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Chapter 34: Lots Of Kaboom!

 

Keith stared at the battered gateway, and then got out of the way so that Lance could bring his Lion around for another pass. He'd been expecting the extraction plant to be tough to crack, but not this tough. Pidge, Allura, and Hunk had taken care of the base's armaments, but the front door had apparently been designed by someone who built mountains for a living. Keith and Lance had been trying the old “freeze and thaw” trick on the thing, but they'd done four treatments so far and nothing had happened.

Lance muttered something impolite as Blue froze the entire facade solid again, and again when Red burst the ice off with a wash of superheated plasma. “What the heck did those guys make this thing out of?”he demanded irritably. “Pidge, are you sure that you can't pop that door open?”

“Not any more than you can,” Pidge replied snippily. “Some jerk cut the power and locked it manually. Low tech sometimes beats high tech, Lance. I can't hack a barred door.”

The yellow Lion descended gracefully to Hunk's considering hum. “Yeah, but a strong person can still bash it down. Let me try something, guys.”

Keith blinked. “You think you can do something with the metal itself?”

Probably,” Hunk replied, setting Yellow down carefully on the roof, just above the gates. “This is pretty tough stuff. It feels like they just sort of lopped a big chunk off an old battleship, and—whoops!”

With a groan of tortured architecture, the entire front facade of the building fell off in one piece, flopping open like the door of an old-fashioned mailbox and depositing Yellow flat on her back in a heap of stricken debris. While the freeze-thaw cycles had not worked on the gates themselves, it seemed that the rest of the building had been built from lesser stuff. Undaunted by this odd turn of events, Hunk said cheerfully, “Well, that worked.”

“So it did,” Allura said, trying not to laugh. “All right, Tchak and the others are dealing with the other bases for us, and they'll send some people over to help us as soon as they can. It's possible that the Hoshinthra might join us here first, if only out of curiosity; I don't know if they've ever seen one of these installations up close before.”

“Then let's get this place shut down and defused as soon as we can,” Keith said firmly, pushing himself out of his seat. “I don't know about you guys, but those Doom Moose give me the creeps.”

“Well, yeah, they're supposed to,” Hunk replied as the yellow Lion heaved herself back upright and withdrew from the ragged opening. “They've had long enough to get really good at it.”

Unsurprisingly, the moment they were out of the Lions and had ventured a few meters into the dim, purple interior, a large squad of Sentries came charging up to deny them entry. Keith and his fellow Paladins didn't even hesitate to tear into them. They had faced worse, far worse than these trivial robots, and Keith relished the opportunity to use the fight as a warm-up. Not even bothering with his bayard, he whipped out his Marmoran blade and employed the training his mother had given him, a style particularly suited to his mixed heritage. It felt good to leap and slash, to execute fast attacks and quicker evasions, and best of all, to leave his foes in twitching heaps behind him. Predator blood, he knew, and predator instincts rejoicing, and he made a note to ask Lizenne for a run in the envirodeck when she and Modhri got back. There was just something so satisfying about a good run through the grasses. Come to think of it, Kevaah hadn't been in there yet. Now there was a guy who really needed some “outside” time...

The last Sentry hit the decking with a tinny crash, courtesy of Allura. “All right, that was nice,” she said, echoing Keith's sentiment. “Pidge, can you see where we need to go?”

Pidge concentrated for a moment, and then frowned. “Sort of. Whoever is in charge here has killed the main computer core. There's a lot of redundancy, but it's all in lots of little independent systems that are keeping the basic functions running. All the doors have been manually locked, too, and there's something weird about the whole thing. There's a... a drain on everything's energy, and I don't want to touch it. I'd have to find an office with an active terminal to get anything done. Hunk?”

Hunk was already scowling. “You're right about the drain thing. I'm not going to be able to do anything either—aetherically, I mean. It's not the metal or the machines, it's the siphons. They're pulling up a lot of Quintessence, and the... um. It's not really suction, it's more like an illegal tap into a power main, but the draw is really strong, and it's all through everything. Pidge, the guy running this place actually did you a favor by shutting down the AI; if we try to do any big magic in here, Shiro's not going to be the only person around here who's had his soul in a bucket.”

Everybody shuddered. Shiro had told them that it hadn't been all that bad, comparatively speaking, but none of them wanted to try it out for themselves. “We'll have to do this the old-fashioned way, then, and remember this the next time we have to uproot one of these installations,” Allura said. “Where would we look for an active terminal?”

Pidge opened her mouth to reply, shut it with a wince, and then scowled disgustedly at her hands. “Hold on, I need to get my laptop. I'm too used to doing this the other way! Gimme a minute.”

Keith watched her trot back to her Lion with some concern. “No magic at all, huh?”

“Nope,” Hunk replied with a sharp wave of one hand. “Not unless you want it to wind up in a can.”

Allura hummed thoughtfully. “We'll want to remember this, team. We can't concentrate on just one method, not if we're going to be dealing with more of these installations.”

“And we will be,” Lance muttered grimly. “You heard Captain Trag, and he's not the only one whose homeworld is being drained.”

Pidge came trotting back at that point, blowing dust off of her computer's casing. “Will you look at that?” she asked disgustedly. “I just realized that I haven't used this thing in ages—not since we stole Clarence. Can you believe that? It's just so much easier to do it the other way. Oh, crud, I'm out of practice, my words-per-minute score will probably have dropped, and maybe my accuracy, too. Not good for coding. I need to see if that 'net snapshot has any typing tutors that I can download.”

Hunk smiled as she flipped up the screen and began tapping madly at the keys. “I think so. It's also got some good hidden-object games. I'll send you the files later. So, is there a terminal here that you can hijack, and where do we need to be?”

“Hold on, hold on... gotcha. There's a terminal room not too far from here that has the right connections,” Pidge said, tapping the screen with an armored finger. “I can get you through the doors from there, but first we have to get through that.”

'That', indicated by another eloquent finger, was another enormous gateway dimly visible in the distance. Like the first one, it was massively built, featureless save for the thin line down the center where the two panels met, and it seemed to radiate impenetrability. Or it would have, if one of their number hadn't recently brushed up on his infiltration skills.

“This looks just like the one I had to get past in the Ghamparva base,” Lance said, making a beeline for the adjacent wall. “Check around the sides for secret panels, guys. Galra like to impress people with big construction, but they forget about mouseholes a lot of the time.”

