CHAPTER 29: QUICK TRIP HOME M UPDATES BARTALA

Thanks to the jump drive in Ferocity’s ship, it only took a few minutes to get home from the Glion Galaxy. After the intensity of the rescue mission, they didn’t want to use aperture travel to get home and leave Ferocity to make the trip alone. The Muse of Mischief and Agent Brzko had never been so glad to see Misko as they called it.

At the sound of Ferocity’s ship, Whotov came rushing out of Ferocity’s house. “You have returned! What news do you bring, was there success?”

“Yes Whotov. Lelelu is safe, the captives have been rescued, and the VReoria specimen ships have been destroyed. Come, I’ll tell you all about it.” Ferocity said, extending his wing around his butler and escorting him toward his home.

“Dibs on the first shower.” M said picking up the pace as she headed to her own home.

“Why? I don’t see why you should get the first shower, I smell just as bad as you do!” Brzko said following after her.

“Because I want to go see Emperor Bartala on the way to Gaznzul.”

“Oh, OK then. Be my guest.”

Showered, and in fresh clothes – low boots, tight black leggings, a short skirt, a corset, and of course her derby – M went to Ploosnar. Arriving at the bottom of the palace stairs she began the ascent. Bartala was waiting for her on the landing when she got to the top.

“Where is my wife M? Was Empress Nalau harmed?” He demanded nervously.

“No, not at all. She’s fine Bartala.” He immediately relaxed. “Where’s Wisssi?

“Inside with a nanny. I didn’t want him to see… to be with me in case you had bad news.” He turned and walked toward the palace, M followed.

The nanny was just inside the door. Wisssi reached for the Muse of Mischief as soon as he saw her, making some sort of indiscernible baby sound. The nanny presented the baby toward M, she had no choice but to take him. “Oh! OK then. Hello Wisssi.”

He squealed with delight. “Ah you see he already loves his Autaunia.” Bartala said. “Now, tell me how the rescue went, is Lelelu OK?”

“Yes, we were able to rescue Lelelu and destroy the VReoria specimen ships.”

“Specimen ships?”

“Yes, the VReoria travel around the universes collecting one or two of every species they encounter. They plan to either alter their own species or create a new species, with bits and pieces of their collection.”

“Wait, universes? They can travel through the Multiverse?” He interrupted.

“We think so. We rescued species that none of us have seen before, not even the Suus.”

Bartala was silent, letting this sink in. “Where is Nalau?”

“She’s on one of the evacuee ships with the young beings that were rescued in the Glion Galaxy. She wouldn’t leave them, insisted on staying with them until they get to Gaznzul, which will be sometime tomorrow.”

“Ah, that sounds like her. How many beings were rescued?”
“Around 300, and it seems most will survive… physically anyway.”

Wisssi grabbed the derby off of her head and dropped it on the floor, squealing with delight. Bartala reached for him. “OK, OK, little Emperor, that’s enough torturing your Autaunia for today. Physically?” He said wanting M to continue.

“Each being was held alone in a stasis tube. It kept their bodies from aging but their minds were functional. That kind of seclusion is sure to have driven some of them over the edge. They’ll be evaluated at a rehabilitation facility on Gaznzul, those that are OK will be found places to live. Those that are not, will be able to live out their lives in the rehabilitation facility.”

Bartala looked like someone had punched him in the gut. “I cannot imagine the anguish they must have suffered. And there were young beings? The VReoria are truly vile creatures.”

“And one of the beings rescued is Lelelu’s father.”

“What? No, he was killed when she was a child, was he not?”

“Apparently not, just captured by the VReoria and put in stasis.”

Wisssi began to fidget, Bartala let him slide down to the floor. He waddled off, down the hall giggling, one of his nannies right at his heels.

“He can walk already?” M asked.

It took Bartala a second to answer, he was still processing everything M had told him. “Hmmm? Oh yes. He can walk. He’s Ploosnarian! Not human or whatever it is that you are!”

M was relieved, her friend was returning to normal. “I think you should consider taking Wisssi to Gaznzul to meet your wife. She’s going to need you with her when she begins to process all that she’s been through.”

“Oh I’m sure she heard and saw things she’s not accustomed to while handling the administrative duties, but she’s strong, she’ll be fine.”

“Uh Bartala, she wasn’t in an office somewhere. Empress Nalau was on the front line of the combined forces, helping to release the captives from stasis.”

“What!? The Empress of Ploosnar, my wife, took an active role in the mission? I don’t know what to say.” He stood there, with his mouth agape, looking completely dumbfounded.

“Well first, close your mouth. You look like a dork. And then get your butt in gear and have the guards prepare your ship, you and Wisssi are going to Gaznzul. I’ve got to go.”

“Mmm OK. We’ll see you there.” He turned to go find a butler that could make the arrangements and M returned home.

“How’s Bartala?” Brzko asked. He and Ferocity were sitting at the table eating something that smelled divine.

“Fine. I told him to take Wisssi and go to Gaznzul to meet Nalau. What are you eating? More importantly, is there more? I’m starving!”

Brzko smiled, “It’s lasagne, there’s a plate for you in the oven, salad’s on the counter.”

M went to the kitchen and got her food before joining them at the table. “Do you want to leave for Gaznzul as soon as we finish eating?”

“I’d like to but I don’t think we should.”Brzko said. “The first rescue ship won’t arrive until the morning; and Ferocity needs some time to contact the Great Assembly on Dragona; and we should contact Ciic, and Vustia. I’m sure they were in contact with their ships, but they may have questions for us. Oh and sleep would be good.”

“Oh sleep, right.” M said sarcastically, making Ferocity laugh.

“I know how to make you slow down M.” Brzko said grinning. She just looked at him, waiting. He reached under the table and produced a beautiful titanium bottle.

“Espidrun!” She exclaimed. “Now you’re talkin’!” She jumped up to get glasses.

Ferocity sat his fork down and looked over at Brzko, tilting his head slightly.

“An old Earth phrase… I’m not sure of its origins but it basically means ‘now you’re saying something I agree with’.”

