ALTERNATE TALES OF THE STAR FORCE
Being the eleventh and final part of THE RIKASHA INCIDENT--- BY: Frederick P. Kopetz
ACT ONE: PRELUDE
I. INTO BATTLE
Earth: Tokyo Megalopolis
Sunday: April 25, 2202
"Mom, I'm scared," said Jordy Venture as he ran through the Wildstars' backyard.
"It'll be all right," said Carol Venture.
Not far away, a number of aircars, including Derek's…sped off as Wildstar and the others began their trips towards either the Argo or the airbase. Nova smiled to herself. Good, Derek! You made it out of this. Now, it's up to me to get these panicking civilians through this, too.
"We'll make it through this," said Carol Venture. She looked forward towards the head of the group, where Lieutenant Hemsford was running just behind Nova Wildstar, who was very visible in her white dress and bright pink shoes. Save for the fact that she had an astro-automatic out in her right hand, she looked rather like a young woman on a walk. Where is she leading us? Mrs. Venture thought. Holly's mother looked at Mrs. Venture and shrugged.
Nova's mother was similarly perplexed as her daughter disappeared into an aircar garage and hangar near the front of the grounds. It seemed that Nova was rooting around in the garage for something.
"This way!" Nova cried a moment later as she hastily took her shoes off and threw them to Hemsford.
"What's this?" asked Hemsford as he stuffed the pumps in his pocket. "Why are you deciding to go barefoot all of a sudden?"
"We have to do some climbing down a tight ladder that I can't do in heels," said Nova. "Get Jordy on your back."
Nova found a keypad in the wall near a small table and bit at her finger for a moment with her gun in her other hand. Then, she remembered the code and punched it in. There was a click, and she pushed some dust away from an access handle in the floor. She turned the handle and pulled up, opening a trapdoor.
"Where does this go?" asked David Venture.
"Yes, where?" asked Mrs. Parsons.
"Down to the underground city," explained Nova. "I have to get to the underground Earth Defense Headquarters to get a note to the Commanding General. Our house was built over a ventilation shaft, and this'll get us down there in a hurry. I hope you're up to some climbing down a ladder. Dad, make Mother take her heels off. You too, Mrs. Parsons. Hemsford, you'll be the last. Get the shaft sealed behind us."
"Right!" replied the Marine officer, who looked rather un-Marine in his jeans, dashiki, and Black Muslim knit skullcap. He had Jordy on his back in a fireman's carry.
Nova began to disappear down the trap door into the darkness. Unknown to her, she was following her Aunt Yvona's journey in January, but in reverse, since she was going down the passage while Yvona had come up from the passage like some kind of goblin.
As Nova hooked her toes on the second rung of the access ladder that she was going down, she heard her mother screaming. "What's wrong?" she cried.
She got her answer a moment later when a bolt of green blaster fire hit the wall of the garage, causing a little bit of cement to nick her cheek.
Red-armored R'Khell troopers were swarming around the garage and the front yard. One of them yelled "K'drana!" in his language, and signalled his mates in a "c'mere" gesture. Another one nodded, and he also fired at the fleeing civilians in the half-empty garage, half-empty since Derek had just taken his aircar.
Nova pivoted and began to return fire, bracing herself against the side of the passage as she fired at the enemy in a two-handed grip. Hemsford had dropped Jordy, and he was also returning fire with his weapon.
Not far away, Teri Forrester screamed. "Nova! This looks dangerous!"
"Damnit, Mom! Get behind my car!" Nova barked. "Dad! Cover her!"
Karl Forrester nodded, grabbing a projectile rifle off the wall near a workbench. "Is this loaded?" he asked.
"Yes, but with just two bullets in the magazine. You'll find more in the drawer, Dad," said Nova.
While Teri screamed and cried behind Nova's aircar, Karl ducked down and loaded the old 30-30 rifle that someone had given Derek as a present before they had left on the mission. He locked and loaded, and began to return fire along with his daughter and Hemsford. He hit two troopers at about the same time that Hemsford had.
In the meantime, Aliscea and Paul Rosstowski were heading towards the Argo in a speeding ground car being driven by Paul. The tires screeched as they flew around an intersection at high speed, just barely dodging some other driver.
The driver stopped and began to swear at them, but then the screech of a diving R'Khell plane made him look back and yell, "Holy CRUD! You go ahead, you two! Every man for himself!"
"No, it's not that way at ALL!" screamed Aliscea. She jumped out of the car with a look in her eyes that made the other man jump back, and he was even more freaked out than ever when this young woman in a sailor dress and delicate black sandals jumped on the hood of Paul's car. She yelled, "Come and GET me, you R'Khell murderer!" up at the approaching plane.
"No! Lady, you're crazy!" yelled the driver.
The pilot smiled, firing at Aliscea.
Aliscea put up her hands, and fire came out of them, deflecting the laser bolts. She roared and another burst of fire came out of her hands, blowing the enemy plane up into the sky and into pieces as if a wave-motion gun bolt had hit it.
"Uh…uh..," said the other man.
"Could you let us go now?" said Paul. "This woman is very important to Earth!"
"yeah…yeah…you go ahead..' said the man. At that, Paul and Aliscea got into their car and sped away.
"This is too weird," muttered the other driver. To calm his nerves, he had to drink some sake right away. He didn't care if the police caught him or not.
"Are you all right?" asked Paul.
"I'm feeling a bit weak," said Aliscea. "These battles are draining me. My heart…" she said.
No, don't, sent Paul. Don't get sick on us.
But it's draining me…keeping a watch on Ekogaru…fighting our enemies off. You have to do something for me when we get back to the Argo….
Help me prepare a ritual, in case I don't survive this. Someone else may have to carry on the psychic war and defeat Ekogaru.
It can't be that bad, Aliscea! NO!
It may be, she sent. It may be….
In the confusion, Jordy hid behind a garbage can. In the meantime, Carol Venture ran over and hid beside Teri Forrester while David Venture looked around the garage for something he could use as a weapon. Mrs. Wildstar's doing all right, but I need to defend the other women and Jordy, he thought
"Karl!" yelled Teri. "You're shooting at them!"
"Well, that's what you're supposed to do when you're in a firefight!" retorted Karl. "I haven't forgotten all of my old EDF training, Teri!"
"Our daughter's picked a very dangerous line of work!" cried Teri.
"Dad, shut her up!" cried Nova. "She's giving away our position!"
Another trooper ran into the garage and fired at Nova. Nova just barely avoided the energy beam by ducking. Then, she popped up again and hit the man in his armored chest with a well-placed shot.
Teri went silent as she realized that her daughter had just killed the enemy trooper. She shivered as she thought, God, this is terrible! What has the military done to my baby, who used to worry about baby birds? What's happened to her? What's happened to all of us?
A few minutes later, Derek Wildstar, Conroy, Hardy, and the other pilots reached Idlewild Space Naval Air Station near the coast. The guard admitted them in a hurry.
They stopped, running in a crouch to avoid enemy fire as they looked for working planes on the tarmac. Everything was chaos; several Cosmo Tiger II's were badly shot up.
"There's one!" yelled Derek. Conroy followed him towards a Tiger II strike-fighter with yellow trim that belonged to the Black Tigers. "Conroy, you get in the tail gunners' place. I'll fly it!"
"Right," said Pete Conroy as he and Wildstar got into the plane. Not far away, the Hartcliffes were doing the same thing with another surviving plane. Hardy found a plane and jumped in, followed by Laurel Hartmann. Tatiana Lubyanska and Diane Henson occupied another plane. Diane took the tail-gunners' place.
Derek was the first one down the runway, but he had to make a hard turn to the left and upwards as soon as he took off to avoid a R'Khell fighter that blew in like a maniac. He just barely managed to shoot it down as Conroy got another one from the tail-gunner's spot behind them.
Soon, the others took off, followed by twenty more Black Tigers that took off one by one as the pilots returned from leave.
Twenty-six planes, thought Derek. A bit more than two squadrons' worth. Good, he mused. "Twelve of you, form up behind me," he said over the radio. "Hardy, you take the rest of them! I see a big group of those bombers on radar, and we're heading off to follow them! Follow me north!"
"Right," said Hardy.
On the ground, the flight crews cheered and whooped as the Black Tigers flew off to intercept the enemy.
Commander Mark Venture got his car through the gates of the base under enemy fire, followed by Holly.
He had to shoot down a few R'Khell troopers as he ran towards the lift that would take him down to the Argo. But, followed by Dash and Eager, he made it.
