemplate.

           Ron decided to just drop the subject, and so with a wave of his hand, he dismissed the

remark and climbed under the bar.

           “Okay then,” Ron said, hurriedly. “Let‟s get started.”




                                                                                                       210
        Ron adjusted his body on the bench and Fortell stood beside him at a control console,

which he produced surreptitiously…it sliding straight up out of the floor like a magic trick.

        “When you are ready, grasp the bar and raise it over your chest. I will increase the force

each time you lift it.”

        Ron found a comfortable position for his hands and then hoisted the long metal bar into

the desired attitude. While his elbows locked, Fortell set the test in motion by adding power to

the unit. Ron felt the weight and immediately did his part. He lowered the metal rod to his chest

and raised it again, pausing a moment to allow the doctor to add more power.

        This repetition went on for quite some time, until Ron was eventually covered with

sweat, his arms trembling under the tremendous weight he lowered down to his body. The bar

itself was shaped like a rainbow with the ends of it nearly touching the floor, so powerful was the

pull of the contraption. As it poised over his bulging pectoral muscles for the thirty-fifth time,

Ron realized he would not be able to lift it again. When that thought flashed through his mind,

the computer immediately overrode the output of the machine, cutting the weight by half.

        The bar shot upward sharply due to the force Ron was exerting on it, and he quickly set it

back onto its perch and let his arms drop down to his chest in relief.

        “Oh, man!” Ron exclaimed between breaths, his chest heaving from the workout.

        He lie there, resting for a long while, until he regained enough strength to sit up. He then

downed another quart of water as his pulse gradually returned to normal.

        Fortell was standing nearby patiently while he recovered, but Ron was not about to be

rushed. Another ten minutes went by before the numbness and trembling left his arms fully.

Finally, he rose from the seat and announced he was ready to move to the next part of the test.




                                                                                                  211
         Fortell stepped to the nearby wall, opened a panel, and withdrew a harness made of a

strange substance, harder than plastic, but not as hard as steel. Ron thought it was a pair of

shoulder pads, like for football.

         “This harness contains vacandin also,” Fortell explained, placing it on Ron‟s shoulders

and strapping it firmly in place. “I will regulate the weight just as I did in the first phase, and the

procedure will be the same, only this time, you must squat and then rise. Do you understand?”

         “Yeah. No problem.”

         “We will begin when you are ready,” Fortell said, as he took his place at the control

board.

         Ron braced himself once more, and then nodded at the doctor as they started the sequence

again.

         At the end of another few minutes, Ron was once more straining at the utmost extreme of

his strength against the limitless power of the field of energy pitted against him.

         When he reached a point where he could no longer rise under the burden applied, the

computer cut the power back again. This time it used a more gradual rate, so Ron wouldn‟t go

flying up into the air and possibly injure himself.

         He collapsed to the floor where he was, and rolled onto his back, his legs quivering from

the exertion. Fortell approached him while he panted for air, and removed the harness.

         “Is that about all for today?” Ron inquired. “I think I‟ve had it.”

         “As a matter of fact,” Fortell told him, “that does conclude our tests. You are free to

relax and clean up whenever you are up to it. There is a sanitizer unit through that doorway and

to the right.”




                                                                                                    212
          Ron looked in the indicated direction, thinking he couldn‟t possibly make it that far. He

rested a while longer, flat out on the cool rock floor, and then at last struggled to his feet and

headed for the shower. By that time, Fortell had exited the arena on his way back to his

laboratory, excited about getting the results of the tests.

          Ron watched him go…too tired to worry about how he was going to get back to his room

without a guide.

          Thirty minutes later, after two long, hot showers, Ron walked back into the arena. He

was feeling much better and was beginning to think about things other than rest again…like

food. He expected to see the physician waiting for him when he returned, but found Cache

sitting on the bench instead.

          “How are you feeling?” she asked.

          “Much better now, thanks,” Ron replied, letting her wonder what he was referring to, the

shower, or seeing her again.

          She flashed him a huge smile and stood up.

          “I am to be your guide,” she told him when he reached her side. “Where would you like

to go?”

          “I need to eat!” Ron replied emphatically. “I won‟t be worth anything until I get a

substantial amount of food down my throat.”

          “That is no problem. Just come with me,” she said, latching onto his arm tightly and

slipping her hand inside his. “Oh! Wait!” she said suddenly, reaching down into her pants

pocket. She withdrew a small rectangular object, the size of a matchbox, and handed it to Ron.

          “Fortell finished it just a half-billot ago, and told me to give it to you.”

          Ron took the little box and turned it over in his hand.




                                                                                                     213
       “It is something with which you can remove the hair from your face, he said,” Cache told

him, noticing his puzzlement.

       “Oh. It‟s the razor I asked for,” Ron exclaimed. “How does it work?”

       “This end is to be pressed against your skin,” she explained. “There is a pressure

activated switch on the side, here. The micro scanner probes the area under the headpiece,

identifying and separating what it finds before targeting its quarry…the undesired protruding

growth. There is a small laser inside that will burn away the hairs.”

       Ron excused himself and took the razor back into the washroom to try it out. When he

finished, he was looking more like the old, familiar Ron he was accustomed to, at least in the

face. Then he went back and joined Cache again, a new man.

       Cache stared up at his naked face and couldn‟t resist a touch of his skin. She stood on her

tiptoes and reached up to his cheek.

       “It is so smooth,” she said.

       Ron flashed a big smile and held her hand firmly, enjoying the feel of the soft downy

covering on her skin, and then she pressed her cheek against his arm, nuzzling him

affectionately.

       Ron quickly checked his emotions, drawing back on feelings he knew were developing

with this beautiful young lady. He forced himself to remember his pledge to another woman,

one whom he missed terribly, and he warned himself not to let his attraction to Cache get out of

hand, no matter how far away his beloved was.

       Cache pulled herself away when she saw his expression change. She didn‟t know why he

reacted that way, but guessed it had to do with her being of an alien race to him, one of which he

was repulsed.




                                                                                                 214
        “After all,” she thought, “had he not just removed the hair from his face?”

        Perhaps her own fuzzy growth was repugnant to him. Her attitude turned indignant at

that.

        “Follow me,” she told him flatly, as she strode off in a huff.

        She led him to the cubic transporter and they rode it to a new level. After three direction

changes, which Ron was able to negotiate successfully, they stepped off and advanced down the

hall into which the door had opened.

        Cache didn‟t say a word during the trip, until she stopped in an area that Ron was

unfamiliar with. She was standing beside a door with an intricate symbol next to it. There was

no keypad Ron could make out anywhere nearby.

        “This room has been prepared for your use,” she announced. “There is a meal dispensary

and a sanitizer inside. I will meet you here after your rest period, and guide you to Fortell‟s

laboratory, where the test results will be given to you. If there is nothing more that you need of

me, I will leave now to attend to pressing business of which I am in charge.”

        She didn‟t wait for his reply, but instead spun around and briskly walked back to the

transporter, leaving him to guess at why she had reacted so coldly. He got the distinct feeling

she was more interested in him than just a casual admirer…which worried him greatly. That

would be a problem he would have to work around…without hurting her feelings again.

        “Women!” he said out loud as the transporter closed, and then he faced the door to his

assigned room. He knew if he needed an access code to get in, he was out of luck, so he just

placed his hand on the symbol next to the door and hoped for the best. He was rewarded with a

whisper of air, as the door slid neatly into the floor, and a moment later he entered his quarters.




                                                                                                  215
       It appeared to be similar to the pink abode, as it was lacking of any windows, or pictures,

or decorations of any kind. The walls though were a light tan color this time, with the bed

standing out more than the bed in that first room, it being dark blue. The whole space struck Ron

as being overly austere…very monotonous, and boorishly practical.

       “I hope Earth never gets this bland as we advance,” Ron thought, and then conceded,

“Well, each to their own…I guess it could be worse.”

       He did take note, however, that this place was about twice the size of the first room, with

the bed at the rear and a small black table with two coordinating chairs in the right corner. Next

to the table was one of the food portals, with the matching order unit beside it, and at the

opposite side of the room was a narrow door, which Ron assumed to be the sanitizer space.

       “Home sweet home,” Ron said out loud.

       The first thing he did was walk straight to the order unit to get something to eat. Then he

sat down and devoured the meal in record time, only to return and order another helping. It was

the same food he‟d eaten for all the previous meals, but he was too hungry to complain. Perhaps

he would ask if there was a way to get a variety tomorrow.

       After he was full, he felt much better…more relaxed…and began to wonder what Fortell

would tell him about the tests. That contemplation lasted barely a few minutes however, before

the day‟s trials put and end to it. His shoulders slowly drooped, his body began to slump, and his

eyelids grew heavy while he sat there, and so he decided he shouldn‟t worry about that which he

couldn‟t change. He dragged himself to the sanitizer and readied his weary body for sleep in the

usual manner, and then, when he was back in his room, he stripped off his clothes and climbed

into bed.




                                                                                                216
       The lights went out five seconds after his weight was lifted from the floor…and he was

asleep before the room went dark.




                                                                                            217
                                         Chapter Seventeen

                                              The New Me



       While Ron caught up on his sleep, his enemies were massing in a clearing, many miles

away. They were all gathered at the order of Septuagent Yeasten, for a briefing and to distribute

the solid projectile weapons.

       Those arms had been sent down from the Fleet Commander‟s flagship, in the hull of an

escape capsule. The small, three-man pod was the only thing successfully able to pass through

the Raulden‟s shield matrix since their original achievement. That feat, in itself, was only after

several empty vessels were destroyed attempting to find a hole in the field. The Kreete had

planned to send more men down to the planet as well, via the same route, but the hole fluctuated

too much to be certain the troops would make it. They quickly abandoned that endeavor, forced

to rely on the militia already planet-side to accomplish the job. They would just have to make do

as best they could.

       Yeasten stepped into view of the assembled troops, atop his personal scout ship, and his

men stood rigidly at attention as he began his speech.



                                                                                                 218
       “You men all know why we are here on Rauld. Our objective is to destroy, if possible, or

damage the Power Grid keeping the lowly Rauldens safe inside their mountain fortress of

Gammone.

       “Well, we are now, thanks to the incompetence of Septenant First Class Kale, forced to

pursue two objectives.

       “First, we must locate and eliminate one man, Kaskle Dangarth of Caron. Your Scout

Team leaders will display a holo-image of this individual to familiarize yourselves with. He

must not be allowed to reach this position…Jametid!” Yeasten said while pointing to a mountain

range on a large map set up beside him. “Jametid is believed to contain a hangar in which is

housed a warship. According to our intelligence, if this ship is allowed to break ground, the

entire mission, and our fleet, will be in jeopardy.”

       A ripple of disbelieving murmur swept through the assemblage.

       “Yes!” Yeasten continued. “As far as our information goes, the Rauldens are extremely

talented in all fields of technology, and this could be the most advanced fighter spacecraft in the

galaxy. Needless to say, if we fail, the Triad Council will be extraordinarily displeased. That

would not bode well for any survivors of this mission…should they ever be found.”

       He glared down at the men, impressing on them the meaning of his words, and then

returned his attention to the map.

       “Now! Gammone is here,” Yeasten said, sweeping his hand down the mountain range in

which the complex lay. “It is separated from Jametid by a valley, forty hoz across. Squad

Commander Cervos located and destroyed the transport tunnels connecting the two underground

facilities five dactrais ago. When he and his men broke through each passageway, the Rauldens

sealed it off with a variation of the Matrix‟s shielding. To keep them from being able to make




                                                                                                  219
use of those avenues, Cervos mined all of them. As soon as the next car passed through one of

these subways, it tripped the charge and was obliterated with the passage conduit. They will not

chance another repeat of that event. A job well done, Cervos.”

       Cervos bowed slightly to show his acknowledgment,

       “Since the Rauldens have no aircraft that can withstand the power of our scout ships, the

pilot of their fighter vessel, undoubtedly Kaskle, will have to traverse the valley on foot to reach

the hangar. This knowledge is to our advantage.

       “But to our disadvantage is the fact that we do not know where the exact locations of all

the exits from Gammone are…or those of Jametid. We will have to find this man in the forest-

covered valley stretching more than a hundred hoz, north and south.

       “To accomplish this task, there will be reconnaissance squads sent out to comb the

lowlands at the base of Gammone, in the hope of finding an entrance, or our prey. As a

secondary strategy, we will also set up lookouts in the trees along this strip of open land that

subdivides the valley. If the advance scouts do not stop, or at least find this man, we know he

will have to cross this grassland somewhere, and that is where we will destroy him.

       We must take care of this problem as quickly as possible, so we can move on to our

original assignment…and let me warn you men who will act as advance troops. If any of you

battle the Caronian, you had better eliminate him or die trying. Should you return to me while he

lives on, death will take a long time in coming, and it will be a great relief when it does.”

       Yeasten paused a few moments to let his message sink in.

       “That concludes the briefing!” he shouted. “Septenants! Distribute the new weapons

among your men and begin transporting them to the designated positions.”




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       With that, Yeasten turned from the assembly and descended from his perch to make

ready for the coming operation.



        Ron had a busy night, even though he was asleep. He dreamed about an invasion force

of the Kreete Triad, descending on Earth to butcher and enslave his people.

       At one point, he found himself in a crowd of men and women, all tied together to form a

circle. In the center of the group was a Kreete torturer bending over a woman. She was staked

out on the ground, just as Cache‟s friend had been, blood running from her wrists and ankles,

where thin wire bit into her delicate flesh. The woman looked vaguely familiar to Ron, but he

couldn‟t place her. She had light auburn hair and a deeply tanned, beautiful face, atop a slim,

toned, flawless body.

       The woman turned her face away to plead with her antagonist. She begged him to let her

go…saying she had done nothing against the Triad…that she was innocent. Innocent of what,

Ron didn‟t know, but he felt convinced that her voice was familiar as well.

       “Where is your mate?” the Kreete asked.

       “I don‟t know!” the woman cried, tears running down her face. “Why are you doing this

to me? I have…”

       Her sentence was cut off by her screaming…a long, piercing release of pain, as the beast-

like man touched the glowing blue rod to her skin, at her left thigh. Her body jerked in response

to the agony of the wand, causing the bindings to cut deeper into her soft tissue, right down to

the bones.

       The tortured young woman had, at one point, been wearing a lovely blue dress, custom-

made for her fine figure, but now it was only shredded rags underneath her naked form. Blood




                                                                                                   221
from dozens of cuts and scrapes…souvenirs of the Kreete‟s claws…ran down her body soaking

the ruined garment.

        Ron felt the fires inside him burning deeply into his soul, and he tried to leap forward to

aid the woman, but was held back. He glanced down and saw the problem. He was tied up

tightly as well, in the same type bonds which held the woman. He pitted the massive strength of

his arms against those bonds, but they were too tough, well designed for the purpose in which

they were being used. His struggles just forced them to become tighter yet.

        When her convulsions ceased and her sobbing slowed, she appeared to be getting some

relief as shock began to set in, dulling her senses, blocking the pain.

        The Kreete would have none of that however, so he gave her an injection of something.

It was apparently a stimulant, to bring her out of her state of shock, because her head suddenly

snapped up again, screaming and begging for the tormentor to stop.

        The Kreete repeated his first question, holding the rod barely an inch above the woman‟s

right leg.

        “I don‟t know where he is!” she shouted, and then she turned her face to the crowd and

screamed, “Ron! Help me! Please, Ron heeeeeeeeeeelllllllllllllllp!”

        A sudden change came over the woman then, one which made Ron‟s heart sink so

severely he felt his chest would collapse. The woman now had the face of his wife, Angela!

        The Kreete torturer laid the wand on her good leg, sending her once more into the pain

racked jerks and spasms the beast-men loved so much. The huge creature broke into a fit of

laughter while his helpless victim screamed and writhed until she passed out.

        The sounds of her agony…uttered in the sweet voice of his love…sent waves of white-

hot hate ripping through Ron‟s body. He felt as if his internal temperature alone would melt the




                                                                                                 222
bindings keeping him back, but they held firm, and he was forced to watch further, his

desperation climbing rapidly.

        Thrice more, did the huge creature repeat the injection and torture sequence, until the

woman had no more places not already paralyzed, other than those that would surely kill her.

She lie where she was, unable to move, sobbing and praying.

        “Oh, dear God!” she cried. “Why have you taken my husband from me when I need him

the most? Ron! You promised you would never leave me! You promised you would always

protect me!”

        Ron increased his efforts to break free from the restraints, yet still they held. His mind

was racing, sweat streaming from his body, but he could do nothing. He tried several times to

call to her, but could not.

        “Your cowardly mate proved himself to be a traitor when he offered his assistance to the

Rauldens,” the Kreete told the woman, bending closer to her with the rod. “Now, you are going

to pay for his actions. The spawn of the Caronian‟s seed will never breathe air!”

        “Spawn?” Ron thought. “Is she…with child?”

        The Kreete then placed the wand between her thighs, prepared to use it where a lover

would use his body, but in the most savage, deplorable, sadistic manner.

        Ron saw this action and his mind exploded at the mere thought of what was to come. His

beautiful wife‟s body, and his unborn child, being destroyed by this monster was too much. Her

exquisite figure, which had never been seen by another man, was now on display in such a

violently brutal act that it sent Ron into a state far beyond what human capacity was designed to

reach. Every ounce of energy, every particle of matter, every neuron of mental capability,

suddenly compressed into one objective…the destruction of the creature responsible for her pain.




                                                                                                     223
       The adrenaline level in Ron‟s bloodstream shot up a thousand-fold, giving his muscles

the power of braided steel cables, and making his every movement a blur, so quick were his

reflexes. The wires which secured him parted as if they were merely sewing thread, as he

catapulted himself at the Kreete. His attack blasted him across the forty feet of open ground

separating him from his prey…straight at the beast-man.

       “Diiiiiieeee!” Ron screamed at the monster, as he closed.

       Ron delivered a single punch to the Kreete‟s face, feeling it give under the iron knuckles

of his fist. He watched his hand emerge on the opposite side of the torturer‟s skull, like some

horrific, ghastly game…and he smiled.

       Suddenly the lights in Ron‟s room came on, waking him from his nightmare. He blinked

at the brightness, filled with confusion, until he realized the whole ordeal was just a dream, and

the dream was over. Then his heart began slowing back to a more normal beat rate.

       He couldn‟t help but acknowledge a couple of similarities between the nightmare and

reality at that point. His body was indeed dripping with sweat, and his arm was shoved

completely through something…but it was just the door to his room.

       With great care, he pulled his limb back through the hole he‟d made and inspected it. He

found nothing broken to his relief, and no real damage to his hand at all. He did feel exhausted

though, and dropped heavily into one of the chairs beside the small table. His entire figure

coursed with vibrations as the adrenaline dissipated, and for a bit, he felt nauseous.

       Finally though, he let out a great sigh of relief. The all-too-real anguish was over…but

he had to repeat to himself that it was just a dream several times to make his belief take. His gut

however, had a surging, gnawing feeling pulsing through him…deep inside…convinced that it

was not.




                                                                                                  224
       At last, he got to his feet and went to the sanitizer, trying to wash the memory out of his

mind. When he emerged from the shower, he felt much better, ready for the upcoming day. He

didn‟t have a clue what time it was, but did know he wouldn‟t be able to get back to sleep again

this night. With little deliberation, he decided to just get dressed, have breakfast, and then try to

find Fortell‟s laboratory on his own.

       Ron finished his morning cleaning rituals and made his way to the door of the sanitizer

room, but before he left it, he stopped at a mirror next to the door, to see how his recovery was

going. Every bruise, cut, and scrape he‟d received, was gone. The long claw marks which had

decorated his chest were entirely erased, as was the case with the deep bruises on his broken ribs,

and his thigh and face. There was not even the slightest scarring of any wound present on his

entire body.

       He turned around and around, for several minutes, looking for evidence of the battles he

recently fought, before finally accepting that they were totally healed. He couldn‟t even find old

scars from his youth, and that baffled him, until he recalled the transformation he‟d undergone,

and then he just accepted it as another wonder he would never understand.

       Ron continued out of the sanitizer and into the main room, where he received the first

surprise of the new day.

       “Good morning, Ron!” Cache greeted him, as he passed through the doorway.

       He‟d slept nude, since the Rauldens didn‟t provided him with any undergarments or

nightwear, and therefore, he exited the shower room the same way. His clothes were next to the

bed where he placed them on the previous night before retiring.

       He didn‟t understand what she said, because the translator was in the collar of his suit,

but he assumed it was a greeting of some sort.




                                                                                                   225
       Ron was never the type of person who got embarrassed easily, but being caught in such a

state did make his face flush a little, for a moment.

       “Good morning,” he replied, stepping quickly over to the bed and beginning to dress.

Ron looked at her squarely, and noticed her eyes were scanning his body thoroughly…and more

than once.

       “I‟m sorry about this,” he told her, after he had the collar back into position to allow the

translator to work, but not knowing really what to say. “I wasn‟t aware that you‟d be coming for

me just now.”

        “No need to apologize,” Cache assured him, a little saucily Ron thought.

       “I was alerted that your floor sensor had been activated, so I knew you were awake,” she

explained. “I hope I have not infringed on your privacy too severely, Ron. But that,” she said,

pointing to the gaping hole in the door which was now jammed halfway open, “led me to believe

something might be amiss…until I saw the sanitizer was in use.”

       “Oh! Yeah, well,” he replied, “sorry about the door. I had a rather vivid dream.”

       “I see,” Cache told him. “I will make sure that it gets repaired, and the next time I come

for you, I will be certain to give you a warning before I enter.”

       Ron was sealing up his boots when she finished, and so he stood up to face her.

       “Fair enough,” he said. “I‟m starved. What do you think about joining me for

breakfast?”

       “Very well,” she replied. “After that, we are due at Fortell‟s lab, to go over your tests.”

       Ron was glad she was no longer angry with him about last night. He needed a friend

badly in such an unfamiliar place, and she was the only one who expressed open concern toward




                                                                                                 226
him, outside his designated mission. Plus, he enjoyed her company and conversation

immensely…she was very intelligent and easy to talk to.

       They ordered their food and sat down at the small table, and since Ron received the same

combination of foods and drink as he had for the last few days, he inquired about it.

       “Is there someway to order a different meal?” he asked.

       “Different?” Cache said, puzzled at the request. “Why would you want to have anything

other than what the computer deems to be exactly what your body needs?”

       Ron took that as a “no” and told her to forget he asked. They ate their breakfast quickly,

making little conversation between bites, as each sat consumed in their own thoughts about the

coming day. Once they finished and tidied up, Cache led Ron out of his room and toward the

transporter.

       “Cache,” he began. “Why is it that I‟ve seen so few of your people since I arrived here?

I was told a great many of them were at the arena to watch me perform, but the light was

arranged in such a manner that I couldn‟t see anyone, and there wasn‟t a sound from them…not

once. And there‟s never anyone in the hallways, or the transporter. Is this my imagination, or is

there some reason for it?”

       They boarded the cubic transporter and Cache programmed their destination. Then she

faced Ron.

       “Everyone in Gammone knows about you,” she told him. “They are aware of why you

are here and what you are going to do, or attempt to do. These facts have had mixed reactions

among the population. Most Rauldens are afraid you will turn against us when you have gained

control of our spacecraft, seeking to profit from that which the Kreete are after. Some citizens




                                                                                                227
worry that your being here will change what our natural, and proper, fate would have been. Still

others feel you will spark a new need for violence in our people.

       “I guess everyone fears you for one reason or another. Even Fortell, who is fascinated by

you as a specimen of scientific wonder, and his assistants were fearful when the tests on you

called for them to be in close proximity to you. Nearly everyone who has come into face-to-face

contact with you has been on some form of sedative, to calm them enough to do their jobs

properly.”

       Ron listened to her carefully, shocked at what she was saying. He couldn‟t even fathom

why anyone would feel that way about him.

       “What about you,” he asked her abruptly. “Are you afraid of me too?”

       As an answer, she stepped up close enough to Ron to allow her body to press against his.

She looked up into his eyes for a long moment, and then lowered hers and turned away.

       “Why do „you‟ fear me?” Ron asked her, disheartened that his only close ally felt this

way. “You must know I would never harm you. In fact, I did the exact opposite when you were

the most vulnerable.”

       “I have my reasons,” she told him softly. “And they are quite different from the others‟.”

       The trip to the lab was over by then, so Ron was left with another unexplained problem

on his mind. He filed it away, alongside the rest, and followed Cache into the lab.

       As they entered, Fortell was studying something printed out on a view screen, directly in

front of him. The screen was actually half of the wall at the farside of the room, being nearly

twenty feet across and ten feet high. Ron tried to make out what was written there, but could

only find one familiar symbol; the same one that was outside the door to his room. It was in the

upper right-hand corner of the screen.




                                                                                                  228
       Fortell turned around and bid them good morning.

       “Please, sit down and we will begin,” Fortell said. “Ron, how are you feeling this

dactrai?”

       “Great! Whatever you gave me, it sure does quick work. As far as I can tell, I‟m as good

as new.”

       “Good, I am pleased that you are better. Now,” he began, swiveling around to face the

view screen again, “I have been studying the results of your tests, Ron, and frankly, I am

amazed!”

       “Oh? Really? Why is that?”

       “Well, to start with, your body is virtually identical with ours, that is, as far as organs,

blood, and skin tissue are concerned,” Fortell explained. “That in itself is fascinating; however,

you are definitely a mutation of science.”

       Ron didn‟t like his terminology at all.

       “What exactly do you mean?”

       “You are indeed the product of two beings, joined into one body,” the physician

elaborated. “We have medical records of Caronians, and as we have previously stated, you are

not entirely one of them. But as you have told us, you are also not as you were on your own

world either. You are a man who is superior to both races. Your present body has a density

makeup equal to that of a „tenner‟…a man from a class ten planet.

       “For perspective…Rauld is ranked in the midrange of a class eight, and Caron is in the

lower range of a class nine.

       “Joining your Earthly structure of a mid-six worlder to that of a low nine inhabitant is

undoubtedly the reason for your extraordinary strength and quickness.”




                                                                                                      229
       “Are you saying that I‟m some sort of Hercules?” Ron asked.

       “Hercules?” Fortell puzzled. “I do not believe I am familiar with that species.”

       “No, he wasn‟t a species,” Ron explained, “Hercules was a mythical hero on my world

and possessed superhuman strength.”

       “I see. Then yes, although hardly a myth, you are a Hercules…at least you are here on

Rauld. On a planet of, say…a “ten point one” rating, you would be a normal man, with normal

abilities. But you are on Rauld, and that fact gives you a substantial advantage toward your

mission.

       “For instance, when we wanted a tissue sample from your body, we were required to

triple the power of the compressed light scalpel, in order to neatly lift your skin. This same

toughness, or durability, is what saved you when the agony wand struck you in the back. The

molecular structure of your cells is so tight, they stood the strain of the jolt which would have

easily killed a Raulden…and did not burst.

       “Now on another level, as far as we can tell, you changed very little outwardly during the

combination, which would account for you retaining your coordination. The only pure

“Caronian” part on your body seems to be the protective ducts in your eyes that shield you from

bright sunshine. You became more massive, physically, but you kept your previous appearance,

correct?”

       “Well, I suppose that is correct,” Ron replied, having a difficult time considering himself

as “virtually the same”. “My face, hair, and skin tone are still about the same, as far as I can

remember.”

       “Good, then I will continue with the analysis. By the standards of present Rauldens,

which is a meek average for our size world, you have the strength of twenty men. But overall,




                                                                                                    230
your abilities are outstandingly high. The result works out to leave you about as strong as the

most powerful nonKreete humanoids on our records, which should now be fairly up-to-date.

Kreete officers however, primarily the ones above „Hunter‟ class, will still command a

considerable brute-strength advantage over you because of their genetic modifications.

       “Aanlis has been tapping into the communications between the three Triad rulers for a

while, and thus recorded the required statistics for these determinations.

       “You see, they still wage their contests of physical prowess, even after the Triad has

spread across such a large area of the galaxy. They use this barbaric method to divide up the

empire. The stronger the leader and his champions, the more powerful and better rewarded he

becomes.

       “I will give you some examples of how you would compare with their warriors.

       “The spherical object you hurled at the target was, by our records, never thrown beyond

three quarters of the distance you did by another man. And though the Kreete can fling it much

farther, their accuracy is only ten percent better. You can actually leap higher than the Kreete,

and run faster, because of their massive bodies, but in pure power…hand to hand…well, I would

advise you not to engage in a wrestling match with them.”

       “Trust me,” Ron interjected. “I learned about that the hard way!”

       “Yes, I recall your list of injuries well. To continue; the facts are that in every event you

performed, you set a new human record by a large margin. You are the most stalwart humanoid

we have ever encountered in the history of Rauld.”

       Ron could say nothing. He was too stunned to reply. He had been so ordinary on Earth.

Now, he was nearly indestructible. No, he corrected his thinking, remembering the pain he‟d

endured at the hands of the Kreete, he was not indestructible, but he did have a good chance




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against them. This news gave him renewed hope of somehow returning to Earth, so he breathed

a little easier. However, just as soon as he convinced himself he could relax a bit, a thought

sprang into his mind, making him even more nervous than before.

       “What affects will this „mutation‟ have on me when I get back to my home?”

       “Well, it all depends on the planet. If you will give us the size, composition, speed of

rotation, and the atmospheric pressures of Earth, we will be able to tell you.”

       Ron dug into his collegiate memory for the data.

       “From what I remember,” Ron began, surprised the information was so clear in his mind,

“the Earth is eleven thousand miles in diameter. Its core consists mainly of iron ore, and the

surface spins at a roughly a thousand miles an hour…and it has an average sea level pressure of

fourteen point seven pounds per square inch.”

       Fortell and Cache both looked at each other, and then at Ron.

       “I am afraid there is a problem, Ron,” Fortell told him. “Your measurements do not

translate into our language through the simple translator you are wearing. Is there any way you

can show us your increments of measurement and time?”

       Ron‟s mind went blank for a moment, and then he shoved his hand down into his pocket

and pulled out his six foot steel tape measure.

       “Here,” he said, handing the tape to the doctor. “These are the units for measuring length

and distance that I understand. As far as weight is concerned, I once checked this little tape,

while I was experimenting with a new scale we had at work, and it is exactly one eighth of one

pound.”

       Ron then produced his digital watch.

       “And here are the units of time we keep.”




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         The three of them spent the next half billot programming the computer with Ron‟s

information. Soon afterward, the screen was listing a new set of facts about Ron and his feats.

         Ron tried to read the information, but the words and numeric symbols were still foreign

to him, so he would have to rely on what they told him.

         “What does it say?” he finally asked, after Cache and Fortell had studied the screen for a

while.

         Fortell was cautious about responding, but he knew keeping the truth from Ron would

not be right. He also knew that this man had quite a shock about to be laid before him.

         “What would you say the average man, of your size, would weigh on Earth?” Fortell

asked.

         “I don‟t know. How tall am I?” Ron asked, recalling what a huge difference he‟d seen in

the mirror.

         “You are now seventy six inches tall,” Cache told him. “Your chest is fifty five inches

around, your waist is thirty two inches, your upper arms are nineteen inches, and your thighs are

twenty six inches around.”

         “Holy cow!” Ron said, barely in a whisper. He hadn‟t even dreamed he could have

changed so drastically. He paused for a while to absorb the information, and then spoke up.

“Uh, I would have to guess about two hundred and fifty, to two hundred and eighty pounds.”

         “By our calculations, you would now weigh approximately seven hundred and sixty

seven pounds,” Cache informed him. “Here on Rauld, you weigh one thousand, three hundred

and seventy six pounds.”

         “There must be some mistake,” Ron blurted out, unable to accept yet another huge

change in his outlook. “That isn‟t possible.”




                                                                                                   233
       “Yes,” Fortell told him. “I am afraid that it is. There are some other facts that you

should know. On your planet, you could run the seventy three yard dash, which is what you ran

here, in under three seconds, providing of course that you could get firm enough support from

the ground. You could lift fourteen thousand, three hundred, and fifty-two pounds off your

chest, and nearly half again as much with your legs. You could jump thirty-seven feet up into

the air, and throw the six pound ball, which you threw here, over a mile.

       “These are very conservative estimates, Ron. You may be able to surpass them easily,

once you get more familiar with your new body.

       “I must apologize to you, Ron, but I do not think that you would fit in very well anymore,

on your world. You would not be able to lead a normal life on a planet of that mass and speed of

rotation.”

       Fortell paused his analysis for a few moments, not knowing what else he could say, and

then he broke the silence.

       “I know now that we have done irreparable damage to your life, and for that, I am

profoundly sorry.”

       Ron knew he spoke the truth from the tone of his sorrow-filled voice and his expression

of dismay. He also knew he would never again live a normal existence on Earth. He was

stunned into silence yet again…his brain in a cascading freefall of denial. It was as if a door was

shutting in his face…one locked, with no key. But as his brain mulled over a thousand different

scenarios, he couldn‟t bring himself to just turn his back on the life he had so enjoyed. He

resolved to return anyway. The woman he loved would understand. She would be beside him as

he unveiled the knowledge of “otherworld life” to planet Earth.




                                                                                                234
       He even thought this could be the one thing that would unite the quarreling peoples from

the differing countries. They would understand their place in the universe for the first time and it

would enlighten them.

       Ron knew those were some lofty goals, but he was determined to hold to them until he

was proven wrong.

       Fortell brought him back to the present by continuing with his report.

       “As far as your present mission though, you are perfect. You will be able to maneuver

our fighter at over sixty-two Earth gravities of acceleration, which should give you a fighting

chance against the Kreete.

       “Now you know the results of our tests, as far as how they pertain to your physical

limitations, that is. So, what do you say, Ron Allison-Kaskle, of the planets Earth and Caron? Is

the mission on, or off?”

       Ron hesitated for just a split second, and then gave them his answer.

       “When this is all over with, I will be able to choose how and where I want to live,

correct?”

       “That is the agreement!”

       “Then let‟s get on with it,” Ron told him. “I have a lot of work to do to get ready.”

       Ron turned to face Cache. She had a strange look on her face, Ron thought, as if she had

not quite received the reply she hoped for.

       “Well, Cache, it appears destiny has catapulted me into your life, and so my future lies

beyond this war of yours, so how about showing me to the guy who‟s supposed to prepare me for

this journey?”




                                                                                                  235
       Cache‟s face swiftly changed from pleasant to angry when he asked her that. She glared

up at him with fire in her eyes, ready for battle, but held her temper…barely. Ron recoiled

slightly from her, bewildered.

       “We will begin immediately,” she told him. “First off, I will show you to the Arsenal.

You must be equipped with the proper weapons for your mission.”

       She made her way out of the lab, still smoldering from the insult Ron had unknowingly

given her.

       Ron Allison no longer labored himself to figure out why he had been drawn into this

situation. Instead, Ron-Kaskle, a new man, simply accepted the facts and strode off behind his

guide, to begin his preparations for what was to come.




                                                                                                236
                                          Chapter Eighteen

                                              The Sword



       Ron and Cache rode the cubic transporter to a faraway sector of Gammone. When they

stepped out at their destination, Ron immediately sensed that this section of the vast complex had

not been kept up as well as the part he‟d already seen, so he commented on its antiquity.

       “We have not renovated this region for historical purposes,” Cache told him curtly, not

willing to elaborate at that time.

       The two of them walked down the hallway, which was still the original color of the rock

out of which it had been cut...a green-tinted and gold-flecked brown mixture. They proceeded

about sixty yards before Cache halted outside a doorway that was plainly visible, unlike the near

seamless joints at the other locations.

       She punched in a code on a keypad control panel next to the door, and the panel slid

smoothly into the floor. That disappearing barrier briefly reminded Ron of the damaged door to




                                                                                               237
his room, which was still jammed halfway open when he and Cache left it earlier. He

momentarily wondered if it was repaired, but forgot all about it when he entered the Arsenal.

       The room, or more precisely, warehouse, was more than thirty feet high and as large as a

football stadium. There were five rows down the length of the complex, each lined with shelves

on both sides, from the floor to the ceiling. Packed into every nook and cranny were

weapons…thousands of them…hundreds of thousands.

       Cache walked over to the right.

       “These three rows, here,” she explained to Ron, wasting no time at all, “contain killing

tools suitable for humanoids, such as yourself.”

       “I thought Rauld was a peaceful planet, full of scientists,” Ron said with a flare of

sarcasm. “What are all of these doing here?”

       “This exhibit is used to instruct our children in the ways that different people live.

Actually, it is not used at all anymore, but it did serve that purpose, long ago. These weapons

were stored here, centuries past; from every planet our ancestors visited. Represented here are

all the types of warrior races we know of, including Rauld.”

       “What?” Ron asked, surprised. “Rauld once had a warrior race? It doesn‟t seem like

your people could have ever been of a violent nature. What happened to them? Did they

become extinct?”

       “That is a very long story which will have to wait until another time,” Cache told him,

flatly. “I have only five dactrais in which to train you, and I intend to make use of every possible

moment. I...”

       “You?” Ron exclaimed. “You are going to get me ready to go up against those monsters?

Why? Why isn‟t a man assigned to do the job? Wouldn‟t that be more logical? And while I‟m




                                                                                                  238
on the subject, why is it that you…a woman, and such a lovely one at that…are the spokesman

for the Council on war?”

       Cache was expecting his reaction this time, and so she kept her composure.

       “I will explain it all later,” she told him, this time more politely…his flattering

observation placating her bruised ego a bit. “Right now, we must concentrate on the subject

before us, weapons for your protection.”

       She led Ron away to the first bin, all the way over to the right, which was against the

wall. The shelves were all sealed with large doors, but Ron and Cache were able to see the items

because the doors were made of some clear plastic material. Ron gazed at the wide assortment

available, some of which were so foreign to him that he couldn‟t even guess at their function.

       “You may select any weapon, or combination of weapons, you can easily carry,” Cache

instructed. “Anything you wish demonstrated can be viewed on the video screen of the

instruction station, over there,” she added, indicating a blank space on the wall, near the entrance

through which they had just passed.

       Ron went on with his inspection of the instruments of death sealed away in the shelves,

filled with wonder about the people who had constructed and wielded them.

       “What were the reasons that prompted the need for such devices?” he pondered silently.

“Had war been their last hope for survival, or did they merely enjoy it?”

       Ron abandoned his philosophical attitude as he took a moment to reflect on the peoples

of Earth. Some of them wouldn‟t fight for any reason, even to save their own lives, while others

would kill, torture, and do nearly anything for money, drugs, or just for the thrill of it. He

recognized the Kreete were not so different from his fellows, although they did have the power

and technology to take their killing and conquering sprees beyond the confines of their home




                                                                                                 239
world. He wondered for a second; if Earth had the abilities of the Kreete, how long would it be

before his planet was out among the stars on much the same mission…conquest.

       With a bit of an effort, Ron returned his attention to the circumstances at present. He

continued his search for weapons that could possibly help prolong his life in the upcoming trip.

As he scanned, he realized he didn‟t have the slightest idea what he would need because he

didn‟t know what he was to face.

       Turning to Cache, he voiced his predicament.

       “What weapons will I need to defend against?” Ron asked. “What type of fighting will

they try?”

       Cache considered his question for a moment before replying.

       “The energy matrix surrounding the planet has a certain affect on particle beam and

compressed light weapons of the handheld variety,” she began. “These small devices lack

sufficient power sources to keep their beams intact, while under the influence of the matrix‟s

dispersion field.

       “The light aircraft they have will be able to use its version of the same type weapons, but

even they will be severely limited on the range they can successfully fire. We estimate that

distance to be about one hundred of your yards. Also, their portable scanners will not perform

beyond a step or two, and radio communication on the planet will not be possible.

       “Wait! If the dispersion field is that effective, how was your little scanner able to work if

the matrix scatters such readings?”

       “Because we have a secure link to the encryption protocols of the system. As long as we

stay in contact with that link, our devices work perfectly. And let me assure you, these codes are

unbreakable.




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       “The Kreete will have exceedingly limited use of like equipment. The only way they can

talk to their command ship is by high-energy, tight-beam bursts. This requires a fixed location

and a large power source, so the scout teams will be confined to visual signaling, and

transmission of messages will have to be couriered in person, or by Cnauts.

       “Cnauts?” Ron queried.

       “Yes, Cybernauts: Cybernetic-nimble-autonomous-utilitarian-technicians. They are

mechanical messengers and workers of nearly unlimited varieties. There are Cnauts for nearly

every task here on Rauld. They helped keep you alive when you first collapsed inside the

complex, and lifted your heavy body onto transport machines which then carried you to Fortell‟s

medical facility.

       “There are Cnauts to preserve the structure of Gammone, erect new buildings, or

manufacture things like tools and instruments…whatever is necessary. We even use them to

pollinate the flowering botanical needs on the surface, since we have not been able to reintroduce

insects into the biosphere, as of yet. They are constructed in every conceivable size, shape, or

physical property that we need, from the size of a molecule, to the enormous lifting machines

used for excavation.

       “Now, back to your question about the weapons. The Kreete ground troops might have

some of the older, handheld, solid projectile guns, which shoot explosive pellets. They had to

use them on Srona, the prison planet, because of a strange energy source emitted by the planet‟s

one valuable product, commori.”

       “What‟s…?”

       “Commori is a metal commonly used to build spacecraft. It is the strongest substance

known…natural substance that is…as there are some alloys and exotic man-made materials that




                                                                                                   241
surpass it. Commori ore emits a natural field of energy which scatters the emissions of

compressed energy weapons. We artificially copy that field here on Rauld.

       “I seem to have gotten off the subject again…sorry about that. As for what you might

need, it will have to be silent, effective, and you need to have some familiarity with it, as we do

not have time to train you in the use of an entirely new device. There are too many subtle ways

of manipulating a weapon to learn in a few dactrais.”

       “What terrain will the trek involve?” Ron asked. “Forests, like what we went through to

get here?”

       “Yes,” she replied. “Forest that is hilly and, at times, rocky. We should have good

overall coverage from the natural flora; so close hand-to-hand fighting will be the norm. But we

have one open field that will present a problem. Mostly though, we should prepare for battle at

close range; less than one hundred peors…yards…I would guess.”

       “I see,” Ron replied, returning his attention to the bins. He let his eyes roam over the

assortment again, but saw nothing to fit his needs. He looked up at the higher shelves and then

to the left and right. He could find no way to gain access to the upper compartments, so once

again he faced Cache.

       “How do I get to the top levels? Is there a ladder somewhere?”

       “I will summon the lift sled,” Cache told him.

       She walked to the entrance of the room and pressed a button beneath the view screen. At

her motion, a soft purring sound began further on in the room and gradually got louder until a

flat, rectangular platform, three feet wide and six feet long, hovered around the corner and settled

at her feet. It had a slender, elegant pole at one end, protruding from its flat base, and there was

a small control panel perched atop that pole. There was a delicate looking rail which wrapped




                                                                                                  242
around the lift for safety and Cache easily dislodged a section of it, toward the rear, and stepped

aboard. She quickly manipulated the controls until she had it flying two inches off the floor, and

then approached Ron.

        “Climb on and we will continue the hunt.”

        Ron could see no means of propulsion, and so was wary of trusting the capability of such

a fragile looking craft, especially considering his weight factor. However, when he put his foot

on the deck of the sled and it held rock-steady, he changed his attitude. He then decided he

should show more confidence in the various machines of the Rauldens‟ creation. After all, with

the technological accomplishments he‟d seen in the past few days, surely they could build a safe

lift.

        He dismissed his doubts offhandedly and concentrated on his search as they flew through

the air. The floating tour exposed him to even more instruments he couldn‟t identify, but also

uncovered several that could‟ve been from Earth; they were so similar to what he recalled seeing

in books and museums.

        “These, I am at least familiar with,” Ron said, pointing to an assortment of simple

weapons. There was a crossbow, a long lance, a short sword, some spears, and a large machete.

        Cache stopped the lift so he might make a selection.

        “Do you wish any of these?”

        “Well,” Ron spoke up, more out loud to himself than to Cache, “the bow is really nice,

but if it has been here for centuries, as you mentioned, it wouldn‟t be usable anymore. The lance

is best used from a riding position, due to the weight and length. The spears would be a fair

choice, but they can get to be a nuisance, having to always carry them in hand, and could be

difficult to conceal in a pinch. The broadsword is good, but the strength of the blade would be a




                                                                                                 243
huge gamble, and if it failed at the wrong time, well, that could be disastrous. The machete

would be strong, but unbalanced and slow in a fight.

       “A newly built, high-powered, bow and arrow combination, a strong, well-balanced

sword, and a set of weighted throwing knives, are what I‟m in the market for!”

       As he ended his summary, he realized he just spoke as if he knew exactly what he was

talking about…like it was second nature...but Ron knew nothing about these things. How could

he? The only times he‟d ever seen these types of armaments used was on television, but here he

felt as comfortable with the prospects of wielding a sword as he had at driving a car on Earth.

       He was in a bewildered state until he remembered what Fortell tried to tell him, back in

the lab. Ron was not just an Earthman anymore; he was an amalgamation of two beings, with

vastly different lives. Kaskle was undoubtedly a seasoned warrior, and well versed in the uses of

all the weaponry Ron had requested.

       “When I first learned that you would be coming to Rauld,” Cache then said to him,

breaking his concentration, “I had the feeling you would be in need of a strong sword.”

       She expertly maneuvered the sled back down to the floor and stepped off, walking toward

the end of the second row of shelves. Ron followed her around the corner and to a lower shelf,

on the left side of the row.

       “Since you were so widely known on Caron as a swordsman,” she paused after saying

that, “I apologize Ron; I was referring to Kaskle, of course.”

       “I understand,” Ron reassured her. “I‟m having the same problem. It‟s hard to remember

that I‟m him, but I‟m not him, and keep all these thoughts and feelings straight.”




                                                                                                  244
       “Yes,” she agreed, “it is quite an original problem. Anyway, Kaskle was proclaimed the

greatest human sword-fighter on Caron, so I felt he would wish to carry such a weapon here on

Rauld as well.”

       Cache opened the door to the compartment, withdrew a slender black tube from the shelf,

and handed it to Ron.

       He took the object and surveyed it. It was as straight as an arrow along its three-foot

length, and had an oval cross section. The surface was smooth except for the last eight inches,

which had a roughly textured layer. The black finish was so flat that Ron found it hard to focus

on the item when he looked intensely at it. It was like looking at a solid shadow, and even in the

brightly lit room it gave off not the slightest reflection. Ron‟s first thought was that it was a

kendo stick, used to practice sword fighting skills, tactics, and strategies.

       “What is it?” he finally asked.

       “It is a sword like you have never seen before,” she replied with an air of satisfaction in

her voice. “It is completely unbreakable, even for you.”

       “Are you serious?” he asked, obviously skeptical. “How can anything be unbreakable?”

       “Yes, I am serious,” Cache replied with complete confidence. “It is possible due to a

new metal composite which has a unique property. It is a superdense material of incredible

strength and durability, but when a certain, unique power source is combined with this metal, its

strength increases ten thousand times. As far as I know, and I have done extensive tests on it,

when this blade is powered, it cannot be bent out of shape, broken, dulled, chipped, worn, or

even corroded. There is only one drawback of this combination…the blade is heavy. I was

afraid it might have weighed too much for Kaskle to wield successfully. But because of the

incredible turn of events, it should be the perfect blade for someone of your strength.”




                                                                                                    245
        Ron tested the weight of the item again and recognized that it did have a solid feel to it.

He gripped the roughened end of the tubular device and tried to pull the blade free. It held

solidly. He examined it closely and could find no seam along its entire surface.

        “You mentioned a power source,” Ron said, turning the sword over, looking for a place

to plug it in to a wall socket. “Where is that? Do I have to carry some battery pack around with

me?”

        “Actually, yes!” Cache told him, smiling at his confusion as he tried again and again to

get the blade out, without wanting her to notice. “But I hardly think it is what you are thinking

of. It is all contained inside the grip.”

        Cache walked Ron over to the computer terminal again, beneath the view screen, and

began manipulating her fingers quickly over the flat keyboard. She then took the sword and

placed the butt of it into a junction port in the terminal. With it firmly set, she went back to work

at the controls.

        “I am programming the microcomputer brain inside the sword to accept only your brain

wave pattern,” she explained, as he watched intently. “When this is complete, you will be the

only person who can remove the blade from the scabbard, because of a special locking

mechanism I incorporated into it. Also, should you be separated from it while it is drawn, no one

else will be able to wield it against you without receiving a powerful electric jolt. I had the

scabbard made from the same special compound, so when the blade is secured, nothing can

happen to either instrument.”

        Ron was impressed by the safeguards Cache had thought of.

        “That‟s ingenious,” Ron commented. “But I have one question. Why didn‟t you make a

suit of armor out of it? That way, everyone could stand against the Kreete.”




                                                                                                  246
       “I considered that alternative at one point,” Cache replied. “But it proved to be beyond

even our means. The composite material is very new to us, and extremely rare. The last bit of

the entire amount known to exist is in this weapon. And the possibility of getting more is remote

to say the least. Its main component is an ore that one of our geologists found inside a meteor,

more than a thousand cycles ago, during an archeological dig.”

       “I thought it was new?”

       “The alloy we created from it is new. You see, Gerdanz was fascinated by its elemental

composition and studied it as an experiment. After a miraculous, accidental breakthrough, he

figured out a way to refine it. That was barely five cycles ago.

       “Also, there are several limitations to what shapes we can create with it. As of now, we

can form only the simplest, nonmoving parts. Also, a suit of this material would be extremely

heavy, even if manufactured very thin.”

       She finished the programming sequence and withdrew the black rod from the computer.

Ceremoniously, like a mother handing over her newborn child for the first time, Cache held out

the weapon to Ron.

       He accepted it and regarded it once more.

       “Pull the blade free,” she said.

       Ron gripped the handle firmly, expecting to meet a little resistance when he jerked the

scabbard away, and received a surprise when he found the naked blade in his hand. It slid free as

smoothly as a summer breeze glides over a pond.

       When the tip of the blade cleared the end of the scabbard, a set of thin plates immediately

popped out of the handle, at the base of the cutting edge, to form a hand guard. Ron noted earlier

that Cache handled the sword as if it was overly weighty for her, but he now swung the weapon




                                                                                                 247
as easily as waving his hand. After only a few seconds, he knew this weapon had been created

solely for his use.

        “It is absolutely perfect!” Ron told Cache, as he sliced up the air in several different

moves. “It feels as if I‟ve owned it my entire life.”

        Ron held the sword out in front of his body, staring at it, memorizing it. The blade,

which was flat black like the rest of the ensemble, was twenty-eight inches long and possessed a

single cutting edge along its entire length, except for the last six inches, which was double-

edged. At the root, the blade was over two and a half inches across, from edge to spine, and a

quarter of an inch thick. The thickness gradually lessened toward the tip, but the width stayed

virtually unchanged until those last six inches. The final half foot saw the upper spine of the

weapon ground away to a fine edge, to allow the tip of the sword a “dagger-like” appearance.

Such a look was due to the upper edge curving down to meet the lower, which was likewise

curving up, to converge at a razor sharp tip.

        “Now you were saying that this sword is unbreakable?”

        “Absolutely!” Cache defiantly responded. “Give it a try.”

        Ron hesitated, not wanting to damage such a fine weapon, but finally admitted the

Rauldens could no doubt repair it if it broke. He smacked the blade down on the floor of the

room, and then checked it. The edge was perfect. He put more of his shoulder into it on the

second try, chips of rock flying at the place where the blade scratched it. The edge was still

perfect. He was impressed at the toughness of the material but not totally convinced.

        “Go ahead!” Cache told him. “Give it your best shot.”

        Ron grabbed the sword two-handed, pointed the tip down, and then he leaped in the air

with his hands high…and when his feet struck the ground again, he leveraged all of his weight




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onto the hilt. The blade slammed into the rock floor of the armory with a loud report that

sounded like a sledgehammer. Debris from exploding rock flew out fifty yards in all directions

as the tip of the dark sword sank six inches into the floor. The shock wave from the impact tore

up the blade‟s spine and entered Ron‟s body through his hands, not stopping until it reached his

skull, where his teeth rattled audibly.

       “Son of a bi…!” Ron began as he released his hold on the weapon and regarded his

fingers, which were stinging from the impact.

       The black sword stood upright in the room, resonating back and forth slightly.

       Ron shook the numbness from his fingers and hauled the blade out of the granite

scabbard…only by considerable effort. He carefully wiped the dust from the cutting instrument

and then examined it. The blade was perfect!




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                                           Chapter Nineteen

                                              Deadly Tools



        “Convinced?” Cache asked smugly.

       Ron was so astonished he couldn‟t speak. He just smiled and nodded, examining it over

and over.

       “I have fashioned a sling to fit the scabbard, so you might carry the weapon and still

retain the use of your hands,” Cache informed him, snapping him out of his trance.

       She returned to the place where she kept the sword and retrieved the harness. Ron joined

her, dropping immediately to his knees so his petite partner could easily reach him. Shortly

thereafter, the four point apparatus was custom adjusted to fit his torso.

       He then sheathed the blade and handed it over to Cache, who quickly fastened it into the

harness. She stood behind him, completing the final fitting with small adjustments until the

weapon hung in place firmly, and within easy reach. She arranged it diagonally across Ron‟s

back, with the handle protruding over his right shoulder just enough so he could grasp the hilt

firmly with his right hand. A few practice pulls proved the positioning to be excellent, so she



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secured all the adjustment points, guaranteeing the scabbard could be quickly removed and

reinstalled without any further changes.

       “The harness is made of metal fibers for strength,” Cache told Ron when she was

through, “but is woven in such a way that allows it to stretch and give. It should not hamper you

while on the move or in battle.”

       “It feels fine,” Ron assured her, as he twisted about, testing her claim.

       “Now that you are satisfied with that,” she continued, walking off down the row of

shelves, “we should attend to one of your other requests.”

       She stopped again and opened a small drawer compartment, which contained a single

dark object.

       “You mentioned throwing knifes,” Cache repeated his appeal, and then showed him the

item. “These blades are a matched set, and when delivered here to Rauld, were considered to be

the finest craftsmanship in the known worlds. They were made by a “Removal Agent” from an

unknown planet.”

       “Removal agent?” Ron asked.

       “Yes,” she replied. “A person who eliminates other people‟s enemies for profit.”

       Cache placed the dark red cylinder on the floor at Ron‟s feet where he crouched to

explore it, finding it wasn‟t what he thought it to be. It was actually a tightly rolled leather case,

secured with a leather thong. He quickly untied it and unrolled the case, revealing its contents.

       There was one foot-long dagger and three identical shorter ones, each of those being ten

inches. All were double-edged along their lengths, save for the last few inches…enough to grasp

safely. They each had an arrowhead shaped hole cut into the gripping end, to lighten it so the




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blade would fly tip forward. All four were made of a deep blue metal which made them

beautiful to gaze upon, sharply contrasting with their deadly purpose.

         “I will have your uniforms altered so you might carry the blades any place you wish, so

just name it.”

         Ron didn‟t have to think about it. He instantly knew where he would have them.

         “The longest one here,” he told her, indicating an area on his back, “inside the neck of my

tunic. One on the outside of each thigh, here, and place the last one here, on the inside of my left

shin.”

         “Very well, now what about the small ones?”

         “Small ones?” Ron inquired, staring into the leather pouch again.

         Lying neatly alongside the large blades, and almost hidden, were three more knives, half

the size of the larger ones.

         “Have you any information on the users of such equipment?” Ron asked.

         “Yes,” Cache replied, “but not a great deal.”

         “Where do they normally place them?” he asked.

         “Customarily, one above each wrist,” she told him. “The third, I do not know.”

         “All right then,” Ron said, “Place two as they normally wear them and the last one down

the inside of my right boot, so it doesn‟t show.”

         “Very good,” Cache said, impressed with his caution.

