The Worst of Times
Brian W. Antoine
November 5, 1993
"That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen, Bob" said Penny as she looked at the ship. The remote had swung around the ship twice, as she studied the finished product.
"I don't know. It kind of grows on you after a while."
"It was ugly when you showed me the plans, it was ugly while it was under construction, and it's still ugly. It's going to be ugly forever."
It's in the eye of the beholder, Penny. There are those who'd say you weren't exactly beautiful, you know."
"I can project any image I want."
"And that's what some would find ugly about you."
This gave her something to think about. The ship might have been ugly, but it was built to be effective, and that was its true beauty. The ship was thirty feet long, and its fuselage was divided into two parallel sections. Each was roughly rectangular, but were ramped into a blunt wedge at the front. The twin sections stood about three feet apart from each other, joined by two tubular booms, one four feet back from the bow and the other two feet forward of the stern.
The ship had no projections or wings at all, it didn't use aerodynamics for flight. Instead, it used a flight field generated by the artificial singularity power plant housed in the right-hand fuselage. The left side was where the control and crew area were, with space for small cargo loads. The ship stood on three legs. Each fuselage had one on the front, the third was mounted in the middle of the aft boom. There was no suspension in the gear legs, nor did they have any wheels or skids. The ship wasn't made to slide or roll.
It also had no windows, nor doors. Like the Raptor, the new ship had an area which de stabilized to allow entrance and egress. Visibility came as a function of 360 degree sensor arrays.
"So that's it, huh?"
I turned and saw Brian appraising the new ship. "Yeah, that's it. What do you think?"
"It's interesting. It's lines aren't very graceful, but it doesn't have to be streamlined."
"No, the shields give it all the streamlining it'll ever need."
"All the protection too. I saw the power readouts Penny took on your last test."
"Yeah," I smiled. "There aren't too many things around with this sort of power."
"Yeah. Why isn't it polished? I was expecting it to be silver."
"Doesn't need to be. I didn't give it anything it didn't need."
"When do I get a ride?"
"Right now if you'd like. I was going to take it for a speed run."
I palmed the portal switched and stepped into the control pod. Brian followed. "Ick. I can't stand up in here" he said.
"I can." I gave Brian my best short person smirk and took the pilot's chair. I gestured to the second seat and told Brian to take a chair.
"There's cat hair all over this!"
"Yeah, Jab's been shedding lately. Don't say anything, he's sort of sensitive about it."
"So am I. I don't have my antihistamines with me."
"No sweat, the cabin is environmentally controlled. You shouldn't have any trouble." Brian looked suspicious, but he sat down.
"Where is that cat, anyway?"
Brian turned and looked at Jab. The Meenzal was backing out of the aft joiner tube. He'd been making some adjustments to the power system. "Hi Nahn. Nice hair-do."
The cat spit a short hiss at Brian and walked over to sit next to me. "Mage still has no humor. Need help with jokes."
"Can it, Kitty. Let's get this show on the road."
"Power ready now. It make ninety percent transfer."
"Whoa. Nice job, Jab." The cat looked proud of himself.
The controls were operated solely by psionic interface. A highly enhanced version of the old headset that Kalindra had helped design for communications and control. The interface had gone through many changes before we settled on its final form. Brian had finished the redesign on his last visit to Kal, and had Penny get it finished and installed about a week ago. There was no headset, the system was installed in the walls of the ship, much like the Raptor had. But this was vastly more powerful, and could respond to commands from a great distance. We hadn't tested just how far away one could be and still have positive control, but the popular estimate was on the order of fifty thousand miles.
The interior lighting shut off and the sensor arrays came up. The effect was to make those inside feel like there was no ship around them at all. With a thought, any area could be magnified up to ten thousand X. For now, we left the view normal.
"Nice" said Brian. He reached down and held the chair when the ship began to lift.
"Cloaking is engaged, full power available" said Penny. It was like she spoke from nowhere, but that was because her voice was heard inside our heads, rather than from a speaker somewhere. "Shields are at twenty percent, set for normal flight. Weapons are inactive."
"Thanks, Penny" I said.
The ship rose gently to about fifty feet off the ground, and rotated a full 360 degrees. I always liked to see what was in all directions. I pictured a power meter in my mind with the needle pointing to 50 percent. The ship rose and moved forward, gaining a velocity of about forty thousand miles per hour in less than fifteen seconds. The Earth dropped away and behind like a ball dropped from an airplane.
"That was smooth" said Brian.
"Yeah," I said through a beaming smile. "This machine has a beauty no one can deny. Right, Penny?" There was no reply.
