I. The Assignment

A long, white hovercraft, armed with twin cannons mounted on top, lurked in the trees near the Space Fleet Academy. Within the hovercraft, two alien creatures patiently monitored the guests entering and leaving the Space Fleet’s graduation ball.

Inside the ballroom, the parquet floor was covered with dancing couples. The perimeter was carpeted on three sides in plush teal fabric with dinner tables set fancifully for the celebration.

A young cadet with dark hair and cat-like eyes approached the marble bar and sat down in one of the burgundy, velvet chairs, from which vantage point he eyed his peers.

Their long-sleeve, tan shirts and black pants portrayed their rank as Service Spec 1 cadets. This was the Fleet Academy’s first graduating class trained to understand languages and cultures of alien races in addition to the regular fleet training skills required for crewmen on fighter craft.

A short, slender woman with long, wavy, brown hair stepped into the cadet’s view. He eagerly acknowledged her, “Hello, Zira.”

“Mr. Saris, why are you sitting here all alone on a special night like this? You should be celebrating.”

“I’m waiting for someone.”

“Well, I was going to ask you to dance, but since you’re not interested, I won’t bother you.”

“I’m sorry, Zira. It’s real important.”

“I only ask once and you were my first choice.”

Will bit his lip as Zira sauntered away from him. He watched painfully as she approached another cadet and invited him to the dance floor.

Will mumbled disappointedly, “This had better be worth it.”

A burly bartender leaned across the counter and asked, “What can I get for you, sir?”

“Water is fine.”

“A fine looking woman, she is. A friend of yours?”

“Kind of. She’s more like a missed opportunity.”

The bartender kidded, “It’s never too late.”

“For me it is.”

The bartender handed Will a glass of water with ice. He sipped from the glass and stared.

Zira snuggled closer to her partner during a slow dance.

Will complained quietly, “That should have been me.”

His thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice, “Will Saris. Look at you in your service uniform. I can’t believe it.”

A tall, blond-haired woman with dark, brown eyes stood before him.

Will’s attitude improved dramatically. He stood and exclaimed, “Maya! It’s good to see you again.”

Will stared at her shapely figure in a blue flight officer’s uniform. Maya was twenty-four in Earth years, about seven years older than he was. The two embraced in a friendly hug.

Maya took a seat next to Will and gazed at him. She remarked, “My, how you’ve grown.”

“So have you, Maya. You’re not a little schoolgirl anymore.”

Maya blushed and looked briefly at the dance floor. She asked, “How did the Academy treat you?”

“Okay, I guess. I’m not sure why, but they taught me to speak one hundred and four alien languages. I thought that’s what the translators were for. Interestingly enough, no one else was required to learn so many.”

Maya explained, “Your courses were selected based on certain abilities that you have as well as the assignment we have for you. That’s the reason I’m here.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You have certain traits that you inherited from your mother which make you quite different and of great value to the Fleet.”

“For instance?”

“You can change into an alter-shape. You are a shape-shifter.”

Will responded with a surprised look on his face, “A what?”

“A shape-shifter.”

Will asked innocently, “How did that happen?”

“We’re descendents from a Firenghian race of shape-shifters and the only ones in the Fleet that I’m aware of.”

Will rubbed his chin and pondered Maya’s revelation. He inquired, “So what is my alter-shape?”

“That remains to be seen. Everyone is different based on their character.”

“And you’re a shape-shifter, too?”

Maya whispered, “Yes, I am.”

Will looked around them to see who might be listening. No one was near enough to hear them.

He grew curious and asked, “What’s your alter-shape, Maya?”

“That’s personal, Will.”

“When does this change happen to me?”

“Now that you’re aware of it, it can happen anytime you suffer extreme emotional trauma or fright. It’s like a defense mechanism. That’s why I’m telling you about this now. You weren’t ready before.”

“Did my father have this ability?”

“Yes he did. He received this and other traits from your mother. Because he was human, he developed several mutated traits that set him apart from Firenghians. You might even have traits that I wasn’t aware of which would make you different from your father.”

Will grinned coyly and replied, “Interesting.”

“You do know about your keen senses, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I figured that part out.”

Maya continued, “And you have the ability to communicate with other individuals using telepathy. You can also discretely read the minds of anyone with telepathic abilities as well. One thing special about your skill is that you can cloak your thoughts from others. This is a mutated trait.”

“How did you learn all this about me?”

“I tested your skills against mine when we were younger. You shut me out on many occasions.”

“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”

Maya replied, “It’s a big deal because it makes you a secret weapon against the alien forces. If you can read their thoughts and cloak your own, then you have a distinct advantage over them. They can’t detect you.”

“Do many races have this telepathic ability?”

