Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

"It had to be these guys!" Ricky hissed through clenched teeth, as the view moved around the intruder's encampment. The Moth were hard at work, obviously building a base from which to operate. There only seemed to be the one ship, built in the same design as their own Lollipop before Max had disguised its appearance, yet far larger in size. The numbers of Moth moving about were in line with their ship's size, and Charlie counted over forty of the aliens before he thought he might be counting them twice. There were surely others still aboard the ship, and probably elsewhere, too.

"That's a cruiser, I would say," Ragal mused, studying the alien vessel. "But it may as well be a battleship. We would be considerably outgunned in Lollipop."

Charlie turned to Eseffa. "Is there just the one ship there?"

"So far. Their discovery of Lyrgris is very recent, going by the time in your own universe. This is the vessel that made the find, and no others have arrived as yet."

"They may not, then," Max said speculatively. "This may be a small outfit of some kind, and the Moth don't like to share stuff with each other. If this is anything like a lot of their operations, it's in a box, and only a few people know about it."

Charlie had to agree with that. Moth culture revolved around advantage and status. The central government of their empire was a collection of almost feudal lords, whose baronies ran the gamut in purpose from agricultural and industrial supply to shipbuilding, high tech weaponry, corporate espionage, and information-dealing. Their research labs were the best in the five empires, and their ship and weapons technology held a fine edge in superiority to all others.

The balance of the population was aligned with at least one of these baronies, and worked for them, and treated them as if they were family. The Moth were concerned with moving up in life, not resting on any one accomplishment. And one thing the barons did not like to do was share their toys with the others. Not without a clear advantage in doing so, anyway. Baronies ranged in size from small and local to one planet to vast and interstellar in scope. If the one that had located Lyrgris was one of the smaller ones, their resources might be limited, and they would not be requesting aid from any of the others. A find like Lyrgris could build them their own empire!

"Well, we can't fight them, obviously," Kippy said. "Their ship is more powerful than ours. So what do we do about them?"

Eseffa and Jorli glanced at each other, and both of the Madracorn looked troubled.

"Oh, no," Eseffa said quickly. "We don't wish you to fight."

"None of you must be injured," Jorli agreed. "We would never ask such a thing of you."

Max smiled at that. "Gonna be hard to move them off that planet any other way, I think. I doubt they'll just leave if we ask them to. What'd you guys have in mind?"

"Lyrgris can defend itself," Eseffa explained. "The defensive systems simply need to be activated."

"You said you could go there," Adrian spoke up. "Can't you just go turn them on?"

"If it was simply a matter of activation, we could," Jorli agreed. "But Lyrgris was never completed, never made fully functional. The problem is that the operational key that would normally oversee defensive systems was never installed."

"So what's this key?" Adrian asked. "You mean something that can think?"

"Yes, very much so. It is like a small mind, it's thoughts primarily concerned with defense."

Ragal gave a quiet laugh at that. "And where would this key happen to be now?"

Jorli smiled at them. "Why, it is right here on Engris, as a matter of fact. A number of them were made, and placed in storage here for possible use at a later date."

"I'm guessing you can't manipulate matter but so much then," Max said. "Otherwise you'd just grab the thing and pop over to Lyrgris and plug it in."

"You did say you could go there," Charlie reminded.

"That's true," Eseffa agreed. "And if the key were already in place at Lyrgris, we would not be speaking now."

"We can manipulate things here and on Lyrgris through the assistance of technology," Jorli told them. "We use our mental talents to move physical controls that perform the tasks we need done. But we are unable to transport a material object through the continuum in which the dead reside. We cannot move the mind to Lyrgris on our own."

"You guys can't teleport?" Max asked.

"No. Such talents were known to exist in our time, but they were exceedingly rare."

Ricky laughed at that. "See, Max? You elf guys are a one-off, you know?"

"Pacha learned the talent from me," Max reminded. "Sometimes it's just havin' the right teacher." He smiled at the two Madracorn. "Maybe I could teach you guys."

