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The Christa Affair

Book One

"You Want Us to do \What\?!"

Chapter One

Rang and Jashi lay motionless, face down in the tall grass of the canyon rim, peering thru powerful surveillance glasses at the ship resting on the floor of the canyon far below. Neither had moved since reaching their present position some six and a half hours earlier, and their muscles were beginning to feel the strain. Perhaps the precaution of remaining still and silent was unnecessary at this distance from the ship, but who was to know what capabilities were possessed by the intruder below. The very nature of the threat was unknown -- if indeed it were a threat at all.

The huge ship over which they had faithfully kept watch for the past sixteen days was of a design never before seen by the eight crew-members of Federation Freetrader FW6-7951 -- affectionately known to her crew as the \Klondike\. Furthermore, if such a ship had ever been sighted by anyone, anywhere in all of charted space, the sighting had not been recorded in the data banks of the Federation's master computer. Hyperphone inquiry to Federation Sector Headquarters had confirmed that, less than two hours after the strange ship had landed.

Freetrader though she was, the \Klondike\ was on a commissioned run for the Federation High Command, and her mission carried military emergency status -- locate and assist as required the survivors of a twenty-eight member exploration and mining team which had been on Ultazari-Seven for the past three Federation-Standard months, searching for the suddenly-rare and precious living crystal known as Immunofactor-26.

Ultazari, with its ten-planet system, lay at the farthest reaches of galactic sector six -- on the very edge of the rim -- outside the inhabited or well traveled areas of the galaxy. The seventh planet, currently occupied by the \Klondike\ and the mystery intruder, was listed in Federation catalogs as uninhabited. It had no native sentient life, no permanent settlements, no poisonous plants, no dangerous animal life. It was half-covered by pure crystal-clear ocean, and had no violent or extreme weather. Ultazari-Seven was paradise -- the legendary Garden of Eden.

Three years earlier, a scientific team of the "Spider People" of Elvira-Three had made a detailed survey of the virgin world. Their routine report to Federation Central had included indications of minute traces of Immunofactor-26 -- the first such recorded finding other than Christa herself. The finding was cataloged and forgotten -- totally unimportant; Christa belonged equally to all peoples of the Federation, and there was plenty for everyone... Until she disappeared.

"How in hell can a moon just disappear?" Jashi was wondering, as a soft female voice spoke inside his head.

(.... "Are you guys about ready for something to eat?....") said Karli, his bondmate and lifetime partner. Jashi felt a warm glow at the sound of her voice so near, even though he knew she was inside the ship, thirty-seven miles away. The "voice" he was hearing wasn't a voice at all, but rather a telepathic projection -- the only form of communication they had dared use since the grounding of the intruder.

Of the four bondpairs who made up the crew of the \Klondike\, only two were telepathic -- Jashi and Karli, and Roi and Lito. They were maintaining the surveillance round the clock -- ten hours, watch-and-watch. The males worked in pairs -- Jashi with his brother Rang, Roi with Toko -- so there was always a link from the observation post to the ship. Eighteen days on this world -- sixteen days of watch-and-watch -- and Jashi longed to be back in space, free among the stars.

"Gods of the Fourteen Planets!" Jashi muttered tiredly to himself. He was a tradership captain -- not a damned surviellance engineer -- and all this cloak-and-dagger stuff probably wasn't necessary anyway. At this distance, it was doubtful any of the strange ship's sensors could pick out their noise from amoung the backbround of wind and small-animal sounds. And despite its unique design, they'd seen no real evidence that it was a threat...

(.... "I'm too numb to even be hungry, Karli ....") he replied with his mind, feeling her presence envelope him. (.... "Are Roi and Toko on their way up?....")

(.... "Lito says they just left the airsled....") answered Karli. Lito knew where they were; she was in touch telepathically with Roi, her bondmate.

"Twenty minutes," thought Jashi. The site where they had left the sled wasn't quite a mile away, but they would have to crawl the last fifty yards, moving slowly so as not to disturb the tall grass in case the canyon rim was being scanned by the strange ship.

