Fourth Interlude

He trampled slowly along the snow and ice-covered path, his head lowered and his torso bent forward against the strong, biting winds. He was completely covered from head to toe in protective outerwear that completely disguised his appearance. Even his face was covered in a full dark mask that both protected his face from the freezing air and ventilated air in to allow him to breathe. Had he not been wearing any of these items, he would have died almost instantly from the intense cold of the planet's surface.

The planet Deion, one of the coldest spheres in the known galaxies, was only slightly larger than Terra's moon and slightly less populous. Though the weather made it impossible for a natural species to exist on the planet, that did not stop others from laying claim and settling down. In the most central area of the planet, a mighty dome stood protecting its inhabitants from the wind and snow of the outside, creating a barrier against certain death. Even so, the temperature inside the dome never reached more than 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The buildings inside the dome, however, were well heated and comfortable for human inhabitancy.

Of course, just because the dome was there to provide shelter, didn't mean that the inhabitants never ventured outside. Natural resources such as water, metal ore and crystal could be found just underneath and planet's surface, and mines were constantly in development. Mining was the major trade of the people of planet Deion, and brought in the civilization's primary business. For the past one hundred years, the people who inhabited Deion, called the Deonites, have been mining and selling their raw materials to other planets, including Terra.

Unfortunately, since there was so much mining going on underneath the surface, more domes could not be placed over every one of them for lack of materials and funds. Therefore daily expeditions had to be made from the dome to the smaller of the mines to excavate and bring back the unprocessed materials. It was a hard, laborious task. A task only the strong and determined could undertake.

Several years ago, a large group of men and women banded together and decided to try to make their home underneath the surface, in one of the mines that had been dried up and abandoned. They thought it would make things easier instead of making the long, laborious trek every day. These people, whom their fellow citizens had termed "Minories", succeeded in making the underground their home, and even found caves and tunnels under the icy surface that provided unexplained natural warmth. In the years that went by, the regular Deonites and the Minories interacted less and less, until the two groups of people became virtually separate.

Until about six months ago.

The Minories had been casually excavating one of the forgotten mines under the surface when they discovered a remarkable find. A strange alien ship had been uncovered, that had no doubt crash-landed on the planet many, many years ago and had been since buried by the snow and ice. The Minories, knowing they themselves had little use for such a vessel, contacted their neighbors up above, who in turn contacted some people who might be interested in such a discovery. They contacted the Galaxy Alliance headquarters on Terra, who in turn sent an envoy to the planet to inspect the craft. It was then determined that the alien spacecraft had been some sort of one-man war ship, much like the Terran fighter crafts.

And so, upon such a finding, the Alliance decided to unbury the craft and fly it back to Terra. Of course, that was easier said than done. A large-scale excavation had to be set into motion, which would in turn upset a lot of Minories who had their homes nearby. But a deal was eventually made, and the removal of the alien ship began.

The Alliance sent an entire team of its own miners, along with state-of-the-art equipment, to help the Deonites and the Minories dig out the ship. Of course then, once the ship was out of the ice and rock and up on the surface, someone would have to fly it back to Terra. The Alliance called upon the Galaxy Garrison to select an able pilot who would be capable of flying a strange alien craft. Someone with enough experience, and enough insight, to be able to figure out the controls and get it home without crashing it. Someone they could trust.

They chose Keith. Even though he was young - only sixteen - and even though he had only been on active duty for about four months, the superiors at the Garrison had decided to relay this opportunity and honor upon his not-yet fully matured shoulders. If he succeeded, he could be promoted to Lt. Commander. Failure had never been considered.

And so the young lieutenant had packed up and left Terra three weeks before the craft was scheduled to be ready for use. The purpose of his early arrival was to familiarize himself with the equipment enough to be able to handle it in flight. Keith had begun this process the very day he arrived, and had been at it ever since. Now, almost four weeks later, he was sure he could handle it with little difficulty. Unfortunately, due to delays, the ship still wasn't back up on the surface. And Keith was getting impatient to get back to Terra and continue his training.

