Chapter Seventeen

"Isn't there any way we can give more power to the engines?" Tyler asked. The Hell Runner had just cleared the Palman asteroid belt and was charging full throttle towards Mota. But for the worried Tyler, it wasn't fast enough.

"No," answered L-479. "After giving the cloaking device and life support systems the minimum amounts of power they require, all available reserves are already being used by the engines." L-479 realized that this was a case in which Tyler might say something sarcastic, so he accessed the "sarcasm" sub-routine of his conversation program, and chose a sentence from the three choices his CPU gave to him. "The only way this ship could get any more power than it's getting now is if I went back and plugged myself in to a power junction."

Tyler kept his eyes straight forward out the viewport, but cocked his head in consideration. "Okay," he finally said.

L-479 turned to him, a little stunned. "Okay what?"

"Okay," Tyler repeated. "Go ahead. Do it."

"Do what?" the still-confused L-479 questioned.

"Go plug yourself in to the power junction in the cargo bay!" Tyler exclaimed, exasperated. "You said that's the only way to get more power to the engines."

"Tyler, I was running my sarcasm sub-routine. I didn't mean the suggestion to be taken literally."

"If you went and plugged yourself in," Tyler pressed on, "could your power generator give even a little more juice to our engines?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"Fine," Tyler interrupted. "Do it."

Reluctantly, L-479 climbed out of the Hell Runner's co-pilot's chair and left the cockpit, headed for the cargo bay. The moment he was gone, Tyler forgot all about their semi-argument and once again intently watched the chronometer on one of his control panels, on which was displayed a countdown to their estimated time of arrival to Mota, as if staring at it would make the seconds tick down faster.

He's really going to do it, Tyler thought, his natural calmness fighting back the near-panic that pounded at the rear of his brain. That Dezorian madman that nearly drowned me is really going to kill everyone on Mota.

His fears were once again forgotten as L-479's voice came over the ship's intercom system. "I'm plugged in, Tyler," the Polezi said. "Our ETA should be affected momentarily."

Tyler's eyes darted to the screen. In one second, an entire minute and a half went by. The Space Pirate nodded, keyed the intercom. "All right, Toasterhead. Great job."

L-479 gave his robotic equivalent of a sigh. "A minute and a half? You call that a great job?" Suddenly, his tone of voice changed as he saw something on the cargo bay's monitor. "Tyler!"

"I see them, El," Tyler said. Three of D'zkot's fighter ships had just decloaked ahead of them. Tyler's gaze darted between his sensor screen and the viewport in front of him. The Hell Runner was headed for the three fighters, but was several kilometers below them. "But they can't see us."

"Are you sure?"

"Hey, we have a Danzimm cloaking device, don't we?" Tyler reassured his friend. "Those New Order goons down in Skure must have told their friends about us before they left their bunker and met their untimely end. They're patrolling for us, but they won't see us."

A strange buzzing at the back of Tyler's brain made him wonder just how much he believed his own words. He watched the fighters come in closer, and closer still. Their weapons were fully charged and their shields raised, but they still weren't on an intercept course.

"I don't know, Tyler," the intercom speaker said in L-479's voice. "I didn't get into their ships' specifications when I sorted through their files, but I did learn that they've been to many of the same places we have. They might have Danzimm cloaking devices, too."

"Would you relax?" Tyler sneered at his co-pilot (and, he realized, to part of himself, too). "Even if their cloaking devices came off the assembly line right after ours, they can't detect us. That's why Danzimms are the best."

But now came the moment where Tyler would see if his confidence had been misplaced. The fighters had closed to within firing range, but in a moment, they would be in point blank range. If even one of them were to fire a torpedo this close, Tyler, L-479, and the Hell Runner could instantly be in pieces and floating in space.

Realizing he'd closed his eyes, he forced them open just in time to see the fighters pass by overhead and continue on their course. Tyler clapped his hands. "Ha ha! You see, Toasterhead? I was right. Now what was our bet?"

"There was no-- Tyler!"

The three New Order fighters had turned around but were no longer flying straight; they were now in a slight dive, on an intercept course for the still cloaked Hell Runner.