"That might have been possible if we were still alive," Jorli returned. "But our patterns are set now, and we cannot change them."

That surprised Charlie. "You mean once you're dead, you can't learn new things?"

Both Madracorn laughed at that. "Not at all," Eseffa said, his smile broadening. "Learning is both fun and easy. Memory is but a property of capacity. But our mental talents - our powers, as it were - are the result of brain functions we had in life, with corporeal brains. We retain those powers as we move on because they are set in our patterns, but adding new talents has so far not been possible. Evolution is a trait of living things, I'm afraid."

"May still be able to teach you," Max said, but shook his head. "Sounds like a project, though. It took a while with Pach, and he's alive. So maybe we can wait on that."

"It sounds like all we have to do is take this key thing to Lyrgris," Casper said. "Once it's there, you can get it going, right?"

"Well --" Eseffa winced. "Actually, you need to get it to its mount on Lyrgris and install it there. Once that is done, we can get it going, as you say."

Charlie had been feeling that this all sounded too easy so far. "Have the Moth reached the location where we'd have to place it?"

"Not yet. They have been required to actually bore through the crust to reach the sites they have located with their scanning equipment. The material that Lyrgris is constructed from is rather dense. It is time-consuming for them to bore through it in their relative temporal state, but they are using twenty high-energy, high-speed boring machines to reach our equipment spaces within the body of Lyrgris, and for us to wait much at all will surely give them the time they need to reach them."

"I thought the interiors of these little planets of yours were shielded," Kippy said. "Engris, is, from what Durapar told us."

"Engris is," Eseffa agreed. "But it is a function of the defensive system, not the materials that constitute that world ship. The Moth seem to have some very potent scanning equipment. They have located many of the machine spaces within Lyrgris."

"But they still have to dig to them," Charlie repeated, seeking clarification.

"Yes.They need to go down some hundred of miles to reach them. Even so, their machines are very fast."

"What about those holes inside the spirit domes?" Ricky asked. "They go all the way to the core of the planet, right?"

"They do," Jorli agreed. "But they do not offer access to any of the interior control spaces within the planet. The core and the tunnels that extend upwards to the surface constitute a single specialized area, constructed of super-hardened materials to limit changes in dimension. The Moth have found that boring from the core or the tunnels would require more time and effort than boring from the surface."

Casper looked up at Ragal, and then over at Eseffa and Jorli. "Have they removed any of your tech from Lyrgris yet?"

"They have removed a number of defensive devices from their original locations, but so far they are being stored in the spirit dome by their camp, and haven't been loaded onto their ship yet."

"Anything really valuable?" Ricky asked.

"The systems closest to the surface are the shielding units, that prevent the interior from being scanned. These sorts of shields would be superior to anything known in the five empires today, and give the Moth a distinct advantage. So far, they have only reached several of these, and removed them to the surface."

"And the ship hasn't left since they discovered Lyrgris?"


Casper grinned, and looked up at Ragal. "So if we get there fast, we can keep them from getting away with any of the tech from that planet."

"And that would be the most desirable conclusion, too," Ragal agreed. He smiled. "You have some ideas on this? A way to perhaps slow them down a bit?"

Casper nodded, and then looked over at Horace. "I'll need your help."

The man looked pleased, and nodded vigorously. "Then you shall have it."

Casper let his eyes circle the group. "I think I can give the Moth something to think about, and mess up what they're doing. But it probably won't get rid of them. We'll all have to work on doing that. But maybe we can get the time we need. "

Kippy laughed, and patted Charlie's arm. "That's why we're all here, I'm sure!"

Charlie sighed, but with a not unhappy feeling of acceptance. It did seem that once again fate had placed them in the right place at the right time to perform a task that was in dire need of doing. He looked over at Max, who simply grinned back at him, and then nodded at the two Madracorn. "How do we find Lyrgris? If it moves around like Engris, and doesn't find us first, it might be pretty hard to locate."

