Jahv, Niklas, Keith, Davy, and their new friend Morik were returning to Earth, after discovering Morik, one of a handful of survivors (and the only one in the area) on a jungle planet that featured, among other peculiarities, flowers that sprayed a mist that dissolved the fabric of the uniforms the boys had been wearing, and an aquatic dragon of considerable size that had attempted to turn the boys into lunch.
Keith especially had not taken this well, given his encounter with a similar creature in a holographic representation of Jahv's homeworld. He sat towards the back of the shuttle, muttering, "Overgrown lizards. Is Earth the only planet where the dinosaurs had the decency to die off before people came along? Jeez..."
At this point, the flight was proceeding fairly quietly. They were in hyperwarp, bound for Earth. Keith was trying to get the food replicator to make him a pizza. None of the youngsters could help but be reminded of a small microwave oven when they used the machine, since structurally it was very similar, except you didn't have to put food into it to get food out of it. And Keith had been reasonably successful with a cheeseburger on the first flight.
Jahv had replaced everyone's uniforms, but Morik had done without clothing for as long as he could remember, and wasn't entirely comfortable with the concept. He was grateful that he would be staying with two others, Jahv and Keyro, that didn't wear clothing on a regular basis. As it stood, all he could stand to wear was a pair of space boots identical to everyone else's, and the skimpiest pair of shorts imaginable. These made speedos look like boxer shorts by comparison. If the sides were any narrower, they would have had to have been measured in molecules. He looked a little silly wearing only this and the oversized, padded boots, but either he didn't notice or, more likely, didn't care.
What was truly odd, though, were the colors Morik had requested. The shorts, such as they were, were bright yellow with swirls of red and purple in them. Jahv had speculated that it was possible that Morik's natural Dorrian tendencies towards making everything ornate, since the Dorrians had been known for being artisans of the highest degree, were starting to re-emerge, and either had a ways to go, or else Morik just had rotten taste in color schemes.
Morik was spending his time wearing the encephalo-educator headband that had been found in the ruins of his family's shuttle. Somehow, when Jahv had placed it on Morik's head and then attempted to telepathically teach him English through it, the device had not only absorbed the English language, but had reset itself to operate far faster than before. Morik had realized that his language skills, to say nothing of his social skills, were severely hindered, and it embarassed him. So he was determined to bring himself up to date on the language as quickly as possible. He was paying for it with a headache he'd not soon forget, but he felt it was worth it. As far as social skills were concerned, he figured the best thing to do was just stay quiet and watch the others. Niklas and Davy were fixated on the images of stars flying past the large side windows of the shuttle. There was a gorgeous nebula in the distance that was far more brilliant than anything one could see on Earth. The two boys had been actively talking about what a grand adventure this was all turning out to be. Keith, on the other hand, was sitting in a chair away from the windows, and looked less than delighted. It was hard to tell if he was bored, angry, or scared.
Finally the other two boys noticed their friend's disposition. "You okay, Keith?" asked Niklas.
Keith grumbled. "Ask me that when we get back to Earth."
"Y'know, you've been acting a bit nasty since this whole trip started." commented Davy. "If you didn't want to come along, why did you?"
Keith glared. "Because while you two put your heads in the clouds, or the stars, or whatever, somebody had to come along to keep your feet on the ground!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Niklas.
"You've been watching too many episodes of Star Trek or whatever, that's what I mean." said Keith. "In all of your watching space movies and stuff, did you miss 'Apollo 13'? And that's the one that really happened!"
"Are you saying..." began Davy.
"I'm saying," interrupted Keith, "that we're shooting through space, faster-than-light, further out than anybody from our planet has ever been, on board a ship built by two kids who aren't that different from us, and all you two can do is gape out the windows. If anything happened to Jahv, do you think any of us would ever see home again?"
"And you'd rather sit there, sulk, and dwell on that than enjoy this opportunity to see the universe from a perspective that no one ever has before?" exclaimed Niklas. "I think this is all magnificent! I can see why astronauts and cosmonauts have always found traveling in space to be such an incredible experience. And we've gone a lot further than they ever have."
"I'd rather you guys keep a balanced view here, that's all." said Keith. "Sure, this is all pretty fantastic. But if you're expecting the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon to come zipping along, don't hold yer breath."
Suddenly a loud THUNK reverberated through the ship, which seemed to stall and shudder. "Uh, oh..." remarked Jahv worriedly from the cockpit. If he'd heard any of the conversation, he was either too polite or too occupied just now to say so.
"Hey, those are not words you want to hear when you're still a dozen light years from home, okay?" said Keith. Morik deactivated the headband. He didn't know machinery, but he could tell something wasn't right.
"What happened?" asked Niklas, moving up to the cockpit area.
Jahv was frantically checking controls. "I don't know yet! We're losing hyperwarp speed, but I don't know why!"
"What's going to happen?" exclaimed Davy frantically.
There was another loud THUNK which reverberated through the shuttle. The youngsters were all panicked at this point, including Jahv. "What's the matter with this thing?"
"Do something, greenie!" yelled Keith, wishing there was someplace to run but realizing there wasn't.
"I would if I knew what to do!" countered Jahv. "I can't even figure out what's happening! Sensors won't work, we're bouncing all over hyperspace. We could emerge anywhere in the galaxy!"
The shuttle was bucking around severely at this point. Niklas and Keith had been on their feet and got roughly slammed to the floor. They clambered into their chairs and strapped in.