“Earth must be a very difficult place. Why don’t they just say what they mean?” He picked up his fork and went to work on his salad, because of course Dragons eat with utensils.

M returned with shot glasses and lined them up. She opened the bottle and filled each with the hot pink liquid, they all three watched the blue steam rise as it was exposed to oxygen. She distributed the glasses and held her up, “To a kick ass mission!”

CHAPTER 28: LELELU’S FATHER IS FREE

Lelelu had fully recovered from shock before they left for the specimen ship shere she had been  held captive; but she still wasn’t herself. First she’s never experienced anything as dangerous as a kidnapping. She thinks, or thought, of herself as an independent and capable being. But now, she has to accept that she is more vulnerable than she thought. And then there was her father. She wondered if she had invented his voice in her head. Maybe it was her own survival instincts that had created that voice, knowing it would mobilize her. This was all racing through her mind as Ferocity’s ship took them back to the VReoria ship near Cazoova, the ship where she had been imprisoned.

Zri could feel her stress and discomfort, he reached for her hand. “Lelelu I’m here. We’re in this together.”

The ship lurched, as the jump drive disengaged. They were above Cazoova, surrounded by the ships of the combined fleet. In front of them was one of the largest Suus ships. Just as Zri was trying to figure out how he would determine which ship held the evacuees, Ferocity’s ship spoke to them.

“You are clear to initiate transport to the Suus ship.” The ship said in a voice that was neither male nor female sounding.

Zri has never interacted with a sentient ship before, “Uh OK. Is it the ship directly in front of us?” He asked aloud, assuming the ship was listening.

“Yes. I have contacted them, you are expected.”

“OK then.” He and Lelelu stood up, he activated the transport and transported them to the cargo bay. The scene was almost identical to the other Suus ship, but there were even more evacuees here.

Lelelu immediately took off to search for her father. “Lelelu wait.” Zri called. It was no use. He couldn’t stop her.

Zri! I was informed of your arrival. We have cleared the VReoria ship and are ready to destroy it.

Zri turned and saw Waaw approaching him. “Waaw! I’m relieved to see you. Before we deal with the VReoria ship we need to deal with something else. Did you find a Trelod in gallery?”

Yes, her father is here. He is waiting for her in this room.” Waaw gestured toward one of the private rooms near them. Through the clear glass in the center of the door, Zri could see a Trelod lying on the bed. He looked around for Lelelu, she was walking toward him with a Suus. It was evident from the look on her face that she had been told her father was rescued. She hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

When she got to Zri he didn’t say a word, he just opened the door for her. Before he closed the door, he heard her father’s relief when he saw her. “Le!” They needed some time together, some time alone.

Zri turned to Waaw, “Let’s go take a final look at that VReoria ship and then destroy it.” Waaw nodded, they both transported to the ship.

The gallery of the VReoria specimen ship looked like it had been the site of a riot. The floor was wet with stasis fluid, and there was well over 100 destroyed stasis tubes. “This is disgusting… what those beings must have endured being held here for so long.”

Indeed. Some were held for well over their expected lifetime. We have also recovered species that we’ve never seen before, species from other universes we suspect.

Zri turned toward Waaw quickly, he was shocked. “What? Species from other universes? So the VReoria ARE able to travel back and forth in the Multiverse?”

That seems like the logical conclusion.

Zri heard a new voice in his head. “Commander Waaw, the ship has been cleared. We are the only beings aboard.” He turned to see a Suus subcommander enter the gallery.

Very good. Zri, unless you have more to do here I propose that we return to the evacuee ship and commence with the destruction of this one. The other specimen ship has already been destroyed.

“Waaw, what do you think the odds are that there are more specimen ships?” Zri asked.

Odds? When one is certain, there is no need to consider the odds.

Once he was back on the evacuee ship, Zri went to check on Lelelu. She was still with her father, of course, he quietly knocked once. She looked up and her face lit up when she saw him. She rushed to the door and opened it.

She jumped into his arms, “Zri! I’m so glad you’re here. I want you to meet my father.” She took him by the arm and led him across the room, “Baba, this is my partner Zri. Zri, this is my father, Iysuno.”

Iysuno attempted to stand, but he was weak from decades in a stasis tube.

“You don’t have to stand sir, it is my honor to meet you.” Zri extended his hand.

“Le, help me up.” Iysuno said, ignoring Zri’s outstretched hand and lifting his left arm toward her. Zri immediately knew where Lelelu got her stubborn streak. He turned back to Zri, “I insist.” He said as he managed to stand, leaning on Lelelu. He extended his hand, “The honor is all mine Zri. Without you neither my daughter nor I would be here now. Thank you.”

Zri paused, the past few days were catching up with him. He didn’t know what to say, there was just too much going on in his head at the moment. He was afraid he’d break down again.

Lelelu rescued him, “As our friend the Muse of Mischief said, eh, it’s what we do!”

“When will I meet this creature?” Iysuno asked. “Please sit.” He motioned Zri toward a chair next to the bed.

“Thank you.” he said taking a seat. “She and Agent Brzko will meet us on Gaznzul.”

“How long until we arrive at Gaznzul, Zri?” Lelelu asked.

“We will be there before morning.”

CHAPTER 27: NALAU MEETS THE RESCUED CHILDREN

The cargo bay of the Suus ship has been modified to serve as a modern triage hospital. There are three small clean rooms available for seclusion or emergency procedures; but mostly everyone is in one large space. There are organized rows of beds, each with a medical monitoring system. The bed linens are color coded to indicate the condition of the patient. White for those that seem OK and only needed rest; yellow for those that need closer evaluation; and orange for patients that were either critical or at risk of becoming critical. Empress Nalau had never seen anything like this in person. She turned to the Suus that had escorted her here, “How many? How many are here?”

The Suus she spoke to seemed to pause, but Nalau knew that she was consulting the Suus that had been stationed on the ship during the rescue. “127.” She projected telepathically.

“How can I help?”

Again the Suus consulted the others telepathically. “The young, the infants. They are in need of comfort from a being more similar to them than a Suus. Follow me.

