Relative disclaimers apply.


Chapter 4: The Blood That Spills

"What got into him?" asked Pidge.

"I don't know," said Keith, "but he can't possibly be heading all the way back to Earth in the Blue Lion. Once we get to Pollux let's see if we can pick up his ion trail--see where he's gone."

Lance thought and then spoke to his fellow pilots. "I don't know where they're going, but I don't think they're leaving too soon. They're going to rescue their brother. That's why they need the Blue Lion!"

"Their brother?" echoed Hunk.

"Yeah. Sho. Their brother Sho was captured by allies of the Drule just over a year ago, a little before we departed for Arus. Their family reunion won't be complete without him. When I asked Lucia last night if she had found him she wouldn't give me a direct answer. I bet Sho's somewhere around here and he's still in danger."

"Any ideas where that might be?" asked Keith.

Lance's gaze fell. "No, I'm afraid not. Zarkon's been kicked off of most of these worlds, but there are still quite a few that are under his domain."

"Well, Lucia found out his location somehow, and she was all the way back on Earth," said Pidge. "If her brother's around here she didn't see him herself. If she found out there must be a way for us to do so too."

"That's right," agreed Hunk. "Maybe Coran knows something."

"It's worth a shot," said Keith with a nod. "We still have a long flight ahead of us to planet Pollux, and if we can't find a trace of where they've gone we'll need all the help we can get."

* * *

"Lucia, it is time to wake." Sven gently shook the shoulder of his younger sister. "We're entering Knoll space. The atmospheric readings are thin, but still within a tolerable level. This isn't a good planet for humans to live on. If Sho is still here and alive I hope he is all right."

Lucia stirred, opening her eyes and nodding slowly to show that she heard him. She pushed herself into a sitting position and brushed back the straight long raven hair that spilled about her shoulders. "I'll be ready," she said softly.

"Do you know where on the planet he is?"

"Yes. The transmission came from Garilon Labor Camp." She looked down and let out a breath. "Why couldn't Zarkon use machines to do his work rather than living, breathing slaves?"

Sven did not reply, knowing that none was needed. Lucia stood up behind him and watched as the small planet grew in size before them. The ground beneath the roiling blue clouds appeared brown and barren, though closer inspection through the instruments revealed that the surface actually teemed with life. The brown ripples across the earth were massive fields, where herdbeasts could browse before being turned into food for Zarkon's robeasts. Dotted in regular positions on the flat surface of the northernmost continent were the labor camps, gray blocks of metal and stone made to house the workers who tended the beasts.

"Do you think Sho would have been kept in the same camp?" Sven finally asked.

"I don't know. Intelligence received no further transmissions from this site. Since no rescue mission as been attempted by the Alliance I'm hoping that Sho would have been kept alive." Lucia looked seriously to her brother. "After all, a dead slave cannot work."

Sven returned her gaze. "You're letting this get too close to you. You have to keep a level head while we're doing this. Getting angry or bitter will do nothing."

"It's all a storm inside of me," she returned, again looking at the looming planet ahead of them. "I will try to hold it in, but it's been so long. The closer I get the more fervently I feel I must succeed. You know what the stakes are now. I can't return without success."

"But if we destroy some of Zarkon's forces while we're here?"

Lucia smiled wanly. "Yes, then Galaxy Garrison might go a little easier on me."

The Blue Lion circled to the dark side of the planet to dive into the atmosphere under cover of night. Lucia gave Sven the coordinates of Garilon and the lion soundlessly approached the camp undetected. Both of them knew Zarkon's robots and ships would be after them the instant the break in was detected, and that the lion possessed their best chances for escape. Sven understood why Lucia had wanted to bring it with her. The chances of any other ship leaving intact would be very slim indeed.

"We'll land here," he said, dropping altitude. "This will place us about five kilometers away from the camp--hopefully far enough that they will not see the lion even during the day."

"The tall grass should help hide us as well," Lucia added. "Five kilometers really isn't much to cover with the new Armor."

The lion landed softly, bending the long brown stalks around it. Outside the wind whistled, waving the grass in an intricate dance. For as far as the siblings could see, there was only the night sky and the grass beneath them.