“Sparkly mouseholes?” Allura asked with a smile, running her hands over a section of wall.

“For sparkle-mice,” Lance replied easily, giving the wall an experimental kick; it made a hollow sound on one side, and Lance soon found the hidden panel there. “Got it! Keith, help me pry this open? Some jerk wedged it shut.”

Not so much wedged as bent, Keith thought a moment later; someone had backed something large and heavy into the wall here some time ago, and it had hit the wall just hard enough to deform the secret panel slightly. It was a crowbar job, but his bayard did the trick just as well. Nasty had shown him the trick of wedging a slim blade just so into these tight seams to pop them open, and he grinned triumphantly when the panel sprang open with a dull clong. Lance stuck his head inside the dim hole and had a look around.

“Um,” he heard Lance say after a minute. “Pidge, you'll have to get in there yourself to flip the switch. They've got it set halfway up the inside of this wall, and I'll get stuck permanently in there if I try climbing up there.”

She scowled at the wall, but handed the laptop to Hunk and clambered inside. Keith's sharp ears could actually track her progress by the muffled swearwords emanating from different elevations on the wall, a grunt, and then a yelp of surprise when the doors slid open. There was a thud and a cloud of dust from the open hatch, and a loud curse that Keith hadn't known that a Human could pronounce properly.

“Can you believe those jerks?” Pidge demanded as she shoved herself back out of the opening, and then sneezed loudly. “They—achoo! They put big spikes on the edge of those doors—the actual inside-the-wall edge! Just so they could stab somebody for using the manual controls! If I ever find out who built this place, I'll show him a thing or two about spikes.”

“Save it for the Sentries, Pidge,” Hunk said, pulling out his bayard and taking cover on the far side of the doorframe. “Here they come.”

Keith let Hunk and Lance clear the first wave for him, and then dashed through to start chopping up their reserves. Not for the first time, he wondered at how few live soldiers there were in these bases. So far, all of the defenses had been automated. Then again, when he paused to catch his breath, he felt the faint influence of the siphons—it was a little like standing at the rear of a big ventilation fan, or perhaps near the intake of an industrial shop-vac. A slight but noticeable sucking sensation. Not harmful, not yet, but it tingled along his nerves and gave him the creeps. Pidge might have felt it, too, for she lost no time in tracking down the nearest office terminal once Hunk had smashed up the last Sentry.

“Thataway,” she said grimly, her face green-lit by the image on the screen. “Guys, it's pretty much a straight shot from here to the center, where the siphons and the containment units are, but I'm going to have to stay in that office and unlock the doors one by one. No, I can't open them all at once. They've all been locked up tight under separate security protocols. Somebody really didn't like having company.”

Keith smirked. “Well, that company was Captain Tchak, after all. He's hard on the furniture when he gets excited.”

“And magic stuff gets him really excited,” Lance added. “Fine. Let's get Pidge to that office, and then let's wreck this place. I really don't like the feel of it in here.”

 

Meanwhile, up in orbit, Coran hummed cheerfully as he donned what he had often referred to as his “working clothes”, back when he'd accompanied Alfor and his team on their heroic exploits. Despite the bright colors, the flowing scarlet cape, and the ostentatious helmet that had made the others laugh, it was quite as good a suit of armor as any to be found in the Altean military. Not quite as good as the Paladins', perhaps, but close, and certainly much more stylish. Yes, he'd cut a dashing figure in those days, earning accolades from both crowns and crowds—and, he remembered with a certain amount of nostalgia, adoring gazes from legions of lovely ladies. Great days, he thought happily, and they weren't over yet. So thinking, he secured the cape to the special bosses on his gorget, put on his helmet, and headed back to the bridge.

The screens showed nothing but post-battle tranquility: the victorious Captains had parked their ships in the ready formation, all of the escape pods had been gathered up, and landers were heading down to deal with the terrestrial bases. Despite this air of progress, Shiro stood tensely beside the console, watching the empty stars as though expecting them to bite at any minute. He wasn't alone, Coran saw. The mice were standing ready on the console's control board, and Tilla sat behind it, ready to give any orders necessary. Soluk had arranged himself on the pilot's dais with his great horned head directly under the Balmeran crystal, eyes glinting like sapphires, listening to the inter-ship chatter between Fleet Captains. Surprisingly, the two defense-drone stations were manned as well. Kevaah, resplendent in his recently-completed pink knitted socks, was sitting in one station, while Erantha lounged in the other. Glaring at Kevaah's socks as though they offended her sensibilities, too, Coran thought. Not surprising, really. Kevaah had shown hints of a sly sense of humor over the past several days, and would sometimes do silly things just to annoy his fellow Blades. Personally, Coran approved. The Marmorans were excellent people, but they took themselves far too seriously.

Shiro glanced over his shoulder at his approach, looking a little worried. “About to head down?”

“Quite,” Coran said happily, fingering his mustache. “I thought perhaps that I might lend a hand over there, down on the coast. A bit of a battle, a bit of demolition, and then an evening on the beach. Sounds lovely, don't you think?”

Shiro shook his head and indicated another spot. “There.”

“What?” Coran said, deeply disappointed. “But that's nowhere near the beach, and besides, the Paladins are already working on that one. I should think that they'd be able to handle it well enough.”

“You need to be there, Coran,” Shiro said in that dead-serious tone that people tended not to argue with. “It's not because of something that's going to happen today, but that it'll be important later. I don't know anything more than that, exept that you have to go there, and now.”

Coran humphed. “Not even a tiny clue?”

Shiro blinked, and there were stars in his eyes, and he gave Coran an apologetic smile. “You'll ride out in style. Get going, Coran. Not even Alfor could do what you're going to do in a half-hour or so.”

“Well, now, that's more like it!” Coran said, heading for the doors with a spring in his step. “Alfor was a grand fellow, absolutely stellar, but he did tend to monopolize everybody's attention with his antics. Pulled off the most amazing stunts, so he did, and never took worse than a scratch, most times. Well, some of the time, anyway. Used to annoy the others fairly frequently, particularly when they had to pull him out of sticky situations, and he still got all of the applause. Zarkon hated that, let me tell you! It was always kind of odd to see that big purple fellow turning green with envy whenever Alfor was lionized for overdoing it, and Blaytz usually had a thing or two to say about it as well, assuming that Melenor didn't get there first, but Gyrgan always...”