Tyler hesitated. Were they bluffing? Did they really know? How could they? Should he drop cloak and raise shields (and blow his cover) or just stick to his guns and keep flying straight?

The hesitation nearly killed him. All three ships unloaded their blasters into the space in front of them.

Unfortunately, all three also hit the Hell Runner at point-blank range.

The control panel in front of Tyler exploded, sending the Space Pirate flying out of his chair and across the cockpit. Main lighting died, but the cockpit remained lit thanks to emergency lights and the fires coming from the control panel.

The gravity nets malfunctioned and Tyler began to float into the air. With great pain, he lifted his head as he rose off the deck and looked up just in time to see the fires from the control panels go out instantly.

Realizing with alarm what the sudden extinguishment meant, he began looking frantically around the cockpit. Soon, he saw it. The hole in the ceiling through which all of the cockpit's atmosphere had been blown out. Hull breach, he realized. That's it. I'm dead.

It was then that he realized how D'zkot's fighters had found him. No, they couldn't track him visually because his cloaking device was activated. And no, they couldn't track him mechanically because the cloaking device took care of that, too.

But the cloaking device didn't hide his mind, and that's how the pilots of the fighters had found him. D'zkot just sat down wherever he was -- his flagship, Noah, it didn't matter -- and sent his mind into space, probing for Tyler.

I guess he got me after all... was Tyler's last thought before he fell unconscious due to lack of oxygen.

- - - - - - - - - -

L-479 disconnected himself from the Hell Runner's power grid just as the New Order's blaster fire rocked the ship. The damage was intensely severe and quite immediate. A blast of feedback static surged into all ship's systems, destroying a couple and knocking the rest of them off-line. The cloaking device instantly fell. Lights died out and were replaced by red emergency lights. L-479 realized that before Tyler could raise the shields, they'd been shorted out.

Quickly, L-479 checked the logs of his auditory sensors and discovered, with horror, that two of the attacking ships had scored direct hits on the Hell Runner's cockpit. He slammed his metallic hand on the intercom button, despite the fact that it was already turned on. "Tyler?" No response. "Tyler, please, answer me now! Respond! Acknowledge!" The intercom was probably gone with everything else, but...

L-479 stormed towards the cargo bay's door. As the ship's gravity nets ceased to function, he activated the magnetic fields in his feet and was instantly pulled back down to the floor. He charged out of the cargo bay and turned in the corridor towards the cockpit door. When it was supposed to open in front of him, it didn't.

An emergency sound screeched from the intercom speaker above the door. "Cockpit has been de-pressurized. No access allowed."

L-479's horror increased. Tyler was locked in the cockpit, with no air and no heat. He ran through his databases to see how long a humanoid could survive without oxygen and in absolute-zero conditions.

It wasn't good. The only thing to do was to depressurize the entire ship, which would then allow him access to the cockpit. Once inside, he had to get Tyler an oxygen supply and seal the hull breach, then bring life support systems on-line. And he had to do it fast.

If they had been in the atmosphere, L-479 would have then heard the New Order fighters coming in for another pass at the Hell Runner. They had regrouped and powered down their blasters, charging their ion cannons at the same time. A blast of ionization from all three would not have a destructive effect on the Hell Runner, like blasters would, but ion cannons would disable all of the ship's still-active computer systems, which L-479 could count on one hand.

But since the Hell Runner was still in the vacuum of space high above Mota, the Polezi heard nothing.

As he reached for the manual lever that would depressurize the ship, they fired. All computer systems inside the ship were flooded with ionization and shorted out instantly... including L-479.

All his optical sensors picked up was a white flash of static before all of his systems went dead. His mechanical body went limp and as his magnetic systems went off-line, he floated in the air next to the cockpit door. With his entire body flooded with ionization and all of his systems completely shut down, he was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

And so was Tyler's last hope for survival.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Are there any other ships out here with us?" Rolf asked Shir as they finally broke free of Dezo's gravity and atmosphere.

"No," Shir answered after glancing at the sensor screen in front of her. "We're the only ship in the system."