A few minutes later, he was on the bridge of the Argo. He and Sandor exchanged hasty salutes. "Where's Wildstar and Nova?" asked Sandor.
"They got split up; they should be joining us soon," said Venture.
"Where's Holly?" asked Eager.
"Second bridge, commanding the Navigation crew," said Venture. "You take your spot, Eager!"
"Right!" Eager said in his Texas drawl.
"Are we ready yet?" asked Venture as he sat down at the helm and began to bring systems up.
"Just about," said Sandor as Homer ran onto the bridge, followed by Yamazaki. The Rosstowskis ran up a moment later.
"Are you all right?" asked Mark as Paul and Aliscea stood panting.
"I'm fine…Aliscea's a little tired."
"We…had some problems," said Aliscea. "But I'll be fine…for now." She swayed on her feet, causing Venture to look very worried for a moment. Then, he looked at Aliscea. "Can you run a radar?" he asked.
"Good. Take Nova's place until she gets here."
"Right," said Aliscea as she sat down at the cosmo-radar in her white dress.
Over the whoop of sirens, an announcement came over the PA. "First bridge, this is Mrs. Venture. I'm getting reports that 85 of the regular ship's company is in the process of boarding. We can sortie in twenty-five minutes."
"Good," said Venture. "Dash, do we have any planes on board?"
"One squadron, sir. The rest of the Tigers are at the base."
"Order the single squadron to take off as soon as we have some altitude," said Venture as he flicked controls like crazy. The dock shook for a moment from a bomb hit up on the surface. "Yamazaki, get me power! If we don't move…" he said, echoing Avatar's words back in 2199 when the Argo had taken off for the first time, "…We're a sitting duck!"
"Yessir," said Yamazaki. "Auxiliary engines coming up now. We should have power to move in five minutes."
"Weigh anchor!" ordered Venture. "We're pulling in the gangplank and cutting off dockyard power in three minutes! Homer, inform Defense Command that we'll take off at exactly 1045 Hours!"
II. IN BATTLE
Earth: Tokyo Megalopolis
Sunday: April 25, 2202
Back at the Wildstars' garage, in the din of battle as Nova, Hemsford, and Karl Forrester fired at the enemy, David Venture found a bottle filled with flammable cleaning fluid. He had just soaked a rag with the fluid, and shoved it into the bottleneck.
"What's that?" asked Carol, who was curious. Not far away, Teri sat chewing hysterically at her hands.
"Molotov cocktail," said David. "This should ward off these guys. Good idea, Hemsford?"
Hemsford nodded and threw him a cigarette lighter. "Do your worst, bro!"
"Don't wreck my garage with that!" cried Nova.
"I'm tossing it outside," said David as he lit it. He threw the bottle.
A R'Khell officer shot at it. He missed, and got fire in his face. When the bottle smashed, he was turned into a screaming human torch.
Nova hit another trooper, but, then a scream came in the garage as enemy fire rang in.
"MOM!" yelled Jordy, who noticed that his mother had taken a hit in the stomach.
"I'll be…all right," said Carol dully as she clutched her stomach, looking at the blood that stained her white blouse and green skirt.
"She's bleeding!" said Tonya Parsons.
"Damnit," muttered Nova. Over her mother's cries and protests, Nova popped out of the hatchway, and dodged enemy fire to get to Mrs. Venture.
"It hurts," moaned Carol.
"I can help," said Nova. "Mom, get me some strips of cloth…I need to make a bandage!"
"Blood, all that blood," said Teri as she saw Nova pulling Carol's blouse up.
"Mom, I know it looks horrible, but I need that cloth NOW!"
Teri nodded; doing something would keep her mind off the hell they were caught in. She got Nova a roll of gauze from out of a drawer, along with some tape.
"Mrs. Venture, this is going to hurt," said Nova. "I need to pack that wound. Luckily, none of your organs are coming out or anything. Nova got a hanky out of her purse. "Bite on this. It'll stifle your screams."
"Is it okay to scream?" said Carol dully.
Nova nodded. "I scream whenever I get a tetanus booster. Here we go, I'm starting."
Carol stuffed the hanky into her mouth, and began moaning as Nova worked on her while a shocked Jordy and David watched. Then, the screams came, stifled by Nova's hanky.
It took a few minutes. Karl helped hold off the enemy as Nova worked, ignoring the blood on her hands. Finally, he and Hemsford exchanged another volley of fire with the enemy, and everything went quiet, save for the sound of Carol's soft moaning as Nova finished bandaging her up.
"Can you stand up?" asked Nova as she covered Carol up.
"I have flats on, thank God," said Carol. "I think I can do it."
"Let me help you," said Nova.
"Thanks," moaned Carol as she stood.
"It's over," said Hemsford.
"Good," replied Nova. "Mr. Venture, please carry your wife; her legs are shaking a lot and I don't think she can get down that ladder by herself. We have to get down there quickly…there could be more of these guys at any minute."
Nova wasn't as cool as she sounded on the inside. She felt as if she wanted to panic; she could smell smoke as part of her own front yard was obviously on fire. However, nothing could be done about it now.
"I've got her," said David a moment later as he picked up his wife, carrying her piggyback on his shoulders.
"Good," said Nova. "Let's go."
At that, she climbed down the ladder, disappearing into the near-darkness like a gopher going into her hole. The others began to follow.
In the underground city, they found two aircars. Nova drove the first one; Hemsford drove the other.
They drove though a confusing series of underground transit tubes, barely glancing at the lights in the windows of the underground city. They're down here already, thought Hemsford. This attack is driving the people back down into the Earth like rats. Those stinking R'Khells!
Finally, after a few minutes, they emerged near the old underground Earth Defense Headquarters.
"You stay out here and watch everyone," said Nova as she reclaimed her shoes from Hemsford. "I'll be right back."
Nova jumped out, stepped back into her pumps, and ran like the wind towards the Headquarters building. On the way in, she stopped quickly to wash her hands at a tap outside, drying them as best she could. I don't want to give the Commander a bloody note, she thought. He has to be able to read Derek's request, whatever it is…
Finally, Nova entered the Headquarters building, ignoring the gasps from the Staff as she walked up to the Commander after setting down her purse.
"Sir," she said in a very resolute tone. "Commodore Wildstar has sent me here with this request."
Commanding General Singleton took the note. He read:
To General Singleton:
Pardon my tone, but we're in a rush. I've headed off to join the Black Tigers to help in the defense of the city. Please send reinforcements. My goal is to meet the Argo after she takes off. I have ordered Commander Venture to begin a sortie. Also, please see to it that Lieutenant Wildstar and Lieutenant Hemsford are given priority transport to the ship. I plan to meet her in orbit after the air battle after Commander Venture gets her back into space, and Lieutenant Wildstar has been ordered to rendezvous with us. If possible, have as much of Task Force 1.1 waiting as possible as escorts. I mean to find and attack the enemy carriers where these planes came from. Finally, see to it that the civilians accompanying Lieutenant Wildstar are taken care of and provided sanctuary… and medical help if there are injuries.
Yours in Haste,
Commodore Derek Wildstar.
"Are there injuries?"
"Yes. Mark Venture's mother has been hurt, sir. Can you get her transport to a hospital?"
"None of the hospitals are open yet down here," said the Commander. "And transport to Central Hospital would be difficult. Luckily, there is a Medevac Shuttle nearby that you can use. Have Hemsford fly you and Venture's family to the Argo…she'll just have to go with you until you can stop at a base. You and Doctor Sane can tend to her. Who are the other civilians?"
"My parents, sir, and Holly Venture's mother."
"I can arrange temporary quarters for three," said the Commander. "Have them come in here with you." He wrote some directions for Nova. "The shuttle is ten minutes away by Aircar at "C" Block. It's near an access hatch that'll let you surface near the undeveloped area around old Yokohama. From there, I'm sure that Hemsford can pick up the Argo by her IFF signature on radar." Then, he wrote another note. "This is for your husband's request. I'll do what I can to help."
"Thank you, sir," said Nova. "I'll have my parents come right in here."
Nova and the Commander exchanged salutes and then she left, running out as fast as her legs would carry her.
At the same time, Commodore Wildstar was in the air, flying like a madman as he shot down R'Khell plane after R'Khell plane over the Megalopolis and over Tokyo Bay.
On the radio, Hardy was jubilant. "Got another one, suh!"
