The Trial

by March

REVIEW: Jahv had invented a portable transmat device that would allow the user to teleport anywhere on the planet. He, Keyro, Morik, and Arion, along with Niklas, Keith, Martin, and Davy, used the transmat discs to travel to Keisner Park, which had gained a reputation in a very short period of operation of being the most sophisticated, advanced theme-amusement park in the world. Holographic disguises kept the four aliens' true identities from being revealed, until the group decided to play in some nearby fountains, which disrupted the holographic disguises and kept the transmat discs from functioning. The group sought refuge in a nearby restroom until the discs could be dried enough for use. Unfortunately, Jahv had left his precious backpack out at the fountains, and Keith was caught by park security trying to retrieve it. The other youngsters were taken in shortly thereafter. They were taken to the office of the creator of Keisner Park, a man named Paul Keisner, who revealed himself to the youngsters to be of the same alien race as Jahv and Keyro, a Botaran tech-designer named Pol. Initially seeming to be friendly, he soon captured the eight children and locked them in a room that was actually one immense transmat device with interstellar range. Pol wanted to rejoin Botaran society, but realizing that he had spent a great deal of time on an "off-limits" world, needed a way back. Turning in the two runaways Jahv and Keyro and bringing them up on charges of treason by sharing their technology with the local "primitives" would be a good way to do that -- especially if the Botaran Magistrate he delivered the youngsters to on board a traveling Botaran Judicial Vessel happened to be Pol's own older brother who was looking to advance his own career with a particularly spectacular case -- such as two runaways who could also be charged with a particularly heinous crime by Botaran standards...

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

The eight boys were being led by large armed and armored Botaran guards through the corridors of a rather nondescript vessel. Keith had only stopped swearing a few seconds ago, Arion was still muttering under his breath, Martin was clinging to Niklas and Davy for all he was worth, Morik looked almost as petrified, and Jahv and Keyro looked all of betrayed, angry, and scared.

"Where the hell are we, anyway?" said Keith. Apparently the guards didn't have any argument with the boys conversing. Either that or they didn't understand what was being said.

"On board a Botaran Judicial Vessel." explained Jahv. "There's hundreds of ships like these. Justice is swift in my culture, and the Magistrates make all the decisions. They're generally the most honest and honorable people in our society. But I guess there's exceptions."

"Why vessel?" asked Morik.

"My people travel a lot, to many worlds." said Jahv. "If there's a legal problem, it's easier to send a ship to the problem than to bring the problem to the homeworld."

"But we were on Earth!" protested Niklas, his voice shaky. "Why would your people be that close to our world?"

"I'm not sure they were, and I'm not sure we are anymore." said Jahv. "That was a massive transmat platform, even bigger than the one Keyro and I used when we traveled to Earth when we first left home. If the underlying power grid was as immense, we could've been shot halfway across the galaxy."

"Why do you people even have ships if you can do that?" asked Davy, trying to keep his mind off of what was happening.

"The transmats take a LOT of power," said Jahv. "Ships are easier, and better, for large cargo transportation as well as general exploration. Pol probably blew out half the power grid of Keisner Park sending us here."

"Who cares!" wailed Martin. "I wanna go home! What's gonna happen to us!?"

The group passed a lone window in the corridor. Keith looked out. "Aw, man, I don't believe it!"

"What?" asked Niklas.

"Look out the window." said Keith. "Recognize that mess out there?"

The boys looked as they walked by. "Garboris?!" exclaimed Davy. "Oh, brother."

"What's Garboris?" asked Martin.

"Remember that smelly junkpile of a space station we told you about?" remarked Keith. "I think this fancy Botaran Justice Ship or whatever is docked there."

"This makes no sense." commented Jahv. "This is non-aligned space. No Botaran Judicial Vessel should be out here!"

"No ethical Botaran Judicial Vessel, you mean, brother." added Keyro.

"It still makes no sense." said Jahv. "Pol couldn't've known we were coming to his park. He couldn't've alerted the Magistrate who runs this ship in time to head to such a neutral location."

"Unless this Magistrate has been at this neutral location for some time anyway." suggested Keyro. "Possibly waiting for some fancy case to come along -- or avoiding something."

The boys approached the end of the corridor, and two vast doors opened. The boys were prodded into the room by the guards, who then took up stations around the interior of the room. The room was circular, featureless, and dark. The only shaft of lights came down on the direct center of the room where the boys were standing, and to a high podium along the edge. At the base of that podium stood Pol, now dressed in a basic grey Botaran jumpsuit. Seated at the podium was an older-looking Botaran, with reddish skin and black flecks in his hair. This, Jahv would explain later, was a sign of aging among Botarans. This older brother of Pol's was probably on the high side of 200.

"Process them." said the Magistrate. Three guards stepped forward with long staffs with glowing spheres at one end.

"Is this gonna hurt?" asked Keith.

"Just your pride." replied Jahv.

"What do you -- ?" started Keith, but there was a sudden flash of light and a vague sizzling noise. When the light faded, all eight boys were stark naked.

"Hey!" snapped Arion. "I'm no Botaran! What's the idea!?"

"What use have children -- or prisoners -- for pointless coverings?" sneered one of the guards.

"I am Magistrate Varek." said the red-hued Botaran loudly. "Jahv and Keyro, sons of Amshat, son of Lemoy, son of Dekel, son of Gershon. You are charged with the high crimes of family separation and treason against the Botaran Republic by sharing advanced technology with known primitives, specifically these four from the planet designated Earth."

"Are you kidding?!" exclaimed Jahv. "This Pol here has been sharing technology with a couple'a million 'primitives' for the past several YEARS on that planet!"

"Actually," said Pol, "I've only built an amusement park that utilizes certain technologies which remain hidden and concealed. There is no crime in that. You're the ones that gave these four transmat discs, and Creator only knows what else. You've been missing for close to a year."

"Nor is he on trial here, nor did he willingly abandon his family." emphasized Varek. "However, we should get down to specifics. Prince Arion of Korras. You are not charged in any of this. How you came to be among these people is neither our business nor our concern."

"You couldn't've figured that one out before you blasted my clothes away?!" snapped Arion.

"We must follow procedures." said Varek. "We are aware of your -- situation. However, we of course have no extradition treaty with the Soluan Empire, nor is returning you to Korras an option, since that would be a violation of their treaty with the Soluan Empire. You are free to go. In fact, we insist. Remove him to the space station."