"What about Noah?"

"I'm scanning Mota space now," she replied. "Found it. It didn't pop up on my first scan because it's still broadcasting that sensor mask or whatever it's called."

"You can't punch through it?" Rolf questioned.

"I can't. Which is not to say that the Paseo can't. I just don't-- Rolf!"

"What is it?" He didn't need his newfound Esper powers to hear the alarm in her voice.

"It's the Hell Runner," Shir announced, looking at her screen again to confirm what she saw the first time. "She still hasn't reached Mota yet."

Rolf was puzzled. "Tyler and El should have arrived there a long time ago. Are they having mechanical problems?"

Shir keyed for a closer scan, looked at the results, gulped, and turned to Rolf. "You could say that," she said quietly. "The ship has been completely disabled. All systems are non-functional."

Slowly, the full scope of what Shir was saying hit him. "All systems... except life support, right?" Rolf asked hopefully.

"No, Rolf," Shir shook her head. "All systems."

Before he could think about what to do, his eyes returned to the space outside his viewport. He focused on an area off the starboard side of the ship, then quickly raised the shields.

Before Shir could say, "What's goin--," three New Order fighters had decloaked off the Paseo's starboard bow and charged towards Rolf and Shir.

As Rolf swung the Paseo hard to port and began evasive maneuvers, Shir helped as much as she could with information from the sensors. "There's three of them, shields up and weapons charged!" She looked to Rolf. "These might be the guys who got Tyler."

Rolf nodded and nosed the Paseo down into a diving loop, bringing the belly of his ship around to face the bellies of the New Order fighters. The move shook the first fighter, but the second two followed and remained locked onto Rolf's tail.

"Are our weapons charged?" Shir asked Rolf, her hands tightly wrapped around her seat's armrests.

"Yes," the Agent confirmed, "but they won't do us any good. All we have--"

He broke off his words as a volley of blaster fire from the second New Order fighter approached the Paseo. He dodged to port, but that immediately put him into the line of fire from the third fighter. He swung back to starboard, but the second fighter was firing again.

This time, he swung hard to starboard, putting himself on a course that aimed him straight back at Dezo. The two fighters on his tail broke off to regroup just as the first fighter returned directly ahead of Rolf. It fired two torpedoes at the Paseo.

In the cockpit, Shir squealed and closed her eyes. An idea suddenly hit Rolf, and he took the Paseo into a dive underneath the torpedoes, but then corkscrewed around until he was on the tail of the first fighter.

"I was saying we don't have any weapons that can affect those fighters," Rolf said to Shir. "But I was wrong. We do have one." He took one hand away from the Paseo's controls long enough to pat the Neisword in his lap.

Shir alternated her gaze between Rolf's eyes and the Neisword. The Agent returned her look with a smile as he brought his hand from the Neisword to his face, where he brushed his blue bangs out of his eyes, then brought both hands back to the controls. "You're serious?" the Thief asked.

Rolf just nodded. "Watch."

The Neisword was in its scabbard, and so he didn't have his full powers. Still, he thought he had enough to make his plan work. He concentrated on the fighter ahead of him, the fighter that was now trying to shake him from its tail. Rolf let his hands work on an auto-pilot of sorts, pursuing the New Order ship by instinct.

Then he reached out with his mind and imagined a giant wall of steel as thick as a planet and twice as wide. He took one hand from the controls and wrapped it around the Neisword's scabbard, concentrating, and concentrating hard.

He suddenly realized his eyes were closed. He opened them just in time to see the fighter in front of him suddenly crumple up into a ball of scrap metal and explode, not unlike a fly hitting the windshield of a Land Rover moving at top speed.

"You did it!" Shir exclaimed. She raised her fists into the air and gave a yell of celebration as Rolf banked the ship hard to starboard to avoid the floating sea of debris in front of him.

Rolf realized he'd concentrated so hard on destroying the first fighter that he'd forgotten the other two. A moment later, they converged on his tail section and opened fire.

