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Authors: Janelle Taylor

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"Auken, Sach, and Moig?"

"That's correct, so don't challenge them in any way or you're gone."

"Thanks for the warning; I suspected as much. If what you said about those crystals is accurate, if Tochar gets his hands on enough of them, he could rule the Universe, or enable his buyers to do so. One ying we could all be working for him or be under his subjection."

"If he has aspirations of conquest, I haven't heard them. His buyers would obtain the capability of preying on other worlds if he sells them the right type of crystals. I can't imagine him allowing anyone to gain such power; that slip could imperil him and his stronghold. As for me, I like the Universe as it is. Imagine how our existences would change if Tochar did become a conqueror, or if he enabled others to destroy the current balance of power between the galaxies. We would have no say in our fates."

"Sounds repulsive to me, almost a return to barbaric slavery."

"That's why the Serians and Kalfans tried so hard to protect that secret, but it slipped out, as most secrets do when profit is concerned. It hasn't been long since the crystals were discovered and mining began, and finding large specimens—especially those white hunks—is rare. Of course, without blue ones, the others are worthless. They make me think of colored ice."

"Why would either galaxy risk transporting them off their planets?"

"Shipments of them are small, but research and testing have to be done on secluded planetoids for safety and secrecy because their power is great and their potential not fully known. Tochar was fortunate that his first moonbeam raid resulted in acquiring those three awesome weapons."

"How did he accomplish such a feat?"

"The planetoid's force shield was disengaged during their transfer to a vessel for shipment to Ulux, Seri's head planet. Tochar's two units attacked them while they were vulnerable. His crafts were cloaked, so the androids and scientists didn't detect their presence until it was too late. Help was summoned, but the patrol's late arrival gave Tochar's band time to disable the androids and steal the cargo. One team and part of Auken's were trapped aboard the other vessel and wiped out during a battle and their craft destroyed, but the Azoulay cloaked and escaped with the Destructoids; that's what Tochar named his new weapons and it describes their power perfectly. Auken, Sach, and Moig were the only survivors. Tochar is rebuilding his special team; that's why he hired us. His Enforcers never go on raids; they remain here to protect him and Tochara."

"I'm surprised they told you such things when you joined up with them. Seems they would have kept quiet about such a disaster and the perilous risks you'd face; they didn't expose that information to me."

"When Sach is on Tochara, he likes to drink, drink heavily at times; that loosens his tongue to someone he trusts. But drinking is forbidden during treks. Sometimes all three get so accustomed to me being around that they forget I'm there and forget they aren't supposed to talk about such things in front of me, so they make slips. A dull-witted Sach once bragged about those being the only Destructoids in existence because large white crystals are rare. Tochar never lets them leave his colony; that would make him vulnerable to attack. If he ever gets his hands on another one, he'll mount it on an attack ship; then no target will be un-

obtainable to him. I also keep my eyes and ears open without notice."

"I will, too. I thought Auken's ship was named the Adika."

"It is, but they were using Tochar's that deega; it's faster, and has a better cloaking device and force shield. The Azou-lay is useless until we steal a part needed for his energy system. It has only enough power left to stay in orbit and sustain life-support for a small crew. The parts he located are inaccessible and hazardous for a four-member team to go after. As we know ft-om past experiences, power units or fuel can't be obtained without the proper papers and approval, and space stations are dangerous to raid."

"You're right, and I'm paying for that reality. Those moonbeams intrigue me, especially since I virtually gave away three out of ignorance. I'm curious. Why isn't their transportation guarded by huge forces?"

"How do you know they aren't?"

His answer came quickly. "Because four pirates couldn't attack a vessel or a planetoid and escape with any crystals if they were confronted by a large and well-armed force."

"You're very astute," Starla complimented. "The shipments are carried out in assumed secrecy, usually with only one or two androids aboard to prevent drawing attention to them or givmg the impression of a vessel worthwhile to attack."

"Then how does Tochar know when and where to raid?" His questions flowed swiftly and fluently. "How do we get those android pilots to halt and lower their force shields? How does Tochar market something so secretive and dangerous?"