But today was the day. The ship was being brought up, finally, and within only a few days Keith would be in its cockpit flying it back to Terra. At just the thought, Keith felt the excitement in his bones. It was not everyday he got to actually fly in space, let alone pilot his own craft, let alone pilot a craft that had not been piloted before in hundreds of years, and even then by an alien species they still knew nothing of. Keith knew the gravity of the task that had been placed before him, and he accepted the weight of it willingly and eagerly.

It was only his anticipation of the impending flight that pushed Keith along the well-worn yet still unwieldy path toward the entrance to the mine the ship had been found in. Though the mine was only a few hundred feet away from the dome he was currently residing in, the harsh winds and slippery surface still made the journey difficult. Luckily for him, Keith kept himself in top physical condition, making the short trek no more difficult than the training sessions he put himself through back at the Academy.

He reached the entrance eventually, and was met by a huge, gaping hole in the ground that didn't seem to have a bottom. The diameter of the hole was about sixty feet, and it was roundish in shape. As Keith drew nearer, he could make out the large contraption by the edge of the giant pit that was his goal. It consisted of a broad, metal platform surrounded by heavy steel rails and connected to the inside of the pit by tracks and cables. It was the impromptu elevator the miners had installed for people to travel in and out of the mine.

Keith had already gone up and down the thing several times, but none of that boosted his confidence in the machine. He knew that it had been built quickly, and he was not convinced it was entirely safe. Nonetheless, Keith stepped onto the frozen black-gray steel and pulled on the lever that would start the machine. With a jerk on the long metal stick the elevator shuddered, then began its agonizingly slow descent down into the depths of the cavern.

Fortunately the deeper he got, the less windy and therefore less cold the air around him grew. By the time he got halfway down, Keith could turn down the climate controls in his protective suit to keep it from over-heating him. And when he reached the bottom and stepped off onto the dirt and ice-covered floor, Keith was able to remove his mask and breath freely.

The mine was abuzz with activity. The cavern was enormous, having been dug out to free the awesome-looking vessel that lay at its core. Dozens of men and women, dressed similarly to Keith, scurried around the ship that stood before him now. Keith raised his head and stared, once again struck by the elegance of the craft and the suggestive power it sheathed. There was no doubt that this craft had been used in battle. Scars lined the outer hull, and weapon outlets could be seen at second glance. Keith had already gotten a glimpse of the inside, and had been rewarded with a view of remarkable alien technology that most likely surpassed their own.

Keith watched as strong, thick cables were attached to the ship and hoverpads were positioned beneath it. They were preparing to elevate it to the surface. It wouldn't be long now before Keith would be able to really gets his hands on the craft and do the work he came to do. So far, he had been able to watch videos and catch only a few scarce real-life glimpses of the insides of the craft. By tomorrow he would be in it. A surge of blood pulsated through Keith's veins as he watched the miners prepare the craft in anticipation.

A presence on his shoulder caused him to snap back to reality, and Keith turned his head to see Jbar. Jbar was a Deonite and the man in charge of the excavation. He was also the one Keith communicated with the most, providing him with detailed updates on the ship. Though they were together a lot, the two men, widely apart in age, spoke very little and found little in common. Jbar was not the type to grow an emotional attachment to. He was blunt and gruff and expected others to do their work with no questions. And he disliked children.

For some reason, Keith found himself at the brunt end of Jbar's scrutiny whenever they were in each others' presence. As soon as the two had met, Keith could tell that the older man did not approve of Keith, most likely because of his age. Keith had to admit to himself that he was young, even though he didn't particularly look it. He was tall for his age, and still growing, and he was very lean and physically strong. Other people had often told him his eyes looked like they had about ten years on his body. Perhaps that was the only reason Jbar treated Keith with polite respect. That and the fact he had been highly recommended by the Garrison.

"Come to make sure we get it right this time?" Jbar asked him in a voice that spoke lightly of his contempt for the young Garrison lieutenant.

Keith sighed inwardly. Last time Jbar's men had attempted to raise the ship, it had failed and the alien craft had almost been damaged. Keith had been annoyed, because that incident had caused the delays. Jbar had all along felt Keith's only motivation for flying the ship was to get his hands on the weapons. He considered Keith, and all like him, to be selfish and power-hungry, and nothing Keith could do could change his opinion. But Keith had long since stopped caring about how Jbar and his men felt about him. All he wanted now was to take his ship and go home.

