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Issue #6
"The Mystery of NT-306"
by
David Marshall

 

An uncharted world near Imskian space

Salu Digby opened her eyes, or at least her right eye anyway. The left one felt like a Khundian warrior used her face for a war-club in the Courts of Challenge. She winced as she touched the swollen, puffy flesh. "Wasn't quite the make-over I had in mind."

She shook out the cobwebs and stood. She remembered being on a garbage freighter with two young men roughly her own age. Judging by his verdant complexion, the one who introduced himself as Dox was Coluan. Like most Coluans she had seen in holo-vids at school, he seemed arrogant and wore his intellect like a badge of honor. Dox called the other young man Lyle. Salu wasn't sure where he was from, but it was obviously a colonized world given his human appearance. He seemed to be the leader of their failed mission.

The disk! Salu fumbled with a black compartmentalized belt that hugged her tiny waist. Lifting a flap on the left side, she found the disk tucked safely away inside its shrunken Inertron container. She didn't realize she was holding her breath until then, but she managed to exhale. The disk contained enough information on Imskian quark drives to cripple half the Khundian fleet.

Behind her, the two young men stirred.

"Where are we?" Lyle asked as rose to his feet and brushed himself off.

Salu shook her head. "I'm not sure. Maybe D-D-Dox has some idea."

Dox struggled to sit up. "It worked!" he beamed.

"What worked? Dox are you... okay?" Lyle offered him a hand.

The Coluan took Lyle's hand and stood to his feet. "Of course I am! It works!"

Salu leaned over and half-whispered in Lyle's ear. "I think h-he may have landed harder than we did."

"I heard that!" said Dox. "I"m fine! We're all fine! Thanks to my force-shield belt!"

Lyle straightened his clothing. "Kudos to your belt then, but we'd better make ourselves scarce. The Khunds will be coming soon to investigate the crash site. Can everyone travel?"

The three nodded to one another and set out north into the desolate wasteland.

Space

"My lord, a Sanitation Vessel has been shot down overNT-306."

Warlord Karkul leered at the holographic underling cowering before him. "NT-306? You had better pray to the Demon-Mother that our enemies did not learn of its existence!!"

The Khundian captain dropped his head. "Yes, my lord. I'm sure the crew were vaporized in the atmosphere. Even if they reached the planetoid, the crash would have killed them."

"And what of the disk?"

"It was destroyed along with the rest of the cargo," the captain answered.

The Khundian Warlord smiled gleefully. "You'd better be right pup, or I'll see that your twitching carcass is fed to the Briton Beasts on Tralak IV and your family shunned!"

"Deal with me most severely should I fail," the captain answered. "For the glory of the Empire and the Demon Mother!"

Karkul pushed the comm button and the captain disappeared from his sight. "Yes, for the glory of the Empire."

NT-306

"Water!" Lyle Norg cried. After wandering for hoursacross the rugged wasteland, the stranded castaway spotted an oasis.

Lyle prayed the generous swath winding through the burning sands wasn't a mirage. Crystalline vegetation sprouted along its north bank.. He ran to the muddy basin and fell to his knees in a drab olive and brown goo. Though the landscape was indeed peculiar, his thirst overpowered his geological curiosity. He cupped his hands, plunged them into the cool liquid, and brought them to his lips to drink.

"Lyle, stop!" Salu rushed forward and kicked his hands away from his mouth. The cool liquid splattered to the ground.

Had the heat finally gotten to her? "What's the matter with you?" Lyle asked.

"This stream is polluted with toxins."

Lyle couldn't believe his ears. "Toxins? Are you crazy? This water is pure as...."

Dox retrieved a small omnicom from his belt and scanned the river. "She's right. These waters are contaminated by an unknown radioactive element. Very intriguing."

Lyle shook the excess water from his hands. "Salu? How did you...."

Salu shrunk several inches in height and replied in a barely audible voice. "I've... seen it before," she stuttered. "Those flower crystals on the other side of the bank,S-S-Spawn Flowers!"

Lyle was confused. "Spawn Flowers? Never heard of them."