Starla noted how intelligent and educated he seemed, in particular for a space pirate, and how inquisitive. "Obviously he has contacts in Seri and Kalfa, important men in the know. You'll soon learn we have various ways of assaulting our targets. As to his buyers, I don't know anything

about them, or if he's even sold any to date. I wouldn't advise asking questions about moonbeams or his sources; Tochar only shares that information with his three friends. Even I'm not told our destination and target until we reach them. I'm sure it will be the same with you."

"So, we're trusted, but we aren't. We're tested and accepted, but kept blinded. Interesting. . . . I've never hired on with anybody who withheld information and didn't allow me to help plan our strategy. That makes me a little wary and edgy. How about you?" He saw Starla nod. "We can be of great help and protection to each other if we stick together."

Starla fused her gaze with his. "That's a tempting offer; just prove it's an honest one, and keep all I've told you to yourself, or we're both in deep trouble."

"I will, trust me."

"Give it time and patience. Good night, Dagan."

Starla looked at Cypher. "I wonder why he disclosed such perilous things, if they're true. He doesn't seem the type to do anything without a good reason, one in his favor. If he thinks I'm so naive that allegedly sharing secrets will ensnare and bind me to him, he's wrong. I suspect he was trying to draw me toward him for a purpose I haven't grasped yet. Perhaps Tochar is suspicious of me and he's hired Dagan to get close enough to expose me. It's possible Dagan lost that struggle during the last raid by intention. On the other hand, Tochar knows I don't do life-taking, though he believes I killed the crew chasing me when I was attempting to make my initial contact with him, and that ruse worked. What he doesn't know is those were advanced androids similar to you who only looked and sounded human. It's that traitor—or traitors—^in Seri who have me concerned. Raz Yakir is supposed to be the only one who knows of my assignment and identity, but what if he let them slip

to the wrong person, the one supplying Tochar with information about moonbeams and their shipments? Or maybe I said or did something to cause him to doubt me."

Cypher had not intruded on her rush of questions and remarks; he comprehended she was reasoning out matters aloud to clarify them in her mind, a trait of hers, and a means of letting him know her thoughts. "I require more data to classify Dagan Latu's character, motives, and goals. It is improbable Tochar doubts you; analysis of voice patterns do not indicate suspicion in him or the others. It is illogical for Raz Yakir to expose you to anyone, even those close to him, because one is a traitor."

The android's words were reassurii^. ''If D-agan didn't know about the truth serum test, why would he take a recorder with him? And if he did know, why would he subject himself to uncontrollable scrutiny unless he was certain he would pass it?"

"He could have suspected Thorin would be used."

Before Cypher could continue, Starla's gaze widened and she asked, "Do you suppose Dagan was sent here by an enemy of Tochar's to check out his defenses and activities, to look for any weaknesses? Perhaps to search for a way to disable Tochar's weapons so an attack could take place?"

"Tochar has many enemies. Those would be logical steps for a challenger to take if an attack is being planned. It is not known everywhere that Tochar has Destructoids."

"You're right. That means Dagan could have been sent by a rival to study Tochar's strength. Do you think he's trying to lure me to his side?"

"He revealed suspicious things to you. Perhaps it is a strong attraction to you that loosened his tongue and dazed his wits. If he is working for a rival, obtaining an ally or source of infonnation would be of value to him."

Starla did not like the idea of being used by Dagan or anyone, but Cypher's second sentence did warm her from

head to feet. "If he's an enemy or working for one, how could he dupe Thorin? "

"Many galaxies have secrets from the others. He asked about future retesting; that could mean his immunity is limited by time and induced by a temporary blocker."

"We've never heard of such a chemical or treatment."

"That does not mean one does not exist elsewhere. He is of Kalfan origin, but his loyalties could be to another, for hire or another reason. He is a villite in his world and his record reveals he becomes a bijoni at times."

"Perhaps revenge for something Tochar did in the past is his motive."

"That is a possibility."

Starla realized that an immunity to Thorin meant Dagan could have deceived Tochar and might not be as wicked as he alleged. . . . But her speculations, and Cypher's, could be farfetched—and Dagan was in reality as bad as his record claimed.

"Why did you reveal so much about moonbeams?" Cypher asked.