They'd each had time to load a torpedo as they regrouped. They fired these first, and the Paseo's shields fell instantly. The subsequent eruption of blaster fire onto the Paseo's hull then did a good job of tearing apart most of the repairs L-479 had made to the ship two days earlier.

Shir didn't know much about piloting spacecraft, but she knew enough to know that all the flashing red lights and alarms across the Paseo's control board were not good. Rolf seemed oblivious to them and simply stared forward out the front viewport at the ice planet ahead of them, but in fact, he was just trying to hide his frustration.

"Are we going to crash?" Shir asked.

"I hope not," Rolf answered sincerely. "But we don't have to worry about those fighters anymore. They just broke off and recloaked."

"Why? Not that I mind."

Rolf shrugged. "I guess their mission wasn't to destroy us, just to prevent us from reaching Noah."

"And Tyler as well!" Shir exclaimed. "What are we going to do about him? His ship's floating out there dead with no life support!"

"I know," Rolf said solemnly, nodding. "But D'zkot has seen to it that there's no way for us to help him right now." A moment later, his frustration overcame him, and he slammed his fist down onto his console.

Rolf took the Paseo back into Dezo's atmosphere and aimed for the Alplatin Plateau.

- - - - - - - - - -

Despite the fact that there were chairs, tables, and crates strewn all throughout the room -- all just begging to be sat on -- Rudo, Kip, and Kain stood in the large store room of Biosystems Lab. The room's sole other occupant was sitting, however. Ricktus Tenbern, the puppet leader of the Rebels, sat against the wall near the crate of rifles he was inspecting when the three intruders stormed his base.

"Think, guys," Rudo instructed his comrades. "We have to get to space, to whatever ship it is that D'zkot is holding Anna on. How do we do it?"

"We don't," Kain said flatly, the pessimism and defeat in his voice obvious.

"Yes, we do," Rudo corrected, lacing his own voice with optimism to hide his own doubts. "Now come on, Kain. You're a Mechanic. There has to be some way."

"He's going to kill me," Ricktus blurted out from where he sat. "I've failed him for the last time. I let them break into our headquarters again. D'zkot will kill me for sure."

They heard Ricktus's words, but by this time, Rudo, Kip, and Kain had come to ignore his random ramblings. "I fix things, yeah," Kain nodded, resting his chin on the butt of his Pulse Vulcan. "But the only ship on Mota is the Paseo, and Rolf has that one right now."

"Is there any way we can contact Rolf?" Kip asked.

Rudo shook his head and adjusted his own Pulse Vulcan on its strap. "Our personal comlinks won't broadcast all the way to Dezo, and the Agents' interplanetary communications system was destroyed along with most of the rest of Central Tower."

"Don't you understand?" Ricktus yelled. For the fist time since his ramblings began, he actually addressed his three "guests." "He'll kill me."

"Who cares, Ricktus?" Kip spat at him. "D'zkot wants all of us dead."

Ricktus stood up, took two steps towards Kip. "But I failed him. He'll--" He was cut off by a quiet beep from his wrist communicator. Ricktus's face went white as a voice came through the comm unit's tiny speaker.

"This is the Teleport Center on the Flagship," the voice said. "Ricktus, D'zkot wants you on your platform and ready to teleport here in two minutes."

Ricktus began shaking his head wildly, but did not press his communicator's talk button. "No. No, no, no. He'll kill me. He'll kill me!"

Kip didn't hear the puppet-leader's ramblings. He stared blankly into space, an idea suddenly taking over him.

"I'm dead because he'll kill me this time, he'll--" Ricktus stopped short, looking up at Rudo and Kain, who just stared at him while Kip ran his plan over in his mind. "Unless..." Ricktus whispered. "Unless I atone for what I have done." His eyes slowly moved from Rudo and Kain to the crate of rifles nearby.

Catching the glance, Rudo raised his Pulse Vulcan at him. "Don't even think about it, Ricktus."

But Ricktus was slowly stepping towards the crate, his gaze alternating between Rudo and the rifles inside. "If I atone, he won't kill me. Don't you see? He won't kill me!"