Empress Nalau was led to one of the clean rooms, it had been converted into a nursery for it’s six inhabitants. Three of whom, were indeed infants. Nalau picked up a very small humanoid, it looked like a human to her and it was crying hysterically. It instantly calmed when it felt her warmth. She sat down on one of the beds and looked toward her escort. “Please hand me the remaining children, I want them all near me here on the bed.”

Without comment the Suus followed her direction and handed their the remaining two infants and helped the three toddlers climb up on the bed. Nalau was literally covered in frightened little ones. They needed rest, and so did she. She resigned herself to just sit quietly.

Sometime later a Suus entered the room, she could not tell if it was the same one that had escorted her here until she heard her voice in her head. “Your Majesty, I have come to inform you that we are about to depart for Gaznzul. There is a medical facility there that is ready to receive all of the evacuees. It will take us quite some time to get there, if you would like to leave the ship before we depart…

“That won’t be necessary.” She said. “I’ll stay with the children until we get there. Do you have appropriate sustenance available for them?”

Yes Your Majesty. I will have it delivered immediately.

“Thank you.”

Nalau settled in for a long journey. She was glad to be alone, she needed time to process everything that had happened – to attempt to come to terms with horrific images of the rescues that were now a part of her. And to consider the changes she was about to make to her life.

CHAPTER 26: RESCUES IN THE GLION GALAXY

Agent Brzko and Ferocity arrived in the gallery of the second VReoria specimen ship. The VReoria were waiting for them. With Brzko behind him, Ferocity swept the room with his icy breath. Ice was sometimes safer than fire, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. The icy breath of a Dragon had the desired effect, the VReoria were immediately immobilized.

Brzko activated his earcom link, “The transporter is in place.” The gallery immediately began filling with members of the combined fleet, including the Muse of Mischief.

They could all hear ShyUst via earcom link. “Clear the room of all VReoria and station a guard at each entrance. I want a perimeter established in the gallery now.”

Soldiers continued to transport in – Gaznzoolians, Ploosnarians, Trelods, and Suus. As they arrived ShyUst directed them out into the main ship. They could hear the commotion but they had other work to do.

“We want to take the VReoria live if possible, but once captured they will activate their death gland and extinguish themselves. Be ready.” ShyUst commanded to everyone.

Xiix arrived to help with the stasis tubes.

“Xiix, do you know how to safely deactivate the stasis tubes?” M asked.

Yes.” He approached the nearest tube and opened a panel at the base. “Like this. Someone be ready to catch the inhabitant – you’re going to get wet.” He pulled out a cluster of wires, singling out the two red wires, he yanked until they were disconnected.

The clear tube began to descend into the base, as it did the stasis fluid began to gush out, drenching all of them. The head of a male humanoid became visual, it looked like it might be a Ploosnarian. He began to fall toward Ferocity. The Dragon reached up and took the being securely by the shoulders as the remainder of the fluid spilled out.

Lean him down so that I can reach the breathing tube.” Ferocity complied. Xiix removed the clear piece that covered the beings mouth and nose, and then slowly began to pull on the breathing tube. “Remove the tube slowly, and be ready to provide rescue breathing.

As soon as the tube cleared the being’s mouth he began coughing. Ferocity gently laid him on his side, on the floor next to the tube, bending over him, he attempted to wake him. “You’re going to be OK, you’re free again.”

The being’s eyes fluttered, then opened. He looked around disoriented and then realized a Dragon was leaning over him. He screamed. Brzko went to his side and projected calmness, it worked.

Suddenly they were surrounded by Suus. “We have a ship setup to receive the evacuees and attend to them. Work in teams and start freeing them from the stasis tubes. This team will transport them as quickly as we can free them.” Xiix projected, referring to the Suus that had just arrived, they all wore blue armbands to signify their role. The strength of the four armed Suus made them the perfect candidates for transporting the evacuees. One of them stepped forward and easily lifted the first being that had been rescued, immediately transporting him to the evacuee ship.

Empress Nalau transported into the gallery, not quite looking her usual self. Her hair was tightly bound and she was donning work pants and boots. “How can help?” She asked walking over to them.

“Empress! How did you get here? It may not be safe.” M said.

“I don’t have time for safe M. There’s work to do. And to quote a dear friend of mine, I might be female but I’m not feeble.

M smiled. “OK let’s go.” She led Nalau to the next stasis tube and showed her the process.

Brzko and Ferocity took the next tube. And so it went for quite some time. They cleared tube after tube, freeing species they were familiar with as well as some they’d never seen before.

After M and Nalau had cleared several tubes she heard Zri. “M.” He called. She could tell by the way that her earcom link had activated that this was a private conversation, the earcom links of the others were not activated. M motioned to a Suus, and for Nalau’s benefit she spoke to her outloud, “Fill in for me for a second. I’ll be right back.” The Empress didn’t even look up from what she was doing, she kept working falling right in sync with her new partner.

After stepping aside M replied. “I’m here Zri, is Lelelu OK?”

“Yes, she’s OK. But we’re going back to the other specimen ship. She needs to see if her father has been rescued yet.”

“How will you get there?”

“My ship is here.”

“But that will take a few hours won’t it?”

“Yes.

“Hold on, I have another idea.” M reached for Ferocity using telepathy. “Ferocity, Zri and Lelelu need to get back to the first specimen ship to see if her father has been rescued. But it will take his ship a few hours to get there…

He interrupted her, “My ship will take them and then return here. Tell them to sit down and prepare for jump.

Understood.” She activated her earcom link to reach Zri privately. “Ferocity’s ship will take you, it can get there in minutes. Sit down and prepare for jump. Once you get there and transport off of the ship it will return here.”

“Will do. Please give Ferocity our gratitude.”

The Muse of Mischief rejoined Empress Nalau, there were still stasis tubes to clear.

