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Book One: TROPHY


Renegade nuclear engineer Louis Franelli has developed the technology of time-travel, which his employer, criminal and rebel Galen Bestmarke, is using to go back to 1975 A.D. to collect hunting trophies and establish a slave-trade through time. The New Victorian Empire is desperate to recover Franelli and his technology so they can use it to save mankind. The Guardians order the Planetary Control Corps (PCC) directed by Star-Commander Abigail VanDevere to complete the daunting task of stopping Bestmarke and capturing Franelli. Can the dynamic young team of Lieutenant Janet Rogerton and Pilot Kolanna along with the determined officers of the PCC succeed? Can they do so in time?

Here is how the story begins. Please enjoy the first five chapters of TROPHY.



TROPHY 

Chapter I
Earth Date: 475 N.V.A. (New Victorian Age)
Location: Kuiper Belt: trans-Neptunian region
      Janet Rogerton stared at the NAV screens, straining for the clues to locate a cloaked ship. “Any anomalies or shimmers on the screens yet?” the young Lieutenant-Warden said to her pilot.
“Nothing,” Kolanna said, scanning her instruments. “The particle-stream sensors aren’t showing a thing. The Black Eagle has to be here—according to the coordinate models.”
“I don't like it; the squadron is bunched too tightly, like sitting ducks. I know what our orders say. We’re the bait in the trap—and the bait always gets bitten.”
Kolanna turned to her. “Like what happened last year at Io Station. Who'll get hit first? Our cruiser better be close and ready for action.”
“I hope we're not in a cross-fire.”
“Ma’am, shimmer on the starboard flank,” Warden Elizabeth Archer said.
“I see it—it’s close,” Rogerton said. “Yellow alert.”
“Fading—fading,” Archer said. “Nothing.” The seconds crawled by turning to minutes as tension on the ship continued to grow. “Screens are blank.”
“He’s here, I can feel it,” Rogerton said. “Alpha Squadron, red alert—all shields to maximum.”
“Large ship decloaking on the starboard,” Archer said. “Weapons powering up—weapons firing—hyper-lasers and pulse cannon!”
Her words were drowned out as brilliant yellow energy slammed against the forward shielding, violently shaking the small craft. Electricity raced across the bridge, smoke and flames erupting behind the metal panels. Fire suppression systems hissed on dousing the flames; smoke continued to seep from the edges.
“Return fire!” Rogerton said over the COM. “Evasive maneuvers, pattern Epsilon Two. Target engines—full power to all forward hyper-lasers.” She ignored the tingling in her hands and fixed her attention on the NAV screens. “It's the Black Eagle. Concentrate fire on one spot. Take out their shields! Hit their engines!”  She glanced at her blistered hands and the blackened sleeves of her uniform, acrid smoke faintly rising. Her face flushed with anger. “Status—anybody hurt?”
“Shielding at sixty percent and stable,” Kolanna said. “Secondary bridge circuits operating. We took a major hit from their hyper-lasers.” She turned to Rogerton. “You’re hurt! Medic!”
“Belay that order, continue firing!”
“Ship Three’s shields are breaking down, almost gone. They’re getting hammered with the pulse cannon.”
“Break off, Ship Three!” Rogerton said. The twenty-five meter ship banked in a tight loop as a brilliant blue energy pulse narrowly missed. A second pulse blasted the reactor of the small ship, sending it slowly cart-wheeling, its power gone. Emergency lights flickered on.
“Cruiser decloaking behind Black Eagle,” Archer said. 
“Break off attack! Give the Laurel room to fight.”
The powerful weapons of the Victorian Heavy-Cruiser Laurel blazed into action in a terrific display of power. Brilliant crimson colored hyper-lasers chiseled away at the shields of the Black Eagle while the continuous blue pulses of the ion-cannons slammed their rear shields, weakening them, blow by blow.
Suddenly the Black Eagle focused its formidable arsenal on the cruiser in a barrage of devastating energy. Its mighty fusion engines surged as it began to pull away from the Laurel. The deadly volleys of both ships continued to crackle and dance along the edges of their weakening shields.
Rogerton snapped on the COM to her remaining nine ships. “Alpha Squadron, circle tight to the Black Eagle’s stern—target both engines. When the Laurel breaks down their shields we can stop them. Go in straight and fast—pull up at the last second—attack pattern Gamma Four!” Her own ship led the charge directly at the Black Eagle's screaming engines.
“The shields of both ships are collapsing!” Kolanna said, her purple tinged eyes wide with adrenaline.
“Concentrate hyper-lasers on the port engine,” Rogerton said.
“Pull up in five seconds!” Kolanna said.
All nine ships continued firing, breaking off at the last second. They angled out in a precision move, swept around in tight circles, and focused their weapons on the engine again.
“Port engine weakened, continue the pattern,” Rogerton said. “Their engines are powering up—watch out for the wake.”  
“The Laurel’s shields have collapsed.” Archer said. “They're continuing to attack, but now they're vulnerable.”
“They're taking the heat, giving us one more chance,” Rogerton said. “Hit the Black Eagle with everything you have!” All nine ships targeted the fleeing ship, the crimson beams of their hyper-lasers slashing at the engines.
Laurel is hit!” Kolanna said. “Losing power and falling behind.”
Black Eagle’s shields are gone,” Archer said. “Port engine is losing power.”
“Brace for attack—they’ll concentrate on us,” Rogerton said. “Continue to target the engines. If you’re hit once, break off, don't sacrifice yourself.” The small Patrol Class ships bore down on the Black Eagle as it increased its laser fire. “Ship Four—break off your attack!”