Jahv was trying desperately to stay calm and figure out what was happening. A console on the wall behind him suddenly sparked, but a quick glance told him that it was, of all things, the windshield wipers. Jahv took a couple of deep breaths and called to mind everything his parents had taught him about emergency shuttle procedures. He continued checking the control panels. "Okay. I know what's wrong. Hyperwarp stabilizer malfunction. We're going to have to pull out of this, or we really could get lost halfway across the galaxy. But I've got to find us someplace to -- I think you would call it 'pull over' -- to effect repairs."
A loud BANG shot through the shuttle. Niklas and Davy both screamed. Morik was just hanging on, eyes wide and petrified. It was entirely possible he was having a nasty flashback to his last shuttle flight, the one which had killed his parents and stranded him on a wild jungle planet. "What the hell was that?!" yelled Keith.
Jahv, fighting panic, shot his hands across the control panels. The readings did not look good. "Stabilizer's shot entirely. We're coming out of hyperwarp. Hang on."
The shuttle vibrated and the metal screamed. The stars flashing past diminished into the normal points of light that they always appeared to be. Finally the ship shuddered a few times and stalled, nearly dead in space.
"What now?" cried Davy.
"Told you this could happen." said Keith, although he was as petrified as the others. He'd trusted Jahv, as well, and hadn't really expected anything this bad to happen.
Jahv continued to keep his own panic in check as best as possible. "Okay, run procedures." he said to himself. "Structural integrity -- no, dammit -- life support first. Life support fully functional. We won't run out of air. Structural integrity next. We're sound except for a slight breach caused when the stabilizer coil gave out, but that section is isolated to itself and can withstand space. Engine power -- we've got sublight engines all the way up to .9995. I can maybe get us close enough to light-speed to shave some time off to a repair facility. Bridge us between normal space and hyperspace. Pray we're close to something useful."
"What the hell are you jabbering about up there!" yelled Keith, who had unstrapped from his chair. "You've just stranded us and you're running a checklist?!"
"Keith, I realize you're scared, and so am I, but panic won't do any good. Please sit down until I can figure out where we are and how badly off this ship is."
"Why, you -- !" started Keith, but he was restrained by Davy, who had gotten up, as had Niklas and Morik.
"Keith, chill out. Let's see what's going on." urged Davy.
"Jahv, how bad is it, really?" said Niklas. They were all fighting panic, but Jahv was right. It wouldn't help.
"We've got sensors, and I'm running star charts." said Jahv, almost mechanically.
"Star charts?!" exploded Keith. "What the hell good are -- ?!"
Jahv shot out of his seat and faced the terrified Keith. "All right, that's enough! You're scared, I'm scared, we're all scared! And maybe I'm a stranger on your planet and don't know my way around even well enough to go to a mall, but out here, this is MY territory and I DO know what I'm doing! There are emergency procedures that are drilled into the head of every single space-faring Botaran from the instant they can understand language! And right now, that's what I'm doing. You want to know what happened? Fine! We blew a stabilizer coil. That means we can't use the hyperwarp engines to travel faster than light. We need a replacement part, which won't really be that hard to find PROVIDED we're close enough to a place where we can get one. When I realized what was happening, I had just enough time to point us more or less in a direction where we should be able to get help. And I'm running star charts right now to find out just where the closest help might be. Okay?!"
Jahv was shaking, partly from anger but mostly from fear. So was Keith. The two faced each other for a long moment. Nobody moved. Finally Keith backed off. "Just get us home. Whatever it takes."
"That, I promise you." said Jahv.
"Are we -- lost?" asked Morik. He'd been too scared to even speak until now.
"I hope not." said Jahv. Suddenly the console in the cockpit beeped. Had it found something?
Jahv's fingers flew across the controls, and star maps soared across the screen. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved at the results or not. "Garboris. Not the nicest place in the galaxy, but it'll have to do. I've been there before, with my parents, years ago."
"What's Garboris?" asked Davy. "Some sort of planet?"
Jahv shook his head, replotting the course. "It's a space station. Huge. In what we call open space. It's not aligned with any of the major empires, alliances, or federations. Nicely placed along major trade routes, though. People go there to trade, repair their ships, stuff like that -- especially when they want to avoid any official attention."
"Like a shuttle with five kids, no adults, three of which don't even belong this far out in space, and one of which is a runaway from his homeworld?" speculated Niklas.
"Something like that." grinned Jahv.
"What's this space station like?" asked Davy.
Jahv pondered the question, trying to put it in terms his friends would understand. "Think of Deep Space Nine from Star Trek crossed with the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars, but not quite as nice as either one."
"Terrific." said Keith sullenly. "Just when I tell these two to get their minds of off Star Trek and Star Wars, our own resident alien has to go make comparisons."
"The trick now is getting there." said Jahv. "We're honestly lucky to be as close as we are to it. Without hyperwarp, it'll take the better part of an hour. Let's hope we didn't suffer any more damage."
The voyage continued in relative silence. Keith had returned to his seat and brought his legs up and rested his head against his knees. He didn't say anything. Davy and Niklas, seated next to each other, just tried to keep calm and held each other's hands. Morik had strapped himself in and had put the educator headband back on, wondering if there was anything in it about space flight.
Roughly an hour later, during which time everyone calmed down as much as possible -- it helped just to realize they were at least moving towards possible help and not just sitting dead in space -- the space station called Garboris was on the sensor screen, and finally appeared in the windows. It actually looked vaguely like Deep Space Nine, in that it was circular, with pylons jutting out, and a central section. But it was bulkier in appearance, and the pylons were more numerous and more haphazard. The place also looked ill-kept, with dirt and rust in apparent evidence. Either that, or this place had been cobbled together from materials that had already been rusted or dirty in the first place, or just naturally dingy regardless of their condition.