Starla's answer came easily. "So Dagan would realize the enormous dangers involved in his new position and weigh the risks and his payments against Tochar's profits and safety; I'm hoping he'll decide they do not equate to suit him. If he leaves, that's one less villite to defeat." And the removal of a disarming temptation. "If he stays, it might cause dissension and disloyalty. Even a man like Dagan wouldn't want anybody to become so invincible that he could never break free and any resemblance to life as he knows it would vanish. He knows Tochar took advantage of his ignorance about moonbeams when the fiendal purchased them from him. No leader of honor would trick one of his men, and Tochar was hiring him. I doubt Dagan won the crystals in a resi game. Either he lucked out on a shipment and stole them, or one of Tochar's contacts is double-dealing. If he believes I trust him—or I'm irresistibly

attracted to him—maybe he'll open up to me. If so, there might be a way to exploit it to aid our mission. I must confess, Cypher, no matter what Dagan Latu claims to be or how his record reads, my instincts tell me he can be trusted in a dark horn; but I promise I won't act on that impression until I am assured of its accuracy. If he is working for a rival, maybe they will destroy each other and complete this mission for us."

"If that is a fact, be careful you do not get caught between adversaries in a violent takeover."

"I'll be careful, and I have you to monitor and protect me. What does Dagan's voice pattern reveal to you?"

"An analysis is impossible without a base line of truth with which to compare his words and inflections for honesty."

Starla pondered that matter for a preon. "Is there any type of device I can press against him so you can obtain readings?"

"That is impossible. Without a foundation line for comparison, I could not differentiate between what is fact and what is prevarication."

"That means I just have to go on my instincts and training."

"They have never failed you in the past."

"Hope and pray they don't desert me this time."

Dagan completed a scan of his chamber for listening and observing mechanisms and found none. Afterward, he retrieved a cryptographic message awaiting him on the communications device concealed in his knife handle, the most advanced and smallest unit in existence. It told him that two perusals of his criminal record had been made, both from untraceable sources who had access codes to the same mass memory computer network into which he and his friend could tap. He was certain the first probe was To-

char's, but the second was a mystery. He deduced it was carried out by one of Tochar's cohorts from either Sen or Kalfa, contacts Starla had mentioned. Those men must have suppHed the data base password to the Icarian and may have double-checked Dagan Latu's identity and discovered he had a lengthy file, confirming his claims. He had expected to be examined thoroughly, but thanks to precautions, To-char knew only what he wanted the man to learn.

Dagan pressed a button on the device to block detection of his out-going signal and transmitted a message to the man who had sent him there, though he also had a personal reason for wanting to see Tochar slain. Before he could see to that, he had to earn the trust of the leader and his band; that was the only way he could get close enough with a weapon to carry out that daring feat.

Dagan didn't need to ask for information about Tochar; he was well acquainted with the man's history and now, thanks to a beautiful pirate, abreast of his present. He requested information on Starla Vedris and Yana of Asisa, as either or both could become complications for him. With the aid of his secret contact and the man's access to the I-GAF computer network, all he needed were their fingerprints to learn everything about them that use of their names didn't provide. Of course, obtaining those prints could be difficult and entertaining, but he was looking forward to it. Until he received replies on the females, Dagan decided, he would study and deceive both women to determine which, if either, unknowingly could help him achieve his goal.

Eight deegas later as Dagan and Starla awaited the impending raid in the Adika's meeting compartment, Dagan glanced at their attire and down at their hands. "Why were we told to wear I-GAF uniforms and imprint these fake badges on the backs of our hands?" he wondered. "Though I admit, they do look convincing. Even if false markings

were put on Auken's ship, our target shouldn't halt or allow us to board her without the correct hailing frequency and watchword."

From the comer's of her eyes, Starla had noticed how appealing Dagan Latu was in that deep-blue uniform which matched the color and potency of his gaze. The snug garment, all-powerfiil badge, and illustrious image of an Inter-Galactic Alliance Force officer suited him perfectly. She found herself aroused and wishing the implication was true; then, he would be someone worthy of taking home to meet her family, someone within reach as a mate, someone she could team up with to defeat Tochar. He wasn't, so she cast those foolish fantasies aside and ventured an answer to his query, "Probably because Tochar knows them; he has ways of acquiring even the most secret and guarded information."

Dagan sensed her keen study of him, but he couldn't think about how tempting she looked or how he affected her. He had to quell his hunger for her and concentrate on his goal, so he continued questioning. "How? From whom?"