Sven removed the key to Blue Lion and turned to his sister. "Are you certain I'll be able to fly this Armor?"

She nodded, gesturing to her boxes. "There's an outfit and Armor in there for you. The Armors of the AFIS are custom-made to discourage the stealing of them. However my teammate, Aaron, happens to have much the same build as you. It is his Armor that I brought with my own. Using the Armor is relatively simple. It acts as an extension of your own body, enhancing the abilities you already have, so that when you jump, it will as well, only extending the height and length you may leap. I admit it takes a little getting used to in order to properly gauge how much power to use, but we have five kilometers to make it to the camp and if we hoof it rather than fly then you will have an opportunity to get accustomed to it."

Lucia opened one of the boxes and pulling out a dark blue jumpsuit. Like the lighter blue one she wore, it possessed a multitude of metal rings and plates. "Get in this. You can't wear the armor without it."

Sven took it somewhat reluctantly and then Lucia dug deeper into her boxes to remove a second pair of gloves and another hawk beaked helmet. Shortly thereafter a flared set of shining pauldrons, laser mounted vambraces, and titanium leg greaves followed. The set was completed with a boxlike backpack that housed small thrusters capable of propelling a human into the air. Once airborne the flared shoulder armor functioned as both rudders and wings.

She held the heavy metal pack momentarily in her hands before setting it down. Her face was troubled. "If you should be fired upon," she said, "don't let them strike this. It holds the energy supply of the Armor, and is powered by fission. This is what allowed me to fly the Sparrowhawk for so long towards Arus when it was otherwise impossible. The power that allows it to break down atoms for energy is dangerous to harness. But for missions like those intended for its use, that is an acceptable flaw."

Lucia instructed Sven to snap the pauldrons on to the upper body harness of his jumpsuit as she demonstrated with her own set of armor, removed from the other box. The vambraces and leg greaves offered protection while crouching down in the midst of potentially hazardous ground and in addition the vambraces provided a convenient weapon that could not easily be disarmed. A set of buttons usually shielded by a panel near the wrist allowed for the more complex commands such as initiation of flight, firing of the vambrace laser, and the changing of transwaver frequencies.

Once the both of them were armored they left the Blue Lion behind them and began the run towards Garilon Labor Camp.

* * *

Sven found the Armor boosted his natural abilities as Lucia said it would. The gravity of planet Knoll was near equal to Earth's, yet the Armor allowed him to take long, giant strides that swallowed the many meters like a famished beast. Lucia had activated her thrusters and flew alongside him scarcely a meter and a half above the ground, a feat impossible by any other means of mechanical flight. As they neared the camp Sven took to flight, balancing himself with reflexes he had acquired during zero-gravity combat training back at the academy on Earth. He mastered the ability faster than he thought he would.

Lucia lead the way, darting low above the grass, then landing near the shadow of the walled camp. Sven followed her and together they crept into the darkness. The wall would be no obstacle at all, but the lights from their Armors' flight would alert any guards posted. Out on the brighter fields on this mostly cloudless night, the lights could be more easily concealed, but within the blackened confines of the stone camp there was nothing to disguise the power from their packs as anything else.

"Can you see anyone?" Lucia asked.

"No," Sven replied. "But I think there's something resembling a guard post up there. It's probably to keep an eye on prisoners and catch them as they escape."

"Well, they can't see us that well where we are right now. Even though Zarkon's guards are robots I believe they only possess normal vision, right?"

"That is correct."

"Turn the knob on the side of your helmet. No, the other side. The right is the comm and the left control the light filters of your faceplate. Turn it clockwise until you hear a click."

"Ah."

The colors he could see shifted to various shades of green, but now their intensity had been magnified manyfold. He found he could see almost as well in daylight, albeit in monochrome. There was a standing form in the depths of the guard post, a concentrated green blob of light centered mainly at about chest height.

"There's a robot there," said Lucia, looking up. "I bet what we're seeing is the heat from its processors. A living being should be even brighter than that. I can't tell if it's facing towards us though."

Sven nodded. "But it hasn't seen us yet. Otherwise it would have alerted everybody."

