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"Earth, Fire, Water"


PART I:

Wrinkles of worry creased captain Nenka's face as he watched Peter and Brian climb down the ramp and onto new soil. As they embarked on their quest, time would only tell what kind of adventures loomed before them, then would fade into the past. But as for him, he had so much to do, and only so much time to contain it. Well, to be truthful, it was quite the opposite, only a little to do and so much time to hold it. He sighed as he bade a whispery farewell to the duo as they departed, "Good luck. You're gonna need it..."
Maneuvering the ship was like second nature to him, and if he had another appendage, anyone could tell you it would be the Antares VI, Nenka's Pride. It had carried him through and out of a lot. Into it, too, for that matter. Without it, he would be crushed. If he lost it, he would be crippled. Never has a man developed such an affinity for a "hunk of junk", people joked. But he did not let this impede him; it was his masterpiece and he would defend it to the last. Indeed, he had built it himself, for the most part. From the outside the bodily shades were multi-hued, ranging from a pinkish-orange to metallic blue to dark black. Alterations to the structure of the vehicle were unmistakable along the entire length. It was everything but a pretty sight. In fact, it was an eyesore, though the sensitive Captain Nenka was never told as much to his proud face. Antares VI, Nenka's Pride, lifted off the planet Kneva smoothly, rotated about two hundred degrees, then took off.
Nenka guided easily the ship through the pinkish-whitish clouds of Kneva's atmosphere. Kneva, he knew, concealed great secrets. Secrets that not only affected the planet itself, but the entirety of the galaxy. Slobablob, The Dark One, was reaching out across the universe, and grabbing everything it could, growing to be an intergalactic force, threatening destruction. Beneath the pretty exterior, a darker thing boiled.
Everything, his thoughts, his feelings, his emotions, pointed to a single solution - vacation. He had to take a rest, else he would soon grow bored of the dark forces of the universe and they, grabbing hold of a thing called chance, would burn him from within until he was a Hollow Being, catering to the Dark One's every vagary, a creature with no life but that which the Dark Force gave unto him. He shuddered at the thought. Being surrounded by this corrupt vacuum called space so much had already started getting to him; he was scaring himself!
He shook his head, trying vainly to clear his head of such thoughts.
"Commence warp speed calculations. Scan ahead for obstructions. Destination Set: Preprogrammed: Walamoc I."
"Commencing..." The words flashed on the screen of a small monitor above the manual controls. An expressionless computer voice read the words flatly out loud.
Nenka tapped impatiently on his armrest, at the same time deftly administering a type of seatbelt, conducting it into its buckle. The engines were being internally tested in preparation, and the sounds of them warming up followed shortly after.
The ship blasted off without the usual precursor of a notice and a warning. Before a second had gone by, Nenka had already arrived at his destination and no more time could be spared on his contemplations. There to greet him when the ramp was lowered were several, about a dozen, of the natives of Walamocia, thus aptly named Walamocians, accompanied by two of his comrades, Nek Renab, commander of the Arknen Fleet, and Zach, everyone displaying wounds, results of the war the preceding day. During the hours since they had spent healing and planning for the battles to follow. They had decided, contrary to their original plan, to send Brian and Peter alone, as they were skilled enough to fend for themselves while meanwhile, everyone else readied gear for yet another brawl with the enemy. What was to come was bigger than yet encountered by any on even the elite team of fighters. But the future was still shrouded in mists, and there was no definite telling what was to come.
Zach, saluting, was the first to greet Nenka, "Hello, sir. Welcome back."
"Hello, Zach. At ease."
"Hello, Captain Nenka. How were they? Did you make sure they had some sort of long range communication device?" It was Nek.
"Yes, Nek." He lifted a small, thin object, resembling a pen or stick with some type of temporary bulge or growth towards the end. Along one side, buttons were meticulously placed for maximum comfort. And extendable antenna, now contracted for storage purposes, was shiny and bright, used for long-range communication. Words in an alien language striped the backside. "Of course. How could I forget?"
"We've got to take some precautionary measures before jumping into the thick of things, ya' know?"
"Yeah, yeah. Right. I know." After a moment, his voice took on a sad tone, and he continued, "Sure won't be the same without 'em."
"Did they say how long its gonna take?" Nek inquired softly, somewhat sympathetically.
"Nah, I reckon it could take anywhere from a week to, I don't know, a, a year, I guess. Maybe more."
Nek shook his head, "Sure won't be the same. A year. Hmmf."
Nenka finally spoke, "Nek?"
"Hmm?"
"I - I need a vacation. Please grant me one," he pleaded. "Will you?"
There was a considering pause, then, "Now? Are you mad? In the hour of direst need, you abandon us? I shouldn't think so!"
"B-but sir, look what is happening to us. We aren't the same people we were upon arrival. We need time to relieve the building stress. I am sure there will be enough time allotted for a substantial trip, without our missing another beat of Slobablob's dark heart. Before he strikes again."