With the flip of a switch, the safety on Rudo's Pulse Vulcan was deactivated. "Ricktus, stop right there! Don't move!"

"I can atone!" Ricktus shouted, then lunged for the rifles. He yanked one from the crate and spun it around towards Rudo--

And then his body was ripped apart by fire from the Agent's Pulse Vulcan.

This move had even grabbed Kip's attention. He, Kain, and Rudo just watched as Ricktus first dropped the rifle he held, then fell to the ground. He did not so much as twitch. He was dead.

But his wrist communicator wasn't. "One minute until teleport," it announced.

Kip pushed Rudo and Kain towards the room's teleport platform. "Get over there! Hurry!"

Rudo stepped towards the platform but turned to face Kip as he did so. "Kip, we can't just take Ricktus's teleport. That's suicide! They're expecting one unarmed friend, not three heavily armed enemies! What makes you think we'll even materialize? They'll probably just scatter our atoms across space!"

With a push from Kip, Rudo joined Kain on the teleport platform. "Forty-five seconds," came the voice from Ricktus's communicator, across the room.

"We'll materialize, all right," Kip said, "but not on their teleport platform. I need this." He reached towards Rudo and yanked away his Agent-issue Sonic Gun. As he took five steps away from the platform, he increased the gun's power level to maximum. Then he stood, waiting, until he heard Ricktus's communicator announce that in thirty seconds, they were bringing him to D'zkot's flagship. He raised the Sonic Gun's power level one notch higher, set the weapon on the ground, and jumped onto the teleport platform.

"Kip, I know you didn't just do what I think you did," Kain said.

"I set the Sonic Gun to overload," Kip confirmed. "When it explodes, it will not only redirect the teleport beam so that we don't materialize on their platform, but it will also send a blast of static feedback into their teleport systems. We'll probably have Anna by the time they figure out what went wrong."

Rudo turned to look at Kain, to confirm if this was all true. Kain's jaw was almost resting on his shoe strings as he stared at Kip. "Okay, let's talk about things going wrong!" Kain shouted. "First of all, even if your plan goes off without a hitch, how can you be sure we won't materialize in the middle of a bulkhead, or out in space? Answer: you can't!"

"What if the gun doesn't explode at just the right moment?" Rudo asked.

Kain turned to him. "If it goes off too late, the teleport goes off normally, no problem, and they realize it's not Ricktus that is about to materialize, thus, they'll have every opportunity to scatter our molecules. If it blows up too soon, then the explosion doesn't hit a teleport beam, it hits us!"

Kip spun on Kain. "Look, I don't like it either," the Guardian admitted. "But there's no other way!"

"Five seconds," Ricktus's communicator broadcasted.

"And even if there were," Rudo said, swallowing hard, "there's no time to try."

Just as the whine of the Sonic Gun increased to its maximum pitch, they each felt a tingling throughout their bodies as the teleport wave grabbed them.

The Sonic Gun exploded.

The world around them disappeared.

- - - - - - - - - -

When the world came back, Rudo realized that he wasn't floating in space. What he saw around him looked like a ship's cargo bay.

But then he realized that he, Kip, and Kain were all five meters in the air.

Instantly, gravity wrapped its hand around them and pulled them to the deck, hard. They were all able to stand after a moment, in pain but thankful they weren't in the middle of a bulkhead. "Looks like we made it," Kain said. "It looks like this is D'zkot's flagship." He looked to Kip. "It worked."

Kip wiped sweat from his brow. "Believe me," he chuckled, "you two combined aren't as grateful for that as I am."

"There's a door over there," Rudo said, pointing across the cargo bay. After all three of them checked their weapons, they strode across to it. The door opened automatically as they approached. Stepping outside, they found themselves in a corridor.

Kain glanced at the wall. " I don't suppose we can use the map, unless either of you can read Dezorian?"

Rudo shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt that they'd put Anna's location on the map, anyway."

They glanced up and down the corridor. It stretched out both left and right. "Which way?" Kip asked.

"Which ever way leads us to Anna." Choosing at random, Rudo started left. Kip and Kain followed close behind.

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