Starla shrugged. "I have no idea; they don't reveal such things to me."

"Why were we ordered to stay in here while we approach our target?"

"I suppose because there are things Tochar doesn't want us to see or hear. Perhaps he's afraid if we learn his secrets, we won't need him."

"That's logical and wise, but I don't like being kept in the shadows and maybe mistrusted when my life and payment are on the line. It makes me uneasy."

"Me, too, but if you want to stay in Tochar's hire, don't complain about or question his orders. You were given that advice, correct?"

He nodded. "How long does it take to be trusted and accepted fully?"

"I've been with them for over three malees, but I'm sit-

ting here as ignorant as you, so wouldn't you agree I'm still being tested? For certain, if they promote a newcomer to the inner circle before me when I've earned that rank, I'm gone from Tochara." That should convince you of my alleged identity and my motive for joining and staying in that fiendal^ band.

Before Dagan could express an opinion, the door slid open and Auken instructed them to go to the transporter room. In the passageway, he asked, "You mean our target halted and will allow us to board her?"

The golden-haired man laughed and boasted, "Our disguises and ruse worked perfectly. Her engine is shut down and she's in a communications blackout as ordered. Let's hurry before somebody wonders why and sends a patrol to check out the problem. So far, nothing hazardous is registering on our sensors and no patrols are supposed to be in this sector for the next three horas; that's plenty of time to get what we came after and be gone. Starla, you and Sach will disable the androids while Dagan and I collect our prize and search the ship. We don't want another free-rider to intrude on this raid like that one did with you and Moig; we don't want any warnings sent or complications to arise."

Starla refused to let memories of that last raid cloud her mind. "Do you want us to delete their communication with us and record of our presence and put the vessel on automatic pilot as usual?" she asked.

"That won't be necessary this time; she'll be obliterated after our departure." Auken continued after he entered the transporter room. "Sach will handle that precaution; you assist him."

"Understood," she replied, shocked by his destructive intention. Yet, there was nothing she could do to save the vessel and the androids, unless she revealed herself and took the villites prisoner. She was a skilled, highly trained, experienced fighter and authorized law enforcer, but to attempt to incapacitate four men with stun beams was too

risky. Even if she succeeded, that would terminate her crucial mission. She knew Cypher was nearby in the cloaked Liska, protecting her and recording this incident as usual, but there was nothing he could do either or his presence would be exposed. The moment Auken divulged his plan, she slyly had pressed a button on her wrist device to signal Cypher to noninterference of the last statement.

Auken, Sach, Starla, and Dagan stepped onto the sensor pads so Moig could transfer them to the other ship, as he was to remain aboard to monitor their safety and operate the transportation unit.

It did not take long for Starla and Sach to disable the androids. Afterward, they headed to the engine room so the Icarian could set an explosive charge which would leave nothing behind except space debris. Then, the rugged man carried out an unexpected task. Starla watched as he used a laser tool, powered by a small white moonbeam, to open a recently installed and concealed flight recorder box. He poured Myozenic Acid inside to dissolve its contents and beacon, eliminating any clues about the incident and obliterating its tracking signal.

Sach contacted Auken by transmitter. "All tasks are done," he announced. "How long do you need before I switch on the timing device?"

"We're finished and ready to leave," Auken answered. "Arm the charge and meet us in the transporter room. Let's get out of here."

Within five preons, the raid was completed and the group was sitting on the Adika 's bridge with Auken and Sach at the controls. While en route, they observed the distant explosion on the cloaked ship's viewing screen.

"That was too easy," Auken jested. "No challenge at all."

"I like easy and quick to protect my skin," Moig revealed. "That's a pretty view, bright colors and pieces flying in all directions, no evidence to point at us or Tochar. Karlee fire,

those androids are stupid to be so smart; I love those gUtches in their programs so we can bypass their orders."

Karlee was exactly where Starla wanted the evil villites to go one deega, as a hellish existence and punishment were what she felt they deserved. She made a mental note to report Tochar's knowledge of the investigative apparatus, a secret measure only certain people in Seri should be aware of, one that perhaps would provide the mistake needed to unmask its traitor. She would tell Cypher to add that discovery to their file on this mission.

Dagan leaned back in his seat. "Auken's right; there were no challenges to stimulate the blood and test our skills. But I wouldn't mind keeping this uniform and marker; might come in handy for future use."

