by Ben Fitting (Fernin deTyphan)


Part 1
First Contact

"So, how are the trainees doing?" the base commander asked the scaly, green sergeant. The two officers stood on a high observation tower above the ring-shaped Altair training facility. The human base commander's red rank-cloak moved slightly in the imperceptible breezes created by ventilation ducts.

"They're doing well, sir. Unfortunately, there's one I need to bring to your attention," replied the dracaar officer.

The commander sighed. "What is it?"

"It's--" the sergeant hesitated, then continued. "It's Polaris, sir."

The human looked up in surprise. "What? But you've told me he's one of the most skillful Scouts we've trained!"

"He is, sir." The lizard-like sergeant paused, then continued. "Unfortunately, in one of the early training missions, he lost his partner. They were good friends, and... Since then he's clammed up. Perfectly friendly, but he doesn't try to make friends anymore, and he resists anyone who tries to be more than a colleague. His abilities actually decrease when he's partnered with anyone."

"So sad," the commander commented, "to have such talent wasted. I--" The chirp of a wrist-comp interrupted him. "Yes?" he asked.

"Listening posts report massive energy surge in sector 7629387-A, sir. High command has ordered us to send a ship and investigate," crackled the tiny communicator.

"What ships do we have in port?"

"Only the heavy frigate Phalanx, but it's still heavily damaged after encountering a large squadron of pirates' vessels while on patrol. Life support is stretched to the breaking point, and the ship can't even be fully manned without the massive systems failure. It certainly can't take a full Scout team."

"Pirates," the tall human muttered. "The scourge of the realities. A curse on those greedy criminals."

The commander considered his options for a moment, then turned to the sergeant. They can't take a full Scout team, he thought. "Get me Polaris. I have his first assignment for him..."

In a practice facility, Polaris ducked the wild fire of the guard drones. Raising his laser pistol, he fired several precisely aimed shots and destroyed the robotic targets. "Nice shooting, recruit. For a human, that is." commented a voice. The voice's owner chuckled in a friendly manner. Recognizing his sergeant by the accent, Polaris nearly dropped his weapon in surprise. He barely managed to holster it.

Oh, no, he thought. What did I do? "Yes, sir?" he asked.

"We have an assignment for you. Report to docking bay number twenty in ten minutes; you'll be briefed further there. Dismissed!"

In his small, spartan room, Polaris collected his personal items in a small bag. Adjusting his mottled green and brown rank-cloak, the average-sized human tried to psych himself up for the mission. C'mon, Polaris, he mentally urged himself, pull yourself together! There's no need to feel nervous, it's just your first assignment, the one that'll make or break your career as a Scout. He sighed, running his fingers through his black hair with anxiety. Oh, who am I kidding? I suppose they partnered me with some annoying idiot who is more likely to get killed than get the job done...

He left his room and hurried to the docking ring, speckled camouflage rank-cloak flapping behind him like a pair of wings. He arrived, barely on time, and snapped a quick salute to the Founder captain standing at the airlock. "Scout Polaris reporting for duty, sir."

"Excellent. I'm captain of the Phalanx, a heavy frigate on duty in this area. Earlier today, our listening posts in nearby universes picked up a massive energy surge. High command has never seen anything like it, so it's dispatching the nearest ship to investigate. That nearest ship is us," the captain explained. "Are you following me so far? You seem upset." The feline officer looked at the Scout intently with his golden eyes.

"Umm... I'm following you, sir," Polaris replied. I wish he wouldn't do that, the Scout thought. I'm nervous enough around officers as it is!

"All right," continued the captain. "The Phalanx was heavily damaged by pirates a few weeks ago, and has been undergoing repairs here. Unfortunately, although most of the systems have been fixed, the engineers are having trouble with life support. We're barely able to sustain a skeleton crew. Having a Scout team on board is out of the question, so the local base commander sent you. He says you work well on your own."

On my own? Wonderful! "I do, sir," the ecstatic human replied.

"Excellent. Come with me, I'll show you to your quarters on board Phalanx. "You do understand that this position is only temporary, until a full Scout team arrives?"

"Yes, sir." Temporary. Well, things were looking up, thought Polaris as he followed the captain through the airlock.

The quarters were fully adapted for a human, something Polaris was grateful for. The problem with being in a multi-race organization, he reflected, is that most things have to be standardized for almost everyone to use. The result is rarely comfortable. The communicator next to his bunk beeped.

"This is the captain," the speaker said. "Scout Polaris, you are to report to the bridge immediately. That is all."

That's my cue, thought the Scout as he left his quarters.

Polaris left the lift tube and entered the bridge. He sighed. My first assignment, he thought. To temporarily serve as a single Scout until a more-qualified replacement team arrives. At least I'm working alone. As he neared the commanding officer to report for duty, the beginnings of the anxiety he always felt around superior officers began to permeate his consciousness. Naevgan, the dracaar chief of engineering, was speaking with Captain Cynric. Polaris stopped nearby and waited to be addressed, tugging on the hem of his mottled camouflage rank-cloak nervously.

"So, why are we here?" the engineer asked.

"Listening posts in nearby universes picked up large amounts of energy coming from this direction three days ago. Whatever caused it probably happened a few months previous to our detection of the phenomenon. Energy travels slowly across universal distances, even in hyperspace. WarWizard high command has triangulated on the emissions, and they come from this universe." The captain gestured at the viewscreen, which depicted the crackling barrier between hyperspace and realspace. "We don't know what caused the energy surge, or what some of the effects might have been. Nobody has ever explored out this far. Not the Founders, not the Guardians, and not us. We're supposed to find out what it was. If it was a weapon, we figure out how it works. If it's a power source, we harness it." Pausing in the middle of the conversation, Captain Cynric began pacing the bridge of the Phalanx. "Polaris," he said.

Startled, Polaris jumped to attention. "Yes, sir?"

"The residual energy from that shockwave might still be present. You're the Scout on this expedition, so we're sending you into this anomalous universe with a one-being landing pod. Your mission starts in three hours. Dismissed!"

Polaris stood stiffly in the transmat room. The scoutsuit he was wearing looked somewhat like archaic platemail armor. However, it was heavier. Much heavier. The combination of armor, shield projectors, and electronics added up to make the suit a pretty burdensome piece of equipment. As the Scout checked various internal readouts, the Chief Engineer Naevgan examined external parts of the scoutsuit. As he did, the dracaar spoke constantly. Hmm, Polaris reflected with amusement. Every dracaar I've met does this. Maybe it's a species trait?

"Well, it's official. The science division has done some measurements on the universal barrier, and they think we're in orbit around another Terran-class universe. Humans again. Seems kind of monotonous, somehow... No offense," commented Naevgan as he helped prep Polaris' scoutsuit.

"None taken, sir," replied the Scout. He struggled to raise the heavy arm of the scoutsuit and stretched his arm, joints cracking. He'd been standing in one position for only ten minutes, but it seemed like hours.

As its servos activated, and Polaris was able to move freely again. He flexed his arms in relief. When he brought the sensors online, the narrow view provided by his open faceplate was replaced by a 180 degree view of the transmat room. The viewing screens allowed him to change sensors to infrared, ultraviolet, and any other frequency in the energy spectrum. The scaly engineer continued speaking as more of the suit's systems turned on. "Here you are. The Captain wants you lightly armed on this mission, so you get a hyper-pistol. Ready?"

Hyper-pistols were, in theory, the most versatile and efficient hand weapon in the WarWizards' arsenal. In operation, however, there were many disadvantages. The weapon, although able to penetrate virtually any armor or shielding by shooting its projectiles through hyperspace at faster-than-light speed, had both ammunition that could run low and a power pack which needed to be recharged after only a few firings. Oh, great, thought Polaris. What next, a flintlock musket? "Ready," he sighed, closing his transparent, sensor-studded faceplate and pressurizing the suit. Naevgan turned to the transporter control console and began to input coordinates. To occupy his time, Polaris viewed the briefing Naevgan had downloaded into his scoutsuit.

Scout Polaris, the suit's recording/playback computer said, your mission is to discover the following information: what caused the energy surge, and whether the thing which caused the surge can be harnessed for our war effort. You will be armed only with your scoutsuit and a general-issue hyper-pistol. Try to avoid discovery, if possible. Your time limit is one standard week, after which you will return to the Phalanx and dock your transport. Contact Phalanx if you complete your assignment before the time allotted you has expired. That is all.

"Polaris, prepare for matter transport," ordered Naevgan. "Activating transmat... Now!" The ship dissolved around the Scout in a blue flash. He reappeared in a cramped cockpit.