"Oh, yeah, right!" yelled Arion. His temper got the better of him and he probably should've flown, but before he could react, two large guards grabbed him. "Like tossing me naked onto that dungpile is an improvement! Hey, you white-haired antennae-eared freak! I'm -- "

Whatever else Arion had to say, which if anyone had bothered to listen would have included a number of colorful comments about the Magistrate's age, possible ancestral peculiarities, and the fact that he was probably hatched from a particularly rotten egg (a devastating insult but generally only applicable to Arion's people), were lost as the massive doors of the courtroom closed.

"Morik." said the Magistrate. Morik tried to look defiant and glared at Varek. "You present a difficult situation. You are not charged with any crime, but we have no contact with any known Dorrian colonies."

"I stay with my friends." said Morik.

"You realize that by doing so, you will share their punishment." said Varek.

"I stay with my friends." stated Morik.

"Very well. Judgement proceedings will be in five hours. Take them to their holding cell." The light went out above the podium, and the boys were led from the room.

********

Arion found himself unceremoniously dumped just outside the docking hatch of the Judicial Vessel. "And your mother breeds in a hatchery!" screamed the indignant youngster as the doors closed behind him.

Arion snarled and stood. He was already getting stared at by several passers-by. Arion was not in the least bit comfortable naked, nor did he like getting tossed around. There wasn't a lot he could do about that right now, but he needed to find some clothes before he could even think about doing much of anything else.

He kept to the shadows as much as possible, which wasn't too hard in a place like Garboris. Finally he came across an isolated replicator unit. Hopefully it was capable of making some basic dry goods. He scrolled through the menu until he reached a listing for clothing. There wasn't much available. Of course not, Arion realized, because it would cut too much into any clothing businesses that happened to set up shop here. There was, however, a basic one-piece jumpsuit that frankly looked to be of Botaran design, except it was dark blue instead of silver, with white boots. It was listed as "one size fits all". Arion pressed the button to order one, and was presented with a message. "YOUR GENETISCAN REVEALS NO EXISTING ACCOUNT."

Arion swore. He had no way to pay for the suit. If the device couldn't take a decent DNA reading from him, it wouldn't process. And he doubted anyone around here was likely to extend him charity. Then he noticed something. On his shoulder, a single white hair from one of the guards that had tossed him out. Would it work?

Arion re-did the order, and found a scrap of paper on the floor. When it was time to place the order, he placed the hair on the paper and the paper on his finger. Sure enough, the machine took a DNA reading from the hair. "APPROVED. THANK YOU, SENTRY HOLK."

The folded fabric suit appeared in the processing bin. "With a little luck," thought Arion as he extracted the suit, "this thing was real expensive." Arion unfolded it and donned it. It was, indeed, a perfect fit. "One of these days, I gotta find out what fabric those people use."

Now clothed, Arion was still faced with a problem. What to do about his -- his -- okay, he had to think about that. Were Jahv and the others his friends? He didn't really get along with them all that well. He'd simply taken up with them because they'd rescued him from the Soluans -- on this very station in fact -- and he honestly had no other options. But except for one party, that ridiculous Halloween affair -- he hadn't really spent that much time with Jahv and the others, or with the humans. But now he was back on Garboris, freed from both the Soluans and from Earth. The question, he realized, was not so much what to do about Jahv and the others -- but whether to do anything at all.

********

"Unbelievable." muttered Keith. He and the others had been tossed into a holding cell with a forcefield at the front. Except for a toilet and a pathetically basic food replicator that only offered something that looked like powdered rice and smelled like dirty socks, the room was featureless. "Why is it every time we head into space with you two, we end up naked sooner or later?"

"Count your blessings." said Jahv.

"What's that supposed to mean?" snapped Keith.

"Judicial processing used to include shaving heads." replied Jahv.

"I can't believe they put us all together." said Niklas.

"You see that as an advantage?" asked Jahv.

"Well, it gives us time to think and plan together." commented Niklas.

"Yes. We have been stripped -- literally -- of every conceivable resource. There is nothing within this cell we can use as either a weapon or a means of escape. And even if we could get out, there's plenty of armed guards." said Jahv. "Now, what do you propose we do?"

"You're giving up?" asked Davy.

"I'm facing facts." said Jahv. "Keyro and I never should have run away. If we'd stayed put, this never would have happened. And all of you wouldn't have been dragged into it."

"Don't talk like that," said Niklas. "You're wonderful friends."

"Friends don't get their friends imprisoned." said Jahv.

"Without you," said Morik, "I never would have been rescued from that jungle planet."

"No, but you weren't that badly off there." said Jahv.

"Tell that to the dinosaur in the lake." muttered Keith.

Martin, who had pretty much curled up into a ball in the corner of the room near Davy and had said nothing, except for sobbing, finally said, "What's going to happen to us?"

Jahv sighed. "Well, we're all underage, so we'll probably be remanded over to the Procyon Institute. It's a -- school of sorts."

"Like our school, Glenwood School," suggested Niklas. "Uniforms and discipline all the time."

"Eh -- far worse than that, I suspect, although I've never seen your school." said Jahv. "Think of it as -- what would the right terms be -- somewhere between a military school and a juvenile prison. It's not very large, since crime on our world, at least among young people, is virtually unheard of. But what there is of it is dealt with, as all crime is, decisively. Hence the Procyon Institute."

"Please tell me we wouldn't be forced to be naked ALL the time." said Keith.

"In fact, wearing uniforms is considered part of the discipline." remarked Jahv. "The one curious factor is that as far as I know, you four and Morik would be the first offworlders there. I'm not sure what that will mean."

"Look, we've got to find some way home!" insisted Davy. "Sooner or later my parents -- and all of yours -- are going to realize we're not just out camping in the woods!"

"Right now, I'm afraid, that's the least of our worries." said Jahv. "The only other thing is that something just isn't right about all this. Magistrates don't advance their careers by tracking down unusual cases. They advance their careers by maintaining law and order."

"Hey, he's related to Pol, and we've already found out what kind of creep he is." remarked Niklas.

"What about Arion?" asked Keyro. "He's free! Maybe he can find some way to help."

"I hope so." said Jahv. "Because for the first time, I'm out of ideas."

********

Arion walked into the bar on Garboris and shoved his way through to the counter, and caught the eye (one of eight) of the bartender. "Yeah?"