Thankfully, the bridge doors closed upon the monologue before they were required to learn how Hunk's predecessor had dealt with being overshadowed by Allura's very adventurous father. Erantha sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why do we put up with him again?”

Shiro spared her a thin smile before returning his gaze to the screens. “Because he's good at what he does, and he really does need to be down there. I wish that I knew why. I'm a little surprised that you're still here, actually.”

“The Matriarch asked that I assist you,” Kevaah murmured, running his hands over the defense-drone controls. “You are here, and therefore I am as well. I would like to spar with you sometime. You probably wouldn't die.”

Shiro blinked; Kevaah had a tendency to speak in sudden sharp turns, and it could be difficult to follow his logic at times.

Erantha made an exasperated spitting noise. “Have you forgotten every lesson in self-control that we have tried to teach you? He is the black Paladin, and his Lion needs both of them! Lizenne has said that you are not an animal, Kevaah. Prove it.”

Kevaah merely chuckled. “I am not an animal. What animal speaks intelligibly and with purpose, fights with knives, and knits lovely pink socks?”

Erantha growled something impolite, and Shiro had to resist an urge to bury his face in his hands. Those two were acting so much like Keith and Lance had in the beginning, only with more sharp pointy things and hair-trigger tempers... Not again, he thought desperately; please, not now!

Tilla rumbled sympathetically and nudged his shoulder. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I'd just hoped that I'd seen the end of that sort of behavior. Think they'll come to the same sort of accommodation?”

Tilla chirruped noncommittally and then jerked her head up at Soluk's sudden, urgent grunt. Shiro looked up sharply as well, and saw the unwelcome shapes of a different type of Galra ship. Only five of them, but larger than the fighters he'd faced last time, and the team was not there to help them now.

“Ghamparva!” he barked, startling yelps out of the other ships. “We have Ghamparva approaching!”

The other Captains cursed, but their ships swung around to face the approaching foe. “Tell us what to do, Shiro,” Tchak said in a hard voice. “You're the only one present who has fought those egg-sucking monsters and lived.”

Shiro lifted his eyes to the five dark ships and felt the Lens in the bottom of his mind turning. Something had happened just now, he realized, something very distant but extremely important. Instead of filling him with dread, the arrival of the Ghamparva ships awoke within him a strange, savage joy. They had made a mistake by sending this squadron here, and he knew it with a mysterious certainty that was as solid as a mountain. Whispering one of Loliqua's focusing mantras under his breath, he turned his attention inward to Tzairona's great gift, and felt the physical world melt away. Out here in the Mindscape, he could see everything. Everything, including the path to victories past, present, and future, and when he spoke next, the Fleet Captains responded instantly. Even the Hoshinthra, and their massed battle-calls struck thrilling echoes throughout the web of probability...

 

...because...

 

Ten minutes ago and hundreds of lightyears away, Bantax stared at the screens of his heavy scout in disbelief. Nelargo Shipyard hung in the lower portion of the view, emergency lights blinking and flashing like holiday decorations, and yet the enemy was leaving. The burly Blade didn't know whether the Lady Ghurap'Han had called in a favor or the Ghamparva were simply protecting a major investment, but five capital ships had been looming above the industrial center like a thundercloud when they had arrived. Several nearby solar systems were under attack by the Hoshinthra right at this moment; Bantax had reflected sourly that he should not have been all that surprised to find the Ghamparva here, due to the fact that this was their sole source of starcraft. Ghamparva did not deign to assist the Military unless it suited their purposes to do so.

And now, for some reason beyond his comprehension, those five Barkush-Class warships were leaving. “Where are they going?” Bantax asked, mystified.

“I don't know, sir,” his navigator replied. “They're on the wrong heading for the neighboring star systems, and there are hundreds of other worlds in that direction.”

Space glimmered as the five dark craft leaped away into the cosmos, leaving the local orbits suspiciously empty. He stood silently for a long moment, waiting for the replacements that he knew would be popping in at any second, but that never came. “Why did they leave?” he growled, suspecting a trap.

Because I told them to, Bantax,” Jasca's voice snapped at him through their speakers, making him start in surprise, and her image popped up on one side of the screen to glare at him. “I got in touch with Ilitar Base and told Kelezar to put on his grandpa suit, and we were able to convince our dear friends there to clear the road. I've just told Modhri's people down on that Shipyard to lift off—get them out of there and off to the rendezvous point before anything else happens.”

“Will it?” Bantax asked, watching a swarm of small ships rising from the Shipyard to arrange themselves into a neat formation.

I don't know, but why take chances?” Jasca looked troubled, as if something had startled her badly not long ago. “Tzai's not available for comment right now. We've got her body and Zandrus's skull, but she had to manifest in full and that wore her out.”

Bantax felt a drenching sense of relief, even as he motioned to his copilots to alert the fleet of stolen starships and guide them away. “She's still with us, then?”

Jasca grinned. “Oh, yeah. She's won the right to see this through, Bantax, and she's brought her man along for the ride. I can't wait to introduce Zandrus to everybody, but that's not important right now. We've got the Household contingent of Khorex'Var with us, and the outside professionals are on their way.”

Bantax glanced at his crew and smiled when his comm officer gave him a thumbs-up, a positive gesture that they'd picked up from the Paladins. “All Nelargo members present and accounted for,” he replied. “Handy, isn't it, that Lady Inzera had confined them to only two locations?”

Jasca cackled. “She didn't want another escapee like Modhri's great-uncle. There may be a few more joining us later—I'm told that a number of lackluster sons have been sold to the Military as common soldiers here and there over the years, and that Lotor made off with ten Nelargo engineers. If they're still alive, they'll come, one way or another.”

Bantax nodded, and then cast Jasca a curious look. “Good. Where did you send those five Ghamparva ships, by the way?”

Poboion,” Jasca replied, her expression turning slightly confused. “Yes, I'm aware that Voltron and some of the Fleet ships are liberating that world at the moment. I was told to send them there. I'm not sure why, but it's important.”

Bantax blinked. “On whose orders?”

Jasca gazed back at him with a shrug of simulated shoulders. “The black Lion's.”

What?” Bantax blurted in astonishment. He'd known that the Lions had lives and opinions of their own, but they didn't usually act on their own initiative.