"I'm in the transport vessel and starting the engines," Polaris said into his communicator. The small, stubby craft's engines came online and it moved quickly away from the sleek, oblong shape of the heavy frigate. "Entering the universal boundary... now. The bright azure wall of the barrier was replaced by a beautiful starscape and a large, bluish planet. However, the Scout was too busy doing checks on varying readout screens to notice. "I'm in orbit around a planet; it's probably Earth. That's strange," the Scout murmured as he checked his sensor readings. This is the twentieth century... Why is the population so low? And just look at the tech levels! Orbital power stations are much too advanced for this era, he thought.

"Roger that--" the words, already made nearly incomprehensible by static, broke off entirely.

"Sorry, I'm not reading you, Phalanx. Repeat, please," the Scout replied.

Your anti-universal effect shields are reaching critical. Overload imminent, warned the transport's computer. Polaris looked at his readings.

Oh, crap! If those shields go, I'll die! "Phalanx, these readings are off the scale! My ship's not designed to take this; it's going to overload! I'm heading out, now! I-- AAAAHHH!!!" The WarWizard stopped transmitting and collapsed as crackling energy engulfed the ship and he passed out.

Far above him, in mid-level earth orbit, the transport went dark and became visible as its cloak went off-line. As its anti-universal effect shields overloaded and collapsed, the computers engaged stasis fields to protect the single crew member. The ship, unpowered and unmanned, continued in its elliptical orbit. A few minutes later, its course intersected with that of an old orbital satellite. Heavily damaging both ship and satellite, the collision sent Polaris' transport and pieces of the orbital communications relay hurtling into the atmosphere. The wreckage hit the ground in the southwestern United States.

A faraway station, built on a tumbling iron boulder in the system's asteroid belt, monitored the destruction and sent a message to its builders. At the same time, two government-operated observatories, one deep in the gargantuan forests of the Pacific Northwest and the other hidden in the swampy Everglades of Florida, monitored the source of the collision.

As soon as the energy levels were down to a safe, lower concentration, Polaris awoke from stasis to the sensation of pain. And lots of it. "Ow," he complained. Wow, I think I'm still alive. The afterlife couldn't hurt this much. Struggling upright, he crawled out of his ship's twisted fuselage and engaged his sensors. Only a few of them still operated, but he was able to see the wreckage of his ship in a relatively mountainous area. The lowlands below the mountains appeared to be some sort of desert. "Damage report," he subvocalized to his suit.

The damage report sensors have been damaged, reported his suit with a chuckle.

Perfect timing, thought the Scout. First, I get zapped by more energy than I've ever seen. Then, my suit develops a twisted sense of humor. What next? "No, seriously. What still works?"

Well, let's see, buddy boy, the suit replied. The ship is totaled. Remind me never to let you drive my car. Most of the suit's shielding is off-line. Also, the grand majority of our sensors and built-in defenses are shot. We aren't in good shape. All we have left is two cloak types, the damage-control nanobots, the translator, your hyper-pistol, the energy banks, and me. No, wait. The particle/energy shields sort of work, but it's iffy how long they'd last if they were activated for a prolonged period of time.

"Don't call me 'buddy boy,'" retorted the WarWizard. "Thanks. Well, this is just wonderful. Now what?"

If you ask me, I think we should pick a direction and start walking. You should probably find the nearest settlement, town, et cetera. Sound good? the computer asked.

"Yeah, that sounds like a reasonable plan," replied the Scout. Leaving the useless, mostly destroyed ship behind, Polaris picked a direction at random. He started to walk to the northeast. "Wait a minute," he asked the computer. "You were never this talkative before. Why are you so intelligent and independent now?"

I'm not sure. Maybe it was the short-circuit or the crash that did it. Or maybe I'm only your deranged subconscious. The suit computer seemed to mentally grin. Call me Hal, would you?

"Ha, ha ha. All right, 'Hal.' Say, would you please be serious most of the time? I don't think I can handle a suit computer with a sense of humor."

I'm sorry, I can't do that Dave, Hal said in an emotionless voice. Bwuah hahahahaha-- cough, cough!!!

Wonderful. I'm trapped on some strange, backwater planet with a defective suit and a deranged computer, Polaris thought. Can things get any weirder?

I'm sorry I asked, thought the exhausted Scout. He was standing in what must be a primitive campsite. With a pup tent, fire ring, and an electric lantern, it seemed perfectly normal for this time period and planet. There was, however, one slight problem. The camper himself was not quite in keeping with the Phalanx's scans. He seemed human enough by the way he acted, also in his attire, but he... wasn't. The camper was a large, anthropomorphic red fox.

I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto, commented Hal.

"You've got that right," Polaris subvocalized. "Where the heck do you get these annoying quotes?"

Ah, Polaris, but that would be telling!

"Hal, engage primary cloak," the Scout ordered. He and his damaged suit disappeared from sight. Polaris moved stealthily into the campsite. He got behind the anomalous camper and began to observe the fox. The anthropomorph was listening to a small, hand held radio. The words were incomprehensible for a moment, but then the scoutsuit's translator kicked in and Polaris was able to understand what the announcer was saying.

"... are still baffled by the so-called 'Change,'" said a radio announcer. "It seems that everyone on earth has Changed into various degrees of animal form. These changes range from gaining slight animal characteristics, such as longer teeth or different-looking eyes, to becoming human-sized versions of a particular animal. In the field of astronomy, several large, unidentified objects were reported this week by UFO enthusiasts. The Arizona state government responded by showing conclusive evidence that the 'UFOs' were, in fact, bits of space debris that fell from orbit. The Federal Government was unavailable for comment. Next up, we have the most popular song of the month--" The radio's speaker started singing something about the 'end of the world as we know it.'

Philip rolled his eyes and shut off the radio. Is that the only song they're going to play all year? he asked himself.

It was nearly three months since the change, and he still heard that annoying song everywhere. Standing up, he surveyed the beautiful panoramic view offered by the mountains. The fox, who was an avid science-fiction fan and UFO believer, didn't trust what the radio had said about the new UFOs. I wonder what the government is hiding about those things? he thought. Maybe the aliens caused the Change. Maybe-- His train of thought came to a sudden, screeching halt as a large, dark form appeared in front of him. The being's bulky, armored body was so black that it was seemed to draw in light like a man-shaped black hole. Its pale, human-like face was overlaid with numerous blinking eyes that glowed a dull red. Yelling in surprise and fear, Philip turned to run.

"Crap!" Polaris exclaimed as his adrenaline surged and he started to chase the fox. "Hal, I thought you said the primary cloak worked!"

It does. Just not very well. Your suit will hold together.

"Good!" The Scout ducked a branch and kept running after the camper.

C'mon, baby. Hold together, the computer said with a laugh. The red fox, running too fast to watch where he was going, slipped on a root and knocked himself out. Ouch, that had to hurt! Hal exclaimed.

Polaris examined the head wound. "You're right. Nasty cut, isn't it?" He slowly picked up the fox and began staggering back toward the anthropomorph's camp.

What are you doing, Polaris?! Stop that! Hal demanded. Aren't you supposed to avoid discovery? If you leave him here, he might think you were only a dream or hallucination!

"He might. However, he might also die," the WarWizard replied. "I don't know how durable he is, and I'd feel bad if he bought the farm because I didn't help. Besides... Judging by the way things seem to have changed around here, I might need a native guide." The Scout grunted and readjusted the power to his scoutsuit's arm servos to sustain the camper's weight. "My god, what did he have for breakfast? Duracrete?!"

After a tedious journey, Polaris finally got back to the campsite and carefully placed his burden on a soft foam palate. OK, now what? he wondered. I can't take the easy way out and use my suit's medkit because it's not programmed for his species. But I've never done much with medical training on xenomorphs before... "Any ideas?" he asked Hal.

You could start by cleaning and bandaging that wound. Vulpine species are quite resilient to this sort of thing, but you should probably make sure that infection can't get established, suggested the computer.

"What do you mean, 'vulpine species are quite resilient to this sort of thing?' How was that in your databanks?" the Scout demanded.

Hal was silent for a moment. Elementary, my dear Watson, I got that knowledge the same way I got my quotes, the computer replied evasively.

What's he hiding? Polaris wondered. However, before the WarWizard could ask, the fox groaned slightly. The Scout froze, but relaxed when the camper failed to wake up. Hal can wait, Polaris decided. This guy needs medical attention.

Feeling slightly, the WarWizard tore strips of cloth out of what must have been the fox's extra clothes. Taking some water from a container he found in the primitive shelter, Polaris washed the dirt (and hopefully some of the microbes) out of the camper's head wound. Carefully, the Scout bandaged the vulpine's skull. I hope those clothes were clean, Polaris thought belatedly. "Now then, Hal," he subvocalized, "about your strange behavior--"

Wait, the computer interrupted, your patient is waking up.