"You got Argelian tea?" said Arion.

"Green or pink?" asked the bartender.

"Green." said Arion.

"Hunh. Wouldn't figure a little runt like you could handle the strong stuff. Here." he handed Arion a cup. "That one and the next one are on the house if you can down that one in two gulps."

Arion did so. He'd had stronger stuff than this on his homeworld, but wasn't about to ask for a beverage from a planet he'd been banned from. "Next." he said.

The bartender raised four of his eyebrows and handed Arion another cup. Arion took it to the end of the counter where he hoped he wouldn't be noticed too much.

Argelian tea did not make one drunk. It tended to clear the head, if anything. Arion had pretty well decided to help Jahv and the others, although he didn't necessarily intend to return to Earth with them. The two could be separate issues. What he lacked was any sort of plan. Just transmatting them out wouldn't work. Even assuming the ship wasn't shielded, which it probably was, that would just get the Botaran Security forces on their tail and accomplish nothing. What was needed was a way to get them free in such a way that they would not be chased down again. And that was going to be the hard part.

"Aren't you Prince Arion of Korr-aacckk!" Someone had approached Arion from behind, and Arion has whipped around and grabbed the speaker by the throat. It was a Botaran. A young one, too, about Arion's own age -- same age as Jahv. Light blue skin, about the color of the sky on Earth. Presently was he turning slightly purple from Arion's grip.

"I've had about enough of Botarans for one day." said Arion. "I just got kicked off a shipload of them that are messing with some friends of mine, which happen to include the only two Botarans I find tolerable. That doesn't include you. Do yourself a favor and run home."

Arion released the grip, but the young Botaran didn't move. "There's a Botaran ship here? I mean, besides my own?"

Arion turned to look at the Botaran again. And this time, he took the time to look. The boy was the same age as himself or Jahv, but there were certainly differences. The hair was not as well groomed, and was distinctly longer, almost shoulder length. The boy was dressed in what looked like a spacesuit that was almost as cobbled-together as this space station. The white boots and the olive green undergarment were of obvious Botaran design, but the boots were scuffed and there were a few tears in the undergarment, at the knees and elbows. The boy was wearing a padded vest not unlike what Morik had worn at the Halloween party, except this one was dark grey. The boy also had a thick holster strapped to his right leg, which barely concealed a fairly sophisticated-looking blaster pistol.

"Your ship?" asked Arion derisively, releasing his grip on the strange youngster, but not taking his eyes off of him. "Right."

"It was my father's until recently. He died from Graydon's Blight. I took over."

"Doesn't your planet have any child labor laws?" scoffed Arion. "Who are you and why are you pestering me?"

"My name is Toben. And I spoke to you because I figured you for Prince Arion. There's two Soluans on this station that have been looking for you for months."

Arion glared. "Those two losers are still here!?" This could be a further problem.

"Seems someone destroyed their engine core. No one's inclined to help them." replied Toben. "Now you said there was another Botaran ship here. I wasn't aware of any. What is it?"

"One of your Magistrate ships." said Arion. "Some friends of mine got tricked and captured."

"No Magistrate ship should be here, and no Magistrate would use methods like that." said Toben. "Hold it. Is the Magistrate's name Varek?"

Arion downed the last of his tea. "Yeah. Why?"

"He's a renegade." explained Toben. "I don't get back to the homeworld much, but I keep track of the news. Decided to start implementing his own form of justice on offworld cases. He's been disbarred and disgraced. So he fled to the outer realms looking for a way back. But it won't happen. He needs to be stopped."

"He thinks he's got a case that'll put him back in the good graces of your legal system." said Arion. "Ever hear of a couple of runaways named Jahv and Keyro, news-boy?"

"He has them?" asked Toben. "Of course I've heard of them! Their father - Amshat - is a quite popular scientist and the case of his vanished sons caused a big stir. Amshat lost his reputation and there's no doubt that only a heavy penalty for his sons can re-establish him. No wonder that a rogue like Varek took the chance to get them. In a way, they inspired me to strike out on my own after my father died. I should have returned to the homeworld and turned the ship over to my uncle. But the ship is the only real home I've ever had! All my life I've been taught how to run it and how to do business."

"What is your business, anyway?" asked Arion.

"Merchant, trader, mercenary -- little bit of everything." replied Toben.

"Somebody would hire a kid as a mercenary!?"

"Well, that part hasn't been going as well. But the merchant and trader parts. I just say I'm handling the deal for my family." Toben switched back to the previous subject. "Look, Varek needs to be stopped, and I'm not about to let him take a couple of heroes like Jahv and Keyro back to the homeworld. It wouldn't do him any good, and it wouldn't do them any good. And you shouldn't hang around on this station, either! If those Soluans see you...!"

"That one, you don't need to explain." said Arion. "You got a way to get us out of this mess?"

"Yeah, but it'll cost you." said Toben.

"I don't -- " started Arion.

"Relax. All I want is a question answered. Where the heck have you all been?"

Arion managed a very slight smile. "Hanging out on a planet called Earth with a Dorrian refugee and a bunch of other kids called humans."

Toben raised an eyebrow. "That sounds -- interesting."

"That'd be one way of putting it." commented Arion. "Come on, you said you had a plan."

"We must return to my ship. This way." The two boys exited the bar, never noticing the two beings sitting in a dark corner.

"You saw?" said the one in a rumbling hiss. The other one merely nodded. "This could be our chance. Regain Prince Arion and get a new hyperdrive in the bargain. Let's get to the ship."

********

The hour for the boys' trial had come. They were led back to the courtroom. Pol was still there, as was the Magistrate. There was a surprise along one side of the room, however. Jahv's dome tent, now crumpled, and all of his equipment, smashed. It was a thorough mess.

"You brought this all the way from Earth!?" yelled Jahv. "To do this to it all?! WHY!?"

Pol grinned. "Couldn't very well leave advanced technology behind to be found by some other pathetic primitive, now could we?"

"Screw him." snarled Keith. "He did it out of pure meanness."

The Magistrate brought his gavel down hard upon the podium. "Jahv and Keyro -- sons of Amshat, son of Lemoy, son of Dekel, son of Gershon," intoned Varek, "you stand accused of family abandonment and technological treason -- you may now explain yourselves to this court."

Jahv stepped forward. "My parents had never treated either myself or my brother with anything other than indifference. On every world we visited as traveling techno-traders, I saw families that openly cared for each other and shared their feelings for one another. In comparison, my brother and I were downright ignored by our parents."