Dox looked up from his omnicom. "Imskian colloquial for several unrelated varieties of crystalline wildflower which have recently evolved on their world. Nothing more. The Imskians are known for coloring their folklore with Khundian imagery, as well as for blaming the Khunds with that which they cannot understand."

Salu met Dox's challenge by slowly reverting to her normal height. "T-T-There's more to it than that," she answered. "Our scientists believe the Spawn Flowers are mutates. They are found near the factories where the quark drives are cooled. The Demonium runoff crystalizes the surrounding plants somehow."

"Demonium?" Lyle asked.

Salu nodded. "Named for the Khundian D-D-Demon-Mother. We've been... unable to reproduce it in a lab. It's too unstable."

Dox crossed his arms defiantly. "Nonsense! I am unaware ofsuch an element."

"The Khunds import it from an unknown source," Salu answered.

Lyle looked upstream. "Miss Digby, perhaps we've found your unknown source. If so, we can throw a monkey wrench into the Khundian war machine."

Dox punched the controls of the omnicom. "Perhaps. I'm reading a massive energy source approximately two miles north of this location."

Lyle nodded. "Then let's move out."

The three cosmic castaways ventured forth upstream.

Deep Space: Aboard a Legion Cruiser

Tinya Wazzo wanted to go home. She didn't want to be aboard a Blackhawk-class Legion Cruiser searching deep space for a missing garbage freighter. She liked being a Legionnaire, but her heart was with her family on Bgtzl. Wherever it was. Still, she knew home was impossible to reach and the Khunds were responsible for it being out-of-phase with the rest of the known galaxy. According to Brande, her world's only hope of returning from it's self-imposed exile lay with a young genius who was supposed to be aboard the garbage freighter. She would find it.

Tinya watched the monitor before her carefully. She couldn't afford to miss anything. Unfortunately, it showed no unusual activity in the immediate parasector.

Wait! What was that blip? There it was again! "Um...I've found something."

Rokk and Garth rushed to Tinya's station.

"Where?" Rokk asked.

Tinya made a few adjustments to the scanning signal. "It's coming from outside an asteroid belt beyond the Imskian system. It's an emergency beacon."

Garth stepped back from Tinya's console and waved off her concern as he returned to his position at the navigation console. "It's probably just a leftover from an old wreck! We're looking for a garbage freighter, not space junk."

Tinya bit her lip. Of all the nerve! Who did Garth Ranzz think he was?

Rokk showed more interest. "Good job Tinya! Imra, I'm sending you the coordinates! Plot a course."

Imra nodded at the helm and entered the data into the console. "I got them! We should arrive within the hour."

Garth stood with his fists balled into tight lightning-enhanced knots. "What the...? Who made you leader, Krinn? I don't remember casting my vote!"

Uneasiness settled across the bridge like a poisonous vapor. Tinya took refuge in adjusting the enviromental controls. It was a menial chore, but it allowed her to avoid eye contact with either of the boys. She cast a nervous glance at Lu, who shied away and buried her face in a similar mundane task at the Comm station. Imra left the bridge.

Rokk composed himself and spoke calmly. "No one made me leader, Garth. We have to take an emergency beacon seriously, whether it's from the missing freighter or not. If you have a problem with that then you and I can discuss it later, man-to-man."

Garth scowled. "Damn right we will!"

The bridge fell silent as Garth sat back down at his station. Rokk joined Lu at the Comm panel.

The Command Chair sat dubiously empty the rest of the trip.

NT-306

"Gods! What is it and where did it come from?" Lyle asked.

Dox checked his Omnicom. "I'm sure you'll find your native pantheon deaf on the matter, but it appears to be a small city. I'm reading at least one manufacturing-grade facility within its walls. There is a large concentration of the element we encountered earlier being refined inside the perimeter. It seems Miss Digby was correct in her prior observation."

Salu enjoyed being right. Lyle and Dox made her feel so ... stupid, like a little girl. She almost wished she was a little girl again at the moment. At least she would be safe at home rather than on some unknown mudball plotting her inevitable demise. The city was like a fortress, surrounded by a high wall topped with turrets and laser cannons. Khundian guards navigated its thick walls with meticulous discipline, peering out at the barren landscape. Large turbines forced water through a gated aqueduct in the southern wall and into the river.