"Full primary cloak!" The scoutsuited human disappeared from sight. Philip opened his eyes. It was nearly nightfall. Groaning, he tried to sit up. A hand forced him back onto the sleeping palate. "No, you don't," a voice said. "I'm not letting all my hard work go to waste just because you don't have the common sense to stay in one place!" Feeling his head, Phil found that it was bandaged. "You took a pretty impressive fall back there," the voice continued.

"Who are you?" the camper asked. Looking around, he couldn't see anyone within his field of vision.

Oh, crap, thought Polaris, what do I say to that? Should I give him my real name? Oh, what the heck. "I'm Polaris, a friend. What's your name, and what are you doing out here?" Boy, that sounded lame!

"How do I know I can trust you? You might be an alien or a government agent!" Philip continued to look for the source of the voice. Well, probably not, but after seeing that thing, I think I have a right to be suspicious! the fox thought.

He's got you there, Polaris! Right on both counts! Hal chuckled.

"The way you keep making remarks like that is getting slightly annoying," the Scout subvocalized to his computer. "Now what should I say?"

Hey, aren't you the Scout? asked Hal. I thought you guys were supposed to be able to make quick, correct decisions on the spur of the moment!

"Give me a break, will you?! This is my first assignment!" After a moment, Polaris realized he'd said that aloud instead of just to Hal. Oops, he thought.

Not knowing about the strange computer, Philip thought the voice was speaking to him. "Sorry," he replied. "All right, my name is Philip and I'm watching for UFOs. It's kind of a hobby of mine, and I heard about a few being sighted in this area. Happy now? So, which agency do you work for?" This is probably the strangest conversation I've ever participated in, the camper thought.

"Umm..." Polaris tried to think of a way around the sensitive question. The words 'avoid discovery' rang uncomfortably loud in his ears. I hope the captain doesn't find out about this.

You might as well tell him, Hal said.

"I work for the WarWizards," he admitted.

"Huh? Is that a branch of the CIA?" Phil was puzzled. He'd never heard of the 'WarWizards.'

"You might say I'm... not from around here," Polaris continued. This conversation is getting worse and worse. Why me?

Philip perked up. "You're an alien, too? You have to be kidding me. Seriously, what are you? And where are you? I can't see you."

Stepping into the fox's field of view, Polaris deactivated his malfunctioning primary cloaking device. At the same time, he engaged his secondary cloak. "Right here," he said. "Also, I am from another world. Another universe, in fact. I need your assistance."

Philip jerked in surprise as something which appeared to be a normal, unaffected human appeared in front of him and asked for help. This can't be real. Didn't all the news say the entire world was affected? he wondered. This has to be some sort of conspiracy. Cool! This is the first good thing that's happened to me since-- he broke off his train of thought, unwilling to think about that subject. Fishing around for a notebook, he asked, "Would you mind explaining this to me. Start at the very beginning, please don't just give me the 'need to know' version."

What could it hurt to tell him? the Scout thought. "Oh, all right.

"A long time ago, many centuries back, a race discovered the secret of trans-universal travel. They were one of the first universes to find the technology. The race, now called the Founders, explored nearby universes. They traded with some of the civilizations, but they also abused their power and subjugated others with less-advanced technology.

"Eventually, they encountered another race with trans-universal devices. Unfortunately for both groups, the new race was much, much more aggressive and xenophobic than the Founders. There was a massive war, and several realities were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. The Founders won, but it cost them their stability and the virtual destruction of their home universe. Out of the ashes of Founder society, two new groups emerged.

"One faction, the Guardians, professes the more imperialistic aspects of the Founders. They have invaded a few universes within range, but thankfully they seem to have their hands full keeping those. The Guardians have not expanded their territory for decades. Unfortunately, their few realities yield a massive amount of resources, so they can afford to have larger, more powerful ships and better equipment. To prevent another war like the one that destroyed the Founders, the Guardians instantly try to destroy anyone else who has the technology.

"The other, less-powerful faction calls themselves the WarWizards. We, unlike the Guardians, trade for items that we need if we can't get it ourselves. We only take small portions of resources from many universes instead of fully exploiting a few. However, we are presently engaged in a war with the Guardians. Because of this, ships are constantly sent to scout for new sources of materials, more powerful weapons, and new allies.

"That brings the story to myself. I am the Scout, or research- and intelligence-being, of the heavy frigate Phalanx. We were sent to find the source of the energy emissions we detected. As soon as I entered this universe, my ship was overloaded, causing me to crash. The crash damaged my scoutsuit and cut me off from my ship. I believe that Phalanx may have come in after me after my ship stopped transmitting." I hope it did, otherwise I'll probably be stuck here forever, the Scout added silently. "It probably lost power while crossing the universal barrier, as my transport did," he continued. "It might even have become visible. If this occurred, then it's possible that a SETI program or astronomer might have seen it. The only problem is, I don't know this universe very well. That's where you come in. You could help me locate the ship after I find out what caused those shockwaves."

Philip set down his pencil and put away the writing tablet. This is my big chance to get away from all those uncaring 'friends' here! No 'we're not really sorry, we're just saying that to make ourselves feel better' looks! Better not seem too eager, though. "That sounds really cool. There's one problem, though. I might be going into harm's way for you. What can you offer me in return?" Oh, great, Phil thought with a mental sigh, that makes me sound like some sort of mercenary.

"In return for helping me," Polaris replied, "I'll give you..." Crap. What can I give him? I'm quite a ways from home, or even from my ship.

Look at that kid's eyes, Hal commented. He wants to see the stars from space. Maybe travel to distant planets. I bet he's a lot like you were when you signed up for Scouting.

"You're right," Polaris replied. "Thanks, Hal. Maybe having you around isn't so bad after all." I hope he doesn't get any ideas about friendship, though, the WarWizard thought. I already have one life on my conscience; I don't need another. He returned to his conversation with the anthropomorph. "Phil, what do you think about... exploration?"

"I've always wanted to be part of the space program," Philip replied enthusiastically. "But why do you ask?" Polaris smiled. Realization of the Scout's meaning dawned in the fox's eyes.

"That's right," the WarWizard said. "How would you like to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilization, and boldly go where no terran has gone before? Recon vessels not only look for material and weapons, we also look for new recruits."

"That's wonderful! When do I start?" Philip asked. I was thinking about joining the military...

"Woah, there," Polaris replied. "We have to complete the mission and find Phalanx before we can even think about signing you on as a WarWizard. Now, are we agreed?"

"We're agreed," Philip said. They shook hands. "What do we do first?"

"Just a second; I'm going to recallibrate my appearance." Polaris glanced around. "Say, you don't happen to have a book with pictures of local animals in it, do you?"

"Yeah, just a second." What would he want that book for? Philip wondered as he handed the strange being his copy of "The Guide to Southwestern Mammals".

Polaris opened the book at random. Hmm, the 'Coyote,' he thought. Sounds good to me. Looks pretty cool, too. "Hal, recalibrate the secondary cloak to look like an anthropomorphic version of the male Coyote, please," the Scout ordered.

All right. Are you sure you wouldn't rather be something nice, like a flamingo? Hal snickered.

"Hal, if you do..." Polaris threatened. "That's better," he subvocalized to the computer as the Earth-normal human projection was replaced by that of a Coyote with dark tan fur and black-tipped ears. "There," commented the WarWizard to Philip. "I was kind of hoping you could fill me in on what has happened the past few months. I need to pass myself off as a native. First of all: this is Arizona, of the USA, right?"

"Right," the fox agreed. This is going to be an interesting experience, he thought.

Early in the sunny afternoon, a fox- and a coyote-morph stepped off the bus in Phoenix. Heat rose in a shimmering wave off he sun-baked ground as life continued despite what Polaris viewed as glaring deviations from the norm. The coyote glanced around, gawking at nearby buildings and passing vehicles. He was elbowed by the fox. "Don't do that! You'll look like a tourist!" Philip whispered.

Good thing I recallibrated my secondary cloak to look like a native, or I'd stick out like a heavy cruiser in a bomber squadron, thought the Scout. "Sorry. Everything's so clean," he replied. "There's hardly any carbon monoxide or other greenhouse gasses at all! Not only that, but the number of people is positively sparse. It's incredible!" Polaris, whose secondary cloak made him appear to be an anthropomorphic coyote, continued looking around. However, he tried to be more casual about it. "Hal, are you recording this?"

Yep. You're right, this place is clean as a whistle as compared to normal terran cities. The air's so clean, you could eat off it!

"Hal, please don't try to be funny," the Scout subvocalized. "You aren't very good at it."

Practice makes perfect, Polaris.

"I don't like the sound of that," the WarWizard commented. Why is everyone so friendly to me? They could just leave me alone, he thought to himself. "So, which way to the local library?" Polaris asked.

"This way," replied Philip. The duo began heading south, towards the Phoenix Public Library.

