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Chapter 1

The exploration vessel Ourora smoothly exited hyperspace and settled into orbit around the nearby planet. The dark haired young man sitting trance-like in the pilot’s seat, hands resting on the two glowing plates set in the console before him, stirred and opened his eyes. It was a perfect run.

Breaking his mind‑link with the starship, he stood and stretched. The Ourora was shaping up to be a sweet ship. Once the strangeness of joining his mind to the ship’s instruments and controls had worn off, he had found piloting by thought as natural as breathing. This was not really surprising, considering that his people had built the vessel. In fact, it was on this very ship that he had been found adrift in space as a child, the last survivor of his race, of his entire planetary system.

2590 Day 143

Jake Blackthorn watched as the image of a golden starship grew on his ship’s monitors. The Wanderer had been returning to Earth after a profitable trading run when they had stumbled upon the derelict. The ship’s golden skin and graceful lines were like nothing he had ever seen.

“She’s beautiful, but where did she come from? That’s no Alliance ship.”

Jake had been so engrossed in studying the alien vessel that he had not heard anyone approach. Turning, he found Dr. Nicole Wright standing at his side. “I have no idea Nikki but I intend to find out.”

“Uh oh, you have that explorer look.” She teased, feeling the excitement radiating from him.

“Once an explorer always an explorer. Take us in Pete,” he instructed the pilot. “I want a good look at this lady. Any energy or life sign readings?”

“It’s hard to get a fix, some kind of energy dampener,” came the reply from the science station. “It’s scrambling our sensors.”

“Captain,” Pete called, “you’d better see this.”

Returning his attention to the view screen, Jake stared as the Wanderer approached the far side of the derelict ship. A sick feeling began in the pit of his stomach as he saw the gaping hole ripped into the golden metal of the ship.

“No survivors then.” Jake said sadly, “all right let’s get a tractor beam on her¼”

“Captain, I think I’m getting a life sign reading.”

Jake turned to the science station. “What do you mean you think you’re getting a reading?”

“Well, it’s faint and it keeps drifting in and out. The dampener field is playing hell with the sensors, but there is something over there.”

After a heated debate, which Jake naturally won, he and Dr. Wright boarded the damaged ship. As they explored the craft Jake felt his excitement grow, much of the vessel’s interior appeared to be intact. The bridge, engine room, and cargo holds seemed untouched. It was only as they explored the damaged area of the ship that his excitement waned. As they entered what appeared to be crew quarters Jake froze, nausea rising in his throat. “Oh, my God, they’re children.” Jake barely heard Nikki’s anguished whisper. He was staring at the rows of bunks crammed into the room. The ship’s passenger and crew cabins were filled with children, children of diverse races, some of which he had never seen before. They were all dead. Their lifeless bodies still strapped to their bunks.

“They never had a chance.” He whispered. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Wait,” Nikki grabbed his arm and pointed to the scanner she held clutched in her hand. “I’m getting that phantom signal again.”

“Can you get a fix?”

“Yes! One deck down and to the rear.”

Following the faint signal, they made their way to the rear of the ship. Rounding a corner, they froze. Standing in what appeared to be a galley, surrounded by a golden glow, was a raven haired, golden eyed boy about ten years old.

“Hello,” Jake spoke softly and held out his hands in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. “We’re here to help.”

The boy studied the two space-suited figures intently, but made no move. Encouraged, Jake slowly approached the still youth.Suddenly, the glow surrounding the boy intensified and a strong forced hurled him back.

“Please,” Nikki begged. “We only want to help you. You’re all alone now. Let us help. We mean you no harm.”

“Nikki, we have to go,” Jake whispered. “I think I cracked something, my suit’s losing air. I can’t stay much longer.”

“We can’t just leave him.”

Keen golden eyes seemed to bore into Nikki’s soul as the boy studied her intently. She almost gasped in relief when he turned to scrutinize Jake in turn. Whatever he saw must have reassured him. Indicating that they should follow, he led them into the next compartment. Nestled in the chamber was a large golden sphere. Jake and Nikki watched as the boy placed his hand against the side of the globe. A portal suddenly appeared. Motioning for them to follow, he entered the sphere. Once inside, the portal closed, leaving no sign it had ever existed. Gazing around in amazement, Jake turned to find the boy, minus the golden glow, sitting on a plush looking couch against the far wall watching them curiously.

“A life pod. Jake, I read a breathable atmosphere, constant temperature… the works. This is how he survived.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t explain how he can walk around out there with no suit, and what about that glow?”

“That doesn’t matter now, the main thing is getting him, and us, back to the ship.”

