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Chapter I

We all have to do hard things from time to time. That's just the nature of life and the universe. Sometimes a person can go a long time with everything seemingly free and easy; the entire world just falls into place. But every so often, we're thrown an obstacle that needs to be overcome or a test that needs passing. It happens to everyone, and how we handle these challenges is what defines a person. Dyamatti was all too aware of this.

When the princess was a young girl, her father, the great King Laurenitis, would often school her about such things. And the harsh nature of life, well, those were the types of lessons he would drill into her hardest of all. She always figured it was because he desired that she have the tools necessary to make the challenges that lie ahead at least somewhat manageable. She knew he did it only because he loved her.

The King always knew that the young princess would one day have the weight of an entire people resting on her slender shoulders. But Dyamatti was no ordinary princess. She was no ordinary young girl, for that matter. She was Vunarri. And that meant that she would have been uniquely special even if she wasn't a princess.

Her powers over energy began to manifest themselves when the princess was an adolescent. The palace doctors ran a myriad of tests on her the minute strange occurrences started to happen, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except of course, for the strange mutation in Dyamatti's genetic code. There was a small extra bit where none should be. But it didn't really appear to be harming anything or serving any real purpose. So the doctors sent the princess on her way, chalking everything up to her being nothing more than a less-than-graceful young lady.

At first it seemed harmless enough. Her passing by a holo-monitor or light source would cause the device to glow wildly before shorting out and falling dark. But things took a turn for the dramatic when she caused the engines on the royal yacht to overcharge by nearly a thousand percent. The mercury engine's manifolds blew out from the excess of raw power and the star-drive's primary plasma coupling melted as if it were nothing more than low-grade enlar. The incident stranded the royal family in deep space for nearly three days until the yacht could be towed back to Alpheena for repairs. There could be no doubt about it. Dyamatti was Vunarri; one of the famed and feared Elemental Witches.

Most people of the Empire simply regarded the tales of Vunarri as nothing more than urban myth and silly superstition. But the people of Alpheena suspected there was more to the stories. There were simply too many strange tales and holographic evidence for there not to be something going on. Officially, the government had no comment on the matter, but that only served to make people more curious and believe that the King, and possibly even the Empire, was hiding something.

There were said to be at least four types of witches. The first type had complete control over water and possibly other types of liquids as well. Another type was believed to be able to wield fire and flame as if such forces were merely an extension of the witch's own body. Then there were those who could seemingly move objects with nothing more than a thought. And lastly, there were the witches who could manipulate energy in all its various forms. They were considered to be the most powerful of all Vunarri, and the most feared.

It was of the last type that princess found herself to be, and fortunately for her and those around her, she was able to gain control over her abilities before causing too much damage. However, much to the amazement of her parents and even herself, Dyamatti found that her powers were far greater than any of the other Vunarri she'd heard stories about. Making the fact that she never accidentally caused anyone great harm, or killed anyone, even that much more surprising.

It was because of her uniqueness that her father pressed even harder on her, in order to make her as strong and capable as she could be. Laurenitis was well versed in the game of politics and any weakness, or uniqueness, could be exploited by an adversary. The king was most determined that this was never going to happen to his daughter. Instead, he would see to it that she would grow up to be a wise and strong leader for her people. Sometimes that meant that the princess was subjected to less than desirable circumstances. Case in point: her latest assignment.

Most of the time Dyamatti was jetting across the cosmos doing her father's work, she was afforded the most deluxe transportation and accommodations that money could buy. Usually her primary task was visual service; meet this diplomat or that trade representative. All she had to do was look good in public. It was something the princess was a master of. Her elegant beauty and graceful charms won her fans across all the Empire.

But sometimes, however, she would have to get her hands more than a little dirty. On some missions Dyamatti would have to keep up appearances for the masses, but her true objectives were of a darker shade. Gathering secrets about foreign heads of state or keeping tabs on an untrustworthy rival can be dirty business, after all.

Although she was loath to use her powers on others, there wasn't always another option. Not only was it necessary to get out of some of the more sticky situations, her Vunarri powers were also indispensable when it came to covering her tracks.

For instance, her time on the Gleem home world was mostly well spent, save for the small altercation she and her entourage found themselves in when the Gleem representative caught the party trying to depart with some 'accidentally' obtained documents that would have given Alpheena an edge on the bidding wars for a new trade route through Gleem space.

When the awkward situation turned violent, Lt. Colonel Hastings' men did a valiant job of protecting the princess as always. But two of the assailants managed to get past the line of defense the bodyguards had created. Dyamatti, however, was more than able to fend for herself. With a quick flick of her hands, blue-green bolts of pure energy arced from her fingers and shot across the room. The bolts impacted on her attackers with concussive force, throwing them backwards across the room and incapacitating them. The other gleem, seeing what they were up against, decided that discretion was the better part of valor and hastily fled the scene, leaving Dyamatti and her party to return to Alpheena with the private documents unchallenged; after the princess used her powers to disable any holographic recording devices in the area, of course.

Aldarneeri was something completely different, though. The system was nearly a hundred and fifty light years from Alpheena, which was far further than the princess was accustomed to traveling. And unlike her usual forays, there would be no public appearances. To the contrary, this mission was to be as subdued and inconspicuous as possible. Dyamatti doubted if even her own mother knew where she really was and what she was doing. If anyone were to ask the princess about her actions, she was simply to state that she was attending a conference. And in a matter of speaking, that's exactly what she was doing.