The rescuers worked nonstop. The scene was slimy chaos – the floor was covered in thick stasis fluid with breathing tubes and wires scattered about. It wasn’t until the four of them approached the last tube that they realized they had cleared them all. M stepped back and let Brzko and his Dragon handle the last tube. Ferocity was focused on the wires, pulling the red ones. As the tube began to descend, and the liquid began to spill Brzko saw that the being was a Dragon, a very small one.

Brzko positioned himself to catch the dragon, “Ferocity look.”

Ferocity stood up and saw the Dragon. He gasped and took over the retrieval, gently laying the dragon down and removing the breathing tube. Everyone stayed silent, hoping that this was not going to be one of the few deceased specimens they had encountered. The Dragon didn’t move. Ferocity leaned down, and with his snout next to the small Dragon’s face he made the same purring sound that had calmed Wisssi. One of the Dragon’s toes twitched. Ferocity continued to purr. The Dragon became more animated, eventually becoming fully awake. If Ferocity hadn’t been there, the team would not have been able to resuscitate this small Dragon. One of the Suus with a blue armband came toward them, ready to transport the Dragon to the ship with the other evacuees.

“I will take her.” Ferocity said quietly, as he stood, lifting the small Dragon.

As you wish.” The Suus projected.

Ferocity manipulated his Gaznzulian armband and transported off the ship.

M activated her earcom link, “ShyUst, what’s your status? We have evacuated everyone from the gallery.”

“We have three VReoria in holding, the rest have been dispatched. We are making a final sweep of the ship, searching for anyone we may have missed. We’ll meet you in the gallery.”

“Copy that.” M said.

Empress Nalau approached one of the Suus that had been helping to transport the evacuees. “Will you please show me how to adjust this transporter? I want to go to the ship with the evacuees.” She held her arm out.

It would be my honor Your Majesty.” They both transported to the other ship.

Luckily the Muse of Mischief and Agent Brzko were alone in the gallery, they needed a few minutes to catch their breath. This had been a rescue operation like no other.

“You look like shit M. You’re soaked with that nasty stasis fluid.” Brzko teased as he embraced her.

“Hey I’m not the only one! Ewwwww….” she said pushing him away. “Do I smell like that too?”

“Ummm yeah. You stink.”

“We could jump home real quick and shower….” she said knowing that they would never do something so selfish.

Brzko just laughed. “So did everything with the clone work like it was supposed to?”

“Yeah pretty much. They thought it was me until it was too late. By then Lelelu had gotten away and I detonated the clone.”

“So was it weird to blow yourself up?”

“It was a relief… having a clone of yourself is really creepy Brzko, really creepy.”

ShyUst entered the gallery, “The ship is clear. We are ready to destroy it.”

“Good.” Agent Brzko said. “Ferocity, what’s your location?” he asked using his earcom link for the benefit of the nontelepaths.

“Aboard my ship, awaiting instructions Lord Brzko.”

Brzko turned back to ShyUst, “M and I will watch the destruction form Ferocity’s ship. How long will it take for the evacuees to get to Gaznzul?”

“From here, almost a day. They have already departed with a full security escort.” ShyUst answered.

“OK, we’ll meet them at Gaznzul. Thank you ShyUst. You led the combined fleet through a difficult mission.” Agent Brzko said, shaking his hand. “How are the evacuations from the other ship progressing?”

“The VReoria ship is clear and ready to be destroyed. The evacuees are already underway to Gaznzul even though there were more beings held on that ship. They had about the same survival rate. And interestingly, that ship seemed to have several species we’ve not seen before. Maybe that ship had been in other universes – we’ll be able to meet the new species when we get to Gaznzul.” ShyUst said.

“Excellent. We’ll catch up with you there.” And with that M and Brzko left the specimen ship for Ferocity’s ship.

“How’s the young Dragon, Ferocity?” M asked as soon a they were aboard.

“She is expected to make a full recovery.” He answered solemnly. “Where are we to go now?”

“Home.” Agent Brzko said taking a seat. “ As soon as they blow up that ship let’s go home. I want to shower before we head to Gaznzul to meet the evacuees.”

CHAPTER 25: THE FIRST SHIP IS BOARDED (CAZOOVA)

Agent Brzko sat silently next to his bonded Dragon, Ferocity, waiting for the VReoria to drop their shields. The shields would only be down long enough for a transport to the surface, there was no margin for error. They were right next to the VReorian ship, but they were undetectable. They were cloaked.

Ferocity’s sentient ship understood the situation. It was maintaining a constant scan, waiting for the ship to drop it’s shields. Finally it happened. The ship fired three rapid energy pulses, dead on target. The shield emitter and engines were damaged beyond use. The ship instantly became visible. Aiming for the center of the ship, Brzko opened an aperture and went aboard the ship. As he did, he initiated his earcom link.

“The transporter is on board. You’re clear to board and begin the evacuation now.”

Zri answered for the combined fleet. “Roger that Brzko.”

He hadn’t even finished saying Brzko when the gallery where he had arrived began filling with Dragons. Their first task was to eliminate all VReoria, while they waited for the remainder of the combined fleet to arrive. Brzko couldn’t stay and help, there was another specimen ship that he needed to deal with. He went back to Ferocity’s ship.

Out the front of Ferocity’s ship, Brzko could see the other Dragon ships uncloaking and engaging the two VReoria guard ships. First one exploded, then the other.

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!” Ferocity let out a roar that made Brzko’s ears ring.

“How far out is the fleet?” No sooner had Brzko asked then ships began appearing – Gaznzulian, Suus, Ploosnarian, Trelod. It was an amazing site – a mixed fleet of more than 200 ships. Brzko wished he could be fighting with them as Ferocity prepared to jump to the Glion Galaxy.

M, can you hear me?” Brzko reached for the love of his life, worried about how things had gone on the surface below them.

I’m here Brzko. I have Lelelu, are you still in orbit?

Yes, preparing to jump.”

Jump will initiate in twenty seconds M.” Ferocity projected.

The Muse of Mischief didn’t waste any time speaking, she took Lelelu’s arm and opened an aperture to Ferocity’s ship in orbit above them. Brzko jumped out of his seat and went to her, scooping her up in a tight hug, kissing her neck. “M!” He released her just as the ship jumped and they all three fell to the floor when the ship lurched. Jump drives created a little turbulence so they stayed put. Brzko leaned forward and embraced Lelelu.