“Their engines are shutting down, now we have them,” Kolanna said, but seconds later her hope withered. “They’re cloaked again—they’ve disappeared.”
“Calculate their trajectory and target the probe-bombs,” Rogerton said. “They’ll make steering changes with the thrusters—watch your particle-stream sensors and NAV screens. We've hurt them—don’t give up now—remember our sisters on Ship Three and the Laurel.”
**********
Rogerton thought about more coffee but figured it wouldn’t do any good after forty-eight hours of sleepless continuous pursuit. She glared at the temporary bandages covering the back of her hands making her movements clumsy. She considered her Academy training as she struggled to control her anger. Anger remained her last resort, an admission that she couldn't think her way through a situation. Anger must be harnessed and channeled, not through the heart, but with the mind. This was expected from a trained officer of the New Victorian Empire.  
Times like this, perched on the edge of death and destruction, made her wonder why she joined the Corps. What drove her? Was it more than a family tradition of officers that reached back two and a half centuries, half the age of the New Victorian Era? She remembered the first time she put on her dark forest-green uniform, how it fit her tall, athletic frame so well. It had brass buttons, a distinctive badge by her left shoulder signaling rank, and fine black and purple striping that enhanced the color of her eyes, a distinctive blue-green tinged with purple from years of artificial gravity. She remembered how proud she felt with that first look in the mirror. Was she thinking of battle and death then? She sighed and tried to run her fingers through shoulder length auburn hair, cursing the bandages once more under her breath.
 She wondered again why she was here and not back home on Earth. She’d been anxious to join the Planetary Control Corps, the military arm of the Empire, but the glamour fixed in her imagination soon withered with her assignment in this vast empty region of the outer Solar System. Stretched thin in this huge area Rogerton's small squadron struggled to keep pace with the normal duties of maintaining civil order, regulating trade, and search and rescue. Besides that, they contended with a complicated situation of criminal activity rapidly consuming more and more of their attention.
The fringes of the Solar System, far from the central government on Earth, made an easy place to hide. The darker elements of human society held sway in a subtle and often hidden system of operations far from the sun. All who lived out here, by choice or otherwise, literally existed in darkness. Within that literal darkness a gloom of spirit and antipathy against the Empire simmered in a climate of distrust.
Galen Bestmarke and his brother Terran, owners of the Black Eagle, had attacked Rogerton’s squadron and now her ships continued their pursuit. The Bestmarkes were wanted for crimes against the Empire with a long standing warrant for their capture. The real goal this time was the apprehension of their chief engineer, Louis Franelli. The Empire wanted him soon and they wanted him alive.  
“Kolanna, what’s our ETA for the Keyhole?” Rogerton said. “Bestmarke is headed that direction, I know he’ll make a run for it.”
“At full speed—about twenty minutes—could be more, we don’t know the exact location.”
“This is our last chance to position our ships between Bestmarke and the Keyhole. The Star-Commander ordered Franelli taken alive. I’d rather destroy Bestmarke’s ship and be done with it—I’m tired of this cat and mouse game.”
“Agreed—full thrust in ten seconds, on my mark. All crew members strap in,” Kolanna said, her voice mechanical, her exhaustion evident.
The small ship trembled as the engine surged to full thrust and the g-forces settled the crew into their gravity seats. Rogerton spoke over the COM system: “Ships two and six, advance with probe bombs. All other ships—fan out; continue same general heading at full speed. The target is probably headed for the Keyhole. Remember, Franelli must be taken alive. Remain at full alert—Rogerton out.”  
She made a sweep of her instruments and NAV screens. With a deep sigh she leaned back in her gravity seat and reached for her cup nestled in its warming cavity. 
**********
Galen Bestmarke stared at the NAV screens. “Fifteen lousy minutes,” he said, pulling at the collar of his charcoal colored jacket. The Black Eagle shuddered as probe bombs detonated nearby. After a two day chase they were closing in. His ship remained invisible behind its cloak, but the searching pattern of explosions grew closer. “Louis, are you finished yet? We have to fire up the engines—now!” he said, his face beginning to flush.
Louis Franelli answered slowly without looking at him. “Almost finished, boss, I have to get it right the first time. Those PCC ships won’t give us a second chance.” He scowled at Galen, the lines of his face dark from exhaustion. “It wasn’t me that got us in this mess in the first place.”
“Just fix it!” Galen said, his face and neck reddening.
Space exploded behind them. The huge ship shuddered as Louis rushed to finish his repairs.
“Hurry up—they've narrowed us down.”
“Calm down and give Louis some room to think,” Terran said in a steady voice. Full partner, ship’s pilot, and Galen’s identical twin, Terran was emotionally his opposite. “Louis is right, you know, you got us into this. You had to take a shot at those PCC ships, didn’t you?” Terran looked him straight in the eyes. “We could have coasted right on by—fully cloaked and undetected.”
“How did I know a cloaked Victorian cruiser was with them? They got a lucky shot at us, that’s all! But we nailed their cruiser, didn’t we?”
“It was more than luck, brother. They skillfully broke down our shields and knew just where to hit us. Their technology has improved, we’ve grown lax. Only our speed and our cloak saved us. And only Louis can get us out of trouble now.”
 “It was still a lucky shot!” Galen said. “Hurry up, Louis!”
 Terran rolled his eyes and sighed. “I'll be glad when this expedition of yours is finished. We need to get some income flowing again. Ever since Louis made it possible to use the Keyhole, you’ve been obsessed with your collection.”