Then there was the fact that the fate of the entire Empire would be riding on her success or failure. It was an uncomfortable proposition for sure, but the princess convinced herself that she was up to the challenge. Her gut and thoughts were loudly stating otherwise, though. And for the entire long journey to the Aldarneeri system, she was a nervous wreck. At least she could take some small comfort in the fact that on this venture she at least had a companion to share the risks with. It was one of her father's oldest and most trusted allies: Councilman Arazmus Tyra.

The old politician had been with her on many occasions in the past, but rarely did he partake in the more risky endeavors. And even when he did, it was usually to serve as nothing more than a distraction from what the princess was really up to. This time, though, Tyra was to be the primary contact when the Alpheenians arrived at the appointed coordinates for their clandestine meeting.

Such consolations were of little comfort to Dyamatti, however, as she silently paced back on forth inside her quarters. Tyra had been an invaluable asset to her in the past, but he was of little use if matters were to turn deadly. If that was to be the case, and the princess had every reason to think it could be, the old politician would become nothing more than an old man in need of saving. It would only make a bad situation worse.

It wasn't that the princess didn't believe in Tyra's skills. But there were so many different factors in play with this mission that the chances of everything going off completely without a hitch were very slim, indeed. Her father had learned that other parties may have somehow gotten wind of the Empire's actions. If that was truly the case, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to suspect that the meeting, however secret, might have already been compromised. There was a good chance that things might get out of hand rather quickly. Those were the undeniable facts and despite the princess' best efforts; she couldn't envision how any of them would complete this mission unscathed.

But whatever reservations Dyamatti held, they would have to be shoved aside. The Alpheenian vessel had arrived at the designated location and would be joined by the other secretive ship at any moment. Any doubts the princess had about the mission were now irrelevant. She had work to do.

And as if on cue, a voice broke through the silence on the ship's comm. “The Zyglarine ship has just come out of warp and is maneuvering to dock with us, Your Highness. It's time.” it said.

“Understood, Colonel.” The princess responded, trying to sound as confident as she could.

“Have the councilman meet me at the port airlock.”

Usually the ship the princess traveled in was far larger than the vessel she was currently aboard. The idea behind a large, opulent ship was to make a powerful statement of imagery. The bigger and more powerful the starship, the bigger and more powerful the Alpheenians appeared. It was a simple idea, really. But the ship she chose for this journey was much smaller and far less imposing. The hope was that a vessel that looked unimposing would be viewed as such and hopefully ignored.

It wasn't long before all those needed were standing patiently at the port airlock: The princess, Councilman Tyra, and Colonel Hastings accompanied by three of his best soldiers.

Fortunately the party's wait was a short one, as soon there was a series of beeps emanating from the control console that was just to the right of the airlock hatch. The princess and the councilman both readied themselves and got into character.

Hastings calmly strode over to the console and activated its controls. A three-dimensional display popped up giving the colonel a holographic image of the party waiting just outside.

“Scanning...” he muttered as his fingers tapped the controls.

The holographic image focused on one of the Zyglarine party at a time, highlighting them as each was thoroughly scanned for any foreign items that might be a threat. When one Zyglarine was confirmed to be clear of any weapons, the console would emit a series of chirps before moving on to the next. There were five in all, which were completely scanned by Hastings before he sounded that all was clear.

Tyra glanced over at the princess and gave a nod. But as Dyamatti knew such a simple gesture was rarely so simple. Contained within that nod, Tyra conveyed a great deal. The time had come for the princess to fully embrace what the strange magnetic field of Alpheena had made her. From here on out, she would be more Vunarri than princess and the fate of billions of people within the Empire would be riding on her shoulders, and they would never even know it.

There was a brief countdown of beeps before the airlock doors pulled apart, revealing the group of Zyglarines standing on the other side. The princess noted that they looked rather unremarkable. Aside from only having four fingers on each hand, cone-shaped ears that were rather large compared to a human's, and a slight grayish-blue tinge to their skin, Dyamatti noticed that they looked about as nervous and uncomfortable as she felt.

“Councilman Tyra.” the Zyglar in front said through his translation device, “it is such a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”

“Likewise, Ambassador To'lok.” Tyra replied politely, “I trust your journey here was uneventful.”

“We weren't followed or tracked, if that's what you mean, Councilman.” the ambassador quickly responded, knowing all too well what Tyra implied.

“Excellent. Then we can begin.” Tyra said, his face forming into a charming smile.

The councilman gestured over to the princess, “Ambassador, allow me to introduce to you Princess Dyamatti, first heir to the throne of Alpheena.”

To'lok gave a graceful and deep nod, saying as he did, “Princess, you are far more beautiful in person. The holo-images fail to do you justice.”

“You are too kind, Ambassador.” Dyamatti replied giving a graceful nod of her own. She was no stranger to politics and had done this same diplomatic dance a thousand times before.

“Now that the introductions are out of the way, we can proceed to more important matters.” Tyra said, echoing the feeling of all those gathered to keep the meeting as brief as possible.

“Of course, councilman.” To'lok agreed. “I've brought the devices.”

The Ambassador gestured to one of the Zyglar standing beside him and held out his hand expecting to receive something in it. The other Zyglar nodded knowingly and removed a knapsack from around his shoulder. His long fingers peeled back the opening to reveal a small metal box contained inside. The Ambassador reached his hand inside the knapsack and pulled the box out, opening it in one fluid motion. From inside the box, two bracelets made of the purest platinum glistened and sparkled.

“I believe you will find that these bands will do what you require.” To'lok stated confidently. “It took our top minds nearly a major cycle to fabricate them to your specifications. They'll channel and focus the princess' power and help sustain the reaction you need for much longer than she would otherwise be able to.”