Jahv had a concerned look on his face. "Yeesh, it looks worse than it did five years ago when I was last here. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, but we're out of options. I can't fix the stabilizer without being docked. I won't be able to access the necessary sections of the shuttle."
"Wonders of the universe, huh, guys?" remarked Keith.
"I've never seen anything like that in Earth orbit, have you, Keith?" replied Davy.
"Wouldn't want to." stated Keith.
"It's interesting, but I sort of agree with Keith. It looks a little nasty. Maybe some of us should just stay on the ship?" suggested Niklas.
"Not a good idea." said Jahv. "We need parts. We need to replace the coil. And I don't think splitting up is a good idea. The interior of that space station is like a maze. It was built over a long period of time, by several races, none of whom paid much attention to what their predecessors did." He worked the controls and opened a commlink. "Space Station Garboris, this is Shuttle designate Alpha-Jahv, requesting permission to dock."
Static blasted through the speaker, but then a rough, gravelly voice spoke, "Shuttle Alpha-Jahv, state your reason for docking."
"Repairs." replied Jahv. "Hyperwarp stabilizer is out. We shouldn't be long."
"Access granted." came the voice again. "Follow your beacon to docking pylon Zhrek-three."
"Understood. Receiving beacon. Thank you. Alpha-Jahv out." Jahv turned off the commlink. "Zhrek-three. Wish I could remember this station better and where that puts us compared to where we need to go. I think I know a shortcut. Have to see when we get in."
"I'm surprised they didn't ask why a kid was flying this thing." remarked Davy.
Jahv snickered. "You think tone of voice means anything out here? They were probably glad I'm not a Pavarot. Not only do they have deep baritone voices from the day they're born, but their entire language sounds like opera."
"Deep baritone from birth?!" exclaimed Keith. "That must make feeding time at hospital nurseries a load of laughs."
Jahv maneuvered the shuttle to the indicated pylon, and docked. A hiss of air indicated the the airlock was operational. "Enabling security field." said Jahv, more to himself to remember proper procedures. "Powering down. Okay, we're set."
"What will the security field do?" asked Morik.
"Anybody tries to break into the shuttle, it'll hit 'em with a stun field." replied Jahv. "Okay, guys, let's go. But brace yourselves. Like I said, this isn't a very nice place."
The group moved through the airlock and into the space station. It smelled like a gym locker. Keith wrinkled his nose, and Niklas looked nearly ready to gag. Davy scowled. Their illusions of the wonders of space were taking a bit of a beating just now. Morik looked nervous to be in such enclosed spaces as this. Jahv was amazed at how badly the place had indeed deteriorated. His and his parents had stopped here, as he had said, about five years ago, for emergency repairs. It had been a nasty place then. Now it looked downright vicious.
The walls were grimy, and so were most of the rather unpleasant-looking aliens they passed as the boys wandered through the corridors which led to a central section where Jahv knew the station's directory was. It was sort of a hub from which many corridors branched. They were all following Jahv's lead, and sticking close.
"This place is disgusting." whispered Davy.
"Yeah, I know, guys." said Jahv. "I didn't think it would be this bad, but we're kind of stuck. We've got to get the parts we need."
"Let's do it quickly, okay?" suggested Niklas, who, like Davy, had come to the realization that looking out the window of a nice clean shuttle at all the wondrous stars and phenomenae of space flying past was a far cry from dropping in on some remote outpost. Even Keith seemed cowed, thinking to himself, "I wanted a reality check, but not something this bad. I'm glad Martin's not here."
They soon came to the Core, as it was called. Several stories in height, there were wide corridors on every level, leading to all manner of shops and kiosks. An incredible array of alien life, very little of it pleasant-looking, milled around, conducting assorted business.
"I hope Karak is still here." said Jahv. "He's the parts dealer my parents dealt with years ago. Honest enough -- for this place. He'll be on the second level if I recall." Jahv consulted the directory. "Thank the Creator. He's still here."
The group ascended a nearby stairwell that took them to the next level. "By the way," said Niklas, "I'm understanding a lot of the words I'm hearing around me. How is that possible?"
"There's a translation field in effect throughout the station." said Jahv. "Probably one of the few things anybody bothers to maintain properly, because the commerce of the station is so dependent on it. You think most of these spacers speak more than their own language?"
"Good point." said Niklas, surprised that some of what he was seeing was even capable of speech.
They came to an entrance to an obvious bar which spread across the width of the entire corridor. "Do we have to go through there?" said Niklas, suddenly fearful.
"I'm afraid so." said Jahv, wincing himself. As with the rest of the station, this place looked worse than ever.
"Are we even allowed in a place like that?" exclaimed Davy. "That's a bar, for heaven's sake!"
"Terrific." muttered Keith. "Only thing worse than these ugly aliens has gotta be these ugly aliens -- drunk."
"Age isn't a factor." said Jahv. "There is a detour, but -- "
"But what?" said Niklas. "It's gotta be better than this!"
"It would take three hours, and I don't think any of us want to put on the breathing gear necessary to get through the Methane Zone." stated Jahv. "It doesn't do much to cut the smell."
"Bar." said Keith.
"Yep, bar." added Davy.
"I suppose so." said Niklas.
"Whatever." concluded Morik.
The group approached, but Jahv suddenly put his arms out and halted everyone. His eyes were the most sensitive of anyone's in the group, and he'd just seen trouble. "Now what?" exclaimed Keith.
"There's two Soluans in there." said Jahv grimly. "Right along the main walkthrough."