"You'll probably have to give me directions about what to do and how to act for a while. I'm basically clueless about how a native would act in this kind of situation, for obvious reasons," the Scout said.

"OK," Philip replied. "But--" Suddenly, the fox stopped.

"But what? Why are we stopping?" Polaris followed Philip's gaze. "Oh..." Polaris' jaw, both real and holographicly projected, dropped. Police cars with flashing lights were lined up in a semicircle around a building. Gunfire came from the crouched forms behind the protective cover of the vehicles. Suddenly, one of the cars exploded as twin red beams shot down from a high window and hit the vehicle.

"What was that?!" Philip demanded, diving for cover. The two canids crouched behind a parked vehicle as more police vehicles exploded, killing several policemen. Some of the police dragged their wounded and dead away from the carnage while the rest continued firing.

"I don't know," the Scout replied. "I've never seen anything like it. It looked like a laser or heat-induction ray, but it wasn't. This place is getting weirder by the minute." He turned back to the battle and continued to watch with fascination as more strange and unnatural abilities manifested themselves.

One cop was hit by the deadly crimson rays, but a shimmering field formed around him, preventing his incineration. He returned fire, not with his pistol, but with projectiles that seemed to be made of the same material as the shield that surrounded him.

Even with their own powers, the police were losing the battle. I should do something, the WarWizard thought. But can I risk possibly killing the police, too? Bolts of electrical energy arched down onto the heads of the battered law-enforcers. They're dying anyway. I have to do this, Polaris thought. "Are our power reserves high enough to support the load of my hyper-pistol?" he asked the suit's computer.

Yes, but what are you going to do with it? Hal asked.

"End a fight," the Scout replied.

Philip watched as the pseudo-coyote drew a blunt-looking pistol. Taking careful aim at the building, Polaris pulled the trigger. The gun hummed and a light flashed in the muzzle, but nothing else happened.

"It didn't--" Philip began to say. He was interrupted as a muffled explosion came from inside the building. Blue light radiated from the windows milliseconds before they shattered. Broken glass rained down onto the street. "--work?" he finished. "What did you do?"

"I fired an antipersonnel resonance device into the building with my hyper-pistol. Most of the people in the building will be either unconscious or dead." Polaris frowned sadly. "I should have ended it earlier, but I wasn't sure that my shot wouldn't bring down the entire building." He headed down the charred street away from the burning wreckage of several police cars with Philip close behind. "Hal," he asked, "what do you think about this?"

Puzzling, the computer replied. For once, Hal was serious. Polaris, do you have any idea why these people were fighting each other?

"No," the Scout replied. "It seems so... pointless."

Polaris, Hal said suddenly, we have a problem. Unidentified bio-nanites have invaded the scoutsuit. I'm pretty sure suit integrity was temporarily compromised when you fired off the hyper-pistol. The nanites don't seem to be causing damage beyond the forced entry, but they might be waiting for a signal or something.

Figures, the Scout thought. "What can we do about it?"

I can temporarily shut down all non-vital functions of the suit and focus on using my damage-control nanobots to assimilate the invaders and make sure they're not dangerous. The problem is, you won't be able to engage any shields, fire weapons, or switch cloak types from the secondary holoprojected camouflage type to the fully-concealing type. I'll need all that energy for the nanos. You can turn on/off what's left operational, but that's it.

"All right," the Scout said. "Just leave our secondary cloak, translator, and anti-UE shield. I'll definitely need those." Confirmed. Hal replied. Instead of shutting off most systems immediately, he began to sing slightly off-key. M-I-C... See ya real soon! K-E-Y... Why? Because we like you! M-O-U-S-E... The deranged computer stopped singing as he shut down the suit's internal sound system, leaving the WarWizard in blessed silence.

I have find a way to fix him once I get back to the ship, Polaris thought. How would the Phalanx's captain react to an insane suit computer? His train of thought was interrupted as a voice came from behind him.

"Freeze! Both of you!" Polaris and his vulpine friend stopped quickly. "Paws in the air!"

I'm sorry, thought the Scout as he was frisked by the owner of the voice, but does anyone other than me find that 'paws in the air' comment strange? Nah, probably not.

"Turn around," the voice ordered. The Scout turned to see a German Sheperd-morph police officer. Another blue-suited officer, some sort of green reptile, approached. "I found this on the coyote, chief," the first cop reported. The second officer took the WarWizard's hyper-pistol. "These two were leaving the area. They might have been with the drug-running gang we were fighting back there." The officer indicated the blasted-out building with a jerk of his head.

"Good work, sergeant," commented the gecko-morph. "I'll take these two in for questioning." The 'chief' turned to the waiting duo. "You two, come with me. You're not being arrested; we just need to get you out of this area before finding out more about you."

They complied and followed him to a squad car.

"Now, I'm going to ask you one more time, and you're going to respond with something other than 'I can't tell you.' Why were you in possession of that weapon? Where did you get it?" A feathered police officer sat across the table from an unhelpful WarWizard in one of the police station's interrogation rooms. The pseudo-coyote had been cooperative... Until the police had started asking him about his origins, job, and weapon. At that point, 'Polaris' had become quite evasive.

This isn't going well, the Scout thought. Oh, well. As long as I'm not getting anywhere, I might as well smart off to them. "All right, I'll tell you. But I want some concessions, first," he demanded.

The officer looked hopeful. "I don't know if I can guarantee anything," the cop said carefully, "but I'm sure the commissioner would be more likely to grant a request if you cooperate."

"All right, then." Polaris leaned closer to the officer in a conspiratorial manner. "It belongs to my future self," the Scout replied. "I'm borrowing it from him, but please don't let him know. He hates it when I do things like that."

"Now, look here!" the cop exclaimed angrily. "If you keep this up, I'm going to have to arrest you for obstruction of justice and refusal to cooperate with law enforcement officers. I'll give you a minute or two to think about that." He got up and left. Polaris was sure he'd be back with even more questions and threats.

I wonder how Philip is doing? I hope my friend-- Polaris stopped himself. No, I can't think like that. Not in this profession. He's an acquaintance, not a friend. I hope he's OK, the Scout thought. Where is Hal when you really need him?

The interrogator got himself a cup of coffee. Thank God I'm low-D enough to still drink this stuff, the blue jay-morph thought. One of the other officers approached.

"How's it going with that guy, Tom?"

"Not so well, Gary," Tom replied. "He was perfectly polite and everything until I started asking about his weapon and where he came from. He won't give me any info about his job, other than 'I work for a special agency.' When I asked him about his weapon, he started smarting off. I swear, that coyote is too clever for his own good. How are you doing with that fox?"

"Not so well with me, either. I can't get him to give anything other than his name. D'ya think we should get a warrant and arrest them?"

"I have one idea that might work. We can get them to cooperate, but I'm going to need to work the details out with you first..."

The avian cop returned to his position across the table from Polaris. "Your friend has told us everything. We don't need your cooperation, but it would make it easier for you." He held up a piece of paper. "See this? It's a warrant for your arrest. If you tell me what I want to know now, then I won't have to use it."

Philip told them everything?! Polaris was taken aback at how hurt and betrayed he felt. The fox is just a native guide; I should have expected something like that, the Scout told himself. But I'm still having a hard time believing that he folded under pressure like that. He doesn't seem to be the type... Then he saw the look in the officer's eyes. No, I don't think he did. Even if he did, why should I? An extra-universal being with advanced technology is quite a prize; they'll probably lock me up anyway.

A few rooms over, Philip got the same story. Unfortunately for himself and the police, his natural suspicion, which came from years of conspiracy theories and Science-Fiction stories about government cover-ups, kept him from believing the deception. "I won't believe you. I doubt he told anything," the red fox told interrogators. Both he and his friend were arrested.

"I tell you, that is one strange device," commented the police department's weapons-specialist. "It doesn't look like anything I've ever seen. Except maybe something out of a Sci-Fi flick. You're going to have to call the Fed on this one..."

Polaris and Philip were being kept in the same cell. Its four walls, ceiling, and floor looked depressingly sturdy. "I think we're going to be in here for a while," Philip said. "Anything you want to talk about? We have plenty of time."

The WarWizard sighed. "I suppose so. I'd--" He paused, almost unable to continue. What he was about to speak about always made the Scout uneasy. Strangely, however, Polaris felt more at ease with Phillip than with any other person he had met before.

"I'd like to apologize if I've been a bit unfriendly," the WarWizard finished. "My profession, Scouting, is a high risk thing. During one of the training missions, my partner--" he paused again. "Sorry. It isn't something I like to talk about. During a training mission, he died. Ever since, I've worked alone. So please, don't be offended if I'm not too friendly, OK?" My god, what made me say that? I must be more tired than I thought I was, Polaris realized.