Fifteen minutes later, we'd climbed well above the plane of orbit for the planets, and were headed towards a cluster of asteroids Penny had plotted. "Bring the weapons up, Jab."
The Meenzal smiled noticeably. I'd left ship's weapons up to him, he liked the Raptors rail guns, but had told me that they weren't very powerful. I said that if he thought he could do better, to be my guest.
"First target" said the cat. The forward view magnified to reveal a large asteroid. According to the reading I was getting, the rock was the size of two Greyhound busses and weighed about six hundred tons.
"Fire" I said. There was no noise, no flash, no explosion. "Oooh, boy. Gee Jab, what a wonderful weapons system" I said sarcastically.
"You not like?"
"No, I don't. Last I heard, weapons were supposed to invoke some sort of destruction. Isn't that your understanding of the concept?"
The cat looked at me like I was nuts. "Uh, Bob?" said Brian.
"The asteroid is gone."
"Look." I did. Sure enough, the asteroid was gone.
"Get another target, I need to watch this again."
Jab brought us a few degrees starboard and lined us up on another rock. This one was twice the size of the previous one. "I fire now" said Jab.
I watched the asteroid, and it simply disappeared. "Holy cow. What the hell was that?"
"We fire singularity at target. Make black hole in object. Target falls inside self."
"Just how big a target can we take on?"
"Bob need time with Stephen Hawkings" said Jab.
"A black hole isn't very concerned with size, Bob" said Brian.
"Good Lord. Ok, Jab. You do build better weapons than I do. Of course, mine are more fun to watch."
The ship rumbled slightly and a beam erupted from the bows of the power fuselage. A collection of small asteroids vanished in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.
"What the hell was that?"
"Real rail gun" said Jab dryly.
Who Turned out the Lights?
It had taken us about an hour to figure out how to piggy-back Bob's ship on the Sunbeam. While I had been recovering, Penny had gone ahead with the un-manned test series I'd worked out, and the Sunbeam was ready for its first FTL flight with the crew aboard. Now we had worked out a way for Bob and Nahn to bring their latest invention along for the ride.
Things had not gone smoothly though. From almost the moment he had stepped out of his ship, Bob had been giving me shit about my now being 'married' and my new earring. The only time he has shut up for more than a minute or two had been after he had made some silly remark about my hair piece. The expression on his face when it had stuck a tiny golden tongue out at him and told him to 'Fuck Off', had been priceless.
With the last of the gear stowed away, and his ship nestled in its tractor cradle, the Sunbeam was lifting from its lunar hanger and we were finally on our way.
"Say, I just thought of something."
"I'll bet that strained both cells."
"Kalindra's original name was just Kal, right?"
"Yeah, so what?"
"And the family name she picked was Kan, right?"
Oh oh. "Yeah," I said with a cautious tone in my voice. "I've already thought of that, and I'd advise you to drop it quickly. Kid me about the hole in my ear all you want, but I'd avoid making jokes about that particular subject." He was chuckling to himself as he got out of his chair to check one of the side consoles.
"Oh, that's rich. I'm sorry, but given her appearance, and the fact that the Terran version of her name is 'Kal Kan'. You have to at least laugh a little about it."
I turned my chair to face him. "Bob, I would really rather that you ..." It took him a moment to figure out that I was looking at something behind him.
"Am I to understand that you find something about my name to be funny?" The look on Kal's face said she found Bob's remark to be anything but.
"Wait a minute. How the hell did you get onboard? Brian, why is she here and why isn't she out cold?"
I pointed at the front port. "Tell me something. How high are we?" The view out the port showed nothing but stars. We had left the Moon far behind by this time.
"In relation to what?"
"Exactly. We're not above anything, so she doesn't have a problem at the moment. That's why she stayed in our cabin until we were clear of the Moon." I was trying to distract them, but Kalindra was still pissed. Bob didn't help things with his next comment.
"That's just great. I bring Nahn along and you bring Kal."
"That's Science Officer Kalindra to you, bozo. No one but my coimelin may call me 'Kal'."
I got out of my chair and headed for the rear of the ship. They were going to have to work this out between them, and I didn't want to watch.
"Now what was that crack about my name you hairless ..."
I could still hear them as I palmed open the lock to the computer core. Lucky for us, the ship's course for the next hour or so was under computer control.
"She gets kind of animated when she is angry, doesn't she boss."
I wanted to double check the mounting brackets I'd re-installed and the quantum singularity that I'd built to act as backup power for the computer, and Penny's lifeline. "Yep, that she does. I tried to warn him."