“This will be the final trip for my collection.” Galen paused and took a deep breath. “After this we can concentrate on business again. Don't forget, this trip is our concluding test before we implement our human relocation program. Once that's underway we’ll have more power and money than you ever dreamed possible! I promise!”
“You promise—right, how many times have I heard that?”
“No! I promise! This will be...”
“Cloak down, shields up!” Louis said. The great ship rocked from the fierce explosion of a probe bomb hitting the rear shields.
“Why’d you drop the cloak?” Galen said, veins bulging in his neck. “Now every ship in the region will see us!”
Louis turned from his screens and stared at him, answering in his deep voice. “That probe bomb was going to hit us. The circuits are repaired, so I dropped the cloak and raised the shields. We had a few seconds to spare, a comfortable margin.”
“A comfortable margin, huh? You're sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
Louis maintained his piercing stare. “The circuits held, the shields are intact, the probe bomb exploded harmlessly. Is there is a problem?”
“No problem at all,” Galen said, looking up from his NAV screens. “You’re good, Louis, but don’t scare me like that. And if it happens again, give us a bigger margin.” The Black Eagle shivered as another probe bomb hit the rear shields. “We need to lose these patrol ships—now! Begin the engine start-up sequence.”
“Start-up sequence commencing,” Louis said. He turned away, a disgusted look on his haggard face.
Galen scanned the NAV screens. They were twelve minutes from the Keyhole with the PCC ships closing in on them. He cursed the Empire for its controls, regulations, and constant harassment. Now they had a gauntlet to run. Would their ship be up to the challenge?


Chapter II
Galen flipped the COM switch. “Stelle! You and the pouncer—get wired up—action coming!”
“Yes, sir,” she said from the defense control cube located in the front of the ship. Estelle Fairfield served as a guider. She was strapped into her control seat and electronically connected to her partner, Tommie, a five kilogram orange striped tabby cat sitting next to her. Tommie was a pouncer.  
They were a mentally-linked defensive team designed to protect the ship from incoming projectiles. The ship’s energy shields defended against the probe bombs, lasers, and other beam weapons, but the projectile weapons remained more difficult to counter. The combined consciousness of the feline-human mind-link reigned superior to computer control, and a strong emotional bond guaranteed the smooth interaction of a guider and a pouncer. If a guider didn’t love cats, the pouncer sensed it, dooming the chemistry of the partnership. With a mind link connecting the two of them, feelings could not be faked.  
Estelle wore a wireless head-gear set strapped over her short, blond hair. A tiny chip implanted surgically near her brain-stem created a direct wireless interface between her central nervous system and the head-gear she wore. This arrangement connected her to the ship’s central computer, allowing her to mentally control the ship’s weapons, steering, and power. Tommie was connected in a similar manner and then strapped into a special seat to prevent any movement. With the interface between Estelle and Tommie activated they were essentially of the same mind, interconnected to the ship’s main computer. This enabled them to make instant decisions to defend the ship.
The concept of a human-animal mind link was first discovered a century ago by a Guardian who had owned an exceptionally intelligent and responsive pet cat. Her studies and those of scientists after her led to the development of one of the Empire's most useful tools. Of all the domestic animals researched and tested at CENTRAL, cats remained the overwhelming choice for this kind of training. They easily accepted space travel and most ships allowed and encouraged cats because they helped control the vermin that always found a way aboard. But the Thought Modified and Controlled training, known as TMC, limited the number meeting the rigorous requirements. One of the key requirements highlighted their ability to think of doing things without the actual physical movement. With special training modifying their thought processes some cats could accomplish this. They learned to remain motionless while in their minds they ran, pounced, and killed their prey. Most cats couldn’t separate these actions.  
TMC cats could be trained to achieve various skill levels with a rating from one to seven. Tommie achieved a seven. But even properly trained cats needed guiding and control; they could sometimes panic or behave erratically. A competent guider could work wonders with a properly controlled pouncer. Guiders were selected women mentally matched with their cats for the life of the animal. Estelle had been matched with Tommie for three standard years. Daily training sessions maintained their skill level. During these sessions their thought processes harmonized in an interactive program much like a game. Estelle guided and encouraged Tommie through the game, giving him commands and exercises to keep him mentally sharp, and their relationship one of affection and trust. During a real situation Tommie continued seeing the program as a game. Only Estelle knew the true danger at hand, and her training to control feelings of fear or panic helped her mentally project calmness and well-being. This promoted stability and defused any panic situations, as far as the cat was concerned. Training sessions at random times prevented any regularity or anticipation of their time together. As a defensive team they had to be ready at all times.
The rank of guider carried a secretive position in the Planetary Control Corps. Society in general and even some in the Corps grew uncomfortable with the mental linking of humans and animals, but CENTRAL considered it necessary for the defense of the fleet. Graduate women from the Academy with the brightest and most adaptive minds were chosen for the intense training. A high level of honor and dark prestige was associated with the skill, and if an officer left the Empire as a renegade the black market paid handsomely for the rare skill.
Estelle checked her instruments, confirming the status of the shielding. “All shielding restored to full levels, boss.”
Galen appreciated having a guider-pouncer team, a defensive luxury not many ships had, and he seemed content with their performance. Estelle had been with him for two and a half standard years but he still harbored doubts about her loyalty. Only a former Victorian officer could have her guider training and possess a fully trained cat, no other organization had the resources for the extensive and complicated training. By her own admission she was a renegade of the New Victorian Empire, and willingly submitted to complete scans before he hired her. She hadn’t given him reason for doubt; Galen just had a gut feeling. He didn’t trust women and he hated cats.