"Soluans?" asked Davy, then he realized. "You mean those aliens who -- " He looked at Morik and stopped himself.
"Precisely." said Jahv. "And they are not going to be pleased to see Morik."
"What are Soluans?" asked Morik.
Jahv frowned. It was time to tell a story he would have prefered to avoid. "Morik, do you remember why your parents left your home planet?"
Morik scowled. He tried to call up memories from those very young years. "I -- no. All I seem to recall is -- lizard-men."
"You do know what those lizard-men did, don't you?" asked Jahv, very gently.
Morik nodded. "Destroyed the planet. I remember that." Then realization kicked in. "The lizard-men are here!?" His face changed to utter fury. "I'll -- !" Davy and Keith restrained him.
Jahv spoke calmly but quickly. "It's not likely they're the SAME lizard-men, and you can't win a fight against them. They'll kill you on sight, even if it meant being arrested themselves. This place is not without some security. They hate you as much as you hate them because your people destroyed all of the ships that were sent to your world. We have to get you past them unnoticed."
"How do these Soluans feel about Botarans?" asked Keith.
"They're not too crazy about us, either, because they know they can't beat our technology." remarked Jahv.
"But they've probably never seen anyone from Earth, right?" added Keith.
"No, I'm sure of that." replied Jahv. "What are you getting at?"
"You want a distraction, you'll get one. Can I see your backpack?"
Jahv handed Keith the backpack. Keith started fishing around and came out with a can of bathroom deodorizer. "How did that get in there?" asked Jahv.
"I saw the plumbing facilities on board the shuttle before we took off." said Keith.
"Next question -- when did you get so brave?" inquired Davy.
Keith sighed. "Look, I'm a bundle of nervous energy right now, and if I don't do something to blow off some steam, I'm gonna pop. I figure if nothing else, those guys are probably half-drunk and we can outrun 'em if we have to."
"'We'?" asked Davy suspiciously.
"I want back-up. You in?"
Davy groaned. "I suppose, if only to see what you've got in mind."
Keith turned to Jahv. "All right, you'll have your distraction in a minute. Get through the bar and we'll meet you on the other side."
"I hope you know what you're doing." said Niklas.
"Yeah, me too." replied Keith, as he and Davy walked off.
The Soluans were huge beings, easily over seven feet tall. Their bodies were powerful but their limbs were rather slender. Their heads looked vaguely like several species of dinosaur Keith could think of offhand. Both were scaly green, but one of them, who also had a badge on his metallic tunic that the other did not have, had some orange around his face. Keith assumed it was probably because he was just older. He looked more scaly, too. The two reptilian men were talking about something, but Keith couldn't quite tell what. The translation field was working in here, but it was crowded and noisy.
Keith took a deep breath and stepped right up to the table, Davy in tow. "Good afternoon, gentle -- uh -- men."
"Grife, now what." rumbled one of the Soluans. "Getting so you can't get quietly drunk anywhere in the cosmos anymore."
"And what manner of pathetic mammals are these?" said the other. "You ever see anything like these things before?"
"Not sober, I haven't." replied the first. "Maybe we're more drunk than we think."
Keith kept going, bringing out the spray can. "Gentlemen, I have a wonderful offer for you today. For just a -- a small amount of whatever you use for money, you can own this wonderful new freshening product."
"'Freshening product'?" repeated the elder Soluan.
"Absolutely!" proclaimed Keith, trying to keep his knees from knocking. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jahv and Niklas flanking Morik and making their way through the bar as quickly as they could without being too obvious about it. It was slow going given the crowd of patrons milling -- and in some cases staggering -- and in at least one case oozing -- around. "Kills germs in the air!" Keith shot some of the spray into the air, and the Soluans waved the spray away from them. "Kills bad breath, too!" continued Keith. "Open up, llama-lips." Keith reached for the younger Soluan's face and pried his jaw open and shot some spray in. The Soluan stared choking. "Makes a great flavor additive, too!" Keith shot some of the spray into the older Soluan's drink, and the force of the spray splashed some of the purplish liquid out of the glass.
"Enough!" roared the elder Soluan. The younger one was still coughing. "Begone!"
Keith backed off, and Davy was clearly ready to run. "Well, I can see you're just not interested, but I tried. Bye!"
Keith and Davy skittered for the exit on the far side of the bar, where the others waited. "I don't believe what you did back there." wheezed Davy. "Grabbing that thing's mouth!?"
"Got on a roll and couldn't stop myself. And brother, he needed the spray, trust me."
"Well, after that stunt, I hope they're gone by the time we get back, because if they're not, Niklas and I are going to have to conceal three of you, and I'm not sure we can." said Jahv. "I didn't pack the cloaking field that I used that day in the mall."
"What now?" asked Niklas.
"Now, we find Karak." said Jahv. He led the group further down the corridor and through several turns. Finally they arrived at their destination. "Thank the Creator!" sighed Jahv. "Karak is still in business."
Jahv led the group to a medium-sized storefront with alien lettering above the entryway. But there was no denying the purpose of the store. Holographic images of spaceship parts were on display in the windows. Niklas theorized that this was probably some sort of universal symbology that practically anyone would understand. The translation field could take care of spoken words, perhaps, but not images.
A chime went off as soon as the youngsters entered. A deep, accented voice boomed from the back. "Yah, yah, I be coming!"
"Sometimes the translation field is -- somewhat less than perfect." remarked Jahv, noticing the curious expressions on the other boys' faces. Even Morik stuck a finger in one ear as if to make sure it was working properly.
