The ship had experienced some stress from minor components in Engineering that were neglected during the upgrades. After that was fixed, or while it was being fixed, several different connections were being made or made stronger.
Tom Kohl and Randy Thompson drank some apple cider that seems to have turned hard. In a drunken stupor, they had sex, but also discovered that they like each other. Brad Kanye and Steve Boyer strengthened their connection while in a shuttle. Lt. Łukasz Kuc discovered a little about Scott Trevor's recent past. He's hoping to be Scott's friend if not more.
Dave and Hal learned more about their new son, making their relationship with him... and each other better. Jace had to work a little on his relationship with the twins, especially Jason. Aiden and Connor had a romantic dinner in their quarters. Randy Jenkins and Whit Olson found each other under a plate of "sketti." And finally, Danny and Kyle moved their relationship along.
"Start with the assumption that there is such a thing as evil which can exist without causation. The black heart which takes joy in being black. In almost every kind of herd animal, there is the phenomenon of being a rogue " ~ Travis McGee, the protagonist - "Cinnamon Skin" by John D. McDonald © 1982 Harper & Row, Publishers
Azazel sensed life and the feeling awakened him. He did not know how long ago the Star Council had put him into the dark hole that surrounded him, or why they had put him there.
He had a perfectly good reason for punishing his family, including his children. They had left their planet to enter his realm, the solar system. They would someday be leaving his realm to explore other realms... some of them, the realms of stars belonging to the council.
The Star Council wanted Azazel to be a part of the goodness of the galaxy. But Azazel knew that star systems and solar systems were not created from goodness. They were created from violence; from exploding stars, colliding planets, and planets being struck, changed and moved by the bombardments of asteroids, comets, ice and debris. It was disfunction that created his realm and every realm, and it would be disfunction and violence that maintained it.
To punish his children for leaving their parent, the planet on which they lived, he increased his energy to heat the planet every time someone left the surface to enter his realm. Even the dumbest of creatures should have been able to see the relationship between the rising temperatures, the droughts and dust storms, to their attempts to leave their proper home. But the fools in his family did not see and finally he lashed out in anger and frustration and destroyed his family of planets and the children of the fourth planet away from him.
The Star Council acted. They placed him into dark stasis, forever cut off from the rest of the stars of the galaxy. He told them that stars went nova and destroyed their planets throughout the galaxy and not just his, their realms had been created by violence and disfunction.
The council answered that what happened was nature at work, which was not the intentional destruction that he had brought to the planets of two-star systems. These conversations were not the kind of conversations that sentient biological creatures could follow. They were the energy thoughts of stars, an entirely different form of life than what any human could imagine. For a finite time that stretched out so long it seemed infinite, all Azazel could do was hibernate in the prison in which he had been placed and hope that someday, something would happen to awaken him.
The first hint that the Star Council was not omnipotent came when Azazel sensed the small rift that had opened in his energy barrier. He couldn't sense much, but the opening reminded him that there was hope of regaining children to orbit him.
Then came the hint of life that passed the rift. He failed to lure it into his prison, but he learned from it. He planned in great detail how he would handle the next visitors that passed by his prison and he would win out. The Sinocardian ship that had passed was unaware of how close to disaster it had come.
Now Azazel felt life nearby again. Another chance for a child to orbit him. While it may not be a lovely planet circling him, it would still be life. He would have children again. This time he would not fail.
The boys had just awakened, and Jordan was setting out breakfast. Jason was seated at the little table they use when they eat in their quarters. He looked at them and solemnly inquired, "Boys, know how you told us they wanted to separate you two because you were sucking his private?"
The twins got a scared look on their face and Jace was worried that he didn't state that right. Jonas debated, "You said there was nothing wrong with it."
"And that is still correct. We have no problem with the two of you sucking each other," Jordan stated. The twins relaxed a bit. Jordan continued, "We just want to make sure you are aware that you're not to suck anyone else, except maybe Lars since he's close to your age, and no one other than Lars is allowed to suck you. Even with Lars, don't do it unless it feels right to you and him, and don't force him. Or let him suck either of you unless it feels comfortable for everyone."
"But can we ask Lars if he wants to?" Jonas inquired.
Jason shook his head, "I think Daddy and Pappy would feel more comfortable if we let him ask us first."
Jace smiled, "That just proves how smart and aware you are. Just remember, don't force anyone or let anyone force you into doing anything of that nature, and only boys close to your age."
"That only includes us and Lars," Jonas pointed out.
"Exactly," Jordan concurred.
Tom Kohl was in the Officers' Mess eating lunch. Randy Thompson walked in, grabbed a tray of food and walked over. "Mind if I sit with you?"
"I'd like that."
Randy looked at Tom with a sad expression, "I didn't know you were a virgin and when you offered..."
Tom stopped him, "No apology necessary. As I said, I am glad it was you who took my virginity. I had fun spending the day with you and I'd like for us to maybe hook up and have sex sober. I barely remember any of what we did, and I know that I would enjoy my time with you."
"Well, you drank more of that apple cider than I did, so I remember it all. I really liked having sex with you and will be happy for a repeat... so you can remember," Randy stated. "Oh, before I forget, there were ten gallons of apple cider with no preservatives mixed in with the rest. I thought about keeping all of them but turned in six to Dave. The other four are in my quarters."
Tom grinned, "You better not drink any without me, but even then, not before we have fun."
"Does that mean we are dating?" Randy asked.
Tom had a sheepish grin on his face, "Only if that includes some kissing."
"I just got off duty and am planning to head to my quarters. When do you get off?"
Tom smirked, "That depends on how fast you work. I just finished my watch and plan to follow you to your quarters."
"Shadow thinks the water is too cold," Jonas giggled as the dog ran into the holodeck's artificial pond, yelped and ran back out, shaking the water off his fur.
"He seems to be slow to figure it out," Brad said. "That's the fifth time he's run in and out of the pond."
Jonas debated, "The other times he was chasing the ball, so he couldn't help it. This time he ran in all by himself."
"Do you think it's too cold?" Kyle asked.
"No," Lars replied. "At my old home, it is cold, cold, cold."
"I think it's cold, but it's fun," Jonas said.
"Cold, cold, cold, but fun, fun, fun," Jason giggled.
Lars grabbed the ball and threw it across the holodeck and laughed as Shadow chased it. This was the first time he'd ever played with a dog; it was the most fun he could remember having since his father died, or maybe ever. He took off after Shadow and the twins jumped into the water screaming at the cold but making no attempt to get out. Brad watched the blond run off and couldn't help but notice how athletic he looked as he chased the dog. Lars gave the impression of being a very self-confident boy, especially considering how his life had been turned upside down.
It didn't take long for the ball to come back, whizzing by Kyle, Brad and Danny who were sitting at a picnic table watching the twins enjoying their "nekid" fun in the pond. Lars ran past them sporting a little hard on.
"It looks like blondie is having a good time," Brad said.
"He's just being a boy letting things go, which happens to all of us," Kyle pointed out.
"Why does this happen?" Lars asked when he returned to the table. He pointed to his erection. He remembered how good it felt when he lay next to Jonas and Jason playing "tag" with them and their peters got hard just like his was. That time they were touching each other, and it felt good, while this time it just went hard by itself while he was throwing the ball for Shadow and watching the twins playing in the water.
"That's something you should ask your dads," Kyle said in reply to Lars' question. "It's their job to teach you about that, but I can tell you that it's normal." He almost wished he could watch Dave give his first sex-ed lesson.
"How do I make it go away?"
"I can show you how," Brad said, "It's easy, just follow me." Kyle looked at Brad aghast until he could see what Brad had in mind as soon as he took off.
Brad ran into the water screaming. While the water wasn't as cold as everybody made out, it was still enough like a big cold shower to do the trick, he thought. Lars followed Brad into the pond and almost instantaneously a water fight broke out between Lars, Brad, and the twins. At their urging, Kyle and Danny entered the water and everybody got sprayed by everybody else.
"Hey, we better get lunch," Kyle said all-too-soon. "Our time is running out."
The boys left the pond. "It went away," Lars announced to indicate his problem had been solved. "You helped me good, Brad,"
"And you be sure to talk to your dads, so they can tell you about what happened," Brad said.
"I promise I will. Do you still have my necklace?"
"I do. Some little blond dude told me what would happen if it got lost," Brad grinned. He went to the picnic table, where Kyle was setting out the lunch supplied by "Uncle" Randy and reached into box they used to store their communicators and other small articles. He took out Lars' beautiful amulet and draped it over the boy's neck. "That looks so good on you," he commented.
"It's from Daddy Hal and is special. It protects me."
Brad took out a necklace of his own and placed it over his head. It was handed down by his African ancestors. Its multiple colors glittered in the bright lights of the holodeck.
"That's pretty," Lars said as he reached out his hand to touch it.