"I don't think he needs to worry. From the sounds of things up there, Kalindra knows he was just trying to be funny. It looks like most of her anger is a sham. She's just teasing him."
"He'll survive. Are you feeling ok?"
"Never better, this screwy thing seems to be working fine. I'm going to have to do something nice for Bob and Nahn."
"You want to do something for Bob, help him upstairs. Neither of them knows you're along for the ride. The surprise might just distract them from their little war."
I heard a snicker, and a few seconds later a howl from the flightdeck. I locked down the stuff I'd opened and headed back to see what had happened.
"What the hell is Penny doing on board? We're almost to the edge of her safe zone."
"She's safe, so don't worry about it. In fact, she has you and Nahn to thank for her being able to join the crew." Under my breath, I muttered "Not that I had much choice."
"Remember my experiments with mass and magic?"
"Well the apparent mass of one of those quantum singularities you use for a drive is large enough to generate its own magic envelope. There is a bubble about 100 yards in diameter around the ship where magic works. Since neither of these two was going to let me take off with out them."
"You got that right," came the reply in stereo.
"I had to figure out how to cover for their limitations." Bob was just shaking his head and I plopped down in the co-pilots' chair. "It looks like we're coming up on our transition point. Time to go to work folks."
Bob sat down in the pilots' chair and I could hear him muttering about being "out numbered again". Kalindra took up her station at the science console behind him and Penny began cross checking our status with Zorac. The next 15 minutes were a slowly increasing madhouse. While I knew in my head that the Sunbeam was operational, my gut wasn't real happy about what we intended to do next. From the expression on Bob's face, his wasn't much happier.
"Final checks everyone. Speak now, or be ready to walk home."
No one said anything, and Penny began a two minute countdown. We were lined up on the target star and the jump system was powering up in the rear of the ship. At '30', the main drive shutdown and Zorac made the final course tweaks that Bob fed him.
"Psssttt, Brian. Are you worried?"
"5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Jump!"
The transition was the largest anticlimax I'd ever had. The squished star field that we'd been watching out the port, simply went black.
"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth shattering kaboom?"
"Not funny Brian. Zorac, status?"
"Hyperflight field functioning within normal parameters. Current equivalent velocity, 1 light year per hour. All subsystems report normal flight status."
I looked at Bob, who was staring back at me with a small smile growing on his face. "You were saying?"
We spent the next half hour or so watching the instruments and getting bored. At the rate we were moving, it was about a 5 hour flight to the edge of the star system we had aimed at.
"I hope you remembered to miss the star this time."
"We'll come out on the edge of the system, right where you asked."
"If we don't, your fired."
"Hey, which one of you do I beat up to get some lunch?" came the comment from the science station.
I raised my hand. "It's my turn as cook first. Who want's chili?"
"Leave out the peppers," came Bob's comment. "No way, I like mine hot," came Kal's reply. I left them arguing about which way I was supposed to fix it as I wandered back to the galley. This was going to be an interesting crew, I could see it now.
A little over 4 hours later, we were all sitting at our stations as Penny and Zorac got the ship ready for our re-emergence into normal space. "3, 2, 1... Showtime!" Outside the port, the stars flickered back into view.
"Scanning ... Got it!" It took Kalindra and Penny a couple of minutes to cross check our position against the few stars that were in our starting database. "Right on the button. We are about 3 light hours out from the star, and running tangent to the system."
"What did I tell you. The master still has the touch" came Bob's smug comment.
"Yeah, yeah. Everyone gets lucky once in a while."
Behind us, the main drive came back to life. We were still moving at a good clip and we needed to start bending our course inwards. At the same time, we wanted some advance recon about the system. Especially that station that we had seen in close orbit around the star. "Launch the probes on my mark, Mark!"
From the bays in the belly of the Sunbeam, about a half dozen small probes slid through the hull and started on their way. They were little more then sensors, a small MW drive and a Hyperflight field generator. They were however, one hell of a lot faster than us because of their smaller mass. They were to be our advance scouts as we headed inwards.
* * *
Time had little or no meaning to the Guardian. Its entire being had been dedicated to its own repair. What systems could be made functional had been repaired. The others had been canabalized to assist in the repair job. Then it had simply waited.
One of the first systems it had restored, and the most important, had been the sensor net at the edge of the system. Not much of the network had survived the ages, but enough had remained that it detected the shock wave of the ship it had been expecting.
