Natasha Kira turned away from the gruesome sight before her. Randy Sane was adjusting the wire *sticking into* Tor's eye. The wire reached into Luciem's bridge terminal aboard the ViperX, still stationed in the Jalvall port. The Commander's stomach turned when the pupil expanded to allow a foreign object access to it. It was inhuman.
"Ready now, Luciem?" Sane asked.
"Yep, getting a steady stream," replied the LCM. "Relax, Tor, I'll find the code."
But Tor could not relax. Luciem was *searching* inside his head for the information he had found before. Another presence was intruding into his own personal space, his very mind. Sharp pains shot up and down his temples. He grunted and clenched his fists.
Natasha bit her nails. "Slow down, Luciem, you're hurting him."
James shook his head slightly, careful to not loosen the wire. "I'm fine. Keep going."
"Found it," Luciem announced. A progress bar appeared on the computer's main screen, showing how close the "download" came to completion. In less than a minute, the bar was full and a message confirmed the operation a success. Tor yanked the wire out of his eye which contracted back into a normal state.
Fletcher glanced away from his engineer, also disturbed. "Perform the scan, Luciem. Planetary."
"I can't do planetary," Luciem protested. "That's too much ground to cover. Continental maybe..."
"Fine, fine. Continental. Just find that vehicle."
Tor rubbed his forehead softly, recovering from the computer's invasion. Natasha bent down and placed a hand on his shoulder. "How you holding up?"
"I'm fine, Commander. Just experiencing a few aftershocks, that's all." He rose up from the chair to stand, then fell back down, dizzy. Natasha grimaced.
Juma looked down at the engineer. "You really should rest, Tor. You did not sleep at all last night. Nor you, Commander."
"I'm fine," they said, simultaneously.
Juma looked at her husband for support. He just shrugged, happy to be away from his in-laws and, in a way, happy to have escaped that godforsaken company before it went bankrupt.
Randy stared impatiently at the screen, currently showing a radar of Jalvall and the surrounding cities. His hands were in what was left of his lap and he was hunched over, looking as if he would fall from his hover-chair at any second. "Quickly, there's no time to spare." He had rushed over with the High Commander when he received word the previous night. The Woks hadn't gotten the message until they reported for duty on the ship.
"This takes time, Dr. Sane," Luciem said, testily. Tracking down a kidnapper was not his idea of fun. He longed to be back in space, exploring, but he had to follow orders.
"If I'd just had my gun, this would have never happened." Natasha looked out the hatch window at the bright sunlight absorbing itself into the concrete of the port. "I could've shot the creep where he stood."
Sane shook his head. "He's the fastest warrior I've ever seen in my life. He'd have dodged and slit Rernum's throat quick as a flash. Amos Talna makes good on his threats."
"Are we sure it was Talna?" Shim asked.
"I'm certain," said Tor. "What other High Commander would be looking for Kailey?"
"Well, the van's not registered under Talna," Luciem cut in. "But it *was* rented with a private military account. It's currently on the outskirts, some type of warehouse if the directory isn't mistaken. Hasn't moved for five hours."
"Perfect," said the captain. "Do we have the communication numbers for Rernum's employees?"
Juma nodded. "Shall I call them?"
"At once. They'll want to help out too."
"Kailey, it's no use lying to me. I want access to that file."
"For all I know, it could be destroyed," Rernum said evenly, through a translator clamped around his neck. It didn't need to make the user uncomfortable, but Talna preferred it that way.
"You certainly knew about it twenty years ago." Amos took out a portable projector and activated it. The meeting between Kailey and Sane appeared, clearly as day.
Kailey shifted in the chair, trying to get the feeling back to his bound hands and feet. "Twenty years is a long time. I have not laid eyes on that file since then. It's not in my private server. You probably know that after hacking into it."
Talna's eyes flared. "What server is it on, then?"
Rernum looked straight at his captor. "I cannot reveal that information to anyone."
Amos slammed a shock staff into Kailey's head. The circus master screamed into unconsciousness. The High Commander put the staff away. It was not an exactly humane weapon, but it had its uses. Hopefully they would pay off by the end of the night.
The grunts of several guards could be heard through the communicator as the Visila family knocked them out on the rooftops. "All clear?" High Commander Shim asked into the device.