Jasca gave him an admonishing look. “I don't argue with that cat, Bantax. He can See things that even Tzai can't, and that goes double for Shiro. They'll be able to handle them—they've got a Hoshinthra with them, the mice, the dragons, and a good deal of motley mojo from Yantilee's privateers. The Lions might not have to get involved at all.”

Bantax shook his head disbelievingly. “I had wondered, long ago, when we first met with the Paladins, what we were getting into by allying ourselves with them. I am still wondering, Jasca.”

So am I,” she replied, and then laughed. “Who cares? It's been a wild ride so far, and it looks to get wilder yet. Buckle up and enjoy it, Bantax! Win or lose, we will never be forgotten, and our legend will last ten thousand years.”

The Blade grinned. “I intend to win.”

Twenty thousand years, then,” Jasca said cheerfully, “and legions of future heroes will carry our legacy in their hearts.”

And with that, the fleet of escapees vanished into hyperspace, leaving Nelargo Shipyard dark and abandoned behind them.

 

Allura whirled, lashed a Sentry's head off with her bayard, and paused momentarily; she felt a brief pulse of satisfaction from her Lion, which confused her a little, and then experienced the peculiar, otherworldly sensation that told her that Shiro was in the grip of his aetheric gifts again. Both feelings were fuzzy and indistinct due to interference from the Quintessence siphons nearby, but nonetheless unmistakable. Something important had just happened, and she had no idea of what that might be. Keith grunted and shook his head, then sliced the last Sentry in half.

“Gonna have to get an Ouija board, or something,” he muttered mysteriously. “Pidge, something weird is happening on the Castle. Did you feel it?”

Yeah,” Pidge's voice replied through their helmet-comms. “Tchak says that they've got some party-crashers up there, but Shiro's in god-mode again and they're handling it. That's not important right now. I'm working on the next door, but it's a tricky one, and I think there are live soldiers as well as Sentries behind it. Watch out, 'cause I think they might have some of the big freight-mechs active. Those aren't cyborgs, but they're bad enough, and I can't shut them down from here. No magic, people. That close to the siphons, even a normal person is going to start feeling a drain.”

Allura shuddered. “I'm feeling it now. It's... pulling... at my energies, and it feels dreadful.”

“That's why we need to shut it down, pronto,” Hunk added. “It's gotten worse the closer we've gotten to the source, have you noticed? If that guy who's wiring it to blow takes the safety measures off, we're in trouble.”

“That would be suicide!” Lance exclaimed.

Keith shook his head. “You think that he'd care? If this place goes boom, so does the whole world. Victory or Death. That's been their motto from the start.”

Hunk humphed disapprovingly. “Why can't it be 'Victory or Pastrami' instead? Pastrami's better than death.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “I don't think they ever got around to inventing pastrami, Hunk.”

Guys, I just had an idea,” Pidge broke in, sounding intent. “Hunk, the yellow Lion's all about support and defense, right? Can we... sort of use that to put up a shield between us and the siphons by using a different polarity?”

“Like magnets, but on the repelling sides,” Hunk said, snapping his fingers. “Cool concept, and since it's internal rather than external, the siphons can't draw it off as easily. Okay, everybody, group hug! Let's see if we can do this.”

It wasn't easy, especially with Pidge at some considerable distance away and Shiro being completely out of the loop somewhere else, and all of them were amazed at the complexity of Hunk's thought. It was all too easy to fall into the habit of thinking of him as a big, sweet-natured person with an amazing talent for cooking, but there was a genius engineer lurking under the muffins. He didn't just understand magnetism, he could feel it on an instinctive level, and they may have learned something when he took their combined strengths and... turned them around... so that their natural aurae actually repelled the dark, sucking drain of the siphons. Even so, they wouldn't have been able to do it without Allura, who had done something like this before.

“It was when Pidge and Lizenne and I had been kidnapped by Sendak,” she told them, balancing the peculiar inversion carefully; it was like holding a spinning gyroscope in one's hand and feeling the strange, whirling pressure of the forces it generated. “Haggar tried to take my power from me, and she couldn't. Not without losing her own. We were exactly opposed, and we wound up wrecking the room, and nearly each other.”

We might want to think about that later on, when we've got time,” Pidge said thoughtfully, “I'm opening the next set of doors, people, so get ready.”

The doors in the near distance hissed open, and there was a startled shout from inside, and a hail of blaster fire that seemed curiously erratic. For all that the fire was heavy, a significant proportion of those shots were going wild, as if the hands holding those guns were unsteady. The Paladins could feel the increased pressure from the siphons as if walking into a wind, but pressed onward. The Sentries fought them with the usual mindless mechanical determination and the two big freight-mechs, huge blocky robots that had been used to lift huge cylinders of raw Quintessence onto float-pallets, gave them some trouble until Hunk and Lance shot out their motive systems, but the live soldiers preferred to withdraw while they had the chance. In the distance, a large door slid momentarily open, and then slammed shut again.

“Those idiots!” Keith panted, kicking a chunk of Sentry off of his bayard. “It's even worse over there. Can't they feel it?”

“Probably, but I doubt that they're thinking clearly,” Allura replied, no less breathlessly. “Or they're desperate. These are probably fanatics, and they know that we have Hoshinthra.”

“Crud,” Lance moaned in chagrin. “And I can't even chase them out with mouse noises this time.”

Keith shook his head. “All we've gotta do is shut this place down, and then we can chase them out. Pidge, how much further do we have to go?”

Not much further. Just two more doors, and you're there,” Pidge replied. “I've got a double-algorithm program running, and might just be able to open both at the same time. Hunk, get to the siphons as fast as you can, okay? Somebody just did something in there that made a lot of lights on this terminal go red.”

“Yeah, I—oof!” Hunk said, and his last exclamation was echoed by the others. The pressure from the siphons had suddenly increased considerably, and it took them a moment to steady their grip on their shields. “That's not good. Get those doors open, Pidge.”

Working on it,” Pidge replied. “Almost... almost... come on you pile of parts, crunch those numbers... Got it!”

With that triumphant shout, the doors slid open, revealing crowds of sagging Sentries and startled soldiers. In the distance, the last pair of doors groaned as they pulled apart, revealing a huge and bizarre mechanism. Just visible was an array of man-sized cylinders half-full of gleaming golden fluid, and a huge and complicated tangle of blocks and pipes with a sphere of something eye-wateringly bright caged in the center. Bright, but hearted with darkness, and something like red-sheened bubbles were drifting up through it to burst stickily against the containment field. Someone was shouting orders in there, and Sentries and soldiers both took up defensive positions, opening fire and forcing the Paladins to take cover.