Suddenly everybody's world changed. The holodeck went dark and the ship went into sudden deceleration. The boys fell to the ground and their momentum had them sliding toward the front of the holodeck. The emergency lights came on within seconds and their sliding stopped at about the same time.
"Is everyone okay?" Brad asked. "Is anybody hurt?" Everybody said they were okay, although Jason told them he fell in some mud and was all dirty. The water had slopped out of the pond and covered the holodeck floor.
The holodeck's safety protocols switched in. While the scene Brad had created was gone, the water that had slopped out of the disappearing pond was draining. The wall Danny skidded against was padded and he wasn't hurt. The only damage was that their clothes and uniforms were drenched, and their lunch was ruined.
"What happened?" Brad asked. The main lights came back on, giving the older boys a chance to check on the younger ones. Lars and the twins looked frightened but were holding themselves together.
"I have no clue," Kyle said. "It was like we hit something, but we for sure left FTL speed. In fact, I think we're stopped." None of them could hear the almost undetectable sounds and vibrations that were always part of the moving ship.
"We need to find our communicators," Danny said. Brad hadn't yet closed the box when the chaos ensued, and the communicators fell out of the box and flew off the table. Since the communicators were moisture resistant when they were closed nobody was worried about damage.
"They should be with our soaking wet uniforms," Brad said, which was where the three older boys found them.
"We're cold," Jason and Jonas said simultaneously. Lars, while cold, was not as affected by it as the twins were. He was used to a cold environment.
"We seem to have lost our tropical heat,"
The good news was that the towels had been placed on a shelf at the holodeck door and were still high and dry. The boys gladly grabbed them and dried their shivering bodies.
All systems on the Sooloo were running smoothly as the starship zipped along at FTL. Jace had the conn, which essentially meant having no assigned duties outside of checking that the ship was operating flawlessly. His watch would be over in an hour. He couldn't wait to see Jason and Jonas and hear their tales of how their time in the holodeck went. They were at Holodeck 1 with Kyle, Brad, and Danny, probably playing hide-and-seek, throwing balls for Shadow to chase down, or swimming "nakey" in whatever pond had been created, or all the above.
Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of alarms. Red lights were flashing on the instrument readouts as the ship swept to port and started a hard deceleration. A bright light flashed on the viewscreen and then was gone. The power failed as the Sooloo came to a dead stop. Emergency power kicked in and the viewscreen was filled with an array of stars as well as a large, very bright star ahead of them.
"What the hell happened?" Dave asked as he clambered onto the bridge.
"I have no idea, sir," Jace answered. "One moment we're moving along routinely and then it was as if control of the ship was taken away from us. I tried to regain control but just keep decelerating until we stopped."
"Where are we?" Dave asked John Luke, who was on duty at the astrogation table.
"I don't know, sir. I'm making a quick check of our coordinates to find out." John worked at the table and on the computer. He made some observations on the ship's telescopes and then read a book off a small shelf on the astrogation table.
John opened the book to a bookmarked page and checked the numbers against those on the computer readout. "The coordinates I read on the astrogation screen appear to be wrong," John said. "The stars around us are not the ones that should be there. I have no idea where we are, Captain. We appear to be lost."
Dave opened communications and went on all-call asking Kyle Robinson to report to the bridge immediately.
There was energy that flowed through the galaxy at speeds far beyond the speed of light in paths that were untraceable by sentient biological beings. It was the energy the stars used to communicate and the Star Council used to stand watch over what humans called the Milky Way Galaxy.
The stars had their own name for the galaxy. The closest Earth equivalent to that name was Tammuz, the name of the ancient Mesopotamian god of fertility and youth.
The release of negative energy that occurred when the Sooloo was drawn through the energy barrier rift by Azazel was felt by the stars. They realized instantly what had happened. While they were powerful, the stars were not omnipotent. They had locked Azazel inside an energy field, but to do so they had to lock themselves out. They quickly started planning what to do.
Azazel had disguised his intentions long enough to keep them from warning Kyle Robinson, their only contact on the Sooloo. Now they needed to use him to save the ship, but they couldn't contact him inside of the energy field. If they destroyed the field, the rogue star's power would increase beyond imagining as the energy pent up in the rogue while it was in the energy field would escape in all directions.
The stars kept probing through the slit that had opened and soon learned they could touch someone else inside the energy field, the boy called Jason, but the communication was one way. They could contact the boy, but he couldn't answer.
Like Kyle's penguin, Megrez, Jason was a conduit, or a lens, and now the stars needed to find his outlet. By probing those around Kyle Robinson, the stars discovered that outlet was the boy, Lars.
They also learned that Azazel controlled all those on the Sooloo by tiny manipulations through their thinking and by false messages. To do so he created a tiny energy field that clung to whatever the human was wearing, allowing the person to fall under the control of the rogue star. The only way to avoid falling under the spell of Azazel was to not wear clothes or any objects. Only total nudity could keep a person from being under the rogue's spell.
The stars set to work to make their plan to communicate inside the energy prison happen. Jason and Lars were the keys. The stars had no doubt their plan was sound.
The process was going to exhaust the pair of boys. There was a probability that one or both would be killed by the stress placed on them. This fact saddened the stars, but they realized the sacrifice of the few had to be made to save the many.
"Commander Luke, would you mind telling us where we are?" Dave asked the assistant astrogator.
"I don't know sir. The stars on the view screen don't agree with the ones on the star chart on the table," John Luke answered.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means I don't know where we are. Our position indicator says we are where we're supposed to be, but it doesn't look that way to me. I will check the navigation coordinates in the computer." John Luke sat at the astrogation computer and went to work. After a couple of minutes, he stopped and stared at the monitor.
"I just need to check one more thing." John Luke pulled a red notebook off the little book shelf at the aft end of the table. He opened it to the page nicely marked with a bright blue piece of ribbon. A quick scan of the numbers told him that the Sooloo was in big trouble. He took a deep breath and looked up from the log book.
"Sir, the coordinates on the computer are meaningless to me. They are nothing like the ones Kyle wrote in the log book. Our location indicator tells me we are where we're supposed to be, but the weird coordinates in the computer and the stars we see on the viewscreen tell me that the indicator is wrong and we are really wherever it is those computer coordinates sent us."
"How did those coordinates get into the computer?"
"All I know is the last person to log into the navigation computer is Kyle Robinson."
Captain Bowman immediately called Kyle's communicator but received no response. Frustrated he made an announcement over the ship's PA system, which was rarely used. "Commander Robinson, contact the bridge ASAP. Again, Commander Robinson, contact the bridge ASAP."
Kyle heard the announcement come out of the speaker near the holodeck door. Except for the wet clothes strewn on the still damp floor, the room was empty. He walked over to the speaker and flicked a toggle switch that put him in contact with the bridge. "Commander Robinson reporting from Holodeck 1, Captain."
Since Dave now knew where Kyle was, he grabbed his communicator and punched in the number for holodeck 1. "Why aren't you on your communicator, Commander?" Dave asked, his voice tinged with angry impatience.
"We're still looking for it, sir."
"How the hell did you lose your communicator?" Dave's use of "hell" created a squeak of surprise from Lars and the twins and a stunned intake of breath from the three older boys. This did not sound like Dave Bowman at all.
"It was washed away when we made our sudden stop. And, just exactly what happened?"
"Washed away? That is the dumbest thing I've heard this entire voyage." Hal, John Luke, and the other officers on the bridge didn't act surprised by Dave's out-of-character behavior. Without waiting for a reply, Dave ordered Kyle to the bridge immediately.
"I'm naked, sir, and my uniform is drenched."
"Just when I thought you couldn't get any stupider you succeeded, commander. I need you now, so come naked. I'll have a pair of coveralls delivered to the bridge. And bring the three boys you've been so determined to corrupt."
"I'll be right there, sir."
"What's going on with the Captain?" Brad asked. "He sounds like the crazy stop knocked a few screws loose in his brain.
"I have no idea, but I'd appreciate it if you'd come with me for support. I don't want to be the only naked officer on the bridge and Dave certainly does not seem to be in a good mood."
"I wouldn't be either if my command got yanked out of FTL. I wonder if your adjustments had anything to do with it?"
"No clue. Whatever is going on in the bridge just doesn't sound right to me no matter what the reason is."
"There's no way I'm going to be on the bridge in the raw if I don't have to be in the raw," Danny said. "I'm going to our quarters."
"Sounds good to me." He looked at the three younger boys. "Follow me, guys."
"But we're nakey," Jonas protested. Even though they were dry, Jonas and Jason both looked cold, miserable, and frightened. Lars looked as if things out of the ordinary were routine for him. He had that look of calm self-confidence that Randy Jenkins had seen in him.
"So are we. Grab a towel and cover up your privates if you want, but you have to come to the bridge with Brad and me."