Even as the shock wave registered, the network began to track the flight path of the intruder. It would be sometime before its orbit would bring it into position, it was on the wrong side of the star at the moment. The time though would be spent tracking the intruder. The transit time of its weapon demanded an accurate track and prediction of the intruders' flight.
As it swung in its orbit, some minute part of its self noted that the intruder was not taking any pain to hide itself. That thought was gone as quickly as it came. The intruder was following a shallow spiral into the system that was easy to predict. As it came into view, the Guardian went into action.
Below it, the surface of the star began to boil as the magnetic fields formed. Under the Guardian's control, a tube, one hundred thousand miles long, formed beneath it. With a final twist, the surface of the star below exploded outwards and a lance of light started its way across the system.
* * *
"It doesn't look like much. Three planets, two of them gas giants. The only one that looks interesting is the inner one, and it looks like its been fried in an oven."
"So who built the station," asked Bob.
"Your guess is as good as mine. When does the first probe get that far in?"
"About another 20 minutes or so," answered Kalindra.
I look over at Bob. "Any preference for our first stop?"
"I still vote for ..."
"Oh god. Hold on!" came Penny's cry from the speaker overhead. That was all the warning we got. With a scream, the main drive went from little more than idleing to overload. The shift was so extreme that the acceleration was uneven across the length of the ship and we all went flying from our seats. Before we even had time to scream, the inside of the ship lit up in a blinding violet light.
I snapped my eyes shut but it was too late. The brilliant blue-violet light that filled the cabin had already caused me to see orange spots. The Sunbeam heeled over about thirty degrees and began to spin like a lazy Frisbee.
"What have we got?" Brian said. His voice sounded distant and hollow. I realized that the blast we took had a sound component, and one so loud it couldn't be heard.
"Zorac's off line, power is almost zero. I have no control and no navigation. We're adrift."
"What the hell was that?"
"Don't know. Some kind of energy blast. Did you see where it came from?"
"Nuh-uh. Can you get me some power? We're blind and either the port wall has gravity, or we're spinning. We gotta get this boat stopped before it runs into something."
Brian said he'd see what he could do, and went aft. Jab looked at Kal and then at me.
"Dog lady look unhappy. Hurt maybe?"
I looked at Kal. She stood leaning in a corner, taking advantage of the artificial gravity. "You ok?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Good. Can you help Brian? Jab and I are going to see if we can get our sensors on-line again."
* * *
The Guardian had expended a great deal of power. It was good to do this job after waiting so many years. It'd reached out and touched the tiny intruder and it had stopped. Now the mission would be completed. Once again the star began to roil from the Guardian's dipping at the surface.
In the bowels of his machinations came a sense of heat. The Guardian knew it to be trouble. At the same instant that a malfunction had been detected, the Guardian set about to repair itself.
* * *
"You have some power, but not much" Brian called. I engaged the circuits for the sensors and an outside view popped to life.
"Jab, see to life support."
"Mage no let Jab fix without Mage. If Mage there, Mage do."
The pilot's console lit up and I trudged against the spin to sit in the chair. It only took a few long seconds to stop the spin. After that, I started scanning for wherever that beam had come from. The ship was maneuvering, but not well. Brian came back from the power plant.
"That's all we have. Almost everything is burned out."
"Beauty. What the hell was that?"
"Star plasma, basically. We took a hell of a jolt."
"We need to get the hell out of here."
"We need to find out what did this."
"First things first. If another of those beams happens, we're cosmic dust. I don't want to hang around and wait for that, personally."
"It hasn't fired at us a second time."
"Yes, I got a definite impression of intelligence. We were shot at."
"And hit. So, how come it hasn't killed us?"
"I don't know."
"I don't either. We leave."
"Not very quickly though."
Brian had a good point. We were going to need some help and we couldn't call the auto club.
Hand me that screwdriver
"Christ this is a mess. Penny, any luck with the navigation array?"
I'd popped the door to the computer core to find out what had happened to Zorac and tap the singularity for backup power. Power we had, at least enough to let Bob get the ship stabilized, but Zorac was a mess.
"Nothing, I can't get him to respond at all."
"Ok, that does it then. You're going to have to re-load him from scratch. Shit, he probably took all the telemetry with him when he crashed."
"I'll see what I can do. I coded him once, I can do it again. You and Kalindra better start with the other systems. Bob sounds like he's a little worried about our just sitting here."
"He isn't the only one. How long to restart Zorac the hard way?"
"Give me an hour or so. I sure wish you had installed a better link to the Sunbeam for me. This is like talking to something through a low speed modem."