“It’s quite common in many species. Another thing you might not have known. You’ll heal much faster than humans can.”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“If other cadets knew about this, you would have been subjected to many distractions in school and they would have treated you more like a circus animal than a gifted student.”

Will complained, “The shape of my eyes didn’t prevent any distractions. They set me apart from the others.”

Maya peered into his feline eyes and replied, “It seems to me that you’ve adapted quite well.”

Will gazed into her eyes and remarked, “Your eyes look less feline than mine.”

Maya became uneasy by his stare and looked away. She answered, “We’re from different bloodlines.”

“Does that make a difference in you and me?”

“It certainly does. Your mother, Seneca, was royalty among our people. Your eyes are a sign of your blood-line and proof of your royalty among our people.”

Will remarked cynically, “So, what you’re telling me is that I’m considered royalty in a race that is no more.”

Maya surmised, “Perhaps someday, our race will be resurrected.”

Will took another sip of water. He inquired, “So was this the business that we so urgently needed to discuss?”

“No, there’s more.”

The bartender leaned across the bar and interrupted, “I see things are looking up for you, sir.”

Will smiled and nodded.

The bartender directed his attention to Maya and asked, “Can I get you something to drink, ma’am?”

“I haven’t had an Earth drink in a while. How about an Iced Tea?”

The bartender answered, “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Will remarked, “You like Earth drinks, huh?”

Maya answered pleasantly, “I like a lot of Earth things. The Earthers seem to have a zest for life. After spending some time with your dad and step-mom several years back on Earth, I found life on the other human worlds to be quite a bore. Earth is different.”

“Have you heard any news on my father’s disappearance?”

“No. The Fleet Commander told me that several vessels were dispatched to Aramis-5 where his ship crashed. It’s an oxygen-rich environment so, if he and Tera survived the crash, they could be alive.”

“I heard from some of my teachers that the ship was a wreck.”

“It was, but your father has a knack for surviving situations like that. Your step-mom is a very unique person as well. She’s pretty tough in her own respect.”

Will recalled, “Aunt Rena and Aunt Penny told me some of the stories about Tera. I only met her once, though.”

“What did you think of her?”

“At first I thought she was scary. She wore spikes and leather, kind of like a dominatrix. But after talking to her for a while, I found her to be really nice.”

Maya noticed a tear in the corner of Will’s eye. She recollected, “I liked her a lot, too. She was good for your father. After your mom died, things were really hectic. They were fighting the Andorans, the Boromeans and just about everyone else while trying to survive.”

Will sighed, “I wish I knew my mother.” ”

“You would have been proud of her.”

The bartender set a tall, dark glass on the counter in front of Maya and warned, “It might be a little on the strong side so I suggest you sip it slowly.”

“Thank you. I like it that way.”

Maya sipped the drink heartily.

Will pointed to Zira and her partner on the dance floor. “I turned down a dance with that young lady over there for our business, so I can’t help but feel a little anxious. What’s on your mind.”

“At your age, Will, you’ll have plenty of girlfriends. Besides you’ll be seeing her again soon, I’m sure.”

Will grew curious and asked, “What do you mean by that?”

“She’s been assigned to the Ruined Stone, the surveillance ship that’s accompanying us on our mission.”

Maya drank the Iced Tea until only a few cubes of ice were left in the glass.

Will teased, “A little thirsty, are you?”

Maya giggled at him and answered, “Every now and then, I get the urge to loosen up a little.”

“I’ll remember you said that.”

Maya stood up and straightened her uniform. She ordered, “Come on, Smart-ass. We have to go.”

Will looked surprised and asked, “Go where?”

“We have business to tend to. We’ll discuss it on the way.”

Will looked once more at Zira on the dance floor. He sighed and replied, “If you say so.”

Maya and Will left the hall together and crossed the parking lot. Maya walked ahead of Will. He eyed her seductive strut and wondered what it would be like to spend a romantic evening with her.

Maya read his thoughts and said, “Remember I can read your thoughts when they aren’t cloaked.”

Will smiled at her but she continued apologetically, “There couldn’t be any romance between us, Will. We’re like family and it would be awkward.”

Will asked curiously, “How come you don’t have a boyfriend?”

“Who says I don’t?”

Will felt awkward and stuttered, “I just thought …”

“You just thought that I’m all work, no play. I get that a lot.”

Will noticed that she evaded the answer to his question.

They approached a white hovercraft with two large turbo-fans mounted on the rear.

Will was impressed and inquired, “Is this yours, Maya?”

“No. It’s a rental.”

Maya unlocked the hatch to the hovercraft and climbed in.

Will entered from the passenger side and took a seat beside her.

Maya toggled three switches and the craft sprang to life. The whirring of the fans was barely audible. The floor vibrated gently as air raced through the ducts underneath them. She gently eased the hovercraft forward onto the highway and accelerated until they were racing at maximum speed.