"I know." Lucia lifted her right arm, left hand poised above the buttons around her wrist. "And it won't alert anyone." She tapped one button and the display in her helmet magnified ten times. Readings spilled out to one side of her vision, projecting her aim as she brought her arm into proper alignment. A red light flashed, indicating the shot ready, and she fired.

The laser was a swift, small bolt of light, nearly undetectable as anything other than a trick of the eye. But the heat registered in their night vision as a vivid burst of green that struck its target. For a moment the green became even brighter, then dimmed with a sense of finality.

Lucia looked around. "There don't appear to be any other robots in sight. I think we can at least fly high enough to hang on to the top of the wall and pull ourselves up."

"Don't forget to turn your backpack off before climbing up. There may be more guards elsewhere."

"Of course."

The two flew up the wall with a series of controlled bursts. Once hovering within reach of the top of the wall above them they grabbed hold and cut the power. Sven poked his head up first, turning his gaze one way then another. No telltale heat signatures emerged anywhere else the wall. He pulled himself all the way up then turned to help Lucia. After a mutual nod they headed for the guard post where Lucia had fired.

Inside they found the broken body of one of Zarkon's robots. Its hand was extended towards a broad button but had failed to reach. Beneath its body was a hatch presumably leading into the complex below. Lucia bent to roll the robot away and lifted the hatch to reveal a steel ladder going down.

"It looks like we have our way in," said Sven.

* * *

The prisoners of Garilon Labor Camp were a miserable lot, subsisting on little more than a pasty gruel made from the same grains fed to the herdbeasts outside. Robots possessed no compassion, no appreciation for the simple variations that made an otherwise drudge-filled life bearable. Each day the food was given out in the same sized portions of the same moist paste at the same time of day without fail. Between the rigorous work schedule, the lack of freedom, and the monotony of life, it was little wonder that some of the prisoners committed suicide.

As a teenage boy watched the prisoner in the cell across from him mouth her tasteless gruel he reflected on how he sometimes entertained the notion of suicide himself. It would be an escape from the flogging the robots liked to give him, escape from the same damn gruel everyday. The food was not filling, and he knew he had lost far too much weight in the year he had been here. He was tired of going to bed hungry every night.

The boy then turned to the second straw mat in his cell. His cellmate had died earlier this week--just collapsed in the middle of hauling water, and nothing would ever get him up again. His companion had been only a few years older than him, and was in the phase of life when he was supposed to be at his strongest. The boy wondered how long he himself would live. He had snuck into the radio room to send a distress message over three months ago, but there still had been no rescue. Didn't anyone care about the people here? About him?

"Papa..." he murmured. Tears had long since ceased to fall from his eyes, but his youthful face was drawn with despair. He must not die as a slave. If the Alliance would not rescue him he should at least try to escape; again. At the worst he would be killed, and that was not looking as unattractive an option now.

He leaned back on his mat, back against the wall and arms folded behind his head. Perhaps tomorrow he could try something. He was scheduled for field fertilizing and that invariably took him a good distance away from the confines of the camp. The bane of any attempted escape was the flat land of the fields, which would allow sentries to spot fugitives from greater than normal distances. The fields set for fertilization were invariably cut to the ground, without any of the tall grass usable for cover. But if he managed to slip into a ditch or something while the guards were not looking, if he could even find a ditch...

A shadow detached itself from the wall in the hall outside his cell and the boy wondered for an instant if it was his imagination. He narrowed his eyes to the point they appeared closed and watched the silent shadow pass in front of the cell across from him. The bipedal shape appeared to turn its large wedge-shaped head to look inside, then it crossed over to his side of the hallway.

The boy tensed, wondering what sort of new guard Zarkon could have hired. For a moment he had the fear that it had come for him, to eliminate him for being an awful slave and a dangerous nuisance besides. Instead, the alien head lowered and spoke to him. Its voice was coarse and hollow.

"Sho Shirogane?" it asked. "Is that you?"

The boy's heart skipped a beat. "Yes," he replied hesitantly, opening his eyes. He stood and took a step towards the bars of his cell. This was the dead of night. Who was this person? "What do you want?" he asked.

"To get you out of here." The visitor reached up and removed the wedge of its head, a helmet, to reveal the shadowed face of a human male. "It's me, Sven," said the now familiar voice.