Jashi turned carefully to his left, signalling to Rang in spacers' sign-language -- used in vacuum when comm-silence was necessary; his brother replied with the down-turned sweep of the palm that meant \received and understood\, then turned back to watching the ship below. Sixteen days and no sign of activity; sixteen days and nothing to show that the sphere was even occupied. Sixteen days -- and Jashi knew his brother longed for space as much as he.

*********

The ghostly intruder below was unlike anything either of them had ever seen. A translucent shimmering sphere almost a mile in diameter, seemingly supported by four thin columns of nothing. Yet nothing was definitely \something\. Two days earlier, Jashi had watched a bird as it attempted to fly thru one of the transparent supports. There was a bird in flight... Then there was nothing... Then, on the other side of the column, the same bird -- still in flight, obviously unharmed.

Certainly not solid matter. A force-field? Not like any ever used by the Federation -- that would have stopped the bird. Or vaporized it. He wondered what would have happened if the bird's flight path had intersected the ship itself, instead of the support column.

Sometimes it seemed to Jashi that the ship would shimmer and fade just a bit, becoming more transparent, more like the support columns that held it upright. If they really were supports. Hell, they didn't know \anything\ for sure. Maybe \none\ of it was really there; maybe it was all just an illusion.

In sixteen days, there'd been no sign of activity. They'd seen no movement around the ship, and their sensitive listening devices registered only silence. Even a \grounded\ ship made \some\ noise. Jashi was wishing he dared try scanning it when the ship suddenly pulsated slightly, and shimmered into nothingness, vanishing as completely as if it had never been...

Back in the ship, Karli stiffened and turned white. The telepathic link between them was still open -- it wasn't conscious coherent thoughts, but rather open free-style communion; the experiencing of each other's presence as if they were physically side by side -- and she felt Jashi's astonishment and unbelief overwhelmingly. On the rim overlooking the canyon, neither Jashi nor Rang moved a muscle or uttered a sound. They didn't even dare look at each other, but stared transfixed, watching the nothingness where a moment before the something had been.

(.... "Jashi! What is it?....") Karli demanded sharply inside his head.
(.... "Later!...") he retorted. (....Where're Roi and Toko?....")
(.... "Seventy-five yards. Hurry?....")
(.... "Yes. Carefully!....")

A few moments later, the grass rustled softly as their two shipmates joined them. They both sucked air in shock as their eyes scanned the canyon floor; Jashi quickly signaled them to keep silent.

In sign, Jashi instructed Rang and Toko to watch, then he explained to Karli what had happened. (.... "Relay to Roi ....") he commanded, and watched Roi's rugged features register his unbelief as the message reached him from Lito, who was back in the ship with Karli.

Karli: (.... "Disappeared? Not lifted? ....")

(.... "No, disappeared. Vanished! Tell Roi to watch while I talk to the others ....") The sweep of the down-turned palm told him Roi understood, and Jashi turned to Rang and Toko. Their hands became a blur of rapidly formed words and phrases as he and Rang compared what they had seen at the moment of the disappearance, then both of them filled in the still bewildered Toko, who kept stealing furtive glances at the canyon below.

(.... "Full aerial scan, Karli. Anything moving?....") Jashi demanded urgently. They'd turned off all scanners as soon as they were sure the intruder was going to ground, and had left them off to avoid detection.

(.... "Nothing....") came Karli's reply after a moment.
(.... "Surface?....")
(.... "No Jashi. Nothing. Keep scanning? ....")
(.... "Max power. And stay with me....") Jashi replied. (....

"Tell Lito to maintain contact. I don't like this....") A ship couldn't just disappear... It couldn't! And you can't jump directly into hyperspace from the surface of a planet. How in hell can a ship just disappear? It can't! And neither can a moon. But Christa had disappeared... And now so had the ship...

(.... "Jashi, stop it!....") Karli's voice snapped him free of his jumbled thoughts. He was more exhausted than he had realized.

(.... "Thanks Karli. I needed that....") he replied. (.... "I'm going to leave Roi and Toko for their regular watch; Rang and I are coming in. Relay to Roi. Same rules -- low, still, and quiet. Just watch the spot in case the damn thing reappears. Tell Lito to maintain full contact the entire watch...)

Jashi saw Roi's signal, and knew the message had been received. He and Rang began the long crawl away from the canyon rim.

CHAPTER TWO

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