The boys could tell how serious Kyle was and decided not to argue. All three boys grabbed towels and followed Kyle and Brad. Brad couldn't help but remember the conversation he'd had with Steve about a fantasy day when senior officers would be naked on the bridge; it wasn't meant to be prophetic.
Even though they expected Kyle and Brad to arrive on the bridge naked, the officers of the watch weren't sure how to react to it when Kyle, Brad, and the boys arrived. Jonas and Jason had towels wrapped around their waist, while Lars wore his towel on his shoulders and Brad and Kyle did not bring their towels.
"Why are you naked?" was the first thing Dave said.
"Sir, I told you that our uniforms were soaked." Kyle felt it was best for him to be formal when talking to this strange version of Dave. It was the same strategy he had used with his father for so much of his boyhood. "You told us you would provide us coveralls."
Dave pointed to the twins. "Even those two know how to cover themselves with a towel." He looked at Lars' state of undress. "And you, put that towel around your privates, NOW!" he yelled and the suddenly frightened boy.
"Okay, tell me where we are, commander," Dave ordered Kyle.
"I need to take a look." He looked at a readout on the astrogation table. The red letters and numerals read Alpha Delta 7747. That told him they were where they were in the proper sector, right where they were supposed to be. He then looked at the star chart covering the table and then glanced up at the stars on the view screen—they were not the same in any way. "I don't know where we are, sir.
"Why the fuck don't you know?" Dave yelled.
Kyle worked hard to maintain his composure. "Our position readout tells us we are where we belong, but the stars on the viewscreen are not the same ones as the readout."
"Does this have anything to do with the incorrect coordinates in the computer?"
"What incorrect coordinates?"
"How about you tell me, Mister Devin French. Fuck, at least he ended up somewhere. You took us to the middle of nowhere into a cluster of stars nobody recognizes."
"I don't know anything about…"
"THEY WERE ENTERED INTO THE COMPUTER BY YOU, CREWMAN ROBINSON!!!" Dave took a deep breath and went on a bit quieter. "Your access code is the last one used, so you tell me what's going on."
Kyle started to shrink the way he often did when his father was reaming him a new asshole. "I never entered…"
"Quit lying to me. Did you think nobody would notice? Are you that stupid? You're relieved of duty, crewman. I want you and your naked buddy over there off of my bridge." He pointed to Brad. "I don't want to hear from you until you know where we are."
"I have to be on the bridge to find out." The assertiveness Kyle had added to his voice through his training and experience was all but gone. He sounded and looked like a pathetic little twelve-year-old boy.
"You don't return here until you have our location and you're in fucking uniform. I'll have COMMANDER Luke forward the computer coordinates to your computer."
The showdown between Kyle and Dave was interrupted by Lars. He was standing next to Jason who had his arm wrapped around his new friend. He had seen that Lars looked sad. When his dads or Jonas put their arm around him it made him feel better; he thought he would do the same to make Lars feel better. Instead of feeling better Lars tensed up, as did Jason.
Lars began to babble what sounded like nonsense. "Twelve x on y minus seven z axis, one hundred y squared axis…" Kyle recognized what Lars was saying as Alpha Delta 7747 coordinates he had entered into the computer just a couple of days ago. They were among the coordinates that had been changed in the computer. At the same time Brad felt a hot tingling coming from his necklace. It was so hot against his chest that he pulled it off, singeing the tips of his fingers. He set it on the astrogation table.
"Shut up, Lars, we're trying to fix things here," Dave snarled. "You and the twins get off my bridge and go to my ready room. I'll deal with all of you later. And get some fucking clothes on. You are all in deep trouble."
Lars broke out into tears and ran off the bridge, his necklace bouncing against his chest. The world of caring and love he had known less than an hour ago had disappeared entirely. He and the twins entered the ready room, sobbing with fear and unhappiness, too upset to go anywhere else to get their clothes.
Hal thought Dave had been a little harsh, but he agreed with him that the boys should be off the bridge and out of their way. It was time for them to learn their place, especially Lars who had been way out of line with his interruption.
Dave glared at Brad and Kyle. "Wasn't Danny with you on the holodeck?"
Kyle nodded and meekly said, "He didn't want to come on the bridge naked, so he went to our quarters."
"That makes him smarter than you two idiots," he growled at Kyle and Brad. "You can go join him. I want all of you together to I can keep track of you. I'll have a uniform sent to you, Brad. And if you find out where we are, Kyle, I might even promote you to ensign and let you come back. So, for the second and last time, get the fuck off my bridge and get your uniforms on."
Brad touched his necklace, which was still warm, but had cooled down considerably. He picked it up and put it around his neck.
Kyle took a deep breath and called up as much assertiveness as he could muster. "Sir, Lars was giving astrogation coordinates and if I can figure how he got them I might…"
"Dammit, I am tired of your insubordination. The brig will be the next stop for you. Lars is eight years old and probably can't multiply four times two let alone recite astrogation coordinates, so quit bullshitting me and get out of here."
Brad and Kyle left the bridge faster than Lars and the twins had. Dave watched the door swish shut behind them. "I hope the rest of you understand why I'm doing what I'm doing," he said in a completely reasonable voice. "We are in big trouble and I need everyone on the same side. Are we all together on this? I've lost two of my senior officers to pure lunacy. Something is affecting behavior on our ship and I can't have anybody else fall victim to it."
Dave heard agreement from the rest of the bridge watch. The officers agreed he was doing the right thing and it was time to instill discipline before they became another Endurance. Hal backed up his captain as a good first officer should and his husband as a good spouse should, even though he had feeling somewhere in him that said Dave was wrong.
"John Luke, send the fake computer coordinates to crewman Robinson, but I don't think he's up to correcting what he did. Once we get going again, I'll see he’s court martialed for treason. It looks like it's up to you to get us moving again."
"I will do my best, sir," John Luke said. He didn't question anything Dave said. Right then in his mind, Kyle Robinson was a traitor who intentionally wiped out the astrogation coordinates from the computer and got them lost in an unknown start cluster. But, deep down inside of him, his heart was telling him there was something wrong with his thinking. He quickly blocked that thought out. Kyle was the traitor, not him.
John Luke wanted to point the Sooloo away from the star they were orbiting. He gave a set of coordinates to engineering and watched the viewscreen, waiting for the stars to move as the ship turned. But nothing happened; the Sooloo maintained the same course.
He patched into engineering. "Connor, I need to have us out of orbit in order to start us out of wherever we are." John Luke had no plans. He hoped that a short FTL trek would put them back into familiar territory. The idea sounded lame, but it was better than just staying where they were.
"I was just gonna tell you that I can't move us out of the orbit. It's like we're locked in by some kind of field," Connor replied.
"Can't you just give us full power?"
"I don't think we have enough power."
Dave entered the conversation with all force of his position. "What do you mean you don't THINK we have enough power. Don't think, just do it. How about shoving everything you have into those engines and finding out."
"Captain, the instruments say if I do that it will shake the ship apart. It will be way worse than whatever stopped us suddenly."
"Don't argue with me, commander, give me full power."
"I'm an engineer not a magician."
"I hear Lieutenant Taylor would love to be Chief Engineer."
Within seconds the ship started to rattle and shake and whine, but it didn't budge more than a foot from its orbital path. Dave held tightly on to the arm of his chair and called engineering. "You win, for now, commander." The shaking stopped. "But I want you to use every means in your power to get us out of orbit. Our survival depends on it."
"Aye, sir." Connor looked helplessly at his instruments. "I can't do it, Andrew," he said to Lieutenant Taylor, his assistant chief engineer. "It can't be done unless you see something I don't."
Andrew gave the dials and readouts a cursory glance and said. "I agree. Moving us out of orbit would destroy the Sooloo."
Azazel, the rogue, was pleased with how things were working out with his new children. Their outer skins strengthened the energy he sent to the primitive pod the tiny beings traveled in. The longer he was in contact with the pod and its beings the more he understood. And now, he had locked the pod into orbit around him, one that it could never leave even if the creatures on board should want to. Yes, they just attempted to leave orbit and gave up quickly when they couldn't do it. It didn't take much for him to discourage the poor souls. Azazel knew that they would soon be his children and then would never want to leave, but it didn't matter. The creatures were trapped for the rest of their lives.
One stroke of good fortune was that the leader of his children had a dark side that he had been covering up. As a result, his own evil energy went through his outer skin with even more intensity. The leader's underlings obeyed because they were trained to obey the leader. It did not matter that they were sometimes not in agreement because the energy being magnified by their outer skins convinced them that the leader had their best interests at heart and must be obeyed.
Azazel was gaining energy in return. It wasn't much, but it was enough that he would soon be able to start closing the opening to the stasis field. That would keep the pod and its beings his prisoners for the rest of their lives, even if they could escape their orbit. No, the rogue thought malevolently; they would not be prisoners—they would be his loving and willing children as soon as he revealed his existence and his power.