Eseffa and Jorli looked elated, sensing Charlie's positive decision. "Lyrgris does not move as Engris does. Lyrgris was set to stay in place within the Cooee while under construction. After the world ship was abandoned, it continued to operate to that plan. The Moth found Lyrgris, not the reverse."

"But you know where it is now?" Max asked pointedly.

"Yes. All four of the other world ships can be tracked by Engris. So we can get you to Lyrgris without a problem."

Charlie did a small double-take at that. " can actually get us there?" Obviously, getting to Lyrgris without the Moth detecting their arrival would be the hardest part of the whole operation.

Jorli spread his hands to encompass all of them. "You can use one of the shuttles based here on Engris. Good as the Moth scanners are, they will not be able to detect this vessel.".

Max looked over at Charlie. "Good enough for me. What do you think?"

Charlie shrugged. "I think this is a no-brainer. We can't let the Moth get their hands on Madracorn technology. It would upset the balance of power between the five empires. The Moth will use this tech to do what they do best: bully others. There would be a fight of some kind, and a lot of people could get killed."

"And we can't have that," Kippy said firmly.

"I will assist," Sefton said. "Engris is home. If can't defend home, can't defend anything."

"Thank you," the two Madracorn said in unison.

"I have a question," Horace said then, raising a hand.

The two Madracorn immediately turned towards him. "Please ask," Jorli offered.

Horace looked at Charlie, his eyes holding a seems like a reasonable question to me look, to which Charlie smiled. "Go ahead."

"Very well." Horace smiled at the two Madracorn. "Since you know where Lyrgris is, and since you can move Engris about at will, wouldn't it be a good idea to have Engris find Lyrgris and help to defend it?"

The two tall aliens looked startled, and then both of them laughed.

"Wonderful!" Eseffa said, his eyes bright with humor. "It is a wonderful question, Horace." The Madracorn leaned down towards them. "Engris has already positioned itself just beyond the range of the Moth vessel's scanners. We are, as your people like to say, a hop, skip, and a hump away from Lyrgris."

Charlie grinned at that, and both Kippy and Adrian laughed. "That's a hop, skip, and a jump," Kippy corrected pleasantly. "Though humping has a lot to recommend it."

Eseffa straightened. "Either way. But we are close by, nonetheless."

Ricky waved a hand. "If we're that close, can't we just zoom up to Lyrgris, and have the weapons here on Engris force the Moth right off the surface?"

"It would be ideal if that were all that was needed," Jorli replied. "But Engris is designed to excel at defense. It cannot be conquered by an inferior technology. But it's offensive capabilities are almost non-existent. The defenses here can guard the space around the planet, but cannot be extended to cover another world. We can keep further ships from landing on Lyrgris, but we cannot remove the one that has already landed."

Casper laughed, a squeaky little sound that made Charlie smile. "But the Moth don't know that," Casper said. "This could be fun!"

Charlie nodded, ideas already flitting through his mind. "I guess we all need to sit down and talk."

Ricky grinned. "Britannica time!"

"A place to conference can be made available to you," Jorli said. "We will take you there now."

Kippy snuggled up to Charlie and hugged his arm. "I like the idea of pulling one on the Moth. They're the sort that need their tails twisted every now and then."

"Yeah. Let's hope we can get away with that again."

Eseffa and Jorli turned, and started to walk slowly across the grand machine room, and Charlie and his party fell in behind.

The small shuttle had been built to convey the Madracorn from place to place, and so was more than roomy enough for Charlie and his group. The seating had adjusted itself to their more diminutive frames, and Charlie found the view ahead as grand as it was astounding. The nose of the craft was transparent, so much so that it was as if nothing at all existed between themselves and the darkness of the Cooee. Ahead of them, Lyrgris hung in that darkness, the invisible world ship outlined by a ghostly light supplied by the vehicle's sensory equipment. Against the utter blackness of the Cooee, it was a stunning sight for the eyes.The disc of the world was growing even as they watched, the shuttle eating up the distance between them with an almost alarming efficiency.

