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Slowly the ship spiralled through space, its course unchanged for millenia.

How long it had been out there, no one knew...

* * *

The fringes of the Gradian system.

All has been quiet since the attack from the Dark Nebula, several years earlier. Still, the Gradians have realized that they must remain vigilant. The forces that swarmed out of the Dark Nebula took them by surprise, and destroyed ninety-nine percent of the Gradian Army. If it had not been for the efforts of four pilots, flying the Vic Viper, the Lord British Space Destroyer, the Falchion Beta, and the Jade Knight, Gradius surely would have fallen before the dark forces.

One of the many patrol ships that has been sent out to patrol the fringe, the Xaerous Hunter, quietly moves along its preassigned route. Little does the crew of the Xaerous Hunter know, but they're about to have an encounter that will almost spell certain death for the people of Gradius...

* * *

"Commander, we've picked up something on sensor array one."

The commander of the Xaerous Hunter got up from his command chair and moved over to the sensor tech that had spoken. He looked at the readings on the screen and frowned.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure. Whatever it is, it's a little over 16 meters long."

"Put it on the main viewscreen. Let's see what this thing is."

"Yes sir," the tech said as he punched in the necessary commands. A few moments later, the viewscreen was filled with the view of a starfield... and in the center of the screen, a small speck was slowly drifting.

"Increase magnification," the commander ordered.

The image on the screen jumped forward. The commander couldn't quite make it out, but after checking his readings, the tech spoke up.

"It appears to be some form of... starfighter, sir."

The commander's eyebrows raised slightly.

"Sensors detect no power emanating from the craft," the tech continued. "It appears to be drifting."

"Hmmm," the commander said. "It's a derelict, then?"

"It would appear so, sir."

"Don't tell me it's a leftover from the Third Bacterion War."

"No sir. The configuration of the ship does not match any known Gradian or Bacterion vessel."

The commander thought for a minute.

"Maybe it's a derelict from the Salamander Armada, or a wreck from the Armada of Annihilation. Run a check."

The tech punched a few keys on his console, then sat back and shook his head.

"It doesn't match any known vessel from either armada, sir."

The commander was running out of ideas.

"Could it be a wreck from the war that happened a few years ago?"

The tech ran another check, and once again shook his head.

"It doesn't match the configuration of any ship that we fought that came out of the Dark Nebula. In fact, the computer has no match for it at all. It's a design completely unknown to us."

"Fascinating," the commander whispered. Then, in a louder voice, he said "Lock a tractor beam onto it, and bring it into the main hangar bay. I want to take a closer look at this ship."

"Yes sir," the tech said as he manipulated the necessary controls.

* * *

The starfighter drifted closer to the Xaerous Hunter.

Suddenly a soft blue beam of light shot out the Xaerous Hunter and enveloped the starfighter. Slowly its spiral slowed, then stopped as the tractor beam fully grasped it. A set of doors slowly opened on the bigger ship as the tractor beam slowly guided the starfighter toward the bay entrance.

The starfighter slowly moved inside the hangar bay. The tractor beam gently set the starfighter down on the hangar bay floor, then shut off. The bay doors closed, and the bay was repressurized. As soon as repressurization was complete, a group of engineers swarmed into the bay.

One engineer jumped up onto the top of the starfighter, close to the cockpit. He peered inside the cockpit... then suddenly let out a startled yelp, and jumped off of the starfighter. He ran to the wall, and slammed his hand against the communications panel.

"Hangar bay to bridge!"

"Yes?" the commander responded.

"Sir, you should come down here... there's something that you should see."

"I'm on my way."

* * *

A few minutes later, the commander walked into the bay. The engineer that had called the bridge walked over to him. The commander took in his first good view of the starfighter. He noticed some writing on the side of the ship... clearly stenciled beneath the cockpit were the words R-9 UNITED EARTH FEDERATION.

"United Earth Federation?" the commander said. "I've never heard of it."

"Sir," the engineer said. "I found something in the cockpit that you really should take a look at."

Without a word, the commander followed the engineer to the starfighter, then they proceeded to climb up on top of it. The engineer peered back into the cockpit, then looked back at the commander.

The commander leaned forward and saw what it was that the tech had seen... and recoiled in disgust, muttering an ancient Latisian curse. He took another look inside the cockpit...

"The poor devil," he whispered.

Inside the cockpit was the skeleton of a man in a flight suit. A name, Allen, was clearly visible on the helmet.

That wasn't the worst of it.

The torso area of the flight suit had been shredded... ancient dried blood was clearly visible splattered across the legs of the pilot, and was also covering some of the instruments in the cockpit. Where the pilot's abdomen should have been were the remains of an ungodly looking creature... it's head had been caved in by some kind of blunt object. On closer inspection, the commander was startled to see electronic components merged with the organic parts of the creature.

The commander took one last look at the pilot, then jumped off of the ship and walked up to the communications panel. He pressed a control.

"Sickbay, we need a team to the hangar bay."

"Yes, sir," came the voice of the chief medical officer.

The commander turned back to the engineers.

"Have you been able to get anything from the ship yet?"

"No sir," one of the engineers replied.

"Keep at it, then... and if you get any information out of the ship's databanks - if it even has databanks - let me know immediately."

"Yes sir," the engineer replied.

The commander turned and left the hangar bay, passing the medical team as they rushed in.