The only negative for the rogue star was that sometimes one of the beings would vanish from his awareness. Two small creatures would flitter in and out of his perception. One, then another one would have disappeared in the same place on the pod. Azazel wondered if this was something that could harm him, then he decided he needn't fear such small primitive creatures. He had destroyed their betters. No, they should all fear him until they learn to love him.
Kyle and Brad raced naked through the corridors, ignoring the looks of what few crewmen they buzzed past. One of them happened to be crewman Gross, who was on his way to shuttle bay duty. Seeing two senior officers running down a corridor in the altogether made him wish he could have found a way to transfer to the Endurance.
It didn't take long for them to reach Kyle's quarters. He punched in his door code and they entered the quarters as soon as the door opened. Danny was still naked and was laying on his bed staring up at the ceiling. He sat up and greeted Kyle and Brad.
"I thought you guys were going to get uniforms or coveralls or something," Danny said when he saw the two were still naked.
"All we got was kicked off of the bridge," Kyle said. "I believe I now hold a rank below crewman, if that is possible."
"You're kidding. What the fuck is going on?"
"We wish we knew," Brad replied. "All I know is that everybody seems to be losing their minds with Dave being the worst of all. I think we're making the Endurance at its worst, look like a luxury resort."
"Did you find out where we are?" Danny asked Kyle.
"All I know is that somebody messed with the computer coordinates and I am totally clueless. Dave did say he was going to forward the false coordinates to my computer here, so I can waste my time trying to do what I should be doing on the bridge."
"You mean he fired you and is still putting you to work?"
"Something like that. Hey, I thought you were going to put a uniform on and join us on the bridge."
"I didn't feel like it," Danny replied. "It's like since we got knocked out of FTL flight everything is getting crazy. I'm scared, Kyle. I mean, I'm really scared."
"So am I," Kyle said softly. "But we have to figure out what's going on, so we can get the Sooloo back to normal." Then a horrid thought hit Kyle. "Brad, did you bring the written log?"
"Unless I stuck it up my ass you would have seen it, so the answer is no, I thought you were bringing it."
"Everything got so chaotic I forgot it. And we need it if we're going to figure it out."
"We need it? Who's we?"
"Me and Danny. Danny knows enough astrogation to help me out, even if he doesn't always think so."
"I know bits and pieces," Brad said, "So I won't be much help. But I do know computers and I bet I can help you figure a few things out, like how the coordinates got changed."
"Not changed," Kyle said. "The stuff I saw on the computer was just random crap." Kyle walked over to his telescope. "The first thing I want to do, though, is look at the stars through my telescope and see if that helps me recognize anything. Just looking at them through the bridge viewscreen doesn't tell me shit."
He pulled open the blackout drapes and screamed out, "What the holy hell?" That phrase was one of his father's favorites.
"What's wrong?" Brad asked.
"What do you mean what's wrong? There's nothing out there. There are no stars." Then he saw a hint of light toward the bow of the Sooloo.
"You're as crazy as Dave. The window is full of stars."
Danny pulled himself out of bed and walked between Kyle and Brad. "Kyle's right, it's black out there."
"Not completely," Kyle said as he shifted his view through the window. "I can see the edge of a star off the starboard bow. There is nothing else, just one lone star."
"You guys are both nuts," Brad said. "Damn, my necklace is getting hot again. He pulled it over his head quickly and threw it on the bed. It then registered with him that Kyle and Danny had put their beds together again.
Brad turned and looked back out of the window. What he saw, or didn't see, made his jaw drop. "What the…where did they GO?"
Kyle and Danny both gave Brad curious looks. Finally, Kyle said, "You mean you don't see them either?"
"Nope. They were all there, then I took my necklace off because it was burning, turned around and they weren't there."
"What was that about?" Kyle asked.
Kyle held up his hand. "Hang on a moment, I thought I heard…yeah there it is again." He picked up Megrez and the thought came to him louder this time. 'Danger Kyle Robinson, danger listen not to star listen not star evil.' There was nothing more.
"What was it?" Brad asked.
"Megrez was amplifying the stars. It's the first time I've heard from them, well, since we left New Earth. The stars said there is danger and to not listen to the star and that it is evil."
"Do they mean that star we seem to be moving around?" Brad asked.
"It's the only one we can see, so I guess so. But, then I couldn't see the stars that just talked to me either. But, I'd still like to know why Brad saw all the stars out of the window and then didn't see any because you turned around."
"I have a theory," Danny said. "Well, it's actually your theory, but I think it fits here."
Brad and Kyle looked to Danny and nodded for him to go on. "Well, remember what you said about lenses making it easier for the stars to talk to you, like what just happened with Megrez?"
"So maybe, Brad's necklace is one of those lenses and it got hot because of the stars."
"I think you're on to something, love. But there is more to it than Brad's necklace. Who were the only ones in the bridge not under Dave's power?"
"You, me, the twins, and Lars," Brad answered.
"And what did we all have in common?"
"We were naked…. oh, I get it. The clothes are the lens for that evil star to control the Sooloo, but we were naked and didn't have the lens."
"And I bet his necklace burned him because all of the energy went into a tiny space and the clothes covered everybody," Danny offered. "The necklace heated up because it was focusing all the energy."
"Good work, Danny," Kyle said. "I'd be willing to bet that everybody is warmer than usual in those uniforms, maybe enough to start taking them off."
"We can't plan on that. We have to find a way to get everybody naked, on the bridge, in engineering, everywhere." The irony of the talk he and Steve had about the officers going naked on the bridge wasn't lost on Brad.
Before Kyle could reply, the door chimed. Danny opened the door and greeted Steve Boyer, who stepped in, carrying some uniforms. "I know you guys have uniforms, but the Captain wanted me to bring you some," he said. Then he asked, "You guys are still naked? It might be a good idea if you get dressed. Everybody says Dave is on the warpath. Don't piss him off more than he already is."
"What do you see out of the window?" Brad asked.
"Well, duh, I see stars."
"It might be a better idea if you got naked with us."
"And do what, have an orgy? Come on guys, we're lost in space and you want sex?"
"Just trust us; take your clothes off."
"And if I don't?"
"Well, it's like this," Brad grinned. "I'm trained in martial arts and you're a computer geek."
"I don't like your attitude and I don't react well to threats," Steve turned to leave the room, but Brad gently tackled him to the deck. By the time he and Kyle had ripped off Steve's uniform it was good only for cleaning rags. He was soon totally naked.
"You guys are as crazy as everybody is saying you are. No wonder you and Kyle got fired. I really wasn't serious about being naked on the bridge, you know."
"Just shut up, look out the window, and tell us what you see out there," Brad suggested.
Realizing he was free from the grips of Brad and Kyle, Steve stood up and looked out of the window. "I see black nothing," he said with a touch of awe. "The stars are gone — vanished. What the hell?"
"That is what is really there," Brad told him. He then went on to tell Steve all they knew so far. "We are the sane ones," he concluded. "The rest are under the power of that star, whatever it is."
"I read something in an astronomy journal a while ago about stars that behave weirdly. Not like going nova, which is normal for aging stars, but doing strange things. The article called them rogue stars," Steve said.
"That works for me."
"But why did you guys still see the stars when you were naked on the bridge?" Danny asked.
"Because what the viewscreen shows is sent to it by the computer. And from what happened to the navigation coordinates, I'd say the rogue star has taken over our computer," Brad said. "That's probably what brought us here. But I have a question, too. Lars was wearing a necklace, but he never said a word about it becoming hot. What's the deal with that?"
"I don't know, but I have a feeling it might help us if we found out," Kyle said. "And that brings up the question about Lars giving out what I am certain were legitimate coordinates. That could only have happened if the stars were talking to him."
"Or through him," Danny suggested, remembering his discussion with Kyle about humans being lenses for communication with the stars. "Do you think we should bring the boys here?"
"I don't think that's a good idea, right now," Steve said.
"I still haven't looked through my telescope at what is or isn't out there." Kyle had booted up the scope, however, and it was ready for use when he sat at it. After a few minutes he said, "Nope, nothing there. I wonder if the stars maybe captured the rogue star and placed it in a stasis field or something. That's why there is nothing to see except the one star."
"But, how did we get in?" Steve asked. "There has to be an opening in the field somewhere."
"Good question. And my telescope is limited to seeing just this side of the ship."
Brad was sitting at the computer. "Ah, but I now have the ship's telescopes feeding us information. While we don't have any control over them, we can look at what they see and maybe they'll tell us something." Before he could look, the screen went blank. "I guess Dave caught us online. He must not want you to work after all."
"Now what?" Danny asked.
Kyle said nothing. He set the digital telescope to maximum magnification. "Maybe I'll get lucky," he muttered. "We need some luck right about now." He moved a control on the CPU, changed the focus on the lens, and moved the scope slightly. "Nothing. If the opening exists, it is probably in a location I can't see from here."