Sho felt his knees begin to weaken and grabbed hold of the bars to steady himself. "You came!" he said softly. "You got the message."

"Actually Lucia did. She's here too, standing watch at the hallway door. If any patrols come by here she'll take care of them."

"She's graduated from the academy?"

Sven smiled. "From what I can tell, she's one of the best." He lifted one of his armored arms. "Now stand back. We're going to get you out of here."

Sho complied, but asked, "What about everyone else? We can't leave them here."

Sven hesitated only a moment before activating his laser in a steady beam mode to cut across the cell bars. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "Lucia did not say. We only came because you were here. The Galaxy Alliance did not sanction this mission. Lucia is AWOL and I am here to help her."

"AWOL! But she had her heart set on becoming captain of a special flight squadron, like the Voltron Force or something."

Sven told Sho to hold the bars so that they would not clatter when he cut them across the bottom of his cell. "I don't know about being a captain, but she at least has her special squadron. I'm wearing the combat gear of her new unit. She purloined it when she knew we would have to fight to get you out."

"And I thought I was the one who always got in trouble."

"And you don't think where you are now is trouble?"

Sho lifted away the cut bars, wincing slightly from the pain in his sore muscles. He set the bars gently on the ground away from his feet and ducked beneath the remaining barriers. Grinning, he stood up on the other side. "No, not anymore," he replied. "Thank you, Oniisan."

Sven smiled at Sho's usage of the Japanese word for elder brother. "You're welcome. Now let's get going. Lucia is waiting. Let's see if she has any ideas for getting your friends out."

He settled his helmet back into place and motioned for Sho to follow him. The brothers silently darted down the corridor. It was a short run, and the listless prisoners barely stirred in their cells as the two men passed. When they came across Lucia they found her lowered in a battle crouch, right arm slightly raised in preparation to fire. She was on their side of the doorway leading back to the rest of the complex, with her back to her brothers, and there were three robot guards smoldering behind her.

Sven slowed his pace and swiveled the knob on the right side of his helmet, switching his communication from external speakers to his helmet frequency. "Lucia, I've got Sho. How's everything holding up here?"

"No injuries yet," she replied, "but I think if those guards behind me don't report in soon we're going to have a yellow alert on our hands at the very least." She glanced over her shoulder and waved to her younger brother. "I hope he doesn't mind I'm not talking to him right now."

"Don't worry about it. Right now we just have to get Sho back to the Blue Lion. I haven't told him about Father yet. Sho's not in good health. He's looking fine now that he knows we're here, but he's pretty beat and underweight. I think we should let him rest a while before telling him."

Lucia nodded, her _expression hidden behind the visor of her helmet. "All right." She stood and prepared to go.

But Sven reached out and grabbed hold of her shoulder armor, preventing her. "There is something else," he said. "Sho wants us to free the rest of the prisoners here. He is right, we can't leave them here and take only him."

Lucia did not turn back around, though her head lowered as if in defeat. "Of course. It would be easiest but..."

Sven pressed his attack. "Do you know how we might do this?"

She looked up and over her shoulder. Though Sven could not see her face he knew it was grim. "Yes," she said. "I saw a hall that may lead to a master control room on our way in. There's no way we can defeat every last guard on our own and see everyone to safety, but we can at least hope there is a remote access to open everyone's cells and give them a fighting chance."

* * *

The way back was more difficult than coming in. Sven and Lucia stayed ahead of Sho, opening fire readily at the first sign of a patrol. The robots appeared with greater frequency as they progressed, and the three began to sacrifice stealth in favor of speed. When they reached the end of the long hallway to their destination Sven took out the guards with two well-placed shots. Lucia palmed the broad button to open the thick control room door and threw herself to one side to avoid outgoing laserfire.

The klaxon rang, chilling the three siblings to the bone. Horribly aimed lasers shot through the opened door, which revealed a small room held by three more robots and one of the pale green-skinned aliens that also served Zarkon. The last was cowering behind a chair that faced away from the doorway and towards a massive monitor and control desk.

Sven and Lucia disposed of the robots in a series of rapid exchanges of fire. The remaining alien scrambled out of sight with a yelp. Lucia turned her head back, listening to her external audio receptors. Footsteps had begun to echo from down the passage behind them. Sven heard them as well and motioned for the three of them to enter.

