Abandoned Elvan Cruiser
Terran year, 3749
Elvan, 17, 506
How could they be dead? Jack Stryker refused to believe his eyes. He'd heard stories that Kaylith's ship had been sabotaged, but he'd clung to the hope the rumors had been false. Now with every step he took in this derelict vessel, it looked more and more as if it were true.
But it couldn't be true. It just ... couldn't.
Straining to see beyond the narrow ray of his helmet's flashlight, he blinked as the beam sliced through the utter darkness of the stasis chamber. Floating shards of broken permaglas threw off rainbow reflections that temporarily dazzled Jack's eyes.
Listening as his eyes adjusted, he could hear the soft hum of the stasis chamber's power generators. For easy transport, each tube was built as a self-contained unit with its own power supply. The sound did much to lift his flagging spirits.
Then the light fell on a blast hole fracture in the first tube and his hope wavered. He stepped closer, the heaviness in his legs having nothing to do with the magnetic soles of his prezskinned feet. He'd dedicated his entire life to this moment, only to have his faith in destiny shattered.
He wanted to punch something. Kaylith was supposed to be alive. Dammit, she was supposed to be alive!
"Jack, haven't heard from you in a while. Everything okay?" Orna asked over the com line. "I almost have the main batteries on-line."
"I'm fine, Orna," Jack replied. "I've found the stasis chamber."
"Terrific! Is the crew all right?"
His helmet light flashed on the face of the first tube's occupant. Vacuum had preserved the body perfectly. Flaming red hair framed the man's face. But there was no fire in his frozen blue eyes. That light had been extinguished forever.
The heaviness in Jack's limbs spread to the pit of his stomach as he began examining the tubes one by one. The next cylinder belonged to a beautiful blonde woman. A ghost of her living smile curved her dead lips. Permaglas shards imbedded in her shoulders glittered like diamonds.
"Jack? Do you copy?"
"Copy, Orna." Something, probably permaglas, crunched under his feet as he continued down the row. His breath caught in his throat when the helmet light illuminated the sharp features of an Elvan woman. Kaylith?
He exhaled. No, the eyes that glittered back at him were frosty gray, not deep green. The lids were open wide, as if the woman had been startled from stasis sleep before she died.
Jack shook his head at the senselessness of it all and moved on to the next tube. This one held an Elvan man, dark of hair, eyes, and skin. The man looked uncommonly strong for an Elvan. Yet his strength hadn't saved him. He'd been helpless when his tube was sabotaged.
"Jack, talk to me. Tell me what you ssee!"
Dread now shadowed his every step. The next cylinder held a Tjorn woman. She'd been frozen for all time with her fists raised defiantly, her mouth open in a war cry. Permaglas chips sparkled all over her blue skin and hair.
"They're dead. It looks like someone used their tubes for target practice."
"Oh, no!" Orna's cry echoed his own despair. "All of them?"
He'd reached the last stasis tube. Jack turned toward it, wanting to shrink from what he might see, but still determined to know.
To his astonishment, his helmet light illuminated a smooth, intact surface. Cryogas drifted in a lazy white mist around the long, lean body inside.
He traced the vague outline of the figure with his helmet light. Gentle curves were revealed here and there. It was a female's body. He looked down and saw a tiny green light glowing on the tube's floor panel. Make that a live female's body! Could it really be--"Kaylith?" Jack whispered. "Is that you?"
"Sstryker, ssay again?"
He couldn't answer. He wasn't sure he could even breathe. A rush of images and voices, some real, some not, flashed through his mind. He'd been searching for Kaylith for most of his life, convinced beyond all reason he would find her.
"Sstryker! Talk to me!"
The concern in Orna's voice snapped him out of his daze. Even so, he still didn't feel as if he was thinking straight. His mind felt heavy--cluttered. "Orna," he said softly, "We-we have a live one here. I think it's a woman."
There was a long pause on the com line, then Orna finally said, "Really? Are you ssure?"
Jack glanced at the tube's floor panel again. The tiny light that indicated the tube's active system stasis continued to cast a cheery green glow. "Yes, I'm sure. Hurry up and get the lights on, then bring the nullgravs over here!"
Stryker heard Orna's excited hiss over the com line even as he strained to see past the cryogas to identify the person inside. He'd known the Corban long enough to visualize her fingercoils knotting with delight.
"Is it the Great One?" Her voice held volumes of hope, fueling his own growing optimism.
He opened his mouth to reply, then hesitated. It looked like Kaylith. And with everything he had he wanted to believe it was Kaylith! But no, beyond being able to establish the woman's sex, he couldn't be sure who was in there.
Before he could speak, a third voice, one belonging to their crewmate, Dal, came on the com line. He was back on Needle, monitoring their progress from the cockpit. "Of course it isn't her," Dal said. "I've been telling you both all along that this is a complete waste of time. We're in the wrong sector."
"Ignore him, Jack," Orna said. "I always do. Am sswitching the main power batteries on...now!"
The stasis room suddenly became ablaze with light, revealing the extent of the damage to the tubes. Despite the grim sight of the five frozen bodies, Jack smiled when he heard Orna's whoop of triumph.