"Good flying!" snapped Derek. Then, not far away, a R'Khell plane dropped its bombs right in the middle of a crowd of panicky civilians in the financial district. Derek saw an explosion and heard screams.
Gritting his teeth, he yelled. "Conroy! Cover my backside back there! I'm gonna bring that guy down over the park in that open space!"
"Right!" said Conroy as he began firing at an approaching enemy plane that focused on Wildstar's six. He got it, and Derek swirled and flew complex patterns as he lured the other plane towards the park.
Then, he flew up, around, and got the enemy plane in his own gunsight. Gritting his teeth again, he squeezed the trigger on his control stick, bringing the red enemy bird down a moment later.
A moment later, Angie Hartcliffe brought down a plane, followed by Bryan. Then, Laurel Hartmann brought down two planes, followed by Hardy.
"They're running, sir!" snapped Lubyanska over the radio.
"Okay," said Wildstar. "Everyone…we're gonna chase these guys into orbit. They can't go on forever. If we can find we're they're going, we can find those carriers. Everybody, follow me!"
The enemy planes ran on, firing now and then from the aft gun turrets as they gained altitude, breaking off the bombing attack on the Megalopolis.
But, Wildstar and his Tigers kept on the pressure. Soon, aided by another squadron of twelve planes from another Flight Group, they chased the R'Khells into space.
"We're moving!" said Homer on the Argo. "Great!"
"Told ya I'd have power soon," said Yamazaki.
"Good. Clear the dock, ahead point six," said Venture. "Prepare for takeoff in ten minutes…"
The Argo soon cleared the cave, heading out into the open sea at a rapidly accelerating sped. She fought the waves, ignoring the wind and rain as a sudden squall kicked up, spraying rain on the mighty ship's bow and windows.
Then, the clouds began to break slightly.
"Argo, take off!" snapped Venture. He pulled back the yoke, and the mighty space battleship quickly blasted up out of the Great Eastern Sea, heading towards the clouds like a seagull as she opened her wings.
"We're gainin' altitude!" said Eager.
"Aliscea, do you have Wildstar's squadron on radar yet?"
"Yes, Venture, I've spotted them. They're at 75,000 meters over the Shimonoseki Straits, heading towards the Korean Peninsula."
"Good. We're following them. Dash, open our main guns."
"Yessir," he said. He started to set everything up. "Damnit! Trouble with turret number one again! Looks like a short!"
"I can fix that," said Sandor.
"No, I'll do it," said Dash. "Request permission to leave the bridge."
Venture sat in thought for a moment. Then, he heard Homer saying. "I have Wildstar on the bridge speakers."
Venture nodded. Then, he said, "Dash, go fix that turret. We might need it."
"Right away," said Dash as he left the bridge.
Then, a moment later, the bridge instruments went berserk.
"What?" said Venture.
Aliscea stood. "Oh, NO! The Dark Lord is trying to attack us!"
Aliscea shut her eyes, shivering at Ekogaru's spiritual presence.
"This is the hour of reckoning for you, Crew of the rebuilt Yamato," hissed Ekogaru's voice from nowhere and everywhere at once. "Aliscea, let us see if you can win in this situation. Are you up to a challenge?"
"I am!" she snapped.
"Then, pass into My presence!"
On the bridge of the Argo, Paul ran over as Aliscea sat down again. She was sitting bolt upright, and did not seem to be aware of her surroundings.
Indeed, Aliscea's astral form had already left the ship.
Aliscea found herself sitting in a strangely familiar place…the Captain's Quarters of the pirate galleon Arcadia. She looked down at herself. Interesting scenario, if this is real, she thought. I'm in my astral form, semi-translucent, and barely dressed in a gauze dress at a chessboard.
Harlock turned around. It appeared the space pirate had survived. "Mime said that you and he were expected, so she set this out for your battle. The chessboard is real…"
"So, you survived that battle," said Aliscea.
Harlock nodded. Mime was utterly silent.
A black fog appeared, and the gruesome, hunchbacked translucent astral form of Ekogaru sat at the other seat.
"You disgust me," said Harlock. "Why take your battle here?"
"Because I wish for all of the scattered remnants of humanity to see her defeat first," said Ekogaru. "The news will never escape Earth since I will destroy it in three and a half days from now, if you are interested. If you care, that is…"
Harlock refused to answer, but he stood there with a clenched fist.
"Shall we begin?" said Aliscea. "It appears that I am the white. Therefore, I make the first move."
Ekogaru nodded gravely. It looked quiet, by there was a definite feeling of menace and hatred in the air as Aliscea moved her first piece, a pawn.
Thus, the battle opened…in a time, as it were, both inside and outside of Time itself.
In Earth's solar system, Lecha Voton sat on the bridge of his command carrier, the Hehrendal.
"The attack goes well," said one of his lieutenants. "The flight groups from the P'Charda and the Yarzan continue to bomb Earth. The Argo has taken off, but our planes should soon stop her, sir!"
"Wonderful," said Voton. "Keep us here, towards the rear…for the moment. Then, when the time comes, I shall finish off that ship before we can meet our main fleet by Alpha Centauri. Sandberg, do you like our plan?"
"Excellent…and thank you for the space submarine ride," said Piper Sandberg with a smile.
"Where would you recommend our planes hit the Argo?" asked Voton.
"The engine section in the aft part of the hull is a weak point, along with their gun turrets. Hit them there, and they should be easy to defeat…chivalrous damned bunch," laughed Sandberg.
"Your suggestions sound good," said Voton. "I think we will get along well together."
"So do I," said Sandberg. "So do I…"
In a period of time that seemed oddly distorted, Aliscea had hacked at Ekogaru on the chessboard, and he had hacked back. But, Aliscea's Queen, a Bishop, and a Rook now surrounded his King.
"Check," said Aliscea with a smile. "And this has a real effect. Already I can see you are weakening."
"I will not lose…to a girl like you," hissed Ekogaru.
"You are losing. Your power is fading," said Aliscea in a calm voice as Harlock and Mime admired her reserve. She wanted no one to know how weak she was becoming from this protracted psionic struggle. "My power is waxing. Do you wish to take this to another level, or stand down before I place you in Checkmate?"
"If I were to stand down…?"
"You would pull back your attack, take your Fortress, and go home," said Aliscea calmly but with a measured tone of menace as she spoke and began to gleam slightly.
"And if I refuse?"
"Then, I have no choice but to tell you our next battle shall be your last," said Aliscea in a calm voice. "If you do not turn about and head home, all I see awaiting you is Death…and I speak the truth!"
"How can you do that?"
"Your Fortress shall go down, with you in it." Aliscea began to move a Knight. "Are we agreed that you are now…in Checkmate?"
Ekogaru's eyes turned a vicious, gleaming red. He stood, snarled, and overturned the table and chessboard. "Damn you!" he snapped. "It is YOU who will be in your grave! You and the whole accursed, stinking, dunghill human race!"
Ekogaru screamed and faded away like a black cloud.
"Did you weaken him?" asked Harlock.
Aliscea nodded. "Substantially. I apologize for the choice of venue…"
"It was his fault," said Harlock. "We are near the Magellenic Cloud now, if you were wondering."
"Come to Earth?" asked Aliscea.
"I shall do that," said Harlock. "We shall meet again."
"Thank you," said Aliscea.
At that, Aliscea faded from the Arcadia….
On the Argo, Paul shook Aliscea's still form just thirty seconds after she went catatonic. "Aliscea!" cried Paul in pain and grief. "ALISCEA!"
Aliscea shook her head like a person awakened from a deep sleep. "Oh…I'm back. Good," she said in a tired, sleepy voice.
"Where were you?" asked Paul. Venture ran over as well.
"Confronting the Dark Lord on the pirate ship Arcadia, of all places. His power is weakening, and I have shaken his confidence, and have begun to seal his doom."
"Did you destroy him?" asked Sandor.
"No, it was a battle of minds and wills, and he lost. You'll note his Presence has left this ship."
"I see," said Venture.
"I need my cabin as soon as Nova comes back, though. I am so tired."
"I understand," said Mark. "We will give you whatever you need."
"Does your Chaplain…your Rabbi…does he have prayer candles?"
"Have them brought to me when I go to my cabin, please."
Then, a moment later, near Mark's post, the bridge speakers crackled.
"Venture, this is Wildstar!" said Derek. "I'm taking Third Squadron and coming back to the ship. Hardy's got those guys on the run!"
"Roger," said Venture. "Where's Conroy?"