“Not good!” Lance groaned, diving behind a large and convenient pile of mysterious machinery. “Pidge, can't you do something about those Sentries? We could finish this off fast if it was just the soldiers, but there are too many of them!”

No,” Pidge replied, sounding annoyed. “They're an autonomous system, and I can't crack their shielding right now, not with those siphons emanating like that. You're going to have to handle this on your own—I'm trying to stabilize the safeties on that thing from here, but I'm not having much luck. Someone's trying to physically remove the dampers. Stop him!”

Keith growled. “On it,” he said, climbing the heap of crates that he'd taken cover behind. Not too far away, a cluster of robots were laying down covering fire. Something was off about them, though; spying a hand tool that someone had carelessly left behind, he picked it up and threw it across the room. The Sentries reacted, but not instantly. Their movements were sluggish, and they weren't as steady on their feet as they should have been.

“Pidge, aren't Sentries Quintessence-powered?” he asked.

There was a snort from his helmet-comm. “What Galra-built machine isn't?”

“Good point,” he said, judging the distance carefully. “The siphons are affecting the Sentries, too. They aren't working properly, and I think that even their weapons are shooting understrength. Allura, cover Hunk while he makes a run for the goal. Lance, help me deal with the interference?”

“Right!” everyone chorused.

At that signal, Keith leaped from his perch like a leopard, bayard flashing out to cut down the stumbling mechanical soldiers before his toes touched the ground. Sure enough, the Sentries couldn't react fast enough to fight effectively, and fell with ease before him. Lance had charged the enemy as well, shield up and deflecting the flickering blaster fire and his bayard felling robot after robot. Even as they distracted the enemy, Hunk and Allura charged past, shields up and Hunk's scattergun chattering, forcing soldiers to duck and cover as the Sentries were blown to pieces around them. They had only just made it through the last doorway when a harsh shout of triumph sounded from somewhere near the siphons, and the bright center suddenly flared up with a ripping crackle as another safety system failed. The pressure from the siphons increased sharply, hitting Hunk's and Allura's defenses like a hurricane and forcing them back a step. Sentries collapsed with loud clatters all around them, their power cores drained, and cries of alarm from the soldiers rose up as they felt the drain as well.

Allura strained to move forward, but discovered that, like two opposing magnets, one could only get so close before being forced away. “We can't get closer without dropping our shields!”

If you drop your shields, the siphons will suck you in,” Pidge warned her. “Our auras are just too big—we're going to have to talk to Lizenne about containing them. I don't know what to do!”

Allura narrowed her eyes at the siphons, and at the blazing sphere in the center of it all. It was nearly all black now, and frothing with that iridescent red sheen. She could feel it right through her defenses how the lifeblood of the planet was being drawn up and poured into those containment units, and she could feel the world itself dying by inches under her feet. The concentration of energies right here in this room was enormous, and teetering rapidly toward the point of no return.

Allura knew things about energy that none of the others did.

“I'm going to try something,” she said, stiffening her resolve and gathering herself for a major effort. “Get ready, Hunk.”

“Wait, what?” he asked, but it was too late for any explanations.

Allura dropped her shield and accepted the full force of the siphon's draw. The force of its attraction was stronger than she'd anticipated, and was nearly jerked off her feet; Hunk caught her before she could be physically pulled in, but he couldn't do anything to help her otherwise. With a wrenching effort, Allura seized upon the roiling energies and forced them to loop—not through the machinery, which would have melted under the load, but through herself, diverting the flow to the containment tanks in a steady cycle of surge and drain that, for the moment, could be balanced and maintained by her own powers. It came at a cost, however; balancing the wild forces took an enormous effort, and Hunk was forced to carry her behind a control station for safety even as the pressure against his own shields eased off. He could lend her strength, but not forever, and the soldiers might soon take an interest.

Hunk, what's going on? The readings have all gone... weird.”

Hunk sank down under the desk, cradling Allura in his arms and feeding her power in a steady stream. “We need you here, Pidge, and now. Allura's holding things steady, and I'm holding her steady, but we can't do it for long. Get over here! We can't shut this thing down without you!”

 

Far away in the outer regions of the installation, Pidge squeaked in alarm at what she was feeling from Allura. The forces were extreme, and if they were to break free from Allura's control, they would probably blast a hole straight down to the core of the planet. Snatching up her laptop, she scrambled out of the terminal room and started running as fast as she could, but she knew that she wouldn't be able to get there in time. Every vehicle in the building had been drained of power, and she just wasn't fast enough. Allura was strong, but she couldn't stop the siphons, and even with Hunk helping her, there was no way she'd be able to hold it for more than a few minutes.

“Curse my short legs!” she yelled into the hollow halls, and then stopped when she heard a clatter that didn't sound like boots on the decking. Turning around, she saw that the Hoshinthra had finally arrived. Just one, so far as she knew, but it approached with smooth grace on legs that were longer than she was tall.

Why do you curse your short legs, Human Pidge?” it asked curiously, spreading its antennae in her direction. “They are the right legs for you.”

An idea began to form in her mind as her eyes traveled over the sleek, beautifully-balanced body. “'Human Pidge'?” she asked distractedly, noting that this particular Warrior was configured almost like a greyhound. A greyhound could hit forty-five miles per hour in six strides...

The Hoshinthra dropped its jaw in something like a smile. “You are Human, and you are Pidge. Therefore, 'Human Pidge'. You are still angry at your legs.”

It occurred to her that the Warrior might be a very young one, and therefore open to new experiences. “I'm gonna call you Antler Guy.”

The Warrior cocked its head to one side in puzzlement, antennae flickering like the tentacles of a sea anemone. “Antler Guy?”

She sidled around to its flank, assessing how big a leap she'd have to make. It had to be more than six feet tall at the shoulder... “I'll explain later. I need to get to the core of this place as fast as possible, and I'm too slow. So...”

She leaped, grabbed a shoulder and heaved, landing squarely astride its long back, hands gripping its upper arms. She pummeled its flanks with her heels, making it dance in surprise. “Move! Come on, come on, hi-yo Silver, get going! If this place blows, we're all in trouble!”