"Whoever it is, we will be the toasst of Unified University for rescuing her." Orna always looked on the bright side. It was one of the things Jack dearly loved about her.
"Not unless you slither over with the nullgravs now!"
"Keep your prezskin on. I'm coming."
"Hurry," Stryker said, peering into the stasis tube. His reflection in the icy permaglas superimposed itself over the occupant. He frowned, straining to see past the translucent image of his own blue eyes and dirty-blonde hair. Try as he might to see the woman inside, he couldn't tell if it was Kaylith.
No one had believed he could find Kaylith the Cursed...Kaylith the Legend. But the facts of this find supported his theory.
Fact one: this damaged ship was an Elvan Fleet cruiser class vessel. It was the exact same model as Talon; a ship Kaylith's Elvan crewmember Zar, who could very well have been the Elvan female in the stasis room, had stolen from the IML over a 150 years before. Orna's initial spectrum scan dated this vessel at 150 years.
Fact two: according to Elvan Mindmaster accounts, Kaylith's vessel had been sabotaged on its return journey from Sentarl. This vessel's starboard section had a blast hole the size of a flitter. The damage appeared to have come from inside. And it was definitely adrift in Sentari space.
Lastly, this cruiser's stasis tubes held six bodies. Two were Elvan, two more human and the other Tjorn. There'd been two Elvans and a Tjorn included in Kaylith's crew. The rest were said to be human, save Kaylith.
Jack's hand fisted on the permaglas barrier that separated him from his destiny. For years, he dreamed of Kaylith, never knowing why or how the dreams had begun. He'd delved into every vid, every file about her. Visited over a dozen worlds of long-lived races to get eyewitness accounts.
He knew her better than he knew himself.
On some worlds, she was considered a saint. On others--an outlaw. Kaylith had been the enigma of her age, a walking contradiction no one had ever solved. Her death had been as mysterious as her life--a life that still influenced the Unity today.
Despite Dal's doubts, he knew this woman was Kaylith. He knew it just as surely as he knew the sliding sound of Orna drawing near. Without turning around, he held out a hand for a nullgrav clamp.
A coral shaded appendage sheathed in clear prezskin deposited a clamp into his palm. "Now I know how grave robbers feel," Orna said, her gaze roaming over the frozen bodies. "Excited we have found them, and yet somehow guilty for disturbing their tomb."
"It's not a tomb, Orna. It's a stasis chamber."
He looked over and saw her staring up at the Tjorn woman. Orna looked uneasy...sort of excited, afraid, and sad all at once. "This one died fighting, didn't sshe?"
"Looks like it. She always was a hell of a warrior."
Jack cleared his throat. "Nothing. Let's get this tube ready for transport."
Orna slid to the other side of the tube, pulling a clamp out of her utility belt. While her third and fourth tentacles worked to attach it, she reverently placed the hands of the other two onto the tube, her attention more on the woman inside than on attaching the clamp. Being a Corban, Orna was quite capable of doing more than one thing at time.
"Sstrange," she said. "I didn't think she'd look so human."
"She is human." Jack bit his lip as he attached his clamp to the tube. His hands felt sweaty beneath the prezskin. "Well, partly human, anyway."
"But I thought she looked more like an Elvan."
"She did. Kaylith was part Elvan too."
He didn't bother to point out the third part of her heritage, since Orna well knew Kaylith's story.
"Well, quit keeping me in suspense! Do you think this is the Great One or not?"
"Yes...I mean...I don't know!" Jack stammered in frustration. He'd been ridiculed too many times to risk being laughed at now--not now, when it mattered the most. "Be quiet, and let me work."
Orna let out a hissing sigh and turned her full attention to the job at hand.
For a Corban, she was quite beautiful. Her tail scales were a deep orange that graduated like a sunrise to the pale coral of her upper torso. Her four 'arms', really more like tentacles, had neatly buffed sets of seven appendages, giving her twenty-eight fingercoils in all, one in each set acting as an opposable thumb.
Beneath her helmet, he could see the thick quills that fell between her diamond shaped eyes in an inverted "V". Her pupils were solid gold and she rarely blinked. Two delicate nasal slits formed a second "V" which framed her iridescent peach-pink lips.
She bared her ivory fangs as she finished attaching the nullgrav, the Corban equivalent of a human's sardonic grin. "Are you ssure we can move her without interrupting the tube's power ssource?"
"The tube's power cells are fine. Why do I get the feeling you're teasing me?"
"Because you are acting like a cranky Tjorn. You've found her, Jack. You did what everyone, especially Dal, ssaid couldn't be done. Why aren't you happy? I am. I feel like I could sing."
Why wasn't he happy? What if Dal was right? What if this woman wasn't Kaylith? But he knew she was... knew she was.
Jack let out a sigh as he detached the tube's anchor cable, then switched on the nullgravs. They fired up with a reassuring high-pitched whine. "Maybe because after all these years of searching, I can't believe I've finally found her. It's just too good to be true."
Orna pushed at the now-floating stasis tube with a fingercoil. It drifted a foot or so towards the door. "Then let's get back to the sship, wake her up, and let her prove you and Dal wrong."