Lucia slipped in first, scanning either side for the alien, but instead discovered an open door to a smaller chamber to her left. A ladder lead up into the darkness beyond. A quick inspection revealed that the door could only be opened from the inside. It was probably designed as an emergency escape route, and the alien had used it well. Sensing nothing immediately threatening through her instruments, Lucia knelt down between the seat and the console. She powered up her laser and began to cut through the metal panels. Sven shut the main door and took up guard beside it. Sho looked about himself uncertainly, then knelt down to pick up a laser rifle from one of the fallen guards.

"Can you turn that alarm off?" asked Sho.

His sister switched to her external speakers with a quick motion after removing a cut slab of metal. "Almost on it. At this point it probably won't do much, but it might buy us a little time." She struggled with something deep within the belly of the console then sat up in the chair. Her fingers danced across the many keys. "King Zarkon's computer systems operate somewhat similarly to the Alliance's. I should have it off right about..." She tapped a final button as she looked up at the monitor. "Now."

The ensuing silent nearly deafened them in another fashion when suddenly a loud clash sounded against the door to the hallway.

Lucia scrambled out another command. "I've cut the power to the door."

Sven nodded, his voice also coming from his externals. "But it won't take them long to try melting their way through."

"All I need is a couple minutes." A map appeared on the monitor, flashing some sort of icon over the northwestern section of the squarish complex. Lucia continued to work with the computer, and the display changed, revealing alien symbols that served as Doom's written language. "Section A prisoners have been freed," she announced.

Sven watched the door anxiously. It had grown quiet on the other side. Then a new sound emerged; a hissing sound.

Lucia pulled a long black cord from the vambrace on her right arm and plugged it into the console. "Attention, prisoners of King Zarkon!" Her voice echoed on the loudspeakers throughout the labor camp. "This is Lieu-" She suddenly broke off, acutely aware that this was not an Alliance sanctioned mission. "This is a friend, from planet Earth. I regret that I cannot personally guide each and every one of you to safety, but as you can tell from the alarms that have sounded, my presence is now known to your jailers." The control room monitored the location of every robot in the complex and she worked to seal off corridors as she spoke. "If you are in Section A you can find your way to the escape ships by..."

The heat sensors in Sven's helmet began to detect a marked rise in temperature around the center of the main door.

"Please be careful because there are still a few robots in your paths and there may be organic members of Zarkon's forces as well," concluded Lucia after giving directions to the prisoners of all four section blocks. She prayed that she did the right thing by freeing them when so many dangers still lurked in their way.

"Lucia, we've got to go," said Sven.

She nodded back to him. "Almost. Section C is opening just now, and after that only D is left. Most of the robots are thankfully in that long corridor behind us. They all came here because of the alarm." She turned her gaze to the open door to her left. "You guys better get going while I finish up here. Sho's going to have to actually climb up the ladder while you and I can fly up."

Sho opened his mouth to protest, but Sven shook his head. The younger of the two brothers obediently slung the rifle over his shoulder and after carefully peering up the small chamber, began to climb the long ladder up.

"C is open," said Lucia. "I'm working on D now."

Sven moved over beside the door to the smaller chamber. "They'll be through any second now. We have to leave." His voice was soft, yet urgent.

"Sven, I agreed to free the prisoners, and I will. You're right about what my standing with Galaxy Garrison will be after I return. If not for Sho, I need to do this for myself."

After a moment he reluctantly nodded. "All right."

He turned to go when a sudden humming rose and the main door blew in. It careened wildly to one side, nearly striking Sven as it teetered. The metal sheet landed on the floor with a deafening clang, bent awkwardly as though to still protect those inside.

Sven saw Lucia stand, whirling around to face her attackers when the bright red beam of light struck her. She fell back, red blossoming from her chest, then from her arms and legs. Her hands gripped the console as though to keep her standing, but she could not hold herself in the rain of light. Lucia lifted her head and weakly pressed a final button before she collapsed.

Sven's audio receptors picked up the sound of her voice despite the immediate chaos before her.

"Section D released," she murmured.



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