A sound of rustling caused them both to turn. The boy was standing a few feet away holding a silvery suit in one hand and a metallic capsule in the other. Seeing he had the adults’ attention, he offered the suit to Jake.

Taking the offered garment, Jake examined the delicate material. “I think it’s a spacesuit.”

“You’re right, “Nikki examined the now open storage cabinet, “there’s a whole rack of them in here, but they’re all for adults.What do we do about him?”

“The capsule must be some kind of carrier. We put him in there and carry him across.”

With the boy’s help, Jake removed his damaged suit and donned the alien garment. The suit molded itself to his body and Jake marveled at the freedom that it gave him. Excitement stirred in him, what other marvels did this ship and its lone occupant hold?

After checking to make sure Jake’s suit was working properly, the boy opened the life support capsule and stepped inside. Once more he studied the two adults, then calmly closed the carrier, entrusting himself to the strangers’ care.

Returning to the Wanderer without incident, Jake ordered the derelict ship taken in tow and set course for his most secure research center. This was too important a find; he was taking no chances. Leaving the boy in the doctor’s capable hands, he wasted no time in staking his claim to the alien derelict.

Jake Blackthorn was a powerful man and he now used that power. By pulling a few strings and cashing in a few favors, he obtained exclusive salvage rights to the alien vessel. The bodies of the deceased children would be turned over to the authorities, but no mention was made of the boy. Satisfied that he had taken every precaution to protect his find, Jake headed for sickbay. He couldn’t say what had made him keep the boy’s existence a secret from the authorities, but his gut told him the kid was special. There was no way he was going to let some government social worker get their hands on him.Besides the kid had trusted him, Jake shivered as he remembered the boy’s golden eyes staring into his, searching his soul. The child was as unique as his craft. Jake usually had little use for children, but there was something about this one that stirred all his protective instincts. The kid was his, by God, and nobody was taking him away.

Six months later, Jake was ready to consign both the ship and its golden- eyed master into the fiery depths of the nearest sun.After six months of intensive study, the starship was still an enigma. Even his best experts could not fathom how the strange vessel operated. There were no noticeable controls, just panels of colored crystals set into the consoles. The engines consisted of smooth sided boxes and crystal globes. No dials, switches, or knobs were to be seen. There was no sign of power, though they knew that it existed. Jake fumed; all that power, all that technology just out of reach, it was enough to drive an entrepreneur mad.

The boy was proving to be as impenetrable as his vessel. The shock of the accident had severely damaged the kid’s memory, erasing any knowledge of what had happened to him or his ship. Quiet and reserved, he cooperated fully with the scientific team examining him but volunteered nothing. Except for a few unknown factors in his DNA and body chemistry, he was remarkably similar to humans. Yet, it did not take the team studying him long to realize that he was not your typical ten- year old boy. His golden eyes held wisdom beyond his years; and he always seemed to know what was wanted of him, even before he was shown or asked. He proved to be extremely bright and learned at an amazing rate. In a very short time, he mastered enough Galactic-Standard to communicate. Yet, nothing they tried could unlock the memories buried deep in the boy’s mind. It was as if every thought concerning his home world or his flight to this system had been locked away behind an impenetrable barrier. He was a blank slate, which could soak up knowledge, but offered none in return.

Jake was not prepared to give up his discovery without a fight. Every day, their guest was becoming more relaxed and comfortable with his new home. With time, Jake hoped that his memory would start to return. It was another month before the first breakthrough occurred. Since he could not remember his name, the young castaway had been christened “Kid” by the researchers studying him. For seven months, the boy answered to the name “Kid”, so Jake was surprised when the youth fixed him with a golden eyed stare and said, “My name is Jasen, not Kid.” After that, snatches of memory began to return.

On a hunch, Jake decided to see what would happen if Jasen was reunited with his starship. Maybe the sight of the vessel and the familiar surroundings would jog the boy’s memory. At least, he might be able to show them how the ship operated.

It was soon obvious that returning to the ship was a shock for the youth. He wandered through the vessel as if in a daze. With each section of the ship revealed and explored, his face grew paler. By the time they reached the bridge, Jake was afraid the boy was going to collapse. On one side of the bridge was a large console inset with a panel composed of some type of blue crystal. Jasen went to the console, placed his hands palm down on the crystal, and closed his eyes. The panel immediately began to glow and flash. After a few minutes, the glowing stopped and Jasen opened his eyes. Removing his hands from the console, he began to tremble uncontrollably and then to cry. Rushing to him, Jake held the sobbing child as delayed trauma finally hit.