Keith tossed Jbar a polite smile as he replied.

"Just thought I'd come out for some fresh air and see how things were coming along," he told the older man.

Jbar just nodded and turned away, looking unconvinced. The two men then decided to ignore each other, and both watched as the Deonites and Minories worked together to lift the alien space ship up out of the deep cavern.

* * *

To Keith's relief, the operation that day was a success and the ship was now above ground. Tomorrow morning Keith would get his first crack at the cockpit of the ship, and he was looking forward to it. As he made his way back to the dome shelters, Keith couldn't help but feel a bit excited at the prospect of leaving this world of relentless snow and ice. He had never enjoyed winter back on Terra, and Terran winters were nothing compared to Deion.

Inside the dome, the air was much more calm, but still very cool. The protective dome could not keep out all of the cold air that perpetuated the planet's surface, it merely toned it down a bit and kept the chilling wind away. Inside the dome nestled a small, miniature city where the Deonites lived their daily lives. The buildings were all made of durable, weather-proof metal that did very little for the décor of the place. The buildings were all settled very close together, most of them inter-connecting, and stood out against the stark white landscape. Keith found the whole situation rather drab and unexciting, unlike Terra which was a kaleidoscope of colors and variety.

He made his way to one of the buildings, one that he had grown very familiar with over the past few weeks. He lived in a very small room on the fifth floor, in the dwelling of a middle-aged couple named Btar and Klilda who had graciously offered to allow him to stay with them, since Deion offered no private accommodations for visitors. Keith found the couple to be quite friendly, if a little eccentric. They also had a small, shaggy brown dog-like pet named Koro that had grown attached to Keith for some reason.

Keith took the Lift up to his floor, peeling off his outer clothes as he went. By the time he was inside the modest dwelling that had been his home for the past month, he had most of the protective clothing off and hanging over one arm. Underneath he wore casual clothing, not the uniform he usually donned back on Terra. He wouldn't need his flight suit until he was actually going to leave.

Keith felt relief when he realized that both Btar and Klilda were gone. But he soon noticed that they had left their pet behind, as Koro rocketed toward the Terran teenager and thrust all 25 pounds of himself at Keith's legs. Keith chuckled and bent to stroke the mutt's fur, once again struck at how closely the animal resembled the canines on Terra. After a few moments of greeting the friendly creature, Keith retreated once again to the small room his tenants had lent him.

It was not that much smaller than his own room back at the Academy on Terra. Keith had never been big on having lots of space to himself. He was quite content with what he had. The room he now occupied on Deion held only single bed, drawers inlaid to the wall, a few hooks on the bare walls and a small window looking out onto the drab scenery outside. There was also a video/audio communications unit sitting on the floor next to the bed.

Keith flung himself on the already-made bed and laid his head back against the pillow. Already it was getting dark outside, since Deion days lasted only eight hours. Keith glanced at the timepiece on his wrist and calculated. It would only be 10PM back on Terra, on a Sunday night. Keith eagerly snatched up the phone unit from the floor and activated it, punching in the number and inter-spacial code of Terra. It took only moments to get through, and soon a picture appeared on the small monitor. A grinning face greeted Keith on the other end.

"Keith!" Sven exclaimed, "It is about time you called."

Keith smiled.

"Hey, Sven," he greeted his friend, "What's up?"

"I should ask you dat," Sven replied, "You vere supposed to be coming back already."

Keith rolled his eyes.

"The usual delays," he said wearily, "It took them a while to get the ship above ground, but they finally did it. I should be out of here within the next few days."

"Dat is good," Sven told him, then added, "You better hurry. Lance is being a real pain in de rear end."

Keith chuckled, feeling suddenly homesick for home.