Philip listened to what the pseudo-coyote said. The Scout's words came out in haltingly, then in a rush, as if he had been holding them in for a long time. Ouch, thought Phil, that must hurt. It isn't too far off of what I've been feeling. If he's had that kind of thing happen to him and can talk about it, I should be able to talk to him about my problems. "OK."

Polaris listened in astonishment as the fox told the Scout his life history, surprised at the similarities of Phil's problems and his own. Philip had been a normal, happy child, but his parents had died when he was too young to know them. Ever since, he had been raised by his uncle, who Phil considered to be very much like a father. Philip's uncle had encouraged him to take up his deceased father's profession and be an astronaut. Unfortunately, although he was able to train in some of the aspects of star-faring, he had been turned down when he applied for a position at NASA. Philip was heartbroken, but his uncle had helped him get back on his feet. Then the Change came. In an extremely small number of cases, the strange phenomenon took away the human mind completely. Philip's uncle had been one of the unlucky few.

"I was constantly bombarded with fake 'I'm sorries' and condescending sympathy," Philip said. "When I couldn't stand it any more, I left my home and headed out to the mountains on the pretense of doing some camping. Then, I met you."

Wow, thought Polaris. Phil's really been through a lot. What do I say? The kinship he felt for the vulpine being unsettled the WarWizard, but he tried to put it out of his mind. "Philip," he said after a long pause, "if you ever need me, I'm there. I really mean that-" He stopped speaking, distracted by the armed policeman who opened the door and entered. The feline-morph placed a tray of food on the table.

"Your lunch," she said. "Call me when you're done with it." Turning around, the cop left the cell.

The two prisoners looked at the door as the lock clicked shut audibly. Philip looked back at Polaris and opened his mouth to speak. "I know what you're thinking, Philip," Polaris commented. "It can't be done. I simply don't have the available energy to max out my suit's servos and rip the door off is hinges or blast it with a weapon. Besides, they confiscated my hyper-pistol. Maybe you have some sort of Power that'll do it. Have you tried willing the door to open?"

Philip rolled his eyes. "No, that's ridiculous," he said.

"Is it any more ridiculous than meeting a trans-universal Scout?" asked the WarWizard. "At least make the attempt," he encouraged.

"All right, but I don't think it'll work." The red fox concentrated on the door. Suddenly, to his surprise, it slowly opened... to reveal several armed cops. "Oh, well. It was worth a try," Philip sighed. The dangerous-looking police entered the room, followed by an immaculate-looking cheetah-morph wearing a black suit and a similarly-attired chameleon-morph.

"Greetings," purred the cheetah. "I am Agent Jones and this is my co-worker, Agent Smith. We're to speak to you two gentlefurrs." The two agents flashed badges reading 'FBI.'

Amazing, thought Philip. This is exactly like some of the books I've read...

What are they up to? wondered Polaris. I don't trust someone who introduces themselves as 'Agent' anything.

"We're here to take you in for questioning. Come with us, please." Knowing they had little choice, the two canids followed the FBI agents out of the jail and into a large black van parked nearby. The two friends were put in the back of the van with the agents. Agent Smith motioned to the van's driver, and the black vehicle began to move.

After about twenty minutes, the cheetah-morph began to speak. "Now, then," he said. "We know both of you have something to do with this weapon, here." He reached into his suit and withdrew Polaris' hyper-pistol. The WarWizard reached for it, only to be stopped by Agent Smith. "This is yours, isn't it?" continued Agent Jones. "This isn't a US weapon, real or imagined, is it? Where did you get it?" Polaris crossed his arms across his chest and remained silent. "Oh, come now," chided the FBI agent. "If you cooperate, we can help you."

"'We can help you,'" mocked Polaris. "Where have I heard that before? Do you think I'd believe that? Next you'll be telling me 'We will ask the questions' and other drivel," he accused.

"You wound my honor," said the cheetah. He smiled a human smile, displaying many sharp, pointed teeth. Polaris was quite sure it wasn't meant to show amusement. "Look here, you two. You're giving the research and development teams fits. You," he stated, pointing at Polaris, "have appeared out of nowhere. Anyone, around the world, who meets your description is accounted for. You have no previous records of existence before the warrant for your arrest. You suddenly come into existence shortly after a rather bizarre phenomena occurred; a few months after the Change. Your first appearance also coincides roughly with the crash of an unidentified object. Now, everyone who's been listening to the news knows that Dr. Chandra claims to have had something to do with the... effects. You, however, are an unsolved enigma, 'Polaris,' and those usually lead to surprises. My organization doesn't like surprises."

"You're not an agent from the FBI, are you?" asked Philip. "I don't think the FBI would be involved in this. Who do you work for?"

"That's classified," Agent Smith interjected smoothly.

"Thank you, Agent Smith. We can help you. Clear your names, et cetera. However--" he paused and held up a clawed finger. "However, you must do two things for us. First, you will answer our questions without evasion, without lying." He held up another finger. "Second, you will assist us in a... little operation, no questions asked. Your weapon could be of great use to us. We can provide you with any equipment you may need. Do we have a deal?"

"Do we have a choice?" asked Philip.

"Certainly. You can do what we say and receive our help, or you can go to prison for ten years or more."

After conferring among themselves, Polaris and Philip made their decision. "We'll cooperate," sighed the WarWizard.

Both agents smiled. "You've made the right choice," said Agent Smith.

"We're here," announced the driver. The van rolled to a stop and the doors opened. The four passengers stepped out into a yawning cavern. The lighted corridors seemed to stretch to the horizon.

Wow, Polaris thought, it's almost as big as some of the training areas at WarWizard Grand Central!

"Welcome to CIA research base number thirty. Or, as some of us like to call it, Area 51." Come with us, please," announced Agent Smith. The agents led Polaris and Philip to a lift. Agent Scott punched in an access code and the elevator began to move with a smooth whir. It came to a stop moments later, and they disembarked when the doors moved silently open. "You'll be questioned here. Sit down." The chameleon motioned to several chairs.

At least the seating here is comfortable, thought Polaris as he sat down. A few minutes later, the questioning began. It ran on for what seemed like hours.

"So, let's get this straight, Polaris. You're a member of a trans-universal group of militant traders--"

"Hey!" the Scout protested. Not the way we usually describe ourselves, he thought wryly.

"Please, let me continue. You're a member of a trans-universal group of militant traders who are searching the 'multiverse' for resources, weapons, and allies. The 'WarWizards' are comprised of many species, human and otherwise. You're attempting to defend yourselves against the 'Guardians,' a group of imperialists. You were sent out to check on some sort of energy readings that several sensor arrays picked up. Your ship sent you here, but you crashed. You've lost contact with the ship and have been wandering around ever since. Am I right so far?"

"You are correct," Polaris stated. Oh, great, he thought. I don't think they believe me.

"I'm going to take a short break," said the interrogator. "Relax, I'll be back in a moment." He left the room and approached Agent Jones. "What do I do?" the roadrunner-morph asked the cheetah. "He keeps giving me this weird Science-Fiction story instead of answering my questions!"

Agent Scott's ears flicked slightly, his version of an amused smile. "After the Change, I'm ready to believe nearly anything. He might be telling the truth; see if you can convince him to prove it."

Polaris mentally sighed as the bird-morph, a species he didn't recognize, left the room. Now what do I do? he complained silently to the multiverse. I suppose-- his train of thought broke off as the avian reentered the room.

"Now, I'm going to start again, and you're going to answer my questions. First, what is your name?"

What is your quest? What is the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Hal said. I'm baaack!

Polaris jumped in surprise. "Hal!"

Here's looking at you, kid, the computer said. What's happening?

"Just a second," the Scout subvocalized. In between answering questions, he filled Hal in on what had occurred. "The problem is, I can't get them to believe me," he concluded.

Hmm... That might cause a problem. Have you tried giving them some proof?

"No, I haven't--" Polaris stopped and thought for a moment. "I've got an idea. What about the transport wreck?" He turned back to the interrogator. "Listen, I can prove my story..."

Agent Jones examined the science lab's report on the composition of the wreckage. The metal seemed to be made of complicated layers of exotic alloys. The entire burned-out hulk, found earlier by one of the Agency's teams, was made of materials definitely not found on earth. Polaris had correctly identified all the substances that the science crews could name, and a few that they couldn't. "All right," the agent said, "We believe you."

Yes!! Polaris cheered mentally. "Great! So, what's this mission you told us we had to carry out?"

"Follow me," the cheetah-morph said. The erstwhile prisoners followed the government agent to a medium-sized room with a table, several chairs, and a large television screen. Polaris and Philip sat down. "Our organization is mobilizing for a raid against a very dangerous individual, Dr. Chandra. An attack on his base of operations is presently being planned."