The Hoshinthra seemed to get the idea, and it reared up with a tearing shriek, pawing at the air before cannoning forward at speeds that would leave even the fastest greyhounds in the dust.

Pidge had ridden before; once on a camel, twice, technically, on a dragon, and once on a bored pony at a carnival when she was little. Riding a Hoshinthra was nothing like any of those. The scaly alien traveled in enormous bounds that left hoofprints in the tough decking whenever its feet touched the surface, and it saw nothing wrong with leaping over obstacles higher than its head, or even running up walls and leaping off in lithe barrel-rolls to avoid areas where the floor was all over Sentry parts. It was also unbelievably fast, and the surrounding structures went by in a blur. Pidge let out a long yell that started off as a scream of terror, but by the time they reached the central chamber, it had become a whoop of excitement. Galra soldiers fled screaming at the sight of the nightmare rushing toward them at full tilt, and Lance and Keith watched in astonishment as Pidge and her new friend stampeded past. The Warrior shied away from the roaring, spitting mechanism in a shower of sparks and came to a dancing halt, allowing Pidge to slide off of its back; she landed with a thud and collapsed when her legs buckled under her. Keith and Lance ran over to check on her immediately.

“Pidge, are you okay?” Keith said, pulling her up.

“Best roller-coaster ever,” she muttered, trying to straighten out her knees.

Lance blinked up at the Hoshinthra, which stared curiously back. “Pidge, how did you get the Doom Moose to carry you?”

Pidge grunted and started toward the siphons. “That's Antler Guy, and he is awesome. I'll explain later, gotta go, bye!”

Antler Guy?” Keith asked incredulously.

The Hoshinthra nodded. “There will be much explaining later.”

Lance gave the enormous alien a suspicious sidelong look. “Just how old are you?”

This person is very young,” it admitted, pawing at the deck self-consciously with a forehoof. “Only fifty sshava'arque old. This person is of the most recent spawning and has much to learn.”

Lance grinned broadly, tried to drape an arm over its shoulders, failed, and settled for patting it on the back. “Stick with us, then, and we'll teach you some things that your mama never knew.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “All the bad habits, for example. Hunk, are you all right?”

“Could use some help, here,” Hunk shouted breathlessly. “Just help me give her more time!”

They hurried over, the Hoshinthra trailing curiously behind them; Hunk looked tired, but Allura was... very strange. Her face was set in an expression of supreme concentration, her eyes wide and staring with the pink pupils dilated enormously. A film of alternating shadow and light rippled rapidly over her body, and her hands were clenched into rock-hard fists.

“Just help me feed her power,” Hunk said wearily. “I don't know how she's holding it, but I think it might be like having a Balmera on a feedback loop. Or I could be wrong and it's something else entirely. Either way, it's heavy.”

Yes,” Antler Guy said, turning its head toward the machine in the center of the room. “It is a wrong thing.”

Pidge would have seconded that notion, and then some. Even with Allura diverting most of the load, the pressure on Pidge's aetheric shield was intense, and she literally had to claw her way through to the main siphon. Even so, she had done better than the man who had removed the safeties; there was nothing left of him but a person-shaped dusting of elemental carbon on the floor next to the machinery. He'd made a mess of the wiring, too, having slashed almost at random with a laser-knife, the charred handle of which was wedged under a skewed damper, and had spliced things any old how with what looked like the Galran equivalent of duct tape. How he'd managed to do that without frying himself to a crisp... Pidge glanced at the ominous smear of black on the floorplates. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, she thought grimly, and hooked her computer into a nearby emergency terminal set into one side of the siphon. That still worked, sort of, and she was forced to go in on the redundancy programs, using the emergency safeguards that some unknown and yet slated-for-sainthood engineer had programmed in to shut down siphon after siphon until she could get a clear view of what that dead idiot had done to the main one.

How are you doing over there, Pidge?” Keith asked, sounding tired. “We felt the pressure ease a little, there.”

“I've shut down the secondary siphons,” Pidge said, crawling beneath the machine itself, to where the siphon descended through a hole in the floor to some unguessable level below. Something was down there that shouldn't be, and she could just see something past a heavy grid that encircled the siphon like a collar. “The big one's still active, though. There's a... a sort of manual overlock on the siphon intake itself, probably to keep saboteurs from disengaging the tap. Like a portcullis, or almost. I think that he wired something to whatever's underneath... I can just see it if I... oh, crud, that's a timer. Don't talk to me again for a while!”

The siphon itself was as big around as a tractor tire, and the hole was half again as wide, probably for maintenance work. It would have been terribly cramped for a Galra, but there was plenty of room for Pidge, and she dropped down easily to the grid below. From this angle, she could see the device more clearly, and recognized it as a KABAC-230G explosive, a device usually employed by ordinance tacticians—whom, she had been told, had nicknamed it the “doorknocker”—to break open things like orbital forts. This was probably the same sort of device that had been used to crack open Yantilee's Stronghold all those months ago. Combine that with a dormant volcano and the huge amounts of raw Quintessence being drawn up into this facility, and she could very easily believe Shiro's prediction that this would crack the entire planet open like an egg. For all of its destructive potential, it was weirdly small, being no bigger than a schoolkid's backpack, but the gleaming red numerals on its simple control panel made it the biggest thing in the world.

Before she could defuse that, she had to get through the grid. That was simple enough, there was a trap door just to her right, sealed with a simple lock-and-bar; unfortunately, the key had been broken off in the lock. That didn't slow her bayard down, and she hauled open the heavy grate and dropped down easily onto the lower platform, right next to the humming tap itself. It was white-hot, crackling with barely-contained energy, and one wrong move would reduce her to a thin smudge of ash.

“Crap,” she said with a glance at the ticking countdown on the device, and got to work.

Thankfully, she knew what to do. Not because Nasty had taught her, but because she'd made friends with the dockjocks on the Quandary. Imlosh, despite his mild obsession with keeping the great ship's fighter squadrons in perfect repair, was also an expert where it came to things that could blow them to splinters. He had shown her himself, on a device very similar to this one, how to render it harmless—and better yet, how to remove it intact so that one could return it to its original owners with interest. Even so, she was sweating bullets when she pulled the final pin and pried the control panel loose from its mounting, only to see that someone had added something extra. An extra internal casing, almost like a capsule, with only a thin seam down the center where the two halves met. Shimmering purple light gleamed through that tiny crack, showing a bar holding the halves together, and she had no tools thin enough to move it.