"You planning on leaving us?" Auken queried, glancing back at him.

"No time soon, not until I earn enough to buy a new ship; it will take a ying or two for the kind I want. Who knows, maybe I'll stay and hire on as a private raider for Tochar. I do like his generosity and sanctuary. He's smart, so he should be open to that suggestion; having several teams working for him would bring in more profits. You think he would allow me to use the Azoulay if I can get her repaired?"

After checking his sensors and adjusting his course to head for the stargate, Auken asked, "How would you do that?"

"There's an old space station orbiting Gavas in the Kalfa system. I've made a few stops at Sion in the past. It's rarely used anymore because the others are newer, better equipped, and more advanced. The parts storage bay might have what Tochar needs to get her going again. Sion was still well stocked the last time I was there, but it could be empty and abandoned by now. If not, only a skeleton crew would be manning it; they shouldn't give us any problems we can't overcome. If Tochar has trusted contacts in Kalfa, he could

check out that possibiHty; if it's safe and the part he needs is there, we could get one for him. I'm sure I remember my way around that station, so we could be in and out in a hurry. We could use these disguises to obtain permission for docking."

Starla was dismayed by Dagan's suggestion, as it might endanger the lives of any humans assigned to Sion. If they were divided into teams, she could be given Moig as a partner and assigned raids that didn't include those for moonbeams, which would hinder her investigation and imperil her mission. If she and Moig used her ship while the others used the repaired Azoulay, which was superior to the Adika, that also would prevent Cypher's stealthy trackings. She mustn't allow that obstacle to thwart her.

"I'm pleased by your idea and offer of help, Dagan," Auken said, "but Tochar doesn't permit anybody to go anywhere in the Azoulay unless he's aboard. But he would be grateful to you for getting him that part."

Dagan grinned and shrugged as if in acceptance of the Icarian's words. He hoped Tochar would permit him to repair the ship and that the leader would be tempted to take a trek in it for diversion or testing, as that would get Tochar away from his formidable defenses and make him vulnerable to attack. "That's reason enough to do him a favor. That idea came to me after you mentioned the Azoulay's troubles last night."

Starla was relieved to hear that news, as she feared Auken would ask how Dagan had learned about the Azoulay's problem and might wonder why she had mentioned that fact to the auslander. She suspected Dagan had made that statement to enlighten her. "If our job is completed," she said to Auken, "I'm going to change out of this uniform and scrub off this fake tattoo. It makes me nervous to be this close to them. I don't even want to imagine what an I-GAFqt would do to us for impersonating one of their units. That ranks as one of the gravest offenses we could commit."

Auken increased their pace to starburst speed. "You're right, Starla, but who's going to find out with the evidence destroyed?"

Her gaze settled on Auken's Ught hair. "No secret or security is totally impregnable, my friend; somebody—somehow, someway—always finds a means to penetrate them. Our success on this trek proves that's a fact."

"You aren't losing your courage, are you, Vedris?"

She looked at the shorter man who was stroking his golden beard. "No, Moig, but it's good to be cautious, and healthy fear is wise. That's what keeps one from making fatal mistakes."

"She's right, Moig," Sach said, "so don't tease her or laugh. I would be nervous and worried too if I didn't know for certain our secret is safe. Starla doesn't have the same knowledge and advantage we do."

"It stokes her to be ignorant," Moig disclosed, "she told me so."

"Wouldn't being kept in the dark bother you when your life is at risk? If I were nothing more than a simple hireling, I wouldn't expect to be told things, but I'm a member of this team and been with it for a long time. I just don't understand why I'm not fully trusted and enlightened."

"Don't worry, Starla; that won't be true for much longer."

"Thank you, Auken; you're a good friend and teammate."

The Icarian smiled. "Thanks, so are you."

"I'm going to freshen up and change garments. I'll return soon."

"You can relax and rest back there if you want. It's four deegas to the boundary and three to Tochara. Nothing much to do until we reach base."

"That's a good idea, Auken. Signal me if there's trouble." Starla left the bridge for privacy as they headed toward the boundary which separated the Free-Zone from Kalfa. The Zone had a small sun but only a few planets and planetoids orbited it every six malees, all close enough to the solar

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