Viewing the information contained in the ship’s library computer, as the console turned out to be, and reliving past events through the psychic traces left in the ship, had broken through the mind block the boy had erected. Later, when he had calmed down and been reassured that he was safe among friends, he freely answered Jake’s questions. The ship was totally thought controlled. It had been built by a race of telepaths, from a planet in the Gamma3 planetary system. It was a type of ark, a last ditch effort to save a remnant of the people of that system. Creatures of fire and light had appeared out of nowhere and attacked their worlds. The attacks had been quick, unexpected, and vicious. Caught off guard, most planets stood no chance against the invaders. Jasen’s world was the oldest and most advanced of the system. They were able to hold out long enough to launch three ships before being destroyed by the attackers. Only Jasen’s ship had made it out of the system, but not without taking damage. An energy blast had hit the ship severely, damaging its shields and compromising a large section of the hull. The ship’s crew had been working to repair the damaged section when they had been caught in an unexpected meteor storm, most likely debris from the destroyed worlds. The ship’s compromised shielding had been unable to stop one of the huge projectiles from striking the damaged hull and ripping it open. The two adults on board had been caught in the impact zone and killed. Jasen had been attending to some minor repairs on the side of the ship farthest from the rupture. His telekinetic abilities had allowed him to protect himself long enough to reach the safety of an escape pod. The others on board had not been so gifted.

The Gamma3 system was an old system with a high level of technology. They were not novices at space travel or exploration and had even visited the Alliance worlds to observe. That they could be wiped out so quickly and completely boded ill for the Planetary Alliance. After hearing the news Jasen brought, Jake became obsessed with the attackers. Who were they? Why did they attack? Had other systems fallen? He devoted a good part of his empire to finding out the answers. Jake soon lost his heart to the courageous child. He was determined to protect the boy, and the unusual gifts he had begun to display once freed from the mind block his fear had created. In time, Jake adopted him, named him his heir, and helped train him to use his gifts and hide them from the outside world.

Adapting to his new home proved difficult for Jasen. His planetary system had been on the opposite side of the galaxy from Alliance controlled space. The people of his world had enjoyed strong, friendly ties with the other sentient races of the nearby systems. They had been respected and honored for their technology and for their roles as peacemakers and diplomats.Things were far different in this new land. The Alliance worlds had an inbred, almost manic, fear and hatred of telepaths. Jake had tried to explain it to him once.

Many generations ago the Alliance worlds had been invaded by a race called the Kryllidar. The Kryllidar were a militant, barbaric insect-like race that possessed a high level of technical skill and little regard for other sentient life forms. They were a race that lived to conquer and enslave the populations of other worlds. The Kryllidar loved order and insured that the worlds they conquered adhered to their concept of obedience. Using drugs and machines, they subverted the minds and wills of those they invaded, turning them into perfect drones fit to serve the elite Kryllidar race.

The Kryllidar invaders swept across the galaxy like a plague, leaving worlds of mind-controlled zombies in their wake. Almost half the galaxy had fallen before the Alliance armada had been able to rally. Joined by ships from the outer fringes, they had been able to turn and repel the attackers. Once freed from the invaders’ mind-controlling apparatus, the enraged Alliance inhabitants had hunted down and exterminated every Kryllidar they could find, then followed up with an all-out attack on the Kryllidar home world. The Kryllidar race was totally wiped out, along with a number of neighboring planets that possessed similar life forms. The drugs and machines used to enslave the conquered worlds were rounded up and destroyed. The Alliance vowed never again to allow their people to be controlled in such a manner. A deep phobia of mind-control in any form sprung up among the sentient races within the Alliance systems, which was carefully passed down and instilled in each succeeding generation. From this phobia, a dread of telepaths emerged, which grew in strength with each retelling of the past atrocities. Telepaths were viewed as the ultimate masters of mind-control. Machines could be broken, drugs could be neutralized, but the only way to stop a telepath was to kill him. Also, unlike the Kryllidar, a telepath could blend in with the populace of a given world. They could lurk unknown and undetected among the citizens of the Alliance.One could never be sure if his thoughts were his own or being manipulated by another.

Soon the slogan, “The only good telepath is a dead one,” became common. It was into this climate of hate that the young Jasen had been thrown. He was the last surviving telepath in the galaxy. He lived in constant fear of exposure and death. He was looked upon as a monster, a demon; he was fair game for all. o one would hesitate to destroy him if he were discovered.