"I think the comm system's out…he just went quiet," said Derek. "He's in my plane, in the tail gunner's place."
"Have you heard from Nova yet?"
"No," said Venture.
" I see," said Derek after a moment of silence. "I…"
"Aliscea had a battle with the Dark Lord," said Venture. "She said he lost."
"It drained me," said Aliscea. "I can't heal anyone for a day now…I'm afraid. But if Ekogaru hadn't been stopped now, we might all be dead."
"I see," said Derek over the speakers.
"Unidentified flying object!" said Eager. "Approaching at 95 degrees to port…."
"Should I ready pulse lasers?" said Rosstowski.
"Maybe you'd better," said Venture.
"Roger. Pulse lasers, stand by. Track that object!" said Paul.
Then, there was a burst of static. "…Come in…?" said a female voice. "Hello?"
"Nova?" said Venture. "Switch to video, Eager!"
He did, and Venture breathed a sigh of relief as he identified a Medevac Shuttle coming towards the Argo at high speed.
"It's us," said Hemsford. "We've got some wounded here."
"Nova, is that you?" said Derek from his plane over the speakers.
"Yes…it's me…" said Nova. "If I sound faint, it's because I have a patient here that I can't leave! Tell Doctor Sane I need Sickbay fast along with a nurse's uniform and gear!"
"Who?" said Venture.
"…Mark?" said a weak voice.
"Oh, my God," said Venture with a loss of composure. "Mom!"
"Tell Doctor Sane we need four units of Type A Positive and a ready Sickbay!" said Nova. "Tell him to hurry! She's bleeding really bad!"
Aliscea sat in tears. "Mark…I cannot help you…"
"I understand," said Venture in a choked-up voice. "Upper Flight deck, grant that shuttle priority clearance. Lower Flight deck, prepare to receive the Commodore and his squadron!"
"Got it," said an officer below.
"Should I keep on tracking Hardy's squadron?" said Aliscea.
Mark nodded, trying to keep his lip from trembling. He just wanted to put his face in his hands…and cry…
Nova landed first. As soon as the shuttle was opened, IQ-9 came in with medical equipment, several units of blood, and a nurses' uniform and boots for Nova.
"Good," said Nova. "The blood's the right type. IQ, start the IV for the blood while I get into these things. I might be in surgery for a while."
She ducked into the head to change while David Venture held his wife's hand. She was getting weaker. "We'll have you in surgery soon."
"Good," she said in a quiet voice. "Uh…medical robot…?"
"I am IQ-9, a genius," said IQ. "Don't worry, you'll be taken care of."
"I hope so," said Jordy with a sob. Normally, he would have been very enthusiastic about being on the Argo, but now, he didn't care. He could see his mother was getting more pale by the moment as she lay there under the sheets that Nova had wrapped around her during the flight.
Somehow, he knew that unless they could do something soon…it might be the end for his mother.
Why, God, WHY? Jordy thought to himself.
In the upper flight bay, Wildstar slammed in for a landing, being the last of his squadron to come in.
"Well, Conroy, we made it," he said. "Thanks for that shooting you did back there…you helped me to make it through that battle. You helped all of us."
Derek then reconnected his headset to the plane's internal comm system. "Conroy? Respond…please? Conroy?"
Then, Derek walked around, curious as to why the gun turret wasn't moving.
A moment later, he saw the hole in the turret…the blood… and Conroy's still form slumped over the gun.
Then, it hit him.
God, he must've been killed in the battle! And I never even noticed! Oh, crap…my Tiger Group Leader…and my friend!
Derek stood there looking at Pete Conroy's still body. Finally, he closed his eyes and took off his helmet in respect.
"Hey, Wildstar!" yelled Hartcliffe as he ran up. "Captain! What's wrong?"
"Conroy," said Derek in a husky voice. "Look."
Bryan Hartcliffe walked around, looked, and then, he took his helmet off in respect as well.
"Should I get the bleedin' medics, sir?"
"Yes," said Wildstar. "But tell them they don't…have to hurry. Not now."
Hartcliffe understood. He took off his glasses as tears began to run from his eyes.
In spite of their fights, he realized that he would miss the Argo's Flight Group Leader…and so would everyone else…
In something of a daze, Derek walked up to the upper flight deck.
He saw Nova's shuttle sitting there.
Jordy Venture ran out a moment later.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" asked Derek.
"My mom," said Jordy. "Please, Wildstar, please tell me that your doctors can get her fixed up..."
"Your mother? What happened?"
"Shot in the stomach, Nova said," said Doctor Sane as he came up with emergency equipment. A moment later, Nova came out of the shuttle, pushing the litter that held Carol Venture. Mrs. Venture lay under the sheets, writhing in pain as she lay there with an IV of blood hooked up to her. IQ-9 held the bottle.
"Hi, Derek," said Nova in a tired voice. "Sorry…can't talk much now. Have to get her into surgery…"
Derek looked on as Nova smiled wanly, not bothering to push a strand of hair off her forehead. Then, she walked off with Doctor Sane and IQ-9.
Then, Mr. Venture ran up. "Sir. Is my wife…going to…die?"
"I hope not," said Derek. "I really hope not. We're…out here to try to preserve lives."
A moment later, the red alert klaxons went off. "I have to go," said Wildstar. "Sorry. It's my…ship…"
David Venture nodded dully. "I understand."
III. TOO MUCH TO BEAR?
Space Battleship Argo
Sunday: April 25, 2202
Out in space, in the meantime, Jefferson Hardy flew along with his planes.
I wish I knew where those enemy planes are going…they're just running now, not putting up much of a fight. Are we near those carriers?
He got his answer a moment later as he saw two red space warships off in the distance. They were flashing signal lights of some type; the enemy planes broke formation and split into two "V's"
"Wildstar! This is Hardy! I've spotted the enemy carriers…ah've got two squadrons…mine and Lubyanska's. Seek permission to attack R'Khell carriers!"
"Go for it," said Derek.
"Roger," said Hardy. "Lubyanska, get your squadron to take the one on the right. "I've got the one on the left…"
"Roger," said Tatiana with a grim smile as she lowered her faceplate.
"GO!" said Hardy. "Get them!"
Hardy received a thumbs-up from Bryan Hartcliffe as he flew past. A moment later, Hardy was diving towards the carrier at full military throttle, shooting the enemy planes like clay ducks as he screamed in.
A moment later, he had missile lock on the carrier. He said, "Goodbye, you dirty creep!" as he thumbed his firing button. Missiles blasted off his wings a moment later, followed by spreads of missiles from his squadron mates.
The missiles roared in and, with explosion after explosion, they began their work, blasting hole after hole in the carrier Yarzan. Finally, Hardy's squadron roared off, satisfied that the carrier was done for. The Yarzan blew a moment later in a spectacular ball of flame.
Lubyanska's squadron did the same sort of work…blowing apart the second carrier, along with her returning planes. Only three planes were left from both carriers, and they quickly succumbed to the Black Tigers in quick dogfights. This time, only one Earth pilot was lost…but the loss was keenly felt as Laurel Hartmann finally met her fate; the ace EDF pilot had a R'Khell plane hit her six as she was shooting up another one.
"Are they gone?" said Hardy as he surveyed the carnage. He saw the remains of Laurel's plane and shivered. I don't believe it…we lost a squadron leader, he thought, not knowing that Conroy was also dead.
"Looks like it, sir," said Angie Hartcliffe over the circuit. "I…wait…something else is coming in!"
"More planes! And another carrier! NO!"
On the Hehrendal, Voton and Sandberg smiled as plane after plane roared off the flight deck into the fray.
"We're going to finish them once and for all!" said Voton.
"Wonderful," said Sandberg. "I have always hated that ship, and that accursed Wildstar! Little punk kid!"
"Great," muttered Hardy as more blips came up on his radar. "And some of those guys are heading right for the Argo! Lubyanska, break off and go protect the ship."
"Roger. What about you?"
"I have thirteen planes…I can take those others. GO!"
"Right," said Tatiana. A tear ran down her cheek as she saw the remains of Laurel's plane. "Goodbye, you mooshnik," she said with a grim smile. "You'll be missed, hon. You'll be missed…"
A moment later, the Argo was under attack.
R'Khell planes roared in, blasting holes in the ship as missiles rammed into her weather deck, pulse laser turrets, and starboard hull in various spots.
Some of Sandor's recent repair work disappeared in new waves of battle damage as parts of the ship were hit. Inside the bowels of the Argo, more badly needed crewmen and crew women died as the ship trembled under the hits.