“Lelelu, are you OK?” he asked.

She just looked at him and shook her head yes, then no.

“What’s wrong? Are you injured?”

She just stared at him, in a state of total shock.

M answered for her. “The VReoria have her father on that specimen ship.”

“What! How?”

The ship lurched again. “We’re here.” Ferocity said, standing up. He walked over to M and Lelelu and offered his hand to help them up. Brzko went to the front and looked at the scene, the VReoria specimen ship was visible, it had been immobilized, and the shield emitters destroyed. The debris field behind the ship suggested that the two guard ships had already been destroyed. The VReoria specimen ship was surrounded by Dragon ships. Lots of Dragon ships, it was going to take a few more minutes for the rest of the combined fleet to get here. “They will be waiting for you on this ship. You need to take me with you this time.” Ferocity said.

“OK, let’s go. You hold them off with fire, or ice if you prefer, and I’ll start trying to deactivate the status tubes.”

“As you wish Lord Brzko.”

Brzko turned to M. “I know you want to come, but stay here with Lelelu until the rest of the fleet arrives.”

“Yeah, I will. I don’t want to leave her alone.”

Brzko kissed her cheek, picked up the transport receiver, took Ferocity’s arm and they left Ferocity’s ship.

M rummaged through a storage bin and found something that would function as a blanket. Lelelu was in shock and needed to be kept warm. She activated her earcom link and tried to reach Zri. “Zri, what’s your eta?”

“Less than a minute until I’m close enough to transport. How’s Lelelu?”

“Before shock set in she said she was uninjured.” M answered.

Zri transported to Ferocity’s ship. “Lelelu, Le…” He lifted her off the floor and just held her.

She looked up at him like she wasn’t sure where she was. “Zri?” She desperately grabbed onto him, “Zri! Oh Zri!” She began to sob.

M put her hand on Zri’s forearm, “Take care of her.” and went to the VReorian ship.

Zri was anxious to join the fight, but Lelelu was his priority. He would stay on Ferocity’s ship with her until she regained herself.

CHAPTER 24: THE CLONE DOES ITS PART

The exchange was to take place on Cazoova, in a remote, forested area. The Muse of Mischief went to Suus to check on her clone.

So how do I control it?” She was in Kiik’s lab, looking at an exact replica of herself. It was very disturbing.

You only have to think commands to it – use your telepathic abilities.” Kiik projected. “Try it now. Tell it to walk forward.

The Muse of Mischief looked at herself that wasn’t her and thought about it walking forward. She almost jumped when it did. It didn’t stop, she realized she had to tell it to stop. She thought about the clone stopping and it did.

How does that work? Do we have some sort of link or can anyone control it?

It is possible because the only area of the brain that we allowed to develop was the telepathic receivers. It has been conditioned to accept commands from only two beings… you or me. I am a safety net, just in case.

I understand. We need to go. I want to be on Cazoova before the VReoria transport to the surface. Are the scan jamming shields active?” She asked looking at the device strapped to her bicep.

Kiik picked up a handheld scanner and first scanned M from head to toe, then scanned the clone. “Yes, your lifesign is being transmitted from the clone. You are undetectable to scans.

OK, then I guess we’re ready.

Good luck M, if there is anything I can do…” Kiik didn’t know how to finish that so instead she stepped forward and embraced M with all four of her arms.

When Kiik released her, M reached for Agent Brzko and Ferocity, “Is everyone in position.

Affirmative.” Ferocity answered.

Yes M, everyone is ready. If anything goes wrong reach for me. I’ll be there.

OK Brzko. But it’s going to be a breeze. I’m female but not…

feeble.” They finished together.

She took her clone’s arm and left Kiik’s lab. They arrived near the coordinates of the exchange, but not quite close enough to see it. M quickly surveyed the area, finding a grove of whapus trees near the exchange site. With their thick wide trunks, they provide the cover she needs to stay out of site. Still holding her clone’s arm she walks to the far side of the grove, keeping the exchange site visible. M has the clone step past the tree line, out into the open to wait. After a few minutes she sees four VReoria materialize, Lelelu is sandwiched between them with her wrists bound. M moves her clone toward them and tells is to speak.

“Release Lelelu!”

“Not yet.” One of the VReoria responds. “Keep walking toward us.”

M moves her clone forward a little more, but once again has it stop. It stays silent and motionless, waiting for the next command. But the VReoria are intimidated, the lack of emotion from what they think is the Muse of Mischief confuses them. They don’t want the Muse of Mischief to change her mind, Lelelu has little value to them, and suddenly they second guess themselves and wonder if she may not have as much value to the Muse of Mischief as they thought.

One of the VReoria in the front turns to Lelelu and unlocks her restraint. It drops to the soil beneath with a sickening thump. “Walk toward the Muse of Mischief. If either of you attempt to escape you will be shot.” The point was emphasized with the raising of a weapon.

Lelelu walks slowly toward the Muse of Mischief, M moves the clone forward very slowly. As soon as Lelelu is near enough, she directed the clone to speak. “As soon as you pass me, run to the trees. Do not stop.”

“M, wait I….” Lelelu protests. By this time she was right next to Lelelu.

M turns the clone’s head to face Lelelu, “RUN!”

Lelelu was shocked and frightened, her dearest friend had never been so cold. But she knew there was no choice, she followed the instructions. M moved the clone forward as Lelelu neared the trees.

Something was wrong, the VReoria seemed agitated. Two of them transported back to the ship. They must have been informed of the attack. One of them ran forward and grabbed the clone, M had it go limp and fall to the ground. This confused the VReoria, he looked up at the sky and let out a blood curdling scream – it’s long tentacled appendages sticking straight out as it screamed. Their plan was falling apart. The other VReoria rushed to his side to assist in lifting and carrying what they thought was the Muse of Mischief.