“No fair!” she shouted, prying ineffectually at the crack, which was barely wider than a sheet of paper. “How am I supposed to--”

She stopped, and her hand drifted toward her belt, and the small lunchbox that all of them carried now. If their armor had one single fault, it was that it had no pockets other than the special dimensional pockets for their bayards. Hunk had compensated by constructing small boxes that were big enough to hold a few drink packets and a hearty sandwich, plus a false bottom for very small objects like her little green pins, data chips, and a playing card. Specifically, the Dix-Par card that she'd slipped out of Nasty's belt pouch, that she'd been carrying around as a good-luck token since they'd left him on Halidex. Wasting no time, she jerked open her lunchbox and dumped it out, pulling open the false bottom and removing the card. Made from stiff, waterproofed paperboard and coated with fine holographed pseudoplastic, it was thin enough and strong enough to do the trick. “Justice,” she said, grinning at the image of a mythological figure that didn't look all that different from an Earthly Archangel, and rammed it into the crack. A little careful nudging was all it took to open the capsule, and she tossed the card back into her lunchbox and made quick work of the wiring inside. The device made a disappointed little blip as it deactivated, and she was able to cut it loose from the tap without any further trouble.

After that, she clambered back up out of the hole and to the emergency terminal to shut down the siphon itself—tricky, but doable—and she sagged to the floor in relief as the machine went dark with a deep, descending whine. Above her head, the boiling sphere of energy split apart, screamed around in a raging figure-eight that drew every last bit of collected Quintessence out of the tanks, and then plummeted back down through the hole with the sound of the mother of all lightning bolts. There was a muffled thump sound a minute or two later, as if something had exploded violently a few miles down, and a faint smell of sulphur. Pidge stood up shakily; she was tired, hungry, and could smell her own sweat, and she could feel how weary the others were. Shiro, far away above them in orbit, was still soaring on wings of prophecy. Black was with him in spirit if not in body, and neither of them were feeling anything like fear. That was good, because she didn't think that she'd be able to ride to another rescue today.

She heard Allura moan, felt Lance ease her incredible headache before it could get a foothold, and felt Hunk and Keith relax. Knees wobbling, she returned to the lower level to retrieve her lunchbox, her laptop, and the deactivated bomb, and then tottered over to check on her friends. “Is everybody okay?”

Allura looked up at her with eyes that didn't want to track properly, blinked a few times to straighten them out, and sniffed at the air. “Pidge,” she said in a faint voice that was nevertheless very firm, “you have a fish-salad sandwich. I can smell it. If you do not give it to me this instant, I will burst into tears.”

Pidge glanced down sadly at her lunchbox, but sacrificed her sandwich for the greater good.

“We're fine, I think, but we'll want a long nap soon,” Keith said, rubbing at his stinging eyes and blinking at her stolen bomb. “Nice work.”

“Thanks,” she said, adjusting the hang of her regrettably empty lunchbox. “Where's Antler Guy?”

Lance flicked a finger off to their left, where a glittering quadruped was inspecting a part of the extraction engine, antennae spread to their fullest and sparkling subtly in the dim emergency lights. “I don't know if they've ever seen one of these things,” Lance said tiredly, leaning against the console. “They might want it for study. The ones that helped us out with the Ghamparva station just sort of grabbed that whole mobile base and took it away.”

“They can have it,” Hunk said sourly, glaring at the darkened device. “If it'll help them figure out to shut those things down from a safe distance, then I'll help them unscrew that thing myself. After lunch. Wow. Allura, if you're going to do something like that again, I want a proper warning first.”

“In triplicate,” Keith added.

“Two weeks in advance,” Lance said.

“Mrph,” Allura replied, which was as close to an apology as she could get with her mouth full of fish salad, but her expression was contrite.

Pidge was saved from having to comment by Antler Guy, who came striding back with its head lowered and its antennae flat against its neck, a sign of distress or disapproval. “It is a very wrong thing,” it hissed unhappily, “it is to be destroyed. This will happen soon.”

“See?” Lance said, waggling a finger at Allura before turning to the Hoshinthra. “A warning. Nice and simple, no drama at all, no surprises. How are you guys going to bust this thing up, anyway?”

Lance was wrong about the surprises, and perhaps about the drama, for a familiar voice answered them in a cheerful tone, “Why, they left that to me, of course!”

Coran?” Pidge squawked, nearly dropping the bomb. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”

Sure enough, striding jauntily toward them, resplendent in his armor and scarlet cape, was none other than Allura's seneschal, looking very pleased with himself. “I knocked. Don't look at me like that, there's no call for uncivilized behavior when visiting someone else's base, and all that. Just dropped in a little bit ago, saw a bunch of soldiers dashing out of here as though a Barapuldine kiprapath was after 'em, and decided to go around back. The Hoshinthra had already pried a door open, so I knocked on the frame and stated my business, and they showed me right in. Simple.”

Allura, who had been busily emptying out her last beverage packet, buried her face in her hands with a moan.

Keith heaved a long sigh. “And as for destroying this place?”

Coran turned to gaze upon the siphon array, giving his mustache a disapproving twirl. “This isn't the first time I've had to rig this sort of thing to blow, you know. My word, Alfor and the rest couldn't go for more than a week without having to deal with a wizard's lair or a mad scientist's laboratory, and not a one of those fellows could resist the temptation to play with something really hazardous. The whole things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know kind of thing, you see? Some people just can't look at a cosmic mystery without giving it a good poke, just to see what would happen, so we often had to burn the whole place right down into the foundations. I'd say that these things definitely count, so the Warriors and I found a storeroom full of explosive ordinance and attached a fair amount of it to the main structural members. Should melt this whole place right down into the volcanic rift and form a very nice patch.”

Hunk gave him a suspicious look. “On a timer, right? How much time do we have before it goes up, Coran?”

“Plenty of time,” Coran replied. “Five doboshes... oops. Three, now. Took a bit for me to find my way here.”

Keith glared at him. “Coran, this room is right at the center of the base. It would take more than twice that to get back outside if we went at a dead run!”

“Oh,” Coran said, deflating a little. “Might have miscalculated a bit. Well, it's been nice knowing you.”