 He asked her why she went renegade. A woman with her abilities could go far in the New Victorian Empire. What would cause her to give up the benefits and luxuries afforded to her? Was it hatred for the Empire? What was it that made her not only walk away, but become an enemy of an Empire that would have cultivated her talents and rewarded her handsomely for them? She said it was something on a personal level. Questions like these gnawed at Galen, occupying his mind more than he wanted to admit. Did she hate the Empire as much as he did? For as long as he could remember he and his twin brother Terran had despised the controlling authoritarian government that had been in power for nearly five centuries. He hated the absolute rule by women alone. Total female rule was unnatural. Didn’t the male animals assume dominance and lead the others? Didn’t ancient history also prove the rightful place of men as rulers? He would never accept or submit to total rule by women. He’d always resist in any manner he could.
Louis’s voice sounded over the COM system. “One minute until the engines fire up. The PCC ships are on the NAV screen. They know where we’re headed and they’re on an intercept course. We may outrun some of them, but now we have to show our hand. Now we go back into the fire.”
Galen's five hundred meter long ship bristled with the armament of a Victorian cruiser. Everything was the best to be had and Louis had added his own touches to keep one step ahead of the Planetary Control Corps technology.
Galen strapped himself in at the controls. He wanted his fingers on the trigger in the coming fight. He left the piloting of the ship to Terran. He trusted him and the two had used a mental-link for five years. A pilot and gunner could also be mentally-linked, similar to a guider and pouncer. A Level I interface controlled what two humans needed or could endure. A deeper level interface invariably led to dominance by the stronger mind. A Level I interface had restraints and buffers to prevent total mental interaction, thus preventing dominance. Two linked individuals needed to fully trust each other and be well matched in thought processes; having an identical twin made this easier.
Galen put on the headgear and hooked in the link. Terran was already connected and Galen felt the dream-like confusion of mixed emotions trying to focus as the interface gently pulled their independent thoughts together into the same flowing stream. Each maintained his individual side thoughts like currents or eddies along the edges of a clear but frighteningly deep river. Formless shapes could be felt in the deepness, some fearful, some vague, but all seemingly at the edge of a dream and just out of reach. He wondered if a Level II interface lead to those depths but his thinking changed and clarified as his thoughts come into focus with Terran’s.
“Welcome to dreamland again,” Terran thought.
“Right—I’ll feel better when we reach the Keyhole,” Galen thought. “Is it on time and in the same position? I've planned and waited a long time for this trip. My collection’s nearly complete and the Empire’s not going to stop me now, not when I'm so close.”
“It's always on time but the location continually shifts. The PCC ships won’t know the exact location either.”
The thirty second warning light flashed on. “Maximum starting thrust in thirty seconds,” Louis said.
Remembering to use his voice Galen barked out commands. “Everyone strap in, rough ride coming up!”
Check lights clicked on one by one as the rest of the crew members buckled in—six, seven, eight—nine—one more to go. “Johnny, are you in?” he said over the COM to his First Officer. The last light clicked on as the last seconds ticked off.
“Here we go!” Louis said with uncommon excitement. “Maximum starting power!”
The fusion thrusters shook the ship as they fired up to fifty percent. Any higher would push the thrusters through the ship, which was not designed for the substantially more powerful engines replacing the originals. The G-forces increased tremendously, pushing them into their specially designed gravity seats, the skin of their faces pulling back, their eyeballs sinking in. The inertia dampers struggled to control the G-forces, lowering them to a tolerable level safely below the life crushing pressure of maximum starting thrust. Louis now brought them up to full thrust in fifty seconds, twice as fast as any PCC ships nearby. His fine tuning was paying off.
Galen and Terran sat glued to the NAV screens, their thoughts racing faster than verbal communication would allow.
“Where’s that blasted Keyhole?” Galen thought.
“It’s somewhere in the designated area, probably on the far side. Scanners will pick it up soon. Wait, it’s there—near the edge—ten minutes away,” Terran thought. “Look! Nine PCC ships! We’re ahead of five already and with luck we can beat three more coming in from the sides. That leaves one directly ahead and any more that might be cloaked.”
“Cloaked? I thought they didn’t have that technology on these small patrol ships.”
“They don’t, yet. But if they have another cruiser in the area, it will be. All we can do is wait and see.”
“Full thrust in ten seconds,” Louis said, straining against the G-forces. “Dampers at one-hundred-ten percent—all circuits holding.”
Galen watched the seconds count down to zero and felt the increased rumble and vibration as the two Zenkati fusion engines roared like a matched binary star, somehow harnessed and barely controlled. He loved the raw power of his star ship. The vibration and G-forces shot up oppressively but started leveling off as the dampers worked to compensate, slowly gaining. The heavy gravity began to subside and Galen smiled, laughing to himself. He lived for action like this and his eyes gleamed with the rush of adrenalin.
“You’re ready for the fight, aren’t you,” Terran thought, chuckling in his mind. Not a mocking laugh but of understanding and camaraderie, as two knights side by side eagerly joining the battle, laughing as they ride forth to a nameless enemy.
“Shields up and guns out!” Galen said. “We have a fight ahead!” He twitched in his seat, straining against the subsiding G-forces. His smile revealed pure anticipation and pleasure.


“Their ship is firing up the engines, Ma'am. Look! The acceleration is incredible! How can they possibly survive?” Archer said, her eyes wide as she stared at the screens.
“It's impressive,” Rogerton said. “Remember, they have Franelli. Bestmarke was no fool when he acquired him years ago. Those two are a dangerous combination, genius and ambition. It's rumored that Bestmarke interfaces with another human like a guider-pouncer team. Franelli, no doubt, worked that one out.” She looked up from the screens. “Franelli would have been on our side, but for the supposed logic of the Compu-Court. Efficiency at all costs—the cost this time has been high.”