Will commented, “Boy, this baby is smooth.”

“The Fleet is generous on rentals.”

Will giggled to Maya’s dismay.

Maya asked, “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, I always heard that the Fleet was run by a cheap bunch of misers.”

“They’ve always treated me just fine.”

The road was dark but the headlights cut long traces ahead of them.

Maya handled the craft skillfully as she negotiated curves leading onto another highway.

Will was impressed with her poise.

Maya mentioned, “So I heard you were quite a prankster in school.”

“Who told you that?”

“Some friends of mine. I kept tabs on you.”

After a brief period of silence, Maya asked, “Will, can I count on you to follow orders?”

“Of course. Do you doubt me?”

“I have to be sure.”

“I wouldn’t let you down no matter what.”

“Your father had his own way of thinking in the heat of battle. I hope I won’t get that from you. I have a lot of responsibility and I don’t need to draw the attention of the Fleet, especially now.”

Will avoided a response and changed the topic. He remarked, “I’ve heard my dad used to rile Aunt Penny up pretty good.”

“Yes, he did. He and your Aunt Penny had many arguments.”

Will admired Maya as she drove. He asked, “What is our special assignment?”

“We’re going into the fourteenth quadrant to the planet Attrades.”

Will thought back to his lessons on the fourteenth quadrant. Then he recalled something that surprised him. He asked, “Isn’t that the heart of the alien empire?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And we’re going in there?”

Maya swerved to avoid an oncoming hovercraft and yelled, “Crazy driver!”

Will looked back and noticed that the hovercraft spun around. The lights were drawing nearer.

Will asked, “Are we expecting company?”

Maya looked in the rear-view mirror.

“No. My presence here is supposed to be a secret. No one knows that the Luna C is here either or that you’re involved.”

“The Luna C! That was my dad’s ship.”

Maya explained proudly, “Now she’s new and improved. She’s been refitted for deep-space covert surveillance.”

Will looked back at the approaching headlights and became uneasy. He warned, “If you can go faster, you’d better do it. They’re getting close.”

A bright flash lit up the air, followed by a small explosion. The roof of the hovercraft shattered and the pieces quickly dispersed into the wind.

Will was startled.

Maya warned him, “You’d better get down. This is gonna’ get ugly.”

Will slid down in his seat.

Maya steered the craft left then right.

Flashes of light followed by small, fiery explosions besieged the hovercraft.

Maya yelled into a silver transmitter fastened to her wrist, “Celine, I need an extraction for two, fast! We’ve got hot pursuit.”

Fifteen seconds later, the shadow of a large object loomed over them in the night sky.

Will felt a strange sensation and was whisked up to the Luna C. He glanced back and briefly saw the hovercraft explode into a fiery mass.

Will landed on a platform in the center of a large room. He surveyed the area around him in astonishment. There were several control panels with colorful arrays of lights and monitors.

Maya landed next him on the platform. She instructed him, “Come on, Will. We have work to do.”

Will and Maya stepped off the platform onto a polished steel floor. They hurried up two flights of stairs to the pilots’ cabin.

Maya knocked twice and the door slid open. She poked her head in and announced, “It’s me, Celine. I’ll be back shortly.”

Will stopped on the second level and took note of the strange instrumentation mounted on the walls. He continued to the top of the stairs where Maya waited.

Will remarked, “You know, this ship was portrayed quite differently in class.”

Maya explained, “The Luna C and the Ruined Stone are two of a kind. They were enhanced with very special technology.”

Maya pulled Will by the arm into the cabin.

A dark-skinned woman with wild hair tied back in a ponytail chastised her. “Well, Maya, it seems you still know how to make friends wherever you go.”

Maya was befuddled and flustered. She exclaimed, “I don’t understand how they knew we were here!”

Celine admitted, “You’re lucky to be back in one piece.”

“Who were they, Celine? Did you scan them?”

“Of course. They were Weevil, in human form, no less. I did take it upon myself to dispose of them, right after you were extracted.”

“Nice work.”

Celine noted, “It’s ironic that they always seem to know where we are. I can’t believe their spy network is that good.”

Will suggested, “Maybe someone in the Fleet tipped them off.”

Maya scolded him, “Bite your tongue. No one would ever do that?

“Celine just said that the Weevil could take human form.”

Celine remarked, “It wouldn’t be easy but I guess an imposter could infiltrate the ranks of the Fleet.”

Maya asked, “Where are Neelon and Saphoro?”

“Resting. They have the next shift in about an hour.”

Will inquired, “Who are they?”

Maya answered, “They are our intelligence analysts. We find information, they decipher it. They also relieve Celine at the controls every other shift.”

Maya ordered Celine, “Contact the Ruined Stone and warn them that our cover’s blown. We’ll meet them at destination B.”