In Sickbay, Doctor Sane yelped as the ship trembled and the lights went out for a moment in the operating room. "Where'd they come from?" he yelled. "I'm in the middle of surgery!"
"I'll get power back on," said Nova as she quickly found one of the panels in the dark; this had happened before. She got power back up and ran over to Mrs. Venture, almost tripping on the remnants of Carol's abandoned clothes as she ran over. "Oh no! Look! When we took that hit...she moved on the table…That blood vessel opened up worse in her stomach!"
Nova and Doctor Sane looked in the wound as Carol moaned. She had been on the verge of shock, and couldn't have her intestines repaired under general anesthesia, so a local had been given instead. She opened her eyes and looked over the operating drapes. "My God, all that blood," she moaned.
Nova looked on in pity for a moment as she helped Doctor Sane get more instruments inside her. The blood vessel that the shock had opened was a major artery. Blood spurted out of Carol Venture like a burst garden hose. Soon, bright red blood was on the deck, all over Dr. Sane's boots and the lower part of his pants, and all over Nova's white boots.
"Where is that bleeder?" asked Nova.
"If it's where I think it is…"
"What's happening to me?" moaned Carol as she got weaker. "It hurts!"
Doctor Sane and Nova worked together to suction away the blood. A moment later, both of them worked together as IQ-9 handed them both instruments.
"My God," muttered Doctor Sane. "Nova…do you see that?"
"Yes," said Nova softly as she tried to keep control. Her aorta's ripped…bad…thought Nova. One of those retractors fell into her and tore her when the lights went out. No wonder she's in pain…poor thing…and poor Mark! Poor Jordy!
Dr. Sane's eyes met Nova's. He gave his head a subtle shake. Nova cast her eyes downwards, nodding once.
"What's happening to me?" moaned Carol as her world suddenly went dark. "Am I dying?" she whispered.
"Yes," said Doctor Sane in a very soft, defeated voice. "I'm not going to lie to you…you have about three minutes left."
"I wish I could have seen David…and my boys one more time…I love them so much…" whispered Carol.
"I'll tell them what you said," said Nova softly. "Do you want anything for the pain? It…doesn't matter now."
"No…I can't feel it," said Carol in a very weak voice. "You had a pretty dress on earlier today…can you put it…on me? And your shoes? I don't want to go into my casket like this…without anything on under these sheets…"
"I'll dress you in it," said Nova as she tried to hold back her tears.
"Good," whispered Carol. "Hail Mary…full of grace…the LORD is with thee…"
Nova held her hand as Carol gasped out her prayer, ending with, "Now…and at the hour of our death…"
The heart monitor suddenly stopped bleeping; its sound turning into a single alarm note just as the line went flat.
Carol trembled a little, and her mouth went into a momentary smile before the life faded abruptly from her eyes. Then, she went quiet.
Mark Venture's mother was dead.
"Call it," said Sane through tears.
"Eleven fifty-two Hours," said Nova, as her voice faded into a sob while she wrote out the certificate. Dr. Sane signed it, taking a big swig from his sake bottle a moment later. Nova shut off the heart monitor and helped Doctor Sane pull the sheet over Carol's face. Then, the Argo shook again, and the lights flickered.
A phone rang. Nova answered it. "Sickbay…operating room!"
"Nova, this is Natalie. We've got wounded from C deck. Can you guys fit them in?"
Nova nodded. "We can now. We just lost our patient."
"IQ-9, get her out of here!" barked Doctor Sane. "I need this room. And don't let the family see her like this!"
"I'll take her right to the morgue via the back way," said IQ while Nova and Doctor Sane disconnected Carol's body from the equipment. As an afterthought, the robot picked up the remnants of Carol's clothes and put them in a bag along with her sandals. Then, he left.
A moment later, a moaning enlisted man from Communications was brought in. He kicked and screamed as Nova and Doctor Sane cut his uniform off, evaluated him, gave him a local, and got to work.
This one is gonna live, thought Sane. I think.
"All planes…break off the attack," ordered Voton on the Hehrendal.
"But I thought we were going to finish them now!" said Sandberg.
An Earth Task Group is coming…we need to be safe with our escorts," said Voton. He bent over a screen operated by one of his officers. "I read a space battleship, two cruisers, and six destroyers approaching. They're going to crush us in a pincers move, so we have to leave now. Besides, Borland is one of those escorts…with the Mogami. He'll track them until we can make our next move!"
"Got it," hissed Sandberg.
At that, the Hehrendal warped out after the planes left.
The change in strategy was so great that Commodore Wildstar wondered what was going on.
In the first gun turret, in the meantime, there had been a hit. Two crewmen had died, and Dash requested permission to remain on station there and help repair the damage.
Up on Bridge Number One, Derek granted it.
"Communication from the Bolivia," said Homer a moment later.
Captain Jorge Peronada appeared on the screen. "Looks like we got here a little late. I'm sorry."
"Who'd you bring?" asked Derek.
"Sir, we brought the Mogami, the Danube, and the destroyers Osaka, Beijing, Liverpool, Rio de Janeiro, Philadelphia, and Vienna. I think we're ready to keep you safe until we can meet up with the Lexington and the rest of the Task Force at Neptune."
"Good," said Wildstar. "Keep them at the ready. We'll signal you when we're ready to warp."
"Thank you, sir," said Peronada. At that, the image faded out.
In Sickbay, Nova and Doctor Sane's other patient survived. They made their rounds, and then Doctor Sane said, "Nova, where did you have the Venture family waiting?"
"In my Living Group office," said Nova as she put down a phone. "I just talked to Mister Venture…he and Jordy came through the battle all right."
"Did you tell them?"
Nova shook her head. "I think you heard me? I didn't. News like that shouldn't come over the phone."
Sane nodded. He wiped his brow, and kicked off his shoes. "We need to talk to them together. Nova, get me some clean things from out of that locker."
"Right," she said. "I'll need to put my sandals on with a new tunic…my usual things are a mess. I'm sure you don't want them seeing the blood…"
"I don't," said Sane. "Especially not the boy. Nova, after we tell them, you and IQ get her prepared, cleaned, and dressed before they see her."
"We will…I hope the enemy doesn't come back," she said as she pulled her boots off and then stripped down to her underwear.
Nova dressed in her fresh outfit, dabbing at her thighs with a cloth to get the blood off. Finally, she pulled off her OR cap and sighed. "Do I look presentable for the survivors?"
"Yes. Do I?"
Nova nodded. "You look good. But I bet you feel like crap."
"I do," he said. "Even I have to remember…we don't win every battle with the Reaper in this business."
"I know…but I hate having to break the news to families…especially the children."
On the First Bridge, all was quiet for the moment. At Venture's post, he had just enough time to begin worrying about his mother. It's been a while. I wonder how Mom is? Mark thought.
Then, his intercom went off. "This is Navigation!" he said.
"Venture, this is Doctor Sane."
"How's my mother? Did she come through the surgery all right? I'm sorry that you guys had to work around her, but…"
"Venture, we have something to tell you…please meet with Doctor Sane and I in my office." said Nova in a soft voice. Knowing Derek might be nearby, she said, "Derek, can he be relieved now?"
"I'll take the helm myself, Nova." Derek left the Combat Group Leader's station and moved into Venture's seat. "Come back when you're ready."
"Yeah," said Mark as he and Derek shook hands.
Mark's heart was pounding as he left the bridge.
"What about Mom?" said Jordy. "Doctor Sane…can you tell us?"
"You have to wait until your brother comes down here," said Sane in a stern professional voice.
"It's not good, is it?" said David Venture in a despairing voice.
"Things…didn't go too well down there," said Sane quietly.
"My God," said David Venture in a quiet voice.
A moment later, Mark showed up. He knew at once things weren't good when he saw everyone's expressions and Nova just took him by the hand as soon as he came in.
"Mark, you're all right."
"Yes, Jordy, I'm fine," said Mark as he hugged his little brother. Then, he looked up. "Nova…Doc…?"
Doctor Sane took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "Mister Venture, the operation on your wife was a little dicey, but going well until the ship took a hit around 1145. In that hit, your wife was slammed into the table, and some medical instruments inside her slipped when we shook hard a'starboard. A major blood vessel ripped."
"Oh no…" said David.
"Dad…Mark…is it…?" asked Jordy. "I…?"
"Doc," said Mark as he shook Doctor Sane by the shoulders. "You're not telling me that…?"