         Again, she strode over to the computer terminal and punched in the orders for the

changes of his clothes. After finishing, she piloted the lift sled across the room and rejoined Ron

where he stood, shadow-sparring with the sword.




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       “As for the last item you inquired about,” Cache said to Ron, “you will have to find

something you like and we will see what we can do about replicating it to your specifications.”

       Ron sheathed the new rapier, stepped up next to Cache again, and they drifted off to

continue their search. It wasn‟t long before Ron halted once more, as he caught sight of a

promising instrument. Cache opened the case and allowed him to inspect a fabulously crafted

recurve type bow and matching quiver. He checked the weapon‟s draw length, as well as the

shape and, finding them to be acceptable, turned to his partner.

       “This is exactly what I‟m looking for,” Ron told her. “If you can duplicate this and two

dozen arrows, I believe we‟ve hit the jackpot.”

       “Jackpot?” Cache repeated, puzzled at the expression. “What are you referring to?”

       “Uh, never mind. It is just a silly metaphor.”

       “Very well, then,” Cache told him, as she guided the lift back toward the computer

terminal. “We will immediately begin the necessary processes for making the bow.”

       After another five minutes Cache finalized the specifications and plugged the required

data into the central computer. The draw length, grip size, and his likely pull capacity, all were

extrapolated from their storehouse of information gathered during his tests. She then set the

processor to the task of custom designing a bow that would fit Ron‟s unusual physical abilities.

       Next, she began applying the same variables to fabricating a set of arrows which could

also withstand the stresses of such a weapon.

       Ron felt like a kid in a candy store, as his eyes couldn‟t help but wander up and down the

aisles while Cache completed her work. She was very efficient at her task and didn‟t keep him

waiting long.




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       “There,” she commented, turning about to regain Ron‟s attention, “I am through with

that, so, if you are ready, we will go to the practice room and begin your training.”

       “Fine, let‟s go,” he replied, feeling ready for anything.

       Ron expected to go back to the cubic transporter, but instead, she led him down the

hallway outside the arsenal, and into another large room, although this place didn‟t have the

expansive dimensions of the museum of deadly tools.

       When they entered the facility set aside for Ron‟s preparations, he was reminded

somewhat of the gymnasium at his old Alma Mater. The ceiling was forty feet high, flat, and

inlaid with lights. The room itself was rectangular, as a gym usually is, but it had no basketball

goals suspended from the ceiling. Instead, there were some other contraptions, of which Ron

could only identify one…the full sized replica of a man. The other devices were groups of

shapes which undoubtedly unfolded from their present state to form an unusual instrument, or set

of instruments, Ron surmised.

       Cache left Ron standing at the entrance and set off to his left, out across the floor. He

noticed that her feet appeared to sink deeply into the surface of the floor, which he thought to be

of the same red rock he‟d seen at the arena. He then followed her to that end of the room, still

taking in the sights around him.

       The floor was indeed heavily padded, for protection against injury from a fall, no doubt.

The rest of the room was a light gray color, aiding the lights to brighten the space. Ron could

clearly tell this was a workout room.

       “What was this room used for in the old days? Training for the arena?”

       Cache stopped under one of the groups of shapes, looking up at them high overhead. The

assembly was a sphere within a triangle, surrounded by a large oval ring. She stepped to the




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nearby wall and triggered a lever, setting the triangle and oval into counter rotating gyrations

around the sphere.

       “Yes,” Cache answered, calmly. “This was one of the many rooms where the

participants of the Games trained. Now, you will have a chance to follow in their footsteps.”

       With that, she reached up and passed her hand over a sensor. Suddenly, a panel beside

her slid open and a Kreete scout…an enormous one…came rushing out at Ron, uttering a spine

tingling roar with an agony wand upraised.

       Ron was left staring up into the face of the charging Kreete warrior, which stood easily

eight feet tall and looked incredibly fierce.

       Faster than he would have thought possible, Ron managed to jump back, clear of the

enemy‟s attack by a good ten feet, and draw the ebony blade, all in one fluid motion. He landed

in a crouch with the sword raised in the fashion of a Samurai warrior.

       “I‟ve been duped!” he thought, looking over his shoulder at the entrance to the room.

The door was nowhere to be seen.

       “Damn!” he cursed himself for trusting the Rauldens so much. “But Cache wouldn‟t do

this!” he thought, searching quickly for her. She was standing with her arms folded, beside the

door which had allowed the beast in. He was puzzled, but had no time to do anything but fight.

       Ron returned his attention to the Kreete and began circling. They played the feign and

retreat game the first leader tried on him, back at the clearing where Bnolt died. Darting in and

out with their weapons, they tested each other‟s reaction speed. The two combatants sized each

other up for several minutes, before the fight went into full action.

       First the Kreete attacked, and Ron parried the agony wand aside easily, managing to land

a heavy punch on the larger being‟s jaw. Then Ron took the initiative, driving the bigger foe




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back with a blistering barrage of swordplay, but relenting just a fraction. They battled each other

forcefully yet carefully.

        Ron finally saw his opening and took it. He rushed at the beast-man, blocked a series of

blows, and let the dark blade have its first taste of blood, as he plunged it to the hilt, into the

Kreete‟s chest.

        Instantly, the Kreete warrior vanished.

        “What the hell?” Ron said as the pounding of his heart began to recede.

        “Well done, Ron,” Cache complimented him. “You reacted even better than I had hoped

you would.”

        Ron was still standing where he slew the Kreete, blade drawn, ready for action.

        “What are you talking about?” he asked angrily, scanning the room for his enemy.

“Explain what is happening here!”

        Cache reached up again and turned off the machine.

        “This device,” she told him, indicating the spinning contraption overhead, “is a three-

dimensional projection simulator. I use it to train with. It can create any being I choose by

generating a truly realistic image, and is able to give it any density I wish. I can even control the

reaction speed of the image as well. With those parameters, you can fight against someone, or

something, as quick as, or quicker than you are…so you will be a better fighter. Do you

understand?”

        Ron let out a great sigh of relief and then stowed his weapon.

        “Am I ever glad you said that,” he told her. “I had a fleeting thought that you‟d tricked

me into becoming some barbaric gladiator, for the arena games you spoke of.”




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       “How could you possibly think that?” she asked, visibly hurt by Ron‟s lack of faith in

her.

       “I apologize for my momentary lapse of trust,” he told her, “but you‟ve been pretty angry

with me lately…and just imagine how I felt when you released that Kreete warrior on me. I had

no way of knowing it was just an exercise image.”

       She considered his statement for a short while and conceded his position.

       “Yes, I suppose you are right,” Cache agreed, walking up to him. “It did not occur to me

what such a surprise might lead you to believe.”

       She slipped both of her small hands around Ron‟s empty one and held it close to her. Her

eyes turned up to meet his and she gazed at him softly. “You have nothing to fear from me, Ron.

I would never betray you. I need you to understand that. I need you to trust me,” she said to

him, almost pleadingly.

       Ron looked at her for a long moment, and he was convinced.

       “I do, Cache,” he told her warmly. “Ever since our first meeting, in the clearing, I have

had no doubts about you. This,” he said as he waved his hand at the room, “was just a brief

moment of surprise, that‟s all.”

       “I forget that you are not accustomed to our level of technology,” Cache explained, still

holding onto his hand, “and I will try to remember to warn you next time.”

       She broke her gaze from his then and stepped back, releasing him and returning to her

position at the wall.

       “We are wasting valuable time,” she told him, trying to sound more like a drill instructor,

“so…back to work!”




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       She reengaged the computer and another Kreete appeared in front of him. He leaped

backward again in a high flip and collected himself in a crouch as he landed…perfectly balanced.

Then he went back to his task for a second time.

       After a few more duels, Ron was getting the hang of what was happening. He was being

paired with an image of a different fighting style each time, and he surprised himself at how

quickly he could spot the tiniest weaknesses in his foe‟s defense. Also, he was amazed at how

proficient he was at making use of those flaws. He just let his instincts guide him, but

remembered the feeling of each encounter, making that instinct more and more a part of his

conscious persona. He learned something new during each event and so, even though he lost

some of the bouts, when he was pitted against the same style a second time, he didn‟t fall prey to

the same mistakes. And he didn‟t lose again!

       Finally, after several hours, Ron let the point of his sword droop as he settled to one knee

on the ground, motioning to Cache to stop the machine. Following a short break, he rose slowly

and walked over to where she‟d been standing and coaching, during the sessions. He was

exhausted and his body was dripping with perspiration, but he approached her smiling anyway,

proud of his progress.

       “Pretty good, huh?” he said, feeling jubilant.

       “In case you did not notice,” she replied, with less joy in her voice, “you were killed four

times and crippled six.”

       Ron looked at the scoreboard, above and behind her, where it had appeared after his

second duel. He didn‟t understand the symbols displayed there.

        “I can‟t read your board,” he told her, “but I‟m sure I got them more times than they got

me. What was the score anyway?”




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       Cache looked at him intently for a few moments, obviously deep in thought about

something, and then snapped back to his question.

       “I overlooked the possibility that you may not understand our written language, it being

similar to that of Caronians,” she said to Ron. “Forgive me. Your score was eight kills for you

and four for the computer.

       “That is not bad for your first time, but let me remind you that when you are out there, it

only takes one serious injury to have us end up dead. And you do not get a second chance.”

       “Understood,” he responded, as his prideful swagger suddenly dried up with that thought.

       “But please do not let me get you down,” she added. “Your performance was very good,

especially when you consider that I enhanced the Kreetes‟ abilities…just a touch.”

       She let out a huge, friendly grin, enjoying having pulled one over on him.

       “Oh!” Ron exclaimed, returning her smile. “So that‟s how it is, eh?”

       “That will conclude your practice for this dactrai, Ron,” Cache told him as she quickly

scampered away, laughing.

       She located the entrance to the room and opened the door, looking back over her

shoulder.

       “If you follow me, I will show you to your new quarters.”

       Ron sheathed the blade he was still holding and started after her. He could feel the strain

of the long day in every muscle, and hoped it wouldn‟t be a long walk.

       His wish was granted too, for as soon as he reached the hallway, he saw Cache directly

across from him, standing next to another open doorway. The same ornate symbol he‟d seen

beside his last room was now affixed to the wall beside this one. He briefly puzzled over that,

and then other thoughts took over.




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       “This is where you will be staying during your training,” Cache told him, sweeping her

hand across the open entryway. “There is a sanitizing unit adjoining the sleeping area, as well as

your personal nutrition center, just like the last room. Will this be satisfactory?”

       All Ron could think of was a hot shower and a large meal, so he was agreeable.

       “Yes,” he replied to her question absentmindedly, finding these accommodations exactly

as the last. “This is fine, thank you.”

       He entered the small room, making his way across the floor toward the sanitizer, already

stripping of the sword harness.

       “I will expect you back in the practice room in one billot. That is one point two of your

Earth hours,” she announced, walking away, down the hall.

       “What?” Ron called after her. “I thought you said I was through for the day.”

       “I said you were finished with practice…that being sword practice,” she shouted back at

him. “You will have to be in exceptional shape to expect to survive the valley crossing, and we

will begin on that phase of your training when you return. Now, you have less than one billot, so

you had better hurry.”

       With that said, she turned and continued down the hall to the cubic transporter,

disappearing behind the closed door of Ron‟s room as it slid shut.

       Ron spun around and entered the sanitizer facility, determined to keep up with the

training program Cache laid out, even if he collapsed from it. He would not let her see how

badly she was wearing him out.




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                                           Chapter Twenty

                                            History Lesson



       An hour later, Ron strolled back into the practice room wearing a new outfit, mottled in

dark and light blue shades. When he first put it on, he knew it would be difficult to see in the

forest, recalling how well Cache had blended in with the foliage when so garbed. It was

equipped with the sheaths he ordered, and they were nearly invisible, so well were they

incorporated into the garment.

       Cache was standing in the center of the floor, impatiently. She now wore a skimpy tank

top with equally scant shorts, as well as matching, low-rise socks…or shoes…Ron couldn‟t tell

which. Her workout clothes were fire engine red and displayed her well-defined, athletic

physique sensuously well.

       Thoughts unrelated to their mission blazed across his psyche as his mind stumbled at her

attire for a bit before regrouping.

       “Okay,” Ron said to her cheerfully, feeling much refreshed, “I‟m ready for your next

assignment.”



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       Cache softened her outlook as he reached her side. It was obvious to Ron that she was

deeply worried about something.

       “You indulged in a meal, I take it?” she inquired.

       “Yes,” replied Ron, “you said nothing about not eating.”

       “No, no…that is fine. For the next billot though, we will stretch,” she told him, “and then

we will practice falls, rolls, kicks, punches, and any other maneuver I can think of. Then we start

the hard part of the training.”

       Ron kept his smile from totally disappearing, but just barely. He was no fool. He knew

it was all necessary if he planned to make it forty hoz across the valley filled with his mortal

enemy, and so he tried to keep his spirits up.

       He promptly sat down next to where Cache stood and began the movements as she

directed.

       He was surprised when she dropped down in front of him and joined in, but he welcomed

the company. They went through a wide variety of motions that worked each of their muscle

groups thoroughly, and were well limbered up in the allotted time.

       Next they advanced to a more strenuous part of the session, hand-to-hand combat. Here,

Ron felt more at home as the teacher, although he didn‟t understand why. He explained and

demonstrated various grips, holds, throws, and escapes from holds like a twenty year veteran.

They practiced until both of them could react instantly to a series of unexpected circumstances

with power and balance. Cache was already well schooled in such tactics and absorbed his

tutelage easily and swiftly.

       “You are quite adept at this,” Ron commented, when they finished.




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       “I have watched many tapes of combatants in unarmed duels, and have practiced with the

image machine,” Cache told him, practically glowing with pride.

       “Tell me something, Cache. How is it possible that you, a tiny woman, can stand up

against my supposedly superior strength and more dense molecular structure? Didn‟t your tests

show I was equal to twenty of your Raulden men?”

       “That explanation will have to wait until we finish here, Ron,” Cache replied in a

businesslike manner. “Right now, we have a long distance to go, so come with me.”

       She led Ron over to a corner of the room that had a solid, unpadded floor, and placed him

there, facing the wall. He could see nothing of importance in that spot and wondered at her

choice, until she stepped up to the wall and placed her left hand on what Ron thought to be an

ornamental disk. It was a bright green color and was flush with the wall, until Cache touched it.

       The disk immediately began to glow brightly and rose out of the flat surface just a bit. A

quarter-inch wide space suddenly appeared in the floor around Ron‟s figure, forming a rectangle

which was six feet wide and ten feet long.

       “Brace yourself for the floor to start moving, Ron,” she warned. “It will start off slowly,

but will speed up to a good pace quickly.”

       The seemingly solid floor began to move, but did not bounce as Ron was expecting from

his personal experiences with Earth versions of the machine. It was as if the solid rock of the

mountain was slipping by beneath him, in that small area. The treadmill‟s speed climbed until

Ron thought it was going at least five-minute-mile pace, which was a fast clip, even for someone

who was in good shape. He was further astonished when he settled down to a comfortable stride

that would keep up rather handily. Cache let herself drift back enough to be alongside him, and

then she too, adjusted to the pace.




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        “Now I know what you meant when you said we had a long way to go,” Ron told her

between deep, controlled breaths. “Just how long will we be traveling?”

        “One of your Earth hours should not be too much to ask,” she replied. “I am taking it

easy on you since it is your first dactrai.”

        “Your generosity is overwhelming,” Ron muttered under his breath. Then, out loud, he

said, “This is going to be an awfully boring run, with only this wall to look at.”

        “Yes…of course…I can remedy that,” she told him.

        She dashed forward and touched the lower lip of the glowing disk, and the entire wall

instantly converted into a moving picture, right in front of them. It was a view of a wooded path,

cleared enough so the two of them could run side by side on it, if it had been real. It was

obviously a tape of some part of Rauld, and the scenery was beautiful and peaceful. There was

even a cool, gentle breeze blowing across their course.

        “That‟s more like it,” Ron said as he moved up next to Cache. “Where was this film

taken?”

        “In the valley that we will be traversing,”

        Ron fine-tuned his motions to the task of keeping the pace, feeling much more relaxed. It

was almost like he was back on Earth again, running through a trail in the park he loved so

much. He was listening to the birds singing and the small animals rustling through the

underbrush as he and Cache startled the creatures with their passage. It took a short while for

that reality to sink in, but it finally did.

        “Hey!” Ron blurted. “I hear birds and animals in these woods. Why is it that I didn‟t

hear them when we were out there a few days ago?”




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        “Because they are not there anymore,” Cache replied. “The sounds you are hearing now

have been on this disk for over eight hundred cycles. It is one of the few recordings that were

salvageable when I found them. As it was in such poor shape though, I was forced to have the

computer recreate parts of the picture in order to have a whole section of usable footage.”

        “I understand that you had a rough time making the film,” Ron told her, “but what

happened to the residents of the forest? Where are the birds and animals?”

        “I can tell you are going into that inquisitive mode again, Ron,” Cache said, “but this will

also have to wait until a better time. Let me just say that all the creatures once living

aboveground, became extinct hundreds of cycles ago. The valley itself has changed very little in

that time however, so study the area as we pass through it. Knowledge of the terrain will come

in handy when we are running for our lives out in the real forest.”

        The two of them didn‟t talk much for the remainder of the exercise, both of them getting

caught up in their own, individual mental worlds. Every now and then, they would move up

close to the wall and get a drink from a tube-type water dispenser, and then drop back into their

respective positions.

        Finally, when the hour was up, the machine slowed to a walking speed, allowing them to

cool down gradually, so their muscles were less likely to cramp up.

        To Ron‟s delight, he found the run wasn‟t nearly as bad as he expected. In fact, he felt he

could‟ve gone on for another half hour without much problem…but he chose not say that to

Cache. He was sure she would take him up on it, and he didn‟t know what was still ahead of him

for the rest of the day.

        When they were through with the walk, Cache motioned him to follow, and went across

the room to a spot directly underneath the statuette he‟d seen earlier. He watched her walk




                                                                                                  265
smoothly across the floor, showing no signs of fatigue, and was amazed once more that she was

able to keep up with him during the run. In fact, she seemed bored with the pace, as if it were

not enough of a challenge. These facts further complicated his thoughts concerning this complex

little woman, but he had to push them aside for the moment, as he found himself, once again, on

the verge of a new exercise.

       Cache lowered the silhouette figure by the time Ron joined her, and stood beside it.

       “This is the size of an average man,” Cache told him, indicating the target. “For the next

billot, you will practice with the knives, by hurling them at this.”

       Ron had been wearing the throwing knives since he returned to the gym, wanting to grow

accustomed to the feel of them, so he stepped back to the distance Cache marked off and began.

       He found that he could throw the blades well at this distance, which he felt was at least

fifty feet. He hit the target every time, and after twenty minutes, he could strike the head, or

neck, or just about any place he chose. That must have impressed Cache, because she backed

him up another twenty feet.

       The blades flew like arrows, straight and true, showing how well the craftsman who‟d

designed and created them knew his trade. With the strength of Ron‟s arm behind them, he felt

confident they were not likely to be deflected easily, even in heavy brush, as he was sinking

them half of their length into the dense target.

       “That is enough for this session, Ron,” Cache said, some time later, after he displayed his

marksmanship with exacting accuracy. “Let us stop and get cleaned up so we might enjoy a

restful meal before retiring.”

       “That sounds like a great idea to me!” he said, plucking the knives out of the target.




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       They exited the practice room and separated, Ron going to his assigned quarters and

Cache continuing down the hall. Before he entered, Ron stopped and faced her retreating form.

       “Would you care to join me for dinner?” he asked. “You can explain a few things to me

while we eat.”

       “Very well, I will be back as soon as I have cleaned up.”

       “All right then, I‟ll see you in a while,” he said, and then slipped into his room.

       Ron enjoyed a long, hot, revitalizing shower, and then shaved the stubble from his face,

before getting dressed again for his dinner date.

       “It‟s not a „date‟!” he quickly corrected his thoughts.

       He stepped into the bedroom feeling refreshed, and found Cache already their, waiting

for him, reclining on the bed. Ron gave himself a quick pat on the back for being dressed this

time, and then he approached her.

       She was wearing a different garment now, and although of the same material as usual, it

exuded quite a different style. Instead of the single, bland colored jumpsuit most Rauldens wore,

this one was decorated with varying designs of cream that swept in and around her body lines

and accentuated her feminine characteristics profoundly well. The predominantly deep violet

shade was striking, with her large, beautiful eyes highlighted perfectly, and her bright blonde

hair practically exploded with contrast.

       The garment was sleeveless, and the neckline was not collared, but instead, was more of a

choker. That aesthetic band gave way on either side to a crisscrossing swatch of material which

plunged to yield a flirtatious glimpse of cleavage, and then dove away beneath her breasts to

leave her middriff exposed to the tops of her hips. The lower part of the ensemble may as well




                                                                                                  267
have been paint, so snuggly did it cling to her well-shaped, athletic legs, and that enticing view

held his vision for an inordinate amount of time.

       It was obvious to Ron that she knew how to dress to compliment herself…as well as

stimulate the male gender. Several inappropriate thoughts raced through his mind as he gazed

down on her, in the brief seconds before he spoke. She looked extraordinarily sensual, lying

back as she was, and Ron‟s pulse quickened instantly.

       “Shall we?” he managed to ask, indicating the dining nook and breaking his train of

thought before it took him too far.

       She smiled so playfully that Ron was sure she‟d received the desired reaction from him

as she intended, testing his male behavior traits against her own alluring abilities.

       Across the small room from the bed was a similar arrangement of the table and food

dispenser Ron was accustomed to, and so he bid Cache to help herself in ordering her dinner. He

caught his breath when she moved passed him as the back of her garment was completely bare

from that choker to the flare of her perfectly shaped bottom.

       He let out a long breath as quietly as he could, trying to concentrate on some mundane

thought, and then followed her example before they each sat down at the table and began

devouring their meals.

       When the initial pangs of hunger were dulled, Ron started in again with his questions.

       “Now that we have some free time, Cache, how about telling me about yourself, how you

can do the things you and Fortell claim only I should be capable of, due to my extraordinary

circumstances. And while you‟re at it, explain why such a lovely lady as yourself is the

planetary spokesman on war, and an expert with weapons among such pacifists.”

       Cache smiled warmly at Ron‟s compliments, and then began her story.




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        “As Hoaldniz stated, Rauldens are a people of science and technology. They do not even

comprehend the meaning of anger or hatred. Violence has been removed from our culture,

totally. There has not been one recorded incident of malice in over six hundred cycles. “

        “Then what you are saying,” Ron interrupted, “is that you are not a Raulden?”

        “I was born here, and have lived here all my life, so, in that regard, I am a Raulden. But

as far as the deep conditioning mental barriers the present breed of natives has instilled in their

genes, I am not as they are.”

        “You‟re what we on Earth would call, „a wolf in sheep‟s clothing‟,” Ron told her. “How

is it possible that you were born to these people, after all those generations?”

        “I can see why it is confusing for you to understand how this is conceivable, so I must go

back a little further in the history of our planet.

        “For the past seven hundred cycles, Rauld has been the scene of a tremendous struggle.

The planet was utterly desolate back then. The surface of our world was polluted to the point of

being poisonous. Everything was dead in the sky, in the water, and even deep into the ground.

Nothing could survive outside the controlled atmospheres of these underground complexes.

        “For six centuries, the scientists of Rauld, which were nearly eighty-five percent of the

total population at the time, and are one hundred percent of it now, set their entire energies

toward rebuilding the ecological system that once flourished here. The project was so

overwhelming on their mental capacities and their time constraints that they began to rely more

and more on machines to do the menial tasks in the everydactrai needs of life. Cybernauts were

everywhere, and were performing most of their running, lifting, and walking…as well as all the

little physical tasks we take for granted, but keep our bodies strong.




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       “Well, after enough time had passed, the planet did show good signs of improvement, but

the people were on a rapid decline of their bodily state. They did not even notice what was

happening, as they just produced more devices to fill in for the duties they could no longer

perform.

       “As even more cycles slipped by, the planet grew healthy and strong, like it is now, but

the population had become incredibly weak. After the sixth century of the reconstruction

project, the gradual decline of the physical state of our inhabitants was at the lowest level of

sustainable existence. Even with the incredible technology that surrounded them, they were in

grave danger of extinction, so emaciated were they. They had invented devices which allowed

them to continue work from the beds they became confined to, since by then only their minds

were able to do work.

       “Let me also recognize how intense and exhaustive this project was on those individuals‟

minds, because I do not mean to insinuate that they were lazy. You and I can only imagine what

it might be like to have to monitor the trillions upon trillions of interrelating facts and equations

it takes to restore what the Creator initially established as a balanced ecosystem. The Raulden

society was literally hundreds of thousands of intellects all interlinked to generate the most

massive supercomputer ever devised. Such a collective link was necessary for them to share

their enormous capacities for incredibly intricate and imaginative problem solving scenarios to

achieve the fantastic results that they did.

       “They saw it as a great victory…as well they should. They had indeed restored their

planet to a beautiful, lush world, filled with clean water and a rich, life-giving atmosphere, but no

one could venture out into it to enjoy the fruits of their long, hard-won battle. That is when they

truly began to understand the folly of their actions.




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        “You must understand Ron, their bodies were at the danger point. Over half of the

population could not even do minor exertive movements, such as raising their arms, without

some mechanical aid. Centuries previous to the time I speak of, the women unanimously

decided to take the option of allowing their children to develop in controlled environments,

instead of in their bodies. This practice continued for a very long time until, at the period of

Rauld‟s rebirth, to carry a child in their womb would have surely killed them. They had even

forgone having children altogether, decades past, because the time and energy required to

develop and nurture a baby was considered too valuable. Every individual mind was needed on

the project. They thought they were just postponing it for a few cycles, and since the average

life-span of a Raulden was roughly four hundred cycles, it appeared to be a logical decision…but

it turned out to be an indefinite act.

        “That brings us up to nearly one hundred cycles ago. At that point, the greatest minds of

Rauld refocused their objectives on the future of the populace. They were not fools, and saw

little hope that they could rectify their weakened condition before the surviving population died

of old age. It was especially dire when they realized their lives were being shortened

considerably by the lack of activity they had lulled themselves into. And by then, there had not

been a newborn child for more than a century.

        “Through this mind-linking communication device, the citizens of Gammone discussed

the plight they found themselves in, and a separation of opinion ensued. Most of the population

determined that they would have to find a way to rebuild their physical states, while a substantial

faction took a different path.

        “These revolutionaries chose to abandon the race they had become and create a new

breed of Rauldens…one who would not be as foolish as them. This group turned to genetic




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engineering. They wanted to find the perfect combination of strength, virility, and willpower,

without losing the peaceful mental attitude of the surviving Rauldens.

       “While this experiment went on, the people who were willing to try, began an

agonizingly slow program designed to eventually get them out of the padded prisons they were

resigned to for so long.

       “Well, the project of creating the perfect being turned out to be equally difficult as the

planet‟s rebuilding program. As you may have guessed, there are not many powerful, virile,

peace-loving geniuses around anywhere, much less here. They made many attempts over a

forty-cycle span, but in the end, they had to abandon the project. Out of the tens of thousands of

living creatures they spawned…and „creatures‟ is the only word you could use to describe them,

they failed to arrive at the lofty goal which they had set.”

       “Accept for you, right?” Ron interjected.

       “No, not exactly,” Cache responded. “You are correct in assuming that I was the result

of one of their experiments, but as you know, I am not what would normally be considered

passive.”

       She looked away from Ron‟s gaze for a moment and her face flushed, as if recalling

some embarrassing memory. She then took a breath to continue.

        “Well, to finish the story, I am the only being to survive longer than a few santaris after

creation. In fact, I was also one of the last they produced. The program was canceled fifty-six

cycles ago, by joint consent of the persons involved in it. They finally concluded that they were

not yet technologically advanced enough in the field to safely tamper with such a high degree of

human development. They began to consider themselves as greater causes of suffering than their




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ancestors, and they all passed away within a cycle of the end to the project. The Raulden

Council decided then, to leave the fate of the population to the Creator.”

       “Wait a second!” Ron said suddenly, after her words whirled around in his thoughts, past

all the incredible historic accounts of her people‟s past. “Did you say fifty-six cycles ago?”

       “Why, yes,” Cache replied, quickly checking the figures again in her head.

       “You look like you‟re about twenty two!” Ron told her, examining her more closely.

“There‟s no way you‟re fifty-six cycles old, unless your Raulden cycles are half the length of our

Earth years.”

       “I assure you that I am,” Cache said, reinforcing her position. “Also, our annual passage

is approximately six of your weeks longer than those on your world.”

       Ron was once again speechless, as the wonders of Rauld continued to mount around him.

       “Where was I?” Cache continued, after collecting her thoughts again. “Oh, yes, I

remember. When the last of the genetic engineers finally moved on to the next step in the cycle

of life, the overall population had come quite far in their pursuits, and the future was looking

brighter for Rauld. They discovered the life-span of the average person, which, at that time, had

diminished to a mere two hundred cycles, was extending once more, almost to the original length

for the younger individuals. Due to their reinstatement of regular exercise, we Rauldens were

thriving, and so they began to have children again. The populace was confident they would be

around long enough to properly instruct the new generation on the importance of balancing the

combination of a superior mind with a healthy body.

       “They had finally won the two great battles of our planet, and the future of Rauld was

brighter than it had ever been…until the coming of the Kreete.”




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                                         Chapter Twenty-one

                                           Cache‟s Ambition



         “But you left out the part about how you became the war representative, and how you are

able to do the things you do,” Ron reminded her, fearing she would skip the parts he wished to

know the most.

         “Yes, I guess I did,” she said, smiling coyly. “I suppose I rambled on too much about the

history of the planet.

         “Well, when I was born, it was only normal for my creators to expect me to perish just as

the others they had produced. But when I outlived all my predecessors, the Raulden public

began wondering what kind of person I was going to turn out to be. They called the Council

together to come up with a plan of action, in case I was some mentally imbalanced, or dangerous,

being.

         “They grew even more concerned as I developed because I was created by combining the

DNA of a Raulden with that of a heavy-worlder. I was born with the molecular structure of a

class nine-point-eight planet dweller, which meant that I was much stronger and tougher than



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any other person on the planet. This predicament had to be dealt with very carefully, since they

could not dream of killing me, even if I became a threat to the other citizens.

       “They decided to exile me from the complex, should I not meet their standards as a gentle

and intelligent soul.

       “As it turned out, I was almost abandoned as a violent brute at the age of three, when I

was at the stage of development where I wanted to play rough with the other children. The

intelligence they were looking for in me managed to save me from that fate though…just in

time…for it was then that I realized I was not like the other children.

       “After this epiphany became clear to me, even at my young age, I never engaged with the

others when I felt the need to play. I was forced to live my life cautiously from then on.

       “My adopted father helped me to get around the rules, so I could get the stimulation a

young child needs. He told me of this place, and would take me here daily, so I might run free

and use my body‟s abilities to their fullest.

       “When I was older, I began studying the records of other planets‟ civilizations, such as

their games, laws, and rituals. Methods of dealing with one another, such as punishment and

war, were totally new to me, since there were no related fields here, so I studied them. That is

how I became so learned on the use of weapons. As far as the war spokesman position, that has

only come about in the last cycle.

       “Are you sure you want to hear all of this? It is cutting into your rest period.”

       “Don‟t you dare stop now,” Ron warned her. “I‟m just getting a grip on what‟s really

going on around here.”

       “All right,” Cache continued. “Once I fully developed, I became more and more

fascinated with the cultures of the other worlds. I decided I wanted to venture out into space to




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meet the peoples I had learned about. I drew up the designs for a spacecraft which I planned to

journey in, and presented the proposal to the Council.

        “Thanks to my father, they granted me permission to go forward, and gave me unlimited

use of the complex across the valley…Jametid. It had been sealed for the entire time the

Rauldens waged their battle with nature, and not a single person I knew had ever been there. As

you might imagine, I was very surprised to find a fully equipped facility for manufacturing space

vessels.

        “Also, there was an interstellar communications network in the complex. I inquired

about why the equipment had been abandoned and why its existence was kept from the general

populace, only to learn that it was available all along. No one concerned themselves with

anything outside Rauld for so long that it was not considered useful information any longer, and

so they dropped it from the education lessons.

        “Of course, I was taught about intraplanetary communications…the type we use between

our underground cities…in preparation for the dactrai when we would once again live on the

surface of our planet. But this was a whole new realm, so it took me a long time to adapt to the

new principals of space communications, with the differing time delays of messages and such. It

took even longer than normal because I spent much of my time and energy on constructing the

ship.

        “The further I looked into the memory of the computer, the more I learned about Rauld

and the other inhabited planets. The spacecraft I toiled on each dactrai was halfway completed

before I began listening in to what the other worlds were telling one another.

        “I became appalled at what was happening out there. The Kreete had long since created

the Triad of Power, to govern the planets of the galaxy‟s numerous solar systems, and ruled




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unchallenged over all in their empire. I continued to listen, and one morning, I started talking

back to the foreign worlds, telling them we had technology that would be very helpful to them in

their struggle against the Triad.

       “This communication went on for a long time, while I neared completion of the space

ship, adding a few extra items, to deal with the unfriendly types I knew were out there. I was

able to learn quite a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of the Kreete, their ships, and their

weapons, because of their profuse need to boast about their conquests and accomplishments. I

took information from several different cultures and was able to combine some of them into an

all-new shield configuration which is extremely promising. That, as well as my own “unique”

variation of a compressed plasma cannon, should prove to be devastatingly effective against the

Kreete ships.

       “I finally felt ready to go forward with my plans, so I brought the information of the state

of the galaxy to the Raulden Council. The elders admitted some knowledge of the situation, and

said they purposely stayed clear of the problems of the other planets, since all their resources

were needed here, to save their own people. Also, it had been a long-standing, yet unspoken

consensual agreement that inhabitants of a world should be left to their own fate.

       “But I was able to convince the Council that these planets‟ fates were already being

greatly affected by an outside force, the Triad, and that we had a moral obligation to help them.

The Council finally came to the same conclusion I had, and agreed to provide whatever aid we

could to the struggling worlds.

       “Since I was not yet finished with the spacecraft, I decided to try another way to supply

help to one of the planets. I picked the one I thought showed the best chance of seceding from

the Triad…Caron, as my target.




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           “The Caronians are a primitive race, not yet having risen to the Industrial Age, but are

very intelligent and extraordinarily hardy, as well as being fierce and dogmatic. They adapted

quickly to the influences of the futuristic Kreete and have been able to use the Kreete‟s “Code of

Honor” to their advantage, which allows them much more freedom than most cultures under the

Kreete‟s Empirical rule.

           “Now, here on Rauld, we have possessed a means of transporting inorganic matter from

one place to another for hundreds of cycles, thanks to a brilliant woman named Tennice Kuar.

The device was extremely effective and nearly instantaneous, so I decided to try to adapt this

intercontinental matter transferal technology to an interstellar one…to send help to Caron.

           “I joined forces with Ketlical and Vaclaar and, together, we began experimentation with

it immediately. After a few santari…a santari is our “month”, fifty Raulden dactrais…we

figured out that if given enough of the right, exceptionally active energy combination, the

transfer unit would have an unlimited range.

           “Another santari later, after searching the central computer over and over for any like

resources for our plans, I found the power source we needed…a star, or more precisely, a star

cluster.

           “You see, it could not be an ordinary star; it had to be one of the enormous, superintense

star masses that dot the galaxy only sporadically. These burning collections of stellar matter

combine to reach sizes which span light cycles, and possess the intensity of an entire galaxy of

normal suns. The tremendous gravitational exertions compress matter and energy with such

violence that entirely new, and extremely rare, energy streams are ejected from its mass in huge

amounts. Most times, this ejected product renders the nearby sections of the galaxy devoid of

life, due to the radiation.




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       “Such a star cluster exists, fairly close by, and it is at that phenomenon we directed the

matter-transfer unit. We placed a satellite relay buoy in a position well beyond Metash‟s

gravitational influence, to allow us a clear transfer of the energy stream. Then, we sent the

receiver part of the Matter Transfer Portal to Caron, via a transoptic interstellar space probe.”

       “Wait a second,” Ron broke in. “What‟s transoptic?”

       “Visible light travels at a precise, and unchanging, speed…designated as VL-1,” Cache

explained. “We use it as a reference for distances in outer space, and we refer to this velocity

platform as the optical-light-velocity-threshold, or “optic” for short. When anything can go

beyond that reference point, it is said to be transoptic. Understand?”

       Ron nodded the affirmative and once more marveled at the unending technological

wonders of these people. They had solved the problem of the velocity limit of light speed.

       “What about the radiation you spoke of?” he puzzled. “If your planet is near enough to

the cluster to use its power, why is Rauld not a barren world?”

       “We find ourselves once again in a unique position,” Cache told him. “Since our planet

is nearly stationary between Dersa and Metash, and Metash is between Rauld and the cluster, we

are shielded from the dangerous affects of the star mass.”

       Ron thought quickly about how rare Rauld‟s position was in its solar system…the single

world, trapped so precariously between the enormous gravitational forces of its two stars.

       “Your very existence in this „one in a billion‟ location just blows me away!” Ron

commented while his mind raced to calculate the chances of such a world, in such an incredibly

complex location, thriving and advancing beyond all other beings in this portion of the universe.

It seemed to point to something more than just chance.




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       “Anyway,” Cache continued, always having accepted Rauld‟s existence as commonplace,

and not understanding Ron‟s amazement, “we landed it in a remote part of the planet so we

might be able to conduct our tests in secret. In a short time we had it working perfectly…better

than we could have ever guessed.

       “This new power supply yielded a strange, yet glorious affect on the transporter. Instead

of breaking down the target object, atom by atom, and propelling those atoms across the void of

space, it collaborated with the computer to, in essence, bring the target to us.

       “You see, the portal isn‟t a conduit between here and there, but rather it focuses the

energy stream from the star cluster on the two points, and they become the same point in space.”

       Ron‟s blank expression coaxed Cache to simplify her explanation a bit further.

       “When the Portal is open,” she said, framing an imaginary window between her and Ron

with her hands, “it is as if our relative point in the universe is literally a micron away from any

other point in the universe. I can see what is there and they can see me. I could simply reach

across and touch the other place,” she concluded by grasping Ron‟s hand in her own. “We do

not really understand the actual physics behind the device, but we do know that it is absolutely

stable. It is as near to a miracle as we have ever heard of.”

       Ron simply blinked at her, too awestruck to speak.

       “Nevertheless, after some minor adjustments and tests, we realized we had gained two

huge bonuses for our efforts. It made communications in „real time‟ possible…so there were

never any more time delays between there and here. Also, even though we planned to send only

inanimate objects, I discovered we could deliver living things as well, as I found out by accident,

when a small animal ran through the portal and came out here on Rauld. I was terrified by the




                                                                                                  280
little creature, but I think it was even more frightened of me, because it ran back home twice as

fast as it had come.”

       Cache laughed at the memory of the encounter.

       “If you, Vaclaar and Ketlical developed the Starflex Portal, then why does it still retain

Kuar‟s insignia attached to it?” Ron questioned.

       “The title of the discovery uses only the Surname of the individual who developed it.

Her name was Tennice Kuar. She developed the original transporter which led to ours, and that

would have been enough for me to leave it to her. However, even though adapting it to this new

purpose was a collaboration of three of us, Ketlical and Vaclaar agreed the idea of this new

utilization, and the discovery of the final link to make it work, had been mine. So therefore, they

insisted I accept the credit. Tennice‟s surname and mine are the same, as I am Cache Kuar.”

       “Are you two related?” Ron asked.

       “She was my mother,” Cache told him with a distant look in her eyes. “It was her DNA I

was created with. She has been gone many cycles now, from when I was an adolescent child.

She was brilliant and tenacious, and she inspired me to be the same.”

       “She undoubtedly did,” Ron mused, recalling Cache‟s dogged determination to complete

her goals.

       “Anyway, to continue with my story,” she said, refocusing her mind to where she‟d left

off, “I immediately contacted the rebel forces on the planet and began shipping them parts. Our

hope was that they might be able to erect their own power generator, like the one we use here on

Rauld. I planned to send them everything they would need to build the Shotal Planetary Defense

Shield. But after the first few shipments, the parts began to disappear before the Caronians could

recover them, and we feared the Kreete had somehow begun intercepting them.




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        “The Caronians became distressed because they thought I had given up on them and

stopped the deliveries. Each time, they would go to the coordinates I would set, but the items

would not be there. I moved the receiver unit every time I sent a shipment, and it transmitted

confirmation when the items had passed through, so I could not figure out how they were getting

lost.

        “In a desperate act to find out the truth, I decided to go to Caron myself. I was sure the

Kreete had managed to break our transmission encryption, so I decided I would go unannounced.

We have the ability to trace a transmission signal to its source very accurately, so I simply waited

for the next communiqué signal, and sent the portal receiver to it.

        “While I played a prerecorded message, to allow me the time to energize the receiver, I

powered up the portal, glanced about the area I could see, and stepped through.

        “When I arrived at the other side, the Caronian Rebellion Committee greeted me.”

        Cache stopped for a moment, remembering what she‟d seen there. A light tremble went

through her body, and the look on her face made the hair on the back of Ron‟s neck stand up.

        “Off to my right, sixty steps away, the three men who I intended to meet sat tied to

poles,” she recalled. “Their arms and legs had been severed from their bodies, but they were still

alive. They were surrounded by over twenty Kreete warriors, four of whom were busy eating the

amputated limbs in front of the rebel men.”

        Cache had to close her eyes to keep the tears back, as she finished.

        “The Kreete were focusing their attention on the helpless men when I stepped through the

field. As I recall, I nearly collapsed from a combination of the heat of their tropical climate, the

greater gravity, and the horror I was witnessing.




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        “The one thing I remember the most though, was the look in the eyes of the Caronians.

They were filled with fear…but it was not fear from the pain they were in, nor that of their own

fates. They were afraid for me. They were nearly panicked at the sight of me. I know now that

they had all their hopes for the future of their planet riding on me…on my safety. I know this

because in the few moments I stood there, they cast aside their own peril in a desperate attempt

to save me. They all shouted, „No! Go back! Cache, it is a trap! Oh Creator above us, save her!

Send her back!‟

        “I turned before the Kreete could react, and dove back through the portal, snapping off

the transfer beam as quickly as I could. I went over to the control unit for the receiver and sent

the detonation signal…and then I collapsed in my lab and cried for two billots straight.”

        Tears were streaming down Cache‟s face as she paused to collect herself. She looked up

at Ron, seeing matching drops welled up in his eyes for the pain she was so obviously in.

        “That was the first time I ever harmed another living thing, and I killed at least twenty-

three individuals in that instant, with the push of a button.”

        “What do you mean?” Ron asked, holding her hand now, trying to comfort her.

        “The explosive material I used was meant to completely destroy the receiver, so no one

would be able to make use of its technology. It would have leveled the area for more than half of

a hoz in all directions.”

        Ron considered what she said carefully.

        “Cache,” he told her firmly, “you did the right thing. You released your friends from the

agony they were in, and you eliminated an enemy force from spreading that danger to others.”

        He nudged her drooping face up to meet his again. “You did the best thing you could

have done.”




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       Cache nodded and managed a smile, thankful for Ron‟s reassurance.

       “After that, I began speaking with another group of Caronians who took over following

their comrades‟ deaths. They immediately informed me that they had learned what planet was

next on the Kreete‟s list to conquer. It was Rauld. The rebels said the Kreete wanted the

technology we had developed, especially the Portal.

       “Ron, if they were to get their hands on that, the galaxy would be theirs for the taking.

       “They arrived here, at Rauld, just over a santari ago, mere dactrais before I completed the

ship of war that has been my main project for the past ten cycles. But even if I had completed it

earlier, I still did not have an experienced pilot who could stand the strain of combat in it.”

       “That‟s why you sent for Kaskle?” Ron asked.

       “Yes,” she replied. “He was the best Caron had to offer. I dispatched a new probe the

torjourne before they arrived, hoping to bring him here.”

       “What about Rauld?” Ron inquired. “I know Hoaldniz said you don‟t have any land

based weapons with which to fight them, but surely there‟s some ancient weapon from your

collection in the arsenal?”

       “No,” Cache responded. “He is correct. After the Shotal Shield was built, there was no

sense in adding to its protection. It was deemed impenetrable by any known power, and has

been, until now. As far as the thousands of historical weapons, they are all either too primitive to

be of any help, or would be neutralized by the Matrix‟s affects. We will have to develop a

totally new technology to combat this unique threat…and there is no time for that.

       “The Kreete bombarded the shield for dactrais, with all the capability they had. We

watched and hoped that they would simply give up, but two torjournes ago they overloaded part

of the Power Grid, because of its antiquity and the strain that was on it. That is how they slipped




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five scout ships through the section before we were able to cross-transfer power to the damaged

portion.

         “We increased the output of the Matrix to withstand the attack, but now it is in a

declining state of imbalance. The Grid will not hold out indefinitely, and when it goes, we are at

the mercy of the Kreete…who have none.

         “After the shield‟s brief failure, the Council decided we had better come up with an

alternative plan. The new spacecraft was the logical fall-back measure, and so we began a search

for Kaskle immediately. While awaiting word from Caron about his availability, Aanlis‟

division took over operation of the portal, so there would always be someone here monitoring it.

We needed a quick response to any news…and a person at the ready to shut it down should some

disaster occur, such as what almost happened to me. We also decided to install a buffer, a foyer

if you will, for incoming traffic…one which could scan anything coming back to Rauld. It keeps

someone from spying on us from the other position as well. I can see their world but all they see

is a…”

         “Shimmering dark void?” Ron asked, recalling the last images of his time on Earth.

         “Yes!” Cache confirmed, suddenly understanding how he knew that fact. “If there was

an unwelcome intrusion, we could identify it and shut down the sequence. That is how the

computer gained the time to merge you and Kaskle, and then redirect the delivery point to the

field where you ended up. Since the flying device had to come through with you, and it would

not fit in our laboratory, we were forced into that desperate, unconventional action.

         “Anyway, at that point we began formulating new plans to survive the Armada‟s attack.

That is how I became the spokesman on the war effort. I was the only person qualified on the

matter. “You” and our ship are the back-up plan I came up with.




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         “Now, have I answered all of your questions?”

         “Not exactly,” Ron told her. “You seem to have all the qualifications Kaskle had, as far

as the ability to stand the stress of battle, so why did you need him?”

         “The ship can be flown by one person, I grant you that,” Cache answered. “However, I

have not performed well enough in the simulator to feel I have much of a chance against the

more experienced, and numerous, Kreete. Kaskle has flown a Kreete vessel into battle many

times, and has vast knowledge of their tactics. He…you…are what it will take to stand against

them.”

         Ron thought about the situation for a moment.

         “Do you think I will do well in the simulator?”

         “We shall see tomorrow,” Cache replied, getting to her feet to leave.

         “You mentioned the use of the transfer portal for intercontinental purposes,” Ron said,

stopping her. “Couldn‟t we just use it to zip over to Jametid, and avoid all the unnecessary

danger of the valley crossing?”

         “I am afraid not. The power could be generated here, but the portal requires a great deal

of energy and the grid could not stand the strain. It might burn up. And we cannot use the

alternate power source from the supermassive star because of the Kreete.”

         “There are two more questions I have, before you go,” Ron said, as he rose to escort her

out. “What happened to the race of warlike beings who once occupied Rauld? You didn‟t

mention them.”

         “That will have to wait until another time. You have a busy dactrai ahead of you

tomorrow, so you had better get some rest. I will come for you in the morning.




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       “And I hope you sleep more peacefully tonight than you did last night,” she added,

recalling the hole in his door.

       “Thanks…me to! Wait…here‟s a quick question. You mentioned your father. He

sounded like the only one who really understood you.”

       “Yes, I guess that is true, until lately, at least.”

       “Who is he…Hoaldniz?” Ron pressed.

       “No,” Cache replied, slightly misty-eyed. “He was Bnolt.”

       “Oh!” Ron said sheepishly, embarrassed for prying. “I‟m terribly sorry, Cache.”

       “That is all right,” she returned, leaning in to accept Ron‟s outstretched arms for comfort.

“I still have him in my heart.”

       Ron held her firmly for a long while, as she reflected on her loss. Cache was grateful to

finally have another person whom she could relate to, and whom she could really open up to

without worrying about having to restrain her emotions, like her fiery temper. Also her need of

physical closeness like every person so desperately wants could be satisfied. She could finally

throw her arms around someone, or have him hold her tightly, the way Ron was doing now. It

was a simple act she had never enjoyed the pleasure of until his arrival, and that allowed her

attachment to Ron to draw even closer.

       Cache knew she was moving too fast, getting too emotionally involved with him, and

tried to check it…but it felt so wonderful, exhilarating, and liberating that sometimes she wanted

to burst from the joy of it. However, those feelings frightened her as well. He was the first man

she‟d ever really had substantial physical contact with…he being a heavy-worlder like her. He

was strong and brave, and exceedingly attractive, which did nothing to help her objectivity. She

knew those traits could sway any woman, and desperately tried to hold back the flutter in her




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heart until she had time to look beyond them…but she was a novice as such games and patience

was not her forte`. Too, he‟d saved her life and placed himself in direct and serious danger to

shield her from the same.

       Rauldens did not believe in noble bloodlines, but she was sure Ron would easily fit the

other-worlders‟ designation of such. He seemed to be the epitome of what she‟d read all women

search for in a mate! But on the other side of the emotional equation, she couldn‟t tell what was

going on inside him, constantly receiving mixed signals from this complicated man.

       After a time, she gently forced herself to break free of the one place she never wanted to

leave…his powerful embrace.

       Ron then took a step to walk Cache to the door, but his muscles had stiffened

considerably, and he moved rigidly, giving away the fact that the day‟s rigors had caught up with

him. Cache saw this and pulled up short of the doorway.

       “I know exactly what you need. I have spent many evenings with just this sort of

problem, and have benefited from the use of some well-trained massage Cnauts. I think I can

help you relax.”

       She turned him around and ushered him over to the bed, where she coaxed him out of his

clothes and onto the soft surface. Ron started to reject her advances but, since she had already

seen him naked, he figured there was no real harm. When he was lain out prone on his stomach,

she climbed on top of him and began massaging his knotted muscles.

       Starting at his broad shoulders, she spent the next hour slowly working out the kinks,

which allowed him to repose…and her to take in the view as she went.

       She had never seen a man so massively built as Ron, and couldn‟t help herself as her

passion for him made it known to her. Her body temperature rose with each passing second,




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until she thought she would literally burn up from the inside. By the time she finished the

massage of his six foot, four-inch frame, she barely had the willpower to fight her feelings. To

relieve herself of the strain, she quickly threw a blanket over him and dashed out the door,

seeking the cool, emptiness of the corridor to clear her mind. While making her way back to her

own room, she kept telling herself that he was not of her people and would probably be repulsed

by her feelings for him.

       Back in the bed where she just left him, Ron‟s last thoughts were of Cache‟s loving

touch, and her exquisite face looking down at him.

       “How beautiful you are, Cache,” he said, and then he drifted off to sleep.




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                                        Chapter Twenty-two

                                           Passion and Duty



       The lights suddenly flashed on some hours later, causing Ron to rouse groggily. He sat

up to see why his rest had been disturbed and beheld a stunning sight. There, before him, only a

few short feet away, was Cache. That wouldn‟t normally have surprised him because he knew

she would be coming for him when he was supposed to get started on his training. What caused

Ron to sit there staring unabashedly and unable to speak, was simple and understandable…she

was entirely nude! He couldn‟t believe his eyes as he gazed at the beauty of the woman who

stood before him.

       He took note that her skin was indeed, completely covered with the short, soft fuzz in all

locations, which he verified as he scanned her body very slowly on a second pass. She was a

picture of perfect symmetry from the graceful line of her neck, to the gentle slope of each

shoulder, and on down to the turn of each delicate ankle. Her body was pure visual heaven.

       Ron saw the rising passion of her in the speed of her breath and the slight trembling of

her slim fingers which jittered as they rested gently against her hips. Her spectacular breasts



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were firm and full, each ending in a perfect, hardened point that rose and fell with every

inhalation, causing a fantastically sensuous, undulating vision that drove Ron‟s own inner engine

revving.

       Under those glorious breasts was a hard, flat stomach…lean and defined with taught

muscle, and punctuated with the sweet, innocent dip of her belly button. Ron‟s inspection

continued to her tiny waist which quickly flared into marvelous hips, accentuating her feminine

figure maddeningly.

       Her legs were firm and shapely, and Ron‟s blood boiled as he welcomed the thought of

those dazzling limbs wrapped around him in a lover‟s embrace…and he swallowed hard.

       He blinked firmly once, in an attempt to see if this was merely a mirage. But when he

opened his eyes again she was there, in his arms, clinging to him as if he would disappear should

she let him go. The tightened buds of her superb breasts pressed against his chest boldly, and the

feeling of her naked body next to his skin seemed to radiate the heat she felt for him. She

covered his mouth with steaming, moist kisses, sending her tongue exploring hungrily for his.

He didn‟t fight…didn‟t think…he only felt…and he was certain he‟d never experienced anything

as wonderful in his life as when her body melded with his.

       She was small, and clutched at his powerful shoulders as her body vibrated in rapid

waves, coursing up and down her figure…her eyes clamped shut and her teeth clenched tightly.

She dug her fingers into his flesh and her breath quickened, while the pressure within her

climbed rapidly to a peak.

       She searched out his lips once more, trying to bond with him at every point she could, but

the heat within was soaring too swiftly and she had to pull her lips from him once more. Panting




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for air, fighting her need to release, she was trying desperately to make the moment last as long

as possible.

       At the last instant, she held onto him with every ounce of her strength as her body

exploded with sensations she had never dreamed of, much less experienced. She then let loose a

rasping scream of exultation as she twisted in its mind-expanding pleasure.

       Ron was at the edge of control when she lost hers, and the sensation of her gripping him

even tighter in her throws of ecstasy would have triggered his own release had he not glanced up

from Cache‟s smiling face. When he did, the fires of his passion turned to ice…he saw his wife

at the bedside wearing a black dress and veil.

       “What about me?” she cried with tears drizzling from her cheeks. “What about the

promise you made to me? I hate you! I hate you!”

       “Angela!” Ron shouted, reaching out for her.

       The sound of his own voice brought Ron to full consciousness. He was sitting up in

bed…in the dark…alone. His body was covered in a cold sweat and he was shaking. Everything

told him it was just a nightmare…his wits, his rationale, and his obvious lack of companionship.

But it was a long while before he regained hold of his emotions and could squelch his

overwhelming guilt for having even dreamed of such an adulterous act.

       At last though, after his breathing returned to normal, he reached to the tiny shelf beside

the bed and found his watch. He fumbled in the pitch black of the room for the correct position

and then pushed the light button on the timepiece. Only five hours had passed, but he knew,

once again, he was not going to be able to get back to sleep, so he decided to get an early start on

the new day. It was supposed to be a long one, according to Cache.




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       Ron had to shove hard at the memory of his fervent dream to get it out of his mind

enough for him to think clearly…and was only truly successful after focusing on the danger of

the upcoming mission.

       The lights flashed on as his feet touched the floor, shocking his senses enough to help

him get back to the real world. Before too much longer though, with a great deal of

concentration, he was past it…showering, shaving, and wondering what to expect from his day.

       A short time later, after he ate breakfast by himself, he decided to go to the training

center early to get the stiffness out of his limbs. As he stepped toward the door however, he

heard a tiny chime ring out.

       He stopped and looked around for a moment, and then he saw the door to his room

shimmer slightly and turn transparent, revealing Cache standing outside it.

       “May I enter?” she asked before he reacted to the alert.

       “Yes,” Ron replied, startled by the strange transformation of the door, which suddenly

changed back to its normal appearance before slipping quickly into the floor.

       “How are you feeling this morning?” Cache inquired, smiling brightly. “Was last night

everything you hoped it would be?”