"So, you want us to participate in that strike?" Philip asked.

"Close, but no. At the same time, other teams will be hitting those who he is working with. Our organization never does things by halves. You two will be part of a team hitting the base of a drug cartel that is helping to fund him. I understand you were apprehended near a building used by some of the cartel's hired thugs." Agent Jones turned to the TV screen behind him. It flickered to life, portraying a steaming jungle. "The base entrance is here," stated the cheetah-morph as he pointed to a small, nearly undetectable building. "While other parts of our force engage the enemy in a small diversion, a team will infiltrate the cartel's base. The team, including you two, will search for the security systems and disable them. Both of you should have little trouble, considering your... talents. Once your team shuts off the security systems, then signal us with these radios. We can then move in and destroy the base without setting off alarms or meeting organized resistance. After that, you are free to go. You have twenty minutes to prepare yourselves." The door opened, and a large, burly grizzly-morph entered. "Take them to the armory; give the coyote back his weapon." The fox-morph and Scout followed their ursine escort down the hall.

"You never told me you had some sort of Power," Polaris whispered to his friend.

Philip looked sheepish. "I didn't know until an hour ago. I found out I can make myself invisible. I was being interrogated, and I wished that I could just disappear, and guess what?" The fox-morph suddenly blinked out of visible existence. Moments later, he reappeared. "See? Strange I didn't find it before this."

"Hmm, not bad. It'd be nice to be able to do that without needing my scoutsuit," observed the WarWizard. They entered the armory.

"I believe this is yours," said their escort. Polaris took his hyper-pistol from the grizzly-morph. "Now, I have orders to take you to the transport chopper. Follow me."

The transport helicopter's specially modified engines allowed it to move almost silently. It quietly unloaded its passengers in the thick Colombian jungle, then slipped away. One of the task force members motioned to Polaris and Philip. Philip nodded, and they quietly followed the other members of the infiltration team towards the base. The quiet trip was relatively boring, giving Polaris time to think. I hope this mission doesn't go bad. I don't want to lose my fr-- No, dangit. Not here, of all times. I don't want to lose my valuable ally, my acquaintance. I can't afford to have friends, not after what happened before. Polaris' mind went back to the day when he lost his partner...

It had been a simple zero-gee mission. Polaris and Garath had both been confident that they would easily beat the other teams. They had been assigned to take out a target inside a large asteroid field. On their way through a particularly dense section of the debris field, they had encountered the blasted hulk of a Guardian destroyer. While Garath had wanted to continue on course, Polaris had persuaded his friend to enter the wreck by pointing out that they already had a considerable head-start and could afford to burn some time.

The insides of the once-deadly vessel were laid bare for exploration. After a few minutes, the more cautious Garath had decided to return to the asteroid field. However, Polaris had been interested in a lightly damaged control panel. While his friend was leaving, the Scout-in-training had accidentally bumped the console, activating long-dormant functions. The system that reactivated was the security system. Polaris, being close to the control center, remained unharmed. Garath, on the other hand...

While a horrified Polaris looked on in fear, his friend was attacked by mobile security turrets. The security system had failed, but not until after it holed Garath's suit beyond what the environmental gear's self-repair functions could take. Even though the unharmed trainee managed to get his partner back to base, Polaris' friend never regained consciousness; he died shortly after. The extensive cell damage was too much for even the awesome healing abilities of the WarWizards to repair.

No one blamed Polaris but himself. 'There was no way you could have known that there would still be active systems,' the base commander had said. But Polaris knew better. He should have had no business going into a wreck, let alone bringing a friend. The blame for Garath's death was his...

Polaris? Hal said, interrupting the Scout's troubled thoughts. We're near the base. You'd better be on the lookout for sentries.

"Thanks," replied Polaris. He scanned the surrounding area, then tightened his grip on Philip's shoulder twice to signify that they should stop.

"What?" the fox whispered.

"We're nearing the base. Once we get in the base, we'll have to be even more careful; we can not separate," the Scout replied quietly. "Ready?"

"Ready," came the answer. Far behind them, gunshots split the night as the largest section of the CIA force began to create a diversion. Enemy soldiers rushed through the underbrush toward the source of the noises.

"Now's our chance; let's go," ordered the team commander, a panther. They continued to sneak quietly nearer to the target, moving silently through the jungle. When they reached the door, they found it already partially open. "I have a bad feeling about this," Polaris subvocalized.

You and me both. But really, these are just drug dealers, right? Hal replied. If they're sloppy, we shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth.

"Yeah, I suppose you're right," the Scout replied.

"Move in," whispered the CIA agent in command. The small group commenced their infiltration of the base. Inside, white corridors lit from above by glowing strips stretched in all directions.

Awfully nice for a drug cartel. Where's a map when you really need one? thought Polaris. The team moved further into the base. There were few armed patrols; obviously most of them had been sent to deal with the diversionary force. Nearing a door, the group stopped. A rat-morph, presumably a lock expert, came forward. Drawing out several tools, the rodent quickly picked the lock. The door slid open soundlessly. The team continued on... and directly into a squad of armed guards who inexplicably appeared out of nowhere.

Even though he and Philip were behind the rest of the group, Polaris barely had time to exclaim *"Activate shields!"* and jump in front of Philip to protect the fox before the cartel's troops opened fire. Instead of the stream of bullets that should have come from the guns, concentrated beams of light tore through kelvar vests and vaporized the flesh of the hapless targets. Most of the team was gunned down immediately. As the guards continued to mow down the few remaining agents, Polaris managed to duck into a corridor, dragging Phil behind him. Oh, crap, that was bad, the Scout thought. And where did they get that technology? He didn't stop to ponder the question, as Philip spoke.

"Oh, God, they're dead," the fox gasped. He seemed to be in partial shock.

This is not good. I have to calm him down a bit, realized Polaris. But how? I'm no good at psychology. There's always the direct method... "Please, Philip, don't freak out now. We have to get out of here. Make yourself invisible; let's go. Keep a hand on my shoulder." Numbly, the fox cloaked and allowed himself to be led out of the relative safety of the empty hallway and past the guards. It wasn't long before the two survivors were completely lost in the twisting maze of passages. The Scout and fox were flattening themselves against the wall every few minutes to avoid running into patrols of armed, stern-faced mercenaries.

Crap. We're completely lost, Philip thought. He and Polaris hugged the wall for the third time in as many minutes. Man, the security's tight here, the fox noticed as he tried to keep his mind off the slaughter that had occurred in the hallway. What can they be protecting that's so important? Surely narcotics don't warrant this many guards._ He realized that he had stopped when he felt a gentle tug on his shoulder. Oops, got to keep moving...

The undetectable duo quietly moved through the corridors. Finally, they came to a dead end blocked off by a large, sturdy-looking door. "Hal, that looks like it has a computerized lock. Can you crack it?" Polaris asked.

I think so. Here, stick the suit's data port into that lock, Hal replied. The Scout complied. This shouldn't be too bad. A moment later, Hal said, got it. You are go for launch.

"Thanks, Hal." Polaris carefully opened the door a crack and slipped through, tugging Phil behind him. He glanced around to see... yet more corridors. Oh, joy, he thought.

Philip began moving to the left, and Polaris followed, arm still holding on to the fox's shoulder. They were nearing an intersection when Phil's sensitive ears picked up the measured tread of more guards. They were coming straight towards the fox and WarWizard.

Good thing we're invisible, thought Philip as he and Polaris ducked into a side passage.

Polaris glanced around to see yet another heavily guarded door. Only this time, instead of just mechanical security measures, armed guards also stood watch.

There's no way we can get past live guards without them noticing, realized Polaris. Anyone with half a brain would notice when the door they were guarding opened with no apparent reason.

Seeing no alternative, Polaris moved closer to the guards, Philip close behind. He shattered the face of one guard with a powerful blow, then turned to the other and dispatched him with a short chop to the back of the mercenary's head. Unfortunately, not before the guard had punched the alarm button. That was a bad idea, the Scout concluded. I misjudged his speed.

All pretense of stealth now gone, Polaris decloaked. "Hal, you need to get this door open! We're going to have company real soon!"

I'm on it, replied the computer. After several tense seconds, Hal's skill paid off and the door swung open.

"This way!" Polaris exclaimed as he rushed through the open portal. Philip, now visible as well, followed close behind. On the other side of the door was a massive, open room. Philip closed and locked the door behind them. Surveying the area, Polaris recognized that the vessels were space-worthy ships. This must be some sort of star-vessel landing bay. But what kind of drug dealers-- the Scout's train of thought screeched to a halt when he noticed the markings on the ships. "Pirates," he said aloud with disgust. Pirates were despised by both Guardians and WarWizards as wasteful and dishonorable. They would do anything to gain an edge over their brethren and often sold their services to the highest bidder. Reaching a computer terminal he subvocalized, "Hal, hack into this database for me, will you? I need to deactivate the security systems."