Sane nodded. "I'm very sorry. Nova and I did all we could, but the damage to her was too great. Your mother died in battle on the table at 1152 Hours. She said to say she loved all of you…very much…"
David Venture put his face in his hands in grief. "Carol…" he muttered. "Over twenty years…and I didn't get to say goodbye…"
"Mommy!" cried Jordy. "My Mom!" He fell sobbing against Nova's bare legs.
Mark walked over to Nova and Jordy in shock. Nova threw an arm around him. "Your mom was a fine woman," said Nova through her tears. "And I'm so sorry…so sorry for all of you…"
"When…when can I see her?" said David as his raised his face. Tears streamed from his eyes.
"It'll take a while," said Nova. "I think I can come for you at about thirteen thirty if we don't have any more combat. The Argo's still in danger, you know. You can wait in here in my office."
Sane plunked down his bottle of sake. "Mister Venture…Mark…you two can finish this. I think you're going to need it more than me."
"Thanks," said Mark.
"I have to go now," said Nova. "I'll have Holly come down, Mark. She can comfort you."
"Thanks, Nova…never thought you'd be in attendance when my mom died."
"We don't know a lot of things, Mark. I could be dead tomorrow. Any of us could be. Life is fragile. We just enjoy what we have now…we don't know if there's going to be a tomorrow."
"Who told you that, Nova?"
"You did," she replied softly. "Remember? I'll…see you later…"
IV. A COLD, DARK REQUIEM
Space Battleship Argo
The Jupiter Area
Sunday: April 25, 2202
The Argo had made two space warps, and was now heading for the Ganymede Station to drop off Mark Venture's family and the body of Carol Venture. They would then head back to Earth aboard an EDF personnel transport escorted by two gunboats.
In the morgue, Nova stood in the cold, looking at her breath as she put the finishing touches on Mrs. Venture's unclad body.
"Good," said Nova quietly as she disconnected the embalming equipment. Conroy's body lay nearby on another gurney…Nova had just finished with him, as well, and he lay under a sheet. "I was able to seal up your stomach with the laser welder, clean you up, and fix your hair." Nova looked at Carol's still features…her eyes were now closed. "Now, all we have to do is dress you, and then you'll be ready to show to the family."
Shivering a little as some cold air hit her bare legs since she had not had time to change yet, Nova bent down to pick up the undergarments she was putting on Carol…panties, bra, and a slip. Nova hummed a little bit of Bach as she dressed the body. The undergarments were some of Nova's own things, along with some precious, still hard-to-find new pantyhose that she rolled up Carol's bare legs. Nova got the white dress and shoes, and gently finished dressing Carol a moment later, lying her back down on the gurney with her hands folded over her chest. Nova tucked a clean white sheet over her up to where her hands were. Then, Nova folded Carol's hands and placed a small bouquet of fresh flowers in them.
Tears ran down Nova's eyes as she examined her finished handiwork. "You look so nice in my dress, Mrs. Venture," she said softly. "I wish I could have seen you in it while you were alive. I wish you could have danced in this with your husband, or something. Maybe you can hear me from Heaven…I hope I did all right."
"You did fine," said a cold voice that came from nowhere. It was sarcastic and filled with malice. "Too bad you won't look so good when you're dead, Nova!"
Nova shivered even worse…her fingers went stiff with cold as a phantom shape began to appear, and the cold at the floor was so intense that Nova felt as if she was barefoot in the Arctic, even in her sandals.
"Ekogaru," said Nova with hatred in her voice.
"Like the cold?" said the Dark Lord as he stepped closer as he solidified. Then, he snapped his fingers. Nova's dress and shoes disappeared, leaving her in just her underwear.
"You…vile…thing," whispered Nova as tears of rage ran down her face.
"Where is Aliscea?" said Ekogaru.
"None of your damned business," said Nova as she picked up a coroner's knife. The knife was a bit bigger than a regular scalpel, and was designed for gross cutting in autopsies.
"I command you to tell me where Aliscea is!"
"Go soak your head!" snapped Nova as she shivered.
"Holding me off with a little blade?" chuckled Ekogaru.
"I'm getting used to it," said Nova.
"What do you mean?'
"I held off one of your goons with a smaller one once. Now get off my ship before I…before I… cut out your poor excuse for a heart!"
"Don't I frighten you?"
Nova was scared, but she wouldn't admit it out loud to him. "If Halloween tricks are the best you can come up with now, you're getting pretty damned pathetic! You're one poor excuse for a God!"
Ekogaru roared, and he literally threw himself at Nova.
Nova got the blade up just in time. As Ekogaru pounced like a cat, he literally impaled himself on her blade.
Ekogaru roared in rage and pain as he looked at the blade sticking out of his stomach. Underneath the thin cladding of plastic skin he had recently built for his ravaged body under his cloak, his cyborg "blood" pulsed out in regular waves as he looked at his ruined artificial guts.
"Doesn't feel so good when you're on the receiving end of the pain, does it?" said Nova. "Now get your ass off my ship!"
"Who do you think you are? Aliscea?" hissed Ekogaru.
"How long has it been since you've just had your butt kicked in a fair fight?" said Nova as she put up her fists.
Ekogaru began to laugh. "I am a God! Yet I am being menaced by a mere organic in her underwear who weighs a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet!"
"That's a hundred and eighteen," spat Nova, who had forgotten her fear in her anger. "C'mere…"
Ekogaru raised his hand, and Nova found herself pinned to the wall by some sick force that concentrated itself at her throat. Her eyes bulged, and she tried to talk…all that came out was a strangled croak.
"Strangulation is a wonderful way to die," said Ekogaru as he pulled the knife out of his own guts with a gasp of pain. He held it up, and flames ran down the blade. "Now, we can combine that with a bit of live dissection. Like to see how your own guts look hanging out of your damned stomach? I wonder what your liver looks like?"
Nova gasped and croaked. Well, guess this is it, now, she thought. I'm going to die right here in this morgue…pinned to the wall like a bug in someone's collection! I hope I hurt you good, Ekogaru!
In her mind, he whispered back, I will repair the damage, you scum! Too bad I don't have a cross! You'd look great nailed to one about now! Now, prepare to die in the same room you should have died in back in 2200!
Nova gasped and coughed as the tip of the blade touched her stomach above the navel. As soft as a lover's caress, Ekogaru began to slowly dig in…and a small line of dark red blood appeared on Nova's stomach as he tenderly began to cut…
The door flew open a moment later. Ekogaru gasped as some force whipped the blade out of his hand into the wall.
There was a howl, and a ball of flame blasted towards the Dark Lord.
Nova's eyes widened as the fire blasted around both of them, burning the Dark One where he stood, but leaving her miraculously untouched as the force at her neck weakened.
Shocked, Nova felt herself sliding gently down the wall as Ekogaru writhed and screamed.
Nova remembered once being on an amusement park ride as a little girl…a ride called "The Gravitron". It was the sort of ride that spun around and pinned you to the wall with centrifugal force…a simple ride, but very amusing for a ten-year old with no fear of heights. She remembered the sensation when the ride slowed down and one gradually slid down off the padded wall. Save for the fact that this wall was metal and she wasn't wearing the romper and sneakers she had been wearing that day, it was just like the ride as Nova slid to the deck. She was surprised as the flames licked within millimeters of her and did nothing except provide some very blessed warmth.
"Aliscea, you filth-monger!" yelled Ekogaru.
"Better to be a filth-monger than a fish-monger," said Aliscea with a light smile. "Commodore Wildstar, stay back! Venture, keep your family back! He's still very dangerous!"
"I shall destroy you," said Ekogaru.
"Like hell you will," said Aliscea, who was still in her sailor dress; Nova noticed that something was wrapped around her waist like a sash. However, Nova also noticed that Aliscea was swaying on her feet somewhat. "Come at me, Ekogaru! Give me your best shot!"
The Dark One laughed and turned on her. He fired back a blast of bluish flame that blasted through the doorway, holding off Commodore Wildstar, Mark Venture, his father, Jordy and IQ-9.
"Oh, no!" yelled IQ. "We're going to get roasted!" Jordy screamed and hid behind his father.
Aliscea blasted back. Derek ran up, but Aliscea's gesture of power towards the door shut the hatch in Wildstar's face. From inside, Derek heard his wife shouting his name.
"Nova! Let me in there to help her, Aliscea!"
"Give us a minute!" cried Aliscea.
Aliscea shut her eyes, raised her eyes upwards, and muttered something in Pellian.