Celine advised, “We’ll need to get supplies soon, Maya. You cut into our shopping time.”

“Understood. We’ll stock up on Aries-II. No one will expect us to arrive there.”

Celine reached back for Will’s arm and pulled him forward. She eyed him up and down and remarked, “So, this is the young man.”

Will was annoyed with the blatant disrespect and responded defiantly, “Excuse me.”

Celine kidded, “Does he know anything, Maya?”

“Not much. We’ll have to brief him.”

Will snapped, “What do you mean ‘not much’?”

Maya said calmly, “Let’s go downstairs and talk.”

Will glared at Celine warily before leaving the cabin.

Celine cackled and yelled, “Fresh meat!”

Will and Maya returned to the lower bay and sat in front of a large console with three monitors on it. Will asked sarcastically, “What’s her problem?” “Relax Will. You’re the rookie on board.”

“Just what I need, a hazing.”

“I’ll ask Celine to back off. She puts up a tough front but she’s a softie.”

“I’d appreciate it, at least until I get to know everyone.”

Maya explained, “My primary responsibility is to make sure your skills and traits are up to par for the mission. Then I need to deliver you to your destination.” “And that’s why I was chosen for this assignment, my traits!”

“No, I requested you for this mission.”

“So, what happens when we reach Attrades?”

“Officially, our mission is to find out what the alien forces are up to. Some strange things have been happening around Attrades regarding the positioning of their battle craft. Unofficially, there’s another issue I need your help with.”

“And what might that be?”

“A good friend of mine is being held prisoner on Attrades. He went down on the planet’s surface to scout the Attradean stronghold. He gathered some important information but he was captured before we could make sense of it.”

“So you are asking �” Will paused, waiting for Maya to finish his statement.

“Will, he means a lot to me. The Fleet would never sanction what we’re about to do. You have the ability to find out where he’s at and determine if we can rescue him.”

“He means that much to you?”

“Yes, he does.”

Will was somewhat surprised by Maya’s request. He inquired, “And we’re going to walk into an Attradean stronghold and locate him?”

“Not we. I’m asking you to find out where he is and if he’s okay. We’ll figure out how to rescue him later.”

“What will you do in the mean time?”

Maya replied, “We’ll monitor all communications and make sure we extract you as soon as possible in case of an emergency.”

Will inquired, “Why wouldn’t you ask the Fleet for help?”

“The Fleet cannot know anything about this. I would lose my commission.”

Will teased, “What if I refuse?”

Maya’s face saddened. “Then I’ll go myself and find him.”

Will put his arm around her and hugged her. He said confidently, “I’ll do it. I just want to make sure he’s worth it.”

Maya replied convincingly, “He is. It’s my fault that he’s a prisoner there.”

“What’s next?”

Maya turned a knob on the control panel in front of her and entered a six digit code through the keyboard. The screen glowed bright blue. Maya pressed four more digits and a palace appeared on the screen.

Maya explained, “This is the Attradian Palace.”

She turned the knob and the palace shrunk, exposing the surrounding area. She pointed out, “This is where the king’s family resides.”

Will inquired, “These guys actually have a king?”

“Oh, yes. He’s quite a barbarian, too.”

She pointed to another area and explained, “This three story cement building is where the guards are quartered. The white structure to the left is where the king does his official business. In the lower level of the adjacent building, we believe he is keeping political prisoners.”

Will asked curiously, “Who are these prisoners?”

“Baron’s last message mentioned blackmail and forced allies. He also mentioned something strange about an eye for the future. We lost contact and haven’t heard from him since.” “What do you know about the king’s family?”

Maya scrolled down and a report appeared beneath the pictures. “It looks like he’s got a spouse and one daughter – nothing else.”

Will kidded, “I’ll make sure I stop in and say hello.”

Maya warned, “Don’t do anything crazy. There’s a lot at stake, here. Can you imagine what the Fleet would do to us if they found out what we’re up to?”

Will cracked a smile and said, “I guess we’d all be out of a job.”

“Remember, Will, you’re a rookie and we’ve been doing this for a while. Try not to get us into trouble.”

“I’ll do my best.”

The intercom beeped and Celine’s voice rang out, “The Ruined Stone is enroute. We’ll rendezvous at the depot.”

Maya replied, “Thanks, Celine. I’ll be up shortly.”

Will inquired interestedly, “What’s this business about an eye for the future?”

“I don’t know. I wonder if it was an analogy or a coded message.”

Will rubbed his chin and said, “You mentioned that the Weevil spies always seem to be ahead of you, is that right?”

“Yes. What are you getting at?”

“What if they’re working with the Attradeans and they developed a way to see into the future?” Maya laughed at Will and said, “That’s ludicrous!