A huge specimen of alien life emerged from a back room. He was more or less humanoid, well over six feet tall, with light blue skin bordering on pale turquoise, thick black hair and a beard, bald on top with a ridge of skin or bone running from the bridge of his nose well over his forehead, disappearing into his hairline. And either his species was naturally predisposed towards a huge gut, or this being had not missed very many meals in his life, all of which had been considerable. He was dressed in a worn brown shirt, and equally worn grey coveralls with a variety of stains on them from assorted mechanical fluids. Davy, Niklas, and Keith backed off a few steps. Morik looked slightly nervous. Only Jahv seemed unfazed. "Whataya kids want?" said Karak, roughly but not unkindly. "The simulator arcade is on the next level!"
"We know that. We need a part for our shuttle." explained Jahv.
"YOUR shuttle?" Karak's reddish eyes went wide. "You five kids is on your own? Hokay, I'm impressed. Whataya need?"
"Hyperwarp stabilizer coil for a medium-sized shuttle of Botaran design." explained Jahv.
"Lemme see specs." said Karak. Jahv withdrew a small device from his backpack, which displayed an image of the shuttle, and handed it to Karak. "Hunh. Built this yourself, didn't you?"
Karak shrugged. "Overall, you did good job. Followed specs almost precisely. But I see problem. Your regulator coil to your stabilizer isn't tight enough. That's why your stabilizer blew. I can give you new coil and new stabilizer. If you need me to do work, that'll be extra."
"We can do the work." said Jahv.
"I think you can." said Karak, grinning. "But you still need parts. What you have for trade?"
"I can offer you a Botar-Tech Mark 5 Food Replicator." said Jahv.
Keith grabbed Jahv's arm and whispered, "You're giving him the food replicator? I just got that thing to do cheeseburgers and pizza!" "And we're on our way directly home after this, and there's still the replicator back in the dome tent." replied Jahv. The replicator on the shuttle was one which Keyro had brought with him, and they were working on building more such equipment. "Besides, we don't have any currency, and can you think of anything else to better offer Karak?"
Karak stroked his chin. "Hokay. I like you kids. I make you deal. Replicator for coil and stabilizer. But you better throw in some food programs."
Jahv grinned. "Deal!"
"You go get replicator. I will have parts when you get back." said Karak. "Hey, one question. You I know as Botaran, and him I think is Dorrian, though I haven't seen one since -- well, in years. What you other three?"
Jahv smiled. "They're from a planet called Earth."
Niklas almost panicked. "Jahv," he whispered quickly, "should you have told -- "
He was interrupted by a derisive snort from Karak. "Earth. Silly name for a planet. Never heard of it. Whatever. You get replicator, I have parts."
The youngsters moved off and headed back towards the stairwell. "It's like I said, Niklas. Nobody on this station is going to care, and Karak's one of the nicer guys around here."
"I have to say, that deal went easier than I guess I thought it was going to." remarked Davy, as the group headed down.
"I'll just be glad to be out of here." said Keith.
"I gotta admit, I'm thinking that watching the universe through a telescope from now on might not be such a bad idea." said Niklas.
"Guys, I really am sorry about this." said Jahv. "But we'll be out of here soon enough."
"May I ask, do any of you know a Prince Arion?" said Morik abruptly.
Jahv immediately turned. "What? Prince Arion? Of Korras? Why?"
"Those two Soluans in the bar have him prisoner on their ship." explained Morik. "That's what they were talking about when Davy and Keith walked up. He's been giving them a lot of trouble."
"How could you know that?" asked Davy.
Morik brushed his long hair past his tapered, pointed ears. "Not much gets past these."
"What are you guys talking about?" asked Keith impatiently.
"Korras is a gorgeous planet. Very mountainous. The people are a peaceful and elegant race, but not someone that you want to pick a fight with." explained Jahv. "They consider combat an art form as much as painting or dancing. And they can fly, on their own, so they're also pretty good at developing flying machines and spacecraft."
"They can fly?!" exclaimed Davy, stunned. Davy loved to climb in trees and up hills and pretend that he could swing through branches like Tarzan or even fly like a superhero.
"Prince Arion wouldn't be any older than any of us." remarked Jahv. "Taking him prisoner makes no sense. He can't possibly be a threat."
"He could be a hostage." said Keith.
"We should rescue him." said Morik.
"Whoa, hold it!" exclaimed Keith. "Do we look like a SWAT team!? Come on, guys, we're five kids with a broken-down shuttle that we'll be lucky to limp home in, and camo-face here wants us to go play commando!?"
"There may be a way that doesn't require us to actually go up against the Soluans." pondered Jahv.
"Guys, the shuttle repair?" urged Keith.
"It's going to take some time for Karak to get the parts ready, anyway." said Jahv. "And there's really not much to do here otherwise. Not for kids, anyway."
"I'm not sure about this." said Niklas gently. "I mean, suppose they come after us?"
"As soon as we've managed the rescue, we'll get the parts and be out of here." said Jahv. "I know Soluan ships. They rely on brute force. They don't have the subtlety to track us once we're in hyperwarp."
"I hate to say this, but this really isn't any of our business." said Davy.
Jahv frowned. "Look, guys, we're talking about a kid just like us. The Soluans' reputation tells me they're either going to execute him, imprison him indefinitely, or brainwash him."
Niklas and Davy looked hesitant. Finally Niklas said, "What's your plan for rescuing him?"
"Aw, for -- !" started Keith, but a glare from Niklas and Davy silenced him, admittedly into a scowl.
"This station has a working transmat unit on the fourth level. It's similar to what Keyro and I used to arrive on your world." explained Jahv.
"I hope it's a darn sight quieter!" sputtered Keith.