"Or, it is too small or far away for you to see," Steve said.
"Yeah, or that. This is where the ship's telescopes would really help."
"If the rogue star hasn't taken control of them."
"I can disconnect the telescopes from the computer. At least if we can get to them from here," Brad informed them. "I can't override Dave's controls."
Kyle held up his hand for quiet. He walked to Megrez's perch and touched the stuffed penguin. Danger, danger, danger Kyle Robinson, you need boys, have to bring boys… bring boys, bring boys.
"The stars again?" Danny asked.
"Yes. I sensed them while I was on the telescope. They didn't tell me anything, but it was like I was being guided where to look, but it didn't help. This time their telling me something. Even with Megrez helping, they are hard to understand, but I've found touching him helps," Kyle said.
"Well, what did they say?" Brad asked.
"They said we need to get the boys. No, more like we HAVE to get the boys."
"Oh wow. That won't be easy."
"I can go get them," Steve said. "I'm not in the doghouse yet, so maybe I won't attract as much attention as you guys."
"Um, naked is naked, Steve," Brad said. "I kind of agree with you, but I think I should go with you to run interference. If you get stopped by some brainwashed security type, you might need me to deal with him so you can keep the boys going."
Steve agreed it was a good idea. "We need to figure out where the boys are. They might not even be in the same place."
"Try the captain's ready room, first," Kyle told them. "That's where Dave sent them. He might have moved them by now, or Hal or Jace or Jordan might have. But we gotta start somewhere."
"I need to contact somebody, first," Steve said.
"Who?" Kyle asked.
The question caused three heads to bob up and down like a bobblehead doll.
"I can make the call," Kyle said. "You guys find the boys."
"I'm the only one of us who isn't in the doghouse," Steve said. "The executive chef might be one of the nicest guys in the galaxy, but he happens to be wearing clothes, so we'd better be safe."
Lars gulped down the water he had poured from the water cooler situated near the bathroom door. Thirst wasn't the problem for Lars and the twins, it was hunger. Their lunch had been ruined when the ship dropped out of FTL flight and the holodeck went dead. As a result, they hadn't eaten since breakfast.
The boys were hungry, tired, bored, frightened and lonely. They had been crying off and on since being exiled to the ready room and were desperate for an adult to give them guidance and love.
The twins felt as if the ground had been pulled out from under them. The happy life they had found had been stolen from them. As for Lars, he couldn't help but wonder if he'd been conned and that this was what life was really like on the starship. He thought of Dave and Hal not as dads but as cruel men who had lied to him. He knew he couldn't return to the only home he knew, but he also knew that this could never be his home."
"Let's go and get food," Jonas whined. "I'm hungry."
"Me too," Jason agreed. "Sketti is good."
They were interrupted by the corridor door opening. Jace stepped into the room and glared at the boys. "How come you aren't dressed?"
"We don't got any clothes," Jonas said.
Jace grunted. "You boys are not to leave this room, understand? You stay here and don't leave it for any reason."
"I'm hungry," Jason whined in reply.
Lars sat in sullen silence.
While the officers and crew of the Sooloo were under the evil influence of Azazel, they were inherently good kids—good people. Dave was under the influence of the star more than any of them, but even his good inner being was right beneath the surface. Jace saw the sad looks on his two sons whom he loved deeply. He could see the hurt and anger on Lars' face that had been full of brightness and light just a couple of hours ago. What is happening to us? Jace thought. What are we doing?
He wanted to grab the boys and hug them and make them happy, but his feet wouldn't take the necessary first step. But, he could get them food. To not do so would be cruel, and Jace, even under the influence of the evil energy of the star, was not a cruel person. Pulling out his comm he punched in Randy's number. "Yes, sir," Randy said when he knew who was contacting him.
"Do you have a continuing pot going?" Jace asked.
"Mac and cheese. How much to you need?"
"Three plates to the Captain's ready room. It's for the boys."
"I will make three heaping platefuls for them."
"Food is coming. And remember, don't leave the room."
"What about clothes?" Jonas asked. "I don't wanna get yelled at for being nakey."
"I'll get you some as soon as I have time." Jace left the room and went back to the bridge. Like Jonas, he didn't want to get yelled at.
"Hey, Randy, Steve here. I need a couple of favors from you."
"Mr. Boyer, it is indeed a pleasure to hear your voice. Your wishes are my command, especially if they have to do with food."
"The first one doesn't pertain to food."
"Hmmm, do tell."
"I know this sounds extremely weird, but I'd like for you to take your clothes off."
"That doesn't sound any weirder than the other shit that's going on around here. How can it get any weirder than two senior officers getting demoted and fired for hanging around the bridge naked? Me getting naked in the kitchen is nothing compared to that. But since I'm here and you're wherever you are and will miss the show, I'd have to say it sounds too weird for me to do. Can I ask why you want me to disrobe?"
"Let me ask you this, Randy. Have I ever bullshitted you or anybody?"
Randy paused before saying, "I'd have to say that you have never even made my bullshit meter quiver."
"And I'm not bullshitting you now. Trust me, it's important that you get fully and completely naked. Once you're naked I will tell you everything you need to know. And if it matters, I'm naked right now."
"Coming from anybody but you, I'd say that is total bullshit. But before I agree, I want to know what your second outrageous request is about."
"It's about food."
"Well, I can handle that, so naked it is. But I ain't cooking dinner naked."
"Fine." Steve didn't bother to tell Randy that once he knew what was going on, he and the entire kitchen staff might end up cooking dinner naked.
"I'm trusting you big time here, so this better be good." Steve could hear the sound of movement, clothes rustling and voices as he waited for Randy to return to his communicator. "I am now naked as the day I was born, although Ernie thinks I've just gone mad. I told him I was paying off a bet. I don't think he believed me."
"You have everything off? You're wearing no jewelry, no nothing?"
"Nothing at all except the hair on my head and dick."
"How do you feel?"
Steve waited for another pause. "You know, now that you ask, I feel like a plate of liver and onions had been removed from my brain."
"That's the best I can describe it. Just because I can cook anything doesn't mean I like to eat everything I cook. What I'm saying is, I feel like a bunch of crap has left me, but from my brain and not out of my ass. Does that make sense to you?"
"In fact, it does. Can I trust you totally?"
"Absolutely." Steve quickly told Randy what was going on.
"No shit? A fucking star is controlling our ship? Damn. So, what is your food favor?"
"I need some food from your famous continuing pot."
The famous continuing pot had been Randy's idea even before he'd received his promotion to Executive Chef. Logan Kristoff, the Chief Executive Chef, was an excellent chef. As an administrator he was organized but tended to be unimaginative. He was, however, always willing to listen to his assistants. When Randy came to him with the idea of the continuing pot, Logan accepted it immediately and put Randy in charge. Depending on the day, the pot would have a stew, pasta, goulash, casserole, three-day old chili or similar foods that could simmer in the kitchen all afternoon and be dished up on a hurry.
"It's mac and cheese," Randy told him. "How much do you need?"
"Wow, I got a sudden order for three I need to fill. I don't have enough left to handle seven. The pot has almost always been emptied out one order at a time, and now I have requests for ten plates in all. But, we're in weird times. I'll tell Ernie to have a new pot ready in about twenty minutes."
"Who are your three plates for?"
"The ship's resident cuties, Lars, Jason, and Jonas."
"Are they in the Captain's ready room?"
"That they are."
"Then bring them here with the other four, which should give you enough."
"Wait! You want the kids' plates delivered to you…um…where?"
"Sorry, in the confusion I guess I didn't tell you. I want them brought to Kyle's quarters along with the four other plates."
"You are hanging with dangerous company my friend. Look at you, you're about to kidnap the sons of the highest uppity ups."
"I can live with it. And not a word of this to anybody."
"Yeah, especially if they are wearing clothes."
"Thanks, Randy, you're the best."
"The things I do for friends amazes me."
Getting Randy on their side ended up being easier than Steve had expected. Part of that was that Randy's interior dark side was minimal. He had lived in a large, loving, extended family. He had been a happy boy who found his calling in the kitchen when he was ten. Azazel hadn't been able to dig as deeply into Randy as he had with many of the crew.
When the corridor door opened, Lars, Jonas, and Jason expected to see food arrive. Instead they saw Steve and Brad.
"Unca Steve, Unca Brad," Jason called out.
"Did you bring food?" Jonas asked as he led the two-boy charge to get much needed hugs.
"We have food for you in Kyle's quarters," Brad told them.
He and Steve noted that Lars hadn't reacted to their arrival. He was sitting on a chair in front of Dave's desk and was obviously in a deep sulk. Steve walked over to the little blond.
"Oh, we can't leave here. Pappy said so," Jonas told them.