* * *

An hour later, the commander was on the bridge, his mind only partially on the Xaerous Hunter's mission. His thoughts kept drifting back to the mysterious ship in the hangar bay. Upon returning to the bridge earlier, he had done a search for the United Earth Federation, but had turned up nothing.

"Hangar bay to bridge."

The commander snapped out of his reverie and slapped a control on the side of his chair.

"You've found something?" he asked.

"Yes sir. We've downloaded what appears to be the ship's log. We're ready to go ahead and have it transmitted to the bridge... there was some picture degredation, but it is watchable."

"Go ahead and transmit," the commander said. He cut the connection and turned toward the main viewscreen.

The viewscreen suddenly came to life with the image of a man in a flight suit... the skeleton from the ship, the commander realized. Yes, the name Allen was visible on the man's helmet. Static played across the screen, but the picture was still very clear.

As the commander watched, the man on the screen started to speak. It was clear to the commander that he was in a great deal of pain.

"Log entry... 26, Commander... Allen reporting. The battle with the... Bydo has not gone well. My squadron has been wiped out. I'm the... only survivor."

Allen paused for a second, then continued.

"We engaged... the Bydo at Wolf 359. They were merciless... they wiped out almost the entire... fleet. The battle lasted for almost... an hour. Finally our lines... broke, and the Bydo had... nothing to stop them... from reaching Earth. I was hit by a glancing blow, which... knocked out my engines and sent me flying uncontrollably... through space. I've only just... reestablished control."

Allen stopped speaking again... whatever was causing him such pain was clearly getting worse. He closed his eyes, then started again.

"I just discovered that I've been... impregnated with a Krell embryo. I don't... know how it managed to get through my... shields, but it's lodged itself in my abdomen. Even... now, I can feel it... it's moving..."

Suddenly Allen's eyes went wide, and a splatter of blood sprayed the screen. Allen screamed in agony... his anguished scream intermingled with a menacing hiss - the creature we found in the ship with him, the commander realized. With a good deal of effort, Allen pulled a tool out of his flight suit and proceeded to smash the creature, which was out of range of the viewscreen.

"Die... die... DIE!!!" he screamed as he continued to smash the creature. Finally the hissing subsided with a rasping gurgle, and Allen's arm dropped to his side. He was clearly dying.

"They... must... be... stopped..." he rasped. Suddenly proximity alarms went off inside the cockpit of the fighter. His eyes widened one last time as he saw what had triggered the alarm.

"A... mega... battleship..." Allen said with his last breath. Then a huge explosion shook the screen, and laser fire could be seen penetrating the canopy. The canopy shattered, and the noise of decompression became the white noise of the static that now filled the screen.

The commander watched all this in horror. The bridge crew had all stopped what they were doing and were staring at the screen, varying expressions of horror and disgust on their faces. The static cut out, and the viewscreen returned to a view of the starfield in front of them.

The commander turned away from the viewscreen and shakily pressed the button on his chair that opened a channel to the hangar bay.

"Bridge to hangar bay," the commander said quietly.

"Yes sir?"

"Were there any more log entries?"

"None that we've been able to retrieve yet. We're still working on downloading as much information as we can from the ship."

"Keep at it then. If you find anything else out, let me know immediately."

Suddenly all of the lights on the bridge dimmed, and an unearthly roar could be heard coming from somewhere deep inside the Xaerous Hunter! The bridge crew immediately sprang into action as the commander swiveled to face the viewscreen.

"Report!" he yelled.

"We just had an energy burst come from sickbay!" one of the techs yelled. "It caused a minor power fluctuation... it seemed to be some kind of focused beam. I'm trying to trace it now."

He slapped the control on the side of his chair again. By now, the roar had subsided, and the lights had come back up.

"Bridge to sickbay!"

"Sickbay here, sir," came the shaky voice of the chief medical officer.

"What the hell just happened?"

"That corpse we pulled out of the starfighter... we were trying to extract the creature from the body. It had been... fused with the corpse somehow, so we were using a laser to try to cut it out."

"So what happened?"

"The laser... we cut into the creature itself, accidentaly. When the laser touched one of the electronic parts of the creature, it went dead... and the creature suddenly opened its eyes. My theory is that somehow it drained power from the laser," the CMO said. "Then the creature rose into the air... and roared."

The commander's mouth went dry. The energy burst, he thought.

"Hold on for a minute," he said.

He turned to the tech that had spoken.

"Have you been able to trace that energy burst?" he asked urgently.

The tech swiveled in his chair and looked at the commander.

"I have," he said. "It was a focused beam, and it passed through our hull like it was nothing."

"Where's it headed?"

"Deep space... back the way we just came."

The commander swallowed... hard. Then he turned his attention back to the comm panel.

"What happened to the creature after it roared?" he asked the CMO.

"It just dropped back onto the table," he said. "It hasn't moved since - and we're not picking up any life signs coming from it."

"Notify me immediately if there's any change in the creature... even if it moves just a millimeter, I want to know about it."

"Yes sir."

"Bridge out."

He cut the channel and turned back to the tech that was tracking the course of the beam.

"Any theories as to what that beam was?" he asked.

"The only thing I can think of would be... some kind of a signal," the tech replied.

Allen's dying words suddenly raced through the commander's mind.

They... must... be... stopped...

The commander's blood went cold. He turned to his communications officer.

"Send a message to Gradius," he ordered. "Let them know what's happened here. In the meantime, I'll be in my quarters."

"Yes sir."

As the communications officer opened a channel to their headquarters on Gradius, the commander stood and left the bridge. The doors slid shut behind him.