The ambassador held out the intricate platinum bands for the councilman's inspection. Tyra eyed the bracelets carefully. He gently retrieved one from To'lok's grasp and inspected it from all angles. He was no engineer, to be sure, but he was positive that the bracelets were of the highest quality and craftsmanship. “I think these will do very nicely.” he said as he passed the band back to To'lok's waiting fingers.

The ambassador snatched the band from Tyra's hand and hastily placed them back in the box from which they came. He closed the box and sealed the clasp before passing the box to Tyra who in turn gave the precious package to the large military man standing next to him, saying as he did so “Take great care with those. They are perhaps the most important things in the Empire.”

The colonel confirmed the councilman's words by adding “You heard the man. Keep those someplace safe. I want two men guarding them at all times.”

The soldier gave a hearty “Yes, sir!” before turning smartly about and heading off deeper into the vessel to do as he was commanded.

All parties involved were quite aware of the risks they were taking. This meeting needed to be as secluded as possible simply because of what was at stake. If other powers outside of the Empire had any inkling of what was transpiring, there we be suspicion and doubt cast over the entire region of the galaxy. After all, hyperspace transport was the single most important goal for nearly every race in the galactic vicinity. If word got out too soon that the Empire's scientists had apparently solved the riddle of instantaneous travel across the cosmos, other forces would be hard pressed to acquire such knowledge for themselves. The entire region could erupt into violence and war.

As if to punctuate those concerns, a voice abruptly broke over the comm. “Colonel, we've got visitors”, it said.

Hastings stepped over to the comm panel and pressed the appropriate key. “Who is it Lieutenant?” he barked as if both annoyed and suspicious.

“Three small ships are on an intercept course. By their configuration, I'd say Galutian skirmishers.”

“Damn!” Hastings hissed as he turned to face the remaining two men. “Get the princess and the councilman to their quarters now!”

The two burly soldiers quickly but politely escorted the Dyamatti and Tyra from the airlock and back into the Alpheenian vessel. When Hastings was sure they had been suitably removed from the scene, he went back to the comm panel.

“How far out?” he asked.

“Two minutes, Colonel.” came the unwelcome reply.

“What's going on?” To'lok asked, his tone much more nervous than it had been.

“Raiders, Ambassador. That's what's going on.” Hastings replied tersely. “This meeting is adjourned.”

The colonel raced back over to the air lock controls and began to furiously tap the sequence in. After a few seconds, an alarm sounded and the airlock doors began to part. Hastings gestured toward the Zyglarine vessel and said, “I suggest you leave the area as fast as your ship will take you.”

All of the Zyglar dignitaries looked quite uneasy. With rapid steps they began to make their way back aboard their ship. Given the situation, however, and the intrinsic lack of martial skills on their behalf, some reassurance would prove to be quite helpful. To that end, the ambassador gazed directly at Hastings and asked with deep concern, “Our ship is no match for raiders. What do you expect us to do?”

“You're not the ones they're after, Ambassador.” Hastings responded while he started to cycle the airlock and seal off the ship completely. “Get out of here as fast as you can and they shouldn't even bother you.”

To'lok gave an uneasy chuckle as the doors closed behind him, saying “Yes, yes. I suppose you're right. Nothing to worry about.”

When the air lock doors were finally closed and sealed tight, Hastings jumped back over to the comm. “The doors are sealed. Initiate separation.” he ordered.

After a few seconds, a tense reply came back from the Lieutenant. “There's a problem, sir.” she said.

“A problem? What do you mean?”

“The separation sequence won't initialize.”

“Use the manual backup, then!” Hastings demanded.

“I tried that. It's not working.” the Lieutenant responded, sounding more than a little frustrated.

“I'm on my way.” was the last reply Hastings made before racing down the corridor and making his way to the main stairs that led to the bridge.

In under a minute, Hastings burst through the doors leading to the ship's bridge; barely waiting long enough for them to part for him. He rushed over to the pilot's station and began to rapidly scan to readouts on the holo-monitors as he assessed the situation.

“Shit!” he fumed “There's been a segmentation fault in the docking system, a memory leak. The clamps won't release. There's no way to separate.”

“The Galutians are here.” the Lieutenant informed, pointing out the front glass at the three small ships popping back into normal space. “What should I do?”

“Get the shields up and bring the star-drive online. We need to get out of here.” was the colonel's command.

He pressed the comm icon on the holo-monitor, which was followed by an audible chirp to indicate the channel was now open and ready for use. “Zelinski, you and Wurtin man the guns. If those ships even smell like they're up to something, take them all out.”

The men on the other end acknowledged with a hearty “Yes, sir!” before the colonel cut the link.

“Bring the forward guns online.” Hastings continued while he hastily pressed keys and buttons. “Why haven't you engaged the armor and ship's defenses yet?”

“Sir, I can't raise shields while we're still docked with the Zyglarine ship.” the Lieutenant replied, “as long as we're connected to them, we can't do anything.”

In an instant, the seriousness of the problem completely dawned on the colonel. Not just their present situation, but how one convenient malfunction could serve to be the most damaging and debilitating thing at just the wrong time. It couldn't be coincidence. The princess's vessel was naked and exposed and it had to have been that way on purpose. They'd been set up. Not just from the outside, but from the inside as well. How else could such a precise malfunction have occurred? But such things would have to wait until later to explore, however. The immediate danger first needed to be handled.

And just as if things couldn't get any worse, the Lieutenant made the dire announcement Hastings had been gripping for. “The raiders are coming in hot, sir. They've got weapons powered.” she said.

“Hard to starboard, Lieutenant!” he called out. It was the only desperate thing he could do to protect the ship and its occupants.