"If they fed, housed, educated, and when necessary, clothed you, was that not the extent of their responsibility towards you?" demanded the Magistrate.

"As we traveled to world upon world in my parents' dealings, I saw more and more family units where that was NOT the extent of what took place." said Jahv. "I saw genuine affection between adults and children. These people didn't just live in proximity towards one another, with the adults providing only what was needed. They cared for one another and they weren't ashamed to show it! When I tried to demonstrate that towards my parents, I was rebuffed. When Keyro and I began to demonstrate it towards each other, we were treated with even greater indifference by our parents than before!"

"The affection you cite is not part of Botaran society." said Varek. "Ours is the more efficient and practical way, and you had no right to try to contaminate your own family with alien ways! And NONE of that is germane to the fact that you subsequently abandoned your family, as did later your brother!"

"My parents had already abandoned us!" yelled Jahv, tears forming in his immense eyes. "I don't care how efficient or practical the emotionless raising of children in Botaran society is, it's WRONG! So yes, I left, because I just couldn't stand it anymore. I figured that wherever I ended up, it had to be better. I tried to get Keyro to join me at that time, but he wouldn't. Only when he was even more poorly treated by our parents for my having run away did he finally join me!" Jahv reached over and took Keyro in a fierce hug. "This is my brother and I love him, and I'm neither ashamed to admit that or demonstrate it. As for our parents -- they are no longer part of MY family. These others standing here WITH me are my family."

The Magistrate stood, his face the personification of sheer fury. For a generally emotionless race, they certainly seemed capable of getting angry when it suited them. He brought his gavel down to the surface with a bang that would've broken any windows in the chamber if it had had any. "This disgraceful display will NOT be tolerated in this court. You have attempted to explain yourself and have only succeeded in condemning yourselves. This court will not allow this sort of conduct to be perpetrated in Botaran society!"

"Jeez, and I thought we had it rough." remarked Davy, within earshot of Niklas and Martin, the latter of which was clutching Davy's arm so tight that Davy's arm was nearly numb.

"It is the judgment of this court," said the Magistrate, seating himself and regaining some composure, "that Jahv and Keyro -- sons of Amshat, son of Lemoy, son of Dekel, son of Gershon -- along with their human allies and the Dorrian known as Morik, be remanded to the Procyon Youth Institute for corrective education immediately following our departure from this station! Guards, take them back to their holding cell. This court is adjourned."

********

Toben's ship hadn't looked much better than the station at which it was parked. It was huge, though, much larger than the shuttle Arion had flown to Earth in with Jahv and the others. The ship was a fairly simplistic design. Large oval central area, which Toben explained was the engineering section and cargo holds, a smaller half-oval at the front which was the bridge and Toben's quarters, which smelled like dirty socks just walking past them, and two long engine nacelles sticking out of either side. If Arion had been able to make the comparison, he probably would've said that it looked a fair bit like the Starship Defiant from Star Trek Deep Space Nine, but was in as rough shape as the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

Toben had contacted the homeworld, bluffing his way through a bit as to why a child was using the comm stations, and explained where he was and exactly who was out here -- that is, Magistrate Varek. He didn't say a word about Jahv and Keyro. Given the severity of Varek's crimes, and the coordinates and confirmations Toben supplied, the authorities were inclined to not worry about the source and be more concerned about the results.

Toben finished the comm and then turned towards Arion. "You a good shot?"

"I can pick off quarry at five thousand feet. Why?"

"Good." said Toben. "Come on, we need to head to the armory."

"But you just called the authorities!" countered Arion, following Toben into the cargo section of the ship.

"That's right, but we still need to get Jahv, Keyro, and your other friends out of there before they show up." explained Toben, expertly working his way through corridors of stacked cargo containers. "Technically, they ARE guilty of certain social crimes on the homeworld. If we don't get them out and get gone before the authorities show up, they'll arrest EVERYbody."

Toben pried open several containers. Within were long belts of small silver spheres. "Stun grenades. Won't kill anybody, but it'll put 'em out of commission for a few hours."

Arion smiled slightly. "Do you know the specific directions to the holding cells from the airlock once we get on board?"

"Yes, why?" asked Toben.

"I watched this history program back on Earth -- about how large mechanized aircraft used to make bombing runs along a preassigned route. I have an idea..."

********

Several minutes later, Arion and Toben used the ship's transmat to beam directly to the airlock of the renegade Magistrate vessel. Toben carried a backpack of equipment, which even for one of the famed Botaran backpacks was looking a little overstuffed. Arion was wearing several long belts of stun grenades. "I still don't understand how this Magistrate kept his crew after he went renegade!" exclaimed Arion.

"Magistrate crews tend to be fiercely loyal to their commanders." remarked Toben. "Either that, or some of them might not even know. I'm really not sure." Toben walked up to the airlock door and pounded on it.

A few seconds later, an armed guard opened the door. "What the -- ?!" was all he managed to say before Toben slammed him in the gut with both fists and then bashed him on the back of the head. The guard crumpled.

"You've done that before." remarked Arion.

Toben grinned. "This isn't my first time on Garboris. And there's worse places, too. I believe it's your turn."

"You'll be right behind, but not too closely, right?" asked Arion.

"Don't want to get stunned myself, and somebody might need a little extra persuasion to stay down." replied Toben. "You've got the route memorized?"

"Yep. Easier than navigating a mountain pass." stated Arion.

"Then go for it!" said Toben, stepping out of the doorway as Arion went airborne and soared down the corridors of the Magistrate vessels, dropping stun grenades every few yards.

******

"We're never gonna see home again!" bawled Martin. The seven boys were once again in the holding cell.

"I'm sorry I got you all involved in this." Jahv was close to tears himself.

"This isn't your fault." said Davy. "It's these geeks holding us."

"Jahv, the way this happened, this can't be legal." said Niklas.

"Oh, I'm quite sure it's not, but that doesn't change what's going to happen to us." said Jahv grimly. "Varek is obviously working outside the law, and Pol has certainly broken the law, but if the two of them put enough of a spin on this, they come out the heroes, and we're locked up for our crimes."

"Does this ship have shuttles, a transmat, SOMEthing we could maybe use to get out of this mess?" said Keith, who was pacing in every conceivable direction.

"Nothing we could make use of in time." said Jahv. "I just don't see a way out of this."