A moment later, a green haze came from her hands towards Ekogaru.
A green light appeared in the Dark Lord's eyes as he saw the mist coming. He shut his eyes, shielded himself with his arm, and faded away like a ghost, beaten at last.
From her place on the deck, Nova looked on in awe. "What did you do, Aliscea?"
"Not much, except to force him back. I've drained my life-force very deeply to do so, though." She then removed the sash around her waist. "I have anticipated and foreseen this. I need you. Put this on and get yourself decent," she said, tossing the bundle of cloth at Nova.
"What is it?"
"Unfold it. It is a Pellian robe of silk," gasped Aliscea. "It's ceremonial garb. Now, follow me."
"How did you beat him?" asked Nova. "I'm sorry I'm so insistent, but…"
"I weakened him hours ago. Now, I have drained him of more power, with the expense of putting my own life in danger. My life force is actually…fading. Hurry up and dress! You are needed before I place myself in a healing trance."
"Do you need me to examine you?" asked Nova as she pulled the silken robe-like garment on over herself and tied the sash.
"Nova!" yelled Derek outside.
"NOVA!" yelled Mark at the same time. "Are you all right in there?"
"I'm fine! Give me a minute!" said Nova as Aliscea opened the hatch.
Derek ran in, embracing Nova after he entered. Then, Nova explained what happened.
"Will he be back, Aliscea?" asked Derek.
"Let us hope not," said Aliscea.
Mark Venture came in a moment later. Nova looked at him. "Your mother's done…but Ekogaru tried to attack me right when I was finished. IQ-9, take Mrs. Venture out of there to Sickbay for the honor guard to come get her after she's placed in her casket."
"Yes, Nova," said IQ. He brought he out a moment later.
When David saw her, the tears came afresh. Jordy began to openly sob.
"Mom, you look beautiful,": said Mark in a very quiet tone as he squeezed his mother's cold hands. "Too bad you can't hear us…"
"She looks very nice, Nova," sobbed David Venture.
"What are you doing on duty in a dressing gown?"
"Long story," said Nova. Aliscea turned to Derek and said, "Commodore, get Nova's clothing. She'll need it afterwards. Then, meet us in my quarters."
Derek nodded. Nova and Aliscea left.
Space Battleship Argo
Sunday: April 25, 2202
A while later, the Argo landed briefly at Ganymede. The Venture family said goodbye to Mark and left the ship with Carol's body in an EDF casket, while Conroy's body was left on board to be prepared by some of Doctor Sane's other nurses, since Nova was unavailable. The transport was waiting to take David and Jordy back to Earth with their mother, who would be buried in the Ventures' old hometown of Amsterdam, New York in the United States.
Mark stood saluting in tears as the transport left with its escort. Then, he wiped away his tears and got back to work. Some final supplies needed to be loaded onto the Argo for the upcoming battles she would fight. The supplies would have been loaded on Earth, but the procedure couldn't be finished because of the unplanned early takeoff for the ship.
In the meantime, in Aliscea and Paul's cabin, Derek and Paul stood watching something that looked like a mysterious ceremony of some type that Aliscea had been planning for some time.
Nova wished they would hurry up…under her robe, her light cut was beginning to burn; she thought, I wasn't even given any time to treat that, and it hurts! Well, guess I'll have to just bear it a bit longer…
Rabbi Greenberg stood in the room in his prayer shawl. He had a Torah scroll open, and murmured prayers in Hebrew as he lit candles. The sitting room of Paul and Aliscea's VIP cabin was filled with candles and incense, and a silken cloth had been spread out on the deck over the carpet. It was white, covered with an intricate circular pattern of Pellian characters in gold and blue; the letters resembled Hebrew writing. At the center of the cloth was embroidered a large six-pointed star.
Aliscea had taken off her sandals and went barefoot as she stood at the edge of the cloth. Nova had been positioned at the center of the cloth, and she stood there wondering what was going on. While she stood there, she parted her robe slightly at her stomach to expose the wound. What a mess…that really needs to be cleaned up!
Aliscea scattered some incense from an incense burner on a chain, and then she said, "What you are about to see is a Pellian rite seldom ever seen by offworlders. It is a rite that evolved from the time before Pellias was first even colonized ages before…before the Pellian people were taken from their first world by the permission of the One. I have a secret about Pellias I need to share…Earth has an old link with Pellias. A very ancient link…"
Aliscea paused. Rabbi Greenberg was finishing a prayer he thought was most unusual…the kaddish…a prayer for the dead. Yet, Aliscea had requested it, along with a reading of some of the Psalms in the original Hebrew.
"Rabbi, you may leave now," said Aliscea. "The rest of this rite may only be shared with a few."
"Of course," he said. He closed his Torah scroll, kissed it, and prepared to leave. .
"Thank you for the Shabbat candles. I trust you, they are needed."
"Why is that?"
"This room is now consecrated," said Aliscea. "You stand on holy ground. Please go."
The Rabbi nodded and left.
On the Hehrendal, Voton received a transmission. "Yes?' he said.
The voice-only transmission hissed a bit. "This is Borland. I'm in a ship's head on the Mogami, using the portable unit you gave me, but I can't talk long. I am near Ganymede with the Argo. I cannot talk for long. They are planning to strike the rest of your Fleet at Centaurus tomorrow. Please be ready for them."
"We shall be. Where is the flagship now?"
"On Ganymede. They plan to come to Neptune to meet the rest of the Task Force, hold a meeting at nineteen hundred, and then they will begin the journey towards Centaurus. The Argo and her escorts will lead the Fleet. I think you can hit the Argo near Neptune right before they begin to warp into interstellar space."
"Let me know when she is vulnerable," said Voton.
"I shall," said Borland. He smiled as he said, "They think I am an escort…but I am really an enemy. Isn't this amusing?"
"It is," said Sandberg from the bridge of the Hehrendal.
"I have something odd that I must tell you," said Aliscea.
"Which is?" asked Commodore Wildstar. Paul did not reply, since through his bond with Aliscea, he already knew the answer.
"About four thousand years ago, in your reckoning, a spacecraft piloted by a race long since unknown to us, but which we call the Ancestors in our lore…was permitted to take a small band of my ancestors out of a nation on Earth called Egypt. Our histories say that it was in the days after a great drought in Egypt. The people who left Egypt were a small group, of only about two hundred souls. We were taken, it was said, because the wisdom of those ancient Terrans was needed along with the knowledge of the Ancestors. Upon arriving at Pellias, the first of our Astral Guardians was trained in the techniques of the Ancestors and then bore a child fathered by an Ancestor. Eventually, the Ancestors merged with the ancient Terrans, forming the Pellian people, which, nonetheless, preserved the secrets and traditions of the representatives of those twelve tribes of Terran wanderers."
"Twelve tribes?" asked Nova. "Did your ancestors…by some chance, come from Canaan?"
"But that's just a legend!" said Paul. "Joseph and his dreams…the Exodus…Moses…did that really all happen? And did some of them end up in space? That's nuts!"
"It did. It is a legend at the heart of your faith," said Aliscea. "Yet, my ancestors left Earth long before Moses was born. We were taken when the patriarch Jacob had just died."
"So, you're really from Earth?" said Derek. "That sounds incredible!"
Aliscea shut her eyes before continuing. "This was not the first time this happened, nor would it be the last, as it is said that the Deingilians' ancestors were taken from Earth by another ancient race, albeit an ancient race whose goals were not as altruistic as that of the Ancestors who took us. We also were kept appraised of the doings of our brother tribesmen on Earth by other means…however, we were forbidden to interfere, save by prayer. At any rate, even though we adopted the Ancestors' advanced technologies, our efforts a thousand years later were concentrated on fighting Ekogaru, so we could do little for Earth save to reach out to it in meditation and prayer."
"You must have known much about our progress," said Nova.
"We did," said Aliscea. Then, she continued. "The ancient Terran ancestors of the Pellians, as well as their sundered brethren on Earth, had a tradition of anointing prophets and prophetesses, representatives of the Divine among our people. My mother at her breast as a baby anointed me as such. Then, soon afterwards, the Matrix of Pellias; the psychic well of knowledge of our ancestors, and the source of some of my power, was conferred upon me as an infant after it passed from my mother to me."
Aliscea paused again. "Paul and I have realized that my strength is fading…that I may soon die, since I have pushed myself too hard in stopping Ekogaru. Three times today, I have fought him or his representatives. Three times today, I felt close to the edge of Death. I am so tired…."