“But sir, that'll expose the Zyglar ship. They won't stand a chance.” the young lieutenant objected. But her cries fell on deaf ears. Her commanding officer had made up his mind.

“You heard the order, Lieutenant. Put the Zyglars between us and the raiders.” he barked back, not wavering in his judgment in the slightest.

Hastings was well aware of the gravity of his order. It wasn't something he took lightly by any means. But he was charged by King Laurenitis to protect the princess by any means required and he intended to embrace that responsibility completely. Whatever was to happen next would surely leave a deep stain on his soul, but that was irrelevant. He was never the important one. All that mattered was Dyamatti.

“Yes, sir.” the Lieutenant replied somewhat meekly. Her confidence in their actions was far less secure than Hastings' was, but she reluctantly complied with the command.

While not particularly big in any way, The Alpheenian ship was far larger than its Zyglar counterpart. As long as the two vessels were joined, the princess' ship could easily dictate the directions and actions that both ships took. As the glistening vessel made its sharp turn, it dragged the lesser craft along with it.

Hastings tapped the comm channel again. “Light those bastards up!” he shouted.

The defensive guns roared to life and projectiles packed with small amounts of unstable energy were blasted out into the void. But a violent jarring shook the ship which caused the guns to miss their marks and fire off into the nothingness of space.

“The Zyglars are resisting us, Colonel.” the young woman reported. “They're attempting to power up their star-drive.”

“Hold them in place. If they try to engage their star-drive, they'll rip both ships to shreds.”

“I'm doing what I can, sir.”

The Galutian raiders dove swiftly in attack formation as their cannons unleashed pent up fury onto the small target that now blocked their path. Balls of destructive energy were flung at the Zyglarine vessel and tore into its vulnerable side. Having no protective shields and a very light hull, the unfortunate ship was ripped to pieces. Large chunks of plating were blasted from its frame, exposing the vital guts of the ship to the vacuum of space.

In the midst of the chaos, the Lieutenant announced, “the Zyglarine reactor has been hit. It's going into meltdown.”

“Everyone brace yourselves!” Hastings cried out over the ship-wide comm channel. “Things are gonna get bumpy!”

There was a brilliant flash and an explosion as the Zyglar ship erupted in a ball of fiery death. The docking coupler linking the two vessels was shredded and torn, releasing the captive Alpheenian ship. But the close proximity of the blast slammed into the side of the hull with a massive wave of force. All those inside were knocked around like helpless dolls from the impact.

Fortunately, other than a myriad of items being tossed about and knocked out of place, along with a host of alarms sounding, the princess' ship was otherwise intact. The colonel knew that his ploy was a risky one. Had the Zyglar ship been just a bit larger, there was a very real danger that its explosion could have seriously damaged the Alpheenian vessel. He let out a sigh of relief.

“We have armor and defensive systems, sir.”

“Engage the star-drive, Lieutenant. Get us out of here!” Hastings forcefully commanded.

Free from its burden, the Alpheenian ship's star-drive engine was able to engage. Space/time, itself, was warped around the gleaming vessel and it vanished from normal space. The princess and her envoy were whisked away from the scene at an incomprehensible speed.

Chapter II

Dyamatti was safely in her quarters during the precarious events with the raiders. Most of the entire episode played out without her knowledge, save for the fact that something had obviously exploded near her vessel. Although, what it was, she couldn't really say. She did her best to quell any feelings of unease and stress. Those were the sorts of emotions that lead to rash and hasty decisions. Decisions such as hopping into the small auxiliary craft and speeding away to the safest place she could find.

But her father had taught her well. Instead, the princess busied herself with placing all the displaced objects back in their appropriate positions among the various shelves and tables in her quarters. She was in the middle of aligning several vases on a shelf when the door split open and her personal servant, Julian, came rushing in.

“Your Highness,” he said while he bowed.

He briefly seemed to watch Dyamatti, almost as if what he was seeing wasn't quite lining up properly in his brain. After a few seconds, the reality of what the princess was doing sank in. His eyes widened and the expression on his face became that of someone who either had done something incorrectly, or that he was seeing someone doing something very much beneath them.

“You shouldn't be doing such menial tasks.” He said in his thin and plain tone, “I'll send for someone to clean up.”

“Nonsense, Julian. Besides, I'm almost finished.” Dyamatti replied as she set the last few pieces in their proper place. “What condition is the rest of the ship in?”

“No damage.” the plain man replied. “Although we did get quite a shake-up.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No, Your Highness. Other than a few scrapes and bruises, I'm pleased to report there are no casualties.”

“What about Councilman Tyra?” The princess asked as she moved over to a small ornate cabinet at the far end of the room.

“The councilman was a bit startled, but is otherwise unhurt, Your Highness.”

“Tell Colonel Hastings I expect a full report.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” Julian replied while he gave a gentle nod to accentuate his compliance.

Seeing as his service to the princess was no longer required, the plain man excused himself with a deep bow. As he bowed, he took several steps back toward the door. The door, sensing the man's presence, obligingly slid apart and opened the way for Julian to leave.

Once fully alone, Dyamatti opened the cabinet and pulled out a clear bottle containing an almond colored liquid. She then reached for one of the small glasses on a nearby table. In a single practiced motion, she pulled the stopper from the bottle and poured some of its contents into the glass. Her slender fingers wrapped themselves around the glass and she lifted it to her waiting lips. After a few brief seconds of admiring the drink, the princess placed the glass against her lips and tossed the drink back; downing it with one gulp.