"That's right boys!" came a new voice. It was the smirking visage of Pol. He'd come down in person to the holding cell. "I really should thank you. You've been a big help to my family."

"Hey, Pol, why don't you take your family and -- " started Keith, but he never finished his sentence. There was a sudden series of rapid BANGs, growing louder as closer. The source of these noises became evident when Arion darted into the room outside the holding cell and spotted Pol. "I oughtta make you choke on this!" he yelled, throwing the last stun grenade squarely at the startled Botaran. It went off in his face and slammed him against the far wall. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

"ARION!" cheered most of the kids. Jahv spoke next. "Where in the world did you get stun grenades?"

"From my new friend." replied Arion. Just now entering the room, after slamming a barely-conscious Botaran guard to the floor with a martial-arts throw, was Toben. "THAT'S for trying to shoot the blaster out of my hand, you creep! It belonged to my father!"

"Dang, you find the most interesting people on this station." quipped Davy. Spirits were high at the prospect of a rescue. Arion was at the control console. "Curse it, the locking system is encoded. How're we supposed to get them out?"

"I got a key right here!" said Toben, pulling his blaster out and giving Arion just enough time to dive out of the way before firing, shattering the console into splinters.

"Novel approach." commented Jahv.

"Where the heck did HE come from?" asked Keyro of no one in particular.

"Jeez, greenie, I didn't think you people were that -- gung-ho..." remarked Keith.

"We're not -- normally." replied Jahv. "I'm going to love to get the explanation for this one."

"Later for that!" said Niklas. "Let's just get out of here! Arion, I could -- !"

"First one of you that hugs me joins the Botarans on the floor!" snapped Arion. Then he paused, and offered a very slight smile. "At least wait until you barbarians have some clothes on, all right?"

"Arion, I never should've doubted that you would return." said Jahv.

Arion raised an eyebrow. "You mean you did?" Jahv opened his mouth to respond, but Arion raised a hand. When he spoke again, his tone was surprisingly gentle. "Don't. I doubted it myself."

"What changed your mind, feathers?" asked Keith, trying to sound bolder than he felt.

"When you grow up as high royalty, friendship is not something that is part of your life." said Arion. "And it wasn't part of mine. At least until I met you primitives and galactic strays. It -- has been a new experience for me."

"Look, this is all very cool, but can we please get out of here?" urged Morik.

"No need to run, friends." said Toben, pulling a huge mat with an electronic grid imprinted on it out of the backpack and spreading it on the floor. "Little something I picked up on Nitfenso 7."

"What is it?" asked Martin.

"It's a transmat mat." replied Toben.

"Ouch." winced Davy. "The one time the translator fields have to be working perfectly, and we get a pun like that."

"I hope this thing works better than what we usually deal with!" stated Keith.

Suddenly the sound of more guards could be heard in the corridor. "You want to explore other options?" asked Jahv.

"Under the circumstances," said Keith quickly, heading for the mat, "Let's get the hell out of here!"

By the time the guards arrived, all they found was an empty cell, a destroyed console, an unconscious guard, and Pol, who needed to be taken to the infirmary for mild burns to his face and a concussion.

********

The group appeared on Toben's ship. "Where the heck are we now?"

"My ship." replied Toben. "Welcome aboard. Arion tells me you're staying on a planet called Earth. If you can give me the coordinates, I'll get you right back there as quickly as possible."

"Wait a moment." said Jahv. "Who ARE you? How did you come to be here? Your ship?"

Toben gave a brief explanation, basically the same one that he gave Arion, with a little more detail. His mother had died when he was little more than an infant. His father had cared for and raised him on board this ship. They hadn't been to the homeworld in years. When his father passed away, Toben was abundantly trained enough to take over the vessel, and, admittedly defying Botaran custom, did so, and had done a capable job as a merchant and trader ever since.

"But we're just a little pressed for time, so if you'll all follow me and strap in we'll get underway." said Toben, heading for the cockpit. "I don't normally carry passengers, but there's plenty of seats on the bridge, part of the original design for taking tourists around."

"Is there any way we can get some clothes?" asked Niklas, once they'd reached the cockpit.

"Clothes!?" exclaimed Toben. "Oh, right. Space travel, of course. I'll see what I can do for you before we get to Earth. Right now, we need to get out of here."

"No argument there. Those clowns might still come after us." remarked Keith.

"Oh, they're going to have enough problems of their own." said Toben. "I just don't want to get caught in the middle of it."

"What are you talking about?" asked Davy.

A grin formed on Toben's face. "Heh. I'm talking about that!"

As Toben's ship started to pull away from the station, the boys could see three huge Botaran Magistrate ships arrive. Varek's docked ship was surrounded within moments. "So much for him!" said Toben. "I'm picking up local comm traffic. We knocked out so many guards there wasn't anybody left to put up a fight. Varek's been taken into custody. Everybody on the ship has, really."

"Couldn't happen to a nicer scumbag." said Keith.

"Next stop, EARTH!" declared Martin. Just then the ship lurched suddenly, with what sounded like an explosion against the hull.

"What was THAT?!" yelled Keith.

"Apparently somebody's idea of a greeting." remarked Toben. "We're being commed. On screen."

The faces of two Soluans appeared. "Botaran vessel! We know you have the fugitive Prince Arion on board your vessel! Surrender him or be destroyed!"

The second Soluan suddenly looked both astonished and angry. Apparently they had a pretty good view of the entire cockpit. "It is him!" the Soluan snarled, his voice a raspy whisper. "The yellow-topped mammal who destroyed my throat!" He was looking squarely at Keith. Keith remembered spraying some disinfectant spray down into the Soluan's mouth the last time he was on board the station and the others needed a diversion. "I want that mammal as well! He cost me two months of agony in the infirmary!"

"What the hell did you DO to him?" asked Arion, but Keith knew that if he opened his mouth right now, he'd burst out laughing, and they had enough trouble for the moment.

Toben was calling the Soluans' bluff. "Get off it, Shurrg. We both know you don't have much more than docking thrusters in that ship! Nice talking with you!"

Toben took the ship into a sudden dive and then brought it around. Jahv was in the co-pilot seat, programming the hyperwarp drive for the flight to Earth. "You ever think about settling down on a planet for a while?"

"Aw, vketh!" swore Toben. "Somebody sold those morons a sub-light drive. They're on our tail and gaining! How long until I can take us into hyperwarp?"