"We're in over our heads," Salu whispered. "We'd better wait until someone comes for us."

Lyle shook his head. "No cavalry is stupid enough to ride in here and rescue us. We're it. I'd like to make my death count for something."

Fight Khunds? If the Imskian army couldn't derail the Khunds what hope did three teenagers have? Salu agreed to help her homeworld by smuggling the disk to Earthgov, but no one mentioned anything about fighting Khunds.

"Contrary to my Coluan instincts, I agree with Norg," said Dox. "Our odds of survival are almost nil, but our deaths should not be wasted."

"Contrary to your Coluan instincts? What does that supposed to mean?" Lyle asked.

Dox pushed a clump of vegetation aside, surveying the walls ashe spoke. "No insult intended, Norg. We Coluans have a strong sense of self-preservation. It is our duty to the universe to ensure our intellect survives at all cost."

"Of all the narcissistic..."

Salu shushed the two young men. It was bad enough she was going to die soon, but she didn't want the last thing she heard to be two hotheads feuding over something so stupid. She was going to die. Here. Salu's stomach knotted up at the thought. "Now's not the t-time to argue."

"She's right," said Dox. "We've got to get inside and shut down that facility."

How?" Salu asked. "We can't exactly w-walk up and knock."

Lyle rubbed his chin thoughtfully then turned to his companions and smiled. "Maybe my native pantheon can be of some use after all. One of our religious texts contains a story of a king who accessed a walled city through its aqueduct."

Dox sighed. "It seems to be the only way inside."

Lyle made himself invisible. "I'll cover Dox with my invisibility. Salu, shrink to microscopic size and we'll carry you in."

Salu was surprised Lyle possessed such an ability. She would have to remember to ask what world he was from if they survived. As soon as she was small enough Dox placed her on his left shoulder. She went subatomic to hang onto the threads of his clothing.

It took several minutes to reach the aqueduct. Its iron bars were child's play to walk through. However, the ledge along its walls proved tricky. Dox nearly slipped into the radioactive stream once, but Lyle's quick reflexes saved him. The aqueduct was rather long, but eventually the three stranded teens began to climb uphill and soon discovered a cavern.

"Fascinating!" Dox whispered as he squeezed through an especially tight section of cavern wall after the others.

Feeling they were at a safe distance inside, Lyle dropped his invisibility. "It's a cave Dox! Do you not have them on Colu? "

"Of course we do, but not like this. I assure you these caverns are most unique."

Lyle whispered his reply as if Dox were a priest who had justsanctified a house of worship. "Come on, Dox. Stay focused. We're not here for spelunking."

"In case you haven't noticed..."

Lyle was impatient. "The walls? Yes, I have. They're a geological crazy quilt. I've never seen so many varieties of rock in one place. Still, I don't see..."

"Not a crazy quilt, Norg. There's method to the madness."

Salu grew large enough for Dox to pick her up and set her onsolid ground and then resumed her natural stature. "Are you saying someone designed this cavern?"

Dox nodded. "The odds against these formations being natural are astronomical. Notice how the substances seem to flow in sections. Each gives way to the next in the order in which they appear on the periodic table. All the stable elements are represented."

Lyle shushed his companions. "I hate to break up the chemistry lesson, but there's a light up ahead."

The few hundred meters toward the source of light were grueling, almost straight uphill. Mercifully, the cavern leveled off near an opening. Green light illuminated thecavern walls in a shower of emerald. Dox, Lyle, and Salu huddled by a rock formation.

"I can't see past that light," Lyle whispered.

Salu pressed against him. "I do hear something though. It's almost....musical."

"I hear it too," Lyle answered. "It sounds like chanting."

"I thought we'd find Khunds," Salu replied.

"What you've found is something sacred!"

The teens were surrounded by several large men. They weren't Khunds, but instead appeared to be human in every way. They wore long, flowing robes of white fastened by a long, full-length row of purple and gold buttons in the front. They appeared to beunarmed...and very angry.

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