"Oh, go ahead. We won't win anyway. But me - I've got to guard Walamoc. I'm their leader, th-they depend on me to lead them into battle, to be the first to plunge a knife into the Dark One's side."
"Nek..."
"It is my duty..."
"Nek,..."
"I must defend my..."
"Nek, please."
Nek deeply exhaled and doubled over, supporting his torso with his knees. "You-you are right. I am in need of as much. I, too, need rest."
"Good. It is about time you submit to reason. How would you win anyway if you were being driven to insanity by your surroundings? by death?"
"But-but wh-who will defend - defend th-them?" His fond gaze took in the throng of Walamocians watching the display with enthusiasm and self-discipline. His finger drifted over the gathered crowd. "Them."
"They can fend for themselves. You know that as well as I do."
"I s-suppose."
"Really, Nek, it will help you."
"Hmm." Nek nodded slowly, conveying simple agreement, even if it was given tentatively.
They treaded carefully over pieces of shrapnel and debris, remains of the once-grand Walamocian station Debonair. Amongst those charred sections lay scattered ship parts, some dark from use, some destroyed beyond repair. The hull of a ship, shredded to an almost unrecognizable fringe, was spattered with an incarnadine substance. Nenka shuddered once again.
Nek led him through a row, formed by statues to the tunnel entrance. They slowly descended as the earth rose to before them to greet them, and swallowed them whole.
Nenka, upon entry into the dark room, was introduced to Professor Bob Minner, once again, and Dr. Arnold J. Helvenstein, PhD., a professional strategist.
"Dr. Helvenstein arrived here only just several minutes ago, while you were gone unloading Peter and Brian, most probably. Of course you know Prof. Minner. He arrived back last night, when things were still frenetic and hectic, and no one paid him any mind until things began to settle down."
Nenka interrogated Minner harshly, "Where have you been for so long? I don't remember you leaving. Did Nek know about it?"
"Well, it is really a long story, though I did acquire permission from Nek before leaving. I left, er, almost immediately after arriving on Walamoc, in fact. I presume you will hear my story eventually, but now we must face pressing matters of importance to the whole of Walamoc, if that is where I am."
"Yes, you are indeed on Walamoc, Walamoc I."
Professor Minner was a short man with a shrewd little face with wire frame spectacles aiding his beady little eyes in perception and a beak-like nose that just went to dwarf the already minute size of the eyes even more. His voice was rather nasal and his nearly bald head and his body were both somewhat plump. He usually wore either a long white lab apron or a suit and tie, minus a sports jacket. From Nenka's experience, he was a kindly man as well as a smart one, although he was quite inept at using his hands. Now his face was splotched with soot and dirt, he obviously had not been tended to, probably due to the masses of people that had. The infirmary, he soon learned, was still full.
Nenka extended a had to the man sitting apposite Minner, Dr. Helvenstein, PhD., "Hello," he greeted cheerfully. "Nice to meet you."
The man simply nodded his head, then, almost as an afterthought, added, "You, too." He seemed to be a bit eccentric, Nenka decided instantly, overly-composed. Too quiet for his own tastes. And when the man did speak, his voice was comparable to that of the computer-generated voice in transportation modules that frequented the skies above the cities and commercial areas of Walamoc.
Nek took a seat, catercorner from Arnold Helvenstein. Nenka took a seat next to him, opposite Bob Minner. As the conversing came to a stop, Nek began: "Now that we have all met fairly well, right?"
Everyone nodded unenthusiastically. "We can begin discussing what we are going to be doing during the next few weeks. First off, I must tell you that Nenka and myself are going to be, gone on, er, let's just say we're going to, take care of business. I trust that you can conduct yourselves while we are away?"
"Yes, sir, but first," Bob Minner spoke, "what kind of business is this?"
"Well, er, actually, to tell you the truth, it is more of a, er, a, uh, vacation."
"Now?"
"Yes, now. Both of us feel the same way. We both believe that all this battle and all this exposure to Slobablob's power is causing the breakdown of our nerves. We truly believe that this will help our future performance in battles."
"Well, whatever you say goes, sir." Professor Minner paused for a moment, then added. "Well, actually, Nek, I was just thinking." There was another lull as he pulled his thoughts together and prepared for a verbal barrage. He swallowed, "Do you think I could come?"
Nenka burst in, "You have been away all this time and now you want to go on another vacation? Pfff!"
"It was not for fun that I went to Anorian, it was for, uh, research and negotiations. Besides, I was not out having fun, nor the time of my life. It was purely for, uh, business reasons, nothing beyond that."
Nek, however, nodded his head hesitantly, eyebrows slowly rising, "Well, one more person may not hurt the home defenses too much, I suppose, especially not if it is a negotiator or a researcher. Hmm..."