“It’s just a thought, but if that were the case, you’d have to plan your defenses accordingly.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you’d have to keep yourself in a defensible position at all times. But it also means that you can predict what they’re going to do as well.” “I can’t see that happening.”

Will replied seriously “Maya, anything is possible when your enemies show up every place you go.”

Maya stood up and walked slowly to the stairs.

Will asked, “What’s wrong, Maya?”

“I’m afraid for you. This is my mess and I don’t like risking the lives of those I care about.”

“Look, Maya, I was born for adventure, not for classrooms or cadet duty. So as long as we’re out here, I want to have some fun. If I don’t want to do something, believe me, you’ll know it.”

Maya replied with a smile, “You’re just like your father.”

Will appreciated the compliment.

Maya instructed him, “Your quarters are in the last room down the hall on the left. I’m two up from you if you need me.”

“Does everyone berth on the lower level?”

“No. The upper level houses the comm/nav equipment and three berths. Celine, Neelon and Saphoro use that level because of its proximity to the pilots’ cabin.”

Will examined several of the instrument panels and asked, “What happened to the power bank for the cannon system?”

Maya explained, “It’s been removed. A smaller one was installed but the firing system no longer has automated firing control or computer generated coordinates.”

“So if we need it, we’re firing manually.”

“You’re learning fast. We’re fitted for surveillance, not combat.”

Will looked worried and said, “I hope we don’t get into a dogfight out here.”

“That’s what stealth is for. I have to meet with Celine. You can join me if you like.”

“Maybe later.”

“We’ll be arriving at the depot in a little while.”

Will answered, “Let me know if you need me for anything. Meanwhile, I want to check out the turrets and cannons.”

“Sure thing. Welcome aboard, Will.”

“Thanks, Maya.”

Maya elegantly ascended the stairs. Will gazed in admiration at Maya and thought, “What a lady!”

Maya’s voice carried back down. “Thank you, Will, but try cloaking your thoughts next time.”

Will sat for several minutes, reminiscing about the short periods of time he spent with his dad and stepmother. He recalled the stories of the contests that his dad had with his step-mom, Tera, shooting down alien fighters while racing through the galaxies.

“Why couldn’t things be different? I wish I knew my mother. Maybe Tera and dad are gone too.”

Maya hesitated at the top of the stairs. She could still read Will’s thoughts. She felt his loneliness and wondered how to ease his grief.

Maya ascended the stairs and entered the pilots’ cabin. She took the seat next to Celine.

Celine notified Maya, “I’m running a scan on Aries-II. So far, it appears deserted. No sign of life.”

Maya grew concerned. She asked, “How about the depot itself? Any sign of activity, thermal trails or debris?”

“Not yet.” Celine continued to monitor the scanners, while Maya checked their coordinates.

Neelon entered the compartment and sighed. “I guess we’re going to hear Jack Fleming run his mouth again about the bargains of the universe.”

Maya answered stoically, “Not this time. It looks like something happened at the depot.”

Neelon was a short albino figure of a man with stubby hands and feet. He stood in front of a monitor located over Maya’s head and pressed several buttons. The screen was full of information. He pressed another button and the information scrolled to the end of the report.

Neelon asked, “So we had another encounter with the Weevil, huh, Celine?”

“Yeah. I don’t get it. They’re always two steps ahead of us, no matter where we go.”

Maya interjected, “Will suggested that they might have some sort of device which allows them to see into the future.”

Neelon scoffed, “That’s crazy! Your friend’s been reading too many science fiction stories.”

Celine asked, “What if they do have something that allows them to see, even a little bit of the future?”

Neelon again scoffed at the idea and remarked, “If there was a way to develop a device with such a capability, I’m sure my people would have done so by now.”

Maya replied, “Perhaps we should be open-minded to the possibility that they can predict what we’re doing.” “I wouldn’t waste my time on such rubbish.”

Celine inquired, “How did you make out with Will? Is he half what we’ve heard?”

Maya answered, “Yes, he is. He’s very special. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Celine remarked, “He is kind of cute.”

Neelon inquired, “Is this the shape-shifter boy whose father solved the Andoran crisis?”

Maya replied, “Yes, he is. His dad was Bill Brock and his mother was Queen Seneca.”

Neelon complained, “My father was on the original Council and he felt that Brock was a cancer. In fact, Brock coerced one of the members, Xerxes, to disband the Council after the Andoran alliance was signed. Besides all that, I think this Firenghian mythology is a lot of hocus-pocus. Every tribal leader makes up stories to build up their characters.”

Celine moaned, “Oh, boy! Here it comes.”

Maya stood nose to nose with Neelon and informed him, “It’s not mythology or hocus-pocus.”

Neelon angrily inquired, “Says who?”