"Forty seconds." said Jahv.

Two more blasts hit the ship. Keyro was coincidentally seated at the ship's engineering and status station, and noticed a few warning lights. "Aft shields down to seventy percent! Minimal damage to port nacelle. We're all right, but keep that side away from them!"

Another blast and the console one over from where Morik was seated exploded. Morik was thrown back, more scared than hurt. Davy got up and helped Morik out of the way, then yelled, "We've got a fire back here!"

"Grab an extinguisher!" said Toben.

"What's it look like?" asked Davy urgently.

"Blue cylinder, about a foot long. Point the white end towards the fire. It's thermally activated."

Davy found one of the blue cylinders attached to the wall. He grabbed it and pointed the white end towards the fire. Nothing happened. He got a little closer. Suddenly a blob of green glop sprayed out and covered the small electrical fire, smothering it.

"Jahv..." said Toben. The question didn't need to be asked.

"Eight seconds." replied Jahv, not looking up.

"Keyro, check the console directly behind you." instructed Toben. "It's external sensors. Scan the Soluan ship. See if they have hyperwarp capabilities."

Keyro pivoted the chair around and scanned the attacking vessel, even as their ship was rocked again by another blast. "Negative!" he called back a few seconds later. "Just sub-light drive. No wonder they're being so persistent."

"Course plotted!" said Jahv, as the ship was hit one last time. "GO!"

"Hang on!" yelled Toben, activating the hyperwarp engines. The stars screamed past, everyone gripped the arms of their chairs, and the ship vanished from the space around Garboris. If anything could have been heard, it would've been two Soluans swearing.

********

Once Toben's ship was in hyperwarp, everyone began to calm down. Toben had Keyro run a surface scan of the vessel to make sure that the Soluans hadn't planted any sort of tracer or homing beacon on the ship. They hadn't. The group was free and clear. "Well, I hope this 'Earth' of yours is interesting, because after all of that, I don't think the spacelanes are going to be especially safe for me for a while." remarked Toben.

"Assuming you can even get this ship to be spaceworthy again." added Keyro. "It's taken a lot of damage."

Toben nodded grimly. "I'd better check that out, too. Jahv, I could use an extra pair of eyes and hands. Will you assist me?"

"Sure." replied Jahv. "But even once we get to Earth, we've got problems. We lost our dome-tent. And all of our supplies."

Toben laughed aloud. "Supplies!? You're worried about supplies!? Come on, all of you if you want."

"Can't we get something to wear first?" asked Keith.

Toben gave him an odd look, then glanced at Jahv. "Do they all worry about that like that?"

"Well, not always, but they are more used to being clothed more often than we are." replied Jahv.

Toben shook his head. "Oh, well. If that's what's customary for you. Spacesuits of Botaran style good enough?" The group nodded. "Come on, then, that'll be the first stop."

Toben led the group into the cargo section of the vessel, and pointed at one particular container. "Take your pick."

Davy opened the lid. There were several dozen spacesuits in there in a wide range of color schemes. No one was inclined to be that picky, although Keith's first grab brought him a suit that was bright pink with lavendar trim, and he stuffed that one back in the box as quickly as he could, and found one of more agreeable colors.

"You need supplies?" proclaimed Toben, almost laughing. "I've got dome-tents, computer systems, food replicators, transmats, medikits, blasters, protective clothing, you name it!"

"Dang, we could make a fortune with this stuff on eBay." remarked Keith.

"Yeah, and get every security agency and every Trekkie on the planet on our cases." added Davy.

"Yeesh!" shuddered Niklas. "I wonder which would be worse."

"Do you have any idea what they're talking about?" whispered Toben to Jahv.

"Not always, but I don't worry about it. They're a good bunch."

"Hey, uh, speaking of FOOD replicators...!" said Keith in a loud voice.

Toben turned. "Hmm? Oh, yes, of course. I don't imagine that you've had much to eat for a while. I have a replicator in my quarters, but I'm not sure it can make anything you'd find edible."

"I'll go with them." offered Keyro. "I can probably get it to do something."

"Toben and I will survey the damage to the ship." said Jahv, and the others headed out of the cargo bay as soon as Toben gave them directions to his quarters, which were right off the bridge.

The boys entered the spacious but rather untidy rooms a few minutes later. "Sheesh. Mr. Clean he's not." commented Keith. Indeed, assorted machine parts were scattered on a large table and on the floor, the bed was distinctly unmade, there was a boot draped over one chair, and there were several datapads tossed rather haphazardly on another chair, and even a few Botaran action figures scattered on the floor.

"This Toben is a most atypical Botaran." remarked Keyro.

"Maybe that's why I like him." said Keith. "At least he seems to know what he's doing with the technology he's got."

Suddenly there was a whining sound from a large box in the corner. "What was that?" asked Davy.

It was Martin, oddly enough, who approached the box. "Sounds like there's an animal in here!"

"I thought you people didn't keep pets!" said Davy.

Keyro shrugged. "We don't -- usually."

Niklas went over to the box and opened the lid just a fraction. "Whatever's in here isn't very big."

"Yeah, and it's probably venomous." argued Keith. "Look, unless it's edible, I'm not interested right now, okay?"

"I tend to agree." said Arion. "Where's the replicator?"

Keyro walked over to a wall unit and checked it carefully. "I can't adjust the programming too much, but I think I can get it to deliver some decent enough hot dogs. Does that work for everyone?" There was immediate an unanimous agreement.

It was about fifteen minutes later and getting into the second dozen hot dogs when Jahv and Toben entered the quarters carrying a large cargo container. Toben saw the hot dogs and raised an eyebrow. "What in the world are you people eating!?" He walked over to the plate and picked one up. "Tubular meat sandwich?"

"They're called hot dogs." said Davy.

"Hot -- dogs?" asked Toben. "Jahv..."

"Don't ask me. I've never been able to figure out that one. There is an animal species on Earth called a dog, but their meat is not used in these. Generally, in most cultures, dogs are kept as household companions."

Toben shook his head. "No wonder your world's been declared off limits. I doubt a translator field could handle the language."

"Speaking of household animals -- " said Niklas, "What's in the box?"

Toben suddenly brightened. "Oh, that's Skerby."

"You have a pet?" asked Jahv, eyeing Toben slightly skeptically.

"I needed SOME sort of life form on this ship besides myself." argued the blue-skinned youngster. "And plants don't really make it. Besides, I'm no gardener."