"Reedee," was the reply. Shim motioned at his crew and the circus folk to position themselves around the warehouse. He rushed toward the front entrance, making sure to duck below the windows. Behind him followed his partner.
"Is everyone in place?" Fletcher asked into the communicator.
The responses came back, confirming that everyone was ready. Beside the High Commander, Puglo the Ugly was cracking his knuckles, looking more disagreeable than usual. He hated criminals.
On the other side of the building, Randy Sane was scowling too. Fear gripped his heart and his fingers clenched the armrests of his chair, floating next to the back door. Near him, the amazing shrinking man was performing stretches, getting ready for his job.
Juma was paired with the Aleen guard and spoke to him in their language rapidly. They were planning an entrance that would not get them shot. She hoped her husband was doing the same thing.
Faytan Wok was at the eastern entrance, but he couldn't plan anything knowing his wife was with the taciturn guard. Next to him, Limbo the Clown was shuffling through a large bag of props. It annoyed the hell out of him.
"Why'd you come here anyway? What could you possibly do to help?"
Limbo splashed him in the face with a squirting flower in response.
Commander Kira focused on Tor's frequency. "James, have you found him?" She ignored the fifteen armed juggler's attempts to show off his many biceps.
Tor stopped in front of the west entrance and peered in with his x-ray sight. The toxic acid drinker followed, careful not to spill the liquid in his hand. The engineer had to look past many walls and could barely make out the shape of a green man tied to a chair. "Found him, close to the center of the warehouse. Guards all over the place."
"Thanks, Tor," Fletcher said. "Mr. Shinato, time to do your thing."
Sane glanced at the amazing shrinking man, who nodded at him, giving him a thumbs-up. Randy nodded back, his mouth stuck in a grimace. He floated back, giving the circus man plenty of space. Shinato shrunk to the size of an ant and slipped into a crack in the wall. He was on his own.
Seth Urbante waited at a northeast corner, admiring the amazing shape shifting woman. "So, do you think we'll make it?" he asked.
The beautiful blonde gazed at him sharply. She wasn't trying to be imposing, but she was nonetheless. "We have to make it. My master is in peril."
"Noble, very noble." He cleared his throat. "So, you can change into pretty much anything, huh?"
"What's your favorite shape?"
"Interesting. I have a thing for cats myself." He paused. "Hey, have you ever flown on a ship?"
Inside the warehouse, Mr. Shinato was making his way under the legs of stationed guards toward the center of the building. In addition to his size reduction abilities, he had an excellent sense of direction. He wasn't know for it, however, since audiences weren't amazed by living compasses.
The shrinking man crawled under a door and saw the figure of Amos Talna looking down on his boss.
"Kailey, all I want is information. I'm not asking for anything that would harm you or anyone for that matter."
"It would not be safe with you. It would not be safe with anyone."
Talna touched the shock staff at his side. "Mr. Kailey, the only thing that isn't safe right now is you. All because you want to be difficult."
Rernum was about to respond when he felt the ropes loosen around his hands. He kept quiet and didn't question whatever force was freeing him. Instead, he asked Talna, "What would you want to do with the starbird anyway, High Commander?"
"I'd like to see justice served, that's all." Talna grinned eerily.
Seth suddenly found himself comforting a distressed shape shifter as she sobbed into his shoulder. "I hope Rernum isn't hurt," she sniffled.
"Nah, I'm sure he's fine. Just fine. C'mon, you gotta focus. Mr. Kailey wouldn't want you to cry. He'd want you to take action."
Her gaze locked into his again, less imposing and more vulnerable. Then, she leaned forward and planted her lips on his. Surprised pleasure ran through Seth's body.
Clack! Clack! Clack!
Fear replaced the pleasure and Urbante drew away, brown eyes wide.
"What's the matter?" the shape shifter asked.
"She found me."
The Yortek from the bus was approaching and she didn't look happy at seeing her man locking lips with a circus woman. Seth backed into the wall, wailing uncontrollably. His hunter approached, down on all six legs, clacking madly.
"Oh, man, why do I have so much trouble with my exes?" The pilot asked himself and he suddenly bolted away. The shape shifter shouted at him to come back, but he was deaf to everything but the angry clacking behind him. The Yortek was right on his heels.