His friends had been jealous of him for getting the assignment, of course. Especially Lance, who was the only person Keith knew who loved to fly more than he himself. Lance had been practically green with envy by the time Keith left for his trip, not really considering the uncomfortable conditions his friend would be living under for the next month. Sven had been a bit less grievous about not being given this opportunity, and had expressed his happiness for his friend, as well as his sympathy for the long road ahead. Having lived in the northern climates of Terra, he knew what it was to be cold. And since Deion was so much worse, he could only imagine.

Hannah's reaction had been a surprise. She had been excited for him that he had been asked to perform this duty, and had not seemed the least bit disappointed or jealous. Keith had figured she would be upset, since they had just started dating and all, but she hadn't been. Of course, she had told him she'd miss him and everything, and she sent him regular transmissions to remind him of this fact, but she took the news really well. Keith loved her for it, and couldn't wait to see her again.

"Am I missing anything exciting?" Keith asked, wishing in his head that he wasn't.

Sven grinned wryly.

"Only our mutual friend making an idiot of himself daily," he replied, "De usual. He t'reatens to rent out your room if you do not come back soon. He von't admit it, but I t'ink he misses you."

"Hey! Don't be puttin' words into my mouth!"

Keith watched in amusement as Lance entered the picture, nudging Sven out of the way so he could get a good view.

"Hey, Pal," Lance greeted Keith casually, "You thinkin' of putting in for permanent residence on that ice planet, or what?"

"Not if I can help it," Keith replied, "What's this about renting my room out?"

Lance shrugged.

"Hey," he said, "someone might as well get some use out of it, and there are a few girls I know who are just dying to bed in the room next to Yours Truly."

Keith rolled his eyes and laughed out loud, as did Sven.

"In your dreams, Lance," Keith replied, "You'd be lucky to get a girl to sit next to you in class."

Actually, despite Keith's teasing, Lance had a little less trouble these days finding girls to go out with him. This was mostly due to the fact he was getting both taller and better-looking each day, and also since Keith was no longer available, the girls who had been chasing him before were now free for Lance.

"Speaking of girls," Lance spoke up with a sly grin, "I've been noticing Hannah hanging around with a lot of different guys lately. Could be that you've been away just a bit too long, loverboy."

Keith sighed and shook his head at his friend, signaling his disbelief.

"Nice try," he said.

"Don't be so cocky," Lance warned.

"Don't listen to him, Keith," Sven spoke up helpfully, "Hannah misses you very much. She told me so yesterday."

Even though Keith knew it to be true, hearing it made him feel better.

"Well," he said, "If things go well here, I should be on my way back within the next couple days."

"Yeah, well," Lance said, "We won't wait up, Pretty Boy."

Keith shot him a glare.

"Humph," he told his lanky friend, "I thought I told you to stop calling me that."

Lance shrugged endearingly. Sven chuckled.

"He only calls you dat now because he doesn't have da courage to say it to you in person," he spoke up.

Lance rolled his eyes.

"Please," he said, "You think I'm afraid of my best friend?"

Both Sven and Keith nodded.

"Just wait 'til I get back, buddy," Keith warned.

"Yes," Sven agreed, "Ve vill have to take orders from Keith vhen he comes back."

Keith shook his head modestly.

"That's not for sure yet," he reminded them.

"Oh, please!" Lance told him, "Like you're not gonna get the promotion. I'd like to see you mess up at one thing!"

"How about if I mess you up?" Keith threatened good-naturedly.

Lance considered, then took a step back.

"I can see all that cold air is making you temperamental," he observed.

"No, I t'ink it is just you," Sven said.

"Look guys," Keith spoke up, "I gotta go now. I'll see you in a few days."

Lance leaned down, draping his arm around Sven's shoulders and sticking his face in the monitor.

"Have a safe trip!" he told him brightly.

Before Keith could make a reply, the monitor went blank. Keith then chuckled under his breath.

Glancing out the window, Keith noticed it had grown dark out. He was growing used to the fact that it only took the Deion sun such a short time to fully set over the horizon. Keith didn't mind so much that he spent 16 hours sleeping and only 8 hours awake, according to the Deonites' schedule. That meant the days went by more quickly. At first the shortened days had been difficult for Keith to get used to, since he was accustomed to being awake and active 16 hours a day and asleep only 8 hours - the opposite of Deion. But surprisingly his body got used to the changes rather quickly. Keith just hoped it would be just as easy to reverse the process when he got back to Terra.