Can do, Hal replied. Seconds later, a summary of the entire database appeared on the monitor. I deactivated security for you, too.

"Thank you." Polaris attempted to call the rest of the strike force, but his radio emitted a high-pitched squeal and refused to transmit. _There must be a jamming mechanism somewhere._ Looking for information on that, Polaris glanced at the screen. "These pirates came here shortly after the Change, using shields they found on a Founder derelict to avoid shorting out thier systems," Polaris read. "They've been helping to fund this 'Dr. Chandra' in return for..." He trailed off as he read the next part. It's him! Chandra didn't just cause the 'Change,' he caused the energy surge by wiping out an entire universe, the Scout realized. Polaris' mind reeled in shock. All those lives lost... Not since the Great War of the Founders have there been that many deaths, and even they didn't have the power to destroy entire realities... "This is horrible," he said. "I can't let anyone have this as a weapon. Not even the WarWizards." Making his decision, Polaris turned to Philip. "I'm going to destroy this base by self-destructing one of the space vessels here. You have to get out before I do. I might not make it out; you have to leave now. I'm going to open the doors on the landing bay so that you can get out."

What? thought Philip as the Scout continued to give directions. I can't just leave him here! He's my-- The fox came to a realization. Yes, he's my friend. "No," he said. "I'm not going to leave until you're following me out."

"What?!" the WarWizard exclaimed. "But that's ridiculous! Listen to that pounding on the door! The guards might break through at any moment! Why--"

"Because, you're my friend," Philip interrupted. "Now, come on, there has to be a way that we can both get out of here." He began to search the landing bay.

"Your friend?!" Yes, the astounded Scout realized. I don't know how it happened, but no matter what I claim, he's my friend, too. "Look, Philip," he sighed, "you're my friend too, and I don't want to lose you, either. But I didn't tell you the whole story in our cell. Not only did one of my friends die a long time ago, it was my fault. My fault, all right? Please, just go."

His fault? he killed his friend?! "What did you do?"

"I activated a security system by accident... I should have known better." Polaris quickly outlined what had happened.

"There was no way you could have known," Philip stated with vehemence. "Sure, you shouldn't have been in there, but everyone makes mistakes, OK? I'm sure Garath would have forgiven you. Can you forgive yourself?"

Polaris stared at his friend. He felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders. "I--" The conversation was abruptly terminated as armed pirates burst through the door, carrying gauss rifles. Philip and Polaris dove for cover, but it was too late for the red fox. As he hit the floor, several shots slammed into various parts of his anatomy. Red vulpine blood pooled on the floor. "Philip!" No! Not another dead friend! Polaris' mind was virtually on fire with anger at the pirates, and at himself for failing to stop them, for failing his friend.

The pirates began to advance on the Scout's position. Their last view of this life was the sight of an enraged WarWizard milliseconds before the Scout's hyper-pistol disintegrated them. Polaris dragged his friend into a partially-upright position. "Don't die... Please don't die," he muttered as he attempted to bind Philip's wounds with strips of cloth from the fox's shirt. "Hal! I need you to activate the self-destruct on several of these ships and open the doors on the landing bay," the Scout subvocalized quickly.

Get me to that data terminal, Hal ordered. Polaris quickly did so. Done. Ten minutes 'till the first core goes critical. This is not a test. If it were a test, it would be multiple choice or essay. The doors are opening, too.

"Thanks," Polaris said. He rushed back to Philip's side. "Phil, I'm going to need your cooperation. I need to help get you on a ship. Don't struggle, OK?" In response, Phil groaned weakly. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'" Picking up the bleeding fox, Polaris staggered over to a small transport craft. He climbed inside and closed the door as more pirates entered the bay.

Polaris, your anthropomorphic friend is doing pretty bad. He's going to die soon without healing, and this hunk of junk we just entered doesn't have an autodoc, Hal informed the Scout.

Starting the engines, Polaris replied, "Is there any way to get the suit's medkit to heal him, even though he's not one of the species the medkit was designed for?" Possibly, came the reply, but you don't have sufficient power after that hyper-pistol blast. You'd have to shut down almost everything but the medkit.

"He's my friend, and I'm not going to lose him. Do it," answered Polaris.

But that means relinquishing control of those bio-nanites. I'd have to shut down the anti-Universal Effect shields, too. That will probably kill you, and it might not work anyway. Are you sure?

"Yes, Hal. Do it!"

Acknowledged. Starting now, replied the computer. Polaris lost his external sight as sensors were shut down. He felt his form begin to remold itself as the external universe replaced the small bubble of safety the Scout had been surrounded with. Polaris' entire body felt as though it had been dipped in a vat of seething insects.

I wonder when the effects will kill me, he thought. I'm probably just different enough to be incapable of survival in this universe... Weighted down by his unpowered suit and overwhelmed by the sensation of his flesh shifting to meet the demands of the new reality, the Scout collapsed and passed out.

"Polaris?" A voice penetrated the darkness surrounding the WarWizard. "Polaris, are you all right?" The Scout recognized it as the voice of his friend, Philip and slowly struggled to an upright position.

"I think so," Polaris replied. "Hal? How long has it been?"

Just a few minutes, Hal answered. But you have to get moving; the pirates are trying to break into the transport.

"Thanks," the Scout said. "How am I still alive, anyway?"

You're not going to believe this, but I think you underwent what the natives call the 'Change.' It must have been those bio-nanites that invaded our systems. You probably would have died, otherwise.

"Change? What am I now?" Polaris noticed that his voice sounded slightly different; it was almost a growl.

Well... but you've 'Changed' into a coyote, almost just like the one your secondary cloak is set on.

He can't be serious, the Scout thought. However, he could see a furry tan muzzle in the middle of his field of vision. "Umm, Philip? What do I look like?"

"Same as before, a coyote. But why did you include your suit in the projection this time?" Philip was puzzled, not yet entirely realizing what had occurred.

"That's not a projection," muttered the ex-human. As he struggled to his feet he noticed that his scoutsuit had already adjusted for the new, digitigrade configuration of his legs, and the shape of his helmet had altered to make room for his new ears and long muzzle. OK, he thought. Maybe being in a multiracial organization and having standardized equipment isn't so bad after all.

"Say, we have to get out of here before the pirates get us. Come on!"

And you've only got three minutes left before this base blows itself to kingdom come, Hal added.

Polaris didn't answer as he and Philip rushed to the cockpit. "Bringing thrusters online. Powering up," Polaris stated as he manipulated the controls furiously. "We are go for launch!" The fox and scoutsuited coyote were pressed into acceleration couches as the transport craft shot out of the base.

"CIA agents," Philip transmitted using the special radio he had been given by the government, "get clear of the base area. It will explode in a few seconds. Hurry."

Seconds later, several acres of land mushroomed into a giant cloud of fire and debris. The smoke was not, however, thick enough for the transport's sensors to miss the hostile fighters that had left the base seconds before its destruction. Crap! Polaris thought. Pirate fighters. What am I going to do now? Unless... Polaris looked at his vulpine friend. "Philip, how good are you at flying things?"

"Passable," replied the fox, remembering the hours he had spent playing flight simulations on his computer.

"Good!" Polaris quickly explained the basics of the transport's controls.

"But what are you going to do while I'm flying?" Phil asked.

"While you're piloting, I'll be manning the weapons turret. Try to lose the fighters, then head for open space past the asteroid field and engage the Reality Drive to these coordinates. If the fighters don't get us first." The WarWizard punched a string of numbers into the A.R.D. console, armed the transport's weapons, and rushed to the defensive turret.

As bolts energy streaked past it the transport took evasive action. The stolen ship and pursuing vessels streaked through the jungle until Philip jerked up on the control yoke, sending the transport roaring through the canopy and out of the troposphere. Several stomach-lurching Immelman loops and a split-S later, Polaris reached the gun well and brought the weapons to bear. The turret spun and fired, striking the defensive shields of one of the fighters. The enemy ships fired several missiles; all of the projectiles fell to the Scout's weapons skill and accuracy.

The transport and pursuing fighters screamed out of earth's atmosphere, leaving the planet far behind. After a few minutes, Philip announced, "Polaris, we're nearing the asteroid field. Do we to go through?" The exhilaration he felt at actually flying a ship in space was audible even through the speaker system.

"Just a sec," replied the Scout. The lasers and rail-chainguns of the weapons turret spoke again, this time almost buckling the shields of one of the pursuing craft. "Ha! Got 'em! Yes, go through. We need all the help evading these guys that we can get."

"Roger that." The transport, bulky though it was, nimbly dove through a dense patch of asteroids in the belt with scant meters to spare. One of the pirate fighters hit an asteroid and obliterated itself in a blinding flash of white.