"What's a Skerby?" asked Martin.

"Oh, that's just what I call him." said Toben, heading over to the box. "He's a skerbit. A harmless herbivore from my homeworld."

"Unless you have a vegetable garden." commented Jahv.

"Well, he did eat all the plants I accidentally killed, so they didn't go to waste entirely." remarked Toben. "Normally I keep him with me, but anytime I went to Garboris, I put him in his container. I'm afraid somebody on that station might try to eat him. And I don't want to leave him loose on the ship alone." Toben opened the lid and brought out the small animal.

Skerby was about the size of a housecat. His fur was long and white, and his face looked like a cat's with rather large blue eyes. But the critter had ears like a rabbit, and large hind legs like those of a rabbit, as well. But then it also had a long bushy tail that frankly looked like a squirrel's. There were two tiny antennae popping up out of the fur on top of its head. Skerby snuggled in Toben's arms and made sounds something like a dove cooing when Toben stroked his fur.

"Ohhh, cute!" said Martin, edging in for a closer look. "May I hold him?"

"Careful, Martin." said Niklas. "We know that Earth animals don't much care for aliens. If the reverse is true..."

"I don't think there'll be a problem." said Toben. "Skerby's been around all sorts of non-Botarans. He doesn't get bothered." Toben handed the animal gently to Martin, and indeed, Skerby wasn't the least bit bothered. He cuddled up to Martin as readily as he had to Toben. "His fur is so soft!" remarked Martin. "And he has antannae AND ears."

"The antennae are like sensors." explained Toben. "If we were on a planet, he could pick up tremors. In space, he's pretty good at knowing when a spacestorm is coming."

Jahv, who was still standing near the cargo container, cleared his throat.

"Ah, yeah, right. Sorry." said Toben.

"What's in the box?" asked Morik.

Toben turned a bit grim. Jahv already was. "Nothing, yet." said Toben. "I brought it here to pack up as much of my stuff as I could. We have a rather serious problem."

"Why am I not surprised?!" muttered Keith.

"The ship's taken a lot of damage." explained Jahv. "The last few shots from the Soluans nailed the shields and ruptured structural integrity. Given the construction of the ship, we're safe enough in hyperspace. But once we re-enter normal space, near Earth..."

"We're gonna have about fifteen seconds to transmat out of here before the ship destroys itself." finished Toben.

"Toben, I -- I'm sorry." said Arion, much to everyone's amazement. "I know what this ship means to you."

Toben raised a hand. "It's okay. Yeah, I was born on this ship and lived practically my whole life here, but it's still just a ship. My life and all of yours is more important. And what the vrekt, its last adventure was certainly worth it. Get a corrupt Magistrate arrested, mess with a couple of Soluan dirtbags, rescue haul a bunch of kids home to an unknown world -- there's worse fates."

"I don't understand how a ship could be safe in hyperspace and not regular space." said Davy.

"Think of the ship as a speedboat." said Jahv. "As long as you stay on the water, you're fine. Coasting along at a good speed. What would happen, though, if you hit land and tried to take the boat across that?"

Davy winced. They all got the picture. "Hyperspace is the lake. Normal space is the land. It's just the nature of the damage the ship sustained, which was all incurred in normal space."

"How much time do we have?" asked Niklas.

"About 45 of your minutes." said Toben. "I've already arranged transmat mats under a good number of my cargo containers which have some of the most needed stuff that Jahv and the rest of us -- which I guess includes me now, not that that's a problem -- will need to set up camp again in this forest Jahv has described to me. But I want to pack up as much of my personal stuff as possible."

With the help of the others, it went amazingly quickly. The datapads, action figures, several books, a holophoto album, some clothes, a few assorted souvenirs from various worlds, and of course, Skerby, all went into the cargo container in about half an hour. In fact, the quarters were scoured of everything that wasn't mounted to the walls and part of the original ship design, and of a few things that were. The box, need it be said, was of the same "larger on the inside" design as the backpacks. Jahv and Toben hauled the cargo container back to the cargo bay and placed it on a transmat mat, then ran the last few needed checks to make sure that the entire transmat system was linked and ready to go.

One additional transmat mat had been brought to the bridge/cockpit area, and the rest of the boys were already either standing or sitting on it when Toben and Jahv returned to the bridge. Jahv joined them, and Toben ran a few last minute scans. "Three minutes away from re-entering normal space. I've locked coordinates on the woods Jahv described to me. But I'm going to have to run a confirmation scan when we get there."

"You said we only had fifteen seconds!" said Niklas.

"Fortunately, the scan will take about three." replied Toben.

"I just thought of something, and I really hate to bring it up, but with all of us and as much stuff as I saw in that cargo bay beaming in, there's no way it's going to go unnoticed." said Keith. "Even if it's a quiet transmat, it's still a helluva light show."

"You'd rather stay with the ship?" asked Davy.

"I'm just saying we might be going from one problem to another." said Keith.

"I'll take my chances alive, thanks." said Toben, poised at the main bridge console and ready to move. "I always have. And I'm still here. Brace yourselves. We're about ten seconds away."

The tension on the bridge was palpable. The ten seconds seemed to go on forever. When the ship re-entered normal space, there was a scream of metal that reverberated through the entire bridge, and it was like being in the midst of an earthquake.

"Sensors locked!" yelled Toben over the fearful racket. He pressed a button and started running. "Transmat in three -- two -- one -- "

********

"I just know something's happened to them." said Mrs. Caulfield. She'd expected Davy and the other boys to return for breakfast, after exploring the woods, but they hadn't. She and Davy's father were searching the woods as best as they could. They were close to calling the police.

Suddenly there was an incredible explosion of light and sound off in the distance, followed by a loud splat and some less-than-polite conversation. "What was that?" said Mr. Caulfield.

"We'd better see." said Mrs. Caulfield frantically. "It might have -- something to do with Davy."

********

"Is the entire terrain of your planet like this?" asked Toben. There were cargo containers all over the place, but somehow, the entire group of boys had landed in the mud pool, after having materialized about five feet above it. Needless to say, the entire group was covered.

"Hardly." said Keith. "I swear, this place must be a magnet for interplanetary beam-ins. Keyro landed here, we landed here -- maybe we oughtta rig a net."