Jahv nodded. "It is. That was an older unit, and we were using it over a vast distance. I'm even working on a mid-range unit for myself and Keyro back on Earth. But never mind that now. Anyway, considering the specifics of Soluan ships, they're not really well shielded against energy intrusions. If we find the transmat console, we can -- I think you would say 'beam' Prince Arion right out of the Soluan ship, get our shuttle parts, and get underway before the Soluans even know what happened."
Niklas and Davy looked at each other, thinking about the rescue. Finally they shrugged and nodded. "Okay. We can try it."
Keith let loose a few choice expletives.
"But if it starts getting too messy, we'll have to break it off." added Davy. "One thing we're all agreed on -- we want to get home. Safely."
The five boys found a nearby staircase and scooted up the steps to the fourth level and down a short corridor. As Jahv had recalled, there was a transmat station. There was also a guard, or operator, at the console. He wasn't much taller than any of the kids, and was in fact thinner. But his rather wrinkled facial appearance, which was moderately human through greyish skin, indicated that this was an adult. "Can I help you kids?" he said in a bored but slightly suspicious voice.
Jahv tried to bluff it through. "We have some cargo we need transported here."
"Yeah, I'll bet you do." said the operator, approaching Jahv as the five boys spread out somewhat. "G'wan, get out of here. I have no time for pesky kids. Whataya doin' on this station, any -- !"
The operator's eyes bugged out, then closed, and he slumped to the ground, Niklas bracing him to keep from falling too hard. But it was impossible not to notice Niklas' hand on the alien's shoulder. "I'll be darned -- it worked!"
"You gotta be kidding me." said Keith, trying not to laugh. "You pulled a Vulcan nerve pinch!?"
"Just don't think it's going to work on anybody else." said Jahv, not quite stifling a giggle. It was rather funny. "That race is known to be susceptible to that sort of thing."
"I hope I didn't really hurt him." said Niklas.
"Nah." said Jahv. "He'll wake up in about an hour with a headache. That's all." Jahv scanned for the Soluan ship. "Interesting. Two-man transport ship. At least those two in the bar are the only Soluans on the station. Picking up a life sign in one of the cargo holds. Locking on. Got him!" Jahv activated the console, and a humanoid form was coalescing on the transmat platform.
He was, as expected, a boy, perhaps in Niklas' age range. His skin was a pale reddish-purple, and instead of hair he appeared to have a helmet of huge, black feathers fanning out from his head. His huge, oval, almost upswept eyes showed a distinct ferocity. He wore no shirt, but his trousers were indigo blue in color and highly ornate, with purple and gold swirls running through them.
He'd also apparently felt what was happening to him and was in mid-sentence when he finally appeared. "--the spires of -- and who in the cosmos are you?"
Jahv provided some general introductions, including homeworlds. Arion frowned. "Earth. I have never heard of this world. I suppose it's not important. I am Prince Arion, regent-heir of the planetary monarchy of Korras. You have my gratitude."
"Not too overbearing, is he?" whispered Keith.
"Well, he is royalty of some sort, I guess." replied Niklas. "I guess he's entitled."
Jahv had already started discussing options with Arion. "We're really in something of a hurry to get home," explained Jahv, "and this place does not have any Travelers' Assistance Station that I know of. And I don't think our shuttle would make the journey to Korras very effectively."
Arion shook his head. "I could not return there just now anyway. I was the bargaining point in a disgusting truce between my people -- my own father, the King -- and the Soluans. I suspect it doesn't much matter what happens to me at this point, but if I were to return to my homeworld, the truce would be broken and war would result."
"Jahv told us you people were warriors." remarked Morik. "Why would you make a truce with Soluans?"
Arion turned angry only for a moment, then calmed. "An initial attack that destroyed the power supplies for our spacefighters, and a subsequent attack on two of our major cities. Do you want the casualty list, or do you get the idea?"
Morik merely nodded.
"That doesn't mean, however, that I'm going to let these Soluans get away from here anytime soon." said Arion. He turned to the transmat console. "Is this still set for the Soluan shuttle?" he asked Jahv.
Jahv nodded, and Arion worked the controls. A transparent sphere with glowing circuitry in it materalized.
"What's that?" asked Niklas.
"Their power core." said Arion, grinning. "Is there a way to set this thing to dispersal?"
Jahv studied the console. Niklas, Davy, and even Keith started to giggle. Even they could figure out what was happening here. "Yes," replied Jahv. "Coordinates set for space beyond the station, wide spread. Do it."
The glowing sphere vanished. "They won't be going much of anywhere without that." said Arion.
"And I don't think even the lowlifes on this station would help Soluans." added Jahv. "No one likes them."
"Now that that's settled," said Keith, "can we please get the parts we need and go home?"
"Karak's had enough time, I'm sure." said Jahv.
"Hey, I just thought of something." offered Davy. "Could we use this to get back to the shuttle?"
"What, the transmat?" asked Jahv.
"Yeah, that'd be kind of cool. don't'cha think?" exclaimed Davy.
"We'd still have to carry the food replicator back to Karak, since we couldn't use the transmat from a remote location like the shuttle." said Jahv. "And then carry the parts back. And I can only set us in the docking bay at the shuttle, not inside it. The security field..."
"We get the idea." said Keith. "But even ONE less trip through that disgusting bar? I'm all in favor of that."
"Okay." said Jahv, adjusting the controls. "Focusing on the docking area outside our shuttle. Everyone get on the platform, please." Everyone climbed up to the platform. "Ten second delay, and -- activated!" Jahv scurried over to the platform and waited. A few seconds later, the six youngsters disappeared ---
--- and reappeared in the docking area right near their shuttle.
