[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Interlude Four

"Computer," Marlowe droned as he sat in front of a main terminal on the bridge, "status check, specified systems." Only minutes ago he had returned to the giant ship floating high above Palma, a ship hidden to all save his own kind.

"Life support..."

"Acceptable." The computer's responding voice, though female in tone, was eminently robot-like: flat and emotionless.

"Cloaking systems..."

"Acceptable."

"Drives..."

"Acceptable."

"What are the results of the scheduled diagnostic of the suspended animation pods?"

"All units functioning at optimum capacity."

"Ship-wide: have there been any anomalies that require attention?"

"Affirmative."

"Explain."

"A previously unknown set of data banks have been uncovered in the scavenged circuits of the Alisa III. Their location was hidden from me due to a complex set of encodings and encryptions."

Marlowe's eyes lit up devilishly. He rose quickly, and left the bridge. Seconds later, he was in his quarters. "Computer," he commanded, "Information-Seal: Alpha Override Marlowe-6-6-9-9-F-F. Route all information regarding these data banks to my personal account. Purge all other references to them in the ship's log."

"Completed."

"Computer, you will only discuss this new information if you are offered my Alpha code, is that understood?"

"Affirmative."

Marlowe sat back on his bed and interlocked his hands. "Now, have you successfully decoded the hidden data?"

"Negative. The data itself was not encrypted, only its location."

"I see... summarize."

"The data is a history of the Alisa III's journey through space, centering on the events that its crew participated in."

"Wonderful!" Marlowe's smile smacked of near-delirium. "Begin playback of all data... wait! Amend that... playback all sections referencing 'demon', 'evil', or 'Dark Force', chronologically..."

"'Shortly after our mass-exodous from Palma, our cadre of ships was invaded by the vile Dark Force. One by one, the demon destroyed the ships from within; hundreds of ships, all lost to his evil. Dark Force did, in fact reach our own ship, the Alisa III, eventually. We would not learn of this fact until centuries later, though.'"

"Computer, interrupt. Search: what prompted the 'mass-exodus' from Palma?"

"Searching... the planet Palma of the Algo star system was destroyed by a falling satellite."

"What?!? Are the records explicit as to Palma's destruction?"

"Affirmative."

"...continue..."

"'Using his influence, the demon clouded the minds of two of our most popular leaders: Laya and Orakio. He set their armies against each other, and thousands were killed in the carnage. This is what came to be known as the Devastation War. It was the blackest period in the history of the Alisa III, and we can only assume that such fates befell our sister ships before their own destruction.

'The next instance that...'"

"Computer, interrupt. Skip ahead to period just prior to final entries..."

"'The Council supplied Aron and his companions with the mystical Nei Weapons; using them, the group managed to defeat the Dark Force. The demon was locked away again, as he had been for most of the preceding 1000 years. It is known that the demon was not destroyed, although measures were taken to insure that it is never again released.

'The Alisa III is now headed towards an unknown phenomenon. It is a singular mass, devoid of light, with immense gravitational pull. Our engines cannot resist its attraction; we are inevitably drawn towards it. It is unknown what effect this phenomenon will have on the ship.'" The computer stopped.

"Computer, why have you halted? Continue..."

"There are no more text recordings in the data banks following this last entry."

"...Are there any decipherable automatic sensor recordings following this entry?"

"Affirmative."

"Translate."

"The Alisa III computer records show that the ship entered the mentioned phenomenon [interrupt: data suggests this phenomenon was a black hole.] No readings were taken while the ship traversed this effect. Upon leaving the effect, the computer recorded heavy damage to all ship systems excepting the engine architecture. The crew of the Alisa III could do nothing to repair the damage. The ship crashed into a planetoid, and all humanoids aboard were killed. No computer entries follow the crash."

"And this planetoid was of course Earth's moon..." Marlowe spoke aloud to himself.

"Affirmative."

"Computer, replay reference to 'Nei Weapons'."

"'The Council supplied Aron and his companions with the mystical Nei Weapons; using them, the group managed to defeat the Dark Force.'"

"Is there a reference to the location of the weapons following Dark Force's defeat?"

"Searching... affirmative."