The princess wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and set the glass down. While she wasn't one for drinking her problems away, she was finding that she was relying on alcohol more and more. She would tell herself that maybe she could clear the urge out of her system if she could just get completely hammered at least once. But deep down she understood that she was in danger of using drink as a crutch to numb the stress of her repeated excursions.

Her father had sent her on many missions before, but this one was different. Unlike any of her previous exploits, it was the princess, herself, who was the focal point. Because of her gifts, she was able to do what no other person in the Empire was capable of. King Laurenitis was well aware of the risks and was clearly uneasy at the prospects sending his only child to her doom. But if the scientists were right, Dyamatti could help usher the Empire into a new golden age. Hyperspace travel would literally change everything. And it was for those reasons that the princess felt the weight of her stress far more than she ever had on her prior journeys.

After a few slow minutes of reflective silence on her life and choices, the comm channel emitted a beep to let Dyamatti know there was someone on the other end wishing to speak with her. The princess glided in her fashion across the floor and pressed the button.

“Yes?" she asked into the device.

“Your Highness, this is Colonel Hastings.” the voice on the other end informed.

“Go ahead, Colonel.”

“I wanted to let you know that we're currently heading back toward Imperial space at warp speed. We should cross the border in just over three hours.”

“Any sign of the raiders?”

“No, Your Highness. We've lost them. There's no way they can keep up with us.”

“Finally.” the princess muttered under her breath along with a deep sigh. The colonel's words were the most comforting ones Dyamatti had heard in a while. It was fortunate that no one was around to see her reaction. It might have been deemed rather un-princessly.

“And what of the Ambassador's ship? Were he and his party able to escape?”

That was the one question Hastings was hoping to avoid. He figured that she would probably ask at some point, but by then he would have been able to concoct a good enough tale to convince her. And even though he was aware she could possibly ask him, the inquiry still felt like a punch to his stomach.

“Ambassador To'lok and his party fled the area. We've had no contact since, Your Highness.” was the best lie that Hastings could conjure on the spot. It wasn't a great lie, but it would have to do for now. As with most things, the truth could be rather slippery from time to time.

“Good work, Colonel. My father will be pleased to know of your actions.” the princess said, now feeling just a bit more relaxed.

“I'm afraid it's not all good news, Your Highness.” Hastings countered. “I'll be at your quarters in a few minutes to fully brief you on our situation.”

And just as quickly as it started to dissipate, the knot began to tie Dyamatti's insides up once more. But she gave no indication of her uneasiness, only saying in a cool tone, “Very well, Colonel.”

And as Hastings had said, it wasn't long before the chime to Dyamatti's door went off. As before, she glided across the floor with light, pristine movements. Her slim finger pressed the icon to allow the doors to part and reveal the colonel standing on the other side. He gave a deep bow when he saw her, saying “Your Highness.” as he did.

“Colonel.” Dyamatti replied, trying to sound as cool and confident as she could. "Please come in."

After Hastings had stepped through the doorway and it slid tight behind him, Dyamatti asked, “what is our situation?”

“We're okay, for the moment.” he answered. Although, his choice of words clearly indicated that there was more to tell.

“Go on.”

“I don't know a better way to say this, Your Highness, so I'll just say it.” the colonel said. It was almost as if he was still trying to find a way to dampen the blow of what he was about to say. He was sure there were better words if he was only able to sort them out. But his time was up. He was going to have to be blunt and to the point. “We were set up.”

Instantly the knot in Dyamatti's stomach grew even tighter. “Explain.” was all she could say.

“The Galutian's home space isn't anywhere near this region. They would've had to have some strong motives to be way out here.” Hastings explained.

Dyamatti's eyes narrowed as her stare fell straight on Hastings. “Are you saying they were paid to attack us? Why? How much could they possibly know about what we were doing?”

“Those are all very good questions, Highness.” the colonel replied with a nod. “I wish I knew the answers. But I'm positive someone sent them.”

“My father was concerned there might have been leaks. It seems he was right.”

“That's only part of it, Your Highness. There's more.” the colonel added. “Before we were able to make our escape from the raiders, there were a few problems with several of the ship's systems. The shields and star-drive were offline and it appeared the backup systems had been tampered with.”

“Clearly you managed to fix the problems, otherwise we would have never made our escape.” Dyamatti noted, calmly pointing out the obvious.

“That's true, but it was the exact timing of those systems going offline that bothers me. It was too convenient to be a coincidence, Your Highness.”

“So, what exactly are you saying, Colonel?”

“I'm saying that whoever sent those raiders after us had help from the inside. Someone had to mess with those systems for them to go offline like that.”

Dyamatti instantly understood the implications of what Hastings was saying. It wasn't something to be taken lightly by any means. “Are you seriously suggesting that someone on this ship sabotaged us?” she asked.

“I can't say if it was someone on this ship or even before we left Alpheena. But I intend to find out, Your Highness.” Hastings replied, his last words filled with a stern resolve.

“Make it your highest priority, Colonel.”

“Understood, Highness.” Hastings affirmed. “If you'll excuse me.”

The princess nodded her understanding, and with a bow, the colonel made his exit from Dyamatti's quarters to start his investigation in earnest.

Hastings had a hunch that the culprit was indeed among the ship's crew, although he would never have directly told the princess as much unless directly confronted. He reasoned that Princess Dyamatti had enough to worry about. Anything that he could do to help improve her focus on the task at hand was reason enough for him.

Still, he thought he had a reasonable enough place to start; the ship's access logs. It was clear what happened to the docking mechanism wasn't a hardware malfunction. Although ship systems were known to fail, when hardware was the cause there were always indications that something was wrong beforehand. A squeak, a click, a grind, or some other audible clue would invariably give away an impending breakdown. With the docking clamps, however, there was no such telltale noise. It simply went offline, and because the princess's ship had been connected to another vessel at the time, other systems in turn were affected.