Lelelu hit the tree line and kept running. She ran right past the real Muse of Mischief. That was fine, M didn’t want to stop her yet – she wasn’t sure what kind of range the VReorian weapons had.

M peeked around the tree that had been providing her cover. One of the VReoria had picked up the clone, the other stood nearby. They were about the return to their ship. She activated the small explosive hidden inside the clone, it and both of the remaining VReoria were vaporized.

“Lelelu!” The Muse of Mischief yelled as loudly as she could as she took off running in the direction Lelelu had gone.

CHAPTER 23: THE EXCHANGE BEGINS

Le! They’re coming for you. Le?”

She was instantly up and ready to defend herself when she heard her father in her head. “I’m ready Baba.”

The smell of the VReoria was so strong that she could smell them before they even opened the door. When the door opened they did not enter. Four VReoria stood just outside the door, looking at her. “Extend your arms.” One of them commanded. She had no intention of making this easy for them and wanted to resist, but there was no point. Four VReoria could easily overpower her, she extended her arms.

Don’t fight them Le, it will make it worse. They will gladly hurt you to make you comply.”

I know Baba.” she thought, wondering if he could hear her thoughts.

A shackle of some sort was placed around her wrists, there was a chain attached to it so she could be led like a dog. The VReoria began to walk away from her, giving the chain a yank. She stumbled and barely kept her balance, following them. Two more VReoria fell in behind her. They walked down a long hallway and then turned into an open area, it was some sort of a transport. They led her into the center of the room, she heard something start humming and the VReoria in front of her began to turn transparent, as did she.

Lelelu could tell by the gravity and air pressure, they were on the surface of Cazoova. She started scanning the area, looking for the Muse of Mischief or some clue as to what was about to happen.

CHAPTER 22: THE RESCUE PLAN

When the VReoria attempted to capture the Muse of Mischief and Agent Brzko on Trella, they had escaped; and instead, they captured the VReoria. As is the way of the VReoria, they activated their death glands and extinguished themselves before they could be interrogated. The Dragons arrived at Trella with the intent of obliterating the VReoria once and for all. After years of oppression and enslavement by the VReoria the Dragons found a weakness and overthrew them, taking Dragona back. That was long ago, and there were many Dragon casualties. After that, they secluded themselves, they needed time to recover from the decimation of war. But time has given them an opportunity to rebuild themselves – their home, their fleet, their lives. Now it is time for them to emerge from their seclusion, the Universe needed their help. And they are back with a vengeance.

Once M returned from providing a sample of her DNA to Kiik on Suus, the planning continued. The group had once again gathered in the dining room of the guest house on Misko.

“Hasira, you’re information was accurate. Our scanners are able to locate the VReoria ships using their energy signatures even when they’re cloaked. We’re going to continue scanning, to make sure we have them all.” Zri said.

“How many specimen ships have you found?” Hasira asked.

“Two, at least we think they may be specimen ships based on their size and the variety of life forms on board. Each one is escorted by two smaller ships.” Zri answered.

“Where are they, are they near each other?” Vustia asked.

“One is very close to us, it’s near Cazoova of course. But the other is in the Glion Galaxy.”

“Where in the Glion Galaxy is the other specimen ship Zri?” Hasira asked.

“Not far from the Black Sea Planet, and our scans indicate that there are Trelods on both ships. Two on the ship near Cazoova and one on the other. ” He answered, and then continued, “They know that the Muse of Mischief can open an aperture and transport herself if she’s conscious so they’ll need to subdue her immediately and keep her subdued. That means they either have to handle the exchange on one of their ships or very near it.”

“Hasira, do you think they will attempt the exchange on board a ship?” M asked.

“No. They are smart enough to know that you will have a plan in place to try and overtake them – to rush them when they drop their shields, they won’t risk it. We need to have ships close to theirs so that we can disable them when they drop their shields to transport to the exchange site.”

“How can we get close to them? If they see more than one ship coming near them they’ll know what we’re up to.” Vustia said.

“Dragon ships are able to cloak themselves. Zri, I need the exact coordinates so I can have our ships begin surrounding the VReoria.”

Zri slid his tablet across the table to Hasira. After looking at the coordinates he transmitted them telepathically to Dragona. Kwaai would take care of coordinating the Dragon fleet.

“OK, so the Dragons disable the ship’s shields, then what?” M asked.

Ferocity jumped in, “Agent Brzko will be with me near Cazoova. As soon as their shields are down he can board their ship and leave a transport receiver. That will allow our combined forces to board the ship. They can simultaneously work on keeping the shields down and subduing the VReoria. Zri, can you outfit the Ploosnarian, Trelod, and Suus ships with transporters?”

Instead of answering directly, Zri looked at ShyUst. “I’m on it.” ShyUst said and transported himself back to his ship to begin replicating and distributing transporters.

“What about the other ship?” Zri asked. “Do you have a plan for them?”

“Agent Brzko can only be in one place at a time, and we expect the Muse of Mischief to be busy with the exchange, so as soon as he leaves the transporter on the first VReoria ship we can jump to the second and follow the same process. By the time we get there, the Dragons will have their shields down and the combined fleet will be enroute or there.” Hasira said. “Unless there is another option that I’ve missed.”

“I don’t see a better option, does anyone else?” Zri asked. When no one said anything he continued. “Xiix, will you provide the combined fleet with their instructions? Divide them in  half and provide them with the coordinates where they are to rendezvous. ShyUst will contact them to provide the transporters. Each team should be led by the fastest ships. Make sure they understand the entire plan thus far.”

Xiix stood to leave the table, “It is my honor.” He headed for the door to take his shuttle back to his ship. Once his ship had a Gaznzulian transporter, and he had an individual transporter strapped to one of his arms, he’d be able to move between the surface and his ship instantly.

Once he had left, Empress Nalau questioned the group, “So what is the plan for rescuing the specimens? I understand our intent is to destroy the VReoria ships, but we cannot do that until we’ve rescued everyone. Hasira, Ferocity, what do you know about how they’re held?”