"You can't die!" said Nova. "We…we…need you and the power you possess! Without that…"
"I may die," said Aliscea. "I may not. That has not been revealed to me yet. Nonetheless, in preparing for my death, I realized that I have no daughter…yet…to pass the Matrix to. Neither do I have a sister to pass it to. Normally, for the Matrix to pass on, a daughter or blood relative must be prepared."
"But you don't have one," said Nova. "What are we going to do then?"
"Nova, there is some hope. In the distant past, as the Matrix has informed me, it has been passed to another of our people who became part of the family line, as it were, by a rite known as Pal'torjan…a sort of adoption. Then, later, a descendant of that woman to whom she had passed the Matrix to, within a generation, had married a member of the family line of my family, returning the Matrix to our family. I do not know whether or not this will be the case or not. In one vision of my future, I see myself naked with my daughter at my breast, and she coos as she is Anointed and the Matrix is formally passed to her after her Preparation. In another vision, I see you doing so to your daughter…"
"You…didn't ask me if I wished to participate," said Nova softly.
"But the Matrix has chosen you as a potential successor," said Aliscea. "Yes. I might have to place my mantle upon you. Are you prepared?"
Nova stood in silence for a moment. She didn't know if she could take this step…or not…
On his Fortress, Ekogaru stood in his Council Chamber, hissing and snarling as he moved about with his cane.
He had dissected Yvona's rotting remains earlier in the day. Now, her cyborg skull, a mixture of metal and bone, sat grinning at him on his organ. A black candle had been shoved into the now-empty braincase through the top. The Dark Lord lit the candle and began to scatter blood around it. The blood had not been hard to find. He had many prisoners…and many victims…on his Fortress.
Then, he sat down and began to play Passicaglia and Fugue in C Minor all over again. The Dark One caused his eyes to go dark, struggling as he played robotically, missing notes as he played.
We are soon to warp again, he thought. And soon, I must complete my research…to live on! My cyborg form is dying…growing weaker, and weaker and failing. But, I will soon have an alternative. I will survive! I will live! And, with my mind inside the systems of the Fortress, I shall be immortal at last. Then, Aliscea's acts no longer shall matter. I shall outlive you, you accursed little scum!
You wounded me, Aliscea. You, and your Terran whore would-be adopted relative who shoved a knife in me without any shame even after I stripped her for her Death! And you think you shall prepare her to stand in your shoes? Not likely, Aliscea, not if you die before you can make the transfer, thought Ekogaru.
He stopped playing, and picked up Yvona's skull. "Why couldn't you kill her, you fool? You were trying. You had my power! Why could you not have stopped this then? WHY?"
Then, one of Ekogaru's officers came in. "Lord Ekogaru?" he asked.
"YESSS?" roared the Dark Lord.
"After we warp, the Council would meet with you."
"Good," said Ekogaru. "I will talk with them! I am on the verge of a great discovery!"
"As you wish, My Lord," said the officer. He bowed, turned, and left, leaving Ekogaru to his organ music, and his laughter.
As Ekogaru laughed, he thought. Now what can I do? Yes, I can cause some discord on the Argo. Wonderful, beautiful hatred… it will not be hard…for Terrans do not accept that which they cannot understand!
He caused the inside of Aliscea and Paul's cabin to appear on his screen, and, with a twisted smile, he began to perform his work upon the Terrans' minds….
"So, what does this mean?" asked Nova in a suspicious voice. "And could you hurry? I'm in pain from that knife wound Ekogaru gave me…it's just a nick, but it does hurt."
"If I were to die, you would use my power, which I would confer upon you before my death. It would take a mere moment once you were Prepared, which means you share a psionic link with me."
"But…I'm not sure I'm ready. I told you that!" said Nova. "I mean…uh…I have no psionic ability or your ancestry. Maybe you should bring someone else up here to anoint?" laughed Nova. "Someone more suited than silly me, certainly!"
Aliscea then did something very unexpected…she slapped Nova across the face. The young Terran stood in shock as Aliscea screamed, "Well, then, maybe you want to see Earth burn, face the One, and see Earth dead because you could only laugh about this? Do you wish to become the reason for the death of humanity and then become accursed for all eternity?"
"Hey, wait a minute!" said Nova, whose face and stomach were now burning with pain. "I thought your people didn't believe in forcing anyone to do anything. I'm not psionic, I'm not related to your ancestors, and I don't even have an inkling of how to fight Ekogaru psychically like you do! What makes you think I'm just gonna accept your offer? I want to help you, but…this goes a little far. No offense, but I can't be you!"
"That's right! And no one goes around slapping my officers and family members!" yelled Derek. "I don't care if you're the High Grand Whatever…you don't hit Nova like that or force her to participate in your rites if she doesn't want to! Now, apologize, or get the Hell off my ship!"
"At this point, Derek Wildstar, if you cast me out, you will have no hope against Ekogaru!" yelled Aliscea.
"Yeah?" challenged Derek.
"Derek, please," said Nova as Wildstar and Aliscea glared at each other with fire in their eyes.
"Nova…you know we can fight for ourselves! About forty wave guns shot up that Phased Density Cannon of his could do it! I think we can do this on our own now, without your help! Why don't you take Paul…if he wants to go, and get on that transport and leave?"
"Derek…" said Nova. "Again…Please…think about what you're saying! I can't be her, but maybe someone else could do this?"
"Like hell. From here on, we can fight Ekogaru ourselves…can't we, Nova…?"
"I don't know," said Nova. "But, I know that I can't do this," she said, reaching for her clothes. "Let me put back on my nursing uniform. This robe is very nice, but…I don't think I can go through with this."
"You heard her," snapped Derek. "Aliscea, go pack your things…"
Aliscea gritted her teeth. "Very well, Commodore Wildstar," she said in acid tones. "If that is what you desire, then I shall leave. It is a pity that both of you are unwilling. Derek, you were an ally of ours, and you protected our people. Nova, I thought you were becoming a sister in suffering…I thought we were bound together in fighting the Dark Lord…you even fought today, as I would have…with courage."
"We can still fight," said Nova. "But, I don't know if we can fight your way or not. We Terrans are very practical people. We believe in spirit, but maybe we have enough spirit in our ship?"
"Very well then; I am dying, and will do nothing to try to keep myself alive if you do not wish me here. I can just say, "to hell with it" and die in peace with no struggle to live and no pain! I will go back to Earth and die before Ekogaru comes so I don't have to see the end! You need not come, either, Paul. I will sever our bond, divorce you in the manner of our people, and damn the consequences! I have had enough! I will fight no more for a band of damnable ingrates who refuse to see beyond their fears and superstitions!"
She then came to Paul, and put her hand on his head. "Paul, because of my anger, I will break our bond! You shall henceforth be alone to…"
"Aliscea, don't do that," said Paul softly as he took her hand off her forehead. "I want to stay with you. We need you! I need you. Derek and Nova need you, too, even though they are both angry at you and the way you have acted at times."
"Damn right I'm angry," said Derek. "Hitting my wife."
"I'm confused, that's all," said Nova as she stood holding her clothes. "I don't know if I can do something like this or not."
"You see, Aliscea? They just don't understand this," said Paul. "Please show them some respect? Just as you showed me respect?"
"Show respect?" said Aliscea. "I will pray that the One damns you, Nova Wildstar, for refusing the burden I mean to prepare to pass unto you…"
"You're gonna pray that God damns me?" snapped Nova. "Boy, some friend you are! I ought to slap your face for that!"
"Come here and try it," said Aliscea. "I'll burn you where you stand!"
"You do not threaten my wife!" roared Derek. He drew his weapon.
Nova dropped the clothing. She picked up a ritual dagger and stood beside her husband in her thin robe in silence, ready to attack Aliscea if she raised a hand against her beloved.
Wildstar and Nova stood confronting Aliscea and Paul. For a moment, time seemed to freeze.
Is this where it ends, killed by our allies? Derek thought.
He slowly took the safety off his weapon. "Aliscea!" he yelled. "If you wanna hurt Nova…you are gonna have to get past me first!"
"It will be a pleasure, Commodore Wildstar," hissed Aliscea. "It will be a great pleasure, since I have had enough of your impiety! Enough of your mocking things you cannot understand!"
To Be Continued with Act Two: "First Movement of a Symphony in a Minor Key…"
THERE ARE NOW 4 DAYS TO THE ARRIVAL OF EKOGARU IN EARTH'S SOLAR SYSTEM