A junior officer broke in. “Two minutes to intercept, Ma’am. Shall we raise our shields and ready our weapons?”
“Do it—status on our sister ships, Archer.”
“Five behind him and three at the sides, but they can’t intercept. Bestmarke has outrun them all. We’re the only one in his path now and we’re out-gunned. Remember what he did to the Laurel and Ship Three.”  
“You’re right; we can't go against him by ourselves. He’s heading for the Keyhole with only us in his way. He could go any other direction and outrun us, yet he continues toward the Keyhole. Why?”
She studied the weapons inventory but her thoughts were interrupted by the ninety second intercept warning. “Deploy all our projectile mines and target them in Bestmarke’s path. On my mark,” Rogerton said. “Kolanna, get us out of here, full thrust, full rear shielding.”  
The Planetary Control Corps ship lurched as its fusion engine roared to full power. It sped away from the oncoming ship and deployed five projectile mines in a burst, like sparks from a campfire. The PCC ship continued its arc and pulled away on a course perpendicular to Bestmarke’s oncoming ship.
“Sixty-seconds to mine intercept,” the soft voice of the computer said.
“Keep us at full thrust,” Rogerton said. “Let’s see if there are any pieces to pick up. Take us out of weapons range, Kolanna, and change to a parallel course. Keep the shields at full strength, focused towards his ship.”
“Full strength, Ma’am?” Archer said.
“Yes, full strength. The Bestmarkes have no honor. They hate the Empire, and have resisted all of our efforts to deal with them in a fair-minded way. Franelli has further emboldened them in their arrogance. It will be a momentous day in the Empire when both of them are in custody—or dead.”
**********
“Projectile mines”, Terran thought. “We don’t need those.”
“Getting worried?” Galen thought as he glanced at Terran. “We’ll just pick them off with the hyper-lasers.”
“It won’t work on these. They’re shielded.”
“Then we’ll use the pulse-cannon to break down the shielding—then the hyper-lasers.”
“It still won't work. Recharge time on the cannon is one and a half seconds. We may destroy a couple of mines before the rest unload: two projectiles per mine, if they’re standard issue. At best, we’ll get two mines. That leaves three mines, six projectiles. Can Estelle and the cat handle what's left?”
“Leave them out of it! We’ll handle this!” Galen thought, his temper flaring, and anger clouding the river of their combined consciousness. Frightening waves and deep whirlpools grew as if a vast dark storm approached. Terran’s calming thoughts, like clear skies peeking under the edges of that darkness, seemed remote and insignificant. But gradually, Terran’s steadiness soothed the rage from Galen’s mind. The waters calmed as the murkiness gave way to clearing, even to the greenish depths of their mysteriously joined consciousness.
“That’s better,” Terran said. “We need control now and clear thinking. There is always a way out. Space has many directions.”
Galen steeled his self-control and opened the defense channel. “Stelle, can you and the Pouncer handle...”
“Maybe nine, eight for sure—if you clear one mine, we’ll get the others,” Estelle said. “You have fifteen seconds, awaiting your command.”
The command became obvious as Galen fired the pulse-cannon. He fired again after it recharged and continued to fire three more times. First one pulse and then another flashed out from the ship like hot blue stars, streaking to their targets. The first one hit the mine causing it to glow a dull red, quickly brightening to orange, and flashing white as its temperature soared. It exploded in a brilliant burst of light. The second pulse intercepted the second mine and destroyed it. The third, fourth, and fifth mines were also destroyed but not before the last three had unloaded their shield piercing projectiles.
“Nine projectiles,” Estelle said. “You have to give me control, there are too many for partial control. I must have total control of the ship—ten seconds!”
Galen looked in dismay at the NAV screens. Cursing, he muttered something about standard issue and tapped in the code that gave total ship control to the defense cube.
“I know you don’t trust her,” Terran thought. “But at the moment, she’s the best we’ve got, she and Tommie.”
“Don’t remind me. We’ll all be feline fricassee if they don’t pull us out. At least it will happen quickly, if that’s any consolation.”
The ship trembled as Estelle mentally coaxed the engines to one hundred-ten percent. For brief periods they could handle that and more without overheating. The projectiles bore down on them in a great pincer-like pattern, the nearest three ten seconds away on the lower port. Estelle banked hard to upper starboard and pushed the engines to one hundred-twenty percent. The projectiles banked hard in pursuit, straining to catch the ship. The hard turn spread them out far enough that she and Tommie gained a few milliseconds between each projectile, enough additional time to catch the deadly incoming intruders.
Estelle flipped the separator switch off and engaged the mind-link. She felt her thoughts racing across what seemed like a vast closely-trimmed bright green lawn stretching off into infinity. It was filled with small round bumps or hills with shallow valleys between them. Everywhere the bright green grass seemed bathed in golden yellow sunlight, and every time she saw it she wondered in awe, like a baby seeing its first brilliant spring flower or butterfly. “The playing field,” she thought. An orange striped tabby cat, glistening in the sunlight, sat on the nearest small hill. He looked at her with anticipation, his ears straight ahead, his eyes a soft golden glow.
“Play?” thought Tommie with almost a musical quality. “Play?” he thought again with more insistence.
“Yes, play,” thought Estelle with anticipation. She projected affection and well-being to ensure calmness and total concentration on the task at hand. “Let’s start now.”
Tommie went to a heightened alert, scanning the area all around. From a distance away he saw the first three projectiles approaching. The program made them appear as small white rats scurrying straight for them—small distinct white shapes over the green bumps of lawn.