"I did the best I could in the time you gave me. You were suppose to be the primary system in the first place. When you built Zorac for me, that all got ripped out. Believe me, it's on the top of the list of things to fix when we get home." I floated out of the core and towards the rear of the ship. The artificial gravity was only active on the flightdeck to conserve power.
The first order of business was to get the main plant back on-line. It had triggered its own shutdown during the overload and had fried a lot of the power grid in the process. The plant was fine, but the power had no way to get to the ship. When I floated into the power core, Kalindra was already hard at work replacing burned out components from the stores I'd loaded on board. Except for a couple of the real exotic systems, I'd loaded enough spare parts in the holds to rebuild the ship from the inside out. That had turned out to be one of my better ideas as things went.
"Do you want to hear about my stomach again?"
I turned slightly green at the thought. I was semi-use use to space flight, but this was Kal's first introduction to zero gee. "No thanks, I've got enough problems as it is. Are you having any problems with heights?" I felt a quiet chuckle through the link in my mind.
%Feel Fine/Thanks/Love You%
I known from the moment she came onboard that she was going to run into situations where her fear of heights was going to surface. While I was laid up healing, and she was letting me know that I wasn't going star hopping without her, I'd come up with the idea we were using at the moment. I wasn't afraid of heights. Hell, I'd flown from ground to orbit using my flight field at least twice. Now I was acting as a sink for my mate's fear so that she could come with me. It was like a constant tickle in the back of my mind.
%Be Careful/Love You%
I hopped back up the corridor to the flightdeck, stopping to check on Nahn as I went. "Hey cat, you getting anyplace with that mess?"
"Mage build funny, but Nahn fix."
"Thanks, I'll pass the message on."
At the moment, Bob was the only person who wasn't busy putting the ship back together. That left him with more than enough time to stare out the port and wonder when the next attack would come. He was pacing back and forth on the flightdeck as I popped though the hatch.
"Well, it could have been worse."
"How long to get us operational?"
"Probably about six hours, give or take a little. Nahn is getting life support back on-line, Penny is working on Zorac, and Kal and I will be handling the rest. You should have main power and shields in about an hour, the rest will follow as we replace the damaged power links and sensors."
"An hour before we have shields? Shit, that's just asking for grief!"
"That's about the best I can do. The main busbar for the power plant melted into a puddle in the conduit. That's going to be a bitch to clean up before we can replace it. I can't think..." and I paused as I thought of something.
"Yeah, go on?"
*Hey Kalindra, you think we could cobble together a magic cloak around the ship?* I could feel her thinking about it.
*Should be possible.*
"I think I can hide us until the main shields are back up. Kalindra and I can cloak the ship. It won't do much for safety if we light up the drive, but it should keep us hidden from external view."
"If we can't change course, it won't do much at all. Whoever shot at us, has a real good plot on our course. Hummm.... There is another way to change it though. I can push us using my ship."
"Have you checked it out? We took most of our damage because we were powered up, but you might have blown something just due to the EMP from that energy bolt." I could see Bob was just happy to have something to do besides stare out the port.
"I'll check it out before doing anything. Hey Jab.... Oh shit, he's busy with the life support. Oh well, I'll do it myself."
Bob ran by me to the access way that led to the lower cargo bay. "Hey watch it, the gravity is <Klang> off..."
"Son of a bitch!"
I just chuckled and headed back to power core. Kalindra and I needed to get us cloaked before Bob changed our course. I could hear Bob cussing all the way. I guess he's just destined to leave part of his scalp on any ship he travels on.
I slipped through the hulls of the connected ships down into my own vessel. I was more comfortable there. Probably because it was my ship and not simply a craft I piloted. It had been built just for me or at least that's what my Meenzal kept telling me. I suppose I should believe him, I liked the ship, and was comfortable with it. Karen sat in the pilot's chair and stared at the floor. She was a pasty gray color and looked shaken.
"I guess. What was that?"
"We were shot at."
"An energy beam of some kind."
"I don't know. But I'm expecting another one shortly."
"Then we have to get out of here."
"That's why I'm here."
"But, you're the pilot of the Sunbeam. If we're leaving, why aren't you where you fly from?"
"Because most of the systems on the Sunbeam were destroyed. They're being repaired, but it's going to take a few hours and then they won't all be at maximum performance."
"So what do we do?"
I moved her from the pilot's chair to the nav station and then sat in the left seat myself. I began to power up the systems as I spoke. "We're going to push the Sunbeam out of danger so we can get it fixed. Right now, I'd like you to go above ship and see if you can help out up there. Oh and ask Brian to come down here, will ya?"