His hypothesis was simple: Sometime after they had departed from Alpheena, someone rigged the docking system to malfunction. There were two ways this could have been accomplished: Either a timer was set to cause the error at the appropriate time, or whoever the saboteur was must have manually triggered the event from a local console. Either way, the access logs would tell him volumes.

The Colonel arrived back on the bridge and made his way to the main control interface for ship-wide functions. This was the master terminal whereby every system on the ship could be monitored and configured. Although each system could be more easily serviced in the area of the ship it operated from, the master interface allowed a fair degree of control. But more importantly, it was the one station on the ship a root user could log into and access every log stored on the ship's computer.

With a few quick taps of keys and button presses, a display of every log of system access was displayed on the holo-monitor. Hastings scrolled through the system heading of each entry, looking only for the ones that pertained to his quest. Of the hundreds of entries he saw, only three showed that the docking systems had been accessed since they left Alpheena a quarter cycle before.

Of those three, two were labeled as system maintenance, which, when opened revealed nothing of particular interest. The entries listed a time, what system was involved, and for what purpose. At the end of each listing was the name of the person who had accessed the system. These were ordinary report logs. There was nothing in them that would help the colonel come any closer to finding the person responsible.

That left the third entry, which was dated two days after the ship departed on its course. Hastings noticed that the wording and structure was rather odd. The heading read “1 warning – memory allocation sector 6F470”. When he opened it, the subject line was just repeated. Other than that, the log was empty. No name was listed. But he did have the time-stamp of when the log was made.

While he was no computer whiz, Hastings knew a compiler warning when he saw one. Someone had attempted to recompile the software for the docking mechanism. It looked like a memory warning, which might have been deliberate. Code will compile and execute with warnings, but not with errors. A well chosen tweak of the code could cause a memory failure which would freeze out the entire system. It was just a theory, but it was as good as any other.

Now all Hastings needed to do was match the log entry with a name. That part, though, was going to be more tricky. Unlike other logs, this one had been edited at the source, which meant that someone tried to erase their tracks. There was no way to completely delete a log; not even the colonel could do that. Backups were stored on an encrypted data sector that required a physical pass-card to view. But there were ways to alter the logs if one knew how and was so inclined.

Hastings first thoughts were that the culprit was an officer; someone who had higher level access to ship's systems. But that was quickly ruled out when he realized that someone with the level of proficiency displayed could easily hack into another account or create a new one altogether. But there was only one place where that kind of thing was possible.

“Anderson, have you noticed anyone using this terminal since we left Alpheena?” Hastings asked the young lieutenant.

“No, sir. Just you.” she answered.

“Have you noticed anyone on the bridge who shouldn't have been?”

The young woman thought for a moment, “come to think of it,” she said as if prying loose a memory she didn't think she'd ever need, “Crewman Lambert came in not long after we left.”

“What was he doing?”

“That's just it, he didn't do anything.” the lieutenant replied. “The door opened and he was just standing there. It was kind of odd.”

“Odd, how?”

“He looked almost surprised to see me. It was like he knew the bridge was supposed to be empty.”

The young woman's words caught Hastings by surprise. His gaze shot over to the lieutenant. “What do you mean, empty?” he asked.

“It was about thirteen hundred hours and I normally grab a bite to eat about that time, but I stayed to run a few system tests. That's when Lambert popped in.”

“Go on.” Hastings urged.

“He just seemed surprised I was here. I asked him what he needed and he said he was looking for you about some computer reports or something. Then he left. That was it.”

“That is odd.” the colonel agreed. “But not just because of his reaction to you.”

“What else is there?” the lieutenant asked. “He was only here for a few seconds at most.”

“Yes, but how did he get the doors to open in the first place? The computer won't even open the door for lower tier crew members.”

“I didn't think about that, sir. I guess I'm just used to the doors opening for me.”

While the regular crew members of the vessel had free reign to enter most parts of the ship, certain places were restricted to officers or specific ranking personnel. This was done for both security and protocol. Sometimes it was deemed wiser to shield sensitive conversations and actions from unnecessary eyes. What that meant was a crewman like Lambert shouldn't have been able to gain access to the bridge without someone letting him in.

“From now on, Lieutenant, take your lunch at a different time each day. Don't have a pattern to it.”

“Yes, sir.” the young lieutenant replied.

“And if anything else like this happens, I expect you to inform me immediately.”

“Understood, sir.”

The lieutenant had barely gotten the words out of her mouth before the ship shuttered and lurched. All sorts of warnings started going off. It took the colonel a second to process that something potentially important just happened. When he realized it, however, his eyes started to quickly scan each holo-monitor readout for any information about what had just occurred.

“Report!” he barked.

Lieutenant Anderson hurriedly tapped the controls at her station. After a few seconds of frantic attempts to find the source of the problem, she turned to the colonel, “our star-drive is malfunctioning, Colonel.” she informed. “We're gradually losing power. We won't be able to maintain warp for much longer.”

“Shit!” Hastings fumed. “Just what we need right now.”

“What's the cause?” he asked.

“I'm not sure, sir. All I can make out is something is wrong with the star-drive.”

The colonel tapped the comm controls. “Chief Waters, meet me in the engine room.”

“Already on my way, sir.” was the response.

“Anderson, find us someplace safe and secluded where we can get this sorted out.”

The lieutenant tapped a few icons on her navigational monitor and various destinations popped up. She cycled through several before selecting a suitable spot. “The only place in range is a small mining colony located in an asteroid belt.” she informed.