Hasira and Ferocity looked at each other for a second. Hasira focused on providing a visual image via telepathy. The image was horrid, and huge room filled with tubes, inside each tube was a being suspended in some sort of yellowish liquid.

Receiving the telepathic image was difficult for Empress Nalau, Zri, and Vustia as they weren’t used to telepathic communication.

Vustia seemed to recover first. “Ahhhh.” He sighed. “So they are alive? What is the substance in the tube?”

“Yes they are alive, technically. The tubes are filled with a status fluid. It prevents the flesh from aging or breaking down. Each being is fitted with an appropriate breathing tube. If they attempt to stop breathing then the function is performed for them. Some of these beings have probably been kept this way for lifetimes, they will be insane.”

“OH! This is just horrid. What… How…” Empress Nalau was shocked and frustrated beyond words.

The Muse of Mischief reached for her hand and quieted her. “Zri, can Gaznzul accomodate any of the beings that are damaged mentally and unable to adjust to freedom?”

“Yes M. We will make whatever accommodations they need. There’s a facility on Gaznzul where they can live the remainder of their days in peace.” Zri said. “Since our intent is to destroy all of the VReoria ships, we’ll need a team to transport them as quickly as possible and a ship, at each location, set up to care for them. Waaw, can the Suus handle that?”

Waaw nodded in affirmation.

This helped to calm Nalau. She was new to this work, it would take her some time build a tough exterior and help without taking the pain personally. After she recovered she moved them on, “When will the clone be ready M?”

M looked across the table to Waaw, assuming that she’d been in telepathic contact with Kiik. “It is ready now.

“So how do we keep the VReoria from seeing two Muse of Mischief’s? I assume they will monitor her arrival at the site of the exchange.” Vustia wondered.

The clone and the Muse of Mischief will be wearing cloaking shields. They will make it appear as though the Muse of Mischief’s life signs are coming from the clone, while keeping its lifesign hidden.” Waaw projected.

“Will you bring the clone here while we wait for the details of the exchange?” Vustia asked, looking at M.

“No. I’d rather not.” She answered. “I think it would be better to go from here to Suus, and then from Suus to the exchange site with the clone.”

“Good, I don’t think any of us really want to see the clone.” Brzko said.

Zri countered, “I’m a little curious about it. But it is a little… what’s that word you use M?”

“Creepy? Gross? Disgusting? Take your pick!” She said laughing, at least she could still laugh.

CHAPTER 21: LELELU TOURS THE GALLERY

Lelelu lost track of time; she struggled to stay awake but she kept dozing off. Finally she gave in and let her body, and mind, rest. She woke up sitting on the floor, right where she’d fallen asleep. Her body ached from the struggle, the stress, and the complete lack of comfort in this cell. Slowly inching her way up the disgusting, cold wall she stood, tilting her head from side to side she started her morning stretching routine.

Now that she was fully awake and had relieved some of her physical discomfort Lelelu was ready to work on a plan for escape. Out of habit she touched her ear, still no earcom link. If she made it out of this alive she was going to have Zri install some kind of subcutaneous link that could not easily be removed.  She checked her pockets to see if she had anything that could help her. There was nothing. Her thoughts drifted to her father. He’d been dead since she was a child, what was causing her to hallucinate about him now.

You’re not hallucinating Le. I’m here, stuck on the same ship.” Again she started hearing her father’s voice in her head.

That’s not possible, my father is dead. And he wasn’t telepathic… so whatever!”

Le, think about the stories you heard as a child. The stories of the ancient ones.

Some of them had wings and could fly. Yeah I heard those stories, what’s the point?”

How did they communicate?

She paused and searched her mind for stories she’d been told as a child. “Some of them were telepathic…” She said starting to think her father may actually be real. “But even if Baba was telepathic, I’m not.

Maybe you always have been, but the ability lay dormant because you didn’t need it. And now, you need to use everything you’ve got to escape and your mind knows it.

Baba? It’s really you?”

Yes Le, it’s really me.”

Why are you here? I want to see you.”

I was captured, just like you. The VReoria are relentless in their efforts to capture one of every species they encounter.”

How have you survived here all this time?”

I’m in stasis Le. I can’t move, only my mind works.”

Is that what they are going to do to me?”

No, you’re bait. They intend to trade your for something called a Muse of Mischief.

It’s a someone, not a something. How do you know that?”

The VReoria have dense minds, they are not capable of telepathy. They don’t realize that I can hear them; they often speak about their plans as they tour the gallery. There are others here in the gallery that are aware too.”

Gallery?”

I can’t send images via telepathy but I know someone who can. Stabilize yourself, sometimes telepathic images can be disruptive. Standby.

OK Baba.” Lelelu positioned herself in the corner of her cell. She was standing but supported on each side by a wall. She leaned back, closed her eyes and waited.

The image came, at first she couldn’t focus on it, it made her head hurt. With her eyes closed she took a deep breath and focused her mind. She was in a huge, well lit, round room. The floor and walls were white. There were rows of yellowish looking tubes. She tried to focus on the one right in front of her, but she couldn’t control the focus. This wasn’t a live image, it was someone’s memory. She could feel the viewer being pulled forward, she felt them resist. As they got closer to the tube in front of them, she could see that someone was in a tube, it looked like a Ploosnarian. The tube was full of liquid. Her body flooded with the Trelod version of adrenaline as her flight or fight response kicked in. She could feel the viewer begin to struggle hard now. As the struggle ensued, she caught a glimpse of the flailing arm of the viewer. She was seeing this memory through the eyes of a Suus. It ceased, and she was relieved. She leaned over, put her hands on her knees and worked on calming herself.

Le, are you OK? Did you see the gallery?”

Yes Baba, I’m going to get you out of there.”

Oh Le, I’ve been here a very long time. Many of us have. I don’t think there’s any hope for us. But you could escape, when they exchange you for that Muse of Mischief.”

Don’t worry Baba, you don’t know the Muse of Mischief like I do. She and Agent Brzko will find a way to get us all out here.”