"That was SO COOL!" yelped Davy. "WOW!" "It -- tickled." said Niklas, amazed and grinning.
"Says you." added Keith, who appeared to be counting his parts. "I itch."
"Coolant residue from Morik's shuttle, probably." snickered Davy.
"I think I feel a little dizzy." said Morik.
"It can be disorienting at times." said Jahv. "Maybe you and Arion should wait here with the shuttle, while we conclude the parts deal.
"I have no problem with that." said Arion. "The sooner we quit this station, the better."
The group headed into the shuttle. Jahv quickly detached the food replicator and rounded up the programs he needed for it.
They had to cut through the bar again, and noticed the distinct absence of Soluans. This worried Jahv. "If those two have headed back to their ship, they'll see Arion missing. That could sober them up real quick, and I'm going to need some installation time to repair the shuttle. They can't go anywhere in their ship, but that doesn't stop them from searching the station."
"Lemme ask." said Keith. He walked up to the main bar, followed by Jahv. "Excuse me, what happened to the two Soluans that were in here earlier?"
A gruff, orange-skinned alien that seemed to be made partly out of rocks and partly out of fur answered him. "Those two? Got so drunk they picked a fight with three Pundrians. They're in the brig. Actually, they're in the brig infirmary."
Keith nodded thanks and walked away. "What are Pundrians?" he asked Jahv.
"There's a saying in some of the rougher parts of the galaxy, Keith." said Jahv. "The best translation I can give you is -- If you pick a fight with a Pundrian, make sure you know a good doctor first. And a funeral director."
Karak was waiting for the group when they arrived. "Welcome back, young ones! Your parts are ready for you." he said. "You have food replicator?"
Jahv presented Karak with the food replicator. The alien inspected the device, and smiled widely. "This is good machine! Well worth the trade. I haven't had decent meal in weeks. This will produce good meals for me. Thank you!" He started going through the program discs. "Hey, what's -- pizza?"
"You gave him MY program discs!?" yelled Keith.
"We'll be back on Earth before you know it, Keith." said Jahv. "Besides, those are the backups. Karak, try it. As long as you're not allergic to cheese, you'll like it."
"Sounds interesting. Is good deal whatever. Safe journey, little ones!"
"Thank you, Karak." said Jahv. "You're an honorable man among thieves."
Karak grinned widely and knowingly. "Somebody has to be, yes?"
Jahv gathered up the stabilizer and the coil and the group headed back to the shuttle. He was able to complete the repairs in about an hour, and all diagnostics on the control console checked out completely. Before long, the shuttle was underway, with its new passenger.
"Good-bye, Garboris." said Keith. "And good riddance. Gonna take me a week to get that smell out of my nose."
"Oh, come on." said Davy. "It wasn't that bad. We did make a new friend, right?"
"Two, including Karak, but I don't think he'd fit in with our group quite as well." offered Niklas.
"I don't think he'd fit in Jahv's TENT all that well!" proclaimed Keith. "Cripes, what do you feed somebody that big, anyway?"
"Whatever he wants?" suggested Morik, eliciting a few giggles as Jahv set the hyperwarp coordinates and the stars outside the ship began to elongate as the initial rush of faster-than-light speed took hold. It was a sight neither Niklas nor Davy, nor even Keith, grudgingly, would forget seeing.
A few hours later, Earth was visible through the front cockpit windows. "Now, that's a cool sight!" proclaimed Keith.
"Interesting looking world." said Arion. "Lot of water."
"It looks wonderful." said Morik.
Davy and Niklas remained transfixed by the sight of the fast-approaching planet. "Astronauts gotta be the luckiest people on the planet." said Niklas.
"Yeah, they get to see what things look like off-planet." affirmed Davy.
Finally close enough to Earth to attempt contact, Jahv activated the commlink and said, "This is shuttle Alpha-Jahv to central control. Anyone there?"
"Yep! You guys finally on the way back?" The voice was Jason's.
"Jason!" said Jahv. "Is that you? Where are Martin and Keyro?"
There was a slight laugh at the other end. "Where d'you think? They're out mudwrestling. I think they got bored waiting, so me, Sniv, and Fabian have been taking turns. It's my shift now."
"Has anyone missed us?" asked Jahv, suddenly concerned.
"Nah. Everybody thinks your hanging around the pond or Davy's treehouse." replied Jason. "So, you bringing anything back from the galaxy for us?"
"How about two more aliens?" asked Jahv. There was a faint thud in the background.
Niklas giggled. "I think he fainted."
"Darn it, I knew we forgot something." said Davy. "Souvenirs!"
"From that place!?" exclaimed Keith. "I'll take you to the city dump later. You can get something that looks better and doesn't smell as bad."
Jahv activated the cloaking device for the shuttle once they were in Earth's atmosphere, and it coasted silently into the tent dome hangar. Jason, looking somewhat stunned, watched the group emerge. Davy and Niklas emerged first. Jahv was next, followed by Keith, and then Morik and Arion. Jason just shook his head, more stunned than ever. "I thought this was going to be a short trip out and back somewhere!"
"So did we." muttered Keith.
"Where are Martin and Keyro?" asked Jahv. "I would've thought you would've called them back.
"I did. They're just outside." replied Jason. "I wasn't sure you'd want them loose in here."
Jahv cut through the crowd, as did Keith and Niklas, while Davy tried to give the newcomers a tour around what would be their new home. Morik seemed pleased, but nervous, and Arion wanted to get outside, feeling rather confined.