“That'll have to work. Set a course.”

Chapter III

It seemed like Dyamatti had been stranded in her quarters for eons. While long voyages usually limited one to a vessel, and as such an extremely limited amount of free space to roam; being relegated to her personal quarters was like being caged or held captive. It was starting to wear on the princess' nerves.

It had been more than a quarter cycle since they left Alpheena, but it felt more like a major cycle to the young princess. She couldn't take it anymore. The ship was traveling at warp speed and on its way home. There wasn't any foreseeable danger to worry about. Colonel Hastings would just have to allow her the liberty to wander the ship for a while.

Confidently, Dyamatti strode to her door and opened it. But she froze briefly before her foot could find its way past the threshold into the corridor beyond. A slight twinge of guilt tugged at her gut as she acknowledged to herself that was she was about to do went against security protocols. But she needed some time away from her cage. The stress, compounded with isolation, was starting to become quite maddening. She would just clear her head for a bit with a short walk and then promptly return to her exile. No one needed to be the wiser.

The guard posted at her door gave a cordial nod and said “Your Highness.” but otherwise did nothing as she stepped out into the corridor. The fresh, recycled air filled her lungs as she took a deep breath. It smelled pure and clean. And even though technically it was the same air she was breathing in her quarters, this air was out in the corridor. That made it better.

But things quickly became a bit odd when a crewman ran past her on his way to the nearest mechanical access port. He barely even paused long enough to give the princess her usual recognition; instead he slowed long enough to give a brief nod and customary greeting before resuming his full gate and racing down the hallway. When he reached the end of the corridor, he gave a few presses to a control console. A panel on the wall slid away and the man ducked inside, vanishing from view.

Before long, another crew member came darting towards her. This time the princess moved to the middle of the corridor and directly into the man's path. She intended to find out what exactly was going on.

“What's all the excitement about?” she asked before the man could hurry by.

“The star-drive is malfunctioning, Highness.” was the man's hasty reply.

“Malfunctioning? How?” Dyamatti asked in return.

“I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I really don't have time to talk about it. Ask Colonel Hastings. He can tell you more.” were the man's last words before he offered a quick bow and ran off in the same direction as the first man.

The princess, now realizing that something was very much wrong with her vessel, tapped the monitor at the closest station and asked, “what is Colonel Hastings location?”

The computer replied in its dry and usual flat tone, “Colonel Hastings is in the engine room.”

“Patch me through to him.”

“Hastings here.” the voice on the other end of the comm said.

“Colonel, what is our status?” Dyamatti asked in a tone that suggested she already knew much of what was going on.

“Our status is fine, Your Highness. We'll be back to Alpheena before you know it.” the colonel replied, sounding a bit impatient at the disturbance.

“And what of our star-drive?”

There was an audible sigh from the other end. “I see word spreads fast on this ship.”

“Never mind that.” the princess retorted, “Have you located the malfunction with the star-drive?”

“Chief Waters is sure that it's just a software glitch, Your Highness. It's nothing he can't have fixed in a couple hours.”

“Will we be able to continue at warp in the meantime?”

“Unfortunately, no. The star-drive is losing power. We've set course for a mining colony in a nearby system. It's secluded and we can make the necessary repairs there. Chief Waters assures me that he can get us back up and running again without much of a delay.”

“Understood.” Dyamatti replied in her usual cool tone. “However, in the future make sure you inform myself or councilman Tyra immediately of any other developments. We all have our jobs to do, and I can't do mine without the proper information.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” Hastings said as the comm was cut.

Dyamatti had been on enough missions to know when things were going to take a bad turn. She was certain that this was one of those times. Something told her that Hastings still hadn't told her everything. The ship's malfunction could very well be another attempt at sabotage by the unknown perpetrator. The princess decided it was best not to take any chances.

She quickly moved toward the center of the ship. That was the safest part, and as such, it was where all items of importance were stored. The weapons cache, critical supplies like medicine, and most importantly, the bands that To'lok had given her were all located there. The princess knew that whoever was trying to impede her mission was almost certainly after two things: The bands and herself.

Dyamatti realized that if there was indeed a saboteur among them, then even the safest part of the vessel had been compromised. While she was quite sure it wasn't either Tyra or Hastings, everyone else was still a suspect. That meant those platinum bands which were so delicately crafted and made for such a special purpose might as well be lying naked in the corridor. And with so much riding on her mission, it was a problem she intended to remedy.

When the princess arrived at the heart of the ship, she was greeted by the sight of two guards posted outside the vault door. These would be Hastings best men. The colonel would most likely trust these men with his own life, or even more, Dyamatti's. Unfortunately, trust of these men at the colonel's behest wasn't something Dyamatti felt she could afford.

The princess gave a wave of her hand and said, “Stand aside, gentlemen.” while she approached.

Both men immediately snapped to attention upon seeing the royal figure. “I'm sorry, Your Highness, but the Colonel ordered that nobody be allowed in the vault.”

Without even so much as a pause, Dyamatti retorted, “and just exactly whom do you think he answers to?”

Realizing the folly of their ways, both men swiftly stepped aside to allow the princess to pass. She was gifted with many talents of persuasion. Sometimes all she needed to do was rely on her beauty and charm to take control of a situation. Still, at other times she could channel her father's commanding demeanor if the need arose.

The door to the vault was unique among the ship's other doors. Instead of needing a key-code or the like, the vault was sealed to all except those with the proper DNA identification. And on this journey, that limited the number of people who could access the vault to only a small handful of people.

With a press of her slender thumb against a special panel, the princess gained entry to the vault as its great doors slid wide. She gave the guards one final look in passing before she stepped inside and sealed the way behind her.