Seth saw a door and slammed into it, breaking the lock that held it in place. "HELP!" he screamed. "HEEEEELLLLLLP!"
"What the hell is going on in there?" Fletcher and Randy screamed into their communicators simultaneously.
"Urbante has barged in," the shape shifter answered. "He was cornered by a Yortek and ran like a frightened dog."
Natasha swore. "That sounds like Seth, all right. Change of plans, Ganeesh, we're going in." She ran toward a door, toting her laser rifle. The fifteen-armed juggler didn't understand the reference to Hindu culture but followed her anyway.
Seth ducked as guards fired at him from every direction. He fired his own gun at the Union soldiers, rolling across the floor. He hit the wall and prepared to be fried when the Yortek scurried in, clamping her mandibles on one of the soldiers. He screamed loudly and all laser-fire was focused on the creature. They shots bounced off her exoskeleton as guards fell before her.
Seth ran into the next room and found Natasha Kira expertly taking down sentinel after sentinel. The fifteen-armed man was knocking out guards with his fists alone. The commander saw him and scowled, "Smooth, Urbante," she yelled. "Very smooth!"
He was about to respond when the Yortek's shadow appeared on the wall. "Gotta run!"
"I've tired of you, old fool." Amos set the shock staff at its deadliest setting. "I'll find the good doctor and the Starbird soon enough without your help."
At that moment Seth Urbante rushed in, shock registering on his face.
Talna screamed in rage and Rernum took the opportunity to fly out of his chair, the ropes falling off him into neat coils on the floor. Talna threw his staff at the circus master and, suddenly Mr. Shinato grew right in front of him and slammed his fist into the High Commander's face.
The weapon flew and found its target, digging into Rernum's side. The circus master screamed and fell in a heap on the floor. The ViperX pilot grabbed the green man and rushed into hiding.
Tor, the acid drinker, Faytan Wok, and Limbo the Clown appeared rushed in from behind, weapons ready. Talna rolled out of the way and found Limbo's gigantic foot in his nose. The staff flew into Limbo's polka-dotted stomach and the clown flew to the other side of the room.
The pointy-eared High Commander spun on the floor, taking out Tor and Faytan with his feet. The ViperX crewmembers fell into a heap on the floor. The acid drinker dodged and suddenly dumped his cup of acid into his mouth. Ready to spit it into the kidnapper's face, he was distracted by the yelling of Union soldiers barging into the room. Talna kicked him in the small of the back and the acid spewed in the direction of the guards. The screams echoed throughout the room.
Talna stood, swaying from side to side. He looked at the empty chair and growled. A laser blast suddenly whizzed past his shoulder, slicing through the fabric of his uniform. He grunted and turned to see Natasha Kira aiming her gun for a more deadly shot.
But she couldn't, because the fifteen-armed juggler suddenly charged at the High Commander, all of the arms flailing. Quick as a flash, Amos drew a knife and stuck it in the juggler's stomach. He fell, arms still. Natasha fired again, but Talna dodged, his own gun drawn. Fletcher Shim, the shape shifter and Puglo the Ugly entered, firing their own weapons, but not hitting their agile target.
Seth held Rernum Kailey up under the shadows of a ramp. The circus master moaned, weak with pain and distraught at seeing his employees suffer. "It's all right, man," Seth whispered. "It's all right, we've got him outnumbered."
A panther jumped at the elf-eared High Commander, claws outstretched. He fumbled for his gun, but before she could dig into her prey, one of the surviving soldiers shot her in the back. A horrible half-scream, half-yowl came from her throat as she slid next to the juggler, dead.
There was a crash from above and a soldier fell among the rubble that had been part of the ceiling. Following after the rocks were the Visila family, after-images filling the room. More of the Catclaw crew rushed in and fired into the mayhem. Faytan rose from the ground, painfully, and saw the Catclaw captain standing petrified.
Talna backed away, ready to escape to his ship where the crew he left behind would take him to safety. Suddenly, two huge blue arms grabbed him from behind. He slammed the back of his head into the ambusher impulsively, and the arms fell away. He turned around in time to see Juma Wok raising her gun and struck her before she could fire. She fell atop her fellow Aleen.