       Ron‟s mind flooded with thoughts of the dream he‟d experienced as he stared at her,

forgetting about the magically changing door. He couldn‟t think of a single word to respond to

her inquiry, and his daze caused him to walk right into one of the chairs near the table, catching

his left shin with a resounding “crack”.

       “Oh, crap!” Ron let out, hobbling around the small room from the jolt.

       “Ron?” Cache asked with a chuckle in her throat. “Are you all right?”




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         “What?” he replied, still gripping his shin. All he could think of for a split second was,

“Yes, you were fantastic last night”, but he forced himself into a different frame of mind. “Yeah,

uh…yes, I‟m fine. What did you mean, when you asked, „was it everything I hoped it would

be‟?”

         She couldn‟t help but giggle at his awkward gait, but she managed to respond to his

question.

         “The massage,” she told him, a bit miffed that he didn‟t remember. “Was it good for

you? Did it help you sleep?”

         “Of course!” he said quickly, returning to a standing posture. “Yes! Cache, that was

wonderful. You are a very talented masseuse. Thank you, and yes it did help me sleep.”

         He stood there looking at her, his face flushed red, feeling guilty about the dream.

         “How about you?” he asked, in a try to redirect his thoughts. “Did you sleep well?”

         “Very well, thank you.”

         “Have you had breakfast?” He asked.

         “Yes, thanks. I have.”

         “Okay then…what‟s on the agenda for today?”

         “The first thing I have arranged for you is a medical trip,” Cache told him, hesitantly. “I

would like to have Fortell install a translator into your brain.”

         Ron stared at her in disbelief, erotica now the farthest notion from his mind. “Are you

serious?”

         “Please do not be alarmed, Ron,” she said, trying to calm him. “The device is only about

the size of my little fingernail and is very thin. It will be totally painless and will not take much

time.”




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        “What‟s wrong with this one,” he asked, fingering the collar of his tunic.

        “It can easily be damaged, or separated from you, and then we could not communicate

with each other,” Cache explained. “Also, this new one would enable you to read our language,

and that of all the known languages, as well as translate their words…and no one would be able

to tell that you did not speak their tongue naturally.”

        Ron racked his brain in an attempt to come up with a good reason to avoid the procedure,

but in the end, he had to admit to the logic behind it. There was no time to teach him the

information, and communication was vital to the mission.

        “All right,” Ron said. “I‟ll go along with it. After all…you‟re right. I can‟t take a

chance on losing our ability to talk to each other.”

        The two of them left his room and went directly to the transporter. After a long ride with

several directional shifts, which Ron negotiated like a pro, they arrived at Fortell‟s laboratory.

        “Well, Ron-Kaskle, are you ready for your surgery?” Fortell asked, straight to the point,

as always.

        “No,” Ron responded, “but don‟t let that stop you.”

        Fortell forced a slight smile and then directed Ron to lie down on a nearby table, face

down.

        Glancing around the room enabled Ron to see several assistants milling about a strange

looking apparatus a few yards in front of the table. Other than that, he could see no instruments

that might constitute an operating room. He stretched out on the appointed platform and saw that

it was designed with a hole for his face to rest in, which allowed him to look about, although

only at the floor and the feet of the passersby. Ron was pleasantly surprised, finding it well

padded and comfortable, so he relaxed as much as he could.




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        Fortell walked over to the collection of assistants and instructed them in a voice that Ron

couldn‟t pick up, so softly did he speak. The group then took hold of the mechanical object and

guided it to the table.

        Ron raised his head and was able to get a good look at the piece of equipment, but it was

too strange for him to identify. It appeared to be a set of vices set on a tall stand. The stand

itself must have hovered above the floor because as he watched, he couldn‟t hear any rolling

noises…just a slight hum, like the lift sled he and Cache had ridden. They moved it right up to

Ron‟s head before Fortell thought to tell him about what was happening.

        “This instrument will be placed around your skull, and when activated, will keep you

from moving,” Fortell explained. “We would not want you to make any untimely shifts during

this operation. Even the slightest twitch could be dangerous.”

        “Well, that‟s just great!” Ron thought as he assumed his previous position.

        “Are you comfortable?” Fortell asked, before he went forward with the procedure.

        “Yes…nervous, but comfortable.”

        “Then we will begin.”

        The clamps on the holding device were then slipped around Ron‟s temples. He thought

they would screw the minivises down against his skull, but instead, they just placed them where

they wanted them and stepped away.

        Fortell checked the position of the equipment and then triggered a switch on the support

rod. Instantly, Ron‟s head became locked in place. He couldn‟t even turn his eyes from the

position they were in. The only parts of his anatomy able to move above his shoulders were his

eyelids, which were free to blink.




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        A wave of panic swept through his body for the second time in as many days when he

realized just how vulnerable he was. He wanted to tell them to release him, but his mouth would

not respond. His hands were at the edge of the table, so he fought against the irrational fear that

was welling up inside him by grabbing the table and letting the rising adrenaline burn out

through the strength of his fingers. The result was a crumpling of metal, as the bed‟s tubular

frame gave way under the incredible pressure he was exerting on it.

        Cache saw Ron‟s fingertips disappearing into the table‟s structure, and at once knew what

was happening. A man such as him can‟t be caged, or tied, or in any way be made helpless

without, in some fashion, fighting back. Here, he knew the operation needed to take place, and

that he had to be immobilized for the procedure. Nonetheless, the position of no control over the

outcome of the next half billot was too hard for him to deal with alone. She moved to his side

swiftly and dropped to her knees, gripping his bulging arm with her small hands and pressing her

lips softly against the back of his wrist.

        “It is all right,” she whispered to him. “I am here.”

        Ron felt her touch on his left forearm, and her gentle kiss, and he knew that he was not

alone. Her soft contact was exactly what he needed to make it over the hill of insecurity he‟d

been climbing. Too, the sweet words she breathed into his ear were so soothing that his death

grip on the table eased up immediately and he was able to inhale again. The one person on the

planet who he trusted implicitly was there, and that was all he needed to know.

        Fortell took a few moments to gather his instruments, and when he moved into position to

begin, he found a calm, receptive patient. He switched on the monitors which would track Ron‟s

every physiological and neural function, checked them for stability, and then went to work.




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         The only thing Ron felt was a slight chill at the location of the incision. Fortell was

extremely efficient as he worked, and with only a few instructions to his assistants, he was very

quiet also, a man of extraordinary focus.

         In less than twenty borts, he stepped back and announced the operation was complete. A

short time period was needed to check if all the connections were transferring data properly, and

then he shut down his equipment and stepped around to Ron‟s front, releasing the containment

field.

         “There you are,” Fortell said as he turned off the machine.

         Ron didn‟t move his head at first, wondering what he was able to do without ripping out

the stitches. After all, had he not just undergone brain surgery?

         “What is wrong?” the physician asked quickly. “Are you unable to move?”

         “Nothing is wrong,” Ron replied carefully. “I just don‟t want to tear anything loose,” he

added as he slowly rose from the table. “What are my limitations? How long before I can move

around normally?”

         Fortell just gazed at him in open amazement. “Why…you can do whatever you like, of

course. You may begin immediately.”

         “What?” Ron asked, dumbfounded, feeling certain he‟d just heard the doctor incorrectly.

“Doesn‟t it take time for wounds to heal around here? What about the stitches?”

         Fortell was as blank as the nearby wall.

         “The bindings that underdeveloped peoples use to hold the wounds together while they

heal,” Cache added, trying to help. “I have read about them from the record disks of other

civilizations.”




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       “Well, here,” Fortell explained with a small huff at such barbaric procedures, “we have a

method that simply separates the cells at the entry area without damaging them. They merely

release their bond to one another at the specified locations. And when we are finished, we use an

adhesive agent known as Tion Sixteen to reattach them until they reform their own bonds, at

which point they absorb the agent. You are in perfect health now.”

       “I see,” Ron said, rotating his head from side to side. “That‟s some great stuff. I wish we

had it back where I come from.”

       Cache reached up to his collar and turned off the external translator.

       “Can you understand me, Ron?”

       “Yes,” he replied, smiling. “Your voice is slightly different now, clearer than before,” he

added. “And sexier,” he thought.

       Ron then looked around the room again, this time with a little more care. He made out

several labels on different items that, before, had just been some unknown symbols. Now, he

saw them written the same way, but easily interpreted their meanings, as if he were reading

English.

       Cache punched up a printout on a nearby terminal.

       “Can you read this?” she asked.

       “Certainly!” Ron replied. “It‟s the results of the tests that you ran on me two days ago.”

       “Excellent!” Fortell cried. “A perfect connection. You see,” he began explaining to Ron,

“I linked the cerebral…”

       Fortell looked as if he was about to go into a long lecture about how the operation was

planned and performed, so Cache cut him off before he could get started.




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        “Sorry, Fortell, but we have no time to spare,” she told the doctor quickly. “We have to

get back to preparing for the mission.”

        Cache then spun around and ushered Ron out of the lab and into the transporter without

waiting to say good-bye. When they were on their way back to the workout facility, she

explained her urgency.

        “Fortell tends to be somewhat lengthy in his explanations when it comes to the details of

his work, like I did last night, and we really do not have the time to waste.”

        “I‟ll have you know that I found our talk last night to be quite interesting, and I‟m

looking forward to the next time we can do that,” Ron assured her.

        “I am glad I did not bore you too much. We have the same inquisitive spirit that drives

us, I think.”

        They rode a while in silence before Cache spoke up again, glancing up at him sideways,

as if embarrassed. “Your voice is different now, too. You speak our language beautifully.”

        Ron smiled warmly at her and started to reply, but the transporter stopped and Cache was

exiting, so he let it go unspoken. “If I had only met you when I was free to choose!” he thought,

silently.

        Then it occurred to him that he should not be having those feelings. He truly loved his

wife and missed her terribly.

        “What‟s going on with me?” he chastised his conscience before managing to rationalize

it. “It must be the influence of the merge!”

        As he followed his partner, he angrily reaffirmed his conclusion…deeply irritated at his

new lack of control…and mentally threw up guards around those emotions.




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       They went immediately to the gym to begin the training routine again. Cache punched in

her code and was about to enter when Ron stopped her. Beside the doorway was a small plaque

with her name on it, which, until then, he‟d seen but was unable to read.

       “This room is yours?” Ron asked her. “No one else is allowed to enter here?”

       “Of course they are,” she replied. “Anyone who wishes to enter may do so freely. I put

the nameplate up so everyone would know when I come here to practice with weapons.

       “Since there is not a single Raulden who would not be appalled by the sight of me

wielding these armaments invented to kill other people, I installed it as a safeguard. Can you

imagine if they saw two individuals engaged in bloody combat?

       “Normally, if anyone wishes to speak with me when I am here, they summon me from

outside the door. You see,” she said to him as she triggered the door, “the insignia glows when I

activate it, as a warning.”

       “It‟s like a „do not disturb sign‟,” Ron told her.

       “I suppose so. Now…we must get started.”

       The two warriors strode into the room with Ron expecting to have the same routine as

they had on the previous day. His first thought was to retrieve his weapons from the storage

drawer in his room, where he left them at the end of the previous night, but a new contraption

caught his eye before he could turn.

       In the center of the training room was a large, dark gray, rectangular object. It was nine

feet tall, ten feet long, and seven feet wide. Ron walked completely around it and saw no

markings at all on its smooth surface.




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       “This is the simulator of our spacecraft,” Cache told him. “In a short time, I will take you

inside to begin your instruction. First, however, I feel that for you to fully understand the ship, it

would be best to explain some of its characteristics.”

       She led him over to a wall directly behind the simulator and activated a panel. A chair

slid out toward them and Cache sat Ron down in it, adjusting the screen so he could see it easily.

       “Your main concerns,” she began, “when piloting this ship, will be the engines and

weapons. You will have full control over them, so I will start off by explaining those systems.

The computer will oversee this lesson and will display visual aids to help you follow along with

what I tell you…all right?”

       Ron nodded and focused his attention on the screen.

       Cache then turned on the terminal and began her instruction.

       “I originally intended the ship to be purely for exploration, so I designated it the

Interplanetary Learning Explorer. That is a bit lengthy, so I shortened it to the INTELEX.

However, that early idea gave way to more important objectives, as I have already explained to

you, so I felt it required yet another adjustment to its designation. I apologize for this, but we

Rauldens love acronyms, so bear with me.

       “To fulfill the newest goals we set for Rauld‟s ambassadorial spacecraft, it was necessary

to modify the ship considerably…for flexibility toward those differing challenges…and so, I

eventually settled on a new moniker.

       “It is now designed for “Defense” of the peaceful planets, “Aid” to those who need and

deserve it, “Recovery” of the freedom stolen from the peoples, and “Leadership” in the fight

against the Triad. Defense, Aid, Recovery, Leadership, Interplanetary Learning Explorer. Do

you see?”




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      “D.A.R.L.I.L.E.,” Ron spelled out. “I like it! It is an excellent name, and a

commendable aspiration.”




                                                                                      303
                                          Chapter Twenty-three

                                                Pilot Training



        “Good,” Cache said, happy to have his approval. “Now…back to the lesson. In earthly

dimensions, the Darlile is 327 of your feet long from nose to tail, 290 feet wide, wing tip to wing

tip, and 107 feet tall from the belly to the tip of the vertical stabilizers.

        “The engines are located thirty feet outboard of the main fuselage, connected by a thin

wing section, and are cylindrical. The outside shrouds of the two engines are sixty-four feet in

diameter and are both of equal size throughout their entire 270 feet length. The intakes‟ sizes are

variable by means of two sets of twin, cone-shaped, energy-field-generating panels that can

adjust to shut the inlets completely or expand to a diameter of 100 feet when fully deployed.

These cones are controlled by the onboard computer, and expand and contract according to the

density of the matter surrounding the ship in direct relation to the power settings from the

cockpit. The engines are totally dependent to these intakes for fuel because there is none carried

on the Darlile.”

        “How can you possibly produce power without fuel?” Ron asked.



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       “I am getting to that,” Cache replied. “The engines create a gravity void, or well, that

attracts and separates only certain atomic particles, ingesting them into the inlets for conversion

into thrust energy. The particles enter the engines, get separated into different atomic categories,

and then accelerate along the first one hundred feet inside a Triton Particle Accelerator. At that

point, the matter has been converted to pure energy and has reached a speed of five and one third

times VL-1 speed: again, the speed of “visible light”. Then they enter an expansion chamber

where they are superheated to a temperature equal to that of a white star‟s photosphere, and

exhausted at upwards of twelve times light speed. This expansion chamber is nothing more than

a simple fusion reaction cell, which is contained by a powerful magnetic field.”

       “Just a fusion reaction cell,” Ron commented. “No big deal, right?” he added, shocked by

her clear disregard for the unfathomable engineering accomplishments he was witnessing.

       “Yes,” Cache continued, seemingly uncomfortable. “When I originally designed the

INTELEX, I only thought of speed...so that I might get to the most distant planets more

quickly…and not of warfare. Therefore, I chose not to sacrifice reliability and swiftness to gain

the structural integrity of a heavier craft. That is why I opted for these engines. They will

require less maintenance, they are small enough to allow the ship to be easily maneuvered inside

a planet‟s atmosphere, and, as I have said, no onboard fuel to worry about obtaining in the

middle of nowhere.

       “Later, after I decided to adjust the ship to prepare it for possible battle conditions, I

found that they provided an added safety bonus. Fuel tanks are volatile, which is a great hazard

in a fight, so not having them is even better.”

       “That worked out very well in your favor,” Ron told her, “yet you act as if you had to

settle on this type. Is there a more sophisticated power plant you had to pass up?”




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       “For a vessel built to do battle, this is not the best design, but I could not have adapted the

other for this craft without starting completely over at the conceptual stage. You see, the engine

developed for a ship of war is as large as our entire vessel. It is not practical to construct it any

smaller without severe drawbacks, which I was unwilling to accept. That type would be similar

to the ones used in the Kreete‟s huge Cruiser class and Destroyer class starships, and was simply

not an option for me. It uses a fuel amalgam that is a two-part configuration; one, which is fully

stable and harmless, and another being totally unstable. The two combine to form an immensely

strong reaction. One tegrin…about six Earth ounces…of this mixture can power a ship fifty

times the size of the Darlile for a dactrai. With these propulsion units, their weapons are also

very potent, as well as constantly generated at full power. Their Destroyers have the ability to

obliterate all life on a planet, as they have proven in the past.”

       “What substance can produce energy of that magnitude?” Ron inquired.

       “It is not of our dimensional plane,” Cache responded. “It can only exist in our reality for

a set amount of time, and only in a special container. We call it, Paelnoire…the Dark Power.”

       Ron ran his fingers through his thick black hair, wondering where this trip through

science fiction wonderland would stop.

       “Antimatter engines?” he thought. “What‟s next?”

       “I am afraid I have strayed far off the subject, Ron,” she apologized. “Please forgive me.

It appears I was a bit hard on Fortell when I said he was long-winded, as I have no room to talk.

Anyway, if you have no urgent questions about what we have been covering, I should get back to

the Darlile.”

       “No,” Ron told her, wanting to grill her about every detail of the power plants but

realizing the short amount of time she had. “Let‟s continue.”




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       “The directional control of the Darlile is manipulated by a deflector nozzle behind each

engine. These nozzles are the products of an intense energy net which can be adjusted and

distorted into almost any direction, including reverse thrust. As the superheated particles exit the

engines, they are guided through the net for remarkably quick and agile control.

       “Now, initial start-up of those engines is battery operated so there will never be a need

for an external power supply. The batteries are located in the middle third of the fuselage and

recharged by solar cells on the belly of the ship. These cells are protected during battle by panels

that slide out and over them any time the weapons system is activated.

       “The batteries provide a laser burst to start the fusion process, power up the Triton

Accelerator, create the containment field for the reaction, and manage all onboard systems until

the main engines are up and running. When that occurs, the computer relinquishes such duties to

the dominant source.

       “Furthermore, the weapons and shields are powered by bleed energy from the engines

through two ducts on each power plant, diverting the speeding particles into their collectors.

These ducts are also battery generated until the engines can take over the load, to provide

protection as soon as possible, just in case the ship is in danger.

       “Are you having any trouble understanding the information?”

       “No, not at all,” Ron replied, drawing on his experience with aircraft to help him along.

Also, the video he was watching was clear and concise when defining each of the craft‟s

components and their interrelation.

       “That is excellent,” Cache commented. “I was concerned that you would have

difficulties grasping this material, since you are from such a primitively advanced planet.”




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        Ron wouldn‟t have considered Earth to be primitive, but took no offense at the remark

because he realized she was speaking frankly and truthfully from her point of view.

        “I will continue with the next set of systems then, the weapons and shields. As I have

stated, they get their power directly from the main engines. Each subsystem has a different

manner of using the energy it collects, so the storage of that energy is different also. For the

weapons, I elected to use an ionic augmentation capacitor…a plasmite coalescing vault, if you

will.

        “This capacitor absorbs the energy directed to it and holds it until the cannons fire,

allowing it to release a large quantity of power in a single burst, or a series of bursts of plasmite

energy. Plasmite has the unique characteristic of clinging to any object it collides with until it

discharges every bit of its charge. It should prove to be extremely effective at draining an

enemy‟s shields. When the engines are turned off, the excess energy bleeds away slowly and

harmlessly into the atmosphere, or into space.

        “The capacitor has a limit to the power it can hold though, so when it is full, the duct

supplying it is disconnected until there is room for more. The automatic shut-off sensor

monitoring this energy level is extremely important to the well-being of the Darlile and her crew.

Consequently there are two redundant sensors and a manual override, for this situation. I will

watch the levels also, and will inform you if we should get into an emergency condition.

        “In case you are wondering, should the capacitor ever become overloaded, the ship would

explode like a star gone supernova. Therefore, if we happen to run across that problem, it would

be wise to purge the energy immediately by repeatedly firing the cannon until the system can be

bypassed or shut down, understood?”

        “Definitely!” Ron replied, while mentally etching those orders into his brain.




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       “Now, as far as operating the weapons, they must be fired manually.” Cache went on.

“There is a trigger on the control stick that activates the release of the energy blast. You can fire

a single burst every half lita, or a triple burst with a three-lita delay to allow for recharge. I am

afraid that this fact is the biggest drawback of the engines I chose. We will just have to make do.

       “The targeting array is controlled by the pilot through a brain-to-computer-interface link.

Whatever you see and decide to fire at will be interpreted by the computer, which will

automatically move the cannons into position for your shot.”

       “Wait a second,” Ron interjected. “If you can link the guns up to my brain, why don‟t

you hook-up everything to it as well? It seems to me that you would get quicker results to tricky

flying and split second maneuvers.”

       “We have tried such a method before, but with unfavorable results. You see, when the

brain is subjected to stress, it makes decisions extraordinarily quickly, based on the input of

countless variables. Pressure on parts of the body, arms, hands, fingers, etc., are pouring in, but

millions of other factors as well. Emotion such as anger, fear, guilt, and remorse, are lumped in

with sight, sound, pain, and fatigue. All are battling for supremacy of the particular decision at

the same instant.

       “The Darlile’s onboard computer is so advanced it can respond to these inputs as fast as

they come. However, your body doesn‟t have time to send you the necessary signals quickly

enough to stay ahead of the outcome of the brain‟s decisions. So the ship begins to follow an

erratic set of instructions which end up canceling each other out…or the pilot overreacts to a

situation and makes a maneuver that is too violent, and it kills him.”

       “I understand what you‟re saying,” Ron told her. “It‟s like an inexperienced driver

making so many quick adjustments that they eventually lose control of the car, when experience




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would guide them on how much and how fast to adjust for a given situation. You need that

“touch” to maintain control.”

          “Yes, exactly,” Cache went on, “and we have found no way to slow the brain‟s reaction

speed down to a tolerable level without severely compromising the pilot‟s judgment. We have

seen some individuals capable of such intense concentration that they could fly the simulated

craft effectively for short excursions, but it exhausted them extremely quickly. If danger or

excitement is added…well, the flight computer cannot distinguish the difference between a

hypothetical thought and an actual command. Whatever enters the pilot‟s mind happens

instantaneously.

          “In any event, we have not been able to make that system viable, just yet.

          “Are there any other questions?”

          “No,” Ron said. “I believe you‟ve covered all the areas I might‟ve had some doubts

about.”

          “Very well then, the next system you will be in control of, although only slightly, is the

shields.

          “As I stated earlier, the shields get their power from the engines also, through a duct

similar to that of the ion capacitor. But, unlike a capacitor, a constant flow of energy is needed

to supply those protective barriers. For this purpose I incorporated an extremely efficient model

of the Shotal Energy Grid‟s power generator, closely resembling the one that supplies the planet

with energy…only on a much smaller scale. The grid takes the highly excited atomic particles

which come blasting into it and redirects them, compressing them into a new form of energy.

This energy, which I will elaborate on when we have more time, is then shot out around the ship

in a tight, contour hugging bubble. The bubble is actually a multiphasic, multilayered matrix,




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also similar the one surrounding the planet. It has fantastic energy absorption capabilities and

should be able to take several direct hits from the Kreete Destroyers without suffering any

damage.”

        “Should?” Ron asked. “You mean you haven‟t tested it yet?”

        “Not in reality…no…,” Cache told him, defensively, “but I have run every test

conceivable, and I am confident that it will work!”

        “Great!” Ron thought. “Going into battle in an untested machine is not what I consider

fun.”

        “To continue,” Cache said hastily, “the generator also takes over the operations the

batteries had been, up until now, supplying power to. If the generator falls „off-line‟ for any

reason, the batteries will automatically assume the duties they can handle.

        “There are only two drawbacks to this arrangement. One is; the shields cannot function

without the generator to supply them. The other is; the exhaust nozzles require too much power

to be sustained by the batteries for more than a few litas, so if you lose the grid generator, you

also lose your ability to maneuver the Darlile.

        “Now before you say anything, I realize these two systems are crucial to the safety of the

ship, but there was no choice left up to me. I had to design it this way. You must remember I

did not intend to go to war in the INTELEX when I started building it. These new weapons had

to be squeezed in at the last bort, and the enhanced shields were retrofitted in place of the older

ones. It is the best I could do.”

        “Cache,” Ron said calmly to her, “if I‟ve seemed too critical of your work, I‟m sorry. I

react to the information I‟m seeing without thinking. I honestly believe you‟ve done a

remarkable job with this ship. It‟s so far above my head in technological superiority that I




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shouldn‟t even make a comment at all about it. I trust you, and the Darlile, without a moment‟s

hesitation.”

        His statement calmed Cache a great deal. Her face changed from stern and defiant to a

more pleasant, softened expression that was much more becoming on her.

        “Are there any questions you need answered before we advance to the next stage of your

preparation?” she asked.

        Ron let his mind run over the information he‟d absorbed and came up with nothing

important being unclear. Cache covered everything thoroughly, so far, and so he replied, “No,

none that I can think of.”

        “Good! We can continue with your next level inside the simulator.”

        She activated the mechanism to put away the small information center, and then led Ron

to the dark obelisk.

        Cache advised him to watch her closely. She pressed her fingers in several different

configurations on a touch screen, under a nearly invisible emblem emblazoned with Darlile on it,

on the side of the simulator. Abruptly, a six-foot tall, four-foot wide door opened inward, and

then slid up into the ceiling of the machine.

        “This is exactly how the entry hatch on the Darlile works, Ron,” Cache explained. “I

need you to know everything you can about the ship, in case we do not both make the trip

successfully. You should open and close the hatch a few times to make sure you are familiar

with it, all right?”

        With that, she stepped into the darkened interior of the training module.




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       As soon as Cache placed her foot on the inside the simulator, the interior lights popped

on, and Ron saw her disappear toward the right of the small apparatus. The door closed without

him touching anything; so he assumed she triggered that function from the inside.

       Ron repeated the moves he‟d seen Cache make on the outside, and the door swung

gracefully upward once again. After it reached full open, it stayed there for three seconds, and

then started back down again. Ron saw no sign of Cache, so he assumed that it worked on a time

delay circuit. When it shut, he repeated the mandatory combination of codes. The latch

demanded a complicated series of characters, but he had no problem remembering them…and so

this time his movements were quick and precise.

       Ron watched the door opening again and his mind wondered about how easily he was

able to pick up new things now. He was always confident he could learn just about anything he

put his mind to, but it was almost effortless now. His memory seemed extraordinarily clear,

much more so than back on Earth. He momentarily pondered the convergence of his and

Kaskle‟s brain capacities.

       The door cleared his line of sight to reveal Cache standing in the entrance, carrying two

suits. She stepped out of the simulator and handed the larger of the garments to Ron.

       “Put this on over your present clothing after you remove any articles you are

carrying…and your footwear,” she directed, as she began donning her own suit.

       Ron complied and soon found himself in a loosely fitting outfit that was completely

sealed from his feet to his neck. It was made of a soft gray material and contained small air

pockets sewn into every inch of it. The feel of it reminded him of some of the packing material

on Earth that he used to keep delicate instruments safe during shipments.




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          “These are pressure suits,” Cache told him, when he was finished. We will be wearing

similar ones when we reach the Darlile, and they should help against the forces imposed on us

during combat.”

          “They‟re G suits?” Ron asked.

          “That is correct. You are familiar with how they work?”

          “Yes and no. I know “how” they‟re supposed to work, but I‟ve never worn one.”

          “I see. The ones in the real ship will have monitoring sensors pressing against our skin to

transfer data to the computer about our physiological condition. These suits, however, act in

reverse of that. The computer will record our inputs of the flight controls and will increase and

decrease the pressures on our bodies to give us a realistic look at what we will face in flight.

Also, the fabric is made of vacandin and the simulator will be able to create some authentic

stresses on us by using a powerful magnetic field.”

          “That‟s a great idea,” Ron told her. “The more real now, the less we have to figure out

later.”

          “Yes…exactly. Now, if you will open the hatch once more, we can begin your flight

training.”

          Ron complied, and had the door open again in a flash. The two warriors were inside and

at the cockpit moments later where Cache motioned for Ron to take the seat on the right, while

she sat in the one on the left.

          There wasn‟t much room in there for both of them to move around, especially with Ron‟s

bulk, so Cache was forced to wait until he was seated before she could slip by, into her position.




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       “If you are wondering, this is an exact replica of the Darlile‟s command station,” Cache

said. “It is cramped for a man of your size, and I beg your forgiveness for that, but I had

obviously designed it for our present race of Rauldens, not Caronians.”

       The close quarters didn‟t bother Ron though, since he‟d worked around small aircraft for

good while, so he quickly nestled down into his chair and had a careful look around.

       The “chair” he sat in was more like a recliner than any pilot‟s seat he‟d ever seen. Every

portion of his body was supported on a firmly cushioned section of the seat, as if it was custom-

molded to fit his body. He felt certain he‟d never sat on a more comfortable chair in his life.

       The left arm support had a T-handle protruding at a spot where his palm rested on top of

it when it was in the fully aft position. That handle was set in a slot which was merely three

inches long.

       “That doesn‟t look like much travel,” Ron thought, “for the potential speeds of this bird.”

       He turned his attention to the right side and found what looked like a video game‟s

joystick, about the size of his thumb, jutting out of that arm support. It had a black button on the

top of a light gray colored handgrip, apparently the cannon‟s fire button. Everything in the

cockpit was a dark charcoal color except for that one item. This décor was also not surprising to

Ron, as the commercial aircraft on Earth use the same method to cut down on glare and

unwanted distractions.

       Surrounding the front of his chair and Cache‟s, in two half-moon shapes, stretching from

armrest to armrest, were a pair of consoles that were literally covered with switches and digital

readout instruments. All of them, at the moment, were dark and lifeless. Every individual item

was placed well within their field of reach, and just above those control panels was a large view

screen stretching from Ron‟s immediate right, across the cockpit, to Cache‟s immediate left. It




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was four feet high and started from waist level, at the top of the consoles, to well above Ron‟s

head. It too was dark.

        “The first thing we need to go over is the strap-in procedure,” Cache told Ron.

        She pointed out the pressure switches located on the side of the left armrest. As Ron

followed her instructions, padded metal bands leaped out of the chair to encircle his legs, waist,

chest, and even his feet, leaving only his arms and head free to move.

        The uncomfortable feeling of entrapment began to settle over Ron again immediately,

just as it had on the operating table. He started feeling nauseous and a cold sweat broke out on

his forehead instantly.

        “Cache, is there an emergency release for these straps?” Ron asked as calmly as he could

manage.

        “Yes,” she replied, and as she turned to point it out to him, she saw what was happening.

She popped her own release mechanism hurriedly, then leaned over and triggered his. The

restraints snapped off him and disappeared into their appropriate places, leaving Ron free once

more.

        He quickly composed himself then, knowing he could get out of them anytime he cared

to, and threw Cache a nervous “thanks”. Then, still trying to rationalize why he‟d suddenly

developed such a fear of confinement, he began the strap-in procedure again.

        When he was secure this time though, he didn‟t get overtaken by the terrible hand of

panic which so quickly gripped him on the first try. The switch to release him was only inches

away, and that was all it took to let him relax.

        “Are you all right now?” Cache asked.

        “Yeah,” he told her, “I suppose so. I just don‟t like being in a helpless position I guess.”




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          “Well, if that is what is bothering you, you do not have to worry anymore,” she added.

“When you strap into the Darlile, there is nothing in the known universe that can outrun you,

outgun you, or in any way breach the security of this ship, as long as she is operational.”

          Ron was impressed by her confidence in the vessel she‟d so hurriedly “thrown” together,

and his experience with the Rauldens led him to believe that she was probably correct in her

claims. Undoubtedly though, he surmised, she put a bit more care into building the Darlile than

she led him to believe. Also, he got the feeling she hadn‟t designed it totally for peaceful

missions, as she claimed. It was too well built to be just a coincidence that it could be converted

into such an awesome fighter so easily.

          “Okay, I‟m ready to begin now,” Ron announced.

          “Good. The next thing you do is take the helmet, which is hanging above you, and place

it on your head.”

          It was made of a soft, pliable material and wrapped around Ron‟s head more like a

shower cap than an instrument of protection. There was no chinstrap to secure it, but it showed

no tendency to fall off just the same.

          “Can you hear me, Ron?” Cache asked, when she saw he‟d donned the headgear.

          The words reaching Ron‟s ears were so clear…it was like there were no sounds in the

world other than her voice.

          “Wow! Yeah!” he exclaimed. “I can hear you fine, almost too well, in fact. It feels like

you‟re talking right into my head.”

          “That is because of the special voice enhancement built into the headgear. When I speak,

all other noises are removed electronically to make sure we have clear communications at all

times.”




                                                                                                   317
       Ron was watching her as she spoke and suddenly realized that she had no microphone on

her helmet. He checked his gear and found none there either.

       “How is it that I can hear you when you have no voice pickup on your helmet?”

       “Sound vibrations pass through your body much more efficiently than through the air, so

the sensors in the helmet use this method also…along with being your thought-link with the

ship‟s computer.”

       “Amazing!” Ron said.

       Cache then began formally instructing Ron on the start-up procedure. She showed him

where all the switches to light up the instruments were, as well as what they did. She pointed out

a lever that was locked in the „ON‟ position and told him that he could bypass her entire station

and put it on automatic by moving the lever to the „OFF‟ setting. It was a backup feature, if

something should happen to her. Once in the bypass mode, the computer would take on her

duties and uphold the operational status as best it could.

       “However, the computer cannot bypass certain circuits in an emergency and so is not as

capable as a trained operator,” she added.

       The next item on her list was to activate the view screen. The cockpit lit up instantly

with a perfect picture of the exercise room.

       “The Darlile has no windows at all on her hull,” Cache told Ron. “That is for structural

reasons. Nonetheless, we will be able to see what is outside the ship with the aid of a computer-

controlled image on this viewer.

       “This method is far better than normal sight because the view cannot become obscured by

any means. Fog, rain, dust, smoke, or any other occurrence will not blind us. In such a case, the

computer automatically switches from a visual to a sensor interpretation of the scene.




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       “The sensors aboard this ship can penetrate two hoz of solid rock and the best shields in

existence. The body heat of a water plant will register on our infrared system from a normal

orbit, and can tell how deep under the surface it is. In another mode, we can track a ship through

deep space, even at transoptic speeds, simply by following the path of disturbed atomic particles

left in its wake. Also, the picture can be magnified one hundred thousand times with almost no

distortion. These features far exceed any other ship‟s capabilities.

       “Furthermore, on your side of the screen there will be an inlaid section to show you a

360-degree view of our surrounding space. That is so you can monitor any ships that might be

behind us.

       “Do you have any questions, so far?”

       “The capabilities you‟ve built into this one spacecraft would keep Earth‟s best scientists

busy for a hundred years, just trying to figure them out,” Ron told her. He was so overwhelmed

with all the advancements being placed at his fingertips, he could hardly believe it. “But to

answer your question, no, I‟m with you at this point.”

       “Then we will run through the power-up sequence,” Cache said, moving along. “If you

will look to your right, you will find a row of circuit protectors marked “BAT”. They will

engage the separate banks of batteries to the engine starting system. They should…”

       For the next hour, the two of them went over the procedure until Ron could get the ship

launch ready in three borts flat. Afterward, Cache stepped him up to the next

phase…atmospheric flight.

       She took him slowly through this part, to make certain he fully understood all the controls

and was comfortable with them. Following that, for the next two hours, she had him fly the

Darlile at low levels, and monitor ships which were all around them until he could read all the




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instruments at a fast glance. She was impressed when he always knew where the Darlile was in

relation to the simulated planet she‟d programmed onto the screen…and where the other ships

were inside the planet‟s atmosphere, as well.

       She was tough to please, but Ron caught on so quickly to what she was hammering into

him that he finally convinced her he was in perfect control of the Darlile.

       “You are doing well, Ron,” Cache said suddenly. “If you are hungry, we could take a

break and get some nourishment.”

       “That sounds good to me,” he replied. “For a while there, I thought you were testing me

for endurance.”

       “I was!” she conceded. “Set the ship down and shut off the power.”

       Outside the simulator, Ron received a minor shock as he stepped into the practice gym

once more. The picture he‟d been viewing for the past few hours was of the outside world…on

the surface…and he didn‟t expect to be in the exercise room when he exited the mock Darlile.

The simulator was too realistic, with all the feel of actual flight, to remember that he never really

left the ground.

       Cache began slipping out of her G suit beside the simulator, as it was slightly

uncomfortable to walk in, and Ron followed her lead by shrugging off his own baggy clothing.

He set it beside the trainer and stepped over to her because she was having a little trouble getting

one of her feet out of the trousers while standing on the other.

       Ron placed his left arm around her tiny waist for support, cradling her slim form against

him tightly as he reached across her and guided the pant leg off her ankle. He hadn‟t meant to

start anything by his actions, but he couldn‟t help but enjoy how wonderful she felt, pressed




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against him like that. He marveled at her well toned, sweetly formed figure, lingering his hold

on her longer than he planned before setting her free.

        Cache was surprised by his attention but instantly aroused. Before Ron‟s appearance, she

couldn‟t even imagine such a man could exist…so strong and fearless and noble. Now he was

holding her so firmly in his grasp…just lending an innocent hand…but she quivered just the

same, and desperately wanted him to hold her more tightly in his powerful embrace. Somehow

though, she was able to remain cautious about him, even as her heart leaped and her face flushed.

Her eyes locked with his in an inviting gaze that yearned to go further, but when he loosened his

hold on her, she managed to keep her head…barely…as she continued their conversation.

        “I was not trying to cause you any discomfort with my little test, Ron,” Cache explained,

feeling just a bit light-headed as they walked to the room‟s entrance. “But I needed to know if

you could keep your focus and mental sharpness when your body was trying to distract you with

fatigue and hunger. Although after the trip from your landing sight to Gammone, when you first

arrived on Rauld, I should have known you would have no problems in that department. In fact,

I have not yet been able to find one single flaw in you,” she said to him frankly, scanning him up

and down.

        “Well, I don‟t mind,” Ron replied…trying to remain composed as he received a flash of

the passionate dream from the previous night, and the heat began rising within. “I know you are

on a strict schedule, so a little overtime doesn‟t bother me, as long as I‟m not holding us up. To

tell you the truth, I didn‟t think I could keep up with the pace of your instruction, at first.”

        “You need not worry about that,” she assured him, stopping outside his room, “because

we are half a dactrai ahead of where I thought we would be now. And it is mostly because of

your remarkable ability to adapt and catch on to new skills.”




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       She stared up into his gray eyes with the same saucy look that set his blood racing once

before, and was doing so again. She held her ground this time though, trying to read what he was

thinking for a long moment, finally deciding to test the waters once more.

       “In fact,” she said, gauging his reactions by placing her hands gently on either side of his

chest, “I have a feeling you could do just about anything you wished…if you really wanted to.”

       She finished her statement, edging very close to Ron…close enough for her feminine

attributes to brush the front of his tunic while her sparkling eyes darted back and

forth…searching for a response from his.




                                                                                                322
                                        Chapter Twenty-four

                                          The Kreete Origin



       Cache was so beautiful at that moment…so petite and submissive and eager that Ron‟s

masculine drive surged with renewed vigor to overrule his mind‟s control. His heart raced and

he felt the spine tingling wave of emotional exhilaration one gets at the moment of his or her first

kiss with a new love. He knew it would be spectacular.

       Somehow however, logical deliberation barely managed to edge out the testosterone

driven attack on his reason, and he forced himself to change the subject. His usual smooth,

almost regal movement was clearly compromised though as he stepped back away from her

clumsily. He moved aside to clear the doorway, fumbled with the control switch momentarily,

and finally opened the door to his room before he could gather himself to continue the

conversation.

       “I‟ve been thinking about everything you‟ve told me about the Kreete,” Ron began.

“What you know about them, and what they appear to know about Rauld, doesn‟t add up to me.




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You and they are just a little too well-informed about one another for it to be the normal result of

information overheard on the interstellar radio. Could this be true?”

        “Yes, that is a correct assessment,” Cache admitted, a bit agitated by Ron‟s failure to

respond to her advances.

        They both went to the food portal and ordered their meals, and then took seats at the little

table, settling in for a new round of talks.

        “They found your underground transport tunnels without the help of any sensor

equipment. They knew our destination on our trek to Gammone, and I would be willing to bet

they know where the Darlile‟s hangar is too, right?” Ron questioned.

        “Correct again,” Cache said, beginning to eat her food while she tried to suppress the

increasing attraction she felt for him, and concentrate on his questions.

        She had her suspicions that he would start to put such details together, concerning these

odd “coincidences”. But she hoped their busy schedule would have consumed all of his

concentration, for a while at least, until she was more prepared to explain everything to him.

        “And the facts you‟ve told me about the Kreete, the strengths and weaknesses of their

spacecrafts and weapons, as well as their attitudes and goals of conquest, are a bit too precise. It

seems unlikely that such fine details could be easily gathered between your people and theirs,

without some formal or direct contact,” he went on.

        Cache was well aware that Ron was too sharp to fool for much longer and felt he had the

right to know the whole story, since he was putting his life on the line for them. She held him

off until she‟d finished her meal and, after a few minutes of thoughtful arrangement, began her

explanation.




                                                                                                  324
       “Everything I have learned about their history has come from digging through countless

historical documents from our archives, and is substantiated by hard data from a very long time

ago. The story I am about to tell you is the truth, as far as we know.

       “The Kreete, like your own people, were once a single world race,” she said. “They were

a warring populace, very fierce and very proud. They divided their world among hundreds of

lesser officials, in turn governed by three major rulers of roughly equal military powers.

       “They fought over everything, no matter how small or insignificant, causing skirmishes

in all parts of the globe to enforce their wishes. Most of the battles focused on one faction

having more of something than the others…be it more land, or better crops, or deposits of

minerals…things like that. As a result to their drive to gain some advantage over their

adversaries, their technologies advanced. They found better and more efficient ways of killing

one another to gain whatever they felt they should have but did not. They thought this was

advancement, when all it truly was, was a good show of their insane lust for power.

       “There finally came a time when their intellect shown through however and the futility of

their efforts became clear as they awoke one dactrai on the verge of a global war. A conflict like

that would, no doubt, wipe out their total existence from the planet. At that point, they realized

the direction they were headed in was just plain suicide.

       “The three groups called for a resolution that would force each to help the other to level

out the divisiveness of their citizens. They banded together to conquer the one common foe that

could consolidate the differences between the factions…nature.

       “Each of them hoped that if they could control the planet itself, they would need nothing

from the others, and this would end the threat of annihilation. With enough food, water, and

other natural resources, each could have their own way of life without intruding on the others.




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They also felt if they took control of the environment, then each of their sect‟s future and

ideology would be assured.

       “The world leaders split up the enormous task into two initiatives toward which they

formed teams represented by all factions. The larger of the two designated themselves towards

the control of the weather, and the other accepted the challenge to exterminate all creatures

which were not viewed as advantageous to the support of the populace.

       “This explanation is extremely simplistic of course, since it would take an extreme

amount of time to get into the specifics of the ideals of the time, I hope you know.”

       “Of course,” Ron acknowledged, “and I realize I probably wouldn‟t have understood

everything about their plight anyway, unless I‟d lived through it, but please continue.”

       “All right,” Cache agreed, returning her mind to the history of the era. “Well, the Kreete

were already fairly advanced in their technological abilities. So, after just a decade of work, the

smaller of the two teams had made great strides in the goals of ridding the planet of unwanted

creatures…as killing was one of their gifts. They even decided to take over the duties of

pollination, aeration, and similar such helpful processes with tiny machines, so losing the

different insects could be carefully controlled, thus leaving the capacity to grow crops high.

They developed a great variety of poisons, germs, and bacteria which could eliminate each

species at a specific time, so they would not have a catastrophic change all at once. They were

extremely careful, I will grant them that.

       “Now, the initiative to dominate the natural events of meteorological phenomena was not

going as well. This, as you might guess, would be a tremendously difficult chore, and could be

too much for any civilization, no matter how advanced they were.




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       “Well, as a matter of pride, the three leaders refused to abandon the idea as a failure.

They would not be denied this victory over their domain, and pressure to show results grew

intense. Finally, something went terribly out of control during one of their experiments, and is

still clouded in speculation of sabotage to this dactrai.

       “They were using a new method of temperature control which was supposed to cool a

huge portion of an ocean located to the west of a major coastline. This was, in turn, supposed to

bring needed rainfall to the region. The experiment worked too well though, and it started an

unstoppable chain reaction that froze a third of the ocean in mere billots. The effect of this new

technology perpetuated itself and grew beyond the controls of the users almost

instantaneously…and once begun, they could not terminate the event. In a single dactrai, they

froze the entire ocean.

       “The expanding material was unstoppable. It destroyed every coastal city, killing

millions of people, and plowed hundreds of hoz inland. This catastrophe put the entire world in

turmoil, and forced immediate and dangerous actions. They began trying to reverse the process

with numerous theories abounding from every scientific aspect. What they did not realize

though, was the fact that this cooling had changed the planet‟s natural absorption and release of

temporal heat, not to mention the inconceivable stress it placed on the crust of the planet.

       “The mantle beneath the subject ocean literally cracked open, releasing its awesome

internal energy into the frozen expanse, returning it to liquid at an extremely fast rate. The

seismic action was felt around the world in various traumatic events. The nearest cities vibrated

to dust, and some entire mountain ranges shook into piles of rubble. Many cycles later, the

greatest minds of the planet could not believe anything had survived that period.




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       “Anyway, one particular structure which did not endure the throws of nature‟s wrath was

the facility that housed the other major project. A massive, wrenching earthquake sheared the

hardened, fortified building as if it were made of paper. Then the storms following that man-

made ecological catastrophe tore through the debris unfettered. A powerful whirlwind struck the

compound full of poisons with such precision that most survivors believe the Creator himself

was personally punishing them for tampering with that which only he controls.

       “Whatever the case, the thousands of lethal weapons which had been intended for

specific purposes…and had been so carefully guarded…were suddenly scattered into the

environment. They spread a path of death that encircled the planet, mingling the worst of each

of them into a plague that killed off every living organism…animal and plant…inhabiting the

world. All save one.

       “The irony of it was the ones who unleashed destruction to the entire globe were the only

ones to survive.

       “The horrific changes in the climate system began to escalate into new problems as well.

Destruction of several mountain ranges and total deforestation of every inch of land, combined to

leave the raging winds with nothing to slow them down. This caused the already massive storms

to become even more violent. A typical gale which would normally have boasted one hundred

hoz per billot winds was exacerbated to such a degree that it increased to over six hundred.

       “The governments of different countries gathered hundreds of millions of citizens who

somehow made it through the first few dactrais into enormous underground complexes. Each of

the three rulers had previously built and supplied several of these vast facilities for their salvation

in the event of global war. They prepared well for this contingency, but were then permanently

confined to it, instantly giving up all chances of ever seeing the surface again.




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       “Within a santari of the first disaster, the air was unbreathable. It was so polluted with

the stench of decaying bodies covering the land and seas, rotting vegetation, poisonous

gases…both artificial and natural…that the oxygen content of the air dropped from thirty percent

down to five.

       “Jumping to the main issue…the population was forced to adapt quickly to confined

spaces at that point. That was of course, a horribly stressful adjustment, and so a long period of

profound depression swept through the survivors, lasting for nearly a hundred cycles.

       “Now, during all this turmoil, many ingenious individuals were among the throngs

fighting to hang on to any existence they could, and in that time period a major breakthrough

came about.

       “At the end of the first century following that terrible catastrophe, a brilliant physicist

created…or discovered, whichever you prefer…the ability to travel faster than light speed. He

was the lead scientist for development of the first transoptic propulsion engine…the “NOVA-

drive”. NOVA is an acronym for „neutrino oscillation velocity augmentation‟…which is the

basic principles behind the engines operation, but I will explain that some other time.

       “The people regained their optimism during the following decades of hope and promise,

and they finally united toward a single purpose, the escape of their world and colonization of

another. In a span of only ten cycles…Raulden years…they launched over six hundred

spacecraft in search of a new home.

       “Unfortunately, their expectations of a quick migration to a better world faded away as

the cycles passed, since, even at speeds beyond VL-1, finding what they were searching for was

remote and exceptionally time-consuming in the vastness of space.




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       “For the next century, the people left behind to wait on word of a better life returned to

their ways of coping with the monotony of their seemingly pointless existence. They were still

the violent, uncooperative animals they had always been, and they vented their anxieties as they

saw fit. The murders, rapes, and chemical abuse crimes were staggering in frequency.

       “The rulers of the time saw that something drastic would have to be done, and so they

came up with a plan to slow down their peoples‟ disregard for authority. Public executions

began appearing on the video information networks in a desperate attempt to quell the rising tide

of civil unrest. That slowed down the more violent crimes but did not put a stop to them all.

Public humiliations and tortures quickly followed, somehow working their way into the penal

system to help deter thieves, vandals, and the like.

       “This apparently placated the inhabitants for a while, but the populace adapted swiftly,

and those who first saw these displays as horrid soon learned to enjoy the spectacles, causing a

rapid upturn in the number, and brutality, of the events.

       “As the demand for those violent exhibitions increased, officials began running low on

legitimate victims, so they started extending their authority to meet the demands. Many innocent

people were subjected to the growing savagery of their peers in those times, and money often

drove such incentives to find more victims.

       “Sporting events, which had always been highly admired, quickly began to take a turn to

the violent side as well. Also, since the leaders could not wage war in the subterranean facilities,

the results on the playing fields began solving political issues.

       “Some of the most important decisions of those cycles placed such intense pressures on

the leaders that, eventually, they demanded the contests‟ final outcome be absolute. Soon




                                                                                                    330
referees could not be allowed to disrupt participants, or to sway the conclusion of the events,

which led to matches in which only one contestant survived.

          “The competition between the cities grew worse, each trying to outperform the other in

the violence of the events. It appeared as if they would finally destroy themselves after all, as

their insane lust for death increased, but they were saved once again…this time by the return of

some of the early exploration spacecraft.

          “They found out that their species were the first space travelers in their part of the galaxy,

and they could have their pick of the worlds waiting out there.

          “The scientists had, by then, come up with even more powerful engines which would

ensure the expeditious colonization efforts they needed, and so the citizens began another rush of

ship construction. In less than seven cycles, they possessed an armada of warships that could not

be stopped, and they left to eventually form the Kreete Triad which still exists now.

          “In the early cycles of their conquest, they annihilated all life on two planets just to prove

to the others that they had the power. Afterward, they met little opposition. Over the next

century, they took control of certain worlds which had the raw materials they needed to build

enormous transports and superfortresses. Then they came back to their home planet and

gathered all the inhabitants who wanted to leave, saying good-bye to the ones choosing to stay

behind.

          “Barely fifty thousand individuals remained on that dead world to try to rebuild it.

          “But as you can see, they did a fine job of reconstruction,” she said, waving her arms in

the air. “You see, the people left on that dead world were all scientists and their families, the

passive sort, determined to live in peace.

          “Now do you understand how the Kreete know so much about us?”




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       Ron stared at Cache, not believing what he was hearing.

       “They are our ancestors,” she announced. “The Kreete are actually Rauldens!”

       Astounded, Ron could not reply. He sat there with his mind racing, trying to make the

information he just received permeate into his brain.

       “How was it possible that these timid, purely intellectual people were from the same

stock as the vile, murderous creatures who had tried to kill him and Cache?” Ron thought.

       “Why is it that you‟re not even a vaguely similar in appearance to the Kreete?”

       “That is the result of hundreds of cycles of constantly experimenting with new drugs and

genetic mutations which alter the growth of their bodies. They began this indoctrination even

before they completely cast Rauld aside, when they first experienced the nature of the beings on

the other worlds.

       “They learned of inhabitants of the larger planets, globes with much stronger gravity than

Rauld‟s, and of the strength of their people. The Kreete found out they were not the strongest of

the strong, and it gave them pause.

       “There was much resistance to their authority from these different “heavy” planets, even

with their superior technology. Also, the citizens of many alien planets were not afraid of the

first explorers because of their gentle appearance.

       “Above all, the Kreete wanted to become superior to all the alien races, so they

developed methods and drugs which caused the muscle tissue in their bodies to develop much

larger than it would normally have. Then they started intense training camps for their strongest

warriors, which would allow them to thrive on the heavy worlds. They wanted to have the

uncontested dominance of a superior physical being.




                                                                                                  332
       “With the beginning of the training program came the beginning of the hatred they feel

toward us…the Rauldens who stayed behind. The pacifists had no wish to leave Rauld, and so

they refused to take the drugs and genetic alterations the New Order had come to cherish.

       “The Kreete did not stop with just their warriors either, as they saw danger in any class

separation of their people. The leaders eventually ordered all the new space colonists change

themselves so as not to remind them of their weaker heritage. Beauty and civility became

disdained, and thought of peaceful coexistence was seen as heresy.

       “The Rauldens who stayed behind lived for many cycles fearing the return of the Kreete,

and the forced mutations inflicted on them. The engineers who built the last of the transport

ships, and knew all their strengths and weaknesses, got together and devised a way to protect

themselves…and Rauld…from the return of the barbarous Kreete. One of the men was a

brilliant young individual named Baneon Shotal and, after a decade of work, he developed the

Shotal Defensive Energy Matrix that stands currently.

       “In those times, all surface work had to be done with Cnauts, of course, in terrible

conditions, and that made it very slow. But in the end, we had the protection we needed.

       “As it turned out though, the Kreete displayed little interest in a dying collection of

weaklings on a dead rock of a planet. The Kreete settled their new worlds after exterminating

the individuals who lived there, and have barely given us a single thought, until recently.”

       “And they never tried to return to their home world, before now?” Ron questioned.

       “Well, actually, yes. As far as our records show, it was barely three cycles after the

Shotal Energy Grid was completed. The first time a ship tried to enter our atmosphere it

disintegrated the instant it reached the outer barrier. The vessels accompanying it pounded the

shield for three torjournes, as they are now, but had no effect on it at all. They gave up and left.




                                                                                                  333
Shortly after that, the Rauldens abandoned monitoring the Kreete and their activity to

concentrate on Rauld. We know of no other attack, until now.”

       “It appears that they have not completely forgotten about Rauld, even if Rauld had

forgotten about them,” Ron observed. “They undoubtedly don‟t like anyone knowing something

that they don‟t.

       “Well, Cache, your story has shed light to many dark areas, as far as the goals of the

Kreete and what we are up against, but there is still one question you have not answered. That is,

why are the Kreete using their title? Why do they not just go by their true heritage?”

       “For two reasons; the first is because the word Rauld reminds them that they were once

as we are…weak…at least by comparison of what they are now. The other is a bit more

interesting. You see; the word “Kreete” strikes fear into the souls of the people of Rauld. There

was a myth on our planet about a world of demons where there is nothing but pain and death and

evil…where the inhabitants are monsters who take pleasure in torturing others. That is where

you are supposed to go after death if you are wicked. It is a place of intense heat and crushing

pressures, where the air burns your lungs and sears your skin. It is the most dreaded place in the

minds of all Rauldens.

       “It is a strong myth, especially now, because when the first explorers returned from

space, they carried with them the fact that every single world having the technology to grasp

other planets‟ existence also held the same belief. And, the eeriest part about it was they all used

the exact same word. So when our ancestors set out from Rauld to conquer, they took the name

of this most feared planet to their benefit.”

       Ron and Cache then sat quietly in their seats, each with thoughts of their own to occupy

their minds, staring at the empty plates in front of them for a good while.




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       Finally, Ron broke the silence.

       “Cache, if we should somehow defeat them, won‟t they just send a larger force?”

       “Yes, I suppose they will, but by then we will be ready for them,” she told Ron defiantly.

“We have already begun the first phase of development on a new weapon which can operate in

conjunction with the Energy Matrix. It will have enough power to reach well out into space and

destroy anything known to be in existence so far.

       “I have also been thinking about plans that could help other planets win their freedom as

well, and at the same time, stop the spread of Kreete dominance.”