Stripping down to his long underwear and getting ready for another 16 hours of sleep, Keith fervently anticipated piloting the alien craft in the morning.

* * *

Three days later, Keith was finally in the cockpit of the awesome machine. It had taken the Deonites longer than usual to prepare the machine and melt all the ice from it. They had also needed to refuel it. Fortunately, the ship was powered by zeita cubes, an energy source that the Alliance had a small supply of. Even though zeita was rare, the Alliance was ready and willing to spare some in order to test and transport the alien ship.

Dressed in his Garrison flight suit, with long underwear underneath for warmth, Keith nestled himself into the pilot’s seat of the craft. By the loose fit, it was obvious whoever had originally flown this craft had been bigger than Keith himself, most likely of a race physically larger than Terrans. Keith spared only a short moment to adjust his position before he ran his eyes over the console. He was surrounded on three sides by an intricate array of switches, buttons and levers. He had a vague idea of what most of them did, but some of the strange controls remained a mystery. He would have to experiment later.

Keith turned to his right and activated the remote communications console the Alliance mechanics had installed in the cockpit. It had been a necessity since the ship’s own communications could not be trusted. Keith had to be able to contact the Garrison while he was in flight, since there was no telling how the ship would fly.

Once he had the equipment running, Keith sent a short transmission to the Garrison to let them know he was preparing for takeoff. Once done, he began to strap himself in. As he did so, he felt a shadow over his shoulder and turned to see Jbar looking down over him. Immediately Keith felt glad he wouldn’t have to deal with this grumpy man any longer.

"Looks like you finally got your ship," Jbar said, crossing his arms.

"Guess so," Keith replied.

Jbar nodded knowingly, then stepped down. Keith sighed outwardly, then hit the switch that would lower the hatch of the cockpit. Finally he was alone. Keith ran his hands respectfully over the control panel, anticipating the imminent flight. He had flown many other different fighter crafts, including non-Terran ships, but none so extraordinary. And he knew this would probably be his one and only chance to fly this one because the Garrison technicians would be all over it once it reached Terra.

The small docking bay was cleared of all ground personnel as Keith prepared the ship for takeoff. They wanted to be safe, since there was no telling what the ship would do once it was activated. The bay doors were opened and the docking stilts were removed from the ship. After a few more moments of waiting restlessly, Keith watched the green go light start flashing to signal he was clear for flight. And with a deep intake of breath, Keith reached out a hand and ignited the engine.

At first he was startled when the ship began to tremble slightly. Only a few seconds later the trembling was accompanied by a weird high-pitched grating noise. And then, just as suddenly as the symptoms began, they stopped, and the ship’s powerful engines kicked in. They were surprisingly quiet, but very effective. All at once the monitors on the console lit up. One of them revealed words in an alien language Keith didn’t recognize. He wished he could understand what they meant, but didn’t waste any more time pondering them. He began a checklist of all the systems that he recognized, particularly life support. Fortunately the alien creators of the craft were oxygen-breathing beings.

Once the preparations were done, Keith began to lift the craft up off the ground using the manual controls. He would be piloting the craft himself throughout the entire 7-hour voyage since he still wasn’t sure if the ship even had an automatic piloting system. Keith managed to release a small smile when the ship levitated off the ground and slowly cleared the docking bay doors. A sense of power and excitement filled him, but he quickly suppressed it and concentrated on flying. He adjusted to the ship’s manual controls fairly quickly, and within moments he was piloting the ship into space.

Keith breathed a long sigh of relief once he was well on his way back to Terra. He hadn’t been sure whether or the not the old, untested craft would actually work, and he had been half afraid he would have to travel back in the cramped cabin of a freighter. But the ship flew, and flew well, even after being buried for and unknown but undoubtedly long period of time.

For the first time in over a month, Keith was feeling pretty good. Not only was he finally on his way back home, but he was flying the most incredible ship he’d ever laid eyes on. He approached the long journey ahead with eagerness, confident the ship would get him home safely.