There were few people in his life that he dared trust implicitly. Fortunately for the young telepath, it was Jake who discovered him. Jake was a shelter of love in an otherwise dark and hate filled universe. The explorer did not share the rest of the Alliance’s loathing and terror of telepaths. He had been born in a remote sector far from the alien invasion.When that cluster’s sun went nova, Jake had brought his thriving corporation to the Alliance worlds. Most of those on Jake’s personal staff were refugees from his home system. Like Jake, they viewed Jasen as different but not horrible. He was a bright and charming boy and they soon grew to love and admire him as Jake did. They vowed to protect the vulnerable youth and his secret. Jake raised the boy as a son and taught him how to survive in his new home.

With a shake of his head, Jasen shook off the thoughts of the past. He was no longer a frightened boy of ten, but a man of twenty-five and he had work to do. Jake was dead and it was up to him to finish what his adopted father had begun. He gave the instruments another quick metal scan to assure that everything was as it should be then left the bridge and headed for the ship’s lounge. Hawk. He wished his friend had not insisted on coming, but nothing he had said had dented Hawk’s resolve to accompany him.

Jasen had been working on the Ourora’s data banks, when a wave of dizziness dropped him to his knees. Pain knifed through his temples, then he was falling. When the vertigo passed, he found himself on the deck of a starship, but unlike the Ourora’s golden decks, this ship was gunmetal gray.

“What have we got?”

Lifting his head, Jasen glanced around the busy control room and spotted a familiar figure standing near the science console.Oh no, Jake.

“The readings are all over the map, sir.” The science officer handed Jake a printout. “I detect at least two separate energy layers with strong turbulence in the secondary layer.” He checked his readouts. “Looks like it would be a bumpy ride down.”

“What about the planet itself?”

“There’s no way of telling. The energy fields are causing too much interference. It could be a Garden of Eden or a barren rock.”

“What about the energy layers, are they dangerous?”

“Nothing is showing up on the scanners, but,” he shook his head and gave a frustrated sigh, “with the amount of interference I can’t be absolutely sure that we’re not missing something.”

“What about a probe?”

“We used the last one navigating that debris field two days ago. All we have left is the emergency message drone.”

Jake stared at the image on the view screen. “What are you hiding?” He muttered. They had searched three star systems, and found only rubble until now. Why was this world the only one to survive? Jake knew in his soul that this planet held the key that he had been searching for, he could not just walk away. He turned to the communications officer. “I want all data from the Empress’s databanks transferred to the message drone. Link in a live feed and continue to transfer everything we get.At the first sign of possible trouble, launch the drone.”

“Aye sir.”

“Pete, take us into the outer layer. We’ll take this one step at a time.”

As the Empress glided toward the planet, Jasen prayed to be anywhere else, but the cosmic forces that had brought him here turned a deaf ear to his pleas. He could only crouch on the cold deck and watch as the ghastly drama played itself out.

The Empress shuddered as it entered the energy barrier surrounding the planet, but there was no other outward sign.


“All systems green, Captain.”

Jake felt some of the tension leave his body at the familiar words. “Full scans, let’s see if we can’t get this lady to give up some of her secrets.”

With a lighter heart the crew set to work.

An hour later, a nervous call from the science station interrupted Jake’s study of the latest data feed.“ Sir, I think we may have a problem.”

“What is it?”

“I’m losing contact with the sensors, it’s like they’re suddenly not there.”

“What?” Jake stared at the readouts. “How is that possible?”

“That’s not all, we’re getting reports of equipment failure throughout the ship.”

Before Jake could comment, an emergency siren cut the air. “Captain, this is engineering; we’re losing containment on the power core…it’s…, it’s disintegrating.”

“Launch the emergency message drone. All hands abandon ship.”

“Sir, the life pods are disintegrating. There are hull breaches on decks five and twelve…oh my God.”

Jake turned to see the science officer staring at the far corner of the bridge. Following his gaze, Jake gasped. The metal walls of the bridge were rippling and as he watched, what was once impervious metal flaked to dust, then vanished in a puff of light.

All through the ship sounds of panicky crewmen mixed with the sounds of dying metal. Glancing at the beautiful but deadly world Jake whispered, “I’m sorry, Jasen.” Then the Empress vanished in an explosion of light.

“NO!” With a jolt, Jasen found himself crouched on the Ourora’s golden decks. Hunching over, he sobbed out his loss. Shock and grief collided with the exhaustion left by the vision, plunging him into darkness.

When he awoke much later, one fact stood out in his mind, Jake was dead, along with the entire crew of the Empress. He had felt them die, there would be no survivors found. Pulling himself together, he made his way back to his quarters. Once within the safety of his rooms, he put in a call to the corporate office. When the calm face of Mathew Chambers, Director of Operations for Blackthorne Industries and Jake’s right hand man, appeared on the screen, Jasen gathered his strength and delivered the news.