       Ron enjoyed her enthusiasm about fighting for more helpless people. She was a true

modern day heroine. Her spirit was that of a warrior, and her compassion was equal to the

gentlest mother.

       Cache then stood, replaced her dishes in the proper portal, and turned to face Ron.

       “Everything is riding on you and me,” she said. “Our success or failure could trigger life-

or-death for trillions of people. The Kreete control over five hundred planets, presently. If they

capture Rauld, the matter transfer unit alone could easily help them double that number.”

       As she spoke, her lovely face turned to a mask of cold determination, considering such an

outcome. Then she noticed Ron was studying her and it returned to the softest smile he could

imagine.

       “Forgive me, Ron,” she told him. “Sometimes I get too caught up in the cause I fight for.

Let us return to our training schedule before I talk the remainder of the dactrai away.”




                                                                                                335
                                         Chapter Twenty-five

                                              Reminiscences



       Back at the gym, Cache escorted Ron over to the side of the computer control unit that

managed the sparring image machine. She opened a small compartment there and withdrew two

objects, handing one of them to Ron. His eyes lit up instantly as he beheld a bow unlike any

he‟d ever seen before.

       It was the same color as the camouflaged garments he and Cache wore, was extremely

light, and as he let it settle into his palm he discovered the grip fit his hand perfectly. The

instrument was not strung, but Ron took a few seconds to run his hands over the matte finished

coating, impressed with the seamless perfection of the workmanship.

       “Our database in the Central Computer had a wide variety of substances available to craft

the weapon,” Cache told Ron, as he admired the bow, “so I chose the most durable material of

the choices I had.”

       “It looks fabulous!” Ron commented. “Is that the string?” he asked, motioning to the

small item in her hand.



                                                                                                  336
       “Yes,” she replied, handing him the coiled package. “Here you are.”

       Ron stretched out the string, finding it to be unlike the multifilament design of Earth‟s

bowstrings; but rather, it was a single cord of some unfamiliar substance. It was a flat gray color

and had loops made into the ends…but with no seam at all…appearing as one continuous string.

It was exactly like the rope the Kreete used to restrain Cache at the clearing where she and Ron

met. Ron secured the bottom loop to the appropriate end of the bow and then stepped into the

proper stance to apply the necessary leverage required to complete the process.

       “It will probably be difficult to string, Ron,” Cache told him, “because I asked for it to be

configured to the maximum of your programmed abilities.”

       Ron braced himself firmly, and then he began applying force to bend the bow into

position to accept the other loop. He steadily increased the pressure on the slim device, only to

have it resist all the more…fighting against him with great tenacity, as if it wanted him to prove

he was worthy of its use.

       Ron didn‟t hesitate either, and simply applied more of the awesome strength he‟d been

recently graced with. Slowly, the bow gave way, until Ron was close to the limit of his

capability, and he was just able to slip the loop up into position. He gently backed off on his

compression force, allowing the cord to carry the stress the bow was exerting on him, and gave a

huge sigh of relief.

       “Wow!” Ron exclaimed, straightening up from his task with beads of sweat on his brow.

“You weren‟t kidding about the stiffness of that thing, were you?”

       “No,” she smirked, “I was not. It should prove to be a fine weapon, yes?”

       “Let‟s find out,” Ron replied, matter-of-factly. “Where are the arrows?”




                                                                                                   337
        Cache returned to the locker and removed a long, slim cylinder, also having the blue

mottling on its surface. Two-dozen sets of fletching protruded from the top of it, also of similar

coloring.

        “Thank you,” Ron said to her, as he pulled one of the arrows from the quiver, noticing

they were all secured from moving inside the tube.

        That would be excellent when they were on the move, so there would be no chance of

rattling arrows to give away their position. Ron studied the end of the long, metallic looking

shaft, as it had an extremely sharp point but lacked the usual razor-blade tips hunters used on

Earth. He presumed these peaceful Rauldens didn‟t have such a fiendish need to kill animals, so

they must have used these target tips in their competitions. After all, they‟re much easier to

remove from the target material.

        Ron nocked up the arrow, finding a precisely placed stop formed into the string to allow

quick positioning of it. He then gripped the cord firmly and pulled back on it, letting the shaft of

the slender missile slide silently along the rest, testing the pull weight of the instrument. It was

heavy, even for Ron, but he knew he would grow used to it in short order.

        Ron flinched a bit when he reached full-draw-length as the tip of the arrow suddenly

sprouted five horrible looking serrated blades, obviously designed to do maximum damage to

whatever it struck. He eased off on his draw and the blades slipped neatly back into the tip.

        “That‟s amazing!” Ron said to Cache, as he returned the bow to the resting position.

“You really know some interesting tricks.”

        “That tip is a replica of the hunting blades the Travendons use on large game animals,”

Cache told Ron. “I just added the disappearing function as a safety feature. It also can be turned

off for target practice, such as in here.”




                                                                                                   338
         She showed him how the utility worked before he prepared for practice.

         “Now,” she said, motioning for him to go to the far end of the room, “if you will take

your position, we will see how it works.”

         Ron complied with her request by backing off almost thirty yards while she lowered the

statuette. When she was safely out of harm‟s way, Ron drew the weapon again. He had no firm

idea of exactly what trajectory the arrow would have, so he just used his best judgment and set it

to flight.

         He aimed at the direct center of the target, hoping the immense gravity of the planet

wouldn‟t force it to drop too drastically…and he was astounded at the results. The arrow struck

home with a resounding “smack” directly between the eyes of the humanoid figure. The spine of

the arrow was so stiff, and the speed of the recoil was so quick, the drop in trajectory was nil.

         “Holy mackerel!” Ron shouted. “That thing shot out like a bullet!”

         He rushed over to see the impact penetration. The pointed tip was protruding six inches

out the back of the foot-thick target. Ron felt the material of the silhouette and decided it was at

least as dense as tire rubber, and then looked at the bow again. He was won over instantly.

         “Cache, this is incredible! Once again, you‟ve outdone yourself. Thank you.”

         “You are entirely welcome,” she replied, beaming with delight, “but we must get back to

work.”

         Cache triggered a pressure switch on the target and the density of the material softened

enough to allow for extraction of the arrow. She handed it to Ron and then gave out her

assignment.




                                                                                                    339
       For the next billot, so his meal could have time to settle, she set him to the task of

learning the new bow. After which, he was to work with the throwing knives, then have a long

run…all before the Kreete sparring partner was to be turned loose on him again.

       Ron zeroed in on the target quickly, and after only half his allotted time, he was striking

it at will from any angle at a distance up to sixty yards. He knew he could extend that range but

he was at the maximum expanse he could achieve in the practice room. Even when Cache set

the silhouette in motion, the arrows seemed to be guided to it like a magnet pulling in tiny slivers

of iron. He produced the same results with the knives, up to thirty yards, and was so accurate

Cache could barely believe it.

       “That is enough, Ron,” she told him, after he struck the left wrist of the target four times

in rapid succession, proving himself to be quite a showoff. “Now you need to begin your

stretching exercises, just as we did previously.”

       Ron noticed that Cache had not been practicing with any weapon since he started his

training, so he took the opportunity to voice a jokingly sarcastic remark on the subject.

       “You know, ever since I was thrown into this predicament of fighting a war I knew

nothing about, I‟ve been busting my tail trying to get ready for it, training with weapons and

working out. But the most I‟ve seen you do is a little jogging. Don‟t you think you should have

some protection, or is that where I fit in, as the planet‟s savior and your personal bodyguard?”

       He instantly regretted his comment when he saw Cache‟s eyes flash, and she turned

sharply and walked away from him indignantly. He felt ashamed for what he said, and tried to

think of someway to apologize as he approached the target to gather his knives.

       “Of course you have to defend her you idiot!” he mumbled to himself. “After all, she‟s

just a little woman.”




                                                                                                   340
        Cache reached the far wall, directly behind Ron, while he was muttering away, and

opened a storage panel there, withdrawing a long, slender tube and a wide belt. She pulled out

something from the belt and slipped it into the tube shaped item, replacing the belt in the

opening.

        Ron plucked the knives from the target and turned around to voice his apology. He

opened his mouth, but nothing came out because, at that instant, Cache whirled about, bringing

the tube up to her cheek, sighting down the barrel as if it were a bazooka, and fired.

        Ron caught a glimpse of a small, blurring object, out of the corner of his eye as it sped

past him with barely a whisper of rushing air. He turned his head to the left to find a little dart

protruding from the target less that an inch from his ear.

        It was an inch and a half long, a quarter of an inch in diameter, and had tiny airfoils on its

tail, giving the impression of a delicate toy. Ron reached over and extracted it from the

silhouette for further examination.

        As the dart pulled free, he saw that it was far from being a toy, as it had an inch long tip

equipped with the nastiest looking barbs he‟d ever seen.

        Turning back to face the approaching Cache, he said, “Wasn‟t I about to shut my big

mouth and start my stretching exercises?”

        Cache smiled broadly, letting Ron unwind his nervous state, and joined him in his study

of the dart.

        “It is propelled by compressed gas, shot from this,” she told him, holding up the tube for

his inspection.

        It was a yard long, gray in color, and made of some metallic compound. She showed Ron

the sighting mechanism…a tiny head-up display along the length of the barrel, which




                                                                                                    341
automatically activated when the trigger was touched. The sight contained a powerful telescopic

lens that showed exact distance and windage, as well as an infrared filter. That vast degree of

technology was incorporated into a tube only three quarters of an inch in cross-section.

       “This weapon has an accuracy range of three hundred of your Earth yards,” Cache said.

“That means I can strike a two-inch circle, every shot, at that distance.”

       “That‟s remarkable,” Ron admitted, impressed by her claim but evaluating the device

candidly, “but the tip is so small it wouldn‟t penetrate far enough to stop someone if you needed

to…and how well does it perform in wind, out in the real world?”

       “These tiny airfoils are controlled by a microcomputer that adjusts as it flies to

compensate for outside interferences,” Cache said proudly. “As for the killing ability, I had the

tips coated with a fast working poison which is extremely deadly on the physical make-up of the

Kreete.”

       “I see,” Ron said, holding the dart out for Cache to recover. “Well, that certainly

answered my question about you practicing, as you obviously don‟t need any from what I‟ve just

seen! You did miss me on purpose, right?”

       Cache gave him a retreating smirk and then replaced the dart in her carrier.

       “Regarding other weapons,” she remarked over her shoulder, “I am trained in swordplay

as well as other instruments. However, I must forgo them to limit the weight I will carry, and

thus have a better chance of keeping up with you.” Then she turned and faced him again.

        “As you already know, I cannot hope to match your speed in the outside world. My size

is a marked disadvantage, and I am just not used to the heat and humidity of the „real world‟. I

have spent a large amount of time on the surface, but only for exploration which did not entail




                                                                                                  342
much in the way of physical excursion. I never even considered training for this contingency

until a few dactrai ago.

         “As far as my fighting talents go, I do well enough against the average „simulated‟ man,

but I have little chance against the Kreete. My only hope against those soldiers is if I can keep

them at a good distance with that,” she added while casting her thumb back at the locker. “So

that is another reason I am opting out on carrying a sword.”

         She then bid Ron to continue with his scheduled routine as if nothing had been said,

although he still felt like a heel.

         They limbered up for a while and finally, after donning all the equipment they planned to

carry with them on their trip, ran for an hour and a half, talking on various subjects all the while.

         When that was out of the way, Cache treated Ron with a surprise. As he was walking

past the sparring area on his way out of the room and to a nice hot shower, or so he thought, she

activated the unit.

         Once again, Ron was taken off guard by the computer, yet somehow managed to evade

the attack. The Kreete image appeared just to his right and lunged at him with a thrust of his

blue rod. Ron let his body fall to the floor, and then rolled toward the oncoming foe. The

computer didn‟t correct in time to deal a blow to Ron, but did manage to avoid being tripped by

him. Ron stopped his tumble and was up attacking before the scout could compensate for the

move though, and as a result, was able to take out the image in two swift strokes of the dark

blade.

         “Thanks for the warning,” he said to Cache, while the computer set up for the next duel.




                                                                                                  343
         “You must be prepared for attack at any given moment, especially when you are tired,

since there will be little time to rest during the journey,” Cache replied. “By the way, you have

excellent reflexes.”

         “Thanks,” he told her, wanting to say more but finding that one quick remark was all he

could get out before he was once again struggling for mock survival with the massive Kreete

image.

         For the next two billots, Ron danced and darted, first on the attack, then defending

himself against the tireless opponent. It was grueling, intense, and harrowing. He loved it!

         Finally, Cache switched off the machine, which registered ten kills for Ron and none for

the computer. Only a handful of times had Ron received even a touch from the image.

         “I have watched hundreds of battles on disk recordings, Ron” Cache told him, when he

had his breath back. “Out of those…which include the greatest warriors of our planet‟s

history…I have never seen a finer display of sword-fighting skills than I have seen this dactrai.”

         Ron laughed at her statement.

         “I would suppose so, since it has probably been thousands of years since your people

used swords in battle.”

         “On the contrary,” she returned, “they used swords at the time just before the great

migration into space. They love to be up close to their enemies…to see, and sometimes feel, the

blood run out of their opponents. I would be greatly surprised if they have given up their

favorite weapon.

         “You have seen the agony wand in use. The Kreete brought that cruel instrument to

Rauld because it is an effective weapon to paralyze and torture with, without killing if they

wished. They needed something they can use to extract the information they want from us




                                                                                                344
before they kill us. It is fashioned in the shape of a sword, no doubt to keep them in practice for

the bloodier weapon. If this had been a planet without a defense shield, with some mineral or

other commodity they wanted, the Kreete would have simply destroyed our complex from their

ships. Afterward, if the people were of no use to them as slaves or workers, they would have

landed to satisfy their blood lust by slaughtering the balance of the population for fun.

       “As far as you are concerned though, Ron, I doubt you need to fear any one-on-one

conflict with any of them, for in my opinion, armed as you are, you cannot be bested by less than

three of their warriors.”

       “Thank you for the vote of confidence, but I can‟t accept the credit for the talent. I

undoubtedly acquired my skill from my unfortunate counterpart, because on Earth, I couldn‟t

have even practiced sword fighting legally. All they have is fencing, a form of swordplay that

uses a light, fine-bladed weapon which would be useless against the Kreete.”

       Cache paused for a long moment and just gazed at Ron, trying to gather the correct words

for what was on her mind, and then said, “You must realize something, Ron. You are who you

are, now. You must come to grips with that quickly, or you will be thwarted by your own

doubts. You are learning the limits of abilities you did not formerly have, and I understand that,

but you must accept no guilt from how you received those abilities. Even the slightest hesitation

could mean both our lives.”

       She placed her two hands on the expanse of his chest.

       “This is who you are…here, now and for the rest of your life. The memories of who you

were, either on Earth, or on Caron, are just that, memories. You cannot go back…and for that, I

am truly sorry. But you must live for the moment, and for the hope of tomorrow. Everything

else will just have to work itself out.”




                                                                                                 345
       Ron gazed down into her shining eyes. The truth of what she said struck him deeply.

She had a unique way of rationalizing the situation with clarity and honesty, and he greatly

appreciated it. Ron reached down and enveloped her in his arms, pulling her tightly to him. She

rested her chin on his chest as she felt the strength of those arms molding her body to his, and

she smiled.

       “Thank you, Cache,” Ron told her as he considered her statement. “You‟re right, of

course.”

       He held her there for a long moment, his mind solidifying her advice…and then he

released her and they started walking toward the door…a new subject already on the forefront of

his mind.

       He went back to the business of survival…discussing the different methods of battle the

Kreete use. Cache ran through some of the multitudes of strategies, and it seemed they had a

different plan every time they attacked a planet. Ron guessed that this fact had something to do

with the degree of technology available on the given world. They clearly wanted to have as

bloody a conflict as they could possibly arrange, even if it meant losing some of their own men.

And this cruel desire, as well as their endless, boastful pride, could be used against them…of that

he was certain.

       Ron switched mental gears again when he and Cache reached the door.

       “Will you be joining me for dinner?” he asked.

       “Only if we do not talk about the Kreete. I would like to hear about your world tonight.”

       “Okay then,” he responded with a huge smile, “it‟s a deal.”




                                                                                                   346
           They each went their separate ways to freshen up after the hard day‟s events, with the

agreement to meet back at Ron‟s quarters for their meal. After less than an hour‟s time, they

were doing just that.

           Ron was surprised to find he could still enjoy the food, since he‟d eaten the same thing so

often in the past few days. He was ravenous though, after such a long workout, that anything

tasted wonderful to him.

           When he was able to slow down the intake of his feast, he began his narration of life on

Earth. He spoke of the similarities between the two worlds, Earth and Rauld, and the differences

of the peoples. As he talked, he realized that Earth appeared more and more like Rauld before

dividing the Kreete from the present-day inhabitants.

           Ron didn‟t want to think of the negative aspects of his planet however, and after a while,

he got caught up in his memories of the beauty of his homeland, and how peaceful some parts of

it were.

           He drifted off into recounting the most pleasant experiences of his life, forgetting Cache

and all the problems he was currently faced with…to float from one daydream to another. After

a long journey down memory lane, he realized he was babbling about things Cache couldn‟t

possibly understand, so he snapped out of his trance.

           “I‟m sorry, Cache,” he apologized as he regained his composure. “I shouldn‟t have run

on like that. We should both be asleep by now, so we‟ll be ready to continue the program in the

morning.”

           Cache had been watching Ron as he spoke. She listened to him pouring out his life‟s

adventures to her also, but watching told her more than his words.




                                                                                                    347
       “This man is very complex,” she told herself while he was reminiscing. “He can be as

fierce as a Cailden war-cat when necessary, and as playful as her newborn cubs when at ease.

Earth must be an extraordinary place.”

       She knew he was a hybrid of Earthling and Caronian, but felt sure that he still acted as if

he were totally an Earthman, as far as his emotions went.

       She was allowing herself to care deeply for a man for the first time in her life, and it was

strange, and terrifying, and wonderful to her. He was the only person on the planet who thought

like her about fighting for freedom and safety for other people…those who could not fight for

themselves. He saw the need to use reason where it was effective, but also did not shrink from

the necessity of force when it was needed. He was her perfect match.

       “Do not worry about being overly talkative, Ron,” she told him. “I enjoyed it

immensely.”

       They cleared the table before Cache walked slowly to the door, secretly wishing Ron

would ask her not to go.

       During his narrative, he had deliberately evaded the part of his life filled with the joy of

falling in love, and of his marriage. That pseudo-lie caused him some concern…but he

rationalized the omission away with his need to not alienate Cache.

       It was a narrowing path that he walked, and he knew it. She wore her heart on her sleeve,

but he also knew that he was nearly as drawn to her as she was to him. He wanted badly to ask

her to stay with him, but his steadfast pledge to his bride would never allow him to act on his

physical attraction to this vivacious Raulden…he hoped.

       “I will see you in the morning,” she told him. “You had better get what sleep you can

now. Good-bye.”




                                                                                                  348
       Cache strolled off to the transporter, leaving Ron alone with his reminiscences. He

prepared himself for bed quickly and then stripped down and slid into the warm covers, still

thinking of the wonderful times he‟d spent on Earth, never once letting Rauld invade his

thoughts…except for Cache.

       His pragmatic self finally decided that even if she could never be more than a friend to

him, he enjoyed her company so much that he could not think of parting from her. He hoped he

could persuade her to return to Earth with him, at least for a short while, to see all the glorious

places of his childhood. As unlikely as it sounded, it was enough of a plan to allow him to push

those problems aside for the present and sleep.

       That night, Ron dreamed of the mountains of California, and a vacation trip he and his

family had taken when he was a small boy. He recalled his memories with all the awe and joy

that children look at their surroundings with, and he was happy.

       Ron slept without a care in the world…deeply and calmly…and for the first time in days,

he got the rest his body craved.




                                                                                                      349
                                        Chapter Twenty-six

                                          Pride and Humility



       Ron awakened early the next day, feeling better than he had in months. He quickly

showered and ate, and then rushed to the gym, hoping to get in a little extra simulator time.

       Cache found him some time later, after searching for him first in his room, then in the

gym, and even at the arsenal. She peeked into the exercise room only briefly on her first pass,

but saw nothing except the black simulator, seemingly lifeless. It was not until she placed her

hand on it, while looking over the room for the second time, that she detected a slight vibration

running through the hull. She opened the hatch and found Ron in the middle of a fight with six

enemy vessels.

       “Well, you seem full of energy,” she said when she stood just over his shoulder.

       Ron made a few quick maneuvers to avoid getting blown apart, and then let fly with his

own guns, disintegrating one of the other ships.

       “Won‟t you join the party?” he asked.

       “Gladly,” Cache replied, slipping into her simulator G suit and then into her seat.



                                                                                                  350
         As she triggered her safety harness, the computer instantly introduced full power

simulation to her seat, pinning her with the crushing forces which were alive in the imitation

battle. Her console then lit up brightly and she gasped. The shields were on the verge of

collapsing, and the weapons system was running well beyond maximum limits. It was obvious

the Darlile had taken an extensive amount of damage from the Kreete‟s ships, and Ron had

overridden the Ion Capacitor to dole out more punishment than he normally could have.

         “You appear to be having some troubles, Ron,” Cache told him after she placed her

helmet on.

         “Yeah, just a bit,” he responded through gritted teeth, while banking hard and firing

again.

         There were only three enemy ships in the area, now. Ron nudged the throttle forward but

was not fast enough to avoid being hit again. The shields flickered, and then were out.

         “Shields are down!” Cache announced.

         “Can you repair it, or bypass it for a few minutes?” he asked as the craft shook violently.

         “Negative! The whole system has been blown. It would take a torjourne to repair all of

this damage.”

         “All right then, hang on to your seat,” Ron warned her, taking a wide swing around to get

his intended target in sight. He lined up for a head-on run at two of the remaining ships and sent

the Darlile barreling down at them, her cannons blazing. When he reached the outer edge of

their weapons range, he pulled up and rolled the Darlile over, narrowly missing being hit. His

maneuver forced Cache to slam her eyes shut while tensing her stomach to fight the enormous

gravitational forces pressing against her. The two Kreete ships he fired on exploded, and left

him with only one to contend with.




                                                                                                  351
        Ron made an aggressive move to bring the Darlile around again, so he might face the last

adversary, but the ship did not respond.

        “I‟ve lost directional control!” he said, still trying to make the ship turn.

        “When the shields failed, it started a slow meltdown of the Grid generator,” Cache

explained, combing her instruments swiftly. “The generator is now out of commission, and we

are running on battery power alone.”

        The Darlile slowed down rapidly as Ron throttled back to flight idle. The black warbird

was left floating in a lifeless spin, clearly out of control.

        “Okay then, now we wait,” Ron told her.

        Cache watched over on Ron‟s side as the last enemy vessel approached with caution. It

was within range of the Darlile‟s cannons, but Ron let it come. The Kreete ship fired its guns

before it was within optimum range, and Ron returned fire…well within his own lethal

boundaries.

        He‟d waited until the Kreete were too close to possibly miss, but left himself open for the

same fate. He slammed the Darlile‟s powerful engines to full throttle, forcing a grunt from him

and his copilot, but it was a move that came too late. The Darlile took the entire Kreete blast on

the right side, shearing off the wing and engine…but she did not explode.

        The Kreete didn‟t have such luck however, because Ron had let his weapons‟ disruptor

charge climb up to the emergency level. This move allowed every ounce of pent-up energy to be

spent in one huge plasmite blast, totally consuming the enemy vessel and obliterating it in a

huge, fiery explosion.

        “That was a remarkable bit of strategy, Ron,” Cache commented. “I cannot imagine how

you were able to out-fly six of their fighters, or how you rigged the ship the way you did.”




                                                                                                 352
       The simulator began the reset procedure as Cache read over the data from the last run.

       “Yeah. Those guys were pretty tough,” Ron said, sitting back and relaxing. “They

picked me apart like a pack of wolves until I had no choice but to let them hit me so I could get

some solid shots at them. I only wish I hadn‟t let them destroy the Darlile.”

       “I know this is only practice, but you reacted realistically,” Cache told him. “You cannot

let any of them get away when we get up there. I may not sound like a Raulden, but they must

all be eliminated. We cannot allow them to bring back firsthand information about this ship, or it

would set my plans back for… Wait a lita! This readout shows there were four more ships at the

beginning of the exercise.”

       “Yeah, that‟s right,” Ron admitted calmly.

       “How is it possible for you to catch on so fast?” Cache queried in amazement. “A dactrai

ago you were just learning to fly, and now you are bypassing my safety systems and out flying

entire fleets. Can you explain this?”

       “No…not really,” Ron admitted, thinking he‟d done nothing to justify her surprise. “I

just tried different tactics until I got the hang of flying, or rather maneuvering, since in space you

don‟t actually fly.

       “It‟s like playing video games where I come from, only much more realistic. If one

approach doesn‟t work, take a different angle. As far as the safety switch…hey, I‟m a highly

trained technician. If I couldn‟t get around that, I couldn‟t make a living troubleshooting real

problems, now could I?

       “Now, as far as beating the Kreete, I just took your advice and followed my instincts.

Their tactics were fairly predictable since they‟re such an aggressive race.”




                                                                                                   353
       “You make it all sound simple,” Cache said, “but I wonder how many people in all the

worlds could do all of that so easily?

       “Enough speculating though, for obviously you are well versed in space maneuvering and

combat, so now we should try your skills at atmospheric fighting. Also, I am aware that you

understand how the cannons work, but I will elaborate on them first, just to be sure.

       “The nose gun is more precisely called a spherical plasmite emitter, and is mounted to the

forward-most point of the ship. It can cover the greatest amount of territory due to its ability to

fire along 230 degrees of its parabolic arc. But it cannot fire directly behind you, so I

incorporated a second gun in the rear, identical with the front, but which has a 160-degree limit

to its range. That emitter is limited to this smaller sweep because of the aft end structure of the

spacecraft. We would not want to shear off part of the Darlile, as you know.

       “Both combined give you all the coverage you need, and can fire simultaneously if you

so wish. And since we are speaking of the cannons, I suppose you have already learned about

this,” she mentioned as she pointed out a spot on the display viewer. “The circle surrounding the

tiny, inlaid picture of the Darlile on your view screen depicts the limits of your weapons‟

effective range.”

       “Yes, actually I have,” Ron admitted.

       “Very well then, prepare yourself,” she warned him.

       Cache began a new sequence, and punched up an enemy ship…after she removed the

safety switch jumper Ron had installed.

       “The session has begun,” she announced.

       Ron scanned the valley he was hovering in, with towering snowcapped mountains on

both sides, and a lazy river running between them, directly under the ship. Five hundred feet




                                                                                                  354
above those lapping banks he gazed at the beautiful serenity of the land, but only for a fraction of

a second…for there was danger about, belying the peacefulness of the view. Thirty-six miles

above the planet‟s surface, and halfway around it, was a ship…a Kreete warship, searching the

area with sensors…hunting.

       “All right, baby,” Ron said to the Darlile, bringing her into an intercept course with the

enemy, “let‟s get‟em.”

       Ron powered up the engines and let the acceleration press his body deep into the pilot‟s

seat. The Darlile rocketed through the cerulean air on its way into hypersonic speeds. Her

leading edge shielding heated up until it glowed orange from the friction of the molecules of air

compressing and dragging at her, trying to hold her back as she sliced through them heading for

the upper atmosphere.

       Ron flew a direct route at the heavy Cruiser, taking hits from the enemy‟s cannons, not

concerned with the outcome at all, which he knew would be minimal damage at best. When he

was well within range of the Darlile‟s weapons, he laid down some firepower of his own.

       The Darlile‟s special plasmite energy pulses enveloped a section of the Cruiser‟s

protective shielding, clinging to it like dancing green lightning while draining it into total

collapse. At that point, Ron simply sliced into the Cruiser‟s massive bulk at will, cutting it up

into small pieces before hitting the fuel cells, which exploded in a fiery, dramatic end to the

career of the warship.

       “That was a piece of cake,” Ron told Cache, slowing the Darlile down to a cruising speed

at just under Mach four.




                                                                                                    355
        Cache saw a bad habit forming and decided to remedy it. Ron was becoming too sure of

how safe he was, which could easily cost them the ship and their lives, not to mention all the

other ramifications that defeat would bring.

        “Have another go at it, Ron,” she told him, making a few adjustments from her station.

        Another heavy Cruiser appeared on the screen, barely out of weapons range, behind

them.

        “Just one?” Ron asked, disappointed. “There‟s no challenge,” he complained.

        “Take care of this one, and then we will see about multi-ship scenarios,” Cache promised.

        Ron set the throttles at half power, and then sent the Darlile streaking to engage the new

foe. He flew straight at the Cruiser again, waiting to get into range so he could end this silly

exercise. But before Ron could get off one shot, the Cruiser opened fire. The first blast knocked

out the Darlile‟s shields and the second destroyed her completely.

        “Congratulations!” Cache applauded. “You have just killed the two of us and the entire

planet.”

        Ron was too surprised to answer at first, and then his dismay turned to anger.

        “I thought this ship could take the Kreete‟s weapons without any worries,” he said

accusingly.

        “They should be able to, yes,” Cache replied, “but that is assuming the information I have

available is accurate and up-to-date. You should not allow them any direct hits, Ron, until we

know for sure the Darlile‟s shields are what I think they are.”

        “Oh, that‟s just great!” Ron snapped at her, still fuming because he felt she‟d made a fool

of him. He knew he could have avoided at least some of the enemy fire, had he tried, but now he

let his pride get out of line.




                                                                                                   356
       “I suppose the next thing you tell me is the Darlile can‟t really fly, huh?”

       Cache flared at his cutting remark.

       “My ship will do what is required of it,” she hissed, the reins of her own pride running

loose now. “All you have to do is stay away from enemy weapons until we are sure about their

strength. Is that too much to ask? After all, anyone could fly straight at them and then signal for

the cannons to fire. We sent for a pilot who could outfly and outthink their defenses, not some

muscle-bound moron who cannot think his way out of a sanitizer stall. That is what all this

„training‟ is about! Now, do you think you can handle it?”

       Ron sat there astonished. He knew he‟d spoken out of anger, and didn‟t mean to hurt her

feelings, but he fully expected her to back down from him. After all, wasn‟t he the hero around

here? Cache certainly put him back in his proper place, and he knew it, so he cooled down fast.

       “Okay, okay, I admit it, I screwed up!” he said, back pedaling as fast as he could. “Isn‟t

it bad enough that I got killed, or do you have to whip me when I‟m dead?”

       Cache didn‟t reply. She was still steaming about his insults.

       “I apologize, Cache,” Ron tried again. “I admit I got a little cocky because of my success

with those other ships and forgot this is to be treated as real life-and-death situations. I was

showing off and you fixed me good. I didn‟t mean any of the things I said about your

ship…truly.”

       He took a few seconds to let his apology sink in, hoping for the best.

       “Come on. Am I forgiven?”

       She softened her demeanor at his apology, graciously allowing him to escape any further

ridicule. She then reached up and punched in two Destroyers on the screen.




                                                                                                   357
        “You now have a chance to redeem yourself,” she told him tersely. “I suggest you make

a move.”

        Ron looked up just in time to see the Kreete ships firing on the Darlile.

        “Shit!”

        He immediately went into evasive maneuvers and forgot about the argument, as Cache

had planned.

        For the next six hours, Ron flew circles around the enemy ships, blasting them to bits,

while avoiding, as much as possible, their return fire. After he would destroy one vessel, Cache

would replace it with another, and then another, until he could dispense with them at will.

        She finally called a halt to the practice session to give them a chance to stretch and get a

bite to eat.

        “Once again, your capacity to adapt and absorb information, and in turn put that

information into practical use, astounds me, Ron,” Cache told him as they climbed out of the

simulator. “I have never seen anything like it.”

        “I suppose the urgency of the circumstances adds considerably to my talents,” Ron

replied flatly…with no sign of his former boastful attitude. “On my world, many people believe

a person can do almost anything, if he or she is motivated to the proper degree.”

        “That may be true on your world, but here, the population does not respond in like

fashion.”

        The two of them entered Ron‟s room, gulped down a quick, quiet meal, and then returned

to the gym for another two hours of simulator time.

        After that was over, Ron was more than eager to start his stretching exercises, so

confining was the small cockpit. He and Cache were both thoroughly willing to relax their




                                                                                                  358
minds and allow their bodies to work for a change. His sexy drill instructor let Ron skip the

sparring that evening because they‟d spent too much time in the simulator, but she ran him for

two solid hours on the scenic treadmill after they finished limbering up.

       When they were through with the run, and Cache told him there would be no more

training for the day, Ron said, “Come on, lady. I‟ll buy you dinner.”

       “Sorry,” she replied. “Not tonight. I have to go to a meeting with Hoaldniz.”

       Ron felt immediate loneliness set in, even before she left, but tried not to show it as he

said, “All right then, I‟ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

       He watched Cache vanish behind the closing doors of the cubic transporter, and then he

strode into his room. As soon as the door shut, he began to feel lonelier than he‟d ever felt

before. He was so far from his family and friends, and had to stretch his optimism greatly to

even think he would ever see them again. He remembered the ill-fated crew of the oil platform

and thought of how forsaken the relatives of those men must be, each knowing that their loved

one would never be coming back.

       “How „alone‟ the surviving spouses must feel,” he said to himself.

       He thought of his wife, Angela, recalling all the times she said how worried she was

when he was gone to work, and how lonesome she was, there at home, all by herself. She told

him on several occasions that she feared one day he would go off to work and never come back.

He reassured her that her qualms were unnecessary…that he would always return and would

never leave her for longer than was absolutely necessary.

       Now, through no fault of his own, he was no longer part of her life. Now, it was his turn

to worry. He was afraid he would never make it back to her…that he would die out here fighting

for a planet no one on Earth even knew existed.




                                                                                                    359
        He felt so helpless.

        He also knew he stood almost no chance of living through the war which had been thrust

upon him. Then there was always the possibility that, even if he did survive, he couldn‟t make

his way back to Earth, or at least not for many years, for he was well aware of the vast distances

separating the stars.

        “No!” he shouted at the empty room in absolute defiance…his teeth grinding together

and a growl in his words. “I „will‟ make it back to you, Angie! No one…and nothing will stop

me!”

        He stood there thinking for a few more minutes with too many possible outcomes to

count swirling around in his head, then went to the sanitizer and tried to wash away some of the

despair in his heart.

        Ron returned to the empty room twenty minutes later feeling somewhat better. He

gulped down a light supper, tended to his bodily needs, and then laid his clothes beside the bed

and slipped quickly under the blanket.

        His mind was not ready to relax though, so it took him an hour to drop off to sleep, and

when he did, it was a restless slumber he was plagued with. He dreamed of cemeteries and death

for half the night…standing beside each of his friends as they were buried. Ron watched the

tears of their families fall until he was being swept away in a raging flood of salty, wet sorrow

from the hundreds of mourners. His body was carried downstream so far that when he finally

made it ashore he was on another planet…a world where hideous beast-men hunted for him, and

set upon him with rods of fire. He felt as if he‟d been cast straight into hell.

        Ron jerked himself awake several times…just enough to roll over…and then the dream

would begin again, following a similar path.




                                                                                                    360
        He awakened later that night, realizing he‟d been weeping in his sleep, and his chest felt

so heavy he was sure it would collapse, so he got out of bed. He made his way back to the

sanitizer where he showered again…this time in as cold a setting as he could stand, trying to

break the dire mood he was in.

        As he stepped out of the stall on his way back to the bedroom, he saw his reflection in the

mirror. Once more, he found himself inspired with the figure standing before him. If there was

ever an individual who could survive the upcoming battles, it was the one he stared at in the

reflection…of this he was positive.

        “If you can‟t do it with that,” he told himself, pointing to the image of the perfect,

massive body which was now his, “then it can‟t be done.”

        When he reached that definitive conclusion, he stepped back into his room with a

renewed confidence and slipped into bed again. The cleaning program had supplied him with a

fresh set of coverings, and he felt much more relaxed now than before. He found peace in his

newly revived determination, and that peace allowed him to drift off quickly to restful

tranquility.

        He was able to make it through the rest of the night undisturbed by doubts of the mind

and those dreams of sorrow.




                                                                                                 361
                                      Chapter Twenty-seven

                                           Too Close to Home



       “Ron! Wake up!” Cache shouted from down the hall as she exited the cubic transporter

and dashed for his room.

       Ron was already half dressed, crouching beside the door when she came in, and she

passed right by him without knowing it.

       “Ron!” she repeated at the entrance of the sanitizer after seeing his bed was empty. She

was about to enter the shower room when Ron let her know where he was, after he checked

down the hallway first for any pursuers.

       “What‟s the problem?” he asked, as he continued dressing.

       Cache whipped around instantly, hands out in a defensive gesture, and then dropped them

again when she recognized him.

       “There is a Kreete scout in the complex!” she informed him, already on the move toward

the door.

       “What? How‟d he get in?”



                                                                                             362
        Ron slipped the upper part of his suit on and followed her into the practice room. She

was at the weapons locker in a heartbeat, pulling out their equipment.

        “We are not sure at the moment. Here, take these,” she told him, holding out his sword,

then his bow and arrows, and finally the set of throwing blades.

        In less than thirty seconds they were fully armed and halfway to the waiting transporter,

down the hall. They boarded the advanced people mover and were on their way instantly.

        Ron took the opportunity to slip each of his weapons in and out of their sheaths a few

times to ensure they were free, ready for use.

        “The Kreete is in one of the surface access tunnels,” Cache explained. “We will be there

in a few borts. One of our people is presumed dead and the soldier will no doubt be waiting for

us when the doors open on that level.”

        “Do you know what type of weapon he‟s carrying?” Ron asked, wanting as much

information about the threat as he could get.

        “He knocked out one of our surveillance centers in that sector, taking with it any chance

we might have at neutralizing him remotely, but we were able to identify the weapon before he

did. It is an S.P.G.; a solid projectile gun.

        “The rifle fires a hard pellet which explodes on impact. It is not as dangerous as a matter

scrambler, but if the pellet should strike a bone in your body, you will be just as dead because the

explosive shell is quite powerful, so extreme caution is advised. However, he cannot blast

through the doors of this transporter, so we do have a chance.”

        “Is there any cover outside this thing when we get there?” Ron asked.

        “There is a two-foot deep niche on either side of the tunnel…about five steps down the

hallway. That is where the surface suits were kept in the ancient dactrais.”




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        “Okay then,” Ron said, formulating a plan of action, “when the doors open, I‟ll take the

left side and you take the right. Did you bring some sort of laser, or blaster?”

        “No,” Cache said. “It would be too dangerous. We could bring down the entire tunnel

with one of those, should we miss the target. That would be too risky. We will have to deal with

him using the weapons we have trained with,” she explained, patting her dart rifle affectionately.

        “I have only this one extra bit of support,” she added, holding out her hand and revealing

a small, round object. “It is a smoke emitting capsule. When we are about to exit, I will activate

it for some cover from the Kreete.”

        Ron started to voice a complaint, but the transporter began its deceleration and they had

to brace themselves for the leap to safety.

        “Hold the doors closed and show the hallway!” Cache commanded to the cube‟s interior.

        The doors to the transporter shimmered and became transparent from the inside looking

out. Ron and Cache noted the position of the enemy, and their respective alcoves, before Cache

ignited the smoke grenade. They both took a deep breath at that point, waiting for their chance

to make a move.

        “Open!” she announced, after the cube was completely engulfed in thick, black smoke.

        At the instant the doors opened, a blast tore through the gap and ripped a hole in the

padding at the rear wall of the cube. Partially hidden from the attacker‟s view as the dense cloud

billowed out into the corridor, Ron dove swiftly into the hallway toward the niche that was to

protect him…and Cache followed suit to the opposite side. Two more blasts echoed through the

tunnel as the Kreete tried to take out the duo, who each rolled expertly and came up out of the

scout‟s line of fire.




                                                                                                  364
       Ron chanced a look down the hall and nearly got his head blown off in the process.

Instead of his skull however, a large chunk of the corner of the wall was gouged out.

       “If that‟s their inferior weapons, I‟d hate to see the really good ones,” he muttered to

himself, shaking the debris from his hair.

       Ron saw what he needed to though. The Kreete was still twenty yards down the hall, in a

kneeling position at the center of the passage, with nothing to protect him, save for that gun.

       Ron motioned to Cache to get ready to take a shot when he drew the Kreete‟s fire. When

she had her dart gun all set, she nodded to him.

       Ron peered around the corner again, jerking his head back just in time to avoid a fatal

catastrophe while another piece of the corner exploded into dust, showering him with gritty

fragments. Cache whipped her rifle up, fired, and ducked back behind her cover, all in a fraction

of a second…and Ron followed up on her move by stealing another glance down the corridor.

       Their plan didn‟t work. The Kreete was no fool, and rolled neatly out of the way when

he saw movement from Cache‟s side of the tunnel…therefore her dart simply sped off down the

long walkway harmlessly.

       The S.P.G. was leveling at him again, forcing Ron to duck back quickly. He had no

chance to make use of the bow, so he slipped it off and placed it in the corner of the alcove.

       He then used hand signals to tell Cache to repeat the performance but not to fire. He

withdrew one of his ten inch throwing knives before going through the motions of drawing the

Kreete‟s attention again. Just as before, the Kreete fired at him, and then rolled out of Cache‟s

clear target area. However, as Ron had guessed, the bestial fellow chose the opposite direction

to escape her aim, leaving him wide open, and an easy target. Ron didn‟t even have to expose

himself to make the strike.




                                                                                                  365
       His arm shot back and then forward in a blur, sending the razor-edged shard of death

streaking for its victim. The blade struck home in the Kreete‟s throat, ripping through his thickly

muscled neck to end up wedged firmly in his vertebrae.

       Ron was back behind the wall when the knife penetrated the big man‟s flesh, and he

listened for sounds of his success. He was rewarded with a muffled gurgling noise, as the man

sucked in air through the wound…and then there was a wild shot from the gun, a reflex action no

doubt, Ron assumed.

       At the sound of the shot, Cache stepped out from her cover and let fly with one of her

deadly little darts, straight into the Kreete‟s left eye. The poison went directly into the creature‟s

brain, killing him before his face had time to strike the cool rock floor.

       With the immediate danger over, Ron didn‟t hesitate, beginning a search for answers to

his question of how the Kreete could have breached the complex.

       He saw sunlight pouring into the tunnel at the entrance, more than fifty yards further

down the hallway, so he gathered his bow again and set off for that position at a run. He scooped

up the dead Kreete‟s gun as he went by, knowing the entrance had to be sealed quickly before

any more of the soldiers could find it…if they hadn‟t done so already.

       “Check him,” Ron shouted back at Cache, indicating the dead man, “and then follow me

carefully.”

       As Ron approached the opening, he saw three things. First, was the body of one of the

Rauldens lying on the floor in a large pool of blood. It was off to one side of the passageway,

beneath an open control panel. Second was a small, dome-shaped disk stuck to the wall beside

the panel but looking out of place…it was clean while the area was covered with arterial spray.




                                                                                                   366
The third item was in the opening of the entryway…a flashing strobe light that pulsed every

couple of seconds, undoubtedly beckoning to the scout‟s allies.

         There was also a low moan echoing down the hall, and it puzzled Ron for a couple of

seconds until he realized that a strong wind was moving past the opening and making the odd

noise.

         Feeling an overwhelming need for caution, he dove to the smoothly polished floor,

allowing his forward momentum to carry him to the edge of the entrance in a long slide. When

he stopped, his protective eye glands did their magic straight away as the glaring Raulden sun

struck his face…and in one fast swipe the black, razor-edged blade cleaved the beacon in two,

ending the soldier‟s call for backup. He quickly checked left and then right for signs of the

enemy before starting a more encompassing sweep of the scene.

         The clarity of the sky was striking to Ron…a deep blue which was dotted in only two

places with brilliant white clouds far in the distance. Luckily, he saw no Kreete shuttles in that

blue expanse. More immediate to his position, on both sides of the entryway was a narrow, two-

foot wide ledge that followed the edge of the mountain.

         To the left, the ledge was a rough path down to a wooded knoll, some seventy-five yards

away, and thirty feet below the entrance. There, the forest continued eastward as far as he could

see. The knoll also marked the edge of a considerable precipice which dropped away to a deep

gorge. A fast flowing river lay at its center, a mile or so away below him and to the west.

         Toward Ron‟s immediate right, the ledge continued for another twenty yards, merging

with the mountain at that point. He carefully crawled up to the lip of the shelf; saw that it was at

least a hundred feet to the rocky bottom of the cliff, and verified there was no attacking force

climbing it.




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       He subsequently began a thorough, systematic inspection of the surrounding area for

possible snipers. Then, finding none, he crept back into the tunnel where Cache was just arriving

with her weapon at the ready.

       He surmised the wind whipping past his position had carried the sounds of this skirmish

away from any allies the fellow might have, but was surprised the strobe hadn‟t drawn more

unwelcome visitors. Either way, he knew time was critical.

       “It‟s all clear out there now,” Ron told Cache while taking in the sight at the control

panel. His sunscreens returned to the standby position quickly as he moved into the corridor, and

allowed him good visibility once more.

       “What‟s this?” he asked of the disk.

       “It is probably a field inhibitor…to keep the safety-shielding from reenergizing and

locking the Kreete out. “He just needed to keep us busy long enough for his friends to get here

and secure the breach. Then they could easily overrun the complex.”

       “Yeah, well, tough luck for him. Is it explosive?”

       “No, it simply…”

       Ron didn‟t wait. He nudged her aside, leveled the S.P.G. at the device, and squeezed the

trigger. Nothing happened.

       “The weapon must have a security lock on it,” Cache suggested.

       Without pause, Ron drew his sword and skewered the jamming unit against the wall. A

bright flash of discharging electricity lit up the area for a brief second, and then it went dark.

       With that done, he moved swiftly to the next point of focus.




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          Ron realized the deceased Raulden had been a woman, judging from the body. The

corpse was absent a head, of which he was sure where it was by the looks of the nearby wall.

The Kreete‟s S.P.G. did a messy job on the poor unfortunate young woman who fell prey to him.

          Cache had to turn away from the body for a minute, and Ron was sure she was going to

be sick, but she managed to get herself under control, whirling back to face him with her jaw

clenched tightly.

          “It looks like she was working on the door mechanism when he shot her,” Cache guessed.

“She never had a chance.”

          “He must‟ve spotted the open portal from down the path and sneaked up behind her while

she was preoccupied with the panel,” Ron added. “Because of the angle, he couldn‟t have seen

her from down there, so he must have been standing in the entrance when he made the kill.”

          “From the settings of the controls,” Cache told him, studying it closely, “she was ready to

regenerate the field when he attacked her.”

          She tightened her stomach against the churning she felt and wiped away the gore on the

panel before she tested her theory by triggering the “Secure” mode. The sunlight was suddenly

blocked out by the reformed door, leaving them standing in the comparatively dim lighting of the

tunnel.

          “Damn!” Ron let out. “One more second and she could‟ve been safe!”

          He decided not to waste more time by wishing for something to change what had

happened, so he bent down and scooped up the body of the Raulden woman.

          “Wait here.”

          Ron hurried back to the transporter, laid the woman‟s body in the cube gently, and then

turned his attention to the Kreete.




                                                                                                  369
        After recovering his knife and Cache‟s dart, Ron hefted the foul smelling corpse over his

shoulder and returned to the entrance where Cache lingered.

        “Pick up his rifle, over there, and replace it in its proper position,” Ron instructed.

        “Good…now, open the door.”

        Cache complied with his wishes, although confused by his actions.

        Ron stepped quickly out onto the narrow ledge and turned right…his autoshades

reappearing as he moved. He followed the path up to the point where it joined the rocky face of

the cliff, being careful to step only on clean rock to avoid leaving any evidence of his passage.

Once there, he released the body of the scout and watched as it slid and bounced to the foot of

the escarpment. Then, by using the advantage of his extra dense molecular structure, he

hammered at the ledge with his foot until a large piece of it broke away, following the Kreete‟s

path to the bottom. Ron then retraced his steps and eased back into the access tunnel.

        “You can seal it off now,” he told her.

        “Why did you do that?” Cache questioned him, after the door was shut again. “Would it

not have been better for him to have simply disappeared?”

        “Well, maybe,” Ron admitted, “but that could‟ve led his friends right up to the entrance,

by the signs of his footprints. They might figure out a way to circumvent the barrier if that

occurred. But, by doing what I did, they‟ll be led to the conclusion that he simply had an

accident while searching for an entrance.”

        “I see,” Cache said to Ron. “Very devious.”

        They walked back toward the transporter, passing a small box which was a yard square

by a foot thick. It floated along, going the opposite direction, and Ron stopped to watch it slip

silently by.




                                                                                                    370
       “What‟s that?” he asked.

       “That is a portable sanitizer unit,” Cache explained. “It is on its way to clean up the

entrance.”

       “Oh,” Ron said, watching the unit float down the corridor.

       When they reached the transporter, there were almost no signs left to indicate a battle had

taken place. The blood from the Kreete was gone, and the corners of the walls were covered

with some robot repair crews…tiny machines that crawled up the walls and were making them

whole again.

       “Gees, you people work fast!” Ron told Cache.

       “Yes, the maintenance crews are efficient,” she admitted.

       The blast mark in the rear of the transporter was repaired, or the transporter was a

different one, as the body of the Raulden woman had also been removed. Ron speculated that by

the end of the day, there would be no trace of the confrontation at all.




                                                                                                 371
                                       Chapter Twenty-eight

                                           Finishing Touches



       “What about the woman?” Ron inquired, as the doors of the transporter closed and they

began the trip back to the practice room. “Will there be a funeral soon?”

       “Funeral?” Cache asked, puzzled. “Oh! I understand. Your people have a ritual to

commemorate the deceased person, correct?”

       “Yes…don‟t you?”

       “No. We will each complete a private grievance ceremony, to acknowledge her passing,

but Rauldens simply return to the soil what came from the soil. It is viewed as a normal

succession…completing the cycle of life.

       “As for the life force that once occupied her body, what you might call her „soul‟, it has

already merged with the next being it is to inhabit, and so we celebrate her embarking on her

next journey.”




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          “You mean she has been reincarnated?” Ron questioned, finding it hard to imagine the

extremely advanced Rauldens would follow such a belief.

          “I suppose you might call it that,” Cache said, trying to form the explanation in her mind.

“You see, when a living organism ceases to function, the life force which once controlled that

being moves on to the next highest form of existence, carrying with it much of what it has

learned from the previous lives.”

          “Are you serious?” Ron asked, his mind reeling with the implications of what she was

saying.

          “Of course,” she replied. “How else would you account for evolution from a few

molecules of chemicals to the most advanced creature on the planet?”

          “I don‟t know,” Ron replied. “On my world, it is believed that a single, all-powerful life

force oversees everything and everyone in the universe.”

          “That is not exactly correct…as we view it,” Cache explained. “We believe that when

the people, or life forces, which have preceded us make the transference enough times to evolve

sufficiently, they attain the stature of a more advanced being. This entity no longer has physical

form and does not need a corporeal body. It moves beyond material boundaries that we

understand and joins with the universe‟s Guardian at a low, „apprentice‟ level, you might say.

          “At that point, they progress into a realm comprised of like entities and are granted

control over some of the myriad forces which rule the universe. They are linked to one another

to form one vast consciousness, and assigned to maintain watch over their domain, like strands

of a complex web. They keep the laws of physics in order, so the heavens can continue with

constancy and precision in this ever expanding and changing universe.




                                                                                                  373
       “Their lives are measured in aeons, and we cannot guess at how many steps there are

until the level of the Guardian being is achieved. However, it is believed there are only three

who have, so far, reached that pinnacle of evolution.

       “Our elders refer to them as: „The Father of All That Is‟, „The Mother of the Known

Worlds‟, and „The First Son‟. It is commonly accepted that the Guardian (or the Creator) is „The

Father‟. He was the first, and is „The All-Powerful One‟.”

       “They would have no time to dabble in the inconsequential matters of such lowly beings

as us. They concentrate their energies on things you and I, and all the minds of Rauld joined

together, could not possibly grasp with our limited knowledge and imagination.”

       Ron considered the similarities between the two different cultures‟ beliefs…Earthlings‟

and Rauldens‟…while he rode the transporter; letting this new information sink into his brain. It

was obvious the scientists of this world needed more than just faith to explain what might

become of their souls when they die. He found it very curious.

       “God and Guardian,” he thought. “I wonder if there might be some unconscious link

between the two words. And both cultures have the triumvirate. That‟s too coincidental.”

        “All right,” Ron told her, “I can see what you‟re alluding to, but what about the evil life

forces that rule in some people? Do they develop into evil superbeings too?”

       “Unfortunately, we believe they do. Such creatures would account for the strange and

unexplainable happenings we have documented over the history of our people…those acting

against all logic and physical constants. It is like chaos and order are forever at combat for

supremacy, just as good and evil are ever at odds here in our reality.”

       They rode along silently from there, lost in their own thoughts.




                                                                                                  374
       After a time, Ron gave up trying to fathom what he felt humans would never be able to

understand, returning his attention to the present.

       “You did well back there, Cache,” he told her.

       “A compliment from my pupil!” she replied, laughing. “How flattering.”

       Ron was about to comment on her evaluation of him as a “pupil”, when the doors opened,

revealing Hoaldniz waiting for them.

       “I take it you two are both unharmed,” he said, glancing from one to the other.

       “Yes, we are fine,” Cache responded.

       “And what about our unwelcome guest?” asked Hoaldniz.

       “We disposed of him, discreetly,” Ron replied.

       “Hoaldniz,” Cache said to the leader, “you should restrict all movement to the outer

sectors, especially the surface entrances, for the safety of the people as well as the complex.”

       “I concur, Cache,” Hoaldniz said as he boarded the transporter they just vacated. “I will

attend to it immediately.”

       “The deceased woman was Reanne Kachal, one of Ketlical‟s maintenance crew. She was

recalibrating the shield emitter at that portal, to help prevent the Kreete from bypassing the safety

protocols. She was nervous and accidentally tripped the power supply circuit. The unit was

cycling back into operating mode when she was attacked. This is truly a dark dactrai for Rauld.

We never thought we would experience such an act of disregard for life inside our home.

       “I wish you well,” he concluded, and then the doors closed.

       Ron and Cache both went to Ron‟s room to start their day over. Cache was planning to

go back to her own, but Ron offered the use of his and she accepted.




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       They took turns in the sanitizer, to wash off the feeling of death the morning‟s excitement

had shed on them. Once that was done, they changed the subject of conversation away from

those events to be able to return to their schedule.

       They managed the feat like two hardened professionals and were downing their breakfast

a short time later, discussing the coming day‟s activities.

       “What‟s on the agenda today?” Ron asked.

       “The same as the previous one,” Cache replied. “Now though, we are behind schedule,

thanks to our uninvited visitor, so we will just have to see how much we can get in. The main

focus I want you to work on is your simulator skills, since you seem to be in fairly good shape

and you think on your feet pretty well, even under fire.”

       “Well, I try,” Ron replied through a mouthful of food.

       The two of them turned their attention to the meal and hurriedly finished it. In half an

hour, they were in the gym, slipping into the G suits again. After they strapped in, and all the

ship‟s systems were checked, Cache punched up a program she‟d been saving.

       “Now you are going to learn the limits of the craft you are flying,” she announced.

       Ron found himself in a narrow gorge which had numerous overhangs and outwardly

jutting rock formations. The Darlile was resting on the floor of the chasm, but at the request of

Cache, he was to lift off and fly through the tight ravine at a constantly increasing speed.

       Ron took a deep breath and slowly opened the throttles of the Darlile‟s engines.

       At first he thought she‟d given him a task that was impossible to do, as he was constantly

grinding off the face of the surrounding cliffs with the outermost part of his shields, causing a

terribly rough ride. The shields could hold up to the punishment he was giving them, but he

doubted he could do the same.