Pidge gave him her patented double-barreled, rosebush-wilting stinkeye. “You,” she declared, “have dishwashing duty for a week. Antler Guy, we need to get out of here right now! Can you give us a ride?”

The Hoshinthra's antennae snapped out and rippled like ribbons on the wind. “No, Human Pidge,” it said.

“What? But--”

Antler Guy grinned at her as five more Warriors came trotting into the room. “We can give you a ride.”

Pidge glared at it as well, then decided that she didn't have time to argue semantics with a Doom Moose. Instead, she shoved the bomb into Antler Guy's hands and heaved herself up onto its back. “Mount up, everybody, and let's get going! Just remember to hold on really tight.”

Coran, naturally, leaped aboard the tallest and noblest-looking of the Warriors in a flash, arranging his cape so he wasn't sitting on it, and he puffed a laugh as he did so. “Ha! So this was what he meant!”

“Huh?” Hunk asked, helping Allura up onto the back of a slim and graceful Hoshinthra. “Who meant what?”

“Shiro, of course,” Coran replied casually. “He said that I'd be doing something that old Alfor never could, and he was right about that. We knew about these fine lads back in the day, of course... well, sort of. We'd heard rumors of 'em—very private bunch, not inclined to cause trouble hardly at all—but nobody had ever considered riding one. I'm proud to be among the first, actually. Come on, Hunk, up on your noble steed, now. Is everybody ready? Good. Go!”

The Hoshinthra shot forward, and if anything, they ran even faster than Antler Guy had before. Even so, they had barely cleared the third door before something below their feet went boom, and the entire structure began to shake. Blasts of smoke and fire belched out of every ventilation shaft, and the walls and ceiling began to twist and crack with a terrible shrieking of tortured metal, and behind them the siphon array began to glow red-hot. A burning wind rolled over the fleeing Hoshinthra, spurring them to even greater efforts, and Hunk let out a long, terrified yell when the floor started to literally become lava. As well he might; Hoshinthra were incredibly tolerant of subzero temperatures, but they did not like excessive heat, and responded to the burning decking by going for height. Up the walls they went, or leaped from one stack of supplies or deactivated machinery to the next, never stopping, never slowing, and were even able to put on an extra burst of speed when the sun became visible through the much-widened entrance. Even so, they nearly didn't make it. Already weakened by the earlier efforts of the Lions, the outer hall was crumbling under the forces that racked it now, and the ceiling and walls were coming down in huge chunks to smash into the floor. The Hoshinthra wove and dodged, seemingly able to predict where each piece would fall, and they won free into the open air just as the entire structure collapsed noisily into its foundations. The group let out a breathless cheer at their escape, and Lance even felt himself able to pull out his handcomp and take a picture of Coran at his most heroic—not intentionally, he was trying to get one of Allura—laughing triumphantly, seated erect and fist raised in victory, armor gleaming, cape streaming in the wind. It was a great image, and he would have a copy of it framed on his wall at a later time, but no sooner had Lance captured it than a large chunk of debris whizzed out of the burning wreckage to slam Coran right off of his Hoshinthra.

“Coran!” Allura cried in alarm, and forced her Warrior to turn back, the others following behind.

Amazingly, he was still alive when they rolled the hot chunk of defunct building off of him, but the left side of his breastplate had been crushed. Hunk split the ruined armor open at the seams and Lance got to work instantly, his team lending him strength, and the Hoshinthra basked happily in the chill when he moved the natural fallout of his talents in their direction.

After a few minutes, Lance sat back with a thud. “All right, that'll hold you until we can get back up to the Castle. You're gonna need a little time in the medipods, pal. That thing messed you up pretty badly inside, and broke just about every rib you had. Alteans have a lot of ribs.”

Coran humphed and ran his fingers gingerly over his bruises. “Well, you Humans are a bit shortpacked. Eh, I've had worse. How's my armor? That cuirass was expensive.”

“It's toast,” Hunk said, holding up the pieces of the bashed-in breastplate. “Sorry, Coran, but its heroing days are over. I could fix it, but you're better off getting somebody to make you something stronger, especially if we're going to be hitting more of these bases.”

Coran heaved a sigh and pushed himself up carefully. “Stronger? I'll have you know that aside from your own armor, that was the best quality available from the Castle's most skilled Armorers. The only way that I could get anything stronger would be to... hmm.” Coran paused thoughtfully, scratching his chin and muttering, “Well, that's an idea. Sort of a lifelong dream, that; everybody said that it would be much too expensive, but we've got a lot right now and nobody's using them... yes, yes, and I won't even have to share. I want the cape, though. Where's my cape?”

Keith pointed at something red sticking out from under the chunk of still-hot debris. “It's right here, Coran. Just leave it, it isn't important right now.”

“It is, too!” Coran snapped right back, grabbing one edge of the cape and pulling. “Alfor gave me that for my birthday! I'm not leaving it—ouch.”

Pidge sighed. “Give me a minute.”

Fortunately, they weren't too far from the Lions, and a few minutes later, Green had delicately lifted the half-ton or so of broken wall off of Coran's cape. The others managed to get Coran back to his lander and settled into the pilot's seat; the pod, thankfully, had a very good autopilot that would take it home safely even if Coran blacked out at the controls.

Keith leaned back against the pod's hull with a sigh and a dirty look at the smoking hole that used to be a nigh-indestructible base. “Well, that's done. Pidge, how is everybody else doing?”

Pretty well, actually,” Pidge replied from her Lion. “Tchak and the others are still working on the other bases, but they're doing fine, and the fight up in orbit's done. Tchak says that they got jumped by Ghamparva. It's okay—like I said earlier, Shiro hit god-mode and they took those jerks to the cleaners. They've taken some damage, but it's not too serious, and the Castle's fine. Oh—Shiro says that we'll have help with repairs soon.”

“That's good,” Allura said wearily. “Can we go back, then? We are all in desperate need of a rest.”

Looks like it, and—oh.” There was a scream of stark terror a little distance away. “Antler Guy and his pals just found the soldiers that ran out of the base.”

Hunk snorted a tired laugh. “Right. Let's get those guys rounded up, we can't just leave them out here. After that, I want a bath, a nap, and dinner, not necessarily in that order.”

There had been better rallying cries in the past, but that one held sufficient promise to get them moving again.