A short time later, Keruso was regaining consciousness and beginning to shiver on the floor of the raft beside Alethia, who was now squirming constantly and whimpering like someone having a bad dream. His raft was now empty, except for the two of them. Rubbing his eyes and rising to look around, he noticed that several rafts were missing from the group. About a half mile to the north he could see the lights of an approaching sea vessel. He knew instantly that it was the USS Stalwart, coming to rendezvous with the life rafts. Looking in the other direction, he was filled with panic to see rafts full of seamen laying siege to the half-submerged sphere. They were shouting and tossing things to each other, working hurriedly to attach small objects to the outer hull. He tried to call out but his voice was hoarse.
He looked back toward the Stalwart and could just barely see the hint of a blue-green glow near the top of its command tower. Then clenching his fists and bracing himself, he plunged back into the water in the direction of the sphere. It seemed to take him ages to reach it, but eventually he came alongside the raft nearest the damaged portion of the object. The sailors were so busy that by the time one of them caught him out of the corner of his eye, Keruso had already taken a deep breath and dove beneath the surface, in search of the opening where the creature had come out. The sailor shouted. Captain Foyle pointed his finger at the nearest sailor he could grab by the shirt and commanded,
“Five minutes, whether you see me or not, understood?!”
“Yes sir” answered Petty Officer Jared. And without hesitation, the captain leapt in after Keruso.
Using their hands to navigate the fissures in the craft’s hull, Keruso and then Foyle found their way to the opening and eventually to a pocket of air. It was surrounded by some metallic structures that were warm to the touch. And light was coming from somewhere above and behind them. Both men gasped as they breeched the surface of this little cavern.
“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded Foyle.
“Trying to save the last chance we have!”
“Didn’t you hear Anderson on the radio, this guy’s the new Steward! We have to neutralize him!”
“You don’t understand!” argued Keruso, “He’s here to stop the Steward, not replace him! Bringing a Titan was the only way to…”
“I don’t have time for this. Get your butt back to the surface!”
“No!” Keruso shouted, and lifted himself by one of the metallic beams above his head. Foyle grabbed him by the torso and pulled down. The beam came loose, smacking Foyle on the head and collapsing the cavern into debris that swirled downward around Keruso, who had barely caught his breath. He grabbed Foyle (who was now unconscious) by the collar and tried to swim upward in a panic. Flailing wildly amid the bubbling darkness for anything to grab onto, he felt something wrap around his wrist. And then he was drawn rapidly upward until, miraculously, he and Foyle emerged again. Foyle choked and coughed up water as blood streamed from his head. The cavern was now larger, having been opened up by the falling debris. And they were not the only ones present.
Mangled and trapped amongst the wreckage, there was the creature. His glow was gone, and he was upside-down, most of his body hidden, pinned behind some obscure bulkhead. But with one strong arm and a strangely-shaped hand he held on to Keruso, who held on to Foyle. Their minds mingled, and the effect somehow extended to Foyle, stirring him from his swoon. The two men finally understood. Here was no Steward, but a defender, sent to end the Steward’s work. This powerful and yet fragile being had wrestled countless enemies, risked his life to commandeer their monstrous Titan, and travelled thousands of lightyears to defend his family. He had spoken the truth and now he passed on to Keruso and Foyle the secret of the Fractal Nexus.
It had long been understood that children lose their viability in the Nexus in the pre-teen years. Once they reach puberty, children often gain enough control over their impulses and basic fears that their corresponding Titans cease to function properly. The nodes are dependent upon knee-jerk fight-or-flight impulses. But this Titan hijacker had found a way to bring a Titan under the control of a conscious operator. It only took an instant to explain this telepathically, but Keruso finally understood why even this traveler needed the help of humans. The human mind is closed to these creatures. They cannot pilot the Titans themselves without all their intentions being known to the enemy, but the implants provide a one-way flow of communication to the Titan which no telepath can intercept. Then Keruso wondered if this closed-circuit principle applied to telepathy between humans as well. He and the creature locked eyes once again, just as they had done onboard the USS Mako four nights earlier. He was indeed the same one who had come that night to kill the Steward, but had failed somehow, resulting in the destruction of the ship. Keruso now understood what he had to do. He let go and swam for the exit, reaching out with all his mental powers to the one who… THUD! A muffled noise barely preceded the shockwave from multiple massive detonations on the surface. The alien’s spherical vessel cracked like an egg and crumbled as it descended over Keruso and the captain. Neither of them reached the surface.
Petty Officer Jared was still scanning the water for signs of the captain, straining to see some movement amid the smoke and debris when, BOOM! An unexpected second explosion behind them caused everyone to jump! The sailors spun around in unison to see the Stalwart break in half and founder on the waves. A green streak of electric light came zooming out from the raging flames and billowing smoke. It was the Steward, alive and well, now with a Titan at is fingertips, and a world full of human livestock, helpless and ripe for harvest.