"This things moves!" Ricky said appreciatively. He grinned at Charlie. "Wonder if they'd let us take one home with us?"

Adrian laughed, and bumped his shoulder against Ricky playfully. "I can see your dad's face now when he comes home from work and finds this thing sticking out of your garage."

Ricky joined his boyfriend in laughing. "Nah." He turned and smiled at Charlie. "We'd keep it in Charlie's backyard."

Charlie grinned at that, imagining his dad cutting the grass on his little lawn tractor while an invisible and undetectable Madracorn star shuttle hovered just above his head. "No."

Ricky sighed, but Charlie could see that the idea wasn't going to die easily. "It's not like anyone would know it was there," Ricky pushed.

"I would know it was there," Charlie returned, smiling. "No."

"Give it up, Rick," Adrian said, squeezing his boyfriend's arm. "It's not a realistic idea."

"Yeah, well. It was a fun idea, anyway."

Charlie sighed, and turned to look towards the rear of the shuttle. "Everything okay back there?"

Horace, Ragal, and Casper were sitting together, Casper holding the small box containing the key mind that would supposedly defend Lyrgris once installed. After seeing the big crystalline structures in the huge room beneath the surface of Engris, Charlie had envisioned something equally large and mysterious and crystalline-looking, designed to defend an entire world, that would take them all to manhandle into place once they reached Lyrgris. He should have remembered that Kifta and Moth artificial intelligences could be held in one's hand, and that surely the Madracorn could do better. And they had. The box contained a black marble held in a soft cocoon, and when they arrived at the right place within Lyrgris, it would be a matter of setting the marble into the right indentation in a larger crystalline structure. Eseffa and Jorli had taken them to the room within Engris where its defensive mind was stored, and shown them what needed to be done. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it was a very straightforward operation.

Their movements about the interior of Engris had been astonishing. The place was honeycombed with tunnels, through which incredible transports rocketed at amazing speeds, eating up hundreds of miles of distance between facilities in mere minutes. Lyrgris was outfitted in the same manner, and Eseffa and Jorli had assured them that, once landed, they would be able to move about just as rapidly.

The Moth were not very close yet to the chamber where Charlie's group needed to go to place the defensive mind, but one of their boring machines was heading that way, and they were amazingly fast. Getting there ahead of them should still be possible. Accent on the should be. But it would be closer than Charlie felt would be comfortable.

Casper waved, and Ragal nodded. "Just discussing strategies."

"Some good ones, I may add," Horace added, looking pleased.

Charlie smiled, and sat back in his seat. They had outlined their basic plan before leaving Engris, and Charlie expected the details to fill in as they moved along. That seemed to be the way things always worked out. Planning in too much detail left too little room to improvise when conditions changed, and Charlie was sure they would. The Moth were nothing if not unpredictable.

Kippy took his hand and squeezed it. "Worried?"

"Not any more than usual."

Kip laughed at that and leaned over and kissed Charlie's cheek. "I feel pretty good about this job so far. You should relax."

"I always try to relax as much as I can. It's the roundabout way we have to do so many things that gets me a little keyed up."

Kippy frowned at that. "What do you mean?"

Charlie hitched himself around in his seat to face his boyfriend. "Well, think about it, Kip. We're going to try to get a Moth cruiser and its entire crew to leave Lyrgris, a prize of great value, without making it into a huge battle. If our positions were reversed, the Moth would just land their ship and tell us to leave, or get vaporized. We wouldn't have a lot of choice in the matter. But we can't do that to them, because we don't have that kind of power."

Kippy's bottom lip thrust out for a moment, and then he nodded. "I see what you mean. But I wouldn't put it past Max to be able to wreck that ship if he put his mind to it. We aren't powerless, by any means."

Charlie smiled at that. "I don't see Max being willing to kill the Moth, and wrecking their ship would amount to the same thing. He isn't built that way."