                                                                                                    376
        He tightened his grip on the control stick until his knuckles turned white, and then

suddenly realized his mistake and relaxed his hold. He forced himself to be calm and smooth

with his movements, to be quick, but at the same time fluid, not jerky. Soon afterward, he was

negotiating the course well.

        For the next several hours, Cache kept Ron in this valley of no end, honing his feel of the

spacecraft‟s physical dimensions, because in a fight, he might need to know exactly where his

edges were. After she became convinced he could handle the challenge, she began introducing

enemy vessels into the equation, first in front and then in back of the Darlile.

        Through the entire session, Ron reacted like a seasoned pilot, dodging enemy fire and the

ever-threatening cliffs in order to get a good shot at them.

        Cache was very impressed with his flying. So much so, in fact, she decided to give him

one last test. While he was engaged with one of the preprogrammed battles, she called up a new

one and waited. At the instant Ron was about to destroy the enemy vessel he was matched up

with, she triggered this new variation.

        Ron found himself ripped out of a sure win situation, and dumped into an obvious no-

win scenario.

        He was no longer in the brightly lit valley on the planet‟s surface, but instead had been

blasted into deep space. His protective eye shields faded away to reveal three Kreete Cruisers,

one in front and to the left, one in front and to the right, and one directly behind him. They were

all well within their weapons‟ range and firing with everything they had.

        Ron didn‟t complain, or even pause to think, but instead, slammed the ship into a snap

roll and fired a triple burst at the ship off to his right. Then, by shoving the throttles to full open,




                                                                                                     377
escaped certain destruction by a split second. As it was, the Darlile received three combined,

direct hits from the Kreete before she cleared their fire.

       “The shields are barely operable,” Cache informed him. “The power supply is failing!

We can have one system only, either guidance or the shields at full strength, but not both.

       “Damn!” Ron voiced his frustration, his hands moving rapidly with the throttles and the

control stick as the Darlile made extreme and violent evasive maneuvers. “Shut down the

shields.”

       Ron brought the Darlile around to face the enemy while making several spiral

manipulations to avoid the incoming hail of firepower. “What about the weapons?” Ron asked.

       “Cannons are at maximum power and I am working on restoring the shields,” Cache

replied as her fingers moved quickly over her control panel.

       Ron eased off the power and braced himself as Cache, he, and the Darlile streaked back

to the battle. He quickly detected there were only two ships left, and smiled an ice-cold smile as

he reengaged them.

       Ron went into evasive tactics as he approached, moving left, then right, and then darting

up and down so quickly he felt the chair underneath him flexing as his weight was moved around

under the stress. He then peeled off to engage one of the Cruisers, and with a double corkscrew

snap-roll he wound up above the enemy ship.

       He cut loose with the Darlile‟s more powerful cannon and said good-bye to the Kreete

vessel. The Cruiser exploded in a silent, blinding flash which sent Ron‟s eye shields flooding

into position and shut down the video projection for a brief moment. Cache found herself

recoiling from the blinding light, covering her eyes with her hand.




                                                                                                 378
        Ron used the explosion to his advantage, flying around it to come at the last Cruiser from

below, surprising the Kreete crew. The enemy vessel shot wildly but couldn‟t catch up with the

smaller, more nimble Darlile. Ron fired point-blank at the ship and then was forced to pull up

aggressively to avoid the explosion that followed. The Darlile’s viewer lit up again for an

instant, from the new flash of erupting matter, and then all was peaceful once more.

        Space was devoid of enemy ships.

        “Excellent!” Cache cried. “Brilliant flying! If I ever doubted you before, I certainly do

not now. You are ready for anything they can throw at you, Ron.”

        Ron‟s heart rate slowed to normal as the heat of battle quickly ebbed and he absorbed the

praise that Cache offered.

        “I have come a long way in the last few days, I‟ll agree,” Ron told her. “But I wouldn‟t

have a prayer if you hadn‟t been here to help me along, so I don‟t deserve all the credit.” Ron

also recalled that it was his Caronian counterpart who really had the experience he was now

gifted with. He gave Kaskle silent thanks as his confidence in his new abilities increased.

        “You do not understand,” she said to him pointedly. “That last battle was supposed to be

a „test in the face of death‟, designed to examine your determination to complete your mission,

even though you knew you would not live. If my historical data is correct, and I have no reason

to think otherwise, most pilots would have simply resolved to face their fate with cannons

blasting in a final suicide run. But you just reacted instead, flew right through them and, with

some fantastic moves, ripped the advantage from them. The computer was calibrated well

beyond the Kreete‟s known abilities; so undoubtedly, you must react much more quickly than we

first thought.”




                                                                                                   379
       “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ron said, smiling. “I just hope I do as well

when it really counts.”

       “We will soon find out,” Cache told him, “because I plan for us to leave as soon as we

awake in the morning. That will give us a two-dactrai safety margin on the collapse of the

planetary shield.”

       After Cache finished her announcement, she unstrapped herself and exited the simulator

to go set up the next phase of Ron‟s training. He stayed where he was and saw to the shut down

of the simulator. Then he followed her out, finding her at the small information center she used

earlier to brief him about the Darlile‟s systems.

       “What‟s up?” Ron asked her, trying to see what she was tinkering with.

       “I do not know how much information you retained from Kaskle, concerning the enemy

we face, so it is time you learned more about the Kreete and the way they think. Sit down and I

will explain.”

       Ron took his seat and settled himself in for another lesson.

       “The key to defeating an enemy is to outthink them,” Cache began. “To outthink them,

you must be familiar with them. Also, it may help us keep out of trouble by knowing when we

are outmatched, and thus, when to retreat.

       The Kreete forces rank their men by their physical prowess, so naturally the most

dangerous of them will be the officers, and the higher the officer, the more of a threat he

represents.”

       She then punched up a program which displayed the major class distinctions of the

Kreete forces.

       “The divisions are as such”:




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        Squire:               Apprentice scout.

        Scout:                Field trooper.

        Septenant:            Leader of a seven-man scout force or one Squad.

        Tusepten:             Leader of seven Squads or one Strike team…Hunter class

        Septuagent:           Commander of seven Strike teams or one Siege…Slayer

        Krosepten:            Commander of seven Sieges or one Legion…Master Killer

        Captain:              Space vessel commander…Reaper

        Fleet Commander:      Leader of a seven-ship fleet or one Dreadnought

        Lord:                 Ruler of a planet.

        Emperor:              One of the three Triad figureheads.

        “This list represents the basic framework of the Kreete military ranking system,” Cache

told Ron. “As you may be able to tell, the Kreete are septenary creatures, meaning their entire

way of life is based on variables of the number seven.

        “This may seem odd, as other numbers are more practical as a basis, such as two, or ten,

but it is true, nonetheless. This in itself may help us to plan strategy against them, since when

you find one, there are usually six more nearby, and this makes them somewhat predictable. We

will see.

        “The figure beside each class displays the uniform distinction of that class, although each

has seven versions of its own…in order to distinguish the most senior, or most decorated

member of a certain group.

        “Moving up their ranking is not an easy task, although it can be done quickly if one is

willing to take enough risks. This translates to mean the officers are generally the most well

trained soldiers, proficient in the use of weapons, and wary…even of their own men.”




                                                                                                    381
       A quick series of chimes suddenly rang out, grabbing Cache‟s attention and startling Ron

slightly, as he had heard nothing like it at any time since he arrived.

       “I am being summoned,” Cache told Ron. “Study this information and when I return we

will go over the route we will take, so we might better plan our movements.”

       Cache sped out of the room and down the hallway, leaving Ron at the information center.

       He spent the next half hour memorizing the data, and then got up to stretch his legs.

When he was limbered up a bit, he moved back toward the video center, but never sat down

again because Cache came running back into the room looking anxious.

       “Ron!” she shouted as she tore past the simulator. “We have to go right now. There is

no way we can delay any longer.”

       Ron stepped around the simulator and looked after her. She was at the cabinet where

they kept their weapons, pulling the gear out as quickly as she had that morning.

       “The planetary shield has been dealt a major blow. The Kreete sacrificed one of their

tanker ships by loading it with explosives and ramming it into the shield. The resulting eruption

burned out a section of the grid and has weakened the Matrix substantially.

       “It will not last as long as we had hoped, so the timetable for our mission starts now…and

we have lost our two dactrai safety margin, plus some.”

       She handed Ron his equipment and ushered him out the door to the transporter. As they

whisked along to their intended exit terminal, they each strapped on their weapons and adjusted

them to a comfortable position. Cache then began drilling Ron on the codes he would need to

activate the entrance portal to Jametid, as well as the essential transport coordinates and

directions of getting to the Darlile‟s hangar once he was inside the complex.




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       She wanted to be sure he had the information, just in case she didn‟t survive long enough

to be there with him. She also gave him a small rounded device, resembling a pocket watch,

which would allow him to find the entrance to Jametid and disable the force field guarding it.

       Three minutes later the duo left the transporter and went directly to the surface access

gate they would be using. It was a tunnel that was added after the Kreete‟s exodus of Rauld, so

Cache was sure it would not be watched. Nonetheless, she had the forethought to set up a

motion sensor at that doorway which could scan the surrounding forest for half a hoz. It could

detect any movement and separate the wind‟s influence on the plant-life from a body walking

through the woods.

       Ron hadn‟t spoken since they entered the cube, concentrating intently on memorizing the

new data, and now he was so keyed up that he started toward the exit straight away.

       Cache stopped him before he stepped through though, and opened a panel next to the

portal. She slipped a tubular pouch out of the small cabinet and gave it to Ron.

       “This is a water bladder,” she told him. “Strap it across your back like this,” she

explained, helping him secure it.

       “Suck on this tube, here in front, whenever you need a drink. And don‟t worry about

running out of water. There will be plenty of it on the trip.”

       Cache went back to the storage unit. She withdrew two belts, blue in color to match their

camouflage suits, and handed him the longer one.

       “These are survival belts which I have personally prepared,” Cache explained.

       Small pouches covered each of the belts…much like the first survival belts had been, out

in the air car. These, however, contained an extra feature at the center of the front of them.




                                                                                                  383
        “The dark pouches contain enough food rations to last even you for six dactrais, using the

estimates of your caloric intake we have made over the past few dactrais. The lighter ones are

filled with medical supplies. The center box is a tiny winch containing two hundred feet of

micro-cable. The winch, although small, is extremely strong and should be able to handle even

your weight for repelling or climbing…and the cable itself can support double that.

        “However, if both of us needed the use of one winch to lift us, I seriously doubt it would

take the strain.”

        Cache then returned to the stowage compartment and withdrew one last item.

        “What is that?” Ron asked, staring at the item.

        “It is the „blaster‟ you inquired about earlier…,” she told him, holding out the weapon, “a

matter disrupter.” She briefly let Ron handle the compact instrument so it wouldn‟t be

completely foreign to him if he had to use it. “It is powerful enough to work even with the affects

of the Energy Matrix, but has only six pulses of energy in the power pack. We will have to use it

only in an emergency. Also, when it is fired, the resulting explosion will be exceptionally loud,

so we must keep that in mind as well.”

        She placed the pistol-shaped weapon securely on her belt toward her back, so it wouldn‟t

impede her movements, and then turned back to Ron.

        “Now, do you have any questions before we embark on our mission?”

        “How much time do we have?”

        “Four, or possibly five dactrais.”

        “In that case, we‟d better get going.”




                                                                                                 384
       Ron glanced around, down the bleak hallway. There was no one there to see them

off…to wish them well. He hadn‟t really expected them to, but it sure would have made him feel

better, like his and Cache‟s sacrifice would be appreciated.

       The gate opened automatically at their approach, and without hesitation the two of them

set off at a dead run for the forest seventy yards away and were abruptly swallowed up by the

surrounding foliage.

       Ron tried to concentrate on the danger they were in, and on being alert for the enemy, but

his mind was consumed at the moment with the exhilaration he felt at being free again. It was

pure delight to be in the open air…air that was so clean he could taste it, and he reveled in it like

a bird escaping from its cage.




                                                                                                  385
                                        Chapter Twenty-nine

                                          Into the Lion‟s Den



       Not too long after the initial plunge into the forest, Ron forced himself to calm down and

focus on what might be just around the corner.

       The terrain was rugged and hilly, but his exertions added to the excitement of the

moment, and he felt very much alive, his senses keenly alert. The sun pressed through to the

floor of the woodland at sporadic points and lit up the verdure in an almost fairytale glow.

       At that instant, he was profoundly confident they would make it to their goal in one piece,

no matter what they were confronted with.

       Ron let Cache set a pace for their run which she could uphold for hours, and that is just

what they did, covering a huge distance in a short amount of time. They wove their way through

the shady forest expertly…Ron having given Cache extensive instructions during their training

sessions about how to mask her trail from possible pursuers.

       Unlike the area he had first traversed, after leaving the helicopter crash sight, this land

they trotted over was abundant in smaller bushes which hid them nicely. Also, as they splashed



                                                                                                     386
through the third shallow stream, Ron accepted that Cache had indeed been correct when she told

him water would not be a problem for them on this trip. The towering mountains sprouted

numerous springs which worked their way down into the valley floor, cutting deep gouges into

the rocky slopes in some places, and adding to the dramatic, “park-like” feel of the valley. It was

spectacular!

          Up and down the steep hills the two would-be heroes made their way. They moved

smoothly and efficiently…always with the urgency for speed pushing them, and the constant

foreboding that such speed, negating the caution they should be abiding, may be the end of them.

          They were relying heavily on the odds of those searching the haystack to have great

difficulty in finding the two tiny needles striving to make it to the opposite side. To that end,

they traveled much of the first afternoon without any interruptions…until they finally ran in to

the inevitable.

          There was a quick turn in the small, natural path they were traversing, and it widened

unexpectedly on the far side. Ron suddenly slammed into Cache, enveloped her in his powerful

grasp, and leaped into the nearby bushes to their right, twisting his body hard so he wouldn‟t

land on her. He released her, rolled clear, and scrambled hastily to his feet, only to freeze as still

as stone while he began peering through the leaves at the area they were heading toward.

          “What is it?” Cache asked in a voice that was barely a whisper, also motionless.

          “I thought I saw some movement up ahead,” Ron replied.

          Neither of them was too badly out of breath, even though they‟d been on the move for

well over four hours. Such control allowed them to talk in low tones without the need for the

noisy gasping for air that could have given them away. Their physical state of readiness was

superb.




                                                                                                    387
        Ron continued with his search for a brief moment and then pointed.

        The scout was on his feet now, standing on a huge limb, sixty feet up in a tree which

grew eighty yards down the path. The soldier had been preoccupied with finding a comfortable

position in which to sit during his watch when the sound of Ron and Cache taking cover brought

him back to his duty.

        He was now straining to see what had made the noise, staring directly at the spot where

his prey was hiding. He suddenly remembered he had a pair of image enhancers hanging from

his belt and twisted to retrieve them.

        Without a word, Ron showed Cache the target and pointed to her rifle. She carefully

unslung it and pressed it to her shoulder. The head-up sights snapped into position and there was

a slight “swish” of air as the dart took flight.

        The scout lifted the field glasses up to his silver eyes and adjusted the focus, but never

saw what he hoped to see. Out of thin air came an intense stabbing pain in his throat, followed

by a blazing heat that swept through his face and chest so fast he didn‟t even grab for his neck

before he was stone dead. The poison did its work rapidly, reaching his brain in one beat of his

powerful heart, and destroying all nerve action there.

        Ron and Cache watched the man‟s body collapse and fall from the limb to land with a

loud thud, accompanied by sharp snapping sounds as he crushed several bushes.

        “They always travel in groups of seven, Ron,” Cache reminded him hurriedly.

        “I know what I read, but the first time through the forest, we found them singly as well,”

he countered.

        “Yes, and it cost them dearly,” Cache agreed. “They had allowed themselves to get too

spread out. They will not make that mistake again.”




                                                                                                     388
       “Okay. You move up and cover the body from a safe distance. I‟ll make my way around

to flank them.”

       Ron slunk off without waiting for a response, his bow at the ready, and Cache went to her

position as well.

       As she watched, she didn‟t have long to wait before a second Kreete scout came running

up. Four others joined him immediately from different directions, and they all glanced around at

the underbrush with pistols drawn. Then, the first one to arrive bent to turn the body over while

the others guarded his back. When he discovered the dart protruding from the dead man‟s neck,

he stood up quickly to warn his associates of the enemy.

       The warning never made it out of his mouth though, due to a similar device lodging itself

in his right temple. His body went rigid first, and then immediately limp, as he slumped over the

corpse of his comrade.

       Before the others could react to this new occurrence, Ron was on the attack. He leaped

from a nearby bush with his sword held up in Samurai fashion and struck the nearest scout from

behind, catching him at the right shoulder and continuing through his body to exit at the left hip.

The Kreete reached back at Ron with his left arm, but it and his torso fell forward in a shower of

dark red, almost brown, blood, while his legs remained standing for a few more seconds.

       Not slowing for an instant, Ron slashed at the next enemy, striking him under his chin in

an upward stroke which decapitated him neatly.

       The remaining two troopers retreated from the whirling blade of death that was nearly on

them, and would surely have ended the contest at that point had it not been for Cache.

       They both raised their pistols, but the one farthest from Ron…he, who had the best

chance at a shot, received an unexpected present in the shoulder of the arm wielding the weapon.




                                                                                                 389
The gun dropped to the ground as the poison from the tiny dart raced through the fellow, turning

his own blood into scalding acid.

       Ron used the body of his last victim to block the shot from the remaining Kreete by

kicking the corpse into the shooter‟s line of aim. The body exploded as the projectile struck a

bone, spraying the ground with more Kreete gore and giving Ron the hundredth of a second he

needed to lunge at the man.

       The ebony sword flashed down at the scout‟s wrist like a razor edged shadow, never

hesitating as it cut cleanly through muscle and bone. The pistol struck the ground with the

amputated limb still gripping it.

       Ron finished him off with a fencing move that ended with the hilt of his sword slamming

against the bigger man‟s chest, as three inches of its blade protruded from his back.

       The Kreete who took the dart in the shoulder was the Septenant, trained to stay in control

under any circumstances. He ignored the agony pumping through his veins and scooped up the

weapon he‟d dropped with his good hand, immediately falling back out of Ron‟s reach…or so he

thought. There was a glint of blue steel as Ron‟s arm flew back and then forward, and then the

battle was over. Eight inches of hardened metal entered the Septenant‟s right eye, splitting the

silver orb and rupturing his brain. Once again the pistol fell to the ground, unfired.

       Ron set about gathering Cache‟s darts and his knife, which he cleaned on the uniform of

one of the dead men, as he did with his sword. He then began dragging the bodies into the

underbrush, along with the blood soaked leaves.

       Cache came running up then with a warning. “You must beware the seventh scout,” she

urged. “He will be nearby.”




                                                                                                  390
         “Yeah, you‟re right,” Ron replied, not slowing with his labors. “He‟s back in those

bushes, like the others. I ran into him first,” he explained, patting the bow gingerly.

         Ron finished the task with Cache standing guard, and then they both turned back to the

direction they‟d been heading.

         “Come on, let‟s get moving,” Ron said, and they set off again, being more cautious this

time.

         The two person Raulden strike team traveled in silence for another hour until Ron called

a short halt to their trotting gait. They were at another of the mountain run-off streams, and he

decided it would be wise to break off their route for a bit, to deter any possible followers.

         They started upstream at an easy walk, so as not to cause too much commotion in the

water. The stream was cold, feeling invigorating to them both, and the natural cascading sounds

of it helped disguise their motions.

         “I don‟t know about you, but I‟m getting hungry,” he told Cache as he drank deeply from

his pack. “What say you to a quick snack?”

         “Good idea,” she agreed, whipping out one of her food rations tubes of the semi-liquid

stuff.

         It had been many hard hours since they enjoyed that quiet breakfast back in Ron‟s room,

so he made up for it by downing two of the tubes of nutritional supplements. He was happy to

finally have a different diet than the balg patty.

         “Pretty good,” Ron commented, speaking in a low voice. “What is it?”

         “It is exactly what your physical makeup needs under these high stress conditions,”

Cache replied. “This combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and sugars will keep our energy




                                                                                                  391
levels high, as long as we are on it. Also, it will allow us to go longer without sleep or rest while

still preserving the sharp reflexes we need, as well as a clear mind.

       “I must warn you, however, that after a long period of time, you will grow accustomed to

the stimulants and will not respond to them anymore. At that point, the only way to regenerate

your body is to sleep and flush out the excess chemicals.

       “We should be all right on a mission as short as this one though, so you need not concern

yourself on the subject. I only mentioned the caution for your future reference.”

       Ron wasn‟t thinking too far into the future just then, so he filed the information away in

the back of his mind, and concentrated on the present.

       They waded through the knee-deep water for over a mile before Ron thought it prudent to

continue on their original heading. They carefully exited the stream at a grassy bank location

which masked their wet footprints nicely, before they plunged back into the woods.

       The ground wasn‟t at all level at the beginning of the trek, but it was getting even steeper

here, so they decided to continue walking for a while. It was a good thing too, because some of

the hills were rigorous to climb, and caution was necessary to keep from falling, or dislodging

part of the hillside that could give away their position.

       Several hours later, after scrambling up and down steep, rocky country, they came to a

deep gully, apparently created from heavy rains washing through the area over a considerable

amount of time. They also noticed signs of a Kreete scout having passed in the vicinity recently.

       After satisfying themselves the enemy was not around, they discussed their limited

options. Not wanting to chance a meeting with the scout or his buddies, or lose the time it would

take to find an easier crossing point, they decided to try to make it across where they were.




                                                                                                  392
        The gully was easily fifty feet deep with steep sides of crumbly stone and had a dry, rock-

strewn bottom. It stretched on for as far as they could see in both directions, but it was merely

forty feet to the other side, and that gave Ron an idea.

        The tree population was sparse in the area, and none of them were close to the edge. He

swept the area twice, finding thin scrub brush was the only plants able to grow in the sandy, poor

soil, so that clinched it for him.

        “You repel to the bottom, and then let me have all the slack you can,” he instructed in a

whispering tone.

        “What are you up to?”

        Ron gave her a wink before he attached the end of Cache‟s repelling cable to his own,

and then braced himself in a crouch. She went over the edge in a flash and down the face of the

gully, expertly.

        When she reached the base of the gorge, she released the friction lock and allowed Ron to

have what amount of line he needed. He then stepped back to the end of the combined cables

and took three deep breaths, as he‟d done in the arena. After scanning the area one last time

carefully, he targeted his launch point and took off in a dead sprint. When he reached the edge

of the gully, he leaped up and out as far as he could.

        Cache stood breathless, with her mouth agape, as her partner flew by overhead…then

shook her head in disbelief.

        Ron sailed across the gap in a blink, landing with five feet to spare. He dove for cover as

he struck the ground, and slid to a stop where he lie for several minutes, listening and inspecting

the area for any indicators that he‟d been seen.




                                                                                                 393
       After he was confident it was safe, he recoiled his cable and went to the edge of the

washout where he motioned for Cache to come up. Seconds later, they were united once again.

       “You made it all right?” she asked, looking him over.

       “Nothing to it,” Ron told her, grinning broadly.

       “Show off!” Cache whispered.

       “That winch works pretty well,” Ron commented after they were on their way again.

       “Of course! Did you doubt it?”

       Ron just smiled and continued walking.

       They advanced undisturbed for another hour, deeper still into the rugged valley which

was now beginning to level out as they crossed its expanse. The forest floor was once again

thick with the soft bed of countless years of falling leaves that, thankfully, were moist enough so

as not to crunch when they were crushed.

       Ron was about to suggest they start back jogging again before spotting motion where

there should have been none. His hunter instincts and keen eyesight zeroed in on the movement

like a hawk spotting a field mouse. It was another of the enemy. This time though, he and

Cache had all the advantages.

       The scout was stretched out along a limb, a hundred feet up in a tree which was ninety

yards away from them, and had taken an inopportune moment to get a drink. It was the slight

repositioning of his arm lowering his beverage flask that Ron saw.

       Ron surveyed the area for a possibility of evading the sentry. To the left was the steeply

sloped face of a rogue outcropping of rock which they‟d been skirting for a while. It was a pile

at least two hundred feet tall, consisting mostly of small boulders and stones…an avalanche

deposit from long ago no doubt. It was sparsely covered and would be a great hazard to climb




                                                                                                394
even if they did not have to worry about being discovered. To the right was more of the forest-

covered terrain they‟d been making their way through of late, but Ron wondered how thick the

area was with the enemy.

        “We have to decide whether to attack these guys, here and now, or try to make our way

around them, through there,” Ron whispered to Cache, indicating the open forest.

        “It could take a long time to safely elude this scout force by stealth, and our trail may be

discovered nonetheless, right?” she replied.

        “Yes, that‟s true. So, we agree to engage them?”

        Cache locked her eyes with his, and her determination was absolute. He nodded.

        They carefully maneuvered into a position from which she could get a clear shot at the

lookout while staying out of his view. Cache slipped the tip of her weapon out of the brush and

sent a tiny missile in search of her target. As usual, she was in perfect control and the dart struck

the man in the ribs, paralyzing his heart in less than two beats. He didn‟t even have the chance to

fall out of the tree, or signal for help in any fashion at all. He just lie there like he was asleep.

        Just as they did before, Ron left Cache to guard the dead man as he went in search of the

soldier‟s allies.

        Making a wide, circular sweep of the area proved to be a good plan when Ron

surreptitiously located the Kreete camp, two hundred yards from the tree he just left.

        Barely moments before Ron was close enough to survey the camp, one of the scouts

strolled out of the clearing and headed in the direction which would lead straight to the lookout‟s

location.

        Ron kept himself hidden until the man was safely out of sight, relying on Cache to take

care of him, and then he assessed the camp. It was roughly circular, fifty feet across, and open.




                                                                                                        395
Two of the Kreete were lying under a large tree sleeping, while three of their friends stood guard

over them, spread out at the edge of the forest in a fan pattern.

         “These guys don‟t take any chances,” Ron thought.

         In the center of the clearing were the remains of a fire and the five empty sleeping mats

they‟d used, as well as the two presently in use. It appeared as if this group of soldiers was on

some sort of break, trying to rotate their men through a sleep cycle, as they were congregated far

too closely to be on any search detail. Ron also saw no supplies in the camp, assuming they

were either regularly supplied, or carried their rations on their persons, as he and Cache were

doing.

         Ron picked out the guard who was the most secluded, and crept silently toward him. He

was standing in a small pocket of young trees, almost completely hiding him from view, which

was his mistake…for that fact allowed Ron to get within a foot of him without detection. A neat

slash across the guard‟s spine with his raven weapon and the camp was shy one guard. Ron

caught his falling body and lowered it quietly to the ground.

         He tried the same trick on the second Kreete lookout, but as he approached the man from

behind, he ran out of cover five feet short of his goal. Ron took one careful step, crouching for

minimal exposure, and was about to congratulate himself when, for no apparent reason, the

guard turned around. The huge fellow was shocked for the briefest of moments, and that was all

Ron wanted.

         The guard opened his mouth to shout his warning, but Ron had already lunged. The tip

of the black blade entered the guard‟s throat and continued through his lower jaw and up into his

skull. The most noise he made was a muffled wet gurgle.

         Ron wiped off his sword and continued his way to intercept the last sentry.




                                                                                                    396
        “Two down and one to go,” he told himself.

        Ron tried again for the rear approach but ran into trouble. This time he couldn‟t get

closer than fifty feet from the man who seemed very nervous for some reason, glancing to the

left, then to the right, and then behind him. Ron knew he didn‟t have time to wait for the guard

to calm down because the two sleeping warriors could wake up at any moment and discover their

comrades were no longer at their posts.

        He stowed the sword and unslung his bow, gently easing out one of the arrows from its

quiver and nocking it into place…all without a sound.

        When the scout turned away the next time, Ron drew back on the string and watched the

five wicked blades appear at the tip of the arrow. A quarter of a second later he released it,

sprinting forward to follow up on the shot.

        The blue-shafted missile found its mark at the base of the fellow‟s skull and needed no

further aid to dispatch its victim. Ron‟s extreme quickness allowed him to be there to catch and

lower the corpse to the forest floor as the body teetered forward immediately.

        After recovering his arrow from the Kreete, Ron began stealthily approaching the main

camp. From where he was, he could see only one of the sleeping men, but knew the other was

lying just behind a tree, so he didn‟t falter on his attack.

        Ron got to within sword‟s reach of the sleeping Kreete unchallenged. He had the naked

blade out again, ready for a silent kill, when the scout suddenly jumped up and took a swing at

him with his glowing wand…it flashing into view from under a blanket.

        Ron gave no ground; managing to deflect the agony wand with the bow in his left hand,

and at the same time, lash out with his foot to catch the Kreete solidly in the groin. The scout

doubled over gasping, leaving himself wide open, and Ron didn‟t hesitate to take




                                                                                                   397
advantage…striking at the arm gripping the weapon, and lopping it off at the elbow. That caused

the scout to forget the ache in his crotch and stumble back, clutching his new injury.

       The larger foe recovered his wits and reached for the pistol at his belt, but again Ron was

quicker. He dropped the sword and pulled the readied arrow to full draw once more, sending a

razor-edged messenger into the rapidly weakening scout‟s chest. It tore out a huge hole

completely through the beast-man‟s body as the nasty blades did their gruesome duty.

       The scout dropped to one knee, allowing Ron to regain the black blade and finish him off

easily before the pistol could be raised again. The Kreete‟s head struck the leaf-covered ground,

leaving his body to struggle against the pull of gravity without any guidance…which it failed to

do.

       Before the headless cadaver could join its leader, Ron was searching out the last of the

scouts…but he was nowhere in sight of the camp.

       “Son of a… Where did he go?” Ron cursed, combing the clearing with his eyes and ears.

       For an answer to his question, he received a blow to his sword hand from an agony wand,

which miraculously appeared out of thin air. The Kreete‟s cast had been flawless.




                                                                                                  398
                                              Chapter Thirty

                                         Stealth, Luck, and Speed



        Ron fell back, dropping the sword and bow and holding his hand close to his body,

desperately fighting back the waves of pain threatening to blur his vision. He stared at his hand,

amazed that it was still attached to his arm since it felt as if a bolt of lightning had just seared it

off.

        He managed to stay on his feet, although his legs trembled for a few seconds and his

stomach churned, ready to expel the food he‟d so recently taken in. Ron kept himself from

collapsing by sheer determination, and cleared the fog from his eyes just in time to focus on the

black sword, which lay at the base of the tree he‟d been standing under. The brightly glowing

rod which had collided with his hand lay beside it, directly between it and his bow.

        No sooner did he spot his two main means of defense, than a booted foot stepped out

beside them from behind the tree. The last Kreete revealed himself with his S.P.G. leveled at

Ron.




                                                                                                      399
       “You have done well, little man,” said the Kreete Septenant, with genuine praise in his

voice. That voice was extremely deep and gravelly…as if the sound was traveling through a

wide, wooden barrel. He wore the insignia of his Slayer status proudly, and didn‟t regret having

stepped back two ranks to join this mission, especially now, because this is what a warrior craved

most…a worthy adversary.

       He towered over Ron with at least a foot and a half difference in the two warrior‟s

heights.

       “I must say that I have never seen a mere man take a clean strike from an agony wand set

at maximum and remain conscious, much less on his feet. It would be interesting to see just how

long you could last under the rod of a master torturer. But alas, I must now avenge my fallen

comrades.

       “I tell you what…since I admire your abilities, you will be spared the fate of such a slow

death. You have lost now, so I think I will carve you up into tiny pieces and keep the good parts

for myself. And I think I will use „your‟ sword to do it,” the Kreete finished with a laugh,

stooping to claim the black rapier, while keeping a constant eye…as well as the projectile

weapon…focused on Ron.

       Ron braced himself as the Slayer bent down, his legs feeling a little stronger now.

       The dark sword rose barely six inches before it fell to the ground a second time, as the

Squad Team leader jerked back his hand with a cry of pain.

       The computer brain in the sword had sensed the wrong brain wave pattern and emitted a

powerful electric jolt to the beast-man, who then leaped aside, staring at the blackened remains

of his hand.




                                                                                                  400
        Ron wasted no time. His good arm flew up to the back of his neck, and then raced down

across his body in a blur, sending one of his blue knives whistling through the air to sink deeply

into the big man‟s side. Without falter or pause, his legs propelled his body sprinting forward as

well.

        Left or right-handed, Ron was deadly accurate with those sharpened missiles.

        The Septenant recoiled at the impact, retreating even further as brown fluid flowed freely

from the wound due to the depth the blade had reached. It was a grave injury, and the huge man

knew it instantly.

        Ron snatched up the sword in his left hand and was on the attack again. He reached the

Squad Leader in an instant with a stroke across the chin, which the Kreete partially deflected,

receiving only a minor flesh wound.

        Ron didn‟t falter at the Septenant‟s luck, but instead, followed through with a strong kick,

which caught the larger man on the left knee. As the leg gave way, Ron slashed down at the

hand holding the pistol. The gun fell to the turf with three of his fingers, giving Ron a small

amount of breathing room…a very small amount.

        The Kreete countered Ron‟s blow with a kick of his own in an attempt to regain some of

the ground he‟d unexpectedly given up, but Ron saw it coming and let himself roll with it.

        He felt as if a twenty-pound sledgehammer collided with his ribs, but the force of the

blow carried him out of the Kreete‟s reach, and he was grateful for that, remembering all too

well the strength of those beings.

        Ron somehow managed to hold on to the sword, which he brandished high in the air

when he regained his feet, ready for the Septenant‟s attack. But it was no matter. He found




                                                                                                  401
himself once again looking down the muzzle of his opponent‟s pistol instead, grasped in his

badly charred hand.

        “Nice try!” said the Kreete leader. “As I told you earlier, you are good, but of course, the

superior soldier always wins.”

        At that instant, a tiny object joined the scene, striking the Kreete‟s massive forearm. The

Septenant tried to squeeze the trigger, but his hand would not respond. All he felt was a white-

hot fire burning up his arm, and soon after that, he felt nothing at all because Ron‟s ebony blade

cleaved his skull in half.

        Ron took no time-out to rest, but rather hurriedly collected his weapons and left the

camp, heading back to where he‟d left Cache. He supported his right hand inside his shirt like a

sling and kept the sword at the ready in his left, just in case.

        He expected to meet Cache just outside the camp, but made it all the way back to the

lookout‟s tree without a sign of her, and he suddenly got nervous. He whirled around and

around, scanning the entire area, searching her out.

        “Up here!” called a soft voice from above him.

        He glanced upward and finally found her, descending from the branch where the scout

had been lying when they first arrived…where his corpse now lay.

        She reached the ground by means of her winch cable and triggered the release mechanism

for the end ring, allowing the minimachine to rewind automatically.

        “Where‟s the seventh Kreete? He was headed this way when I last saw him.”

        “Over in those bushes…off to your left.”

        “No trouble?”




                                                                                                 402
       “No…but it is a good thing that this one,” Cache said, pointing out the scout who was

still in the tree, “did not fall, because he could be seen clearly by the men at the camp.”

       With the cable secured back into place, she turned to Ron.

       “Let me see your hand,” she ordered.

       Ron held out the injured limb for her to examine. He was sweating from the

excruciating, burning pain, and his head was throbbing terribly, but it didn‟t keep him from

constantly sweeping the surroundings and listening intently.

       Cache reached into one of Ron‟s medical supply pouches and withdrew a tube of salve,

and then began rubbing it into the injured flesh, which had turned crimson instead of the usual

tanned color.

       “Oh, that feels good,” Ron told her with a big sigh, as the fire cooled to a dull ache.

“Hey, I want to thank you for saving my ass back there with that incredible shot.”

       “You are welcome,” Cache responded, “but it is not necessary for you to thank me. If

one of us falls, the other‟s chances will be severely lessened. We must work as one to protect

each other if the mission is to be successful.”

       “I understand all that,” Ron said, “but thanks anyway.”

       He looked up at the tree and then back towards the camp.

       “You made the shot from up there?”

       “Yes, why?”

       “Because that was one hell of a show of sharpshooting, that‟s why,” he told her, duly

impressed.

       “Nothing spectacular, really,” she told him, shrugging off his praise. “There,” she said

when she finished. “It will be as good as new in about a billot, but slightly numb until then.”




                                                                                                  403
           “That‟s fine,” he told her with another great sigh of relief. “I can handle numbness a lot

better.”

           “Good…now let us be on our way.”

           Ron considered cleaning up the area for a moment, but the camp would be too time-

consuming and was already fairly remote, so he opted out of that duty and set off after his little

partner on the trail to Jametid.

           They traveled for less than twenty minutes when they came to an area having a large

break in the taller trees, giving them a good view of the sky, east and west. They stood there

watching for a few seconds as the sun, Dersa, set against a crystalline sky painted gloriously in

turquoise and magenta.

           It was like watching sand in an hourglass as the time steadily slipped away. Over to the

east, the new dawn was bringing with it a solid bank of gray clouds.

           The two of them set out once more, angling away from their intended route to hinder

whatever posse came after them from predicting their goal. They moved persistently forward, yet

deliberately held their speed in check, trying to keep their heads under the mounting pressures of

the mission. It wouldn‟t be much longer before the enemy knew its prey was out in the open and

the surveillance net began to tighten.

           The pair took up the steady jogging pace again, eating away at the miles, and Ron let his

mind drift as they ran. He got caught up in the quiet and peaceful beauty of the Raulden

landscape once more…his thoughts meandering away. After a time, he found it hard to imagine

there was a savage war raging all around him for the survival of the planet.

           Ron allowed the wonderful coolness of the forest to calm him, and he relaxed at the soft

sounds that were the rustling of the leaves in the gentle breeze, and the steady breathing of Cache




                                                                                                   404
and himself. The next hour was tranquil and restful for both of them, even with the strain of the

run, but that ended abruptly as they reached their first major landmark…the grassland strip.

        Ron‟s demeanor changed to all business again as they approached the strip slowly. They

were both aware it was drawing near, and had dropped to a cautious walk for the last half mile.

Now he stood nearly motionless and totally silent as he surveyed the meadow which stood before

them.

        The clouds had grown much darker and now moved in to blot out the sun, so his glare

filters were not needed. With it, the threatening weather brought a fabulous lightning storm

which lit up the valley every few moments and produced deafening claps of thunder that roared

through the basin, causing even the largest of trees to vibrate from the concussion.

        The wind was gusting heavily, no doubt being pushed along ahead of the approaching

frontal system, and Ron could smell the rain in the distance.

        It was during a series of these flashes that Ron spotted one of the Kreete, outlined against

the tree he was standing in, on the far side of the strip.

        “It looks clear to me,” Cache whispered, taking a step toward what would have been her

death had Ron not stopped her.

        “I just saw one of them over there,” Ron said, hauling her back and pointing.

        “Where there is one, there are bound to be more,” Cache reasoned. “If I were in charge

of them, I would have stationed as many men as I could along this area.”

        “Me too,” Ron agreed, steadily searching the forest edge for more signs. “We‟re going to

have to come up with some kind of diversion to cross this. And it‟ll have to be a huge one since

the grass is only waist high.” His mind frantically searched for the answer. “There‟s no way

we‟ll be able to sneak our way through it without being seen. I don‟t know…”




                                                                                                 405
        At that instant, a bolt of lightning striking a tree, barely a hundred feet off to their left,

interrupted Ron and showered him and Cache with wooden debris. They both recoiled from the

blast, falling back into the thick brush as bark was blown in all directions like shrapnel from a

bomb.

        Ron recovered enough to search out that point of dramatic surprise…his ears ringing

loudly, and his eyes full of spots from the flash…and when he did, he saw the remains of the tree

smoking heavily.

        His brain kicked into overdrive instantly…a daring plan springing to life…and so he

quickly looked at the grass. It was bending directly away from them.

        Hastily he dug into his pocket and withdrew the last of the small flares he‟d kept from the

helicopter‟s emergency kit. With a flash of a smile at Cache, he dropped down low and began

working his way over to that tree with her in tow.

        “What are you doing?” she asked, when she caught up with him.

        “I saw this in a movie once,” Ron replied, dousing his hair thoroughly with his water

supply and ordering Cache to do likewise.

        Ron bent down low, to hide the flare‟s glow, and struck it. Then he tossed it into a pile of

leaves at the edge of the grassy land, next to the smoldering tree. The dry grass fairly exploded

into flames and immediately raced out across the open terrain, spewing thick white smoke that

covered the land.

        “I hope these clothes are at least mildly fire retardant,” Ron said as he pushed Cache out

of the forest and they both dashed after the retreating blaze. They found the smoke was indeed

thick, and struggled terribly to breathe, but knew it would be even harder to see through, which

spurred them forward.




                                                                                                         406
       They heard one of the scout ships overhead at one point, but it failed to fire at them, so

they figured their cover was sufficient and pressed on.

       When they reached the other side, they continued running hard for a few miles, trying to

put as much distance between them and the enemy as they could. When Ron finally allowed

himself to accept that they were indeed safely away from the hunters, they were both feeling the

affects of their exertions. At that point, they slowed to a walk in order to get their wind back and

discuss the situation.

       “That went pretty well, don‟t you think?” Ron asked, between great gulps of air.

       “Yes, so far,” Cache answered through her wheezing, panting breaths. “When they

investigate that fire and find your flare though, they are going to put everyone they have on our

trail, and they have some of the best trackers in the galaxy…for humanoids.”

       “Then from now on, we‟ll have to be even more careful, and make sure to hide our tracks

as we go.”

       They stopped a short time later and sat in a grove of small trees, each barely six feet tall,

and plush. Using them as cover, they relaxed and prepared their minds for the next leg of the

journey. They both felt this would be the most difficult segment, considering the fatigue factor

and the knowledge the enemy would know generally where they were. All the while, Ron‟s

stomach kept growling away, getting more insistent by the minute.

       “You had better do something about that bottomless pit of a belly you have before they

hear it back at the grass strip,” Cache cautioned Ron with a smile on her lips.

       He had no problem with that, and a moment later he was gulping down more of his

rations. He finished off one tube and was on his second before Cache took the hint, and the

opportunity, to join him in the venture.




                                                                                                    407
       “I was hungrier than I thought,” he said. “I guess all this exercise has had some affect on

my appetite.”

       “I know what you mean,” admitted Cache, while she put away her empty container.

       “Well, it‟s a known fact that lots of exercise will help you live longer, you know?” Ron

chuckled.

       “True,” Cache agreed. “And if we plan to live much longer, we had better get some more

of it right now.”

       They dallied no more, putting the empty tubes back in their respective pouches and

regaining their feet. After a quick stretch or two, they set out again at the fast pace they‟d been

using, hoping all the Kreete were still behind them at the edge of the meadow.

       They found another rivulet a short while later and refilled their water supply as they

slogged upstream like before. But this time they gambled that they were alone and splashed

through the shallow water at a fast clip for a good three hoz before returning to their true

heading.

       At that point, Cache‟s legs quivered from the strain and Ron‟s felt heavy and sluggish.

Both of them were fully aware of the beginnings of exhaustion creeping into their bodies as they

trudged doggedly along…but neither spoke of it.




                                                                                                  408
                                                Chapter

                                             Incompetence



       “What are you saying, Bragdon?” bellowed Yeasten Rytonian.

       Bragdon Taseere, second class Tusepten of the Slayer rank, and in command of one of

the grassland strip details, stood barely inches away from his superior at rigid attention. He did

not answer because he knew the Septuagent was not finished with his badgering.

       Yeasten arrived at the scene of the grassland fire a billot and forty-five borts after the

incident, and was highly antagonistic.

       “Why are your men scattered about in such a fashion?” Yeasten demanded, not waiting

for a reply. “There is no order to it. Why have you not delivered the enemy force to me? They

were headed this way and must have made it here by now. You have twenty-one men and a

scout ship right here at your disposal, yet you say you have seen nothing. Now, report!”

       “Yes sir!” Bragdon barked. “Sir, a fire broke out across the clearing and forced my men

to fall back. I sent the ship up immediately to investigate, but they saw nothing through the




                                                                                                    409
smoke. We believe it was just an accidental result of a lightning strike in that area,” Bragdon

said, pointing to the smoldering tree. “I am repositioning my men to continue the surveillance.”

       “Do not trouble yourself with that, fool,” Yeasten roared. “The fire was a diversion!

Don‟t you see? They must have passed this point by now because we found two of our scout

regiments terminated, and that was billots ago.

       “The attack force must be moving fast if they plan to stay ahead of our hunters, which

would put them well past your location some time ago.

       “I have taken the liberty to set some of my personal scouts to examining the cause of the

fire…to see if the Raulden force has breached your defenses.”

       “Sir, I have every confidence that they have not passed this position as of yet,” Bragdon

said nervously. “I recommend we deploy the men again, as they were. I feel we still have a

good chance of capturing them if…”

       Bragdon was not allowed to finish his statement because of the rapid approach of one of

Yeasten‟s men. The lower class scout apprentice, merely a squire, stopped beside his two

superiors and he too went into a rigid stance, saluting with the usual sign, exposed claws in a

raking motion down the front of his face. He was so young that he only showed two tattoos

affixed to his person, not having seen enough action to earn more honors…yet.

       Yeasten was annoyed by the useless and time-consuming need for military showmanship

at a time when results were such a necessity.

       “At ease, you two!” the Septuagent growled. “Report, Shrolle!”

       “Sir, we have found this, Reaper Yeasten,” he said, holding out his hand to show them

the remains of the flare Ron used.




                                                                                                  410
          “So!” Yeasten said, turning to Bragdon. “Do you still feel they have not crossed this

point?”

          Bragdon wisely said nothing, so Yeasten faced the squire again.

          “Have you determined how many are in their party?”

          “Yes sir! Two, sir!” the apprentice scout replied.

          “Two?” Bragdon shouted in astonishment. “Septuagent Yeasten, it is plain to me that

this man knows not what he is saying. Two men could not have defeated two of our scout teams,

and still be alive…and if…”

          “Quiet!” the Reaper ordered, glaring at his subordinate.

          “Sir,” the squire broke in, “I found tracks of one man, larger and heavier than any

Raulden, and those of a smaller man, or perhaps a woman, also with the weight of a heavy

worlder.”

          “The man is Kaskle of Caron, and the other is probably the woman Third-Class Tusepten

Kedmoor captured when the Caronian first arrived. As I recall, she left such tracks as you

described.

          “Well done, „Scout‟. I will make sure that you are rewarded for your excellent job.”

          “Thank you, sir,” Shrolle responded, pleased to receive the field promotion.

          “How many others know of this?” Yeasten asked.

          “About the number of individuals?” the scout clarified. “No one.”

          “Good. Let us keep it that way, shall we?” Yeasten suggested.

          “Yes, sir,” the soldier replied, puzzled.




                                                                                                  411
       “I would like for you to find their trail on the far side of the strip and follow them, alone,”

Yeasten told him. “Do not try to engage them unless you have a clear shot from a safe distance.

Do you understand your orders?”

       “Yes, sir,” replied the subordinate, saluting again…his face showing his determination to

not let his commander down.

       “Good!” Yeasten said. “You may go.”

       The nervous young scout saluted again and then trotted off to begin his mission.

       “One man and a woman have wiped out fourteen of my best troops?” Yeasten asked the

Slayer. “This had better not reach our superiors, Bragdon. The Retribution Games are not as

easy on a person as these field assignments.”

       “Perhaps that Scout,” Bragdon said, indicating the retreating man, “is mistaken about the

signs he read. Surely there must be a squad of highly trained warriors to have done all this.”

       “I requested that young former Squire be assigned to me, personally Bragdon.” Yeasten

informed his underling, his mind recalibrating his plans to capture the Caronian. “He once

hunted down a man in a Seagallion hurricane, through the swamps of Marrienbin, and brought

me back his head. That Scout did that…and the dead man had a full dactrai head start on him. I

believe he is correct about this!

       “Pack up everything and get ready to move out to the next position. Send some of your

men after them now to drive them hard, but do not let them interfere with Shrolle. Then we will

move ahead and funnel them into a trap.

       “I will be back as soon as I inform the other Squads of the change in plans. When I

return, you better have your men in position and on the move…understood?”




                                                                                                  412
        “Yes sir!” Bragdon snapped. He saluted his superior and turned to join his men with a

cold sweat on his face.

        “The Retribution Games!” he muttered, fearfully.

        Yeasten went to his ship to continue his organization of the mission. He had to see to it

that his troops were informed of the new orders personally, since radio communication was not

possible inside the planet‟s energy field…and to add to his problems, he was running out of

them. He had less than two hundred and twenty soldiers with which to patrol thousands of

square hoz of forest, with a third of them still trying to find a weakness in the defense shield at

the Generator Complex. On top of that, the pair of dissidents he was after was making a

mockery of his command.

        “I will get you, Kaskle of Caron!” Yeasten vowed. “No one makes a fool out of me and

lives to tell about it. I will see you dead if I have to die in the process!”

        He then boarded his ship and started his rounds once more.




                                                                                                  413
                                          Chapter Thirty-one

                                     When Outnumbered…Attack



        Ron and Cache had been on their way again for some time before they were forced into

taking cover by the sound of an approaching scout ship. The craft passed overhead and then

circled back to a spot about a quarter of a hoz to the east of them, slightly back the way they‟d

come.

        “We have to do something about that,” Ron announced. “If we don‟t, they‟ll find our

trail in less than an hour and track us down in under three, with their fresher men.”

        “What do you suggest?”

        Once again, Ron was reminded of his credo-phrase, “When outnumbered, attack!” he told

Cache as he started toward the landing ship.

        “I think if we play this right,” he explained, “we could stir things up quite a bit, and buy

ourselves a little time in the process. Come on. We need to get into position before they cut

their engines.”




                                                                                                    414
       “I see what you are saying,” Cache agreed, as they sprinted toward the noise of the scout

ship‟s thrusters. “If we slip inside their lines before they can organize their search party, they

might miss us altogether.”

       Ron nodded as he ran, hoping they would make it.

       He and Cache were fifty yards from the small clearing when the pilot cut the engines, and

they both dove into the closest congestion of shrubbery they saw. Then, slowly, they worked

their way to within earshot of the ship, crawling on their bellies from bush to bush.

       Ron took note of the Kreete vessel, as this was the first time he‟d seen one clearly, in

person. The warships in his “training” had been much more lethal crafts. It showed evidence of

the Kreete‟s septilateral thinking due to the fuselage configuration, which had seven distinct

surfaces instead of being rounded, as was Earth aircrafts.

       He estimated the ship to be fifty-six feet long, fourteen feet wide at the fuselage, forty-

two feet from wing tip to wing tip, and fourteen feet tall at the apex of the hull.

       The trailing edges of the wings were absent of any flying surfaces Ron was used to

seeing. Instead, they had air ports for vectoring thrust out from the area. That way, the same

system could be used in atmospheric flight as well as in outer space.

       Those wings were thick and sturdy, built for battle but not for tight maneuvers, and had

curved tips pointing downward. The tips were part of the vertical lift function, stabilizing the

ship during the hover mode. The craft stood atop three landing gear which looked like oversized

skis, and compressed with the weight of the ship to leave its belly barely a foot from the ground.

       The cockpit had windows on three sides; cut at sharp angles to deflect enemy fire, but

was designed, again, with seven separate sections. Ron and Cache could easily see the pilot

inside, taking care of the systems‟ shut down.




                                                                                                     415
        At the very front of the vessel was a large ball, three feet in diameter, which had one

small, dish-shaped indentation. That six-inch dish was the main firepower of the ship…the

plasma cannon. Ron made a mental note to stay away from that thing.

        At the opposite end of the craft were the “sub-light” engines Cache had spoken of during

one of their training simulations…the exhaust cones of which could be seen from Ron and

Cache‟s present position. There were two engines in this craft, capable of pushing the small ship

to the brink of light speed, although only for a short period. There was also another cannon

located between those cones, but Ron couldn‟t see it from where he was.

        The aft end of the shuttle was also absent the usual stabilizers found on Earth ships too,

using directional thrusters there as well. The fuselage had no windows along its length, Ron

noticed, giving it a rugged, harsh, no-frills appearance. That utility function became obvious as

the door slid up and in.

        The Kreete scouts poured out of the vessel quickly and formed two rows of five. Four of

the men, the remaining ones who would have made up the two squads, had already been

commanded to find the trail of their enemies, and so they set off directly.

        The leader of the force stepped out and ordered one row to start an immediate search in

the direction leading back to the grassy clearing, but to fan out to the west. The other group was

to head to the easterly side, also back the way Ron and Cache had just come, which pleased the

two fugitives greatly. They smiled and ducked down while the troops set out.

        The clearing was then empty except for the leader, a First-Class Tusepten, who stayed in

the clearing pacing back and forth, presumably deep in thought, and the pilot, who never left his

seat inside the ship.




                                                                                                  416
        “We better wait a while, to let the scouts move far enough away so they won‟t hear what

we do,” Ron suggested, whispering directly into Cache‟s ear.

        She nodded her approval and they both settled down in their places. They were grateful

for the break, but after ten minutes dragged by, Ron decided they had waited long enough.

        “Okay, Cache,” he said softly, gathering himself for a charge, “you drop that guy and I‟ll

take care of the pilot.”

        Cache nodded again and got her rifle into position…the targeting sights on-line. The

clearing was small, with most of it taken up by the scouts‟ shuttle, and the Kreete Slayer Class

Tusepten had been steadily striding from the front of the ship to the rear…and then back.

        She decided to take him when he turned around the next time to head back toward the

front. That particular time, however, the Kreete decided not to turn about, but rather to continue

around the tail of the ship to the other side.

        “Where is he going?” Cache asked.

        “I don‟t have the foggiest idea,” Ron replied. “Maybe he needed to relieve himself. Just

wait a few seconds. I‟m sure he‟ll either come back around at this end or the other.”

        Two minutes passed with no sign of him. Ron and Cache started to get nervous.

        “We can‟t wait any longer,” Ron announced. “I‟m going in. You cover the outside.”

        With that said, and one last check around the clearing, Ron dashed out, pulling up just

short of the open hatch before he cautiously climbed aboard.

        Once inside, he swept the interior for more Kreete with his sword drawn, and finding

none, he silently advanced on the unsuspecting pilot.

        The fellow never looked up from his paperwork as Ron came at him like a leopard. At

the last second, Ron put down the sword, and with a quick lunge, grabbed the Kreete officer by




                                                                                                   417
the head and twisted as hard as his newly acquired muscles could manage. The soldier‟s

vertebrae exploded, and his neck wound up six inches longer than it had previously been, with

his face turned around backwards in a gruesome display.

        Ron‟s stomach turned over once, but he got hold of it as he left the corpse to return to the

hatch…still puzzled about the actions of commander. Upon reaching the vicinity of the

entryway, he suddenly got that odd feeling of impending doom again, just as before, back in the

tree grove several days past…like a tingling sensation in his mind.

        Without understanding this surge of alarm, Ron was about to exit the ship anyway when

his caution prevailed, forcing him to take a peek out of the doorway first. He learned in that

instant why he was receiving the mental impulse of dread.

        The Slayer was standing over Cache‟s sprawled form with an agony wand glistening in

her face…his dark brown boots straddling her tiny physique. Her dart rifle, as well as the blaster

pistol she carried for emergencies, was well out of her reach.

        Ron‟s mind suddenly flashed back to the nightmare he had with his wife in Cache‟s

position. All the horror, the torment, and the hate he felt at that moment came burning back into

his brain like a tidal wave, and the red haze of unrelenting fury dropped down across his vision

in a flash. He‟d been helpless in the dream, but he was far from helpless now.

        “Where is your partner?” Bragdon was asking Cache, as she tried to focus on his

question…still dazed from the powerful blow she‟d received from the soldier three times her

size.