He heard a scream and the Takanori navigator was suddenly pounding him into the ground with all the strength he could muster. "Don't you dare touch my wife, you BASTARD!" Talna screamed and grabbed a gun in front of him, swinging it over his head and into Faytan's. Wok was sprawled onto the floor.
Talna crawled away and looked at the ramp which lead to a fire escape. He saw two figures under it and gasped. Rernum Kailey was slumped there, being propped up by the red-haired intruder. His eyes narrowed and he got to his feet, approaching with a purpose.
"Damn it, he sees us!" Seth exclaimed. "C'mon, Mr. Kailey, we gotta leave." But Rernum had no will to leave and he only groaned in reply. Seth desperately picked him up and limped toward an exit. Amos saw him and fired the gun. The blast barely missed Urbante's head as he ducked and began to slip.
Kailey flew from his arms as Seth fell forward, screaming. He turned his head to see Talna approaching and whimpered. That was when the Yortek tackled his attacker, clacking in rage. No one injured her mate. Urbante looked back at where he had dropped Kailey and saw only empty space.
Kailey murmured nonsensically, crawling away from the bloody massacre behind him. He heard a distinct whirring approaching and prepared for the worst.
"It's all right, my friend. Everything will be fine," said a soothing voice in Dero. A wrinkled, old hand was outstretched toward him and he took it gladly. But the circus master could not stand and found himself falling into Randy Sane's lap.
Ben supported his weakened companion as he floated toward the exit. "You are safe, Rernum. You are safe."
"No," croaked Kailey. "No, I will pass. You must not let-" Rernum gasped painfully and began to wheeze uncontrollably, as if his lungs were being sliced.
"Shh, old friend. Quiet is peace. Peace is life. I learned that from you."
"I won't. Silence."
"KAILEY! SANE!" a maddened voice echoed. "I'LL FIND YOU!"
Randy sped up his chair and picked up the communicator. "Sane to rescue team. I've got Kailey. Head for the van or I'm leaving without you."
As shots continued to fire, Fletcher heard the message and called to his second-in-command. "Kira! We're going!"
"Where's Tor? Seth?"
The latter appeared from the shadows, firing at the wall of Union soldiers in front of him. "Sane's got Kailey. We gotta go."
"TOR!" screamed Natasha.
A figure approached, dragging two bodies laboriously. High Commander Shim rushed forward and picked up the heaviest, Faytan Wok. Tor took Juma in his arms and yelled over the laserfire. "What about the circus folk?"
Fletcher shook his head. "They can fend for themselves. The crew is going."
James opened his mouth to protest, but was silence by his captain's glare. Fletcher motioned, shot a few shots into the melee, and ran toward the exit. His crew followed.
"We're coming, doctor," the communicator crackled. "Hold the van."
"Hurry," Sane answered, already at the door of the vehicle they had driven to the warehouse.
"Goodbye, Ran-" Rernum Kailey shuddered violently and choked in Ben's arms. "Mythos-under-"
"Underground library, I know, Rernum. Don't say-"
"Goodbye," Kailey breathed and it was the last thing he ever said.
The Dero species had a special way of passing into the afterlife. Their cells would break into gas and float away toward the heavens. This was what happened to Rernum Kailey and Randy Sane thought it was the most beautiful and horrible way he had ever exited.
"Open the hatch, Luciem!" Fletcher ordered from across the port lot. With him were the crewmembers, all fully conscious and scared to death.
The ViperX prepared itself for boarding as a ramp slid from the open hatch to the concrete ground. Tenen Sak saw this from his window. He had been working late hours and was not in the mood to deal with a runaway starship crew. He ran out, growling and suddenly stopped, remembering who the ship belonged to. The crew appeared from behind another starship, running as if Hades were after them.
"Hey!" Tenen yelled. "Hey, Fletcher! You have to fill out the forms this time!"
"No time, Tenen!" Shim yelled back. "It's an emergency."
"At least tell me where you're going!" Sak cried, watching as the ship was boarded by a fellow Takanori, an Aleen, a crippled man, two young men, and a red head.
"Pasmet!" the High Commander answered and he entered last. The ramp slid up, the hatch doors shut, and the ViperX rose from the lot, speeding to the vastness of space from where it came.