Kippy tossed a look back at the elf, who was sitting between Sefton and Durapar. The three were engaged in a conversation that was apparently humorous in nature, if the big grins they all wore were any indication.

He sighed. "No. He's not."

Charlie nodded. "So we have to either scare the Moth away, or make them see leaving as a wise course of action. Eseffa said that if we can get the Moth ship off Lyrgris, then Engris can boot it to somewhere else in the Cooee, where they won't be able to get back anytime soon. By then Lyrgris will be functional and able to take care of itself."

Kippy mulled that over a bit, and then nodded. "I still think it would be a good idea to let the Moth know that Engris is close by. If they can look up in the sky and see it hanging there, waiting, it will really make them nervous."

"As much as Moth get nervous, anyway," Charlie agreed. "Eseffa seems to think that showing them Engris and then not doing anything immediately to remove the Moth from Lyrgris will be the same thing as telling the Moth that Engris can't remove them. That will simply empower them to stay as long as they want. Which would give them time to raid all the tech bases inside the planet. We don't want them to have that time."

Kippy nodded. "Then the thing to do is to wait until we are ready to really do something to the Moth, and then have Engris appear, so that the two seem connected."

Charlie smiled. "You're halfway good at this."

Kippy gently slapped Charlie's arm. "Maybe it's the company I keep."

Charlie sighed, and bent forward and kissed his boyfriend. Kippy made it good, and Charlie did feel like he was relaxing a little. "I love you, Kip."

"Oh, I love you, too, Charlie." Kippy smiled. "I love to have you tell me you do, too."

"Always and forever, Kip."

Kippy gripped Charlie's hand, and Charlie returned his gaze to the front of the craft. They were very close now, the highlighted disc of Lyrgris swelling beyond the visible and forming a gray expanse before them. The shuttle would simply arrive at the surface and it would open to accept them. The basic systems of Lyrgris were operational, anyway. The shuttle would drop through the crust of the planet to a berth somewhere deep inside, where they would have access to the amazing inner transport system, which could get them to the next step of their journey.

Eventually, they would arrive at one of the control facilities, and there Eseffa would meet them again, and guide them on the final journey to place the defensive mind. Jorli would remain behind on Engris, to guide that world should it need to intervene. That Eseffa and Jorli could communicate with each other over the distance seemed clear, and Charlie suspected that this sort of telepathic link was yet another of their talents. It sounded like a pretty straightforward operation at first review, but their basic outline of the plan didn't include any sort of variance from what the Madracorn said could be expected once they were actually inside Lyrgris. In Charlie's experience, few things ever went off exactly as expected.

And then there was the matter of the Moth knowing they were there.

The Madracorn had been clear on that. "Once you have reached Lygris, you will likely become detectable. Not in your persons, as Max seems very good at cloaking you against such things. But by your actions. Your movements about Lyrgris will necessarily create observable conditions within the world itself, that would normally be shielded from detection by the very defensive system you hope to activate. Once the Moth become aware of things going on within Lyrgris, they will certainly react as if they are no longer alone there."

"That's where we creep them out," Casper had replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I'll give them a few things to think about!" That was followed by a squeaky laugh of delight, to which Charlie and Kip both smiled.

"Looks like we're almost there," Charlie said, as the formless area before them began to show enhanced detail indicating surface characteristics. Mountains and valleys, and even a city or two, seemed to becoming visible.

Adrian raised a hand, showing his first two fingers crossed. "Be safe, everyone."

"Yeah," Ricky said, patting the hilt of his vibratory dagger. "These Moth don't want to piss us off."

Charlie grinned at the optimism in that statement, but also knew not to get overconfident. They had handled the Moth once before. They had made T'ath destroy the data that pinpointed the location of Earth. Max and Pacha had been able to deal with the alien's fearsome technology, but only because the Moth could not envision power users superior to themselves. If that mindset was still in place, it was probable that they would succeed just as easily this time around.