The speed of the cat never failed to amaze Estelle. Like a shot he bounded forward to the back side of a hill, tail twitching, and awaited the first rat. It didn't swerve, but came straight over the top. He pounced, grabbed it in his outstretched claws, and Estelle signaled the trigger. In a dynamic burst the hyper-laser swept out, vaporizing the first projectile. Tommie saw the rat disappear and shifted his attention to the next. Each one became progressively more difficult. He still caught them, and Estelle triggered the laser. The ship jerked and banked hard, again and again, following Tommie’s pattern as he hunted down the projectile rats and Estelle triggered the hyper-laser.
The last two came together and Estelle saw the danger if Tommie couldn’t reach them in time. “Quick, Tommie. Quick,” Estelle thought, suppressing her anxiety. Tommie’s ability was unusually keen and although growing tired he didn’t give up as a lesser ranked cat might have done. He leaped toward the rats and with great maneuvering caught the next one. Estelle fired and number eight disappeared.
Number nine, the last one, ran toward Estelle. It would reach her before Tommie could get it; she had to slow it down. Banking the ship hard to starboard, she rammed the engine controls to one hundred-fifty percent. The ship violently shuddered and the inertia dampers struggled as the increasing G-forces pushed them back in their harnesses. The warning light and horn jolted on screaming thirty seconds to fusion overload.
“Come on, Tommie—just one more—you can do it.”
Tommie turned and looked back at the white rat, half way to his partner. The rat moved more slowly as the ship’s speed increased but steadily drew nearer to Estelle. Tommie lunged forward, straining, his thinking distracted by the heavy gravity. The rat stopped six meters from Estelle and began to gnaw. All at once it started moving closer. Another horn and flashing light snapped on—shield breach!
 Tommie leaped faster; four more bounds and he would have it. With the rat two meters from Estelle Tommie jumped with all his might and cornered it, claws and teeth gripping tight. This one wouldn’t get away.
Estelle hit the trigger. The ship rocked and shuddered as the last projectile vaporized in a blinding flash, engulfing the ship for a split second. The ship burst through unscathed. She backed down the engines and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Tired,” Tommie thought as he stretched out full-length on the nearest small green hill. His musical tone was subdued and Estelle could sense his fatigue.
“Rest, then eat,” Estelle thought, directing her emotions to Tommie.
“Eat,” Tommie thought, his attention recaptured. “Rest, eat.”
“Good boy,” she said and flipped the separator switch on, ending the mind-link. She felt her thoughts race backwards and the golden sun redden as it set over the infinite green lawn. The lawn glowed silver in the white moonlight and gradually darkened, glimmering out. A last star twinkled off as the program gently put her down, back to the stark gray reality of the defense cube interior. Her hand stroked Tommie as he lay sleeping beside her. He stretched and purred and fell back to sleep.
Estelle sank into her padded gravity seat. She tapped in the return control code giving Galen back his ship, loosened her harness, and stared at the NAV screens. The PCC ships were all out of range, trailing further behind as Galen’s ship raced onward to the Keyhole.
The Keyhole was there on the screen, growing larger. She would have been more excited to see it but for the deep exhaustion that gripped her, leaving her clammy with nervous sweat. She longed for a shower and change of clothes. Tommie was asleep, not even dreaming. The nearness and timing of the attacking projectiles had been close this time, too close, exhausting them greater than ever before. She was thankful of the results, but even more for the rest and relief from combat.
“Good work, Stelle,” Galen said, his deep voice booming over the COM system. “I knew you could do it, not a doubt in my mind. You’ll get bonus credits for this one, and give the cat some extra tuna.” The COM system snapped off.
“I wonder what he really thinks,” Estelle said. She muttered something about being too tired to care, reclined her gravity seat, shut her eyes, and fell asleep.
“She did all right, and the cat too,” Terran thought. “Maybe you should trust her a little more.”
“I’ve never trusted any woman. If I could find a guider that was a man, I’d hire him. But the Empire only trains women because they’re the best match for the cats. Estelle is the choice we have. I put up with her and the cat to get the additional protection for the ship. You know I don't even trust our own mother after she tried to brain-wash us with all of this Empire propaganda and her authoritarian control. You’re the only one I can really trust. There are no secrets between us.”
“No secrets, only differences,” Terran thought, his mind flowing smoothly. The placid river of their joined consciousness was clear now, yet deep and mysterious.
“Yes, there are differences,” Galen said to himself, his thoughts more subdued.


Rogerton stared with fascination at the NAV screen. She expected the first two mines to be taken out before they could unload their projectiles, but she couldn't believe the speed and agility of Bestmarke’s ship as it dodged, countered, and one by one destroyed the remaining projectiles. “Kolanna, take us to full pursuit.”
“Maximum thrust in ten seconds,” Kolanna said. The computer counted down and the engine surged, shaking the ship.
Rogerton contemplated the handling of Bestmarke’s ship; he must have a guider-pouncer team and it had to be Victorian trained. It was too good to be anything else, but was it a plant or a renegade?
She switched her computer console to 'Privacy: Commanding Officer'. The micro-shield enveloped her and the console allowing her to speak privately with the system. “Computer, scan for any Victorian officers that have gone renegade. Narrow the choice to ones trained as guiders within the last standard year.”
“Two renegade, but no guider training.”
“Check back two standard years.”
“Three renegade, but no guider training.”
“Check back three standard years.”
“Five renegade, one with guider training.”
“Give me all the information on the one.”
“Code name: ‘Star Point’. Renegade 2.75 standard years.”