CHAPTER 20: THE RANSOM DEMAND ARRIVES

There are two main features of the guest house on Misko; a huge dining room that can seat up to 24 and an equally large sitting room. Empress Nalau was doing a fantastic job of making sure the head of each group involved was kept in the communications loop. She had borrowed Whotov, Ferocity’s butler, to help with the tangible things – making sure there was food and beverage available and gathering and dispersing supplies. The guest house has only two bedrooms, but that is of no consequence, all of the visitors have ships available to them. Nalau was the only one that needed to actually reside at the house.

After receiving the ransom message, the Muse of Mischief requested everyone’s attendance at the massive dining table to share the VReoria’s demands and come up with a plan. The table was so large that she and Agent Brzko were both able to sit at the head of the table. Immediately to her left was Nalau, ready to take any action requested. Immediately to Brzko’s right was Ferocity, but surprisingly, he wasn’t the only dragon at the table. Hasira had made it in time for the meeting. He had confidently positioned himself between Zri and Vustia. Also at the table were Waaw and Xiix, commander and sub-commander of the Suus fleet, Pruglar, commander of the Ploosnarian fleet, and of course ShyUst.

Agent Brzko opened the meeting, “We’ve received the ransom demand from the VReoria.” He looked at his tablet, laying on the table in front of him he read the message aloud.

We the VReoria have your precious Trelod. We will only exchange her for the Muse of Mischief. You will meet us on Cazoova at the following coordinates one rotation from now.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Zri said. “The VReoria know that you and Brzko can travel at will, they can’t detain you.”

“They must think they’ve found a way.” M said slowly. “Or… they think they have a way to instantly kill me. Why the hell do they want me?”

“Specimen logging.”

Everyone turned toward the voice. Hasira took a second to gather himself. “Please forgive me if I have spoken out of turn. We have kept ourselves secluded for so long that I am unfamiliar with your protocols.”

“Honest communication is the only protocol here, Hasira. Please continue.” Ferocity said aloud, putting the other Dragon at ease.

“When Dragona was enslaved we observed many things about the VReoria. They looked upon us as though we were lower life forms so they spoke freely around us. But we listened and remembered every detail we heard. They spoke of another classification of VReoria, the collectors.”

“More than one kind of VReoria? I don’t like the sound of this.” M said.

Hasira continued, “The collectors have a small fleet of specimen ships. These ships are said to travel around this Universe, and others, collecting perfect specimens of higher life forms. The beings are suspended in state of existence that is neither living nor dead. They intend to use the genetics from the collection to alter their own genes. Some said they were attempting to create a master race of warriors by adding the strengths of every species they encounter to their own DNA.”

“Is that how they were able to cloak their appearance when they attempted to kidnap us on Trella?” Brzko asked.

Hasira considered his response carefully, sharing information with other species was new to him. “Possibly but I don’t know for certain. It was the other classification, the enslavers, that occupied Dragona. I don’t think they ever cloaked their appearance, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.”

“They sound ruthless.” Vasira said.

“Mmmm. They are. They poisoned Dragona, altering the atmosphere in order to dominate us. It took us a very long time to figure out why we could no longer fly or breathe fire.”

Hasira’s comments weighed heavily on them all. It was such a barbaric thing to do. The room stayed silent while everyone thought about a fleet of VReoria collectors on specimen ships.

ShyUst broke the silence, “Muse of Mischief, I don’t understand. You and Agent Brzko can time travel, is there a reason you don’t travel back in time and prevent this, or leave a warning for Lelelu?”

“I wish it were that easy but it doesn’t work that way. If we change something in the past it doesn’t stop it from happening in this Universe, because it already did happen. Changing history just creates fractures in the timeline, or what some call parallel universes.” M explained.

“You can’t exchange yourself for Lelelu, we can’t allow the VReoria to capture you. Can you imagine what they could accomplish if they actually were able to use your genes to obtain the ability to travel through apertures?” Zri said. “Once we hear the details of the exchange we’ll need to find a way to make them think you’re exchanging yourself for Lelelu, just long enough to get her back.”

A clone.” Everyone turned toward Waaw, and Xiix, unable to tell which telepath had projected the thought. It was Waaw, he continued, “We all know that members of the Universal Coalition have agreed not to participate in cloning activities. But given the circumstances, they may be willing to hold an emergency vote and allow a single deviation from the agreement.

“That could work.” Zri said. “I’m sure that Gaznzul would give their approval.”

“As will Ploosnar.” Nalau said.

“I think the ruling council of the Planet of Portals will also agree.” Vustia said.

“Dragona will approve of the plan as long as we are assured that the equipment used is to be destroyed afterward.” Hasira said.

Brzko looked across the table to Waaw, “You must think that Ciic will approve of the idea?”

I do. You and the Muse of Mischief have served Suus on many occasions. She will not approve of the Muse of Mischief exchanging herself for Lelelu.

Brzko turned to M, “So what do you think?”

“Uhhh, other than being a little creeped out by the idea of cloning myself I think it could work. Waaw, who has the technology and how long will it take? We don’t have long to prepare.”

Please allow me to return to my ship and consult with Ciic. The Suus database contains the details of successful cloning processes. The practice was common for cloning diseased organs long ago. I will need to review the data in order to give you an accurate answer.” Waaw projected.

“While you’re doing that, we need someone to contact the Universal Coalition and inform them of what’s going on.” Brzko said.

“I already have.” Nalau and Vustia said in unison.

Vustia gestured to Nalau, suggesting that she continue. She did, “They were already aware of the situation, the kidnapping. They have approved of the plan to use a clone, as long as it’s a single clone, destroyed after the rescue, and the equipment is also destroyed.”

“Wait, so it’s a clone of  me, then wouldn’t it have my abilities?” M asked.

No.” Waaw projected. “It will only look like you, we will not clone your entire brain.

“Wow, this just keeps getting creepier. OK so Waaw, while you return to your ship to get started on the clone idea, the rest of us need to come up with a plan for taking down these VReoria specimen ships once and for all.” Brzko said.

“It won’t be that easy.” M said. “We have an obligation to rescue all of the specimens that are still alive.”