“Matt, it’s Jasen, Jake’s dead.” Emotion tightened his throat. “They’re all dead.”

“What…how…Jase are you sure?” At the younger man’s nod, he slumped back in shock. “What happened?”

“The planet they were exploring… the energy fields were dangerous. The ship exploded.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“They managed to launch a message drone before they …before the ship exploded. We need to retrieve it.”

Chambers turned to a console and entered a command. “We have a courier ship in the quadrant, it should be able to reach the Empress’s last known coordinates and return here in five days.”

“Good, they’re to fetch the drone only, under no circumstances are they to approach the planet.”

“Understood.” Chambers, like most of Jake’s personal staff, was well acquainted with Jasen’s unusual gifts. If he said Jake and the others were dead, then they were dead. If he said the planet was deadly, then it was. He would make very sure the crew of the courier ship understood and followed their orders. “I’ll dispatch the ship immediately.” He paused uncertain of his next words. “Jase, are you ok?”

“No,” Pain and fatigue were reflected in the golden eyes. “But I will be, thanks Matt.”

“If you need anything….”

“I’ll call. Let me know when they return with the drone.”

A week later, the courier ship returned with the emergency message drone and the news of Jake’s death. The following days passed in a blur for Jasen, as he assumed the reins of Blackthorne Industries and arranged a memorial service for Jake and the Empress’s valiant crew.

A month following Jake’s funeral, armed with every shred of information that he and Jake had amassed on the enemy, along with the information contained in the emergency message drone, Jasen started making his plans. When the plans were complete, he went searching for Hawk.

He found Hawk just where he expected, in the engineering lab puttering with a piece of bright golden metal. Hawk was of the Filidae race and Jasen’s closest friend. He was tall and slender with a mane of snow white hair and silvery blue eyes. The eyes’ pupils were slit, hinting that there was some feline DNA hidden somewhere in the Filidae evolutionary tree. Usually he moved with an unconscious fluid grace that Jasen envied. Today however, he was hunched over a workbench; the elegant planes of his face pulled into a frown of concentration as he muttered to himself in his native tongue.

Jasen had known Hawk for a long time. When Blackthorn Industries had started exploiting the technology found in the alien vessel, they had gone to the Filidae for help. As Jasen’s mind healed he was able to unlock the secrets of the golden starship. Unfortunately, those secrets were not so easy to share. How could you use a technology that was controlled exclusively by the power of the mind? The ability to sense and control psychic energy was a lost art in the Alliance. Anyone with the necessary skills had been killed or fled the system during the telepathic purge following the Kryllidar War.

Jasen’s people were magi. They had visited the earth once, long ago. It was their exploits that gave rise to the myths and legends of magicians and magical feats. In truth, what those ancient humans saw as magic was actually science, although a science different from that of the Alliance. The magi learned the key to harnessing the energy that resides in all things and controlling it with their will. Their science was based on collecting, storing and programming this energy to carry out assigned tasks. If Jake was going to adapt the alien technology for Alliance use, it was going to take some out of the box thinking.

Another trait the Filidae shared with those ancient feline ancestors was an innate curiosity about… well everything. The Filidae were brilliant scientists who loved nothing more than unraveling a new puzzle. They were the perfect partners in testing and developing the discoveries found aboard Jasen’s ship…discoveries such as the power crystals, which fueled the ship’s drive. The crystals stored vast amounts of energy. Devising a way for a non-telepath to access and direct that energy was a puzzle that could take decades to unravel. They had already come up with a way to grow and charge the crystals. Cut off from the strong psychic energy fields of their home world, the crystals needed a planet with an abundance of life to grow. The Filidae had a strong affinity for the natural world and their planet was teeming with life both plant and animal. Jasen still had to program the crystals, but the vibrant life energy of the Filidae world and its strong ley lines insured that the Ourora would have a steady supply of replacement power crystals.

Recently, Jasen had given Hawk a sample of the golden metal used to construct the Ourora with a challenge “to see what he could make of it”. He had been trying to uncover its secrets ever since. So far, only Jasen had been able to do anything with the metal, and he wouldn’t say how. It had become a game to see if his friend could guess the answer. Jasen couldn’t help but smile when he saw the look of fierce concentration on Hawk’s face.

Silently, he walked up behind the engrossed scientist and peered over his shoulder. “Well, have you solved the mysteries of the universe yet?”