She disappeared into the Sunbeam and a few moments later Brian came down. "What's up?"
"I'm going to give the Sunbeam a push and then cut it loose. I figure to let it drift out of range of that blast thing."
"Sounds like a plan. Why did you want me down here? You can push the Sunbeam without my help."
"Obviously, but I'm gonna let the Sunbeam drift because we aren't going to keep on pushing it."
"Jesus, how long have you known me?"
"Sometimes I think too long."
"And you expect me to tolerate some piece of shit shooting at me?"
"I was afraid of this. What's your plan?"
"WHAT? Are you nuts?"
"I figure we have a good second and a half warning of another blast, I plan to meet it with a cork popped outta the big gun."
"That will probably work. You're going to throw a black hole at it."
"Maybe I'll wait with my mate..."
"Shut up, woos. And get us a vector to where the first blast came from."
Brian's head snapped around. "Woos?" My feet began to tingle a little and I looked down. My feet were each a foot long, green and webbed.
"Fucking sensitive, are we?"
"Just make it go, wiseass."
I did. I dimmed the lights and opened up the full sensor array. As we turned away from the Sunbeam, we got a fair look at it in the light from the star. Its mirror finish was in better shape than either of us were expecting. In fact, we couldn't really detect any physical damage by looking at it.
"Looks ok, Brian."
"Yeah, it does. I had some worries about weakness, but I couldn't get any verification with the system down."
"Yeah, it's good. Ok, where did that blast come from?"
Brian concentrated on the forward quadrant, and then magnified an object in orbit around the star. "There. It came from there."
"Brian!" snapped the comm. "What are you two doing?"
"Take it easy, Kal. We have to take a look at something. Keep up with the repairs and..."
"I'm not some crewman. You get back here and get me."
"Sorry, Kal" I said. "No can do. We need your knowledge on the Sunbeam. It's going to take you, Penny and Jab to get the systems on-line."
"Shut up, hairless. I wasn't talking to you."
"Cut it out, you two" said Brian. "Kal, Bob's right. I need you to get the Sunbeam operational. We'll pick you up as soon as we take a look at what fired on us."
It reverberated through our minds loudly. My attention snapped to the front again. "Brian, lock and load. Kal, tell everyone on the Sunbeam to brace for a shock wave."
It was beautiful to look at. We could see a whirlpool of energy plasma rising up from the surface of the star, accelerating as it moved. "Christ."
"Look at it."
I fired the weapon system. Like before, there was no explosion. As the energy beam raced toward us, it simply disappeared as though it flowed into an invisible container in its path. I fired the secondary system and the ship bucked slightly as the huge gun fired. In the distance, an explosion blossomed.
"Yeah," I said. "Remind me to give the cat a dozen eggs."
"Remind me to compliment him."
I snorted. "I think I will."
"Perhaps your legs could match your feet."
"Perhaps. Let's go look at what we shot at."
"Ok, have you computed the time between firings?"
"No. Haven't you?"
"Well, we hit it with the big rail. I doubt if it can get another one off at us."
"Then I suggest you look at it again" said Brian.
"Oh shit" I said.
*THREAT* said the ship.
Now We're Pissed...
By the time the repairs were complete, the intruder had disappeared from the sensor network. The first shot had not eliminated the threat, and the disappearance of the intruder had not been accompanied by the Hyperspace shock that would have signaled its leaving the area. Since it was still a threat, the only option left was to take calculated shots along the last known course and wait for a reaction.
* * *
"Incoming, hang on to something!" I triggered the weapons system and the incoming fire was once again absorbed by the quantum blackhole that the ship was firing as a weapon. I looked over at Bob and his expression mirrored mine.
"I'm getting fucking tired of this."
I checked the sensors and noted the buildup for another shot. "The damn thing is taking random shots at us. It isn't sure where we are, so it's trying to find us the hard way." As the shot was fired, I triggered the weapons system again. The shot wasn't even close, but it had to have noticed the odd way the first two had vanished. No use making things too easy for whatever was shooting at us.
"We can't keep this up forever. Sooner or later it's going to get lucky. The Sunbeam can't take a direct hit with it's shields down."
"How long before they're repaired?"
I triggered the comm system. "Hey over there, how much longer till the shields are back on-line?"
"Probably at least an hour, maybe a little less. The Meenzal can help me.... Defecation! How did you get on board?"
Bob looked sideways at me and mouthed 'Defecation'?