* * *

Only two hours into the flight, Keith was already growing very comfortable in operating the ship, though the unpadded chair he sat in was not very kind on his body. He relaxed as he kept on his relatively straight course, glad to put as much distance as possible between him and the ice planet. He wished fervently that he never had to return, if only to keep away from Jbar’s scrutiny.

A blip on the ship’s sensors alerted Keith’s senses and made him turn his gaze away from the stars and spacial bodies outside his main viewport. The starboard monitors indicated a group of vessels approaching his ship very quickly from behind. Keith worked the equipment to try to get a visual on the ships, and was surprised at how fast he managed to get up the image. As soon as he saw the ships that were now hot on his tail, Keith’s face dropped into a look of both annoyance and reluctance.

"Pirates," he grumbled under his breath.

He had never actually dealt with space pirates before, but had heard stories of their escapades. No doubt they had somehow learned of the discovery of the alien craft and were now eager to get their grimy hands on it. Unfortunately, Keith hadn’t yet been able to test the ship’s weapons systems, since the Alliance made it clear they were not to be touched because of possible dangers. Now Keith wished he had been permitted to test them a little before flying into unprotected space.

His training and instincts kicking in, Keith immediately took evasive maneuvers to try to outrun the pirate ships. After a few minutes, Keith knew it wasn’t going to work. He was sure than the ship he flew had some sort of megathrusters to make it go faster, but Keith had no idea where the activation switch was. He would have to deal with these guys head-on.

A warning shot fired above Keith’s head, and another very close to the stern. Keith knew these people meant business. With a reluctant sigh, Keith slowed down and turned his ship around to face the pirates, hoping he knew enough about the weapons systems from his previous inspection to give the pirates a good fight.

Because it was a warship, the cockpit had an entire console dedicated to its weapons. Keith only hoped they were loaded. He also hoped that he would be able to put them into action very fast, since the pirate ships were fully equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry - all stolen, of course. And he was sure it was all aimed at him. With his lips set in a grim line, Keith activated the weapons console and armed the ship. At least he hoped he did. A transparent grid suddenly appeared on the front screen, which displayed the space before him, full of about a dozen pirate ships.

As Keith moved the manual control levers, a target on the weapons grid began moving. With a bit of satisfaction, Keith immediately got a feel for the ship’s weapons and started firing. Glowing red bullets began firing out from the front of his ship. At first they were way off target, but Keith soon grew accustomed to the targeting system and began making strikes, all the while ducking the attacks of the pirates.

His aim proved true as the alien bullets struck the pirates’ ships. Keith was relieved to see small explosions erupt on the enemy ships as the bullets struck home. But then he frowned as he watched the final effect of the alien weaponry. Trying to concentrate on his flying, Keith watched in surprise as the explosions began to expand slowly over the larger ships. Immediately he broke off his attack and moved a safe distance away. Three of the pirate ships that had been untouched by Keith’s attacks did the same.

The ships that Keith had struck were slowly but completely engulfed in the unnatural red fire caused by the alien weaponry. Keith’s mouth parted in awe as he watched the ships shrink and finally disintegrate until there was absolutely nothing left. Keith just sat there in stunned silence, not fully believing what he had just seen. No weapon he knew of did that, aside from very heavy artillery. But fighter ships were not equipped with that kind of firepower, especially not ones that had the effects he had just witnessed.

"Whoa," Keith breathed.

Keith ignored the other three pirate ships, who had immediately turned and fled after their companions had been smoked. They were no doubt afraid of suffering the same fate, and Keith couldn’t blame them. He had never meant to destroy them, just discourage them. But he hadn’t anticipated the immense power of even the simple weapons aboard the ship he now flew. There was no doubt now that the Garrison would probably try to use this new technology to help them defeat the enemies of the Alliance.

Knowing he was not safe, Keith de-activated the weapons systems and continued his journey back to Terra. All the while he couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if the wrong people had gotten hold of this technology. Thoughts of Deion, Terra, and even his friends were at the back of Keith’s mind now as he flew home. He was just grateful the Alliance had claimed the ship before anyone else, or else the allied planets would be in a lot of trouble.

* * *

On to Trouble On Deion

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