"You can go with us because we have food," Brad assured them.
"Goody, I want sketti," Jason yelled.
"It's macaroni and cheese."
"We like that, too," Jonas grinned.
Steve squatted down in front of Lars. "Don't you want a hug?" he asked. He saw Lars' necklace draped around his neck and wondered if it was channeling the rogue star's evil energy. But if it was, wouldn't be sizzling hot like Brad's necklace had been? he thought.
"I hate you. I hate everybody. I hate my dads who are mean to me and lied to me and brought me here where I hate everybody." He fingered the necklace. "I hate this, it isn't protecting me. Hate, hate, hate." He looked about ready to yank the necklace off when Steve moved in and gave him a long gentle hug.
"Your dads love you, Lars. There is something very bad on our ship and it is making people be bad." He moved Lars' hand from the necklace and held the rune in his own hand. "This is protecting you right now from that bad thing. You need to keep wearing it."
"No," Lars whispered. He reached for the necklace again when a voice in his head said, 'Leave on; it protects. Go with big boys; help dads, dads love you.'
"Did you hear that?" Lars asked with a touch of awe.
"Hear what?" Steve asked.
"The necklace talked to me. I need to help you." He then wrapped his little arms around Steve's neck to give and receive the hug he wanted and needed so badly. Steve understood that Lars had heard the same voice that Kyle had been hearing since he was younger than Lars was now: the voice of the stars.
"Let's go, boys," Brad said. "We need to get to Kyle's quarters quickly. You lead the way and please, don't talk to anybody we pass."
The twins led the way with Lars a step behind them. The sullen look Brad and Steve had seen on Lars' face had been replaced by a look of confidence and determination. Whatever Lars had heard had removed the poison from him. He was the son of a family of chiefs and he had a necklace that protected him, though that necklace had been given to him by Hal. He was ready to help his dads and the Sooloo.
Dave sat in his seat on the bridge, seething. He couldn’t believe what had happened to his once effective crew. It was as if in an instant, things had changed and he couldn’t understand why.
In his mind, he was drawn back to an event he’d spent a long time trying to forget. His mother… her passing… the events that led up to it. How it occurred wasn’t how everyone thought it was. There was far more to the story that only Dave, Hal and his mother knew about. Had everyone known, Dave, most likely, wouldn’t be in Space Fleet… let alone in command of the Sooloo.
As soon as Brad and Steve left, Kyle went to his storage cabinet and took out a thumb drive. It had one of the lessons his father had left for him at launch. Kyle had watched all of them but this one, titled "What to Do When Everything Fails." He felt the time had come for this lesson. They all had been brief, but informative. This one was no different. The key to the lesson, according to Kyle's father, Admiral Gordon Robinson, was that good planning was necessary, but to forget about making plans. In short, know what your objective was, but don't make complex plans that stood a good chance of failing. Be flexible enough to handle any change in the situation. If you knew your objective, what needed to be done at any given moment would become innately obvious.
The lesson surprised Kyle, who saw his father as one who created complex plans to reach his objectives. Instead the lesson was that he should use the KISS principle. Keep it Simple Stupid. Complicated simply didn't work.
While Kyle watched the video on the computer, Danny was using Kyle's telescope in an attempt to find any kind of opening in the blackness. He wasn't successful, in part because he didn't have Kyle's expertise. Even having Megrez sitting between his legs didn't help.
Randy arrived with a cart load of meals just as Kyle's video completed. The meal cart had a smaller cart coupled to the back of it.
"Seven dinners as ordered," Randy grinned. "I got quite a few quick looks on the way here. I think everybody is so used to the weirdness that it's not even weird any more. I did get Ernie naked, though. I promised to jerk him off in the kitchen when I got back. See, even when things get weird, teenagers have sex on their minds."
Randy unfolded two tables and five folding chairs that had been in the trailing cart. He knew that the room would already have two chairs. He placed four dinners on one and three on the other. "People say you're lucky the captain didn't kick you out of an airlock," Randy said to Kyle as he set up the tables with a hint of exaggeration.
"I'm sure that could come at any time," Kyle said.
"Well, good luck in getting us out of this mess. While delivering dinners in the nude is kinky and fun in a way, I really do want things to get back to normal."
Kyle didn't tell Randy what he was thinking and that was if they weren't successful in overcoming the power of the star, there was a chance they would eventually die in its clutches.
Brad and Steve, had walked past two crewmen when they went to the ready room. Fortunately, they and the boys made the trip to Kyle's quarters without seeing anyone. Brad and Steve didn't know whether that was by luck or by design, and they didn't really care. They entered Kyle's quarters just as Randy was leaving.
"Thanks for the help, Randy," Steve said.
"My pleasure, guys. And I must say you both look much better naked than you do in your uniforms," Randy laughed.
The food helped make everyone feel energized. Lars, Jonas, and Jason were close to their normal impish selves. They thought it was fun to be nakey in Uncle Kyle's quarters with their uncles.
After he finished his meal, Kyle looked through his telescope again. He knew it was futile, but he had to do something. What dad said about planning and plans doesn't mean a thing when I have no fucking clue what's going on and no idea where to go from nowhere, Kyle thought. I need a video that's titled "What to Do When You're Totally Clueless."
He was to abandon the futility of looking through the telescope and see if Brad, Steve, or Danny could come up with something, anything, they could do to help the Sooloo get away from the rogue star. Kyle was ready to turn off the telescope when Lars and Jason joined him at the window.
"Megrez," Jason grinned when he noticed the penguin for the first time. Megrez had been blocked from Jason's view. "He's our friend," he told Lars.
"What do you boys see out there?" Kyle asked out of curiosity. He wanted to know if Lars' amulet affected his perception.
"Black," they said together, which made Kyle feel more at ease. Jason rested his hand on Lar's shoulder.
Lars said in a clear, distinct voice, "Kyle, look Zorn." Kyle stared at Lars, who had never called him by his first name in the short time they'd known each other. When Kyle saw Jason touching Lars, he remembered how Lars had started reciting coordinates on the bridge. Now he wondered what Lars was talking about and if he would say more.
Kyle had no doubt the stars were talking through Lars with Jason acting as a lens, which answered the question Danny had about humans being lenses. But Danny also noticed the rune on Lars' amulet light up. He wondered if the rune was also acting as a lens.
Kyle stepped toward his telescope. He moved Megrez away from the eyepiece when once again Lars said, "Look Zorn." This time, Kyle knew exactly what Lars meant. He went to his storage cabinet, opened it, and took out the well-used case. Inside was a telescope, the one Zorn had given him just after the Sinocardian had boarded the Sooloo. He looked at the icon on the inside of the lid and thought of the amazing lizard.
Even though Zorn had told him of its connection to Megrez, not only Megrez the star, but also Megrez the penguin, Kyle had made little use of it. It was not because he didn't appreciate the gift. He had a deep appreciation for the gift and the more he learned about Zorn the deeper his appreciation became. But Zorn's beautiful telescope didn't have near the capabilities of the digital scope his father had given him. And, because of its age, Kyle was afraid of damaging it in some way.
He turned and looked through the eyepiece. As soon as he did Lars gave him a coordinate. Kyle couldn't enter coordinates into the antique telescope, another one of many reasons he rarely used it. But he realized he could use the monitor on his telescope to show the coordinates and point Zorn's scope in the proper direction. He shifted himself in order to look at the screen on the CPU. He then moved the digital telescope so that the coordinate Lars had given him was in the center.
Lars then closed his eyes ran off two more coordinates while Kyle followed his instructions. Brad, Danny and Steve watched the process while Jonas held Jason's hand. He could tell this twin was getting tired, but he didn't know why. He thought Lars should be the one getting tired since he was the one providing all the numbers.
As soon as Kyle had the telescope aligned with the numbers, he looked through the eyepiece. He thought he saw a jagged line of light and increased the zoom to maximum. What he saw was an opening in the solid black. The opening was outlined by sparkling lights coming in from the outside; lights that didn't show on the digital screen.
Kyle backed away from the telescope. "Guys, tell me what you see."
Brad, Danny, and Steve each reported seeing what looked like a slit in the black that appeared to be backlit. The three boys looked as well. The twins each said it was a light worm. When Lars looked, his necklace glowed once again, and he whispered, "Home."
"What do you think the light is?" Danny asked.
"It's a rift in whatever kind of energy field we're in. And the light we see is coming from the stars on the other side. Zorn said this telescope has a connection to the stars. I think that is why we can see the light of the stars reflecting off the edge of the rift. The digital telescope doesn't have that connection and barely makes out the rift. So, what we're seeing through Zorn's telescope is reflected light, from stars on the other side," Kyle said confidently
"Are you sure?" Steve asked.
Kyle took a deep breath and fought off tears. "I've been looking through telescopes since I was six and getting messages from the stars since I was six. I am as sure as I can be. That, my friends, is our way out."