“That's all?” Rogerton said. “What's the priority rating?”
“Priority 50-C1. No more information is available.”
She knew she was locked out tight on this one; 50-C1 was highly classified. She scanned back five additional years. There were a number of renegade officers but no guiders, just the one. One in eight years, and she appears on Bestmarke’s ship.
The COM light interrupted her and she dropped the privacy shield. “Go ahead, Kolanna.”
“We’re seven minutes from the Keyhole and maintaining pursuit. Do we continue our heading?”
“Yes, prepare for braking thrust. Keep us a thousand kilometers distant. Are all circuits stable?”
“Yes, Ma’am, holding steady.”
“Keep a close eye on the NAV screens, one of our cruisers could be near the Keyhole, cloaked and waiting.”
Rogerton studied the NAV screens and gingerly touched the bandages on her hands, wincing from the gentle pressure. Her purple tinged eyes were even more pronounced with fatigue. The last time she felt thoroughly rested was two months ago on Earth while she and her crew were on shore leave before being unexpectedly called back to duty. Her squadron had been a year in space and all anticipated a full month on solid ground with real gravity, sweet unrecycled air, warm sunlight, beautiful scenery, growing plants, and fresh wholesome food straight from the productive soil. With the entire planet under weather and climate control systems deserts and unproductive inhospitable lands had been transformed into a beautiful paradise of global proportions.
She loved to visit the New Sahara region with its vast green savannas dotted with flourishing stands of date palms and exotic tropical plants. A profusion of African wildlife lived and roamed there, many brought back from the edge of extinction to numbers reminiscent of a thousand years ago. Every day brought exciting and entertaining vistas, and each night cool breezes and intoxicating fragrances of night-blooming flowers under a brilliant canopy of stars.
 Rogerton was proud of what the New Victorian Empire had accomplished in five centuries of rule and content to serve in any capacity that opened up to her, just as her mother and grandmothers had done. Nearly five hundred years of relative peace resulted from the rule of CENTRAL, the massive computer governing the Solar System under the watchful care of the Guardians.
Most of the citizens of this authoritarian government were happy and content, but not all. The Planetary Control Corps was born of necessity to care for those who were not happy, who were discontent, and who fought against the rule of CENTRAL. Men like Galen and Terran Bestmarke wouldn’t submit to a government overseen by women. So a life of crime and rebellion became the natural conclusion.
Bestmarke continued toward the Keyhole. Every other ship or probe entering it had disappeared, never to be heard from again. What did he and Louis Franelli know about this unusual anomaly in space? Was it a worm-hole to another part of the galaxy? Was time affected when you entered it? Where did you go and how did you return? What does CENTRAL know about this? What did my mother know about this before her ship disappeared? There were so many questions, hard questions, for which she had no answers.
 “If anyone could figure out the Keyhole and how to use it, it would be Franelli,” she said out loud. She cursed the Compu-Court again for its unbreakable rules and refusal to recognize his unique genius; he could have been on the Empire's side. She leaned back in her gravity seat resting her head on the soft upper cushion, struggling to keep her eyes open, but a light sleep stole upon her, relaxing her face, softening the hard edges, revealing a tender expression usually masked by concern and duty. The long desired sleep, repeatedly denied, came sweetly—but it wouldn’t last.



“Louis, are your calculations done?” Terran said. “We’re three minutes from the Keyhole and I’d rather not go to braking thrust.”
“Thirty more seconds,” Louis said. He narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Finally Louis’s voice crackled on the COM. “My calculations are done. The guidance system is locked on. Go to fully automatic in ten seconds—on my mark.”
He counted down the seconds and Terran locked in the ship’s guidance controls to the computer. The Keyhole loomed larger and larger through the front viewing portal, always closed during battle, but now opened to reveal the incredible sight in its grandeur. The pale blue outer cloud stretched a thousand kilometers in diameter, tiny by galactic standards. The color intensified toward the middle to cobalt blue and black in the center with a shape similar to an old-fashioned keyhole, ready to receive a skeleton key. Brilliant flashes enhanced the intense blackness of the ten-kilometer-wide opening, like lightning bolts in stunning neon-rainbow colors, penetrating into its abysmal depths. The mesmerizing flashes flickered and danced like the flames of a campfire. Faint shimmering background stars twinkled and changed shape as if seen through a fast moving stream of clear water.
It took a few seconds to realize the defense alarm had sounded, like a nagging voice calling to a dreamer, only to be awakened by loud, sudden reality.
“Where did THEY come from?” Galen said, his eyes riveted to the NAV screens. He lunged for the shielding controls. “All shield power to the stern! Charge up weapons! Get connected, Stelle, this is no drill!”
Galen’s face flushed with adrenalin and anger. He spit out a stream of curses, muttering in disgust to Terran. “They had to come now, now that we’re locked on automatic. I thought we’d outrun them. Where'd this cruiser come from? Is there anything you can do with the controls?”
“Not unless we abort the Keyhole and override Louis’s calculations.”
“No way,” Galen said. “I’ve waited too long and spent too much time and money to stop now! We’re not giving up, not without a fight! No Victorian cruiser is stopping me!”
He unlocked the activator controls and jabbed at the pulse-cannon trigger sending the hot blue pulses behind them followed by the tight, continuous beams of the hyper-lasers.
Estelle awoke with a start at Galen’s shouting. Adrenalin-laced blood pounded through her head and chest as she began focusing her thoughts and actions. She awakened Tommie and studied her NAV screens. A chill of apprehension run down her spine. A Victorian Heavy-Cruiser was close, right behind them; they must have come in fast and cloaked. Their shields were holding against the pulse-cannon. It's odd, Estelle thought, they’re not firing back—they want us alive.