I whispered to him, "Penny's been trying to teach her how to cuss. She's having trouble with the idioms." I could hear Kal arguing with someone on the Sunbeam. It took me a moment to figure out who it was.
"Wait a minute, that's Karen. How the hell did she get here?" Bob had this real sheepish look on his face, and I knew what had happened. "Don't you ever give me shit about Kalindra running me in circles again."
"She insisted. I believe you know how well arguing with your mate works."
I just snickered. "I know what you mean."
Bob swung the ship around, and I triggered the weapons system again.
"We have got to get the Sunbeam out of here."
"I'm open for suggestions. That's one hell of a mass to pull using the drive system in my ship here."
"Jesus Christ!" I triggered the weapons again, and went dead white when the computer reported, *Negative Fire - Recharging*. The entire area when Violet with the passage of the energy beam. It missed us, but it was close enough to cause a static charge to leap from the metal hull of the ship to its occupants.
"That does it. That thing is toast," and Bob swung the ship to point into the heart of the system. "We aren't going to be safe until that thing is dead."
"Give me a moment. I think I can get the Sunbeam out of here." The argument between Kal and Karen had died when the last shot had flashed by.
"Bob? Came Karen's quiet voice over the link.
"Give us a minute, Brian's got an idea."
It was risky as hell. I'd talked about it with my mate as one of those 'what if' things you talk about to pass the time. %Worried/Pissed%
"Kal, remember us talking about how much you could teleport?"
"It's time to find out. This ship can't get you out of the area fast enough to keep that damn thing from getting lucky. I'll feed you the energy and you'll have to handle the jump."
"Are you sure?" %Scared%
I didn't intend on letting anyone know just how risky what we were going to try really was. "We don't have a lot of choice." I spun around and checked the navigation systems. "Try to push about one light minute along the following course," and I fed the course through the link.
"What the hell are you going to do," came Bob's question.
"Kal's going to teleport the Sunbeam out of the area. I can't do it using my method, but she should be able to if she can handle the mass." Bob was starting to argue with me when I felt the link pulse as Kalindra began to focus for the jump. "Karen, you and Jab hang on to something." I reached out and began to channel the energy from the main plant on the Sunbeam, and what I could tap from Bob's ship. As my mate began to draw on the energy to make the jump, I fed what I was hoarding up the link to her. One second the Sunbeam was hanging about 50 yards off of our port, the next second it was gone.
"Son of a bitch!"
%Safe/Worried/Revenge% "Don't worry, they made it." I used the link to Kal to track her location. "She and Karen are thataway," and I pointed below us.
"What would have happened if she hadn't made it?"
"We would now be registering the energy release of the ships conversion to energy." Bob went pale.
"You just risked my wife's life!"
"Mine also." I checked the weapons systems and noted that the blackhole gun was on-line again. "We can argue about it later. The ladies are safe for the moment, and we have a house call to make. I want to know what the hell kept that Hyper-Railgun of yours from making hash of that damn thing." The look on Bob's face said we would be talking about this later, but first things first.
"Showtime?" as he laid the course into the ship and began a powered dive towards the sun.
"Showtime!" as I began to power up the secondary weapons systems and engaged the cloak.
In minutes, the tiny ship was accelerating to a speed that I found quite astonishing. "Remind me to go over those plans Nahn worked up." As we headed inwards, Bob and I worked out a plan of attack. Whatever that station was that was orbiting the sun, it had an effective defense system. The first shot of the railgun had either never hit it, or had done little to slow it down.
The closer we got, the better chance we would have to figure out what had gone wrong. The railgun fired mass encased in a timed Hyperflight field so that combat on a system-wide scale didn't take days. If the station was shielded, we might be able to time the masses' emergence from Hyperspace to appear inside those shields. We were going to circle around the sun so as to give our enemy as little time as possible to react.
"I'm getting telemetry from the remaining probes. It looks like we only have one station to worry about. There are two others, but one is the one we saw on the original flight and the other is not radiating any power signature."
"You feeling real generous?"
"Not particularly," I growled.
"Then we can explore the other two stations. This fucker is going down if I have to push it into that star with my own two hands."
It's what's for dinner
"You trust me, Brian?"
"Hang on then, it's going to be interesting. Keep the targeting in scan mode and be ready to fire."
The ship worked to hold onto us in our seats and I rolled the ship twice for feel and accelerated directly at the star. Brian glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, but didn't say anything. As we neared the star, I pulled a tight rolling turn which paralleled us to the seething energy close below. "You can be a real son of a bitch, can't you?" asked Brian.