Jaqu burst suddenly into the room, "Captain Nek! May I come?"
"Who told you we were going somewhere?" Nek demanded from the Walamocian, changing .
"Z-Zach told me. He said that you needed a vacation."
Nek, furious, stormed out of the room. When he came back, Jaqu said, "Oh, it's too late now, he is already packing his things."
"Who told him he could come?"
"Apparently no one, sir. He thinks it's a free-for-all. He must have overheard your conversation."
"Rrrrrr. He could cost me a lot one of these days. If he leaves, Walamoc will be even more at risk than before. He is one of my best offense men, but not the brightest fellow, either. Do you know if he informed anyone else of our departure?"
"I do not believe he did; he bumped into me as he ran down the hall to the dormitories and I asked him why he was in such a hurry. That is when he told me I could come on the vacation with you too. I chose to believe him."
"Good. Renaf?"
Another Walamocian appeared from a room below, "Yes, sir?"
"Call Zach to the Meeting Room over the intercom, please. And promptly!"
"Yes, sir." She disappeared and within seconds, she called over the intercom, "Will Zach promptly report to the Meeting Room, please? Will Zach please report to the Meeting Room." The call resounded throughout the entire underground fortress, which was currently being expanded.
Nek continued where he had left off, "Professor Minner."
"Yes?"
"I have decided that you can come, as long as you don't breathe a word of it to anyone else. You, Dr. Helvenstein, may come if you choose, and if you don't, you may not say anything of it until we are gone."
"Hrrmmph. No, I, uh, won't be, uh, coming, hrmm. Not this time, hrrm."
"And Jaqu, what about you?"
"Oh, yes, sir, I will gladly come, sir."
Footsteps of running entered audibility and soon gave way to a jogging figure, Zach.
"Aw, Dude! A new record," were his first words upon his entrance. Upon seeing into whose presence he had encroached, he added, "sirs."
Nenka stifled a laugh as he said condescendingly, "Hello, Zach."
"Hello, dude, er, sir." He saluted.
Nek's dark mood lightened at that careless, casual remark, and he began to speak, "Zach."
"Uh, yes, sir?"
"Sit down. Right there is fine. Now, tell me, what made you think that our discussing a much-needed vacation in front of you was also meant that we were extending an invitation to you? And then, what made you think that everyone was invited?"
"I thought I had permission to, uh, to disclose that information, sir. I thought that you were talking to me too. I'm sorry, sir." He lowered his head in mock embarrassment. "Please, sir, please may I come?"
Nek detested when people did this to him. They took advantage of his weakness, but Zach's current performance was outrageous. He obviously was faking the whole thing, but Nek succumbed anyway, saying, "Of course you can come." He meant it, even if only to see Zach's reaction.
It, the reaction, did come, almost before the words were delivered. Zach jumped in the air and performed a dance, which the others assumed was one with a euphoric overtone, and ran out of the room without being dismissed.
Dr. Helvenstein's eyebrows were raised higher than ever before in his life at the ridiculous display just put on by the "adult" that had just taken leave. He shook his head disapprovingly.
The meeting continued, discussing the fundamentals of good strategy and developing actions to take under certain conditions and the construction the Debonair II with Construction Consultant Hewljvak Armagenston.
After a couple of hours had elapsed, a cartographer, Newkan Irakiv, who was less than half human, with part of his body computer-controlled and an even larger portion the body of some somewhat human-esque creature. He had been mapping out Walamoc I and III to aid in Dr. Helvenstein's devisings. He had also, at great risk to himself, mapped out the Rebel Moon. He was renowned all over the universe for his precise, accurate, and quickly completed maps of monuments, planets, and cities. His reputation for being the fastest, as well, helped his success grow to immense proportions. At the time, he was not yet sided with anyone and, therefore, could also have been working for the enemy, free of guilt. It was dangerous business, but they chose him anyway. And, judging by the clean and clear maps he produced, they had chosen well.
Nenka, sparing no time for thought, burst out suddenly, "Newkan, would you like to come with us on our vacation?"
It didn't dawn on him what he had said until he sat back into his chair. Nek gave him a glare that would have made wolves whimper. His face was a mask, though when he turned back to Newkan, he smiled, oozing false acceptance, "Well, would you, now that my friend here has asked you so politely?"
Newkan Irakiv ran it through his head, and then said, "Where are you going?"
"Oh, well, we are, uh going to be wandering about, visiting some of the, uh, custom-made planets, it is basically a vagrant vacation, you know."
"Hm. Sounds fun. I might want to map some of those places, just in case. Count me in."
Nek inhaled a raspy breath, "Okay."
The talking stopped and the meeting was adjourned.
The six participants in the vacation went to pack their things, Nenka after he received the scornful lecture from Nek.
None could sleep, save Jaqu, who always remained calm, due to anticipation of the following day, the first day.

Here ends the first installment-