But the Moth were anything but stagnant. If T'ath had shared a warning with others of his kind that there were dangerous power users afoot in the galaxy...then anything could happen.

Misola moved across the dark floor of the spirit dome, casting his light about carefully as he moved. There were work lights here, but even their brilliant glow seemed unable to fully combat the gloom that lurked everywhere about. The interior of the dome seemed to absorb light, and no amount of it could to do more than light the floor and the immediate space above it. The upper regions of the dome remained aloof to the light, and teemed with shadows that that twisted and turned with a life of their own.

Around him stood the large crates that held the machines - at least the science people said they were machines - that had been removed from the interior of the planet, as well as other items of interest taken from the same spaces. It was not a large amount, not yet, but it was understood that there would be more to come soon - much more. The boring machines were hard at work, even now. That they were accumulating treasure here was certain, and the entire camp was abuzz with talk of the rewards that this operation might bring to all of them by the time it was completed.

And yet...though there was reason to be happy, Misola was less than happy just now. The huge old dome was not a comfortable place. There was something about this world that stretched the nerves, and left one treading softly about its mysterious places. A knowledge, appearing somewhere in the back of his mind, that they were not welcome here, not welcome at all.

Misola was not accustomed to fear. No Moth was. But unease was also a survival trait, and Misola trusted his instincts enough to know when a situation demanded vigilance. Despite what Onath had said about this world being inactive and ripe for the taking, there was a taint to the atmosphere of the place that suggested otherwise. If this truly was a world of the ancient race that had constructed the elusive planet Engris, then nothing was certain. That Misola's nerves seemed to be on edge was enough to tell him that.

He hefted his rifle and circled back towards the huge doors that had admitted them to the dome, and met Tif'tok coming the other way. His fellow sentry looked larger than life in his battle gear and helmet, and the way he held his own rifle seemed to suggest that his nerves were in no better shape than Misola's. Misola switched his helmet com to their private, encrypted channel, and stopped as the other man reached his side.

"See anything?"

"Just these infernal shadows." Tif'tok's voice sounded on edge. "This dome vibrates with something I feel deep down inside. Like it is alive, and aware. I am starting to think that Onath should come and spend a duty shift here, and see how he likes it."

Misola felt humor at that. Onath was the commander in charge of the defensive force that had been placed among the science team investigating this world, and it was well known among his troops that it had been many a year since the man had seen anything more fierce in the way of combat than tumbling about with his wife mate in their sleep nest at night. Onath was sure that they were soon all to become wealthy beyond their most vivid of dreams, and his optimism had made most of the troops at least feel confident that the taking of this world's technological treasures might actually come to pass.

Yet Onath was no fool, either. He was well-trained, and disciplined, and despite his eagerness to be wealthy, he had not skimped in any way in his deployment of his forces. Only his failure to come personally to inspect some of the places he had stationed his people smacked of a disrespect for this world's mysteries and possibilities - something that the older and more cynical among the security detail had noticed. Misola had been all over the empire, and had participated in several actions among subservient races straining at the collar of Moth domination. Misola was of the mind that such demonstrations among the lesser members of the empire were pointless and counterproductive. The Moth left their empire's member races pretty much alone unless they acted up; yet even the bare knowledge of this sort of passive domination was too much for some peoples to bear. They had to vent their anger every now and then, before settling back into the daily grind of life in which they contributed to the empire, but received little in the way of return. The Moth protected member races from the aggressive tendencies of other member races, but shared none of their considerable technology, nor any of the wealth they accumulated by it.

Onath felt a need to remain close to Kil'brith, the ship's commander, so that he could be a part of any decisions that might be made, and thus position himself to receive any possible benefits this operation might eventually produce. His lack of visibility of late had left his most experienced troops a little cold. A leader who led from afar was hardly an inspiration. Only a periodic com check kept the man from being totally invisible to the line troops, and those stationed in places like this wretched dome had grown to resent it.