“I say because I was there. I am a Firenghi. I watched Queen Seneca die at the hands of the Boromeans in her alter-shape. Shall I go further?”

Neelon grew red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize �”

Celine chided, “Nice one, Neelon.”

Neelon asked, “But how did you make it through the Academy. I thought � Never mind.”

Maya responded, “You thought what?”

“Nothing.”

Maya opened the door to leave, but Will blocked her path. She exclaimed, “Will, you startled me!”

Will looked angry and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation.”

“It’s no big deal, Will.”

“Obviously, Neelon thinks it is.”

Will’s face reddened as he warned, “Don’t ever talk about my mother like that again.”

Neelon was intimidated by Will and barked, “Or what? What will you do, tell on me, little boy?”

Maya begged them, “Please stop. You don’t want to do this.”

Will replied, “I know what I’m doing, but it appears that someone else here doesn’t.”

Will fell to one knee and placed his hands across his stomach.

Celine asked nervously. “What’s he doing, Maya?”

Maya ignored her and cradled Will. She whispered softly into his ear, “Not now. You have to control it. Hold it back.”

Will trembled for several seconds, before he relaxed.

Neelon teased, “What a crock – a grown boy behaving like this.”

Will stood up and glared at Neelon. His eyes opened wide and glowed red.

Neelon’s head ached terribly. Inside his brain was a terrible throbbing sensation. He desperately clutched at his ears and screamed, “Please stop! I’m sorry.”

Will stared intensely at Neelon, forcing him to the floor then blinked and his eyes returned to normal. He asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss, Neelon?”

Neelon looked relieved and said humbly, “No, no. I’m through.”

A young oriental officer entered the cabin and asked, “What is going on? I can hear you people on the next level.”

Saphoro was pale-skinned and brunette with long flowing locks. She had big, brown eyes, which made her appearance a bit imposing.

Will forgot about Neelon and greeted her, “You must be Saphoro.”

“Yes I am. And you must be Will.”

“I certainly am.”

Saphoro glanced down at Neelon and asked in a gentle voice, “Why are you on the floor, Neelon?”

Neelon groaned, “It’s a long story.”

He got up shakily and fixed his tunic.

Will suggested, “Now that we’re all here, how about a formal introduction?”

Maya took the hint and introduced Will first. “This is Will Saris. He’s here to help us rescue Baron from Attrades.”

Celine extended a hand in friendship to Will and said, “I’m Celine, the co-pilot on the Luna C. I hope you didn’t take the ribbing personally.”

Will shook Celine’s hand and teased, “Where did you get your hair done?”

Celine answered proudly, “It’s part of my image. They think I’m a nutcase.”

“Then we’ll get along just fine.”

Saphoro gave Will a hug and said, “Welcome aboard. I understand your father was from Earth.”

“Yes he was.”

“Earthers fight well. My mother was an Earther.”

“Then we have some history between us.”

“I imagine we do.”

Saphoro smiled at Maya indicating her approval of Will.

Will extended a hand to Neelon and said, “We can start over as friends if you like.”

Neelon shook his hand and replied, “I’d like that. I’m sorry for my ignorance. I didn’t think there was any truth to the stories and Maya never told me that she was a Firenghi.”

Maya responded, “I’m sure you understand why.”

“Yes I do. My apologies, none the less.”

Maya placed her hand on Will’s back said appreciatively, “Thanks for understanding and for controlling your anger.”

“No problem.”

Maya suggested, “Let’s go downstairs. It’s getting crowded in here.”

“Sure.”

Celine informed them as they descended the stairs, “We’ll be on the ground in five tocks.”

Will paused on the steps and asked, “What’s a tock?”

Maya answered, “That’s an astral second which is about one quarter of an Earth hour.”

“I see.”

When they reached the lower level, Maya pointed to the chair and said, “Sit down, please.”

Will sat in the chair and slid away from the panel.

Maya leaned against a table and stared at the wall. She looked very tired.

Will asked Maya, “Are you okay?”

“I am now. What happened up there?”

“Which part?”

“Were you shifting?”

“I could have, but I chose not to.”

Maya paced back and forth nervously. She replied doubtfully, “Okay.”

Will sensed her uneasiness and said, “My eyes frightened you, didn’t they?”

“What did you do to Neelon?”

“I went into his mind and created an illusion of pain.”

“Please don’t scare me like that again. These are my friends. We’ve been through the Academy together and accomplished many missions as a team.”

Will mentioned, “They didn’t know you could change, did they?”

“No. Only Celine did.”

“I thought so.”

Maya noted, “I couldn’t tell what you were thinking.”

“Of course not. I cloaked my thoughts.”

“You mean you already knew how?”

“I’m not the na�ve little boy you grew up with. I just enjoyed the attention.”

Maya was surprised and explained, “I’m sorry. I guess I always think of you like a baby brother.”