“What?” startled Hawk dropped the lump of metal he had been studying and spun around in his seat. Seeing his friend’s amusement, he grinned. “Where did you learn to be so sneaky all of a sudden? You scared me out of a hundred years’ growth?”

Jasen laughed, “I’ve been taking lessons from you. Besides you were so lost in thought, you wouldn’t have noticed if the whole building had collapsed on your head. What have you discovered?”

Picking up the metal lump, Hawk gazed at it thoughtfully before answering. “This is the strangest stuff I’ve ever seen. I’ve tried drills, acids, heat, cold; even radiation and I’ve barely been able to dent it. I give up. What is this stuff?”

Studying his friend closely, Hawk’s tone grew serious, “Are you all right? You’ve been cooped up in your office so long I was beginning to worry.”

“I’m fine. I’m just tired. I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to the Empress and to see if there is a way around it.Hawk, I’m going to finish Jake’s mission. And no, I haven’t lost my mind. I think I’ve found a way; it’s risky, but I think I have a chance of succeeding.”

“We have a chance of succeeding. You are not going anywhere without me. Don’t even think of trying to talk me out of it.”

With a sigh, Jasen turned toward the door, “Let’s go to my office, we can discuss it there.” Picking up the lump of metal, Hawk rose and followed Jasen from the room.

Later, comfortably seated in Jasen’s office, the lump of metal resting on the desktop between them and steaming cups of coffee in their hands, Jasen began to bring Hawk up to date.

“Some of this you already know and some of it is new information. Ever since Jake found me, he has been trying to learn all he can about the creatures that destroyed my home system. The Ourora’s memory banks held everything that my people knew about the invaders, plus this.”

Jasen touched a button on the side of the desk and a viewer rose from one corner of the smooth desktop. “This tape was recorded by the Ourora’s scanners as she fled my home world.”

On the screen a golden starship lifted from the planet’s landing field. As the ship rose from the planet’s surface, a ball of red-gold light streaked toward the fleeing ship. Jasen touched the screen and magnified the image. The ball resolved itself into a creature resembling a huge bird of prey with a golden head and wings of flame. As the Firehawk, as Jake had named the creatures, flew near the escaping ship, one of its wings brushed against the ship’s side. Where the wing touched, metal shimmered, vanishing in a flash of light, which was absorbed by the Firehawk’s body. In a few seconds, no sign of the ship remained.

On the planet’s surface the grisly scene was being replayed. A horde of flaming Firehawks flew across the planet, beams of crimson energy streaming from their bodies. Wherever energy beams or flaming wings touched, matter disintegrated instantly, converted into energy which the Firehawks absorbed.

“Energy weapons appear to be useless. They only seem to strengthen the creatures or else have no effect at all. They feed on energy.”

“Then how can they be stopped? What chance have we against an enemy who can transmute matter to energy?”

“A slim chance. There is one kind of energy that seems to have an effect on the creatures. Telekinetics were common on my world, but telekinetics who could manifest their energy as solid fields of force were rare. There were a few such adepts in the capitol when the Firehawks attacked. Pooling their talents, they erected a force shield around the spaceport. That’s how we managed to launch the three ships we did. For some reason, the Firehawks would not cross the shield. It wasn’t that they were afraid or hurt by it, more like they noticed a barrier and flew around it. So far we have not been able to duplicate the energy pattern; we’ll keep trying, but the chances for success are slight.”

“Our best chance seems to lie here.” Jasen altered the viewer’s screen until an image of a milky white planet streaked with flashes of colors appeared on the screen.

“Using the coordinates in the ship’s computer, Jake placed my home world to be on the far side of the galaxy. He sent an exploration team to investigate. Every planet in the system was the same, either totally disintegrated or reduced to rubble.The destruction extended to my system and two others, then stopped. No sign was seen of the creatures, but some of the stars in the farthest system showed erratic energy patterns. I have a hunch they are still around, maybe resting somewhere after their feeding spree. How long they may stay there, no one knows. But one thing I do know, if the creatures start moving again, more systems will die. We must find some way to defend ourselves.”

“The exploration team did discover one interesting anomaly. Every planet in the creatures’ path had been razed except one.”Jasen pointed to the planet displayed on the viewer. This world was untouched. It seems to be in the center of the affected territory. It could be the creatures’ planet of origin or not; but either way, it has escaped unscathed. Our best chance of surviving is to find out how.”

“Easier said, than done my friend.” Hawk gazed at the planet displayed on the screen. Something was familiar about it, something he should know. Suddenly he had it. “Isn’t that the planet Jake was investigating when his ship exploded? How are we going to get through the energy field which destroyed the Empress?”