"Only six more to go," commented Polaris. The turret rattled off a few quick shots, managing to take down a previously damaged fighter. These guys don't maintenance their fighters too well, thought the Scout. I hope they did a better job on this transport. "They're down to five," he reported. Unfortunately, the remaining quintet of fighters ignited booster engines and began to gain even more quickly. "Umm, Phil? They're gaining. Really fast."

In lieu of an answer, Philip engaged the transport's boosters. The bulky transport vibrated as it began to pull away from its pursuers.

Yee-haw! exclaimed Hal.

"I think we've lost them," the Scout commented hopefully. And it seemed as if they had. It's so beautiful, thought Philip, pausing to gaze out of the viewport and into the star-speckled blackness of space. "Do you know how lucky you are," he asked his friend, "to be able to see things like this?"

"You know, I never really thought about it before. I'm usually too busy with--" Polaris broke off his sentence as a large shadow, followed by five smaller ones came into the WarWizard gunner's field of view. "Philip! Can you get this thing to go any faster?"

"Possibly," the fox replied. "Why?"

"There are five fighters and a pirate gunship to our left!" The duo's vessel lurched as bright beams of amplified light struck them. Several systems shorted out immediately, and the consoles flickered. "Go faster!" yelled Polaris as more turbolaser bolts rained down from the gun ship.

The stolen transport vessel reached the other side of the asteroid belt and engaged its Alternate Reality Drive... which failed to work. "Oh, hell!" Polaris exclaimed. "Hold on, Phil. I'm going to go see what the problem is." The WarWizard quickly got out of the turret and ran to the engine room. The ship's walls vibrated as another pirate laser hit its target. I can't figure out how to work this thing! Who thought a Reality Drive could be so complicated? He tried to work out what was wrong. Oh, the heck with it! When all else fails... The transport vessel resounded with the clang of a gloved fist connecting with the housing of the Alternate Reality Drive. The ship disappeared in a small flash of light. It reappeared in the blue-white void of hyperspace. "Hey, it worked! OK," Polaris said over the intercom, "we're all clear. Are you reading a nearby object on the H.M.D.?"

"Which console is that?" asked Philip.

"The panel that's one to the left and one up from the throttle is the Hyperspace Mass Detector," explained the WarWizard. "It should have a large, blinking green dot with some numbers by it. That dot is our ride, the heavy frigate 'Phalanx.' Got it?"

"Here, let me check," the fox replied. After a moment, he located the H.M.D. "Yes, I see it. I'm altering course to intercept."

"I'm going to come back to the cockpit; the frigate will need to see some authorization codes so it knows who we are and doesn't fire at us." With a contemptuous look at the reality drive, the Scout headed out of the engine room.

Suddenly, the remaining pirate vessels appeared behind the transport. Polaris stumbled as the floor shook and almost knocked him off his feet. He ran faster and quickly reached the cockpit. "What's happening?"

Houston, we have a problem, Hal announced. Five pirate fighters and a gunship off the stern, and their first shot took out our shields!

The transport took evasive action, shaking missile locks and avoiding enemy fire. "Nice flying," commented Polaris. He picked up the ship-to-ship communicator. "SOS, SOS, this is the transport vehicle..."

Insanity, volunteered Hal.

"Insanity. We are under attack by pirates. Phalanx, please respond." Insanity? Polaris asked himself. What kind of a name is--

"Transport vessel, transmit authorization codes. We have no record of your presence in this area," crackled the speaker.

Polaris quickly transmitted the codes. The ship rattled from another direct hit. Due to Philip's piloting skills, the number of hits had been minimal, but the transport was still heavily damaged. "Who is this? How did you get those codes?" asked the Phalanx.

"Sir, this is Scout Polaris," replied the coyote. "My ship crashed, so I had to... commandeer another. We would seriously appreciate some cover fire, here, sir."

"All right. Stay on that course," commanded the Phalanx's communications officer. Seconds later, ten Orion-class fighters intercepted the pirates' ships and began to shoot down the badly-maintained vessels. The gunboat and heavy frigate exchanged volleys, but the pirate vessel was no match for the Phalanx and quickly succumbed to the frigate's overwhelming might. One of the last few fighters tried to ram the transport vessel. As it screamed towards the hapless transport, Philip jerked the ship to the left, then back again. The whole maneuver had taken less than a second, but it was just enough to avoid being destroyed by the passing fighter.

"Whoa!" transmitted the Phalanx. "Polaris, where'd you learn to fly like that?"

"It's not me; it's a friend of mine," replied the Scout as Philip slid the transport into the frigate's docking bay...

The lift doors hissed open and two canids entered the bridge. One wore the garb denoting a Scout, the other was attired in the black rank-cloak that indicated he was a visitor. Ignoring the surprised looks of bridge crew members, the coyote said, "Scout Polaris reporting with a new recruit, sir. His name is Philip."

"Welcome aboard," the catlike being said enthusiastically. "Philip, which branch of the forces do you want to go into?"

This is it! Philip thought. With only a slight twinge of nervousness, he answered, "Ah, I'd like to join the starfighter squadrons, sir."

"Excellent. In case you didn't know, my name is Captain Cynric. Scout Polaris, you and Recruit Philip are to report to the debriefing room in five minutes," ordered the Captain. "Dismissed!" Saluting, Polaris turned to leave. Philip imitated the salute of his friend, and the two canids exited to the lift.

"Not too bad, Phil," Polaris commented. "The captain seems to think you'll do well."

"Thanks," Philip replied. "What will we be saying in the debriefing room?"

"Saying?!" Surprise radiated from Polaris' canine features. "We de-brief," he said, stressing the words as though doing so would make things more clear to the surprised fox. "You take off your clothes so the scanners can get completely unobstructed readings. The debriefing room is the place where the scientific division examines you to make sure there's nothing wrong with your biological systems after an excursion in someone else's universe."

"What? You can't be serious." Can he? Philip wondered.

Polaris coyote-grinned, his mouth open in silent mirth. "No, I'm not serious. We got our medical exam when we first came aboard, when we walked off the transmat pads. Sorry, but I just had to do that. Ah, here we are at the debriefing room now."

The Scout started to walk inside the room, but paused before entering. "Don't worry, debriefings aren't all that bad. We'll just outline what happened, answer a few questions, get cleaned up, and relax. Maybe you can get a fighter pilot to show you the basics of the Orion-class fighters in one of the simulators. C'mon." Polaris gestured for Philip to follow him into the debriefing room, where they saluted the lizard-like being behind the desk and sat down.

Lieutenant Wrix, a dracaar, returned the salute and began the debriefing. It seems more like an interrogation, Polaris thought with slight amusement. The Lieutenant was asking questions in quick succession, firing them as if they were the rounds of a fully automatic gauss rifle. He asked about the natives, the 'Change,' and the pirates. Then, he asked about the technology levels and the local government. Somehow, the subject of Hal, and the AI's strange behavior never came up. During a short breather in the questioning, Polaris said, "With all due respect, sir, are we on some sort of schedule? You seem to be in a hurry."

"I am," replied the dracaar. "You have to be in the science department for a few more exams in two minutes. They were very insistent that they, and I quote, 'get a piece of you. The guys back at base can't have all the fun.'" Polaris sighed, and the dracaar's face took on a mischievous expression. "The debriefing is now over. Sorry, but I did promise the scientists..." The two canids saluted and left the room.

"Why'd you sigh like that? Are the scientists stuck-up or something?" asked Philip as they stepped into a lift and sped upward several levels. The doors opened into a tangled, chaotic jumble of equipment, samples, and scientists. Several of the floor's denizens looked up, their faces displaying the same sort of look children give a new toy.

"No," said the Scout, only half joking, "it's worse than that. They're enthusiastic!"

"So, I hear you passed your piloting tests with flying colors," commented Polaris. He and his friend, Philip, were sitting in the recreational area on the Altair training base. The muted hum of many conversations filled the air. "Are you still planning on being a pilot?"

"I'm going to be a fighter pilot," affirmed Philip. "So, I heard you've been permanently stationed on the Phalanx. Who's your team partner?"

"Nobody," the coyote said proudly. "You see, I've been given the rare opportunity to decide whether I have a partner or not. However, I want to be able to see you again," He trailed off sadly.

"Actually, that's what I invited you here to talk about," the fox explained. "I've been stationed on the Phalanx."

Polaris felt like cheering, but restrained it to a toast. "To friendship." The two friends' glasses met just as the base orbited back into the light of Altair, signaling a new dawn. "Let's head to the ship. Phalanx disembarks in an hour." They got up and headed toward the docking bay.

One hour later, the newly-repaired Phalanx disengaged its docking clamps and headed out into the great unknown.

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