        Ron launched himself from the ship‟s doorway like a cheetah on the Serengeti, straight at

the creature who was threatening his partner. He was halfway across the clearing before his feet

even touched the ground, and one of the blue daggers was even further, leading the charge.




                                                                                                 418
          Ron threw the blade with the precision of a marksman‟s shot, and all the force he could

muster.

          Bragdon dropped the rod as the razor-sharp, double-edged blade sliced through the

tendons manipulating his hand, and then he fell away from Cache with the momentum of the

impact, clutching the wounded limb. The knife wedged itself between the two bones in his

forearm and he was desperately trying to withdraw it when Ron hit him with a flying front kick

which sent the Kreete slamming against a nearby tree.

          Bragdon rose to his feet to defend himself but couldn‟t take a breath as the force of the

blow had cracked his breastbone…and Ron didn‟t allow him half a second to recover either. He

rushed in like a prizefighter sensing a knockout, and pounded away at the gasping Kreete like a

punching bag.

          Ron was taking great pleasure at the beating too, feeling the man‟s ribs pop as they

shattered under his rock-hard knuckles. This beast-man was receiving all the pain and grief Ron

suffered during his gut-wrenching dream…or memory. That, combined with the heartbreak of

being stolen away from the woman he loved because of the evil this leader and his race

supported, just fueled his anger. And too, he felt no pity for a creature Bragdon‟s size beating a

woman of Cache‟s diminutive stature.

          Ron stepped back then, preparing to finish the Kreete leader off with a crushing head

kick, when a voice stopped him.

          “Tusepten Bragdon!” called a scout who had returned prematurely to get a fresh water

container, after finding his own had leaked and was dry.

          Ron whirled around to face the newcomer while Bragdon collapsed to the ground,

coughing up blood and trying to force air into his ruined lungs. The scout saw the face of a man




                                                                                                      419
as wild and ferocious a creature as ever walked on two legs…his eyes burning with the fire of

battle, and his rumbling, growling snarl speaking volumes about his intentions.

       The newcomer drew his pistol straight away…the canteen falling to the ground, totally

forgotten. Ron dove into the brush at the edge of the clearing, rolled, and came up brandishing

one of his dark blue, five bladed missiles, nestled firmly at apex of his bending bow. Without a

moment‟s pause, he sent that slender bolt of death racing in the scout‟s direction at the same

instant the enemy warrior fired his S.P.G.

       The arrow entered the man‟s chest and abruptly exited through his spine, but his return

shot was excellent as well, aimed directly at Ron‟s forehead.

       Ron‟s luck held true to form during those few seconds however, to his good fortune. The

bullet struck his bow, at the end of his outstretched arm, immediately after the arrow took flight.

That exploding projectile, which he‟d been warned about, sheared off the weapon above the hand

rest, showering Ron with fragments of it.

       Ron retreated from the shock, but his hand was already on the move again, slipping one

of the slender throwing knives out of its sheath. As Ron‟s arm drew back, blade high, the

mortally wounded Kreete fired again. This time though, his aim was just wide, and the deadly

sphere passed through Ron‟s right bicep and erupted in a tree further on.

       Ron felt the burning sting of the wound but did not flinch, finishing his motion as

smoothly as if he were back in the practice room. The blade buried itself in the scout‟s throat

just above his sternum, but he was already dead from the catastrophic damage caused by the

arrow…his lifeless form falling forward slowly.




                                                                                                  420
       Ron took a quick look at his arm and instantly realized just what had happened. He

stopped the blood flow by plugging the holes with his fingers and walked back to where he‟d left

Bragdon, only to find the Kreete leader was gone, as was Cache.

       “Cache!” cried Ron, trying to keep his voice down as much as he could.

       “Ron!” she replied, from just inside the forest‟s cover. “I am over here.”

       “Are you all right?” he asked, as she stepped back into the open.

       “Yes, just a little shaken up.”

       Ron noted that one side of her lovely face was beet red and her lip was split, with a

trickle of blood showing on her chin.

       “Are you sure you‟re okay?” he asked again, gently sweeping her tousled hair away from

her eyes and wiping her chin clean.

       “Yes, I am fine,” she returned, patting his hand tenderly.

       “What happened to the Tusepten?” he inquired, glancing about.

       She held up her dart gun proudly.

       “He crawled off into the bushes, but did not get very far,” she explained, and then she

handed Ron the knife which had been wedged in the man‟s arm. “Here, you forgot this.”

       “Thanks!” He said, reaching down and recovering his arrow from just beyond the

Kreete‟s body. “Now, what can we do with this ship? Is it possible to fly it the rest of the way?”

       “No,” she told him. “I thought of that when we found just the two troops left to guard it.

But the pilot is the only one who would know the code needed to begin the start-up sequence,

and he would never have given it to us.”

       “You can‟t break the code?”




                                                                                                 421
        “Well, yes,” she answered, “if I had enough time, but I do not. Those shots must have

been heard, and as soon as they figure out from which direction they came, the soldiers will be

back to investigate.

        “Okay then,” Ron said, thinking quickly. “Can you disable it badly enough to help us

out?”

        “How would a large explosion suit you?” she suggested, grinning. “Say, in about half a

billot?”

        “Perfect!” he replied. “Get to it, lady. I‟ll stand guard.”

        While she was inside the ship, Ron dragged the bodies of the fallen enemy into a

secluded spot. He started with that of the pilot, so Cache would have room to work, and when

they were hidden, he went about retrieving all the weapons he and Cache had used. With a quick

glance about the clearing, Ron dropped to his belly and began digging in the soft ground next to

the aft, right-hand landing gear of the shuttle. He guessed no one would give the spot a second‟s

worry, so he buried the remains of his bow and the quiver full of arrows, knowing he‟d just lost a

valuable part of Cache‟s and his defense.

        His arm was still oozing blood, but even with the strenuous work he was doing, it had

nearly stopped. Ron marveled at his ability to tolerate physical damage, and guessed it was just

another advantage of being on a planet with a lesser gravity than his body was made for.

        Cache finished soon after he had, so they beat a hasty retreat by running full out, making

sure they would have plenty of distance between them and the explosion.

        “Everything go all right?” Ron asked as they flashed through the woods.

        “Yes, it was easy,” Cache replied between breaths. “I just linked the ship‟s chronograph

to the destruct sequence by channeling…”




                                                                                                422
       “Save your breath for the run,” Ron said bluntly, cutting her off. “I wouldn‟t know what

you were talking about anyway,” he admitted with a grin.

       Cache decided to take his advice, since the pace was so strenuous on her already weary

body, and her breath would soon be coming in deep gasps which would require all her

concentration to control. She was well aware of the immediate danger they were both faced

with, as was the fate of their mission, and those facts lent aid to her drive.

       “Ron, you are injured,” she blurted between her struggled intakes of air when she saw the

blood trail running down his arm.

       “Yeah,” he replied, shrugging it off as a minor matter. He wasn‟t as badly off as Cache,

but it was hard for him to keep pushing himself at the speed they were traveling…especially

when he knew she was on the verge of exhaustion, but he had no choice. “It‟s not bad though.

I‟ll make it just fine until we stop again, which won‟t be too much longer.”

       The two Raulden defenders ran for their lives, trying to distance themselves from certain

pursuit. Their goal was to gain enough of a head start to allow them the time they needed to

regroup and evade the band of scouts that was sure to follow.




                                                                                               423
                                                 Chapter

                                           The End of the Line



       Shortly after that, just over three miles behind them, Yeasten was flying back and forth

over the forest in an effort to find Bragdon‟s ship. He‟d been detained longer than he planned,

seeing to regrouping his forces and issuing orders to clarify their new assignments. Now he was

behind schedule and extremely irritated and dissatisfied that his troops had failed to eliminate

one man, and a mere woman, who were from an inferior race.

       “Where did that idiot go?” Yeasten roared in the cockpit of the craft.

       The weather was growing worse and had darkened considerably over the last half billot.

The wind had picked up, and rain was threatening from some evil looking clouds overhead.

Yeasten barely had room above the trees and below the clouds to continue his search, and was

just about ready to call it off when he turned to his pilot.

       “Are you sure we are over the proper coordinates?” he shouted.

       “Yes sir!” responded the man. “But sir, we would have to fly directly over them at this

altitude before we could even hope to spot them. The foliage is just too thick, and with all of our


                                                                                                   424
equipment scrambled by the Matrix, our homing units are dead…we have to get a visual

sighting.”

          “Do you think I am not aware of that?” Yeasten snarled. “Just fly the dragen ship!”

Then he focused his anger back on Bragdon. “If you are not where I assigned you, Bragdon, I

will personally rip out you heart and have it for lunch!”

          “Sir!” shouted the pilot, an instant later. “There!”

          He banked the ship sharply around to the right and the object they were looking for came

into clear view beneath them.

          “Septuagent,” the pilot said, “the clearing is too small for me to land.”

          “Fine then,” Yeasten responded, “just get as low as you can and I will use the personnel

cable.”

          Yeasten made his way to the rear of the ship and strapped himself into the cable sling.

He then opened the hatch through which he would repel, and waited for the pilot‟s signal.

          Ninety feet from the ground, the pilot pressed a button which flashed a crimson light, the

appropriate sign, back in Yeasten‟s position. The Reaper class soldier saw the signal and

immediately began his descent, red being the color the Kreete use for initiating attacks because it

signified there was impending bloodshed to come.

          Yeasten was buffeted about by the winds as his body cleared the fuselage, and his

discomfort just fed the fire already growing inside him. He glanced down to see that no one was

bothering to come out to greet him, and it only added more fuel.

          “Bragdon,” he growled, as he struggled with the descent, plunging through the

overhanging tree limbs. “If I find you asleep in that ship, I will…”




                                                                                                    425
           Yeasten didn‟t finish his threat because he was on the ground, dropping the last twenty

feet swiftly and expertly. He unstrapped the sling, and then watched it and his ship rise out of

the clearing to a safer altitude, where the wind couldn‟t blow it into the trees. Then he turned his

attention to the craft resting before him. Still, nobody seemed to have noticed his arrival.

           “Perhaps they found the two fugitives and are disposing of them,” he reasoned.

           Then it occurred to him the fugitives might have found “them” and were, at that moment

disposing of his men. He drew his agony wand with his left hand and his S.P.G. with his right,

and cautiously advanced toward the open hatch.

           Yeasten glanced inside quickly, and then withdrew his head just as fast. Since he had

seen nothing, he entered to have a better look. The ship was deserted, as he soon found

out…that in itself being totally against their rigid regulations. One man must be in the ship

always, and that soldier had to be able to fly it out of danger should it become necessary.

           The Krosepten became nervous as he approached the cockpit, knowing full well the pilot

would not have willingly left his post, leaving himself open to a sentence of death by public

torture.

           He scanned the console for signs of tampering, or a struggle, and was about to leave

when he saw the ship‟s timepiece was in the countdown mode, with thirty lita left. He stared at

the device for a moment, and then the realization of what it meant slammed into his brain like a

hammer.

           He grabbed for the release latch on the panel, only to find that it had been sheered off.

He then stood back a step, prepared to destroy the console with the explosive rounds in his

weapon…but wasn‟t sure the blast wouldn‟t set off the device, so he reconsidered and dashed for

the open hatch.




                                                                                                       426
        There was no time to get clear of the blast on foot, so Yeasten hastily returned to the area

where he was to be picked up, waving frantically at his ship. He was of course completely

unaware that most of the two squads Bragdon had ordered into the forest were rapidly

approaching the clearing, spread out in a concerted attack posture.

        “Come on you idiot!” he shouted at the craft high above him, cursing the dragen Energy

Matrix for fouling his radio.

        Inside, the pilot was monitoring his controls and failed to see Yeasten until he casually

glanced out the window a few moments later. At sight of the signaling officer, he immediately

lowered the ship to allow his commander to reach the sling, and when he was in place, he began

a slow, safe ascent to clear the treetops‟ level.

        He looked back down to watch the armed group of soldiers charging into the clearing

with weapons at the ready, all pointing and motioning upward, and he mistakenly assumed they

were attacking his superior. That, combined with Yeasten‟s frantic waving, put the pilot into a

new frame of mind. He pulled hard on the controls, hoping the line could hold the commander

below, and that his superior could stand the stress of the exit. The ship, the pilot, and Yeasten

shot straight up.

        Yeasten was nearly ripped in half as they accelerated upward, but they were too late. The

scoutcraft below them exploded with such a violent blast the concussion flung Yeasten‟s body up

against the bottom hull of his own shuttle powerfully, crushing him instantly.

        The cockpit of the retreating vessel was viciously torn apart from flying debris sailing

upward, and a large chunk ripped through the heavy structure of the scout ship‟s wing as well.

The pilot was helpless against the onslaught of damage which removed all control from him.

The engines unexpectedly shut down, and any hope of saving the craft vanished in the same




                                                                                                    427
instant. He felt the upward thrust of the blast toss his aircraft like a toy, and then down he and

the wounded vessel went, to add to the size of the fireball below.

       Four miles away, Ron and Cache heard, and then felt, the explosions, and immediately

stopped their running. They were in desperate need of rest by then anyway, and both stood bent

over, their hands on their knees, struggling to recover. Ron knew Cache would surely need a

break now, and his arm was also in need of tending to verify no unseen damage might arise. He

located a thick patch of bushes surrounding a large tree, and they both eased their way into it

cautiously, hoping not to show any outward sign of their passage.

       Cache collapsed into a heap for a while, and then she drank deeply from her water pouch.

After the liquid had refreshed her slightly, she looked over at Ron. He too was replenishing the

water his body was sweating out, and she saw the wound to his arm again.

       She leaned over and examined it more closely, finding that it went completely through

his muscle, and she quickly perked up.

       “Did you get shot?” she asked intently.

       “Yes,” Ron replied wearily, “I guess I did.”

       Cache then ignored her own fatigue and instead went immediately to work on Ron‟s arm

as he set back against the tree with his eyes shut. She cleaned the two holes with some

antiseptic, and then placed some more on a swab mounted to a small rod.

       “Ron,” she warned. “I must clean out the wound. This will not be pleasant.”

       “Oh, really!” he said, knowing that he was in for something bad, but managing a grin.

“Go for it, Doc.”

       Cache didn‟t hesitate, ramming the swab through the small hole until it protruded from

the other side. Ron held still, despite the incredible urge he had to stop her, as she changed the




                                                                                                     428
end material and then pulled the instrument back the opposite way. She then sprayed a thick

layer of synthetic skin on the wounds and sat back.

        “You were very fortunate,” Cache said, reclining next to him and sharing the support of

the tree. She relished the opportunity for some rest, and her body was more than willing to

comply. “The pellet didn‟t even hit a large artery, much less the bone.”

        Ron just enjoyed the peace and quiet, regaining his strength and wondering how much

longer his luck would hold out.

        After a short while, he felt much better and was digging through his rations again to

satisfy his incessant need for food…his perforated arm forgotten as he foraged.

        “They‟ll really put the pressure on, now,” he told her. “We‟ll have to slow down a lot to

avoid what‟s bound to be ahead, and try to cover our tracks even better so we‟re not caught from

behind.”

        Just then, a gust of wind swept through the forest. The edge of the storm front had caught

up to them and was forcing its way into the underbrush…which was no easy task. Also, the dark

clouds blocked out most of the light which was already dimmed by the overhead leaves, making

it appear almost twilight.

        Ron took in the smell of the air and the breeze in the woods, and grew lighthearted.

        “It sure would help us out if it would rain good and hard,” he said, turning to Cache.

        The last thirty minutes had passed without him once really looking at her, since he stayed

in the lead position to plot a course for them as they ran. But now, as he gazed at her, he wished

he‟d checked up on her sooner.

        Her right eye was half shut and her normally soft; golden face was dark with bruising on

that side.




                                                                                                 429
       “My God!” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?” Are you all right?”

       Cache rested her head back against the smooth bark of the tree and sighed. She was

eating from her rations, as he was, and so she spoke between gulps.

       “Back at the clearing, the Tusepten never did return from in back of the ship. Instead, he

came up behind me. And even though I heard him at the last instant, and spun around to face

him, he kicked me hard enough to make me lose my grip on the rifle as I flew backward, out into

the open.

       “I rolled to my feet and drew my disrupter, but he was already on top of me, and swatted

me with the back of his hand across my face…and I blacked out for a moment. When I could

focus again, he was above me with the wand.

       “That is when you showed up…thank the Guardian.”

       “Does it hurt terribly?” Ron asked. “Can I do anything for you to take the swelling out?”

       “I just have a bad headache,” she replied, “and yes, I have something that will get the

swelling down. I will tend to it when I have rested more.”

       “Don‟t be ridiculous,” Ron told her, “I‟ll take care of you.”

       She gave him the medicine and told him what to do with it, and then she just lay back and

accepted his aid. His large hands, so rough and callused, were like a feather across her skin as he

applied the salve…and her heart fluttered at his gentleness.

       “I suppose it is my turn to thank you for saving my life, is it not?” she said to Ron.

       “Nonsense! It‟s just as you said; we‟re a team. Helping each other is a necessity, not a

privilege, so no thanks are needed.”

       Inwardly he thought, “I‟ll die before I let anything happen to you, Cache!”

       “I‟m sorry I failed to notice earlier that you were hurt,” Ron said to her softly.




                                                                                                 430
       Cache waved off his statement without further thought.

       “We were much too busy to worry over each other more than whether either of us could

travel. Now we must regain our energy and plan our journey, so relax.”

       Ron finished with her treatment and then joined her in a brief respite, taking his position

beside her, against the tree again.

       They both sat back wearily, intending to stay for only a few minutes, but fatigue had a

different idea, and a more powerful hold on them, and it proved it as both Ron and Cache drifted

quickly off to sleep.




                                                                                                 431
                                      Chapter Thirty-two

                                         A New Leader



         Back at the scene of the explosions, in a clearing which was now large enough to land the

three remaining scout shuttles, the last four of Bragdon‟s men were just returning. The eruptions

of the two ships had been detected throughout most of the surrounding valley and sent all

subcommanders racing to investigate the cause. The wreckage that remained was minimal, and

it, as well as the surrounding area, was quickly searched without much hope of finding anyone

alive.

         Forty borts later, the mission to find and eliminate the perpetrators resumed with a new

officer in charge. He formed a strategy on the spot and put it into action immediately, sending

one squad in search of the fugitives and ordering all the others to gather their men at the main

camp, by the river.

         The new Siege Commander, a recent Second Class Septenant, due to his dishonorable

demotion from Yeasten, was now the field promoted, and self-appointed, Septuagent. He strode

to his ship and climbed aboard, being careful not to bump his sore arm on the entranceway.



                                                                                                   432
          His jump in rank would normally be unheard of, but this was not a normal mission.

Nearly every Kreete officer on the planet had given up his previous position to become part of

this attack force, and he was once a Krosepten, the leader of twenty four hundred elite Kreete

soldiers. His recent setback in military classification was of little issue now, as the long list of

successful battles he‟d commanded throughout his career was more than good enough for the

regiment that was there. As far as the chain-of-command was concerned, when the explosion

erased the current Siege Commander and his Tusepten, the likeliest replacement stepped forward

and assumed control. All others in the assemblage knew of him and his reputation, as well as

that of the rest of his family, and none would dare challenge his authority.

          He took his seat next to the pilot, cursing his tender limb and the man who‟d given it to

him. It was still sensitive because of a recent break, and the lack of speedy recovery was caused

by the absence of proper medical equipment, since there was no regenerative device on the

planet.

          “To the main camp,” he ordered.

          “Yes sir, Septen…I mean, Septuagent,” the pilot replied, correcting himself quickly to his

superior‟s new title after receiving a harsh glare from the fellow.

          As the newly appointed leader rode toward the center of his latest command, he reveled

in the power he now had. Of course it was nothing compared to the authority he would gain if he

could destroy the man and his accomplice who had beaten his superiors…and with a third less

men than they led.

          Perhaps he could make Fleet Commander…a two-place jump from his highest

rank…with this one victory. He played that scenario over and over during the flight, wondering




                                                                                                       433
how many others were ever given such a chance as he now had, and he determined he would

make the best of it.

         “We are here, Septuagent Kale, sir,” announced the pilot, as they glided into the primary

camp next to the riverbank, half a billot later.

         Kale disembarked and sent the pilot to gather the men from the field. As the ship took

off, he turned to face the direction he knew his prey would have to come from, and then he

rubbed his broken arm…a symbol of his humiliation at the hands of the Caronian.

         “Come to me, Kaskle of Caron,” Kale said menacingly. “Come and receive what you

have earned.”

         Kale Vitrauge stood there unconsciously fumbling with the new agony wand hanging

from his belt…and as he thought about his opponent, his hand grasped the handle and twisted it

to the full-power setting.



         Ron awoke to the sound of breaking branches. He opened his eyes to see a huge piece of

metal working its way through the overhead limbs. When his vision focused, he scooped up

Cache and leaped out of the bushes, just as the engine cowl of one of the destroyed scout ships

came crashing to the ground, right where they‟d been snoozing.

         Cache was awake a second after Ron grabbed her, and the loud crash brought her starkly

back to the present.

         “What was that?” she asked as Ron lowered her to the ground.

         “Our wake-up call! I think we overstayed our welcome,” Ron said, pointing to their cozy

little nest.




                                                                                                  434
           Cache checked her combination timepiece, computer terminal, compass, and several

other functions of which Ron was oblivious, and found that they had indeed loitered too long.

           “We sure did!” she told him. “We better get moving. We have been here nearly half a

billot!”

           They set out again at a brisk walk, taking greater care to obscure their trail when they

could. The air was cool and the breeze they felt earlier was still blowing. They were also

grateful for the dim lighting the clouds were causing since it would make seeing them difficult,

and tracking them even harder.

           Ron checked Cache‟s face as they walked and found the swelling had gone down almost

to normal, and the bruise did not appear to be too deep. As for his arm, the stuff she put on it felt

as good as if he‟d never been wounded.

           The little sleep they managed to get helped them somewhat, but they could have used a

lot more. Instead, they snacked on the high-energy food once again, and it recharged them a bit

further.

           “How far to the river?” Ron asked cautiously, constantly scanning the surrounding forest,

fearing to be overheard.

           “Roughly seven hoz,” Cache replied after making some calculations on her wrist

computer. “But they will have another line of defense there, plus as many men as they can spare

will begin combing the forest between there and here.”

           Rauld‟s two defenders continued through the darkened woods, both of them hoping the

rain would start soon and fall in torrents. But it didn‟t come, and so they resigned themselves

into a tedious routine of advancing and hiding. They strained at each step, to ascertain whether




                                                                                                      435
every bending movement of a distant branch, every squeaking rub of two trees vying for the

same space in the wind, was that of the enemy.

        As Metash once more drifted out of contact with their part of the globe, they ran into

another challenge. The changes in direction they were forced to take to evade their enemy had

unfortunately shifted their planned route as well, and so now they unexpectedly found

themselves at the base of a hundred and fifty foot cliff.

        “How far to get around this?” Ron asked.

        Cache searched her multifunctional device quickly, finding their exact location, and her

face fell. She berated herself for not having stayed on top of that information.

        “At least four hoz this way and six that way,” she replied with a look of disgust.

        Both directions would add significantly to their timetable and Ron could tell that Cache

was dragging badly. She needed to be off her feet for a good while.

        He thought back to when they‟d last awakened at Gammone…before they fought with

the Scout in the access tunnel…and how much time had elapsed since then. “Was it two days, or

two and a half?” He didn‟t know for sure but his own reserves were low, so he knew hers were

much worse.

        “Sit down over there out of sight, Cache,” he told her as he searched the rocky face of the

escarpment. “I‟m going this way.”

        With a quick leap upward, and no allotting for time to argue, Ron set off up the face of

the cliff.

        “But…” she began to protest.

        “I‟ll drop the cable down to you when I get there.”




                                                                                                   436
       Ron scrambled like a squirrel up that rocky surface, flitting from one precarious handhold

to the next, and was left dangling on several occasions as the face of the precipice was not quite

up to his weight factor.

       He thought he was done-for twice, as he neared the upper lip, and only the unyielding

strength of his powerful fingers kept him from dropping back into Cache‟s lap. As it was

though, numerous rocks were dislodged and went crashing to the base near his worried

partner…worried for him as well as concerned about who might hear that reverberating auditory

disturbance.

       His attempt to give her a relaxing break backfired on him because she could barely

breathe as she watched her heartthrob risk his life, and could do nothing to help him. She did

take the strain off her feet, but the situation was so nerve-racking that she was unable to unwind

whatsoever.

       Finally though, he reached up and over the ledge, grasped a firmly anchored tree root,

and hauled himself up to safety where he collapsed on his back, sweat pouring off him.

       As he lay there panting, he removed one of his knives and attached the clip of his winch

cable to it before rolling over and casting it down to his little blonde partner.

       She was nearly as breathless as he, and instantly darted over to hook onto the cable. Her

trip up the cliff was quick and uneventful, and they were paired up once more promptly.

       The moment her feet were on solid ground again, Cache leaped at Ron and almost

knocked him down as she crashed into his body, wrapping her arms tightly around his incredible

physique.

       “What were you thinking? I was so afraid! I just knew you were going to fall!” she cried

as she held and squeezed him…and then she stepped back abruptly and punched him in the gut.




                                                                                                 437
        “That‟s for scaring me half to death!”

        Ron huffed audibly with the force of the blow, his eyes wide with surprise.

        “Nice one!” he told her with a boyish grin that charmed her into a smile of relief. “I

guess I earned that!”

        She hugged him again before unhooking herself and getting back to their trek.

        The strengthening breeze, and drop in temperature were blessings to them, but the

constant feeling of impending danger kept their mental faculties wired so tightly that the next

three hours wore them down more than the entire last day‟s exertions.

        Finally their caution paid off however, as they came across two Kreete scouts a short time

later. One was helping the other up a tree for a better vantage point.

        As the climber got out of reach of his partner, Cache took a shot at the one on the ground.

The dimness of the forest acted against her though, as she was unable to see a fallen branch

which was directly in her path. The dart skipped off one of the branch‟s shoots and flew off

course, striking a tree thirty feet beyond the target.

        She glanced around and saw there was nowhere she could move to that would give her a

better shot without her being exposed, so she turned the job over to Ron.

        “I cannot hit him from here, Ron,” she said. “You will have to take care of him. I will

cover the other one.”

        Ron gave her a weary nod and set out through the underbrush, taking a wide route to

approach in a direction which would not give away where they‟d been heading. He sorely

missed the bow he lost, as it would have suited his needs perfectly right now, but he pushed that

regret aside to concentrate.




                                                                                                  438
       Ron got ten feet from the tree without being seen before he chanced a look around. The

upper scout was in his position now, high above Ron, and was looking the other way.

       The wind pushing its way through the trees drowned out what little noise he made as he

moved, and masked any jostling of bushes too. With that natural diversion he had no worries

about being spotted as he gained access to a large bush at the base of the sentry‟s perch. Then he

slowly stuck his head out to find the other scout.

       The fellow was not there. Ron looked everywhere he thought the trooper could‟ve gone

but came up empty. He was annoyed at himself for losing contact with his objective, and rose up

to see if Cache had seen which way the soldier moved.

       As soon as he stood erect, Ron found out why he hadn‟t been able to see the Kreete. The

scout was crouched beside the same bush he was in, not four feet away. He was even downwind,

so Ron was unable to smell him.

       The soldier leaped at Ron instantly, hammering him with one clawed fist to the jaw while

drawing his agony wand with the other hand.

       Ron was shaken badly from the blow and went down hard. The Kreete was on him as he

hit the ground and the blue glow of the wand was speeding toward his face. Only the quickness

that Ron‟s heavy-gravity muscles gave him saved his life.

       He brought up one foot to block the rod and lashed out with the other, connecting solidly

with the larger warrior‟s knee, deflecting him wide of his goal. That quelled the attack and gave

Ron the instant he needed to regain his feet and draw the black sword.

       The battle continued behind the tree and out of sight of the sentinel above, so Ron was

given a new chance to defend himself…and he was ready to take full advantage of it.




                                                                                                 439
       The scout charged again with the rod upraised and a growling sound issuing from his

throat. Ron answered with his own resonate cry, parried the rod aside twice, and got under the

beast-man‟s guard with a left uppercut.

       The Kreete staggered for a second and then went for his S.P.G. Ron answered that move

by letting fly with one of his knives.

       “Damn!” Ron hissed, as the throw went wide. Instead of the sure-kill neck target he‟d

aimed for, he struck the Kreete in the shoulder. The big fellow dropped the gun, but now Ron

had to fight more, and he could feel the queasy sensation of exhaustion sweeping through him.

       Too many miles, too many battles, and too many injuries, all had taken their toll on his

body when he badly needed it to be fresh. A cold sweat burst from every pore in his flesh as he

prepared to meet the Kreete‟s attack. His muscles, once hard and steady, now trembled from the

strain of combat.

       Ron sucked in a huge gulp of air and shook his head hard, forcibly willing himself to

make ready. Suddenly he felt a strange rush through his body, as if an ice-cold wind had blown

across him…no, through him! It was extremely exhilarating, almost shocking, and he trembled

no more!

       The Kreete charged again, leading with the agony wand, but Ron merely locked his blade

with it and forced it aside, easily overpowering the much larger foe. The huge scout then struck

out with his free hand, but his punch was far too slow…the knife in his shoulder hindering his

reaction Ron guessed. Ron slapped the intended blow away and planted a knee in the fellow‟s

ribs. His formerly drained body answered the urgent request well enough to crack a few of those

bones and then follow up that move with a straight punch, impacting the scout in the kidney area.




                                                                                                  440
       Ron‟s fist sunk into the enemy‟s tough hide much further than it normally would have

however, surprising him, but not slowing his next strike…a spinning kick to the chest. He

received even more of a shock when the momentum of that blow threw the Kreete against the

tree trunk…ten feet away…where he fell heavily.

       He then leaped high into the air after the slumping foe and pinned him to the tree with the

dark blade; a demonic snarl rolling from his lips.

       Ron pulled his knife and sword free simultaneously, just as a noise from above him

brought back the memory that there was another of the enemy still around. He stepped backward

a half stride and hurled the knife once more, this time at the sound.

       The blade flew straight and true on that cast, carrying itself completely through the body

of the falling enemy who‟d been stationed up there, and eventually coming back down to a rest

beside him.

       Ron watched it all as if it were happening in slow motion. The falling scout slowed down

and seemed to almost float to the ground, and the blue knife completed its arc and gently slipped

downward to sink into a large root at the base of the massive tree.

       Ron raised the sword to finish the Kreete off, but saw a small object protruding from the

man‟s chest, and checked his strike.

       At that instant, Ron heard a rustling off to the west and he bolted for it, speeding along as

if being propelled by an outside force. His body felt recharged and alert again…his thoughts

were clear and crisp.

       He saw the Kreete moving toward him, agony wand in one hand and S.P.G. in the other.

The huge being also appeared to be moving slowly as Ron held the dark sword in his right fist




                                                                                                 441
and drew a knife with his left. He then leaped high into the air again…much higher than

expected…as the scout fired his weapon.

       Ron flashed the ten-inch long blade briefly, and then it was passing through the Kreete‟s

body, through bone and muscle and sinew, as if they were not there. He landed a step in front of

the scout, sword slashing downward, and the ebony razor subdivided the huge man as if he were

made of straw.

       Ron blinked at him, confused by what was happening, but was distracted once more from

back where he‟d left Cache. Another scout roared his charge while he fired at Cache‟s small

form, which was ducking for cover into the underbrush.

       The Kreete was nearly on her and was two hundred feet away from Ron, moving at a

dead run.

       Even though it all was happening at a less than normal rate, Ron saw he could not

intercept the beast-man in time. Instead, his arm whipped back without hesitation, bringing the

black sword up and spinning it about to the position of a spear. It felt unnaturally light as his

powerful shoulder rotated forward and his arm guided it on its path…straight at, and through the

Kreete scout.

       The large fellow stumbled off course and fell to his knees, knocked down by the force of

the strike, and utterly stunned by the sudden appearance of that weapon piercing his body from

one side to the other. He managed to glance around in time to see Ron approaching quickly, and

then he perished…his heart and both lungs skewered with the raven blade.

       Ron whirled around, expecting to be attacked by three more of the enemy, but heard not a

sound, apart from his heart pounding in his ears.




                                                                                                    442
          Several long seconds passed with no indications of any threat, but Ron could not settle

down, turning about again and again, searching. Then, with the stay in the fighting came a

bizarre and unwelcome reaction from his legs. They gave way to the weight of his body, and he

dropped to his knees unexpectedly, directly beside the dead scout. He began gasping for air

desperately; finding he could no longer breathe…and his body then started vibrating violently for

no apparent reason.

          Ron leaned over sharply, realizing he was trying to take in oxygen much too fast and was

on the verge of hyperventilation, and instinctively tried to restrict the area in which his lungs

could expand. He covered his mouth and nose with his hands too, so he might be able to

recirculate the carbon dioxide in his system, but it didn‟t help the shaking.

          Cache had worked her way deeper into the forest, waiting for the same attack Ron was

expecting, and finally came running up at that point.

          Seeing him hunched over like he was gave her a sickening surge of panic as she thought

him to be mortally wounded. She whipped off her belt of medical supplies and went to his side,

ignoring the bodies strewn around because she knew if Ron was still alive, then they were not.

          She took a quick reading of his pulse and saw the problem he was having with his

inhalation.

          “Your heart rate is up to two hundred and fifty beats per bort!” she told him, tearing into

her supplies in a frenzy. “That is what is causing your excessive need for oxygen! This is all my

fault!”

          Cache worked furiously, ripping open the appropriate containers. She slipped a small

strip of paper out of a packet and laid it across one of his fresh wounds. As his blood absorbed

into the material it turned black…and her eyes flew open wide.




                                                                                                    443
       “I am afraid this is because of the stimulants I have incorporated into the food you have

been ingesting,” she explained as she prepped a small cylindrical object. “I am going to give you

a pneumatic injection which will counteract the adrenaline enhancement chemicals in your

blood. It may feel like a sharp stab, but please do not move. Do you understand?”

       She wanted to make it clear to Ron what she was about to do, because if he were to jump

suddenly with that amount of stimulant pumping through his system, he could easily kill her.

       Ron nodded, and she administered the drug to his neck on the right side of his circulatory

system, the return side. The huge vein there would get the medicine to his heart as quickly as

possible, to relieve the tremendous strain on that organ.

       Cache waited fifteen agonizing litas and then rechecked his pulse. It was down by more

than a hundred beats and falling rapidly. Ron was having less difficulty breathing by then, so he

lay back on the ground and concentrated on controlling his body, calming and relaxing it. He

soon began shaking violently as the rush dissipated, and he fought to repress that involuntary

action as well.

       Not too long afterward, his heart rate was back to the normal fifty beats per bort and he

was lying calmly, as if asleep. But several more minutes slipped away before he felt strong

enough to move again, at which time he sat up slowly and looked around, his head still a little

woozy. He regarded Cache‟s worried face and smiled at her.

       “Thank you,” he said. “I thought my chest was going to explode there for a few

minutes.”

       “Please do not thank me, Ron,” she replied in a strained voice, her eyes welling with

tears. “It was my fault that this happened to you. The stimulant which was inside you was

supposed to help your own adrenal system with a boost if it needed it. Unfortunately, you are




                                                                                                  444
apparently capable of manufacturing as much as you can take naturally, without any outside

help. The extra surge your body demanded during the fight must have accidentally released all

the artificial adrenaline into your system, on top of your own, which caused the reaction you

experienced.”

       “How is it possible that I can produce so much if others cannot?”

       “Another bonus because of your merging with Kaskle, no doubt,” she said, wondering

just how much they still didn‟t know about him. “How do you feel?”

       “Like I‟ve walked a hundred miles with a thousand pounds on my back,” he told her.

       “I am not surprised. Your heart did a dactrai‟s work in the last five borts. We will have

to find a place to get some real rest, or neither of us will be able to go much farther. And we

better get ourselves away from here before these soldiers‟ friends begin searching for them.”

       “What about the others of his group?” Ron asked.

       “I do not know,” Cache admitted, glancing about nervously. “Perhaps they do not have

enough men anymore to keep their usual teams together. We have been doing considerable

damage to them, you know.”

       They inspected the area for a short while longer before deciding that they were indeed

alone. Cache helped Ron retrieve each of his weapons, and then they dragged the bodies into a

concealed spot and carefully removed the evidence of the battle.

       With that task completed, they set out again toward their intended goal. They angled off

to the west this time, again hoping to hamper the chance of someone plotting their true course

and intercepting them, should this most recent evidence of their location be found.

       “We‟re going to have to take it slow and careful, Cache,” Ron said as they walked along.

“I don‟t think I can fight any more of those ugly apes until I get my strength back. My reflexes




                                                                                                  445
were so slow during the last bout, before the adrenal surge, that I‟m lucky to be alive right now.

If you hadn‟t picked off the scout who was in the tree, he‟d have gotten me for sure.”

        “And there was another one that come in from the east, while you were dispatching the

scout who was after me,” Cache told Ron.

        “What?” Ron said, holding his head to steady the pounding inside it. “I never even

noticed. What happened to him?”

        Cache lifted her dart rifle proudly once more.

        “He did not escape,” she announced.

        “I sure am glad you‟re on my side, lady,” Ron told her, as he sighed in relief.

        The two of them covered the next few miles cautiously advancing and hunting for a safe

refuge in which to spend a few hours. The light that could filter its way through the thickly

leafed branches was getting weaker all the time, helping their stealth, yet hindering their search.

Almost blindly, they came across a place where a large tree had recently been uprooted by the

strong winds of the impending storm. To their great relief, it had fallen into a stand of smaller

ones creating a huge mound of interlacing branches which was much too dense to see into. And

as they surveyed their find, the rain at last began to fall.

        “This looks perfect,” Ron told Cache. “If we can find a way into that pile, no one will be

able to detect us.”

        After several minutes of reconnaissance, Ron decided that they were out of sight of any

enemy eyes, and so he sent Cache into the heap to see if they could in fact make use of it.

        “This will suffice, I think,” she whispered out to Ron a few seconds later.

        He manned his post though, until he could no longer see her blonde hair, and then he

warily followed her in, making sure to leave no traces as he did.




                                                                                                    446
       The light rain falling in the forest couldn‟t make its way into the mound, so heavily

layered was the leafy mass, so, at least for a while, they had a dry place to rest.

       Fifty feet inside, Ron found Cache in a small pocket which was just large enough to

accommodate both of them. Inside the mound it was cool; smelling heavily of the freshness of

the forest, and Ron barely had enough time to turn onto his back before Cache rolled up against

him and went instantly to sleep.

       He was reminded of how his wife would always snuggle up against him in a similar

manner, but now that seemed so long ago. As he recalled his old life at that moment, he wasn‟t

even sure if it was an actual memory of his, or Kaskle‟s. The only thing that seemed real to him

was Cache‟s warm, petite figure, and the safety of the concealing vegetation.

       Ron thought of how fortunate they‟d been to find this hiding place, and for it to start

raining. He was confident that if it continued, the storm would wash away any evidence of their

ever having passed this way, and, for the first time in days, he felt safe.

       Destiny, fate, or luck…Ron couldn‟t decide which he truly believed in…but something

was definitely on their side, of that he was convinced. A moment later, taking in one deep

breath, Ron joined Cache in her slumber…while outside, a precarious scene took place that

couldn‟t break through their sleep.

       A Kreete scout walked up to where they entered the verdant pile, scant borts before, and

stood there looking at the large tangle of vegetation. He was considering whether he should

chance crawling into the thick mass and taking a nap, or continuing the seemingly endless duty

he was assigned to. With a quick look around at the dark, wet, miserable land, he crouched

down and stepped closer.

       “What are you doing?” asked a voice from behind him.




                                                                                                 447
        “Nothing sir!” replied the scout, leaping to attention. “I mean, I was just searching the

area for signs of the fugitives, sir!”

        “You have been on duty for two dactrais without a break, Detrail,” the Septenant said.

“Perhaps you were going to lie down for a brief rest, eh?”

        “No sir!” Detrail Argine replied, fully aware of the penalty such a charge would carry.

“The Kreete do not tire as do lesser creatures. I am alert and ready to destroy our enemies, sir.”

        “That is good,” the officer told his man. “Now, go and continue your search elsewhere.”

        The Squad Leader had been on duty for even longer than his scouts, and the temptation of

some sleep was extremely hard to pass up. However, after what happened to one of the other

squads when they tried to rest, his new orders strictly prohibited such luxury.

        “Oh, how nice it would be to relax for just a while,” the leader said to himself. “But Kale

would have my brains for breakfast if he found out.”

        The Septenant turned and stepped away from the mound, heading back to rejoin the five

men he‟d left to set a trap for their quarry, trying not to think about it anymore. As the rain ran

down his back, he wondered if they were having better luck.

        The prey he sought never even suspected there were two of the enemy less than sixty feet

away…and just how close they had come to being found and destroyed.




                                                                                                    448
                                        Chapter Thirty-three

                                       A Rock and a Hard Spot



       The rain continued to fall lightly throughout the valley for the next six hours, allowing

Ron and Cache to regenerate much of the energy reserves they‟d expended over the tortuous

miles of their quest.

       Then, as if nature had suddenly grown tired of the serenity, the clouds, too saturated to

hold back any longer, burst forth with a deluge that fell so heavily it seemed to be out to crush

even the mightiest of trees growing in the land.

       At the same instant, an enormous bolt of lightning reached down to the valley at the

northernmost end, and completely disintegrated a huge old tree which had stood sentry over the

vale for generations. And following that blast came a clap of thunder reverberating through the

forest like an earthquake.

       Ron felt the vibration through the ground several seconds before the sound could make it

to him, and his first thought was that they had failed, and the Kreete were attacking the complex.

But as the rolling thunder swept through the woods, he allowed himself to relax again,



                                                                                                    449
recognizing it for what it was. The sound startled Cache out of a deep sleep though, and caused

her to clutch tightly at Ron for safety. He held her until she too realized they were not in any

immediate danger, and then he slowly eased his grip and checked his watch.

        He was once more rested and alert, scanning the surroundings for any signs of movement

while calculating how much time they‟d spent asleep. He then sorted out the prospect of how

close any trackers might be…if they had been able to follow their trail.

        Ron added a mental note of how hard it was raining and factored in the noise Cache was

making as she moved about in the brush. They were safe, but should get going as quickly as

possible…and he was about to urge his little partner toward that action when he realized she was

already gathering herself for the continuing journey.

        Ron allowed himself a few seconds to reflect on Cache before turning his attention back

to the task of surviving.

        Here was a woman whom he knew to be as lovely as any of the high-paid fashion models

of Earth. She was extremely intelligent, feminine and refined, yet at that moment she knelt in a

dirty, wet, cold, and dangerous place without a word of complaint, and in fact, of her own free

choice. She‟d been beaten, run into the ground, and constantly threatened with impending death

of a possibly horrible sort, all without once having doubts about her mission. She was the ideal

culmination of a compassionate, brilliant mind in a strong, beautiful body…with the fearless

heart of a lioness.

        “Yes, you sure are one hell of a woman, Cache!” Ron thought, listening to the almost

imperceptible sounds she made as she moved into position to leave.

        “I‟ll go first to have a look around,” he whispered into her ear. “You follow closely

behind me, and be prepared to move quickly, okay?”




                                                                                                   450
          Without waiting for her reply, Ron began the journey back through the tangle of

branches, trying to avoid making noise, which he found easy enough to do since all the branches

and leaves were now soaked from the rain. Besides that, the constant, driving downpour was

enough to drown out the sounds of their passage anyway.

          At the edge of the mound, Ron stopped to have a look around. Cache wriggled her way

through the foliage to come up alongside him and they both inspected the surrounding forest.

After a few minutes, he felt they were safe from on-looking eyes, so he crawled out and set off

once more toward the river…the last, and most dangerous obstacle.

          The rain was like a blessing for them. It hid them from their enemies‟ eyes while

obscuring their tracks and washing away the layers of dirt, dried blood, and sweat that had

collected on them.

          The two heroes were in much better spirits now than they had been in many hours, and

after finding a loping pace they felt comfortable in, they each began inspecting themselves for

their overall physical condition.

          They stretched sore muscles, probed injured places, and were happy with the results of

the examinations. Cache‟s face was no longer swollen, as both of her pretty violet eyes were

wide open again, and the bruise was not so painful looking anymore. Ron had plenty of sore

spots, but nothing that would slow him down in battle, and the bullet wound was not even a

bother.

          With the knowledge that their bodies were mending and not too seriously damaged also

came the fact that they had not partaken of a meal in a dreadfully long time. This reminder

sprang to their attention from Cache this time, as her belly moaned clearly. She whipped out one




                                                                                                   451
of her ration tubes like a magician, and began consuming it quickly…but Ron hesitated, recalling

the adrenal overdose he‟d experienced.

         “Cache, is it all right for me to eat this stuff?” he questioned, in a low tone.

         “Yes,” she replied confidently. “The injection I gave you will counteract the problematic

chemicals mixed into the nutritional tubes. Your system will simply not digest that part of the

meal.”

         Ron didn‟t even wait until she finished her explanation before he joined her in gulping

down the contents of his container. Cache even copied him in the downing of a third one before

she was full. Then they tilted their heads back and let the rain fall into their mouths. Ron

thought it was the best tasting water he‟d ever drank, and in fact it probably was, since the planet

had no pollutants in the atmosphere whatsoever.

         After their quick dining experience, they settled down to their usual vigilance again and

continued at a fast jog for the next hour.

         Twice during that time, both Ron and Cache stumbled over some unseen root or small

bush as they made what progress they could. The limited light, with the rain‟s natural diffusion

affect, made it exceptionally difficult to see more than ten feet ahead of them.

         The intense precipitation which Ron hoped would help conceal them was so heavy at

times that once, he came within inches of cleaving a tree in two with his sword before realizing it

wasn‟t a Kreete scout. Furthermore, if it hadn‟t been for his keen directional sense, they

would‟ve been slowed significantly, having to stop and check in with Cache‟s positioning

instrument every few borts because each route looked the same. In fact, she doubted him several

times and did just that…double-checking him with her electronic aid, but soon gave up on that

when she found him to be so uncannily accurate. As it was, Ron glided up and down the hilly




                                                                                                   452
terrain, rounding natural obstacles, and forded streams, all the while without ever losing track of

their true bearing.

       Finally, the rain had released all that it could, and with startling abruptness, it stopped.

       Ron and Cache pulled up instantly…as if they were one person…and froze in their

tracks, trying to peer through the still gloomy forest at a scene they couldn‟t believe. They

ducked down immediately and hurried into the cover of a nearby stack of huge boulders,

squeezing into a crack between the rocks.

       Less than eighty feet in front of them, a Septenant of the Hunter Class signaled his men,

some to his left and some to his right, to advance. Ron and Cache both thanked their

extraordinary luck for having that particular (Hunter class) Septenant in front of them when the

rain had so unexpectedly ceased. If it had not been for his bright orange uniform standing out

from the surrounding woods, they would have run right into his hands.

       Ron carefully peered out from his vantage point and watched the soldiers. They were

about twenty feet apart and advancing steadily. He counted ten men that he could see, and

guessed there were a lot more he could not.

       As they approached, they were checking every bush and stand of trees that they passed,

probing where they couldn‟t see with agony wands.

       “Remember men, they have to be hiding out here, or else they would have made it to the

river by now,” the leader of the group was saying. “So make certain you check every possible

point of concealment, and be sure to remain in visual contact with another Scout at all times.”

       Ron and Cache were fortunate that he was facing away from them when the rain stopped

and his men were looking his way. The dim light, combined with their camouflage uniforms,

had hidden them effectively, but now they had no chance of avoiding the searchers.




                                                                                                      453
         Ron‟s mind spun at a furious rate, trying to think of a way to get out of the harrowing

predicament. He looked around and a plan materialized when he gazed at Cache. He almost

overlooked her, and if it hadn‟t been for her blonde hair he would have, so dark was their hiding

place.

         Without a sound, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pressed her down to the ground

and used his larger frame to cover hers, effectively blocking out any reflection of her lighter skin

and hair. Then, just before the searcher reached their hideout, he placed one of the empty food

tubes between his teeth and let out all of his breath.

         Wedging his body against both sides of the small opening that separated the two huge

boulders, Ron braced himself, and waited.

         The Septenant approached their location and bent back the branches of the scraggly tree

which grew at the mouth of the opening, straining to see into the darkness of the niche. He saw

what looked like the back of the depression, but couldn‟t truly make it out since his silver eyes

weren‟t able to see as keenly as some humanoids from dimly lit worlds.

         He started to walk off, but then remembered the instructions he‟d given his men, and

jabbed his wand into the crevice. The wand grated against the stone sides and then contacted an

object. It obviously didn‟t have the sound, or feel of rock, but was very hard. He rapped it

several times with the end of his weapon and then gave it up as being a tree root growing up in

the gap. Satisfied of his conclusion, he quickly moved on, following his troops.

         Inside the dark crevice Ron allowed himself to inhale again, painful as the act turned out

to be, since the Kreete‟s wand had not struck a tree root, as the leader assumed, but rather Ron‟s

rib cage. If he hadn‟t expelled all the air in his lungs, he wouldn‟t have been able to keep silent




                                                                                                   454
when the energy of the weapon forced a violent contraction of every muscle in his midsection.

That contraction would have surely emitted some sound as the rush of air escaped.

       Now, Ron was left to battle the burning result of the wand, which, luckily, hadn‟t been

set at maximum strength, but still was no pleasant task. He kept the tube between his teeth while

he waited for the next fifteen minutes, motionless between the rocks, sucking in air through only

half of his respiratory system.

       Finally, it seemed safe for them to relax, with the searchers out of earshot, so he let Cache

up and spit out the tube, dropping to the ground outside the crevice.

       Cache ignored the muscle spasms she was having from being cramped for so long, and

went to assist Ron‟s more serious condition. A heavy layer of perspiration had developed over

his entire body as she quickly found out, and she knew he was near the limits of what even he

could endure. He was having great difficulty staying lucid, especially while feeding oxygen to

his body through only one functioning lung…the wand‟s effects having completely numbed his

right side. She tore open his shirt and rolled him over to apply the cooling salve to his affected

area, gritting her teeth in sympathy for him when she saw his whole side was flaming red. Then

she hastily worked the medicine into his skin.

       “You are lucky that this material absorbed some of the energy from the wand,” Cache

whispered to Ron, indicating his garment. “If not, your heart may have stopped.”

       Ron felt relief soon after her application of the cream and he allowed himself to slip into

a semi-conscious state for the next ten minutes, while his nervous system fought to recover from

the trauma.

       Then, as if flipping a switch, Ron‟s faculties all lit up again and he suddenly sat upright,

took a deep gulp of air, and looked directly at Cache. She‟d been hunkered down beside him,




                                                                                                 455
nervously guarding their position with her disrupter pistol and dart rifle both drawn, so when he

moved so quickly, she jerked in surprise.

       He released a long, slow sigh, and a moment later leaped to his feet. He swiftly scooped

up his little guardian, gave her a powerful squeeze, and set her on her feet again before him,

immediately placing his hands on either side of her face.

       Ron regarded her for a long moment and then he bent down to her bewildered visage and

kissed her on the lips warmly.

       “Thank you again,” he said to her, smiling broadly. “I feel much better.”

       “You are welcome,” Cache responded, smiling back at him while reeling from the sudden

transformation, her weapons still gripped in each hand.

       Without another word, Ron started off in the direction they were headed before they got

detoured. The one side of his body was not quite back to normal, but he wasn‟t about to let a

little thing like that slow him down.

       Ron and Cache kept up their guarded advance for the rest of the day, not knowing that

another sunset, and sunrise, had come and gone. They had only one objective, and the suns‟

passing did not play favorably into the equation.

       They also didn‟t know there was a shadow closing in on them; one who hadn‟t stopped to

sleep as they had. His was a tireless figure that didn‟t lose the trail due to their long run up the

stream, or the exploding scout ships. This keen observer of his prey‟s tactics was a hunter who

found and investigated a battle between two unknown adversaries and five Kreete warriors. He

was an unshakable fellow who pressed on, however slowly, through heavy rains to a fallen

tree…and who now carried with him the empty food package that Ron spit out of his mouth back

at the stack of boulders.




                                                                                                   456
He knew that he was getting close now, and he pushed himself even harder.




                                                                            457
                                        Chapter Thirty-four

                                         Enemy Encampment



       Ron and Cache climbed to the peak of a sharp rise in the terrain as Rauld‟s twin suns

swapped duties again. Now the heroic warriors were pressed down on their bellies, peering over

that rocky ridge at an interesting sight…the Kreete main camp. It was located on a wide-open

expanse of sheer bedrock which had, at some point, been washed clear of soil, apparently by a

past flood, or series of floods. Only a few tenacious plants and trees had been able to withstand

the water‟s wrath, clinging fiercely to the scarce cracks in the granite surface for anchorage and

survival.

       The river the duo needed to cross lay just beyond the camp, flowing heavily from the

recent rains. The broad, rocky exposure was large enough to allow ten scout ships to land,

though there were only two present at the time.

       Quite a distance separated the two crafts, and there was a group of Kreete sitting around a

fire in front of, and between them. One of the ships was undergoing maintenance, with a pair of

technicians working on the left engine. The other was being refueled, and lay fairly close to Ron



                                                                                                458
and Cache‟s location. Also, it was positioned in such a way that they might be able to reach it

undetected by the men at the fire. First though, they would have to take care of the camp‟s

sentries.

        “Okay, here‟s the plan,” Ron whispered, backing down the ridge a bit. “We have to work

our way over to those trees, closest to that ship. Then we eliminate the three guards and make a

run for it. We‟ll commandeer that vessel to cross the river.

        “I‟ll use the emergency disrupter gun you‟ve been carrying all this time and try to disable

the other shuttle and scatter the Kreete. What do you think?”

        “It sounds like a good plan except for one little problem…I cannot initiate the start

sequence without the proper authorization codes,” she responded.

        That didn‟t faze Ron though. He‟d come this far and nothing so trivial was going to

interfere with his plan.

        “No problem,” he told Cache. “We‟ll just wait until one of those goons starts it up for

us.”

        Cache just stared blankly at him without comment, amazed at his confidence, and then

they both set off to worm their way into position.

        Worm was, in essence, exactly what they were forced to do too, as they slithered on their

bellies most of the way between rocks. Toward the end, they pounced from one patch of cover

to the next until they were nestled in the foliage they sought.

        Once that part of the plan was complete, they settled in to wait for the opportunity they

needed.




                                                                                                  459
       Time began to drag at a snail's pace at that point, and after a while, their patience began

to falter. Ron silently cursed their luck which appeared to have gone bad on them, but all they

could do was hope for its return.



       Cache had initially planned for them to make the river crossing by way of a secret natural

cave she knew of…one which led under and behind one of the river‟s many waterfalls. It was

formed at a ten-foot drop in elevation that had eroded a perfect tunnel from the overhang of a

six-foot thick sheet of granite-like rock.

       The entrance was well protected from discovery, and she was certain it would have

proven to be an excellent means of their traversing the waterway undetected. But when they

finally reached the tunnel‟s opening, they found that the rain, which had saved them earlier, was

now working against them. It swelled the river until the waterfall became a raging torrent,

engulfing the usually high banks, and flooding the area where the cave would have been

normally.

       The river was a quarter of a mile wide at that point, so holding their breath was obviously

not an option. And the thought of swimming the river‟s expanse was no good either, since the

dense molecular structure of both of them would prohibit that possibility as well.

       The only other way across, by wading, had two faults; one of which was obvious. There

were Kreete patrols along both banks, as well as ships cruising back and forth over the shallow

sections hoping for just that development. The other was the rushing water itself, which was

now much too high and fast to try to negotiate.

       Dispirited, they traveled downstream from there in search of another crossing point,

hoping something would present itself, when they saw one of the scout ships slow down and land




                                                                                                 460
less than half a hoz from them. That‟s when Ron first got his idea of stealing one of their ships

to make the crossing.