**********
Strapped in her battle chair on the bridge of the Victorian Heavy-Cruiser Daniela, Star-Commander Abigail VanDevere watched Bestmarke’s frenzied but futile attack. Their new shielding held at full power. A few months ago a barrage like this would have severely damaged them.
“Lieutenant-Commander Gornect, report on shielding circuits, please.”
“Holding steady, Ma’am,” she said in her thick Martian accent.
VanDevere was pleased. She’d been alerted by Rogerton's squadron and now Galen Bestmarke surged toward the Keyhole directly ahead of their decloaked cruiser. She’d long desired to have him in this position.
“Disable his ship—shut down his engines. I want him and Franelli alive.”
Gornect pressed the controls and the blue-green beam of the Phase Interrupter Laser swept out toward Bestmarke’s ship. After five seconds his engines still glowed, moving his ship faster toward the Keyhole.
“Status, Lieutenant-Commander, why aren’t we effective against him?”
“Don’t know. Their shield frequency is unreadable—can’t lock down on it. It's impossible to focus the Interrupter through his shielding.”
“Franelli!” VanDevere said, spitting out his name like a curse. “How in all of the New Victorian Empire can we deal with him!” CENTRAL had recently updated her orders to apprehend Franelli alive, but to follow them into the Keyhole meant risking ship and crew. She groaned, cursing under her breath. “Keep the shields up and back off pursuit, Lieutenant-Commander. We’ll have to wait.”
**********
“Why aren’t their shields breaking down?” Galen said.
“I don’t know, boss.” Louis continued to study his screens. “I’m trying to get readings to analyze it.”
Galen stared at Louis in disbelief, speechless at his nonchalance. As if to read his mind, Louis fixed his eyes on Galen. “Don’t worry, boss. I’ll figure it out,” he said in his deep voice. He fastened his gaze on Galen until Galen withdrew his eyes. Louis turned back to his controls.
Galen sighed and refocused on the NAV screens, watching the cruiser steadily gain on them, contemplating his next action. Suddenly he said: “They’re powering up! They’re going to fire at us!”
They all watched the screens as the blue-green beam of the phase interrupter laser swiftly approached them.
“What is it?” Galen said.
“An interrupter type weapon,” Louis said. “It shuts down fusion engines—they want to capture us. Don’t worry, I anticipated them this time. They won’t get through the shields. I’ve already integrated commands to the controls.”
The interrupter beam reached the edge of the shielding but crackled and arced along the edge and came no further. After a few seconds the cruiser retreated and Galen yelled in delight, spewing more curses at them.
“They're backing off. We’ll be safely through the Keyhole soon. We’ve beaten the Empire again!”
In contrast, Terran’s calm voice sounded over the COM system. “Thirty seconds to the Keyhole. Everyone strap in. Set all remaining controls to full auto in fifteen seconds.”
Apprehension of another kind grew in the minds of all the crew, that is, except Tommie. He just purred as Estelle stroked his thick fur. She wished it were that easy to calm her inner turmoil and fears about the unknown. So many ships and probes had disappeared into this anomaly called the Keyhole.
Her decision to take this employment two and a half years ago hadn’t been easy. She had limited options as a renegade and a guider. The pay was excellent, but there were unknowns when you worked for a man like Bestmarke. She sighed and tightened her restraint belts, looked down at her cat, and checked his restraints. “You’re not worried, are you, Tommie?” He looked up at her with eyes half-open, blinked, stretched, and continued to purr. He waited for Estelle’s hand to scratch his furry head. His wait was short.  
 Terran’s apprehension increased as their ship approached the Keyhole. He’d been through it before; he knew the procedure as well as the risks. Risks came with a pilot's job but that knowledge didn't comfort him. He watched the screens expecting them to become erratic as the ship plunged deeper into the Keyhole. Every move and reaction of the ship had been programmed by Louis.
The audible alarms began sounding and the screens showed fluctuations throughout the ship’s circuitry. This time he knew better, adjusting the controls produced nothing. Just ride it out and don’t touch anything. There was nothing anyone could do.
The screens gave the illusion of the ship spiraling and tumbling into a great void or tunnel as the G-forces grew, like the crushing pressure of deep waters, steadily increasing in a never ending abyss. The shrieking alarms symbolized the groaning of the ship’s titanium and plastic structure that molecule by molecule seemed to be crushed and compressed into nothingness, even beyond time itself.
He struggled to ignore the controls, forced himself to relax, and let the Keyhole swallow them down. Even his thoughts submerged as he and the others drowned in unconsciousness, falling into deep and untroubled sleep.
The Black Eagle itself drifted into sleep, its mighty engines silent, as it tumbled deeper and deeper into the abysmal void, into the gigantic and frightening maw of this unexplainable phenomenon.
**********
Awakened by her crew, Rogerton watched as the Victorian cruiser shed its cloak and appeared on the screen directly behind Bestmarke’s ship. Both ships were far in front of hers and the fire-power coming from Bestmarke’s was impressive. Her ship could never take that abuse, yet the cruiser seemed unaffected. The scene played out with the cruiser backing down while Bestmarke’s ship sped into the Keyhole and disappeared. She wished she could disappear—the Star-Commander will be furious. This was one debriefing Rogerton hoped she could avoid.

“Continue present course,” she said to her crew. “Take side-dock number three, port-side at the Daniela. That’s all.” She sank back into her seat and reached for her coffee cup.
**********

Thank you for reading the opening chapters of TROPHY.