"What the hell -- ?!" came a new voice. Davy looked over and his face went pale beneath the mud. It was his father who had spoken, and both of his parents were standing a short distance away from the piles of cargo containers and the mud pool.

"Ohhhh, crap." muttered Keith. He looked around. The five alien members of the group were not so mud-covered that they could possibly be mistaken for humans, never mind all the cargo containers. And based on the stunned looks on the elder Caulfields' faces, they'd just figured that out, as well.

"Somebody better start thinking fast here." remarked Niklas quietly.

"Davy -- boys -- what -- ?" Mr Caulfield couldn't even think of a question to ask given what he was faced with. Finally he managed to sputter "What is this all about?"

Davy shook his head. "I don't think there's any way out of it this time, guys. All we can do is tell them and hope for the best."

The entire group slowly slogged out of the mud. It took the better part of half an hour to explain everything, during which time Toben was able to activate cloaking devices to hide all of the cargo containers. He did, however, bring Skerby out (who was more than content to stay on a small leash rather than get his fur muddy after getting a good look at his master), and offered the cargo container to the Caulfields for something to sit on.

Jahv dominated the conversation, with occasional comments from Davy and Toben. Finally Jahv concluded. "Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield -- I -- we -- apologize. We never meant to put your son or anyone else in any danger. When I first left home, I had no idea even where I was going. Your son befriended us, as did his friends. But after today's events -- maybe that was wrong. I don't know anymore."

Davy ran over to Jahv, gave him a brief, tight hug, and then stood back half a pace and took hold of his shoulders. "Hey, Jahv. Friendship is NEVER wrong. Even Arion's figured that out. Okay, maybe sometimes things got a little crazy, but we're all still here and we're okay, right? I'm GLAD to know you, all of you. I think everyone here would agree with that." And there was immediate agreement from everyone, even Keith.

The adult Caulfields looked stunned. "Give us just a minute, okay?" stammered Mr. Caulfield, more or less directing his comments to the aliens. He and his wife stood and walked a short distance away.

"What do we do?" he asked his wife quietly. "I mean, aliens?"

"They're also children." said his wife. "And based on what they've said, they're lost, and alone."

"I know, but -- aliens?" said Mr. Caulfield. "Shouldn't we -- notify someone?"

Mrs. Caulfield turned instantly serious and determined. "I am NOT going to have children turned over to some agency that'll do God-knows-what to them. Look at them. They're lost and scared. Clearly they haven't harmed Davy or the other boys, and have even helped them. And you know as well as I do how lonely Davy's been out here. There just aren't any other children right nearby. Now they need help and that's what they're going to get. No one lives that close to us. It's not like the neighbors will be looking over the fence."

Mr. Caulfield sighed. There was no arguing with his wife when she got determined. Besides, she was right.

Mrs. Caulfield walked back to the edge of the mud pool. "Well, the first thing we need to do is clean the lot of you up. Come on, get out of there. Then -- Niklas, Martin, and Keith, we'll make sure you get some proper clothes before you get home, and we'll make sure your parents are given decent explanations."

"Maybe that we fell into the mud and ruined them." suggested Keith. "Although I'll probably get whupped for that."

"No, you won't, and I'll make sure of it." said Mrs. Caulfield, as the boys made their way out of the mud pool.

"What about the rest of us?" asked Toben. "May we stay out here?"

"You went undetected before," said Niklas. "Looks like you've got better stuff with you this time around, too."

Mr. Caulfield shrugged, still feeling overwhelmed, but figuring he needed to say something. "I don't own those woods, boys. As far as I know no one does. Well, maybe the state does. But I know we don't often see anyone out there. It's not like there's a lot of hiking trails or anything. If you can keep yourselves concealed, I -- guess I don't have a problem with your staying."

"Well, of course you're staying." said Mrs. Caulfield. "I'm not about to abandon children no matter where they're from. You look like you could use a good meal, too. Now come on..."

Davy walked alongside his father, grinning slightly. "Mom's on the loose again, isn't she, dad?"

"Looks like." said Mr. Caulfield. "And you keep your distance until you're hosed off."

Davy frowned. Not exactly the 'welcome home' he'd wanted. "Am I in trouble?"

Mr. Caulfield sighed. "If I had the slighest idea what to punish you for, probably. But I don't. I don't see anything here that was specifically your fault, or anybody's. And -- maybe I'm at fault somewhat, too. I know that living in a semi-remote area like this hasn't made it easy for you to make friends. I'm glad you've got these other boys to play with. And I guess if you have to start making friends from other planets, then maybe -- "

Davy laughed. "Dad, it's okay, really. I like it out here. And I'm not lonely -- anymore."

And it all worked out quite well. Mrs. Caulfield, who was an excellent cook, prepared an immense meal for the entire group while Mr. Caulfield turned the hose on them in the backyard and cleaned them up enough to head inside and take more thorough showers, which was the most fun any of them had had in a while. Jahv explained to Mrs. Caulfield about certain food avoidances, and the meal, despite being served in the evening, essentially amounted to an immense breakfast consisting of several dozen pancakes, and plenty of bacon and scrambled eggs. Toben figured that the food alone was worth staying on this planet. Everyone was grateful. Arion, especially, and somewhat surprisingly given his usually caustic personality, was unfailingly courteous and polite to the adult Caulfields. He would explain later that respect for parents and elders was an integral part of his society.

Niklas, Keith, and Martin returned to their homes with sufficient explanations. Even Keith's stepfather accepted it. Besides, it had kept the boy out of the house for most of the weekend, and that was good riddance as far as Mr. Dillinger was concerned.

Within a day, the aliens had set up a new home, more sophisticated than ever, thanks to the cargo containers Toben had brought with him. They could keep track of their new world and remain totally undetected at the edge of the woods. Davy got to see a lot of them, mostly because Mrs. Caulfield kept inviting them in for meals or sending out plates of cookies. Mr. Caulfield accepted this quietly enough, but was not entirely at ease around the strange youngsters.

And a small newspaper headline caught Niklas' attention, the day after they had returned. His father was reading the paper, and Niklas saw the headline on the back page and borrowed the paper after his father was finished with it. Apparently there had been a massive power overload at the Keisner amusement park. No one had been hurt, but every ride had stalled, Mr. Keisner had seemingly vanished, and no one could get the place started again. It was closed indefinitely.

That, thought Niklas, was a nice little ending to this particular adventure, even as part of him wondered -- what would happen next?

Back to the index!Next chapter