"I feel it, too," Misola acknowledged. "This place is not dead, only sleeping. Like it will awaken the moment the provocation is fierce enough. Surely tunneling into the heart of this world will not go unanswered."

Tif'tok grunted. "The scans of this world place its age at over one-half million cycles. Young for a natural world, but truly ancient for a made thing. The people that created this place had a science far ahead of our own at a time when our ancestors were still fighting over the mountain cliffs where they were born. It does not instill a confidence in me that no answer will come to our advances here."

Misola stared at the other man. "You suggest retreat?"

Tif'tok looked faintly surprised. "Of course not. But some measure of caution - or at least awareness - is indicated. Onath acts as if this were training maneuvers, or a police action on Sytophan."

That last was a running joke among the Moth security forces. The Sytophani were one of the few subject races that had welcomed the Moth and celebrated their hegemony over the region. The idea of a rebellion on that world was nearly unimaginable, so visiting the place was considered a vacation for Moth security forces.

"This world is no Sytophan," Misola agreed. He was about to say more when his com beeped into his ear. A message was coming in on the general channel. The unit automatically switched over, cutting him off from any reply from Tif'tok.

Instead, Onath's voice filled his ears. "Attention all ground units. A heightened state of alert is in effect. Ships sensor's have detected action of some type within the body of the planet. Until further notice, a stage two battle condition is in effect. All units will report any activity whatsoever in their areas. Until we know what is happening, all scientific and construction personnel will not be allowed to move about without a security detail with them. Reassignments of guard personnel will be forthcoming. Onath, out."

Misola immediately switched back to the private channel. "Hear that, Tif'tok? Something is happening already."

The other man hefted his rifle, and looked around the dome carefully. "We need to consider defensive positions, if needed. And to limit what is said on this channel. You understand?"

Misola did. Once battle conditions were in effect, communication privacy was only guaranteed against monitoring by enemy forces. Moth encryption was the best to be found in the five empires, but Moth record-keeping took a front seat once the alert went out. The ability to know everything that was said and done in any engagement could be crucial in determining later why that action succeeded - or failed. Rewards could be dispensed, or punishments meted out. A soldier in action was smart to keep his opinions to himself, unless they related to the actual conditions of battle.

"Yes. I'm going back to the general channel now."

"Very well. Let us have a look around, and see what there is to see."

Onath had taken a seat beside Kil'brith at the ship's command console, leaning back into the angled frame and dropping his arms onto the armrests with an eagerness he hadn't felt since his youth. Something was happening within the bowels of this strange world, something that might finally require the use of Onath's forces. He had been silently despairing of the way things had been going up until now, his forces little more than security guards watching the perimeters of this operation. But maybe now he could contribute something of substance. The more his forces could put into this operation, the greater the rewards that might come their way in the end. Kil'brith was an excellent ship commander, one of the best that operated under Baron T'usuny's sway. If wealth was to be dispersed as a result of this operation, Kil'brith could be counted upon to see that the divisions were fair.

Kil'brith was watching the display in the center of the circle of seats, while across from them, Mor'ath, chief systems specialist on Ehiztari, also gazed intently at the information appearing there.

"It looks like a transport of some kind, moving within a tunnel," Mor'ath decided. "And quite rapidly, too."

Kil'brith grunted at that news. "Automated, do you think?"

"I don't see any signs of life within the transport. But I cannot be certain."

Kil'brith digested that, and then leaned forward. "Why not?"

Mor'ath lifted his gaze to look across the display at him. "While the surface of this world has a breathable atmosphere and is warmed, the interior spaces we have scanned thus far have been at space normal conditions. But I am now seeing a rapid activation of both atmospheric systems and heat within the planet. That suggests a good reason for such conditions, as if someone needs them now." He cocked his head pointedly at Kil'brith. "I doubt very much it is a welcome for us."

The commander of the Ehiztari gave a dry chuckle at that. "That is for certain. But we cannot rule out the idea that our presence here, or the boring machines operating within the planet's crust, may have triggered something automatic. This world is not shielded as Engris is. I do not see how any living beings can evade our sensors."