       Cache urged Ron back to the present with a tap on the shoulder.

       “Look!” she said softly, pointing. “That soldier walking toward the shuttle is the pilot.”

       “It‟s about time,” Ron replied mentally while he gathered his legs under him, preparing

for the dash.

       Ron and Cache had begun to worry that the search parties would be returning soon, and

were getting extremely nervous, so when the pilot climbed aboard the ship, they felt like

cheering.

       They each negotiated themselves into their strike positions quickly, Ron being within

knife range of his target, and Cache in a spot where she could get a clear shot at the other two.

Their hearts pounded heavily as they waited for the sound of the engines lighting off to make

their moves.

       The camp‟s sentries were placed close enough together to enable them to visually and

orally warn one another, and the camp, of any intruder. This arrangement meant a nearly

simultaneous attack against all three was required to insure Ron and Cache of the necessary

surprise.

       Cache drew a bead on one of the Kreete, aligning the crosshairs on her target, and waited

until the second stage of the start cycle engaged. Then she went into action.

       As her first shot sped away toward its victim, she slipped another dart into her rifle and,

taking aim once more, sent it on its deadly assignment. Then, not hesitating to see if they




                                                                                                    461
reached the respective targets, for she knew they hadn‟t missed, she dashed out of her cover and

headed for the ship.

       The first guard to fall caught the attention of the other two, but it took a moment to

comprehend…to realize they were under attack…and Ron was already up and rushing toward

the camp.

       Ron acted exactly as Cache had, leaping into motion when the engines burst into life. He

hurled one of the slim blue knives with all the precision he was capable of, and was not

disappointed in the results. The Kreete stiffened, and then fell forward, as if he were suddenly

overwhelmed by an incredible urge to sleep, the blade penetrating the base of his skull,

destroying his motor functions. Ron rushed passed him, plucking the knife out of the corpse as it

fell and continuing with the pulse blaster at the ready.

       The guard‟s collapse, and the vision of a blurred madman blazing across the rock, gave

the last sentry another half-lita to get the attention of the camp.

       He raised his hand to his mouth to shout, but a dart sped its way into that opening as he

drew in the breath. He went down, clawing at his neck in a fruitless struggle as the poison

worked rapidly.

       Entering the encampment at a dead run, along the edge of the rocky shelf on which it sat,

Ron beat Cache to the ship by several steps. The craft‟s normally impassable energy field was

off-line because of the Raulden Energy Matrix, so he need not fear that obstacle, allowing him to

get to…and trigger…the “door open” mechanism before the pilot could lock it. He forcibly held

it open until Cache flashed past him, and as she brushed by, he stepped out into the open and

fired the pulse weapon at the group of assembled troops still gathered around the fire.




                                                                                                462
        Ron didn‟t know what to expect from the small pistol, but in that instant, the power of the

futuristic firearm became well-known. The pulse of superintense energy exploded between the

Kreete soldiers, tearing two of them in half and obliterating a large chunk of the rock they‟d been

sitting on.

        The other Kreete scouts were thrown off their feet from the concussion, effectively

slowing their retaliation and giving Cache time to gain control of their intended transport.

        Ron took the momentary opportunity to deliver a few rounds into the other craft, and

smiled. His well-placed shots struck home at the scout-ship‟s fuel reserves, starting a blaze

inside the craft and ripping a huge hole in the nacelle. The technicians dove to the ground at the

first assault, and found cover behind the shuttle, but when it caught fire, they bolted from it as if

it were a ticking bomb…which it potentially was.

        Ron glanced back into the cockpit of the shuttle he was using for cover, which was also

the one he and Cache intended to make their escape in, and saw the pilot frantically trying to get

it airborne.

        “Damn! She‟s having trouble getting into the flight deck!” he growled, wishing he‟d

cleared it for her first.

        Then Ron had no more time to watch. The pilot‟s remaining allies had regained some of

their composure and were on the attack.

        Two bullets from a Kreete S.P.G. whizzed by Ron‟s head and forced him to return his

attention to the battle. He dropped to the hard surface of the ground, rolled and returned fire with

his own weapon, leaving one less scout to worry about.

        At that moment, the pilot took off in Ron‟s commandeered vessel, or at least the one he

planned to commandeer, leaving him unprotected. The remaining Kreete soldiers swiftly went




                                                                                                   463
around their burning shuttlecraft in an effort to surround him. They would have had him too, but

the fuel tanks decided they could no longer stand the heat, and erupted with a dreadful

effect…for the enemy. The entire nearby Kreete force was annihilated.

       Ron was saved from the blast because of his position on the ground, so he quickly

scanned the stark area for more of the enemy troops. Finding none, he leaped to his feet and

stared after the hovering vessel above.

       It had stopped climbing about fifteen feet from the ground and was just hanging there.

Ron could do nothing to get it to come down, and the hatch was closed, so he was trapped where

he stood…relegated to just wait there, completely out in the open. Seconds ticked by with him

nervously glancing about for more of the enemy, and then back up at the ship. It felt like hours!

       He didn‟t notice the figure peering over the rocky ridge at him in the exact spot he and

Cache had used to survey the command site. The figure slipped off in the other direction though,

toward the farside of the encampment.




                                                                                                  464
                                               Chapter

                                                  Wrath



       “Back to the base, Manles!” Kale ordered.

       Kale Vitrauge was out making his rounds, checking up on his dwindling strike force to be

certain he‟d lost no more men, and that every effort was being made to find the Caronian and his

accomplice. Between outposts, he also ordered his pilot to fly over the river, just in case the

collaborators might have already gotten through his advance guard.

       Now, as they headed back to the main post, he was in a much better mood because he

knew time was running out for the two whom he sought. The last message he received, via

ultratight-beam signal, stated the power grid would fail in less than three billots…and that came

over a two billots ago.

       “Soon, a Cruiser will slip through the shield, maneuver to within range of the grid

complex, and blast it into oblivion,” Kale mused. “Then the war will be over and the planet will

be ours…and I will get the rank I deserve!”

       It was an optimistic picture which pleased him so much he sat back and let it run through

his mind over and over.



       “Come on! Come on!” Ron mentally urged at the hovering ship, beginning to wonder

whether Cache had been successful in capturing it.

       Then, as if in answer to his unspoken question, the vessel‟s hatch opened and it started

back toward the ground. Ron let out a sigh of relief and took a step toward where the doorway

would be when Cache landed.


                                                                                                  465
         At that instant, as if by magic, the pulse blaster Ron held disintegrated, leaving him with

only the handgrip clutched in his fist. He stared at his hand in disbelief, until his attention was

diverted due to Cache firing a plasma burst into the surrounding trees. The high-energy round

set a huge section of the forest aflame, two hundred feet away, and she frantically started

motioning at Ron to get aboard.

         He glanced at the fire, saw several Kreete searchers running into the base camp, and then

shot a look at Cache, acknowledging her message. He took three quick steps and jumped for the

hatch.

         Still ten feet off the ground; Ron gained it easily, and hauled himself in, sealing the door

and dashing forward. Cache was firing at the ground troops again while she waited for him to

join her, and when Ron plopped down into the copilot‟s seat, she blasted out of the clearing as

fast as the ship would go.

         They were racing for the treetops in a heartbeat, the two triumphant Raulden heroes

enjoying the surge of acceleration greatly as they were pressed back in their seats hard…but that

was not fast enough.

         The solitary figure who had so doggedly trailed them for the past two days was able to

reach one of the Kreete‟s heavy cannons. It was rated at a “level-140”, and was mounted at the

farside of the main camp. The high intensity plasma for the cannon was supplied by a powerful

energy cell, and was as equally deadly as the one in the scout ship fleeing the scene.

         Shrolle was able to fire off several shots at the retreating craft, and managed to connect

with three before they were too far away for it to be effective.

         The blasts hit one of the shuttle‟s engines before Cache could get clear of the cannon‟s

limited range, rocking the vessel violently as it was clearing the treetops.




                                                                                                    466
       “We just lost the number two engine,” Cache reported as she fought to regain control,

“but we are stable now.”

       The scout-craft leveled off quickly into a smooth and quiet ride once the cannon fire was

no longer able to reach it, and things looked promising.

       “Hah! Excellent!” Ron shouted merrily. “You see? I told you my plan would work!

They didn‟t stand a chance.”

       “That may be true,” Cache replied, celebrating with Ron for the briefest of moments,

until her eyes focused on an object in the distance, to his right. “But I can tell you for a fact that

„they‟ do!”

       She pointed to the north with fear in her eyes, and as Ron followed her gesture, his heart

sank. The fifth Kreete scout ship was heading right for them…and coming very fast.



       The pilot of Kale‟s vessel was the first to spot the problem which appeared to be located

at their base camp.

       “Sir!” he said sharply, bringing Kale out of his state of euphoria. “There is a large plume

of smoke coming from the main camp.”

       “What?” Kale questioned, staring at their intended landing place, which was still more

than two hoz away. “I left strict orders to keep a low exposure. Someone is going to pay

dearly…”

       Before he could finish his statement one of the shuttles assigned to the camp rose above

the trees and started out across the river, trailing black smoke. At first glance, Kale was

surprised at the course of the ship, and tried to figure out why one of his vessels was flying in

that direction. Then the truth hit him as hard as the cannon blasts were hitting the speeding ship.




                                                                                                    467
       “After them, Manles!” Kale ordered. “After them! They must not reach the other bank!”

       “But sir,” the pilot protested, “that is our own ship.”

       “I know that you fool! But it is who is “inside” that ship that I want.”

       “Sir, how can you possibly wish to destroy your own men?” the pilot asked, never

guessing anyone could have possibly defeated their Kreete force and taken the vessel.

       “Release the controls at once!” Kale ordered, ignoring his broken arm and jamming

forward on the throttles, wishing no further questions from the man.

       “I will do this myself.”

       Kale then took control of the ship and steered it into an intercept course with the

wounded bird.

       “It is them, you idiot!” Kale announced in triumph. “The Caronian and the other are in

that ship! Do you not see? They stole the craft from those incompetent fools I left in charge at

the base. But now I have them! Since the shields will not operate with the grid functioning, all I

have to do is blow them out of the air!”

       Kale was actually drooling as he streaked toward his prey.



       “We cannot reach the other side before they catch us, Ron,” Cache said in despair. “Do

you have any ideas?”

       “Not at the moment,” Ron confessed as he watched the oncoming ship grow larger in the

window.

       They were sitting ducks. They couldn‟t maneuver well with only one engine, they had no

shields, and the far bank of the river looked to be ten miles away as the first volley of cannon fire

hit them.




                                                                                                  468
       The little ship shook violently as the hull was ripped open toward the aft end of the

fuselage, forcing it to pitch hard to the right because of the air drag.

       “Shoot back, for Pete‟s sake!” Ron urged.

       “We cannot,” Cache told him. “The rear cannon was knocked out from the camp‟s blasts

and the front one does not sweep that far around.”

       “Great!” Ron shouted.

       He grabbed the controls and overpowered Cache‟s inputs, sending the ship upward

sharply. They climbed abruptly, bleeding off most of their forward airspeed in the maneuver,

and plunged into the low hanging clouds that remained from the rainstorm, desperately hoping to

hide from the attacking shuttle.

       Kale saw the move too late to follow them directly in, as his higher velocity carried his

vessel past the point where the other had gone. But he drew on the experience he‟d gained from

many cycles of combat, and looped his craft up and back to where he guessed the quarry was at,

and fired again.

       “We were nearly across the river when I pulled up,” Ron said, doing some quick

calculations. “So, if we continue a few more seconds, we‟ll be able to duck back down and land

before they can zero in on us. How far is it to the entrance to Jametid?”

       “Half a hoz from the bank in a northeast direction,” Cache replied, checking her position

locator.

       “All right then, Cache,” Ron said, as he counted down the time in his head, “we should

be close enough to drop down and make a run for it in just a few…”




                                                                                               469
           Ron‟s sentence was cut short by a tremendous explosion that tore a large chunk of the

craft away from the main body of the ship, directly adjacent to Ron‟s seat…carrying him out

with it!

           Cache recoiled harshly from the blast, turning and ducking from the flying debris, and

when she looked back, all she saw was clouds. That side of the flight deck was gone…and so

was Ron.

           The craft immediately began descending rapidly and would have spun into a hopeless

crash had Cache not been so alert. Even with half of her console missing, she was able to apply

enough thrust to compensate for the drag of the giant hole in the cockpit. Her jaw clamped down

hard as she steered the ship with the cool head and the steely nerves of an experienced captain.

She saw an opening in the treetops, which was all that was available in the area, and nosed the

pitiful craft down into it with optimism in her thoughts. But another hit from Kale‟s cannon

sliced off her remaining engine, just as she disappeared into the foliage.

           Kale broke into a fit of laughter as he and his pilot watched the pieces fly off their

helpless victim‟s aircraft…and then it vanished into the forest.

           “I have won!” Kale roared. “I told you, Caronian! I told you that I would repay you for

the humiliation you caused me!”

           He continued to laugh as he circled the area until a stream of smoke made its way

through the trees and showed them exactly where the wreckage was. At that point, Kale ordered

the pilot to hover over the scene and lower him to the ground on a personnel cable.

           Kale had a difficult time getting through the branches, so thick were they, and when he

finally reached the ship‟s mangled remains, he saw the landing had not been as hard as he

expected. The shuttle was resting on a pile of squashed trees, not even having reached the




                                                                                                    470
ground. That made him panic for a few litas while he unhooked himself from the cable. He then

rushed up to search the wreck with his weapons drawn.

         “It cannot be!” he growled in amazement, when he found the cockpit empty.

         Quickly, he searched the area nearby the wreckage, until he came across a set of

footprints leading off in a northern direction.

         “Either she is carrying his body, or he was blown up with that last hit,” Kale concluded as

he examined the size of the prints and the damage to the cockpit.

         He made his way over to the cable and started back up to his own vessel, frantically

hoping he‟d killed, or at the very least, badly injured the correct one of his prey.



         Cache had been saved by the seat restraints, and the fact the Raulden forests were so

thick. The branches shredded the ship, but, while doing so, slowed it down rather smoothly,

until it stopped on a dense mat of brush. Bruised up, but relatively unhurt, she exited through the

large hole next to her, and headed for the entrance to the hangar complex.

         The going was particularly rugged in this area of the valley, as the forest floor was

cluttered with loose rocks and boulders at every step. She stumbled often, and slammed into

many of the trees which somehow managed to grow there, but did not stop.

         At first, she ran recklessly, thinking only of escape. Then, after a few borts, when she

found herself within sight of her goal, she couldn‟t help but think of how close she and Ron had

come to making it together. Tears streamed down her face as she rushed upward, slipping down

at times, and continuing along on her hands and knees, her heart aching as if from a mortal

wound.




                                                                                                    471
          Suddenly a noise reached her ears. Someone was in pursuit of her, and gaining rapidly!

She remembered seeing the guards posted on this side of the river, when she and Ron were still

searching for a place to cross, and she grew even more apprehensive. She chanced a fleeting

look back and, seeing only the empty forest, put on an extra burst of speed for the safety of the

entrance, triggering the “kill-switch” for the defense shield that hid the access doorway.

          Cache finally reached the small, inconspicuous niche which was much too open for her

liking…it being in a rocky area with no cover whatsoever to hide behind. Frantically, she

flipped open the panel to get at the door mechanism, and started punching up the “open”

sequence.

          “Stop!” shouted a voice from the edge of the forest, more than fifty yards away.

          Cache missed a step in the sequence as she jerked from that order and had to start over.

She then worked even faster. The sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears drowned out

nearly all else.

          Not looking back, she toiled with all haste, hoping she would have the time to open the

door before they shot her. This was her last chance…the last chance for Rauld. Her fingers flew

over the keys at an ever-increasing rate until she had it.

          “There!” she exclaimed, as she stepped forward into the open doorway.

          “Cache, wait!”

          She instantly froze, finally recognizing the voice that hailed her, and turned around.

          “Ron!” she cried, tears flowing once again, this time from unbridled happiness. “You are

alive!”

          “So it would appear,” Ron said, sprinting up the last few steps until he stood before her,

his chest heaving from the exertion.




                                                                                                   472
       The upper section of his camouflaged garment had been ripped away to the waist, and he

was covered in a thick coating of silt from the river, and dripping wet. His boots were both gone

and he looked as if he‟d dredged half the watercourse with himself…but he was there

nonetheless.

       Cache leaped into his arms, forgetting about the urgency of her plight, and kissed him

squarely on the lips, making it last a little longer than it might should have. Ron was surprised,

but not bothered at all by her show of affection, and he held her tightly to him, returning her kiss.




                                                                                                  473
                                          Chapter Thirty-five

                                                  Jametid



       Ron and Cache embraced for a long moment, thrilled to be together again. Then, a few

seconds later, remembering that they were still vulnerable to the Kreete scout ship, Ron

dislodged himself from her hold, smiling broadly, and lowered her down to her feet. Now she

was sharing much of the sandy river bottom which had clung to him.

       “I thought you were gone forever!” she said, her eyes still moist and glassy.

       “I did too, for a while there,” Ron admitted.

       The distinct sound of cannon fire from behind them caught their attention and they both

glanced over their shoulders to see Kale‟s ship barreling down toward them.

       Ron whirled around and shoved Cache hard. Her small figure flew through the entryway,

followed closely by a diving form twice her size.

       “Close!” Cache shouted, when she passed the threshold.

       The doorway energy shield went instantly back into position, a fraction of a second

before the first blast shook the mountain hard. Ron and Cache saw the bright flash of light

against the energy barrier before the door slid into place, blocking out the rest of the attack.



                                                                                                   474
         Inside the safety of the complex, Ron and Cache regained their feet and regarded each

other.

         “Sorry about that,” Ron said to her, indicating the rough treatment he just imposed on

her.

         “Do not think of it further,” she told him with a wave of her hand.

         “Sometimes one needs a little encouragement from behind,” she added, laughing lightly.

“Come on,” she urged, as she set off running down the hallway.

         Tired and sore, Ron didn‟t question the need for urgency because he already knew the

answer. He followed her to a waiting transporter and they set off once more, this time traveling

effortlessly on their way to a predetermined place.

         “Now, I want to know exactly how you survived getting blown out of the ship,” Cache

demanded after she sat down on the floor of the cubic transporter beside Ron, who had already

collapsed there.

         “It was no big deal, really,” Ron began. “The blast tore a hole in the cockpit and sheared

off the support of the chair I was in. I got blown out of the ship and free fell into the river. It

was only a couple hundred feet drop, and the water softened the impact enough so I wasn‟t

splattered all over the place.

         “Also, I stayed with the chair, which was heavy enough to keep me from tumbling, and

so it took most of the impact of striking the water.

         “When I reached the bottom of the river, which, luckily, was soft mud, I unbuckled

myself and tried to swim out. That‟s when I found out you were right about me. I‟m way too

heavy to swim on this planet, so I used my hands and feet and crawled up the bank.




                                                                                                      475
       “Again, my luck saved me, since I was only thirty or so feet from dry ground. The

rushing water slowed me down a bit, and bowled me over a couple of times, but I managed to

make it to the surface before I ran out of air.

       “When I climbed out of the water, I saw that scout ship circling so I headed for the spot

directly under it. When I reached the wreck, I found the cockpit empty, and I hurriedly searched

out your trail. For a few minutes, I thought you might have been captured because there were

two sets of prints around the wreckage…yours and a Kreete‟s, but where you headed north, he

turned back for some reason. That‟s when I knew you‟d made it too, so I followed as fast as I

could. See? No big mystery!”

        “The Guardian has surely favored us,” Cache said, bewildered at their uncannily good

luck. “And I hope our amazing fortune continues for a while longer.”

       The transporter dropped several levels, stopped, sped off sideways for a time, and then

headed down once more before bringing them to their destination. When the doors opened,

Cache was already up, and dashed through them to a podium where she began programming a

control panel.

       Ron stepped gingerly out onto the brightly lit platform, his entire body feeling the stress

of past few days. He wandered about the area, being strangely reminded of the subway stations

back on Earth. On the wall next to the transporter was the word “Jametid”, and beside it was a

grid location. The walls of the terminal were a light pink color and, like in the arena, had more

of the ornamental relief carvings cut into them. It was a picture depicting a definite theme of

scientific use, even having a space ship formed into one end of it.




                                                                                                  476
         Opposite the artwork, across twenty feet of high-glossed, stone flooring, was a dimly lit

tunnel that appeared to be made of polished marble, was six feet in diameter, and perfectly

round.

         Along the walls of the terminal were couches of different colors, undoubtedly for people

to sit…to wait for transport. Ron walked to the tunnel and tried to look down it, but abruptly

banged his head on a plastic shield which guarded the opening, so clear was the material.

         Cache finished her work and stepped up to Ron.

         “This is the normal form of transport between the mountain complexes,” she explained.

“There are four of these subterranean avenues, and if the Kreete had not been able to place mines

on each of them, back in the valley area, we would never have been in danger on the trip over.”

         Ron quickly thought of how much better a peaceful ride would have been instead of the

route they‟d just managed, but dismissed it since that was all behind them now.

         “Now that we‟re here,” he commented, “where‟s our ride?”

         Cache stared at the tunnel for a moment, Ron doing the same, until suddenly an oblong

shaped vessel appeared in front of them. It reached the platform so fast that Ron couldn‟t even

tell from which direction it had come.

         The vehicle filled the tunnel fully, leaving not so much as an inch between the hull and

the smooth wall. It was about fifteen feet long and had bluntly rounded ends, giving Ron the

impression of being a huge “Tic-Tac” breath mint, as it was pale green in color. Also, there

wasn‟t one discernible break in the surface of its skin, which once more amazed Ron at the

exactness of the Raulden construction.

         The plastic-glass panel Ron bumped into earlier quietly slid neatly out of the way,

allowing him to approach the craft. He laid his hand on it and felt the smoothness of the finish,




                                                                                                 477
which was so slick his fingers couldn‟t apply pressure to it without sliding. He then looked

down the length of the craft twice and couldn‟t imagine how it was propelled. There were no

signs of tracks in the tunnel before the vessel‟s arrival, and no sign of wheels on the vehicle

itself.

          A large section of the side of the transport quickly broke loose from its position, moved

inward, and then parted in the middle. Next, the two doors glided toward opposing ends of the

car, revealing the interior of the “mint”.

          “This is a transport pod,” Cache told Ron offhandedly, moving to climb aboard.

          There were four seats, arranged in pairs of two, awaiting passengers, until Cache climbed

aboard and took one of them. Ron followed her lead and sat beside her in a snug, yet

comfortable seat. The pod was not extremely expansive, as Ron‟s shoulder was lightly rubbing

Cache‟s, but it was striking and incredibly clean…at least until they got in. The doors slid shut

automatically and a light came on to allow them to see.

          Ron was taking in the wonders of the little vehicle by touching the panels and looking at

all the interior furnishings when Cache grabbed his hand firmly.

          “You must strap in before we can go,” she told him, “so face forward and remain still for

a moment.”

          Ron complied, and the restraint system initiated the necessary devices, pinning him in

place securely. He looked down and saw a similar release mechanism as the Darlile simulator

used, so he didn‟t feel threatened this time, and sat calmly.

          “It‟s pretty snug, huh?” he said to Cache.

          “Yes,” she replied, “we‟ll need it!”




                                                                                                   478
       She barely got that comment out when the car left the station. The craft seemed more

like a rocket sled than anything else Ron could think of, as it hastened away from the platform,

pinning them both to their seats for several seconds before leveling off at a constant speed.

       “Good grief!” Ron let out, when he could breathe again. “How does this thing move so

fast? I couldn‟t see any means of propellant in the tunnel!”

       “It rides on a magnetic flux,” Cache explained as they rode along. “To make it travel, we

utilize retreating bands of magnetic current to pull it down the tunnel. The passageway is

evacuated of all matter, allowing the pod to meet no resistance as it goes. The transport

computer controls this process.”

       At that point the conversation ended, because the pod suddenly shifting into the

deceleration mode which was as strong as the acceleration had been, and the two occupants were

thrown against the safety straps.

       The car finally eased to a stop and then opened to a platform which might have been the

same one they just left, except for the insignia on the wall. The grid location was changed and,

on closer examination, Ron noticed the mural of the scene of technology oriented the space ship

at the other end of the picture now.

       Cache walked across the platform to the cubic transporter and set the destination. Ron

checked his curiosity about the subway and stepped into it as the doors shut, and then they

headed upwards again.

       Ron was thinking about something, his brow furrowed in concentration.

       “How is it possible for your people to ride the tunnel car, Cache?” he asked. “That thing

was very powerful…even to me.”




                                                                                                479
        “They cannot…at least as it is,” she replied. “I reprogrammed the rate at which it

accelerates for when I am alone, or in this case, with someone I know can withstand it. If anyone

else were to ride it now, say Fortell, it would automatically go back to a lesser force rating. I just

hate wasting time when it is not necessary.”

        “You‟re what we‟d call a „lead-foot‟, back where I come from,” Ron laughed. “How far

did we ride? It didn‟t seem like much of a distance, since we were only in there for a few

minutes.”

        “Nearly one hundred and eighty three hoz,” Cache replied.

        “Holy mackerel!” he exclaimed.

        The transport then came to a rest and the doors opened. Ron remembered all the

sequences of directional changes Cache had told him about, and knew they had at last arrived at

their ultimate destination, but he wasn‟t expecting the view he now saw. He anticipated stepping

out into an ante-room that would eventually lead to the main hangar, but instead, he was there, in

the hangar itself.

        The underground cavern was enormous, stretching over a mile deep and twice that

across, having a ceiling which appeared to be thousands of feet from the floor. But even though

Ron was awed by the vacuous space, it was the object sitting in the center of it that held his

attention, as sheer shock set into his brain.

        Scarcely two hundred yards away, the Darlile sat there like part of the rock floor itself,

waiting. Ron recalled seeing diagrams and structural breakdowns of the ship that was to save a

world, but until now, he hadn‟t viewed a picture of the outside of the fighter. He hadn‟t even

tried to visualize it in his mind, too consumed with learning how it worked. Now, as he let his




                                                                                                   480
gaze run from the nose to the tail, noting every curve and angle, the truth of what he saw was

almost too much for him to take.

       The Darlile was totally black in color, like the raven sword he carried, and equally

atypical. Even though the hangar lights were enough to illuminate the vast space as brightly as

sunlight, the surface of the ship gave off no reflection at all. It was as if he was looking at a

blank space in the air…a void.

       But even that wasn‟t the reason the hair on the back of his neck stood upright. Ron was

stunned because the Darlile was almost an exact duplicate of the fastest aircraft on the face of his

home planet, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

       He couldn‟t move.

       “How is it possible?” he asked himself.

       The vessel in front of him was more than three times the size of the SR-71, and utilized

struts instead of wheels, but the design was the same, save for some very minor variations.

       “Somehow, there must be a connection between this ship and…”

       “Ron!” Cache cried. “We must hurry!”

       Her shout brought him back to the reality of their situation, and he quickly followed her

to a room further down along the wall of the hangar, to the right. He caught up with her while

she was stripping off her belt and weapons, and he did the same…but when she began peeling

her uniform off, he hesitated, slightly stunned.

       “We have to get cleaned up and changed into our flight suits,” she informed him. “The

sensors must have a good bond to our skin, or they will not function optimally. And trust me, we

will need every advantage we can get. There is only one operating sanitizer here, so we will just

have to share it. Now hurry!”




                                                                                                    481
       Ron spotted the grit and grime on her face and body and understood her reasoning, but he

couldn‟t take his eyes off her exquisite form as she stepped out of her clothing.

       She was breathtaking, and he was instantly reminded of the erotic dream he‟d had of

her…only now he found she was even more desirable in actuality.

       Ron was out of his garment quickly, after removing the throwing knives from it first, and

they each tossed the filthy rags down the chute and stepped into the shower.

       The blasts of hot water and cleansers were a welcomed relief to the two warriors as they

stood in the center of the small booth, barely a foot apart.

       Each of them relished the warmth and the reviving qualities of the room, but also, the

proximity to such an exciting partner sent both their minds swimming with explicit thoughts

other than the shower.

       Cache closed her eyes with her hands upraised and slowly turned around, allowing the

jets of the unit to explore her every curve, as did Ron‟s eyes.

       Her body was sheer perfection. The lines of her stunning, delicate face were breathtaking

to Ron with her long, dark eyelashes pressing against her cheeks that were flushed from the heat

of the shower…or from some other source. Her tiny nose was a fabulous accent above her full,

red lips that were parted just slightly as she reveled in the shower‟s massage. Additionally, her

chin, upraised as it was, gave an exhilarating invitational view of her neck, making Ron hunger

for a nibble of her nape.

       He cataloged each sweep, dip, and undulation of her figure as she slowly rotated, and the

smoothness of her curves sent passion-laden adrenaline to his already speeding heart.

       The luscious contour and ripeness of her breasts danced with her every exhilarated

breath, and practically screamed at Ron‟s lips to envelope them. Those spectacular beauties




                                                                                                482
adorned her sensuous torso above a slim, tight waist that dove away to the valley of heavenly

delights he‟d dreamed of. As she turned, the cleft of her back went sweeping downward as well,

before it flared into a magnificently shaped derriere with its own cleavage which was absolutely

maddening to Ron.

       She was graced with fabulous legs and dainty feet befitting her petite stature, and Ron

could almost feel her in his hands as he caressed her entire body in his mind. He recalled with

vivid clarity his dream of her sodden cradle enveloping him with mind numbing pleasure, and his

whole body tensed.

       Her hair returned to its gleaming blonde color, and her wet, newly scrubbed figure,

covered as she was with that short golden fuzz, made Ron drool. His yearning psyche

envisioned a freshly washed peach…firm, yet yielding, and tasty at every inch.

       He swallowed hard, fighting a terrific battle against his urge to take this woman in the

way his animal instincts craved so intensely...holding back only by his iron will to uphold a

solemn vow.

       When she completed her spin and was facing him again, he forced himself to close his

own eyes and do as she had done…to break the mental picture of what he was thinking. He

rested his hands on his head and turned about, feeling the invigorating blasts of the fluid pound

against him, and tried to think of the mission. However, his body had already responded to the

exquisiteness of his partner, and he could not hide it, exposed as he was.

       Cache opened her eyes to the sight she‟d dreamed of for the past several nights, and she

felt no hesitation about what she would do…she was going to enjoy it.

       As the trials of the past days were blasted away from Ron‟s flesh, she followed every line

on his body, memorizing it. She saw him naked once before, but hadn‟t been allowed such an




                                                                                                  483
audaciously bold view, and now she stood there not taking a breath as she mapped every rippling

muscle on his frame.

          The raven hair on his head hung down to the middle of his neck in the back, past his ears

on the sides, and joined with his rapidly growing beard, giving him a shaggy, haggard look. But

as she stared at his face, so rugged and solid and wonderful, she only saw the majestic perfection

of it.

          His shoulders were very broad and muscular…denoting just how powerful a man he

was…and she could see why the Kreete could not stand against him in combat. His chest was

devoid of hair, was tanned, smooth, and thickly padded with dense muscle across its wide

expanse, and she felt a growing need to caress the brown, pointed patches on his chest with her

tongue.

          She took a deep, ragged breath though, and remained where she was, still searching down

his torso. The muscled definition of his abdomen could have been used as a diagram for a man‟s

pinnacle of development, and she watched each ripple flex and relax as he twisted. Her gaze

took in his arms, the ones she wanted around her always, holding and protecting her, loving her.

They were large and beautifully covered, with deeply tanned cords of unstoppable muscle and

sinew…well formed and deadly, as she had seen demonstrated, yet exactly where she so badly

wished to be imprisoned.

          His hands were large and powerful, and covered with calluses…as hard as stone…but she

wanted to feel them on her body with all her flaming desire.

          Cache scanned down lower, as his back turned to her. Ron‟s waist was slim, contrasting

well with the breadth of his shoulders, and forming a magnificent, inverted triangle of

masculinity which she adored. That view, and the sharp, full shape of his backside, with it




                                                                                                 484
flexing as he moved, made her want to grab and feel of him…even bite him. His legs were long

and lean, his thighs massive, and his calves were taut and defined. Even with all the scrapes and

bruises adorning his figure from head to toe, Cache was enveloped with the splendor of him.

          Ron completed his circle, and Cache witnessed a sight that removed all doubts of whether

he felt an attraction towards her. His concentration on the mission, on the ship, on anything

other than the unbelievable woman he now stood before, was to no avail. His reaction, in the

end, was the same as any healthy man‟s would have been in his situation. He could not deny it,

and so he stopped his mental battle to control what could not be controlled.

          Cache gasped as she stared, unabashedly at his virility. Until this moment, she had only

read about such things, and now found herself utterly astonished. He was huge! Her

imagination swiftly raced to the thought of how he could possibly fit into her small body, her

hands unconsciously drifting down to rest lightly on her lower belly.

          It would fill her so tightly and completely, and she closed her eyes again at the mental

suggestion of that act, and she shuddered…she melted.

          Ron watched her movements with his own passion racing wildly, his desire surging

unchecked throughout his bloodstream. He felt tired and drained no more!

          When she closed her eyes, her body trembled uncontrollably and her nipples pursed so

tightly, Ron thought they would explode…and that sight spurred his drive to have her even

higher.




                                                                                                     485
                                         Chapter Thirty-six

                                              The Darlile



       Cache opened her eyes again and locked onto Ron‟s gaze. There was no further need to

clarify how each felt about the other…but this was not the time, nor the place for such pleasures,

and they knew it.

       “We cannot do this,” they each said to the other at the same exact instant.

       The shower stopped at that moment, and the two would-be lovers broke free of their

animal needs to return to the mission. The dryer cycle quickly removed all traces of water from

their bodies, and they then stepped out of the shower, moving quickly to the place where their G

suits were laying.

       They both passed a brush quickly through their hair to remove it from before their eyes,

and then began donning the suits. Cache slipped smoothly into her garment and was gathering

her weapons as Ron secured his. He reached out and snatched the harness full of his possessions




                                                                                               486
as he strode in her wake, and a moment later they were mounting a waiting lift sled, similar to

the one they rode in the Arsenal.

       The pair swiftly whisked across the distance on the small lift, riding in silence…each

having a difficult time returning completely to business until they approached the ship, and then

Ron was consumed with the sight of it once more.

       He hadn‟t realized the full size of the Darlile until they were right up to it.

       “She‟s so big!” Ron said out loud.

       “Not in comparison to the Kreete Destroyers and Cruisers,” Cache reminded him. “This

is the smallest, sleekest interstellar space vessel ever flown, outside some personal transports, but

they can only be used for short distances. That includes over a hundred different civilizations.”

       Ron was too awestruck to speak any further as they neared the ship, but his mind was

racing madly.

       When they were at the point where the hatch was, Cache stopped the sled and they got

off. She pressed a button on the lift‟s console and it went gliding back to its berth immediately.

She then opened the door and darted up the ramp, taking a sharp left to make her way to the

cockpit.

       Ron lagged behind a moment, running his hand along the ship‟s skin. It felt cool, and

was as smooth as satin to the touch. He took one long breath as he gazed down the Darlile’s

fuselage to the aft end, and he hoped he would get a chance to see her better when this was all

over. Then he delayed no longer, following Cache into the dark spacecraft and its hatch closed

soon afterward, sealing them in tightly…safely.




                                                                                                  487
        Once he took his seat in the cockpit, he felt more at ease. It was identical with the

simulator in every way, and he went to his duties quickly and flawlessly as he prepared for start-

up.

        “Brain scan has confirmed our identities and we are ready for light-off,” Cache

announced.

        “Okay, let‟s do it!” Ron returned, and then he began the sequence.

        Three borts later Cache got the “GO” signal from her console, acknowledging all systems

checked and ready.

        “Systems are good!” she told Ron, settling back in her seat snuggly.

        Ron readied himself in his chair also, and then he triggered the switch to open the

enormous hangar doors. Simultaneously, the Raulden safety measures raised an energy

absorbing blast shield behind the Darlile‟s engines, to keep from incinerating the hangar‟s

interior.

        He watched the doors slide down and out of the way with butterflies the size of eagles

swarming in his stomach. Cache punched up the shields, causing the Darlile to rise ten feet off

the floor, and then rested her head back against the soft chair. Ron took one last deep breath and

then slid the throttles forward.

        The Darlile jumped aggressively and ripped out into the open air as effortlessly as if she

rode on a well-oiled sheet of glass, and Ron could feel her power surging through the ship,

merging with him.

        After only moments in flight, he felt as if he was actually part of the Darlile, her strength

was his and his will was hers, forming a team of nearly infinite potential.




                                                                                                  488
       “I am in contact with Hoaldniz,” Cache reported. “The Kreete have breached the

Raulden shield and have established a hole through which four Cruisers have passed! The lead

ship will be in position to fire on the grid complex in twelve borts!”

       She turned to Ron in a panic. “We are too late! They will win after all!”

       “Bullshit!” Ron replied, checking the locations of the enemy ships.

       He brought the Darlile around with a snap of his wrist and shoved the throttles full open

at the same time.

       Both Ron and Cache were instantly pinned to their seats as the Darlile flexed her muscles

for the first time in a desperate race against time.

       They went streaking through the clouds on a hell-bent intercept course with the Kreete

armada at the edge of the atmosphere, almost a third of the way around the planet. Ron watched

the acceleration meter climb past fifteen rapidly, it being calibrated in terms he could relate to,

Earth gravity units.

       The rising pressure forced Ron and Cache back even further into their seats with building

intensity. The G-meter passed thirty…the figures flashing by faster all the while, as the ram

affect of their speed fed the massive engines with ever increasing efficiency.

       At fifty-six, Cache began having trouble breathing because her G suit couldn‟t keep up

with the forces that fought against it, and Ron started fading at sixty-four.

       The meter continued to rise, threatening to stamp out the lives of the two in the cockpit as

the Darlile‟s brute strength let itself be realized. When seventy Earth gravities registered on the

gauge, the master computer received a distress signal from Cache‟s monitors, indicating that she

was on the verge of cardiac arrest. The computer throttled back the engines until it reached the

maximum continuous safe rate of acceleration for her body, fifty-nine Gs.




                                                                                                  489
        Ron came back to full consciousness quickly, he being in less difficulty than she, and

scanned the screens for the enemy while leaning over to Cache‟s side and raising the oxygen

level in the cockpit.

        That put Cache back into the fight, allowing her to get a fix on their position.

        “It worked!” she squeaked, searching out the calculations of their race while laboring to

inhale. “We should intercept the lead ship with ten litas to spare!”

        “All right then,” Ron said as he watched the four blips flying directly in his path and

growing larger by the second…his finger poised on the trigger of the Darlile‟s cannons.



        The Kreete‟s Fleet Commander, Senibre, stood at the command station of the lead

Cruiser…the Mouldrage…as it orbited the planet.

        They had finally broken through the shield and were inside the barrier which had kept

them at bay for so long. Barely a billot in the past, he hastily abandoned his command on the

Kaardore when the penetration aperture was not large enough for that size vessel…his desire to

be in on the first, decisive strike was that high.

        Now, in merely fifteen litas, he would give the order to fire, and the war would be

over…and the rewards would begin. He was ecstatic, standing there watching his target slowly

revolve toward him.

        For over four santaris he‟d fought with his colleagues, trying to keep the fleet together.

On more than one occasion, he even found the need to personally rid himself of an opponent to

his authority, in the ship‟s arena.

        When the mission was first being organized, every commander in the Triad volunteered.

Friction began the moment Senibre was chosen of course, although it wouldn‟t have mattered




                                                                                                     490
who was selected…pride and power were too big a draw. But the decision would be upheld with

the usual restrictions, as he and all of his fellow officers knew it would be. Those restrictions

being:

         (1) If anyone could prove him disloyal to the Triad, he would be removed, and

            terminated.

         (2) If someone could defeat him in fair combat, providing the rival person was of

            sufficient rank to challenge him, then that person would assume his position.

         (3) If he should be assassinated, a new appointee would be found.

         It was a harsh code to command by, but effective in their system of justice, where the

weak do not survive.

         Now, after all he‟d been through, his dreams were soon going to come true. He was sure

that his next assignment would be “Lord of Rauld”, and he would make sure the new Septuagent

of his ground forces was right by his side. He was confident that Kale would be an enormous

help to him at his new post.

         The last report he received from the base camp stated there was no way anyone would

pass through their security net, and undoubtedly, it had been correct.

         “Yes,” Senibre gloated. “Kale has done a marvelous job picking up the pieces left behind

by that idiot Yeasten.”

         Just then, Senibre was shaken from his daydreams of triumph by his navigator.

         “Commander!” the navigator reported. “There is a ship approaching from the south on a

collision course with us, and it is moving at better than fifty-three thousand hoz per billot…and

still accelerating at twenty-four Raulden gravities!”




                                                                                                    491
       “Impossible!” Senibre returned. “The Matrix is distorting your readings. No ship can

travel at that speed in atmosphere…and at that G-rate; no one can survive inside it. It must be a

missile. Weapons officer, destroy the silly thing as soon as it comes into range.”

       “Yes sir!” replied the fellow at the targeting scope. “Locked on and ready!”

       “Sir!” the navigator interrupted. “I have detected shields and…”

       “The missile has just moved off my screen!” shouted the weapons officer.

       “It is taking evasive actions!” added the navigator.

       “Weapons officer! Fire at anything within range!” Senibre bellowed. “Shields up!

Prepare for battle!”

       The order came far too late to save them, however. The Darlile was on them like a bolt

of black lightning. The Kreete heavy Cruiser got off only one shot, and it flew wide, before the

dark lady soared past it in a shower of superintense plasmite fire. The Mouldrage, Senibre, and

all his hopes and dreams erupted in a grand, fiery display.

       “Whoa, yeah!” Ron cried as he witnessed the explosion in the aft viewer.

       He immediately put the engines in reverse thrust, cut their speed by two thirds, and

banked hard to swing around and engage the remaining ships. The momentum they‟d built up

carried them a thousand miles past the enemy, so when the Darlile made it back to the scene,

even though the trip took merely seconds, the three other Cruisers were ready for her.

       “The closest two ships are joining forces to stop us, while their ally is making a run at the

Grid,” Cache updated Ron. “The runner is up to full power now, which leaves no time to spend

with his defenders.”

       “Understood!” Ron replied.




                                                                                                 492
       He put his full concentration on the battle. The first ship had been taken by surprise, but

the rest of them wouldn‟t go down so easily. These were immensely powerful vessels that could

generate impressive shields, even in the influence of the Matrix…and their weapons were the

terror of the galaxy.

       Ron knew he was in for a rough ride. He made up his strategy as he guided the ebony

bird within range of the enemy cannons, flying at a mere three hundred hoz per lita, a suitable,

in-atmosphere dog fighting speed.

       Straight down their throats flew the Darlile. She knifed between the two blockers

standing on edge like a dagger, nimbly dipping and darting to avoid the heavy fire from the much

larger Cruisers. When she was directly between the two, Ron cut loose with a triple burst

directed at the one to his left, the Randehar...a ship which had seen battle in over six hundred

campaigns.

       The power of the black fighter‟s punch was felt at that moment. The first blast buckled

the Cruiser‟s shields, the second burst knocked them out completely and destroyed one of the

heavy cannon turrets, and the third sliced into the ship‟s engine bay and split it in half. The

Randehar erupted a second later and then streaked toward the planet‟s surface, all flight

stabilization having been lost in the blast…a dramatic end to a ruthless existence.

       Ron applied more power to get out of the range of the second blocker and to catch the

runner, and the Darlile reacted by leaping forward eagerly, as if wanting to sink her teeth into

another victim.

       The random darting maneuvers and the sheer speed of the Darlile were too much for the

gunners of the blocking Cruiser. They promptly gave up the effort at targeting her; relegated to

simply spraying the area with random fire in the hopes of some contact.




                                                                                                   493
       Ron dismissed that ship from his mind for the moment, to focus on the runner, knowing

perfectly well that such tactics couldn‟t hope to penetrate the Darlile‟s shields. He also knew he

wouldn‟t be caught from behind and he couldn‟t fire again until the capacitor recharged, which it

would be when they caught the Meishara, the Cruiser now sprinting for an assault at the Grid.

       “Possible problem, Ron,” Cache announced while scanning and interpreting the target

vessel‟s plan of defense. “The ship we are approaching has channeled all of their shield power to

the rear. I do not know if we can break through it like the last one, and we will only get one

chance at it before they are within range of the Grid Complex.”

       Ron was thinking furiously as the target came into the Darlile‟s weapons perimeter.

With dozens of possible scenarios scrolling through his thoughts, he stared at the Kreete vessel,

enormous in the view screen, even at normal visual levels.

       It looked like two inverted, seven sided pyramids bristling with spires and towers,

separated by nearly one hundred stories of main-body working levels. It was more than fifty

times the size of the Darlile and was equipped with fourteen engines, each large enough for the

black ship to fly right into them. And that massive vessel could generate enough firepower to

turn an entire mountain range into a river of molten rock.

       That was the weapon of the enemy Ron had to deal with.

       Quickly, he switched the screen inset to a computer model of the Meishara…which

showed the edges of its shielding outputs…and found what he was looking for.

       At the last instant, he veered off course and, dipping below the giant ship‟s defensive

shielding, flew under the Kreete vessel, using maximum deceleration procedures. Just as the

Darlile passed the bow, and a hair beyond the multilayered barrier arrangement, Ron jerked up

on the stick and climbed steeply, barely missing the nose of the larger craft, and let them have it.




                                                                                                 494
       The three blasts overpowered the weaker shielding in that area and struck the Cruiser a

vicious blow, right at the control center. It sheered off cleanly, sending the section with the

heavy cannon tumbling into the pull of the planet‟s gravity, and to its eventual demise as it

burned up passing through the dense atmosphere of Rauld.

       The Kreete proved themselves to be a tough group though, because they opened fire from

the remains of the burning ship, as it too began to follow the first pieces in their final flight. The

crew of the Meishara fought on from the center and aft fuselage areas, knowing that it was

fruitless, but unwilling to simply fall away to their doom.

       When the enemy fire struck her shields, corresponding vibrations swept through the

Darlile and surprised Ron, but he swung the sleek black fighter around for the deathblow without

evasive maneuvers. The hits she was receiving were numerous and continual, but from light

cannons only, and did not pose a significant threat to the dark lady‟s defenses.

       “The second blocker has stopped and is waiting for reinforcements,” Cache reported.

“The planetary shield is weakening rapidly! Two Destroyers have now penetrated the outer

defense and are racing to help it. Also, more ships are lining up to slip through the hole they

have established.”

       “Son of a b…” he hissed through gritted teeth.

       Ron fired on the wounded Meishara, speeding its descent along…only not all in one

piece. He then pointed the Darlile at the remaining Cruiser and put her enormous power to the

test again. The sable vessel sliced her way through the air, looking like a black stiletto rushing to

pierce the heart of a dreaded enemy that threatened to destroy good in lieu of evil.

       As they rocketed back towards the waiting Kreete ship, Ron and Cache both tried to

come up with a plan to stop the influx of Kreete vessels into Raulden space.




                                                                                                   495
       “We need something to plug that hole they set up, Ron!” Cache managed to say, grunting

her words under the strain of the Darlile‟s acceleration forces.

       “A plug!” Ron cried. “That‟s it!”




                                                                                          496
                                        Chapter Thirty-seven

                                          Desperate Measures



       Swinging wide of the last Cruiser, the Hiertan, Ron fired a triple volley at it, just to drain

their shields and give them further pause. That worked fine. Next, he set his sights on a new

target, the shield breach…urging the sleek Darlile to even greater speed.

       They flew around the incoming Destroyers, who opened fire but were too slow to strike

home against the smaller ship, and were at the opening just in time to witness another ship

squeezing into it.

       It was the Interplanetary Fighter Carrier, Ennarha’s Guard, capable of unleashing

fourteen hundred Kreete fighter vessels. Those smaller crafts didn‟t pose a great threat to the

Darlile, but they could wreak havoc on the ground facilities, and could potentially destroy the

power grid before he could round them all up.

       Ron switched again to a computer interpretation of the scene to be able to actually “see”

the Raulden planetary shield. That way, he would be less likely to fly into it…which would of




                                                                                                  497
course spell disaster to him, Cache, and all of Rauld. Also, he could judge exactly when the

enemy was in the perfect position.

       Ron and Cache were thrown from the depth of the cushioned seats to the limits of the

restraining harnesses as Ron put on reverse thrust again, in effect, standing on the brakes.

       He expertly guided the Darlile through the tiny space between the shields of the Carrier

and the edge of the Raulden defense net, so he could get into a more desirable angle of attack.

       The size of the breach had closed considerably over the past few borts, due to the Kreete

disengaging the two Destroyers from the task of holding it open, so they could rescue the

Hiertane.

       They were gambling heavily now, because without the combined power of enough

vessels, the fissure would collapse as the Matrix reformed over it like a healing wound. If that

occurred, it would destroy whatever was in its path…but so far, their gamble was paying off.

       The other Kreete vessels, waiting behind Ennarha’s Guard to move through the gap,

rained cannon fire onto the black ship as she gathered herself for the strike. But their heaviest

guns were needed on the planet shield, so she didn‟t seem to notice.

       Ron picked his spot carefully and fired. The first plasmite wave lit up the Carrier‟s

shields, but did not destroy them because they were much more adept at absorbing energy here,

outside the influence of the Defense Matrix.

       “Their shields are down to eighty percent,” Cache recited.

       Ron was already firing again as he flicked the Darlile around in obscure moves, staying

just ahead of the most powerful laser blasts. Those gunners were desperately trying to anticipate

her position…to get at least one full power shot at her…but the Raulden warship was remarkably

elusive.




                                                                                                    498
       “Sixty percent!” Cache reported, as Ron followed up on that shot with another, and

another, quickly chipping away at the huge ship‟s defenses.

       “They have no shields!” Cache finally announced, as the enormous Carrier passed

halfway into Raulden space.

       Ron targeted the massive engines on the right side of Ennarha’s Guard and fired two

rounds of the Darlile‟s plasmite cannons at them. The resulting explosions sent the Carrier

yawing sharply to the right, heading into the planet‟s defensive barrier, and toward certain

destruction. Leeson Neote, captain of Ennarha’s Guard immediately ordered full reverse, to

quell their listing motion, bringing the ship to a dead stop in space.

       Ron was still buzzing around the enemy like a hornet, waiting to make his move. When

he saw the vessel stopped in the center of the shield‟s breach, he sent two more rounds into her,

ripping off her remaining engines and effectively patching up the Raulden shield. Then he flew

past each of the fighter launch ports and destroyed any chances of them getting those ships out

and into the fray.

       The wounded Carrier continued to fire at the Darlile with little results, as Ron used her

slim figure to slip back by it and make a dash for the previous battlefield above the atmosphere

near the Grid.

       “One king-sized cork made-to-order!” Ron said triumphantly.

       “That will hold them for a while, but do not celebrate too soon,” Cache told him, pointing

to the screen. “Those three ships have joined forces now to make a mass assault on the Grid

Complex!”

       “How much time do we have?” Ron inquired.

       “Two borts!”




                                                                                               499
       “We‟ll hit them in twenty seconds,” Ron said, calculating how long he would have to

disable them. “That doesn‟t give us a great deal of extra time to find a weak point in their

defenses, and the way they‟ve arranged their ships, I doubt there is a weak point.”

       The job was getting larger by the second…even larger than the three vessels looming in

the distance, which were gargantuan. The Kreete Destroyer Class spaceships were a third larger

than the Hiertane, and looked like flying buildings…only like no buildings Ron could ever have

imagined. They were huge, seven-sided, horizontal skyscrapers…thousands of feet long, and

more than a quarter of a mile thick. There were powerful gun emplacements evenly dispersed

along each faceted surface of the heptagon, and a single, colossal cannon at the very forward

spire. The primary weapon was seldom used in battle because the entire vessel had to be

oriented in order to aim it. It was only brought into play against equally sized, and cumbersome,

opponents, or against stationary, land based targets such as the Grid Complex.

       The Kreete Destroyers rotated like the Cruisers, to generate a gravitational field for its

inhabitants, as well as providing a safety measure. Its sides were littered with towers and

spires…each a sensor point, or a shield generator node, or a weapon…so when under attack, the

enemy couldn‟t focus on a single point, and thereby find a weakness. The shields continuously

rotated, spreading the assault over a wider area and thus diminishing its potency.

       Those ships held thousands of warriors and technicians, but were primarily huge

generators, converting enormous amounts of raw fuel into devastatingly lethal bursts of plasma

energy. They were death-dealers…planet killers…with their sole purpose being the same as

their titles…destruction!

       Ron dropped the Darlile back into her dog fighting speed and then looked over at Cache.




                                                                                                    500
       “It doesn‟t look too good, Cache, but I guarantee you we‟ll go out fighting, and take as

many of them with us as we can, should it come down to that.”

       With that said, Ron set his jaw firmly and pushed every thought not pertaining to the

battle out of his mind. When the Darlile reached the Kreete ships, he was looking through the

red haze again, and every move he made was harsh and precise like a machine…and deadly.

       The two Destroyers had bunched up closely with the Hiertane, the remaining original

Cruiser, each having its shields focused to the outside in triple layers. Ron saw no way to attack

them other than straight on.

       Cache guessed Ron‟s attack strategy at the last instant, and wanted to tell him the

combined strength of these ships would probably shred the Darlile like paper, but it was too late,

the battle was on.

       The Kreete trio spoke simultaneously with every gun that could be pointed in the dark

lady‟s direction. The combined munitions extended the Kreete‟s range by one third, burning

through the affects of the Matrix by sheer power, and caught Ron by surprise.

       The blasts struck the Darlile with such violence that her speed was cut in half, throwing

Ron and Cache against their restraints again viciously.

       To the two occupants in her control center, it felt as if a huge hammer had struck the

black ship. Ron snapped the stick first one way and then another to bring the fighter into safer

space, and was amazed to find the Darlile was still responding.

       “Shields are at the overload point!” Cache informed him, during his evasive flying.

       Ron rolled the Darlile quickly, ducked under the enemy barrage, pulled up in a beautiful

half loop, and struck with all the fury of the black ship‟s cannon.




                                                                                                  501
        “That appears to have worked!” Cache said, a bit hopeful. “That Destroyer‟s shields are

down twenty percent now.”

        Ron knew what he had to do then…pummel that spot until it gave way. He used the

throttles, then the reverse thrusters, and then the throttles, all the while, zipping about in an

extremely confusing manner, never using the same moves twice, until the Ion Capacitor was up

to full power again. Those three seconds felt like an hour to Ron as the situation became more

and more strained.

        “Now,” he said to the enemy on the viewer, “we shall see if you are as tough as you think

you are!”

        Once again, Ron dipped the Darlile beneath the Kreete‟s lines of fire and struck at point

blank range at the crippled shielding.

        “Down fifty percent!”

        Two more attacks were needed to weaken that heretofore impenetrable defense, until the

Darlile’s triple burst finally destabilized, buckled, and then crushed the Kreete defense shield,

leaving it wide open for easy destruction. Also, that failure allowed the Darlile the opportunity

to get out of the targeting area of the heavy cannons, and to fly right up to the ship, where only

the lighter, smaller guns could be trained on her.

        Ron danced around the lesser threat easily until the Darlile‟s venom was replenished, and

then he let her sink her fangs into the enormous ship.

        As the Darlile attacked again, the two other vessels immediately split from the wounded

Destroyer to distance themselves from the impending explosion, leaving their ally totally

defenseless to the fatal strike. Ron chopped it up into small pieces, slicing the drives, the guns,




                                                                                                    502
and then the helm off like a surgeon. Then he left it in flames, slowly succumbing to the

unforgiving pull of the planet.

       The remaining ships, one Destroyer, the Sueltar, and the Cruiser, the Hiertane, were

getting close to the grid by then however. Time was an important factor in the struggle, and

Cache was watching the clock closely.