Standing just outside were two thoroughly mud-covered boys -- which was also ALL that was covering them. Keith, Jahv, and Niklas started to giggle. "Sheesh, which one is which?" asked Niklas.
"I think mine's the one with the two antennae." said Jahv.
Arion emerged, much to the surprise of both Martin and Keyro, and much to everyone's surprise, shot into the air like he was wearing rockets.
"Holy cow!" sputtered Niklas.
"Ohhhh, wow." said Davy, who had come outside with Morik just as Arion had taken off. "That is so incredible."
"Yeah, unless someone sees him!" said Keith.
"Who'd believe it?" stated Niklas.
Although so high into the sky that he barely looked like a speck, the boys could see Arion just well enough to see him performing stunts that would have put any flying thing on this planet -- bird or aircraft -- to utter shame. Finally he shot down into a dive that had Niklas and the others wondering how much ground he was going to plow up when he hit. But somehow, the young Prince managed to stop himself short and came to an impossibly gentle landing.
"That was incredible!" proclaimed Davy. "Do you take passengers?" Arion raised an eyebrow. "I suppose I could -- sometime." Then he noticed Martin and Keyro. "Provided it's not those two, unless those are not their natural states."
"I hope you took your clothes off BEFORE going into the mud and didn't LOSE them out there, Martin." said Keith.
"I think these guys deserve a big hug for getting back safely, don't you?" asked Keyro, looking at Martin.
"Absolutely!" replied Martin, and the two boys surged forward.
Arion shot into the sky again, almost panicked. Jahv, Niklas, Morik and Keith managed to keep the two from falling back into the nearby tent, but not from getting muddy themselves. Seconds later, after some standing wrestling, all five either dove or fell into the nearby pond, except Morik, who ran off inexplicably in another direction. The rest finally surfaced, and Arion gradually came back down, but maintained a cautious distance. "You lot have the strangest customs. Is this normal behavior for your kind?"
Davy laughed. "Define normal."
"Oh, I see." said Arion, looking somewhat concerned. "May I assume by the rather isolated location and the concealed appearance of this nearby structure, as well as the fact that I've never heard of this planet, that there aren't many offworlders here?"
"Just you four, that we know of." said Niklas.
"Which means watch where you fly." added Keith. "You don't want to attract attention."
"I see." said Arion. "I trust, at least, that I haven't just traded one prison for another?"
"Would the Soluans have treated you as a friend?" asked Davy.
"Hardly." replied Arion. "The Soluans barely tolerate each other."
"There's the difference." said Niklas. "To us, you're a friend. Sort of a secret friend."
Arion pondered this remark. "I suspect I can live with that. Thank you."
"Hey, where's the other one you brought back with you?" asked Martin. "The one with the camouflage skin?"
"Did he go into the lake with the rest of us?" asked Davy, suddenly concerned. "We know he can swim!"
"I saw him head off in that direction when I took off." indicated Arion, pointing down a short path, that a now thoroughly mud-covered Morik was now returning upon.
"Morik, what the heck -- ?!" questioned Niklas.
Morik shrugged. "Seeing what you look like, I wondered what I would look like if I were just one color instead of many."
"This is a weird kid." said Keith. "You can take the kid out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the kid..."
"Hold it." said Jahv, his antennae and nose suddenly twitching. "Does anyone smell something weird?"
A comment like that would normally invite a lot of bad jokes, but everybody else picked up on the aroma, as well. Something like burning metal and ozone. "The shuttle!" screeched Jahv, dashing back into the dome-tent, with the others quickly behind.
They entered the dome-tent, and Jason was frantic. "Something's really wrong back there, but I swear I didn't touch anything!" The group headed to the hangar. Sure enough, the shuttle's engines had experienced a major malfunction. They hadn't exploded or caught fire, but they were giving off weird bursts of energy spheres. Jahv was working a nearby control console. "Maximum containment field!" he commented. A shimmering half-dome appeared around the shuttle. Seconds later, the energy spheres built in intensity, and one last impossibly bright burst filled the entire containment dome. When it finally dissipated, the shuttle was gone.
Jahv was instantly downcast, almost in tears. "All that work..."
"What happened?" asked Niklas.
Jahv shook his head. "I -- I'm honestly not sure. Maybe something in the repairs. Maybe something even in the initial design, or something we missed when we built it."
"Maybe you shouldn't build another one until you find out what did happen." suggested Keith, but without any hostility. Inwardly, he was too thankful that whatever had happened hadn't happened while they were still on it.
"Jahv, don't beat yourself up about it." urged Davy. "Hey, you got to take three of us out there once, and a lot further than anyone from this planet has ever been. That's something we'll all remember!"
"Definitely!" agreed Niklas, who then eyed Keith.
Keith tried not to groan. "Okay, so it was -- interesting. Still glad I'm back."
"And you rescued both me and Arion." added Morik. "I'd still be alone without you."
"And I would prefer to not even think about where I would be." said Arion. "So the ship is gone. Perhaps, in time, another can be built. But this one clearly served noble purposes."
"Guess you're right." said Jahv.
"Hey, guys," said Jason, looking at his watch, "it's getting kind of late. We should all be heading home."
Quick farewells were said, and Niklas and the others headed on their way. Niklas turned back to see the tent-flap close. Only Morik remained outside, diving into the lake to wash off the mud he had smeared on himself.
What an incredible adventure, thought Niklas, smiling. And what an incredible secret. But at the same time, he considered the friends he was now walking with. Davy, Martin, Keith, and Jason. Space was an adventure, the aliens were incredible, but this was home, and these were the people he truly knew the best of all.