Once inside, Dyamatti quickly located the small box that carried the bands. Her fingers slid over the box and undid the latches; freeing the lid to pop open and reveal the valuable contents.

The bands were exactly where they should have been. The princess allowed herself a small sigh of relief.

Even though the princess knew she was alone, she couldn't help but cast her glance back over her shoulders to check the room just in case. She reached her hand inside the box and picked up one of the delicate bands and slid it over her wrist. The platinum bracelet then did something most unexpected; it let out a beep and then clasped itself together. It was now sealed around Dyamatti's wrist.

She held her wrist up to eye it more closely. If she didn't know any better, she would think the band just linked itself to her in some way. Although, the more she thought about it, the more something like that would make sense. The bracelets were meant for her and only her. A mechanism to link her to the bands would serve as a security fail safe.

The princess knew it was best to save any closer investigations of the bands for a later time. There were more immediate concerns for her to focus on. She quickly slid the other band on her wrist, which also emitted a beep and closed shut and hopped up to return out of the vault.

It wasn't until Dyamatti was on her way to her quarters that she noticed the bright bands on her wrists didn't really make her feel any different. They were designed to amplify her already considerable powers and focus them on a point at the quantum level. It was a great deal of techno babble that she really didn't understand, although she often pretended to during the long and boring meetings about the subject. All she knew was that with the bands, she could use her powers to ignite a reaction at the quantum level which would then grow. She remembered being told something about particles and anti-particles coming together and annihilating each other. The idea was to kick start the power reactor for the new hyper-gate so that it could be brought online.

But given the circumstances, she was sure that she would feel something different. But there wasn't anything at all. Not that she could notice, anyway. With a shrug, she came to the conclusion that it was something else she would have to worry about later.

Before long, she found herself outside the councilman's door. If things were about to turn sour, it was her duty to look after him. Not that the old politician would ever approve of such thoughts. Still, her father would never forgive her if something were to happen to his oldest friend.

Tyra had stood by King Laurenitis' side for more than three decades. Even when those in the Imperial Grand Council sought to usurp the king and many had aligned themselves against Laurenitis, Tyra stood firm, never waning in his commitment to his king. But as steadfast as Tyra was, he was also an old man. In a combat situation, he would be nothing more than a liability, despite his best intentions.

The door to the councilman's quarters smoothly slid apart and Dyamatti stepped through to what was a very strange scene, indeed. Tyra was sitting at a desk while her aide, Julian, stood next to him. It appeared that he was taking notes of some sort while the councilman dictated instructions to him.

“Ahem.” the princess said, catching the attention of the two men.

“Dyamatti, what a wonderful surprise!” Tyra exclaimed while rising from his seat to greet her.

“You seem awfully comfortable for someone who's been confined for his own safety.”

Tyra let out a soft chuckle at the young woman's words. “When you've been doing these sorts of things for as long as I have, you learn how to make the best use of your time. Otherwise the sheer boredom will drive you mad.” he informed.

“I suppose so.” she replied.

The old politician took Dyamatti by the hand and said, “Come. Sit down.”

He gestured for her to rest herself on the soft and plush couch in the center of the room. Meanwhile, he walked to the large chair opposite and eased himself into it, saying as he did, “so, why come and see an old man? Getting tired of being cooped up?”

It wasn't just the words that he said; it was the look in his eye that let the princess know Tyra was on to her. “Do I really need a reason to visit with an old friend? Can't we just pass the time together?”

He leaned forward in his spot and cast the princess a stare. “Dyamatti...” he said in a tone like a parent who knows when a child isn't being truthful.

“Don't try to bullshit a bullshitter, my dear.” he said with a chuckle.

“What would you have me say, Tyra?” she shot back, still trying her best to feign innocence.

A smile began to stretch across the old councilman's face. He knew the young princess had her heart in the right place. “I appreciate the concern.” he said, “and you're right.”

“Right about what?”

“Don't think for a moment that just because I've kept myself locked away in this room that I don't know what's going on. You should know me better than that, girl.” Tyra informed as he allowed himself to lean back into the large chair once more.

He cast a glance over to the plain man that was still present. “Julian, would you excuse us?”

“Of course, Your Grace.” the plain main replied before bowing and leaving.

When the old politician was certain that no unwanted ears where listening to his words, he continued. “Things are about to get bad.” he said, his tone much more serious than it had been just a minute before. “Someone knows about our plan, Dyamatti. That means they know about you and what you can do.”

“I was thinking the same things.” Dyamatti said as her eyes trailed downwards to the floor. “We'll have to fight our way home, won't we?”

“Yes, I'm afraid we will.” he answered solemnly. “Still, don't let that get in the way of what you have to do. The mission comes first. You come first. Don't worry about an old man who might just get in the way.”


“No.” the councilman interrupted. “No words, Dyamatti. You must get yourself and those bands back to the Empire. It means everything. Now more than ever.”

The princess knew full well the meaning of Tyra's words. The entire reason her mission and everything surrounding the hyper-gate was kept secret was not only because of what it would mean for the Empire's prosperity, but also what might happen if outside forces were to acquire the technology; outside forces who might have darker motives.

Not long after the scientific discoveries that led to the hyper-gate system was made, the emperor held a meeting with the kings to discuss the matter and its implications. King Laurenitis fought hard to suppress the knowledge for now. His reasoning was simple: Until the gate was finished, the technology was untested and not guaranteed to even work. However, if someone else was to steal that technology, they might be able to not only get it to work faster, but better. And if those who sought the technology had ill intentions towards the Empire, it would invite the Empire's destruction.

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