“What do you mean, we? I’m going alone. It’s too risky to chance anyone else. Besides, I need you here; someone has to carry on in case I fail. That’s why I’m telling you all this. You have to stay.”

“Wrong. I’m going. If you think I’m going to stay here while you risk your neck to save the universe you’re crazy. Besides, you’re going to need help. You can’t do everything alone, Jase.”

Jasen studied his friend intently, weighing his words. He was deadly serious. His mind was made up. Jasen was not leaving without him. He knew he could force Hawk to stay. A quick mental probe and Hawk would forget all about accompanying him. But he couldn’t, he wouldn’t do that. The first thing a telepath learned was to respect the rights and privacy of others. This primary law was deeply ingrained in Jasen. Besides, Hawk was his friend and deep down he knew he was right. He couldn’t do this alone.

Exasperated, Jasen raised his hands in a sign of surrender. “All right. If you want to be stupid, far be it for me to stop you.Just don’t blame me if you change your mind later.”

Hawk gave his friend a wry smile. “Why, thank you very much for the vote of confidence. I promise to take full responsibility for my stupidity. Now, what’s your plan?”

Taking a large manila folder from a desk drawer, Jasen removed a report and handed it to Hawk. “This is a transcript of the information Jake sent just before the Empress exploded. The vessel was destroyed because she was made of metal. The atmosphere of the planet is ringed with an unstable energy vortex which breaks down the molecular structure of metal. We have one chance of getting through; it all depends on whether we can get the Ourora space ready in time.”

Hawk scanned the report in his hands and tried to absorb its implications. The Empress was destroyed because it was metal. The message drone had barely made it out of the atmosphere without disintegrating. Yet, Jasen was going to take the Ourora into the same energy stream. What chance did the Ourora have, that’s assuming they could repair her and Jasen could fly her?

Looking up, Hawk noticed the lump of golden metal resting on the desktop and froze. Picking it up, he stared at Jasen in wonder.“It’s not metal is it?”

“No, it’s not. My home world had little in the way of natural resources. Wood, metals and water were in short supply. What it did have was crystals and a strong psychic field. All the crystals on the planet respond to psychic energy. That is actually bark. The crystal forest was one of our most prized possessions. The trees’ outer bark produced a crystalline substance that absorbed psychic energy, as well as sunlight, to help fuel photosynthesis and protect against insects. Every year, the trees shed their outer bark as well as their crystal leaves. We used the leaves as data crystals and the bark as a building material.”

“Wow, no wonder it’s a company secret. A pseudo-metal that can be grown, is harder than the best-known alloys, yet is light and compact. An endless supply of cheap, quality metal-like material, you’ll not only corner the energy market, but the metal market as well.” The implications were staggering. First, however, they had to deal with the Firehawks.

“OK, so the Ourora is made of crystalline pseudo-metal and should be able to pass through the field. But Jase, the Ourora is far from space ready, and there is no pilot, even if we could repair her. Besides, I’ve tried working this stuff; it’s next to impossible. There’s no way we can mold enough of it to patch the Ourora’s hull.”

With a sly smile, Jasen reached out and took the lump from Hawk’s hand, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Pulling three small crystals from his pocket, he placed them in his hand next to the golden lump. Closing his eyes, he directed his thoughts at both crystals and bark. The lump and crystals began to shimmer then glowed softly. When the glow died, Jasen held a golden disc threaded through with delicate lines of crystal. Reaching across the desk, Jasen pealed back the corner of Hawk’s shirt and placed the disk against his left shoulder. The disc gave a brief flash of light and then vanished. Hawk looked at his shoulder in disbelief. A tattoo of gold and crystal lines in the shape of an eight rayed star blended seamlessly with his skin.

“OK, is this your way of telling me you have a thing for guys with ink? And how is this going to help us fix the ship?” Hawk kept running his fingers over the new tattoo. The symbol was slightly cool but he could detect no edges or seams. The design was now a part of his skin.

“Even after it is shed, the bark retains a psychic charge indefinitely. The substance is psycho-sensitive. It shapes itself to the thoughts of its user. Every ship carries a store of bark to use for repairs or to shape into useful tools. If the adults onboard the Ourora had not been killed when the ship was damaged, they would have used the bark in storage to repair the weakened hull. During the accident, I was trapped for a time, cut off from both the hold and the rupture. There was no one else on board who was telepathic, most were refugees from other destroyed planets; without a telepath to use the bark and order repairs, they died.”