She knelt down and hugged Will.

Will said confidently, “Don’t worry. We’ll get your friend, Baron, back.”

“Thank you. I feel better knowing you can handle yourself.”

Will smiled and leaned back in the chair.

Maya sat in the chair next to him. She remarked, “You wanted me to read your mind earlier, didn’t you?”

Will was amused and replied, “Yup.”

Maya continued, “�and hear all that romance stuff.”

“Yup.”

“Will Saris, you are so fresh.”

“Yup.”

Saphoro descended the stairs and took a seat between Will and Maya. She announced, “Homework time, people.”

Saphoro depressed two switches on the console and entered a five digit code. The image of the palace and its surrounding grounds appeared. She pointed to a large domed building on the left and informed Will, “This is where Baron’s last transmission came from. He mentioned that there were some key prisoners being held on the palace grounds. He also mentioned something about the future. We’re not sure what he meant but it must have been important for him to risk contacting us from so close to the palace.”

Will responded with great interest, “So it seems.”

Maya drew Will’s attention to the area in the back corner of the palace grounds. “This is where we dropped Baron off last time. He seemed to have easy access from this area. Is that okay with you?”

Will surveyed the grounds and said, “No. I want to be dropped outside the left wall.”

Maya replied, “Outside the wall?”

“Yes. I have a hunch they’re expecting me inside.”

Maya warned, “I only want you to find out if we can rescue Baron and see if there’s anything unusual going on. Nothing more.”

Will asked curiously, “Why do you think something’s going on?”

Saphoro explained, “There are only three ships on Attrades. The rest of the fleet left in a hurry a short while ago.”

“What do you suspect they’re up to?”

Saphoro replied, “I don’t know but it’s very strange to leave the kingdom with so little protection.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Neelon descended the stairs and interrupted the conversation. He announced, “Celine has found one life form at the depot. It’s probably Fleming. She also found thermal trails indicating that three Attradean vessels had been there about four pogs ago.”

Will frowned and asked, “What’s a pog?”

Maya explained, “It’s about two and a half Earth days.”

“Why can’t everyone use the same time standard?”

Neelon bragged, “That will happen soon. My people are working on the conversion.”

Maya asked, “Has she established contact with Jack yet?”

“Not yet but we’ll be docking shortly.”

Celine’s voice echoed from the intercom. “Maya, your presence is requested by Mr. Fleming.”

Neelon added, “Change that � communication has been established with Mr. Fleming.”

Maya sighed. She stood up and asked Will, “Do you have any other questions?”

“No. I’m satisfied.”

“Good. I’ll be back soon.”

Maya left them and ascended the stairs.

Saphoro remarked, “You don’t seem too concerned about this mission.”

“No, not yet.”

“How do you think you’ll get around without attracting attention?”

“I might have to get their attention first. Maybe I’ll pick up some collateral along the way.”

Saphoro looked confused and asked, “How would you do that?”

“I don’t know yet. Can you do some research for me?”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“I can’t believe all these alien races just fell in line with the Attradean alliance. Check out each race that recently joined the Attradean alliance. See if there are any significant events that occurred prior to their enlistment.”

“I’ll start on it immediately.”

“Thanks, Saphoro.”

*************************************

Maya entered the pilots’ cabin and sat next to Celine. Jack Fleming’s face appeared on the monitor in front of them.

Jack greeted Maya cynically, “Well, hello, Maya. It’s been a long time. You don’t even call to say hello, anymore.” “Sorry, Jack. Duty calls.”

“Some of your friends paid me a visit and took all of my hired help.”

“Why not you?”

“I was indisposed at the time.”

“I see.”

Jack asked, “So are you coming in the back door again?”

“Don’t we always?”

“You remember what the key is, Maya?”

“Of course.”

“Good. I’ll be waiting for you. How many guests?”

“Two.”

“Only two of you?”

“No, two vessels.”

Jack sounded disappointed, “Must be a big mission.”

“Not really. If you’re good, we’ll try to get your hired help back.”

“That would be nice. Good help is hard to come by.”

Maya said curtly, “See you shortly.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Celine turned the monitor off and complained, “What a jackass?”

Maya replied, “Some things never change.”

“What’s this ‘back door’ and ‘key’ business?”

Maya explained, “If we don’t want our presence recorded on the computerized tracking system for the depot’s database, we use the ‘back door’. To get in, we need a ‘key’, which is usually about four hundred credits.”

“So you have to buy our secrecy?”

“Yeah. One thing is guaranteed – Jack will keep his word and cover our tracks.”

Celine eyed Maya intently, “Did you and Jack know each other aside from the depot?”

Maya chuckled and said, “I can’t get anything past you, can I, Celine?”

Celine remarked, “You didn’t answer the question. Was that on purpose?”