The group sat around the portable dinner tables and discussed what to do next. "I think we should tell Dave," Steve said.
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen him on the bridge," Brad told him.
"There has to be some senior officer we can tell. Hal, Jace, Jordan, Connor, somebody we can trust."
"Not unless we can get one of them naked," Kyle said.
"Only Steve can do that, since you and I are kind of under house arrest or something," Brad said.
"Nobody said we were under arrest. We were just told to put uniforms on, stay in my quarters, and figure out where we are. I'll tell you what I think we should do. I think we should go through the rift and find out what's on the other side and see if it's safe for the Sooloo to go there."
"How do we get through?" Danny asked, "It's hard to tell for sure through the telescope, but I wonder if we'll fit through it, and even if we do, how something as big as the Sooloo can?"
"We can talk this to death or we can make some decisions," Brad said. "Other than Kyle, we can't trust the senior officers. Since they are under control of the rogue star and we tell them we're not under control of the star, how do we know they won't give us away, even if it's by accident."
"We don't," Steve admitted.
"Do they even know they and the ship are being controlled by that star out there?" Brad asked. "I bet they think they're the ones acting normal and the naked officers are the weird ones."
"They'd think that even if everything was normal," Danny said.
"Good point," Steve said. "Brad convinced me. I think we have to see what that hole in the energy field is about before we can do anything."
The twins had kept quiet long enough and were feeling slighted. "I like being nakey on the bridge," Jonas said, hoping he wasn't sounding too dumb.
"So did I and so did Kyle," Brad said. "But, it's not the way things are usually done. We're naked right now because we can help your dads if the bad star can't tell us what to do."
"I don't want to get in trouble," Jason said, "so let's stay nakey until the bad star is gone."
"Jason makes perfect sense," Brad said, bringing a smile to the young boy's face. "Okay we need to make plans about how we're going to deal with that rift."
"We're planning what our object is," Kyle said, almost quoting his father. "But we don't want to make plans." He told them about how too many plans can spoil the planning." We don't even know for sure what we're going to see, so how can we make plans about what to do? Keep it simple, guys."
They decided they would have to hijack a shuttle and fly it to the rift. Danny would pilot it, of course, and Kyle and Brad would fly with them. Steve would remain behind since so far, the ship's brass was not aware that he was aiding the group. The Trio will stay here.
"No, I want to go. You said I could help," Lars complained.
"You did help, Lars," Kyle told him. "You told me how to find the rift. This is going to be too dangerous for you. You need to stay on the Sooloo where it is safe."
Lars started to shake and tried unsuccessfully to say something. His amulet was glowing which caught Jason's attention. Jason moved next to Lars and put his arm around his shoulder. Lars closed his eyes and said, "boys go on boat…boys help…boys talk to us."
"I can talk to you," Kyle said, feeling a little hurt. He'd been talking to the stars for most his life."
As if sensing Kyle's disappointment, the stars talking through Jason and Lars set Kyle straight. "boys stronger…need boys."
Kyle understood that to mean the stars were able to communicate with Jason and Lars inside the stasis field much better than they could with Kyle.
"I guess Lars and Jason will have to go with us," Brad said.
"Me too," Jonas protested. "I have to protect my brother. We are always there for each other." He held up Jason's hand to show in his own way, he was a part of the proceedings.
"Okay, we kidnap the entire Terrific Trio."
"I have to have my log so I can tell if we're in the right place when we get through the rift," Kyle told them. "I can't believe I left it behind on the bridge. I need that, my telescope, and the memory card with my recent star charts on it, along with Zorn's telescope. Hell, I need a couple more arms is what I need. How are we going to get that book off the bridge?"
The way Kyle understood his father's lesson on plans was that one didn't make them far ahead but waited until the time for action had arrived. This was one of those times and a plan was created both for retrieving Kyle's log book and for hijacking a shuttle.
No matter how much Dave and Hal fussed, John Luke could not determine their location. The stars on the viewscreen didn't show on any of his star charts.
And no matter how much Dave and Hal fussed, Connor could not create the power needed to coax the Sooloo out of its orbit around the star that was holding it captive.
The atmosphere on the bridge was tense. Everyone was tired and hungry. They were also under the control of Azazel, which magnified their negative emotions.
Dave looked up when the door to the bridge hissed open. He was stunned to see Brad and Lars enter the bridge. They were both still naked, which infuriated him more than he already had been.
"Crewman Kanye, you were restricted to quarters and told to dress so what are you doing here with my son? And why is my son still naked? This is beyond insubordination—it's bordering on mutiny." Brad and Lars didn't say a word. Dave then called for security to come to the bridge.
Lars walked up to his father. Lars knew his father needed his help and didn't hate him anymore. He had a piece of paper in his hand which he offered to his father. Not knowing what else to do, Dave reached out and took it. At the same time Lars scooted around him, saw the red book right were Kyle said it should be, and grabbed it. He yelled, "I love you dads!", turned and ran for the door, evading Hal's outstretched arm. As he reached the door, Lukasz Kuc entered the bridge in response to the call for security.
Knowing about the problems with the naked officers, he quickly assessed the situation and stretched to grab Lars. Before he could reach him, Brad knocked him on his ass and took off after Lars. Lukasz had a harsh welcome in his first security detail on the Sooloo.
Dave crumpled the note Lars had handed him and threw it on the deck. "Stop them!" he shouted. "Somebody, stop those fools." Before anybody else could react, Lars and Brad, who were both quick and athletic, had a big head start. Despite Dave's rantings, nobody moved to chase them.
"Don't you officers ever dress anymore?" Crewman Jesse Gross asked Steve as he entered the shuttle bay control area.
Steve ignored the question. "I'm taking over the shuttle bay controls," Steve told Jesse.
"Because we need a shuttle," Steve answered.
Kyle, Danny, and the twins entered the control area. They were helping Kyle tote his equipment. Kyle was carrying Megrez and Zorn's telescope. Danny had the lens for Kyle's telescope while Lars had the red book. Jonas carried the CPU very, very carefully while Jason carried the basket of snacks that had been sitting on top of Danny's dresser.
"Gonna have an orgy on the shuttle, are we? It's getting pretty sick when you bring those little kids to…" He stopped when Brad and the captain's new kid ran into the area.
Brad heard what Gross said and grabbed him by the collar. "You can just shut up and stay out of our way, or we'll lock you in a storage closet for as long as it takes somebody to find you."
"Yeah, sure, whatever you want. I won't say shit," Jesse managed to squawk out.
The first available shuttle was the Raphael. Danny opened the hatch and soon all seven members of the group were seated. Kyle set down his equipment but kept Megrez in his clutches. He almost cried when Lars handed him the red log book.
"Lars, you are amazing. How did you guys do it?"
"I took it and then Unka Brad knocked a guy down on his ass," Lars told him, feeling proud of his first use of an off-color word.
"Did you give your dad the note, and did he read it?"
"Yes. I dunno, cuz we went runnin'.
Brad and Kyle buckled the Terrific Trio into their seats and then settled into their own as Danny started up the engine on the Raphael. Danny called Steve on his communicator.
"Shuttle 20 ready for launch," Danny said. When active, shuttles were always identified by their numbers. Danny couldn't release the shuttle until the doors started to open.
"I'll open the shuttle bay doors."
As the doors opened, Danny released the Raphael. "Shuttle 20 released." Danny didn't wait for the doors to open entirely. As soon as he saw he had enough room, he deftly maneuvered the shuttle out of the bay.
Steve was about to close the doors when Jesse Gross came up behind him. Steve was surprised to see him naked. Under different conditions he would have taken time to admire what he saw.
"You removed your uniform," Steve said in what was a gross understatement.
"Yeah, it seemed like a good idea. Thought I might get a reward, but I think I know that this isn't about sex. It's about the assholes on the bridge and this ship being in deep shit trouble."
"Hard not to, but it didn't faze me until I got naked. But for now, I guess my blow job will have to wait. I don't know why being naked makes a difference and I won't ask. But what can I do to help?" While Jesse Gross was a loner and could be a pain in the ass at times, he was a good crewman and a hard worker.
Steve flicked the switch to close the shuttle bay doors. "Is there a way to keep the bridge from sending a shuttle out after 20?"
Jesse used his key to open a small metal cabinet above the control panel. He punched in his code and a solid green light turned to a blinking red light. "The bay doors are locked tight and the bridge can't override it except from here. I'll show you how to freeze the docking clamps on the shuttles and we'll take care of doing that. Any senior officer can come here and unlock the doors, so that just slows them down. But it takes a working knowledge of shuttle mechanics to unlock the clamps. The only shuttles available will be the Bubbas and there is no way in the galaxy one of them catches 20."
Steve thanked Jesse and they set to work. Steve wondered if there was a way for Jesse to get the blowjob after the crises blew over—if it did.