Shaking off the somber thoughts, Jasen nodded at the tattoo. “That’s where this comes in. If you are going to come with me, I don’t want you stranded in the middle of nowhere if something happens to me. The Ourora is totally thought controlled, a non-telepath can’t even get a cup of coffee from the galley. I’ve modified this to be a psychic amplifier and keyed the crystal to your thought pattern. As long as the tattoo is intact, it will amplify and focus your thoughts into a beam the ship’s systems can pick up. The ship is keyed to my thought pattern. It will respond to no one else. I’ve entered a code into the crystals which will give you access to all ship’s functions. It will accept your commands as if they were mine. Oh, and don’t worry, no one else will be able to pick up your thoughts. The ship operates on a special wavelength; you won’t be blasting your thoughts into my head every time you order coffee. I thought of just making you a bracelet but this way is much safer. No chance of you losing or misplacing this, and anyone seeing the tattoo will have no way of knowing what it really is or what it can do. So you like? I can change the design if you want.”

“No, it’s perfect.” Hawk gave his friend a suspicious look, “You had this planned. You knew that I would be coming with you.”

“Actually, I had hoped to talk you out of coming; but, knowing how stubborn you are, I wasn’t sure I’d succeed. I had a sneaking suspicion you might not let me off world without you. I’ve been working on a way to allow others access to the Ourora. I thought I’d best be prepared.”

“As for piloting, the Ourora’s data banks contain all the knowledge of my home world including plans for a teaching device. A few sessions and I’ll be a master pilot. So what do you think? Still want to come?”

In answer, Hawk jumped from his chair and headed for the door. Pausing in the doorway, he turned, cocked his head to one side, and raised an imperious eyebrow at Jasen. “Well, what are you waiting for? We have a starship to repair and a universe to save.Let’s get with it.”

Shaking his head, Jasen rose and followed the enthusiastic Filidae from the room. Well, one thing was for sure, with his friend’s quicksilver personality, the trip would be anything but dull.

True to his words, repairing the Ourora had gone smoothly. Under Jasen’s mental control, the ship had turned itself from a derelict into a first class starship. Building the telepathic teacher proved to be a little more complicated; but when it was finished, it worked even better than Jasen had hoped. Along with knowledge, the teacher transmitted experience and instinct as well. After three sessions, Jasen was a veteran space pilot and competent to handle the Ourora under any circumstances.

Unfortunately, the teacher only worked on Jasen; a flaw Jasen was determined to remedy when he had time. Since he couldn’t teach Hawk to pilot the ship, he settled for loading a series of programs into the ship’s autopilot and keying them to Hawk’s tattoo. If something should happen to him, at least Hawk would have a chance of returning home.

Three months later, they were ready to go. Leaving Blackthorn Industries in Matt’s capable and trustworthy hands, the two set out on their mission. Now they were here and the real work was about to begin.

Jasen entered the lounge just as Hawk removed a second cup of coffee from the ship’s food dispenser. Handing Jasen a cup, he raised his in salute. “Welcome to planet XK7, the garden spot of the universe.” Walking to the far wall, Hawk placed his right hand on the smooth metal surface and willed a viewing port into existence. Immediately, the metal surface of the wall shimmered and a transparent plate appeared in the ship’s side. Beyond the plate, the jewel-like planet gleamed in the darkness of space. “It’s hard to believe something so beautiful could be so deadly. What’s our next move?”

“Looks all too often are deceptive.” Tearing his gaze from the lovely view, Jasen walked across the room and dropped into one of the chairs set around the table bolted to the floor in the center of the room. Setting his cup on the table, Jasen closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Piloting took a lot of concentration and always left him with a headache. Besides which, he was tired. He and Hawk had both been working nonstop for the past forty-eight hours. They had gone over every inch of the ship and checked every piece of equipment and instrument on board. He didn’t want any surprises when they began their descent.

“First, I think we can both use some sleep. I’ll set the ship to running scans of the planet and the surrounding systems. I want to verify the Empress’s data before I try entering the energy field. I’ve placed the ship on full alert; the computer will wake us if there is the slightest change in the planet or the energy patterns of the nearby systems.”

“Sounds good to me. Do we have any probes on board? I don’t remember seeing any. It would be a good idea to see how our crystal pseudo-metal reacts with the field, just in case.”

“There are none on board, but we can easily construct one. I’d like to have all the information we can before attempting a landing. I’ll see what the computer can come up with, then I’m for bed. See you in the morning.”

Rising from his chair, Jasen headed for the bridge to start the computer on the task of constructing the probes. Hawk gazed at the planet once more, then ordered the ship to erase the viewing panel and headed for his cabin. Tomorrow should prove to be an interesting day.

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