“Okay. We dated a few times but we had a conflict of interest when it came to our careers.”

“No kidding.”

“Yeah. He’s not always the loud-mouthed jackass that you see. That’s just his front.”

“And that’s the end of it?”

Maya explained, “We just knew that we had to go separate ways. It would never work out.”

“And he charges you for protection?”

“Yeah. He says it makes him feel important, like I need him.”

“What a crock!”

“I know, but there is some truth to it. We do need him.”

Celine and Maya watched the huge depot outer doors open.

The Luna C and Ruined Stone glided into the outer bay. The outer doors closed and the inner doors opened. The doors squealed mightily as they reached the end of their tracks. The bay was an isolated over-sized garage with stained walls from years of neglect.

The ships eased toward two make-shift berths.

Celine guided the Luna C smoothly into the first berth. She pressed a button on the video display system and the Ruined Stone came into view in the berth next to them. She quipped, “Right on time.”

Celine shut down the engines and turned on the auxiliary systems. She announced, “We’re all set, Maya. Let’s go shopping.”

“Jack will want the code first for his ‘key’.”

Celine teased, “Oh, of course. What man doesn’t want money before his woman?”

Maya snapped, “I’m not his woman.”

Celine replied playfully, “You know what I mean.”

*************************************

Will and Saphoro watched the lower level video display system near the stairwell. The docking bay came into view.

Neelon descended the stairs and approached Will. He asked, “Can I ask you a quick question, Will?”

Will replied, “Sure.”

“If you and Maya are Firenghian, does that mean that she can change into an alter-shape as well?”

Will chose his words carefully and explained, “I don’t know what her lineage is. It’s possible but it seems to me that each Firenghian I learned about had different traits and abilities.

If no one’s ever seen her change or fight off a change, then maybe she can’t.”

“That’s interesting.”

Saphoro pressed several keys and her monitor scrolled several paragraphs of information. She turned her attention from the screen and asked, “So it’s true that you really can change shape?”

Will answered earnestly, “I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know. I’ve heard that a shape-shifter only assumes one alter-shape and that’s determined by his or her traits.”

“I always wondered if it was really possible. Can you make others into shape-shifters?”

Will was entertained by her questions and answered, “I have no idea. I only know that shape-shifting is possible under certain circumstances but I don’t have any idea what they are.”

“That’s really neat.”

“You don’t think it’s freaky or anything?”

Saphoro grabbed his arm and squeezed it affectionately. “Everyone is different as is every planet. It’s what’s in the heart that counts.”

“That’s good to hear. When people see or hear about the other things I can do, they’re frightened of me.”

“Well, we’re all one team here. I’m glad to have you with us.”

“Thanks again.”

Saphoro turned her attention back to the screen. She quickly scanned the data and said, “This is interesting, Will. It seems that the last eleven races to join the Attradeans did so after a key member of each government was abducted.”

Will asked, “Does it say by whom?”

“No.”

“I think there’s a possibility that these races are being blackmailed into joining the Attradean alliance?”

“It sure looks possible.”

Will concluded, “If I can rescue the prisoners, we might be able to shake up their alliance.”

Saphoro warned, “I’d be careful if I were you. Tenemon is very dangerous.

Neelon interrupted, “Let’s get ready for a walk. The bay should be pressurized by now.”

Maya and Celine descended the steps and joined them. Maya ordered, “Celine and Neelon, take care of the food and medicines. Saphoro, Will and I will get the maintenance supplies and parts. Remember, everyone, we have a budget. This stop is costing me a bunch.”

Jack Fleming’s voice blared from the speaker, “Welcome to Jack’s Discount Depot. Of course I have to ask, Maya, do you have the ‘key’?”

Maya spoke sarcastically into the speaker, “Yes, Jack, I do. Are you ready?”

“You wouldn’t believe.”

Maya covered the mike and whispered, “Always a smartass.”

She retrieved her comm/link, typed in several numbers, then pressed ‘enter’ and transmitted them.

Ten seconds later, Jack replied, “You’re as good as gold.”

Maya answered indignantly, “Flattery will get you nowhere and it obviously won’t get me a discount.”

“Always business, aren’t you, Maya?”

“I thought you preferred business.”

Jack answered coldly, “You haven’t changed. The bay is pressurized and the oxygen level is sat. Come on in.”

Maya led her crew to the rear hatch.

Will kidded Maya, “Do I detect a little more to the conversation than I hear?”

“You can read my thoughts. Why are you asking?”

“Because I didn’t read your thoughts. I won’t invade your privacy but if I do, I’ll make sure you know first.”

“You would do that for me?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Maya proceeded through the hatch, first.

Celine nudged Will and said, “Boy, you really know how to make an impression.”

Will smiled coyly at her.