       “Twenty litas until they are within range of the complex,” Cache said. “and our own

shields are holding at only one third their normal strength.”

       Ron took the information silently, attempting to shift his plan of attack to allow for some

margin of safety, but could not.

       He sent the Darlile racing after the more powerful ship, the Sueltar, knowing that he

couldn‟t work safety into his line of action and still get back in time to take care of the Cruiser.

       One positive point was the fact that he‟d broken up the alliance of ships, so now Ron

didn‟t have the triple threat to deal with. He skirted the larger vessel‟s hail of firepower, got

behind its fortified shields, and blew out the larger ship‟s heavy gun emplacement. That strategy

worked well, blasting a giant hole near the command station for the cannon, but at a high cost to

the Darlile.

       To get as close as Ron did to the Destroyer, in the given amount of time he had, he

resigned to slow down considerably, giving the Kreete free shots at the sable ship. As a result,

she took on heavy damage.

       “Our shields are totally out!” Cache told Ron, her voice calm and controlled, but Ron

knew she was deeply worried. “We must disengage the enemy for a minimum of three borts in

order to restore them.”

       “No way!” Ron returned. “If we pull out for thirty seconds, it‟ll be too long!”




                                                                                                    503
          Ron was already on his way to meet the Hiertane, leaving the Sueltar alone for the time

being…it not having the use of its main weapon anymore and, therefore, not an ominous threat to

the Grid facility.

          He slapped the throttles forward, enjoying the way the acceleration felt, and streaked to

an intercept course.

          “It is going to be close!” Cache grunted against the mounting pressure of the Darlile‟s

thrust.

          Ron never backed out of the power this time as they caught up with the Hiertane. He

flashed passed its defensive shielding in a spiraling, corkscrew maneuver which had worked so

well to confuse the gunners in the simulator, and fired a triple burst at the nose of the ship. The

Darlile‟s cannon blast crushed the shields of the Kreete vessel and sliced the larger ship neatly in

half, ending its threat against Rauld…but not before it got off two brief bursts at the Grid.

          Ron whipped the control stick around to make a “U-turn”, to get back to the crippled

Sueltar, but found that the Darlile would no longer respond to his inputs.

          “We lost guidance control soon after the shields overloaded during that last pass,” Cache

reported, furiously working at her control panel.

          Ron immediately cut power, slowing the ship down by using the drag of the thin

atmosphere against the hull of the crippled fighter. The Darlile had been in an ascending attitude

and, with no way to change course, would surely have slammed into the unforgiving outer

barrier of the Shotal Energy Matrix, had he not reacted as he did.

          “I am getting fluctuating readings from the Grid Output Center,” Cache said, not to Ron,

but rather to someone on the other end of her communication link. “Good,” she responded after

a slight pause, and then she told Ron, “They are diverting all power to the Shield Matrix. The




                                                                                                    504
underground complexes will be left crippled for a while, with nothing working other than

emergency lighting, but the transfer will have the planet shield back in place and stable again in

under a bort.”

       Ron quickly scanned his view screen. The Carrier Ron left plugging the hole in the

Matrix had been blown apart by the rest of the attacking fleet, one more Destroyer was already

inside the planet‟s shield, and others were back in line for entry.

       The Sueltar was making its best speed to join the fully powered newcomer, undoubtedly

seeking protection from the smaller, yet extremely lethal, Raulden ship.

       It appeared the Darlile and the Energy Grid complex were safe for the time being, so Ron

worked out a new plan.

       “Shut down the Grid!” Ron ordered.

       Cache turned to regard him, astonished.

       “Call down and have them cut the power…now!” Ron told her sternly.

       Cache looked at him as if he‟d gone insane, but did as he commanded, obviously in great

dismay over it.

       After she gave the command to the ground workers, she turned to Ron again.

       “Why have you done this?” she asked, her eyes filled with bewilderment. “I…rather we,

have all our trust in you to help us, so why would you order us to drop the one defense we have

against our enemy?”

       Ron watched the Matrix shield vanish from his ship‟s sensors, and smiled. The Darlile

itself, was beginning to pick up speed as Rauld‟s gravity took a firmer hold on it, so he ignored

Cache‟s questions and gave her new orders.




                                                                                                505
        “Cache,” Ron said firmly, “go and see if you can repair our shields…and hurry, we don‟t

have much time.”

        She was vividly aware of the situation, so she unstrapped herself quickly and bolted for

the rear of the spacecraft without further questions…or answers.

        Ron continued to watch the movements of the Kreete Armada with crossed fingers.

Their first reaction was exactly what he expected. They stopped all their ships instantly, as if

confused…or suspicious. Also, he felt they probably wanted to check things out with their own

sensors, which, until now, had only performed within a limited range.

        “That‟s it,” Ron said to the screen. “Just give me a little time.”



        Kale Vitrauge had been watching the battle from a position well out of range of any stray

fire, but still within sight, using his shuttle‟s powerful image enhancements. He was in the sole

remaining scout ship of the ground assault force, and was alone, save for his pilot.

        When the two fugitives escaped him, he gathered what was left of his troops and placed

them around the Grid Control Complex to aid the others that were continuously searching for a

way to break through the force field protecting it. So far however, they were unable to make any

progress toward their endeavor.

        After the air battle began though, Kale lost interest in the Grid project. He knew exactly

who was in the black ship that rained death and devastation on his comrades, and he silently

wished he could face the Caronian from the control room of one of those great warships.

        “How can they allow such a puny craft to defeat them?” he asked to no one. “The

Commanders must truly be fools! I would have the gunners thrown to the “pits” for such poor

results.”




                                                                                                   506
       When the Hiertane finally struck a blow on the grid, Kale should have flown in and

attacked immediately, to be sure that it was completely destroyed…and he almost did just that.

But then he saw the Darlile decelerate dramatically, and begin to slide down toward him, gaining

speed…and a new temptation rose to the forefront of his mind.

       With the Grid off-line, he could use his sensors to tell him the black ship was virtually

dead, as it registered no shields, no directional control, and minimal power output from its

engines.

       It was a gift that he simply could not ignore. He decided to allow his ground troops to

finish off the Grid, since that was what they were there for anyway, and he would face the

Caronian himself. At that moment, he felt the urge to avenge his honor more than the need to

obey his orders.

       Kale checked the parameters of his vessel and found them all to be working perfectly,

including his shields and weapons, now at full strength since the affects of the Matrix were no

longer a concern. He was certain that all of these variables happening at once, and right in front

of him, were a sign to write his name in the history of the Triad Empire…and he could not resist!

He grabbed the controls away from the pilot once again and applied maximum thrust toward the

Darlile.

       “Sir!” the pilot protested. “The Grid facility must be destroyed!”

       “Shut up you coward!” Kale roared. “Do you not see? We can destroy the black ship!”

       He could see his promotion hopes growing larger by the lita once more, as the thought of

the dark vessel going down in flames flashed across his vision.




                                                                                                   507
                                        Chapter Thirty-eight

                                               Victorious



        Ron kept watch over the fleet, noting every movement. So far, they‟d sent only one

vessel across the plane where the shield had been…just as he hoped. Caution was keeping them

back.

        Ron had put himself in the place of the Commanders of the remaining fleet ships and

figured they would send one or two ships through first, to see if it was a trap. So far, they were

doing exactly as he expected.

        Two agonizingly slow minutes passed by after the one craft made its initial move and

crossed the boundary…and Ron could clearly see the remaining ships were growing eager. They

each wanted to get their share of the spoils and glory of pillaging a new world, so they had

fanned out along the perimeter of where the shield had once stood firm.




                                                                                                 508
           He watched the six Kreete vessels coordinate their strategy carefully, and he could also

see, with the aid of the incredible technology of the Darlile, that they were busily scanning the

Grid Complex, trying to verify that it was indeed overloaded.

           Their prudence was just fine with Ron though. They had hesitated long enough, and

now it was just a matter of timing. Then he noticed a tiny blip approaching the Darlile from the

planet‟s surface. He checked the positions of the Destroyers again and, finding them still well

out of range, relaxed a bit as he studied the view screen.

           Ron zoomed in on that vessel with the aid of the supercomputer‟s enhancement, and

found it to be a Scout shuttlecraft. His first thought was the pilot must be suicidal, and then it

occurred to him how the Darlile would appear to an outsider. It would look quite vulnerable to

the men in that little ship! Her shields were down, engines cut, and she was dropping through

the atmosphere like a rock.

           “Ah!” Ron said to the blip. “So, you‟re going to attack an enemy vessel that just wiped

out nearly half of your entire fleet just because it has a few technical problems? Well, come and

get it.”

           Another minute went by as Ron watched the little transport approach from below, and the

fleet from above. A few seconds later, the small troop-carrier vessel entered the Darlile‟s

weapons range, at which time Cache returned to the cockpit and took her seat once more. She

glanced over the screen as she strapped in.

           “Our shields are functional again, as well as guidance…” she told Ron, trying to

understand the scene playing out in front of her. “What is going on? There are three Destroyers

inside the shield perimeter now, with the rest of the fleet right behind them, and that little shuttle

is right on top of us. Are you not going to…?”




                                                                                                     509
       “Perfect!” Ron shouted, interrupting Cache‟s sentence. “Quick, call the Grid Complex

and tell them to energize the Matrix again, and then put up our shields.”

       As Cache was relaying the message, the Shotal Energy Matrix flashed back onto the

viewer in front of Ron and her, catching four of the armada‟s ships in its powerful grip, bisecting

them in a fiery display. Two more were too close to stop and ended up ramming the shield with

their cannons roaring away, hopelessly trying to blast open a corridor for them to pass

through…to no avail.

       The Darlile‟s own protective energy field sprang up just as the scout ship opened fire on

her. Ron took just a second to watch the beauty of the shields at work, absorbing the energy

blasts as if they didn‟t even exist. The only reaction Ron could observe was the soft

phosphorescent flashes of emerald green. Then the small ship realized its folly and turned to

dash for safety.

       Ron let it go for a moment, recalling how the pilot of that ship had nearly killed Cache

and him, and then the Darlile‟s wrath spoke one syllable. The scout vessel was gone instantly,

vaporized in a white-hot explosion of scattered atoms.

       Ron guessed the men within it never even knew what hit them after their lust for blood

turned into a terror stricken run for cover. Then he focused his attention to more formidable

opponents.

       The three Destroyers now inside the shield quickly discovered they were too far apart to

protect one another when they saw the Darlile jump back to life. So now, the one that had

stopped to render aid to the crippled Sueltar suddenly broke away from it in an effort to join

forces with the other, fully powered Kreete vessel.




                                                                                                  510
           Once again the Darlile surged forth to do battle, and because of her amazing speed, she

was able to cut off the merger of the enemy alliance.

           Ron flew around and around the huge craft, easily avoiding its attempts to down the sable

fighter. He adjusted to the frequency of cannon fire and the speed at which they could track him,

and now couldn‟t be struck by any of their more lethal guns.

           As the Darlile zipped about and sidestepped the Kreete‟s gunners, she pounded the

defensive shields of the larger vessel until there was no protection at all, and then she covered the

huge ship with a layer of atomizing plasmite energy.

           The Destroyer appeared to be being eaten in massive bites, since the different areas of the

ship simply vanished as the supercondensed energy blast engulfed them. This shark-style attack

continued until the fuel cells were struck, at which time the ship, the size of a small city, erupted

in an enormous ball of fire.

           Ron abruptly turned the sleek Darlile away from that quarry to seek out another. The

sole remaining unharmed Destroyer lay in wait for its turn at battle with the smaller, yet superior

fighter.

           The Commander of the Kreete vessel, the Needargrin, brought it to a dead stop high

above Rauld, giving no further thought to making it to the Grid Complex which was still a great

distance away, well beyond the range of their cannons. After all, it couldn‟t make it a tenth of

that distance before the Darlile would be at its throat, so he tried a different strategy.

           “The Destroyer has cut its propulsion down to minimums and diverted every spare ounce

of energy to its shields,” Cache announced, as they neared the giant vessel. “They have managed

to double the strength of those defenses! And now they are jettisoning half of their fuel cells.”




                                                                                                   511
       The Needargrin’s fuel pods littered the thin atmosphere like thousands of small mines,

floating around its parent craft. At that point, the huge ship began firing, as was expected…but

this vessel showered the black warbird with a level of destructive intensity unseen before by Ron

and Cache.

       The Darlile shook violently as they were taken off guard again by the new range of the

weapons, forcing Ron immediately into evasive maneuvers, trying to get clear of those

devastating cannons.

       “They have somehow increased the range of their guns by two thirds, probably by

pushing them well beyond their rated power settings,” Cache relayed to Ron, after studying her

scans of the ship. “And they are tracking much faster also,” she added as the Darlile was

slammed again.

       “No shi…kidding!” Ron mused, putting more determination into his evasive flying.

       Ron sent the fury of the dark lady raining onto the Destroyer‟s shields as he snapped the

Darlile ferociously from one heading to the next, forcing Cache to deploy her full assortment of

restraints. This addition virtually cocooned her in place, even adding a feature to keep her head

from becoming whipped about as she fought against the stresses inflicted by Ron‟s tactics.

       Ron never noticed the change. He was now flying the black ship at the extremes which

only he could endure…harsh, brutal, and exhilarating! He soon found out that he could still

barely outpace the enemy‟s abilities, as long as he could withstand the intensity and pressure of

the maneuvers that were battering him soundly. It was exhausting and painful, and Cache could

easily hear the grunts, growls, and wheezes of his deadly brawl…but he would not relent!

       After a short while longer, the Needargrin’s shielding showed signs that it was beginning

to weaken, and Ron began to smile a wry smile, enjoying the supreme challenge of the fight.




                                                                                                512
       “The Darlile‟s shields have…stabilized at seventy…five percent, and…are beginning to

strengthen again,” Cache reported between grunts and gasps, as she battled the G-forces of Ron‟s

flying. “The enemy‟s…are down to forty…percent.”

       Ron didn‟t let up even a fraction, his body adapting to the stresses gladly as the thrill of

this clash of titans continued. He sent the Darlile whipping about the edge of the Destroyer‟s

defenses, holding close to allow his own cannons to deliver all the energy they could.

       He restricted his flying to the areas containing the least number of the fuel cells, but as

the Kreete Commander shifted their shield power from the area Ron left alone, the Darlile shot

over to take advantage of the weakness.

       “No!” Cache shouted suddenly. “Do not go…”

       Ron found out what she meant an instant later as he passed between several of the fuel

cells. The Kreete had set a trap for the Darlile, and Ron took the bait.

       The Commander swapped all of his remaining shield energy to that area in a flash, and

then trained every ounce of its firepower on the containers of the superdense materials which

now surrounded the Darlile as she passed through them. The results of their stratagem released

an explosion which engulfed the black vessel with unimaginable ferocity.

       The command center of the Needargrin erupted in cheers when the black specter of death

disappeared from their screen, undoubtedly obliterated in one of the finest strategic tactics ever

witnessed.

       There was a roar of triumph from every crew member on the ship, carrying down the

internal corridors of the vessel in waves. That is, every person except one…the Commander of

the Destroyer. Zarne Meelish stood where he was, not daring to breathe. He was not so easily




                                                                                                     513
convinced that such an impressive vessel could be defeated in so simple a manner, even if those

cells were enough to blast his own giant ship into oblivion. He was a battle-hardened veteran.

       The fuel cells began a chain reaction of explosions which continued until each one of

them finally succumbed to the same fate, surrounding the Destroyer in a ball of charged energy

that threatened to collapse its own protective barrier.

       Zarne continued to wait, staring at the area where the enemy had last been seen. After a

long few litas, the view screen was able to scan through the waves of accelerating matter, and the

Commander at last saw empty blue skies…the way was clear. The Raulden menace had finally

been squelched. He let out a huge sigh of relief and then roared to life.

       “Yes!” he shouted with his fists upraised in victory.

       His exuberant celebration lasted until that one word cleared his lips, and then he was

reminded of what war was all about as the floor beneath his feet shook with enough force to send

him to his knees!

       He barely caught himself from being thrown prone to the deck, and glanced up at a status

display of his own ship. A full quarter of it was gone.

       Zarne whirled around to look behind him at the opposite side of the control center. That

room contained twenty eight separate viewers which created a seamless display of the outside

world, surrounding it completely. Any portion of space around the Needargrin could be seen at

any given moment. The sight he took in made his heart lurch to a stop.

       “Our shields are down!” screamed one of his crewmembers.

       The black ship was hurtling toward them…cannons flashing.




                                                                                                 514
       Ron didn‟t understand Cache‟s warning until it was much too late to respond. He simply

saw the Darlile‟s view screen flash off suddenly when the sky lit up as bright as Metash‟s

corona. Before his eyes could adjust to the brilliance, the resulting explosion literally cart-

wheeled the black warbird in mid air. The screen quickly changed to a sensor sweep‟s

interpretation of the scene outside the vessel, but it mattered little because the two inside were

tossed about so harshly that they couldn‟t have understood any information at all. Ron felt

something wrap around his forehead, pinning his skull to the padded seat, but his eyes were

slammed tightly shut and every muscle in his body locked against the horrendous battering he

was taking. After a bit, the hammering affect lessened, and Ron peeked out…his teeth still

clicking with some of the more potent blasts.

       The ship shook tremendously for several more seconds as he watched each of the fuel

cells explode around them, but they weren‟t as close by then.

       “Our shields have held!” Cache coughed at Ron as she fought to regain the breath which

had been knocked out of her. She was obviously shocked to find her craft was still flying. “I can

hardly believe it. They are down to twelve percent, but they held.”

       Ron recovered from the jolts quickly and put the ship into a dive, steering around the

Destroyer, and following the retreating wave of erupting cells. When he reached halfway around

the larger ship, he targeted a vulnerable area of the Kreete vessel‟s straining shielding and

opened fire. The intensity of the Darlile‟s plasmite energy ripped through the pathetic protection

and struck solidly into the body of the craft.

       Ron didn‟t let up…following that shot with another…slicing off a huge section of the

ship and sending a earthquake-like shudder through its entire frame.




                                                                                                     515
        The Needargrin’s protective shields disappeared then, and Ron dove in for the kill.

Straight at the control center he flew, unable to witness Zarne‟s panicked expression, and

delivered a triple burst of the Darlile‟s disrupter directly into the center of the ship. Without

hesitation, he pulled back hard on the dark lady‟s controls to clear the area before the shot could

spray the remains of the enormous craft‟s bulk into his flight path.

        Ron didn‟t pause to celebrate his and Cache‟s victory either, as he was all business, and

so he targeted the final Kreete ship, the crippled Sueltar from the earlier confrontation, and sent

the Darlile streaking after it.

        He intended to catch up with the enemy and then wait for the Darlile to recover from the

last battle before moving in, but he didn‟t have to. As the crew of the Sueltar watched the

shadowy messenger of death annihilate that last warship, they were already arming the “destruct”

device on theirs.

        Ron and Cache watched the massive Kreete vessel disintegrate in a white-hot explosion

of their own design before the Darlile could even get close. The Kreete code of honor would not

allow them even the chance of being captured.

        Ron then took a few moments to scan the entire scene where the Armada had been, and

when he was satisfied the Raulden space was clear at last, he set a course for the Kreete base

camp.

        “The only thing left to do is take care of the ground troops,” Ron told Cache as they

breathed freely for the first time in days.

        By then, her figure was free to move again, the restraints having retracted with the

lowered stress level, and she was looking at him with the old admiration back in her eyes when

she spoke.




                                                                                                    516
       “I am sorry I ever doubted you, Ron,” she said. “I really should have known that you

could not betray me…I mean us.”

       “Don‟t sweat it,” Ron replied. “After all, you can‟t read my mind.” Then, after a brief

pause, “Can you?”

       Cache laughed and shook her head negatively.

       They reached the camp a short time later only to find it deserted.

       “Where could they have gone?” Ron queried.

       Cache didn‟t reply because she was busy with the ship‟s sensors, searching the area.

       “They are nowhere around this camp and have been gone for some time,” she finally told

him. “I would guess they probably left when we entered Jametid.”

       “Well, where would they be apt to try their hand at attacking your people?” Ron asked.

       “They would have to disable our energy field to…” Cache looked up at Ron anxiously.

“The Grid!” she cried, barely a quarter of a second before her body was crushed back into her

seat once more by the force of the Darlile‟s acceleration.

       Ron hadn‟t dallied. As soon as he saw where Cache was leading, he slammed the

throttles forward and got just enough altitude to avoid any mountain peaks on the way to the

complex.

       “Have they said anything over the radio?” Ron questioned as they tore through the dense

atmosphere causing the shield perimeter at the nose of the Darlile to glow red.

       “No, not a word,” Cache replied.

       Cache contacted the Grid controllers and questioned them about any danger they might

be in. They were clearly surprised, responding calmly that all entrances were sealed and

everything was peaceful.




                                                                                                 517
       As the Darlile cleared the final mountain range blocking the view of the complex from

the inhabitants in the cockpit, Ron found himself shocked once more.

       The Grid complex wasn‟t exactly what he had expected to see. He guessed it was just a

large power plant, like on Earth, with cooling towers, buildings, and such. What he saw nearly

took his breath away.

       The “Grid” was exactly what it sounded like, an area divided into sections that were laid

out systematically. But this power plant was the size of Texas! It was an immense solar energy

absorption field that went on to the horizon and beyond. He hadn‟t taken even a second to look

down at the facility while he was battling the Kreete, high up in Rauld‟s upper atmosphere, and

now he was astounded at the unbelievable sight before him.

       Ron and Cache got the answer to the riddle about the troops when they hovered over a

particular scene a few borts later. The area around the Grid Control facility…a fifteen hoz

stretch at the eastern edge of the grid…was charred for several hundred peors along the shield‟s

perimeter.

       Cache made a quick analysis of the ground and found the Kreete force.

       “Apparently,” she explained, “they were grouped tightly for an assault on the

complex…here…and when the Cruiser shot at the Grid Control Nexus, they were caught up in

the blast by mistake. Their remains are there,” she said, indicating a black patch of soil beneath

the ship.

       They looked at each other for a long moment, as if wondering what to do next, and then

they both sighed deeply, simultaneously reaching out to hold the other‟s hand.

       They had succeeded! It was over.




                                                                                                518
        Ron couldn‟t help but notice the strain in Cache‟s voice as she concluded that last report.

The mission had finally taken its toll on her. She was spent, mind and body alike.

        They sat in silence as he eased the ship around, steering the Darlile toward the Gammone

Complex and headed her home. As they cruised above the beautiful, peaceful scenery below, it

wasn‟t long before Ron could feel the strength draining out of his own body as well, like water

out of a pitcher.

        Too many times had they relied on the excitement of the battles to get them through.

Now, as he and his feminine partner started to relax, they found it difficult to fight off the

exhaustion that was rapidly shutting down their bodies, and the thought of sleep began creeping

into their minds with a vengeance.

        They flew back at a much more leisurely pace, so when they finally reached their

destination, Cache was dead asleep.

        Somehow, Ron found the strength to free her from her restraints and carry her out of the

ship. He sat her down on the warm, soft grass, and then took the spot next to her, their backs

against one of the struts of the black war bird, and waited for the Rauldens to open the surface

access tunnel.

        He never saw them when they came however, for he was asleep as soon as he took the

load off his legs.




                                                                                                   519
                                        Chapter Thirty-nine

                                     Celebration and Heartache



       When Ron awakened, his first sight was that of Cache standing beside his bed. He

looked up into her golden face smiling down at him and thought she must be the most beautiful

sight in the entire universe. He gazed up at her tenderly, allowing his emotional attraction for

her show as he smiled back and exhaled a relaxing, contented sigh.

       Then, with his faculties fully returning from a light-headed, half sleeping state, he

recognized that his heart was opening fully to Cache, allowing her infatuation to tug hard at him.

At the same time, he felt another emotion jump to the foreground of his thoughts. He

remembered his life on another planet…Earth…and the woman who waited there for him to

return…and the smile on his face turned to concern.

       Cache‟s expression changed then also, but not to concern…to bewilderment. She could

not understand this man. One bort he accepts his feelings for her and the next, he rejects her.

The gleam in her eyes vanished and she abruptly turned to leave.




                                                                                                   520
          “No,” Ron said to her softly, reaching out and taking her hand in his, “please don‟t go,

Cache.”

          “You did not seem to want me to stay,” she returned, obviously hurt.

          “It‟s not that at all,” Ron said. “I just have something else on my mind. I‟ll explain

later.”

          He sat up and looked himself over. The wound he‟d received from the Kreete‟s bullet

was completely healed, and the bruises on his arms were well on their way to being gone too.

Those injuries, as well as numerous other scrapes and scratches, were nearly imperceptible.

          “People sure heal fast on this planet,” Ron commented, hopping out of bed.

          He was wearing a new set of green coveralls, sleeveless, with matching booties, and he

stretched and yawned for a few moments trying to work out the stiffness present in his whole

body. When he was done, he felt much at ease, especially considering what he‟d been through.

          “Whew!” he let out, after yawning again. “That was a nice little nap.”

          “That „little nap‟, as you refer to it, lasted eighteen straight billots, I will have you know,”

Cache told him.

          Ron was surprised at her proclamation, and began chuckling. “I guess I must‟ve been

more worn out than I thought.”

          “I suppose so, but to be honest with you, Ron, I was out for sixteen, not counting the

return flight from the Grid Complex, so I really cannot talk,” she assured him.

          “How are you feeling now, Cache,” Ron inquired, “after all the excitement and danger is

finally over?”




                                                                                                      521
       “Just fine,” she replied, lifting her hands in a grandiose pose and spinning quickly for his

inspection. “The physicians who examined us said we were suffering more from fatigue than

any of our injuries. How do I look?”

       “Great!” Ron replied as his mind‟s eye saw her once again in the hangar‟s shower.

       She was now wearing another new two-piece version of that sexy Raulden outfit she‟d

shocked him with before. This garment was light cream in color, with violet accents, and was

entirely absent of a back on the upper section of her garb, as the short sleeves were all that

secured the formfitting cover for her bosom.

       Her fantastic little bottom was adorned with a pair of low-rise shorts, which he likened to

bike shorts, which stoked Ron‟s fires again immediately. And she decorated her tiny feet with

lovely open sandals which laced up her calves sensuously.

       He paused a long moment and Cache delighted in his careful scrutiny of her.

       With a forceful mental prod, Ron tried to regain control of his thoughts.

       “I wanted…we don‟t…I didn‟t want to get cooped up in some hospital for observation,”

he finally stammered. “We‟ve got some serious celebrating to do. After all, it‟s not every day

you save an entire planet and its people, not to mention the thrill of kicking some real

intergalactic ass!”

       “Kicking what?” Cache asked, oblivious to his reference.

       “Oh, sorry,” Ron told her. “It‟s just a crude Earth expression.”

       “I see,” she said, disregarding the statement with another disarming smile. “Well, I might

as well tell you now that your duties to Rauld are not yet quite complete.”

       “What?” Ron replied, turning instantly serious again. “I thought the Kreete were all

gone. Did another strike force arrive while we were asleep?”




                                                                                                 522
       “No, but you „are‟ to be sent on one last mission,” Cache explained, her expression

turning intent. “In six billots, you are to report to the „Great Hall‟, for a full account of your

actions against our descendants.”

       Ron stood there, just staring at her, wondering what this meant. He blinked hard and his

throat went dry, trying to figure out if he‟d gone too far in eliminating the Kreete, since these

people were such devout pacifists.

       Cache kept her stern appearance for as long as she could, and then gave up the struggle,

bursting out in laughter as she abandoned her charade.

       “I am sorry for that,” she told Ron when she caught her breath again. “There is going to

be a celebration ceremony in your honor, and your presence is requested.”

       “Ah…ha!” Ron said, enjoying the trick. He scooped up the pillow from his bed and

swatted her hard with it. “Now, that‟s a mission I can look forward to.”

       Cache cackled and spun about as the pillow glanced off her.

       “What about from now till then?”

       “You have free run of the planet, so it is up to you,” Cache replied.

       “All right then,” Ron told her, scratching his bearded chin as he thought. “I request a tour

of Gammone…at least, as much as I can get to before the party. Also, I would like you as my

personal guide.”

       “That can be arranged easily enough,” she responded, grinning brightly. “Where would

you like to begin?”

       “Someplace where I can get some fooooood,” he told her as his belly erupted in a huge

growl, right on cue. “My stomach feels as empty as the hangar at Jametid…and as big.”




                                                                                                     523
       Cache started giggling when Ron said that, recalling how famished she‟d been when she

first awakened. “You and that stomach of yours,” she told him. “Are you never satisfied?”

       “Not for very long, it seems. The „new me‟ sure burns it up fast.”

       “Yes, I know! Well then, whenever you are prepared.”

       “Okay, just give me a few minutes to wash up and I‟ll be ready to go,” Ron told her,

disappearing into the sanitizer.

       Ten minutes later, he emerged freshly showered and changed, as well as clean-shaven,

thanks to the Rauldens having his possessions moved to this new room. Ron hadn‟t paid much

attention to his sleeping quarters until now, but he suddenly noticed that it wasn‟t his old space.

He looked about at the shallow, wonderfully intricate relief patterns carved into the solid rock

walls, covering the room like wallpaper. There were still no paintings or trappings of any kind,

but Ron liked the added show of artistry just as much, so blank had the other rooms been.

       Together he and Cache strolled to a large cafeteria, identical with the one where he first

sampled Raulden cuisine. Along the way however, he saw several people walking up and down

the corridor who greeted them as they passed by. That was strange to him, so he questioned

Cache about it.

       “The time for worrying is over, Ron,” Cache explained. “The citizens of Gammone no

longer feel the need to fear you…or me for that matter. They were alienated towards us because

we are so different, physically and mentally. Now they understand that we are only out to help

them, not control them as their ancestors were controlled.”

       Ron and Cache were greeted with friendly compliments as he ordered his meal…a plate

of balg, potatoes, and the usual drink, and then they sat at a nearby table.

       “Aren‟t you going to join me in a bite?”




                                                                                                   524
       “I am afraid I could not wait for you to awaken, and have already dined, sorry,” she

replied sheepishly.

       “No problem,” Ron told her, as he stuffed his face. “How about telling me more about

your people and how they‟ve changed?”

       Cache spoke for the next twenty minutes about the new optimism the Rauldens shared,

while Ron polished off two plates of food.

       After he gorged himself, they began the tour of the complex he‟d requested. They started

at the uppermost levels which housed the remarkable computer center and communications

network the Rauldens had developed. After that, they worked their way slowly downward, into

the main part of the underground facility.

       They didn‟t move along very quickly, because of Ron‟s insatiable curiosity. He stayed at

the Starflex terminal for half a billot as Cache and Aanlis joined forces to explain the reason he

crash landed out in that field instead of in the complex, where he should have. Ron was simply

fascinated with the technology surrounding him.

       Two hours later, they were looking at the education facilities available for the children of

Rauld. Ron saw a young woman walking her three cycle old son to school, and that scene made

him yearn all the more to return to Earth. He thought of all those who‟d undoubtedly given him

up for dead…his wife, his parents, and his friends…and knew they must be grieving terribly. He

should have taken a moment to think, but he didn‟t.

       “Will Hoaldniz keep his word about getting me back to Earth?” he blurted out.

       Cache‟s expression instantly changed from one of joy and happiness, to that of sorrow

and despair…and then to a stone-cold, stoic calm.




                                                                                                 525
       “You will be granted whatever you want, as was promised,” she told him flatly. “We

Rauldens do not renege on our word!”

       Ron realized his mistake, but the damage had been done. He felt like kicking himself for

hurting this woman, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

       They continued the tour for another half hour, like a couple who‟d never met and were

totally uncomfortable with each other, before Cache finally whirled around suddenly and

demanded an answer to what was on her mind.

       “Why do you want to leave?” she began, as her eyes filled with tears. “I thought you had

feelings for me. Is it so bad to stay here that you cannot even consider it? Are you blind? Can

you not see that I am in love with you?” she concluded, spinning around again and dashing off

for a waiting transporter.

       Ron was given no time to reply to any of her questions, but he had only one answer to

give to her, and he knew it.

       “Cache, wait!” he shouted as he pursued her.

       She halted the closing doors and stood there with tears streaming down the soft golden

fuzz on her cheeks, hoping to receive the reply she so desperately needed to hear.

       Ron stopped outside the transporter, only inches away from her. He looked down into

her tear-filled eyes and was torn between what he now felt, and what he must do. It pained him

greatly to have to wound this lovely, wonderful woman who‟d opened her heart to him. She

stood beside him in mortal combat and didn‟t falter, ready to die to protect him, as he had done

for her, forever welding a bond between them that could never be broken.




                                                                                                526
          But now, he would have to tear her heart out and walk away because another beautiful

woman had, under entirely different circumstances, stood beside him also. He knowingly and

willingly pledged his life and his love to her, until death would separate them.

          There was only one choice he could make.

          “I won‟t deceive you, Cache,” Ron said to her softly. “I do have strong feelings for you,

but I have to return to my home planet, or die trying.”

          He then placed his hands gently on Cache‟s shoulders and took a moment to think.

          “You see, I have someone there who I‟ve sworn my heart and my life to in an ancient

ceremony of my world. This custom is probably the most sacred ritual of my people, and I

cannot disregard my duties to my wife. Therefore, I cannot choose another mate as long as she

lives.”

          Cache‟s violet eyes flared in anger and jealousy.

          “You choose another woman over me?” she asked through gritted teeth. “You are

beneath my contempt!”

          With that, she brushed his hands away from her, slapped him hard enough across the face

to make him stagger back, and let the transporter doors close, shutting him off from her view.

          Ron stood where he was for quite a while, rubbing his cheek, until he thought to send for

another cube. He managed to return to his room, since he had at least possessed the forethought

to memorize the coordinates of its location…all the while wishing there had been another way to

solve his dilemma.

          By the time he reached his quarters he was depressed and lonely, so he lie down to relax

and think for a while. The situation was really a mess now. He was certain he could never find




                                                                                                 527
the Great Hall to attend the ceremony…he‟d alienated his one true friend on the entire

planet…and he still didn‟t know how he was going to get back to Earth.

        He let his problems bounce around inside his head until he drifted off to a light sleep.

        Waking from his nap an hour later, Ron found a note on a view screen beside the door, a

device he‟d never noticed before. It informed him how to reach the celebration, and explained

about the special attire he was requested to wear.

        He showered again and donned the suit he found in the laundry portal. It was startlingly

white, almost giving off light, and bore a small black patch on it that resembled the Darlile, just

off to the left center of the shirt. It was a tremendous contrast against his tanned skin and black

hair.

        When he was ready, he boarded the cubic transporter and rode it down to the

subterranean transport system where he programmed the computer to send him a “mint” shaped

pod-car, and told it where it was to deliver him. The note explained everything in great detail, so

he had no difficulties at all.

        When the pod set off for its assigned destination, Ron expected to be pinned back in his

seat, as he had while riding with Cache, but was disappointed. He started thinking of her as he

rode, already missing the wild adventure he associated with her, and wondering about how he

could patch up their relationship.

        The trip took several minutes, allowing Ron time to get nervous about the upcoming

event as well. He was anxiously speculating about what to expect as the vehicle slowed to a

stop, at which time he followed the instructions again, taking him to another cubic transport and

back up into the vastness of Gammone.




                                                                                                   528
       Ron‟s expectations changed from worry to sheer awe as the doors opened. The room in

front of him was a round auditorium, fully three-quarters of a mile in diameter and a half-mile

deep. It was lined from top to bottom with four-seat booths, much like the box seats at Earth

sporting events, and appeared to be able to accommodate easily half a million patrons. He then

understood why they called it the Great Hall.

       An air-car; identical with the one Cache had flown out into the Raulden forest in search

of Ron, floated to the small platform where he was standing. A tall, young, pleasant looking

man who reminded Ron of a high school friend of his piloted it.

       Ron stepped aboard the machine and was carried swiftly toward the center of the circular

room on the smooth and silent craft. Looking out at the crowd of people, Ron guessed there

must be a couple hundred thousand attending Rauldens gathered around the place; about half

full. But too, he saw there was still a steady stream of people filing into the open seats as he was

carried onward, and that added to his nervousness.

       He exited the car on a stage which floated motionless in the center of the expanse. It had

no visible means of support, yet felt as solid as stone.

       There, Hoaldniz and the other Council members greeted him warmly. Each was now

donning attire that seemed more carefree, uniquely personalized to the individual. The ladies

wore long dresses and open sandals with flare and trappings which showed their feminine tastes

well. The men wore fine robes over impeccably tailored clothing, also separating each to his

own style. It was very refreshing to Ron.

       They motioned him to have a seat beside Cache, whom he saw was also dressed in white

and was absolutely stunning. She was pointedly looking in another direction as he took his seat.




                                                                                                  529
       Knowing how much the Rauldens were influenced by color, Ron searched the crowd for

others adorned as he and Cache were, but saw none. Undoubtedly, white held a special meaning

to them.

       Just as soon as Ron took his seat, Hoaldniz stepped to the center of the stage and paused

briefly to allow the audience to recognize him. Ron gazed around the cavernous space again and

couldn‟t find a single seat left empty. It amazed him that these people could congregate so

efficiently and so quickly. It would have taken hours to gather such a crowd on Earth.

       Without raising his voice from his normal tone, the leader of the Raulden Council of

Planetary Affairs addressed the assemblage.

       “People of Rauld!” he began. “All of you have willingly come here to pay tribute to the

man and woman seated at my left, Ron Allison and Cache Kuar. Cache is of Rauld and has done

a commendable job for her people, of which we are incredibly grateful. She is a gifted scientist,

filled with passion and commitment that enables her to lead the way in many areas we have

allowed to lay dormant for so long.

       “She is also a compassionate individual, filled with the hopes and dreams of the

young…and strong enough to see her goals through to the end.

       “She is the Raulden warrior we have needed so badly to teach us that we are not alone in

this grand universe. To show us that we have a moral obligation to join with the multitude of

planets scattered across the heavens, so we might begin to grow again as a society. She has

enlightened us, and for that, we are eternally grateful.”

       Hoaldniz paused as the crowd struck harmonious chords from their booths…a kind of

applause Ron surmised.

       “But this man, Ron Allison, is not of our world, and I would speak to you now of him.




                                                                                                530
       “I see that many of you have brought your children to this ceremony, and I commend

you. They should see with their own eyes who it was that saved their world from certain

destruction. Also, they should know what kind of man risked his life to ensure their future to be

a safe one.

       “The man who sits here is adorned in our symbolic color of ultimate glory. It is the color

of the last remaining substance we have managed to sustain through the ages since the dark

times…the single unchanged element from our ancient dactrais of life on the surface of our

world. It represents purity and perfection, and is only awarded to the finest and most inspiring

individuals. Yet, this man is what we have feared for hundreds of cycles…a mutation!

       Hoaldniz paused for a few litas to allow the audience to absorb what he was saying.

       “He is alive only through a technological transformation of unfathomable chance; the

junction of a Caronian warrior and an Earth technician.

       “Due to a mistake made by us, here on Rauld, he was ripped away from the life he knew

on his world. He was forcibly merged with the Caronian named Kaskle Dangarth…without his

consent…and then transported to this planet to be embroiled in our affairs of enormous

magnitude and danger.

       “Now we of Rauld have grown to fear mutations because of our own history, a history

filled with pain, suffering, persecution, and terror from such creations. Because of our ancestral

brethren, the ones who now call themselves the Kreete, we have firmly planted this fear of

abnormal changes into our way of life, and justly so. But I say now that it is time to change our

ways of looking at creatures, and beings, which are not naturally evolved from former life-forms.

       “Cache too is of a unique existence, having been genetically engineered by our own

scientists during the rebirth of our people, and it has caused her much hardship in her life. Yet




                                                                                                531
she did not hesitate as we did to offer help to less advanced worlds, and to rise to the call when

her own planet was in danger.

       “These two incredible heroes have shown us irrefutably that alteration does not have to

be immediately associated with evil and fear.

       “I hope we can go forward now, like the intelligent citizens we are, and accept new and

different peoples, places, and ideas, openly.

       “But that is enough with the lecturing. We are here to honor, not instruct.” Hoaldniz

said, pausing to change verbal directions.

       “The man, Ron Allison, of the planets Earth and Caron, and Cache Kuar of our own

home world of Rauld, through their strength, courage, resourcefulness, and even ferocity, have

saved our planet. Their victory has also directly shielded innumerable others from the Kreete‟s

destruction, barbarity, slavery, and countless other horrible fates which have plagued scores of

planets in our galaxy for generations.

       “Through their deeds, they have justly earned the honors that I will now bestow on them.

       “First, Ron is to be granted anything he wishes, as long as it is within our power to

supply, agreed?”

       “Agreed!” replied the crowd in perfect unison, astounding Ron with the clarity of the

response.

       “Second,” continued Hoaldniz, “he is…though of another world…granted citizenship to

Rauld as a brother to us all!”

       “Citizenship to Ron Allison!” the enormous sea of people spoke.

       “Third, he has earned the right to sit as full council member on the Raulden Council of

Planetary Affairs.”




                                                                                                 532
       “Councilman!” the crowd returned.

       “I thank you all for your support in these matters,” Hoaldniz told the assembled masses,

bowing deeply.

       “Now, I ask if Ron would like to say a few words.”

       Ron wasn‟t totally shocked by Hoaldniz‟s request at a speech, as he had a feeling he

might be asked such. He stood up at once and strode to the center of the stage, moving

smoothly, almost gliding across the floor.

       He bowed to Hoaldniz while the Raulden leader took his seat, and then faced the

audience, slowly sweeping his gaze until he had acknowledged the entire spherical theater full of

citizens. He could see no form of voice carrying device, so he just did as he‟d seen Hoaldniz do.

       “I am deeply moved by the kind words spoken here on my behalf,” Ron began. “I am

also greatly honored that you, the people of Rauld, have chosen me to be a citizen of your

incredible world, and have placed me in such a high position as that of Councilman…and I thank

you. But I would also like to point out a fact. If it had not been for the foresight of another, the

outcome of the past few days would surely have been quite different. If not for this person‟s

intelligence, perseverance, and courage, I would not be here today. She was, through what I am

sure was the influence of a more powerful being, responsible for bringing me here to Rauld, and

she has personally saved my life many times during my stay.

       “So I would like to pay tribute to her, my partner, my ally, my eternal friend, Cache Kuar

of Rauld.”

       The musical applause permeated the huge room as Ron turned to face Cache, motioning

for her to join him. When she stood, the crowd hailed: “CACHE!”

       Hoaldniz joined the two of them and spoke again.




                                                                                                  533
       “We have learned, through the wisdom of our new reality, that power and technology can

work together to form peace. These two warriors have justly demonstrated that to us.

       “Now we have come to a crossing of two paths. Should we stay on our present course

and ignore the desperate cries for help from all around us, where the people are suffering, dying,

struggling to survive?”

       “NO!” the crowd of Rauldens rang out.

       “Perhaps we can provide aid to the decimated planets which have felt the wrath of the

Kreete Triad,” Hoaldniz said. “We have conquered the enormous task of reestablishing life to a

polluted, dead world…and we have constructed advanced power sources, defense systems, and a

wide variety of other technologies. We could share this knowledge.”

       “YES!” cried the audience.

       “The Darlile, the ship with which Ron and Cache braved the entire fleet sent to conquer

us, was built for many purposes,” Hoaldniz continued. “Through it we can offer planets defense

from the murderous evil that has overwhelmed them, or transport the equipment needed to

establish a permanent Starflex terminal on each world.

       “Once these terminals are in place, there could be truly open exchange between the

planets for the first time. Our people could travel the galaxy to spread our technology and aid

toward unifying a peaceful coalition of differing species and ideologies.

       “What say you citizens of Rauld?”

       “Yes to exploration!” they responded.

       “Also, we ask that Ron and Cache be appointed as our Ambassadors and, when needed,

our warriors for peace.

       “Do I speak for the people of Rauld?”




                                                                                                  534
        “Yes! Ambassadorship to Ron and Cache!” was the reply.

        Ron looked around the vastness of the room and was overwhelmed that they could all

agree on any matters, much less the generous royalties embellished on him and Cache. He

wished with all his soul that he could live among such a civilization that could focus on the good

of the whole instead of the one. But that was not to be, and he was greatly saddened by what he

was now forced to do. His heart was his guide though, and so he stepped up again to address the

gathered Rauldens.

        “Good people of Rauld…my new brothers and sisters…I am a simple man and I truly

don‟t deserve the praise you‟ve given me, nor the position I‟ve been granted. But I would gladly

accept your gracious offer if I could.

        “The less advanced planets do indeed require someone to help them overcome their

desperate situations, but I am afraid it cannot be me…at least not until some other issues are

dealt with first.”

        The audience didn‟t make a sound as he continued.

        “Because of some important obligations on my home world, I must return to it. There are

people waiting for me, who I am pledged to and who cannot be forgotten, no matter what else

may have occurred in my life. My family and friends have given me up for dead by now, and I

must set them straight about my fate before I might choose the intended path for my future.

        “Perhaps I will be able to return one day to Rauld, to share your newfound hope, and to

help you to spread that hope. But as for now, I am uncertain…and I cannot give my word if I am

not sure that I can keep it.

        “Let me say that when I leave for Earth, I will take with me the pride of your planet. I

am proud to be a Raulden, and I will never forget you, and the wonders I have seen here.




                                                                                                   535
         “I have come to know some of you,” he said as he locked his gaze on Cache, “as warm,

caring, and wonderful people…and I love you!”

         Ron bowed his head to the crowd in typical Raulden fashion, and then he strode back and

took his seat.

         Cache followed his movement with her tear-filled eyes and then she boldly stepped up to

speak.

         “My fellow citizens!” she began. “I have been granted the opportunity to travel the star-

ways with your blessings. That has been a dream of mine, all of my life, and I thank you. But I

have been even more fortunate, because I have had the unprecedented honor of becoming close

to the man who saved our home…Ron Allison.

         “His people have no idea how lucky they are to have been gifted with a man such as him.

Perhaps…” she had to pause to choke back her tears, “perhaps they will one dactrai realize the

true value of this man, which is to me, the ransom of a treasure world!”

         Cache walked quickly back to her seat beside Ron with tears streaming, and threw her

arms around his neck, sobbing deeply. Ron held her tightly as he felt his throat tighten as well,

his heart crushed by her sadness.

         Hoaldniz too, seemed to be choked up as he tried to speak. He cleared his throat twice

before gaining full control.

         “It seems that we must say farewell to the man of two worlds,” he said to the crowd.

“Our plans will suffer greatly at the loss of him, but clearly not as much as our own Cache.

However, we of Rauld know respect for commitment and the drive to fulfill that commitment, so

we release Ron to his duties with feelings of joy for having known him and the wish for him a

long, happy life.




                                                                                                  536
          “Let us now conclude this celebration ceremony with a toast to the two beside me, clad in

white.”

          From the arm of each seat, a small, ornately carved glass, half filled with a white liquid,

sprang up from a special compartment. Everyone stood and lifted his or her glass as Hoaldniz

spoke again.

          “We now offer up a toast to the saviors of Rauld,” he announced. “A toast made with the

most precious resource known to us, the only substance that has remained pure through the

ravages of time, unchanged by the scourge of our own evolution of man and technology.”

          He then turned to face the two honorees, extending his arm and raising his glass.

          “To Ron and Cache!” resounded the entire audience in absolute synchronicity.

          Ron gulped down the liquid quickly, afraid of the taste of the unknown beverage, which

he fully expected to be some alien liquor. He nearly choked as the taste registered in his pallet.

          It was milk!




                                               Chapter Forty

                                       Which Way to Earth?




                                                                                                   537
       “You two can go ahead, Cache,” Fortell told her. “We will join you in the council room

as soon as we can.”

       Cache smiled at his statement, knowing that he was fully aware of her thrill-seeking

tendencies. She then summoned a pod…punching up her private code. Soon she and Ron were

being squeezed by the forces of acceleration they loved, as the “mint”-shaped vehicle moved

away from the station at an incredible rate of speed.

       They both sat there without saying anything, enjoying the ride, which was over much too

soon for Ron‟s taste. When they were on the next leg of their trip however, heading back up in

the cubic transporter, Ron managed to break the silence with his curiosity.

       “Cache, what‟s the drink we had called?”

       “It is a very special liquid which is only used in times of great celebration,” she replied.

“It is called “olish”. We get it from a herbivorous animal called a meunt, which was saved from

extinction by the most extreme of coincidences. It was perfectly preserved from the centuries of

biological changes by an accidental oversight. After the initial fleeing of the Raulden population

into the underground complexes, at the beginning of the Dark Period, there were search teams

sent out to scour the planet in a quest to gather all salvageable food supplies. The meunts were

found only two hundred and twenty cycles ago. They were still frozen solid at the edge of a

glacier that was rapidly melting away after the skies finally cleared and the twin stars shined

down on our planet permanently once again.

       “We were able to clone the animals and the grasses which were their food supply without

the influence of any contaminants to change their genetic codes, so they are just as they were

seven hundred cycles ago.




                                                                                                  538
       “We have only a few hundred animals alive now, since we did not want to overpopulate

the limited resources of grain we can grow underground. These animals are the last living

creatures of the ancient Rauld. That is why the olish is so special.”

       “If you only have a few animals, how could you possibly have enough to have toasted

with it today?” Ron asked. “There must have been at least a half-million people there today.”

       “The animals create the liquid every dactrai, and we have machines which remove it,

purify it, and then package and freeze it. What we used for this celebration nearly depleted our

entire supply, but it was viewed as well worth it.”

       They exited the transport and went to the Council‟s room to wait for the others.

       Ron considered the difference between Earth and Rauld again, based on what Cache just

told him. Earthlings would have viewed the prospect as absurd, worshipping valuable minerals

above all else, and the Rauldens wanted nothing more than to save this small thread of

consistency between the present and the past.

       Ron and Cache sat down in silence, each contemplating what the future might bring, and

were startled when the other members arrived.

       “All right, Ron,” Hoaldniz said when they were all assembled, “here is where we stand as

far as getting you back to Earth.”

       Cache sprang to her feet and walked hurriedly from the room. She couldn‟t stand the

thought of Ron leaving forever, so she just left. Ron made a move to go after her, but Fortell

stopped him with a motion of his hand.

       “She will be fine, Ron…in a while,” Fortell said. “She just needs time to collect herself.”

       Ron returned to his seat and Hoaldniz continued.




                                                                                                 539
        “There is somewhat of a problem concerning your returning to Earth,” he began, and Ron

got a sinking feeling in his stomach. “The best that we can do presently, is to narrow the

possible star systems down to sixty thousand and thirty-two.”

        Ron was too stunned to reply, and it showed in his face. He struggled to contain his

temper, and then calmly spoke.

        “I thought you said you could locate it,” he told the group.

        “We know which way the Kreete diverted the portal‟s signal, to a moderately fine

degree,” Aanlis replied for the council, “but the distance between the stars in that area is very

small. Given these facts, and since the gate has no known limit to its range…and there was no

receiver to pinpoint the exact coordinates…we do not know which one it went to.

        “But all is not hopeless. If you can give us some information about your star, we should

be able to determine it.”

        That made Ron feel much better, so he tried to relax and concentrate on the necessary

data. He surprised himself once again as the information seemed to just float to the top of his

memories. At one time, he‟d been an avid student of space and astronomical data, which was

what first got him interested in aircraft.

        “From what I‟ve learned,” Ron rattled off, “our sun is approximately eight hundred and

seventy thousand miles in diameter, is ninety percent comprised of hydrogen and the rest is

mostly helium…”

        Ron was able to supply the scientists with a fairly precise description of the sun, and they

plugged it all into the central computer as he spoke. At that point, the calculations began to

compile.




                                                                                                    540
        Ron took the opportunity to slip out and stretch his legs while the Rauldens did their

technological wizardry. He was too nervous to stand there and try to follow the high-tech jargon

they spoke, and he didn‟t want to seem too impatient, so a stroll struck him as a good alternative.

        He walked down the corridor, staring at, but not seeing, more of the intricate patterns of

carvings on the walls of the hallway…his mind being far away from that place. After several

minutes, he found himself outside one of the large cafeterias which were conveniently stationed

at every level of Gammone. He paused, and then decided to see if a snack would help calm his

nerves. Upon walking into the large dining hall, he received a pleasant surprise. Cache was

sitting at a table, clearly deep in thought.

        “Hey good-looking, come here often?” he said to her, breaking her placid stare.

        She couldn‟t resist his charm, and smiled back.

        Cache joined Ron in having a light meal, and they sat and talked for a long while

afterward.

        They spoke of the plans to aid the surrounding planets, and a few other ideas that were in

the works. A few hours later, Ron stood up to head back to the Council Room to check on the

progress the Rauldens were making, if any. Cache was feeling much better by then and opted to

join him.

        When Ron and Cache entered, jubilant faces greeted them.

        “I am happy to see you two back together,” Hoaldniz said to them. “Ron, we have

located your star.”

        “Whoa, yeah!” Ron let out, feeling a ton of worry lifting off his shoulders. “That‟s great!

How far is it?”




                                                                                                 541
       “Approximately thirty-three thousand, two hundred, and sixty four light cycles away,”

Aanlis announced proudly.

       Ron‟s face fell again. His hopes of getting home were swept away as swiftly as the

statement was spoken.

       “Thirty-three THOUSAND light-years?” he moaned.

       Cache saw his expression and jumped in to sooth his concern.

       “Ron,” she said softly, “it is not as you are thinking. You can get back to your world. I

almost wish you could not, but you can.”

       “What are you talking about?” Ron asked, still convinced of the utter hopelessness of the

situation. “How‟s that possible? Even at a hundred times the speed of light I‟d be long dead

from old age in the journey! And if you‟re talking about freezing me for the trip, forget it,

because by the time I reached Earth, everyone I once knew would be ancient history.”

       Cache maneuvered him into a chair and then explained.

       “I understand what you are saying,” she told him, kneeling at his feet and locking her

gaze with his. “But it is only because you do not understand space travel, and the affects of

extreme velocity on the tangible space that surrounds us.

       “You see, when traveling beyond light speed, things do not happen quite the same way as

they do at sublight speeds. After VL-1 velocity is attained, and you are moving at the same rate

as all the other particles around you, outside forces, such as acceleration and deceleration, inertia,

and some other phenomenon which you would not understand, become nonexistent. At this

point, the laws of physics you would generally cling to fall aside.

       “That is when a specialized propulsion device on the ship called the NOVA-drive is put

into service. I mentioned it briefly once, in one of our conversations. It uses a portion of the




                                                                                                   542
power generated by the engines to create and maintain a dynamic cylindrical vesicle around the

ship…an energy tube, if you will. We call it the „Dynatube‟.

       “This is done by emitting dual helical projections of energy which force the space around

the ship to bend away from it, creating this corridor, or „tube‟ in which the vessel resides. Inside

the Dynatube is what we call subspace, or intangible space, and forces such as inertia, gravity,

and the like, as well as matter itself, respond quite uniquely.

       “To account for this, the inlets of the engines graze the walls of the corridor and glean

atomic particles from it to furnish the ship‟s fuel requirements, so the process may continue.

       “Forward motion from the NOVA-drive is instigated by increasing the distance the

leading edge of the tube is from the ship. The farther out in front of the nose, the faster the

passage through „tangible‟ space can be.

       “Now, if you have sufficient power to double your Dynatube length, your speed through

tangible space jumps two and a quarter times, even though you have only doubled your speed in

intangible space. And you cannot tell the difference while you are in the envelope. If you can

triple your rate of propulsion, the ship‟s speed jumps five times beyond that, and it keeps

geometrically expanding by squares from there on.

       “The Darlile should have the power to make four or five jumps in this series.”

       Ron had no chance of understanding the premise the mathematics was based on, and

couldn‟t even keep up with the correlation of distance to the Darlile‟s ultimate rate of spe