"Is that location part of the scavenged material we took to construct this ship?"

"Affirmative."

Marlowe was positively giddy with delight. "Unbelievable! My luck has taken an upswing, hasn't it, computer?"

"Query not understood."

"It was rhetorical, computer, but never mind. Scan back to reference: 'destruction of Palma'. Summarize all you can from the data."

"All data has been presented. The planet Palma of the Algo star system was destroyed just after the Alisa III was launched."

"But computer, is our ship not now orbiting the planet Palma of the Algo star system?"

"Affirmative."

"...Computer, do the data banks hold information regarding star and galaxy positions surrounding Algo at the time of Palma's destruction?"

"Affirmative."

"Do they hold the same for the time before the Alisa entered the phenomenon?"

"Affirmative."

"Calculate time between data, based on star positions."

"One thousand forty-eight years, with possible error of zero-point-one percent."

"Does this match the time recorded in the data banks between the destruction of Palma and the entering of the phenomenon?"

"Affirmative."

"Now calculate time between destruction of Palma and now, assuming the Alisa III crashed into the moon the same year it exited the phenomenon, using recorded time in the data banks and your own internal clocks."

"One thousand three hundred and thirteen years, with a possible error of zero-point-zero-zero-five percent."

"Computer, is it possible for a planet to form in this amount of time?"

"Negative."

"...Calculate time between destruction of Palma and now, using star maps."

"Negative one thousand years, with a possible error of zero-point-zero-zero-three percent."

"What is meant by 'negative', computer?"

"Measurements based on star maps show that the current time is one thousand years prior to the destruction of Palma."

"Prior...?"

"Affirmative."

"Oh... my..." Suddenly, everything had changed.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Motavia is still resisting your demands, m'lord." Lusar stood before his king, the tyrant Lassic, in his throneroom. "Their defiance seems to have increased a great deal lately... perhaps they are planning something..."

"Don't be ridiculous, Lusar. The fools at the PGC are too incompetent to think for themselves. Sirus is the only one capable of mounting any type of threat... but of course it would be nothing my forces couldn't handle." Lassic's arrogance filled the air.

"As you say, m'lord."

"Close the spaceports. Inter-planetary travel will be open only to my personal servants. If we cut the fool governor off completely, he'll have no choice but to bow before us."

"It will be done. We have also heard reports... rumors, more truthfully, that a small group of individuals has been traveling Palma, seeking assistance in defeating you..."

"'Small group of individuals', Lusar? You amuse me!" Lassic laughed. "No one on Palma has the means to challenge me! ...I gave you orders to crush the resistance movements... why has my will not been done, lackey?" Withstanding the king's glare, Lusar stood firm. He was not one to be intimidated.

"It is said that the people have no connection to the resistance... they appear to be rogue operatives... and they may have... an Esper among them."

"An Esper!?!" Lassic bellowed. "Impossible! I banished them all from my kingdom!"

"Again, these are only rumors, m'lord."

"Arrr... very well. Have the robotcop production stepped up, and increase patrols through the cities. If these ephereal challengers do exist, find them and destroy them. I will hear no more of this. Begone." The tyrant waved his hand in dismissal.

"As you wish, m'lord." Lusar was gone.

- - - - - - - - - -

Far across the system, buried somewhere in the blizzards of Dezoris, the earthmen were called to attention by Gerod, their leader.

"We are leaving this planet immediately! Our Dark Lord has commanded us to return to the mothership, for he senses the Great Merge is almost upon us!" A nameless fellow spoke out.

"But what of our mission here? We still have not found the great prism... will we come back here...?"

"No, our lord has cancelled our mission. With the Merge closing in and Lassic in our thrall, there is no need for the rock... we can take this system without it!" Gerod yelled, ever zealous.

"But some of us have spent twelve years here!" screamed Terrick back at him. "You mean we've wasted over a decade of our lives?!? This is intolerable! You cannot..."

"Silence!" commanded Gerod. "I will brook no opposition! Such as our lord decrees, so do we act! We are leaving NOW... there is to be no further discussion! Prepare yourselves... we leave in three hours..."

And so, two hundred and forty-eight earthmen readied themselves to leave the ice planet... perhaps forever.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]