"Captain, a shuttle has just launched from the ship," John Luke said.
"I didn't give anyone permission to fly a shuttle," Dave growled.
"I think this could be called a hijacking," Hal told them. "And I have a pretty good idea who is on that shuttle."
"Kyle and Brad with Danny piloting."
"You got it. But they also needed help on the ship to get the doors open."
"And closed," John Luke said.
"Hey, wait, look at this," Jace said. He put a video from the camera in the Raphael's shuttle bay corridor on the screen. It showed not only Danny, Brad, and Kyle boarding the Raphael but also the Terrific Trio—all naked.
"They kidnapped our boys," Dave screeched. "Find out who's on duty in the shuttle bay. And get me a pilot, we need to send a shuttle after them. Kyle Robinson just earned himself a death sentence!"
Azazel didn't know the specifics of what was happening on his children's pod, but he loved the vibrations he was receiving.
Kyle had his equipment set up quickly. With the information he'd entered into the telescope's memory he was able to guide the Raphael to the rift. Since space around them was black except for the big star that they were trying to overcome, the backlit rift was easy to pick up.
"I wonder if that bastard is going to lash out at us," Brad wondered.
"I'm hoping it doesn't know we exist," Kyle said. "It can't control our naked bodies, so maybe it can't detect them either."
"What about detecting the shuttle?" Danny asked.
"I hope we're just too small to be noticed. I guess it's all a gamble, but we gotta do something."
Danny slowed the Raphael as they approached the rift. "Damn, that opening is smaller than I thought." The rift was very long, which had made it easy to see through Kyle's telescope once they knew where it was, but it also was very narrow.
"There has to be a way," Brad said. "After all, the Sooloo got in here through this."
"Or maybe through a bigger one," Danny pointed out. He brought the shuttle to a complete stop facing the rift. "Ideas anyone?"
"We should have had some plans," Brad said.
"How?" Kyle asked. "We didn't know shit when we were sitting together in my quarters and we don't know shit now, so what would have worked?"
Throughout the discussion the Terrific Trio sat in uncharacteristic stillness and silence. Jonas and Jason were holding hands, but anyone looking at them closely would note that Jonas was holding tightly to Jason's hand. Lars was staring at the rift, motionless except for an occasional quiver of his lips.
Kyle was positive he knew where the solution to their problem lay but decided to say nothing in case he was wrong. He knew the stars well enough to understand they would move in their own time.
And then, as if it was all choreographed to happen at that point, the necklace around Lars' neck took on a glow. Lars rose from his seat and plopped himself on Kyle's lap. Jason sat in the seat next to Kyle and placed his hand on Lars' shoulder while Jonas continued to hold his hand.
Ninety-nine times out of one hundred when a naked, incredibly cute blond eight-year-old sat on the lap of a naked twelve-year-old who was constantly horny or on the brink of being horny an instant erection would have occurred on the pubescent boy. This was the one time, however. All of Kyle's mental and bodily energy was in his head—his big head. Every part of his being was focused on what needed to be done to move the Raphael though the rift and save the Sooloo. All Kyle felt on his lap was the weight of the solution Kyle had recognized: young Lars Bowman.
Lars had heard the voice tell him to sit on Kyle. He wasn't sure whether to believe it and if he did believe it whether it was the right thing to do. But the voice had helped them every time it talked through him and he had promised to help his daddy get away from the bad star and become his daddy again. 'Sit on Kyle, sit on Kyle, on Kyle' the voice said. Lars' lips moved slightly as he repeated those words to himself. Now he was there, on Kyle's lap ready for whatever came next.
Kyle wrapped his arms around Lars' chest as he was instructed as soon as Lars sat on him. He folded both hands around Megrez as they met. Danny and Brad watched, fascinated as the wordless dance unfolded in front of them.
The glow on the necklace became brighter as Lars took in a deep breath and gave a set of numbers. "What is he telling us?" Danny asked. Lars stopped his recital when Danny spoke.
"You use measurements on your instruments when you're lining up the shuttle with the Sooloo or any ship or landing it, right?"
"Do those numbers sound in the neighborhood of the ones you use to line up?"
"Oh, yeah. I guess I need to enter them in, but I need them again from the start." Danny turned on the graph on the screen he used to line up the Raphael with its target.
"Start," Lars uttered and he voiced the measurements again. Danny entered them, and the side thruster moved the shuttle directly to the right. More numbers, more movement.
"I can see the other side," Brad said. "I see stars, and I bet they are real stars."
"What do you mean you can't open the bay doors?" Dave growled into the ship's communicator.
"They are locked, and I need the code to unlock them," pilot Gordy Mason informed him.
"Who the fuck locked them?"
"Steve Boyer and Jesse Gross are standing here naked and said they won't do anything until we take our uniforms off. Gross is the one who knows the code."
"Hand your communicator to Boyer." Gordy did so. "I expected much better of you Mr. Boyer. You either release those doors or I will have you arrested for mutiny." He turned to Hal and said, "Some kind of evil is possessing my crew and I need to know what to do about it."
"The doors stay locked," Steve said calmly. "But it may help the situation if the officers on the bridge followed my suggestion and got naked." Dave promptly cut him off.
John Luke looked away from the telescope. "The 20 is maneuvering for no reason that I can see." He switched the telescope's image to the viewscreen. "Port to starboard, up and down, just little movements. You can see it right next to that reddish star." It never occurred to John Luke that there was no way the shuttle could be next to a star.
"Now it's backing up and moving behind the star." Nor did it occur to Dave that the star blocking the view wasn't a star at all but simply an image created by the computer under the direction of Azazel.
Azazel was gaining great pleasure and strength from the chaos on the pod. The creatures were falling deeper and deeper into his clutches. And yet, he could also feel a slight energy drop as another creature's energy signature went away. There was also a tiny pod that had separated from the large one, but the energy signature was minimal, and he didn't see it as a threat.
Lars had been uneasy and weak when he sat on Kyle's lap, but now he felt strong. Jason's hand on his shoulder was sending floods of goodness into him. Kyle's arms around him made him feel safe. Megrez sent him more good energy. He could even feel Jonas's energy flowing to him through Jason. Each time, after the shuttle moved to the last coordinates, Lars received new ones and spilled them out.
Danny didn't understand the need for such small changes, but he obeyed. The opening was bigger but still not big enough. "How can this get us through the rift?" he asked no one in particular.
Kyle, remembering the discussion he'd had with Aiden on Earth while they were still in training, answered him. "I think the rift is bending the light coming in. What you see may not be what is there. The stars are lining us up with the exact place where the light comes through straight. Trust the numbers and do what they say."
Lars gave two more numbers and Danny did what he was told and the opening in that part of the rift widened. The next set of numbers was much different from what Danny had been hearing. They were instructions to back up from the rift. Danny obeyed and stopped at the proper location, which was a long distance from the opening. He wondered why they were backing away when the opening was in front of them.
"I think we're backing so we can build momentum to get through that hole."
Kyle was agreeing in his mind when an outside thought hit him that simply said make dark sit boy. "Darken the windows, Jonas, sit in your seat now!" Kyle called out, and Danny did so and Jonas scrambled into his empty seat.
Then Lars yelled out with a tone of authority that nobody would ever have imagined coming from his reedy little boy's voice. "GO FULL BLAST WHEN ME SAY GO ON 3-2-1 GO!"
The amulet was bright enough to cast a light, Megrez's dark eyes lit up and it happened.
Danny slammed the throttle to its max and the Raphael slammed everyone into the back of their seats as the shuttle took off with energy even its builders didn't know it had.
"NO! I CANNOT ALLOW THAT POD TO ESCAPE!" Because of arrogance and overconfidence, he had not seen until now what was happening. He used his huge reserve of resources in an attempt to close the rift.
Dave, John Luke, Hal, Jace, Jordan and every other person saw the 20 come out from behind the red star at full speed. "Mother of God," Dave muttered, "what are they doing?"
The boys hung onto their arm rests as the G's pushed them back hard. The Raphael shook and shimmied as the framework groaned under the forces straining it. The boys could see the stars behind the opening in the rift. A bright flash lit up the shuttle's cabin, almost blinding them even through the darkened glass, and then the six boys fell into darkness.
The flash of light where the shuttle had been lit up the viewscreen and the bridge. The telescope went dark.
"Tell me what happened?" Dave demanded.
John Luke had a second telescope aimed in the same area as a precaution in case something happened to the one they were using. He quickly moved it online. He looked for the 20, but it was nowhere to be seen.
"Sir, the 20 exploded for some reason. It's gone. There is no trace of it."
Hal stared at the viewscreen in disbelief. "It's totally gone. It's nothing," he whispered. "I don't see debris, I don't see anything. The Raphael and everybody on it has been blown to atoms."