Mor'ath glanced back at the readouts. "These interior transports were registered in the first scans of this world, including this particular transport. There are some hundreds of them in place, and they are all of the same construction - the same dimensions, the same mass. Except...this transport would now seem to mass more than it did in the original scans."

Onath was stunned by the implications. "Are you suggesting there may be someone aboard this transport? Someone we cannot scan?"

Mor'ath held up a hand. "I would think possibly more than one someone, going by the difference in mass. What I am saying is that the current figures for this transport no longer match the ones from the initial scans. And, this transport is on the move, and heading for a...well, we have come to consider these places as some sort of switching stations, where many tunnels come together there. My analysts suggest this is a place where transports can be routed to other destinations."

Kil'brith gave a slow nod, apparently less startled by this announcement than was Onath. "I've had a feeling about this place. Everything has been going too smoothly." He looked over at Onath. "Ehiztari was with the coalition fleet that located Engris some years back. We were as easily repelled from that place as if we had been a swarm of ginatz buzzing about the head of a stiltz. It was a humbling experience. " He returned his gaze to the displayed images. "I would have been surprised to have looted this place unopposed."

"We don't know that we are opposed as yet," Onath insisted. "One transport on the move is not necessarily anything." His eyes searched the display, fastened accusingly upon the icon of the moving transport, then jumped ahead of it and picked out a small, unfamiliar icon somewhat near the so-called switching station that the transport was on its way to. "What is that?"

Kil'brith glanced at the icon, and waved a hand in dismissal. "One of the borers. It is on its way to the chamber you see at the end of the vector line ahead of it."

Onath felt a surge of interest. "It's very close to that switching station where the transport is heading."

Kil'brith shook his head. "It only looks close. It is at least twenty miles away, and moving in a different direction."

Onath leaned closer to the commander. "I was told that the borers were running at half their normal speeds because the material of the planet was so dense. That if they ran at full speed, they would burn out prematurely. But let me ask you this: if that borer was turned towards the switching station and sent off at full speed, could it reach the station before it burned out?"

Kil'brith's eyes narrowed. "I don't know." He pointed at a section of his display, and a face came up in the view. The new Moth gave a slight bow of his head. "Yes, commander?"

"An'tis, I'm including you in a current display model of events happening on the planet. Can you see the inset?"

"Yes, commander. That is borer number 18 you've indicated. A question about it's performance?"

"Yes. If we turned it towards the destination I've highlighted, and set it moving at full speed and full bore, would it reach the place before it failed?"

"Yes, definitely. But I would have to withdraw it afterwards and send a replacement to finish its original bore."

Kil'brith gave an impatient grunt. "That's fine. How long to reach the indicated destination?"

An'tis looked away a moment, and then is gaze returned. "About fifteen minutes."

"Thank you, An'tis." Kil'brith waved the image away, and looked more closely at the icon registering as the alien transport. "It looks like it will take this transport car twelve minutes to reach the station at their current speed." His hands flew over the display then, and the icon that represented the boring machine suddenly veered towards the switching center and picked up its pace.

"You're thinking to intercept them," Onath said quietly.

"Or at least get a possible look at them." Kil'brith seemed satisfied. "Well done, Onath. We may not get there before the transport, but we should at least get a look at the place." He leaned forward, inspecting the display more closely. "We may have missed an opportunity here. By boring towards these switching centers, we could have utilized the tunnels already in place to reach our destinations, rather than making our own tunnels. It could prove to be faster." He turned back to Onath. "I'm having a rapid transport sent to the borehead for number 18. Can you get a squad of your people aboard quickly? I'm sending it after the borer. I want your people to inspect this transport hub. I hate surprises." He emitted a dry laugh. "I'd much rather give them to the enemy."

The enemy. The line seemed to have been drawn in the sand now.

Onath felt delight at that, and made a sign of agreement. "I'll get right on it."

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