"Yeah, and then some."
With a full forward throttle and the whiplash effect of the star's gravity as we swung around, the ship accelerated beyond any speed it could attain on its own. It lasted only a moment, and then I was in full reverse on the engines. Brian let loose the weapons before the space station was actually ahead. Our momentum had the station dead ahead as the guns fired four successive bursts. One would have done it.
"And you call me a son of a bitch." The station was simply gone.
"Was that a crack about my mate?"
"Your mate has a crack? How do you find it in all that fuzz?" I felt the tingling in my feet again and didn't have to look to know I was verging frogdom again. "Ok, ok. Bad joke. I apologize." My feet returned to the normal state.
"I think we can relax now" said Brian.
"Maybe you can. You don't have a mission commander with a love for amphibians."
"That was mature. Ok, let's get a closer look at a station."
"Just what I was thinking."
"I wouldn't forget that this ship amplifies psi energies. I feel like a peeping tom."
Brian flushed slightly as he remembered it was his mate who'd designed the communications and control system. "Oops."
The ship closed on the station and we slowed to make a complete orbit of the derelict. "We go in?"
"Yeah, but we'll have to wait for a while."
"What the hell for?"
"I used most of my reserve energy to assist Kal with the Sunbeam. I can generate a protective shield, but I doubt that it would be enough for both of us."
"Crap. How long?"
"Not long. The star has energy for me to draw on, and I've been doing that. But I'm not a machine, and I can only handle so much."
I was disappointed. "Yeah, ok. Well, one of us should be getting a preliminary look. Since you're the one who found it, and you're the one who can shield, I guess you go."
"Nope. We'll take a few minutes to scan from out here, and by then I'll have the energy necessary to shield us both. You're part of this too, so you should be in on the inspection. Besides, I want both of our eyes and senses."
Unfortunatly, we're dinner
"You first," and I waved at the access hatch.
"I wouldn't think of it, you go first" came Bob's reply.
"No, I really must insist. You get to" *THREAT* "first?"
*THREAT* *THREAT* *THREAT*
We both dived for our seats as the computer screamed in our minds. Before I was even seated, Bob picked a random direction and ran the engines to full overload. "What the hell are those?" and he pointed at the rear screen that showed four small something's zeroing in on us.
"We've got bigger problems." I pointed to the sensor array I'd swung around. "Our friend the pop-gun is back." We had obviously been a little careless in making sure it was really gone. As I brought the weapons back on-line, I checked the sensors. "We must have hurt it, it isn't taking shots at the Sunbeam anymore. Looks like part of the outer ring is missing so one of the gravity torps must have gotten through."
The entire ship heeled over at an insane angle as Bob tried to get it to do a right angle turn. It didn't do it, but whatever those things on our tail were, they were a little less maneuverable then we were. "Do something about those things! I can't keep this up forever, something will come apart."
Something was already getting close to just that. The computer was now feeding us systems information that showed the stresses on the hull and engines. "I'm trying, give me", <Violet>, "second?"
"What the hell was that?"
"Those things are missiles, there some kind of attack craft. Try to protect the port side, the shields didn't like that last shot." I tied into the fire control and swung the particle cannon around. "Ok sucker, let's see how you digest Anti-Protons," and the cannon began to spit particles towards the nearest target. "Shit, not good enough." The particle stream was deflecting off of some kind of shield. It was having an effect, but not enough of one to frag the target. "Ok, let's try this," and I toggled the second particle cannon. This one fired Positrons and when the two beams focused on the same area, you got current flow.
The entire inside of the ship was illuminated by the flash of the two intersecting beams, and the violent explosion of the target that followed. "That's one!"
"Well line up the next one and hurry."
While the cannon was swinging around to line up the next ship. The computer chimed in that the gravity torps were recharged and available. "About fucking time! Remind me to complain to Jab about his design." I lined up the cross-hairs and triggered a torp. A second later the ship just winked out of existence. "I do like the effect though."
"Hold on!" The next few seconds were devoted to a series of turns and loops that made me sick to watch. Bob was pulling out all the stops to avoid being tagged by those ships, and avoid their fire. He had engaged the 3D view from the computer so we could look around and see what was going on. Trying to tell my brain that I wasn't bouncing around open space without a ship, and trying to hold down my lunch from the rapid course changes, was getting to be a full time task.
"Remind me to pack some Dramamine next time."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch."
"Hold it still for a second. I can't line up the next shot."
"Don't take long," but the ship held steady for the next few seconds.
At the same time I triggered a gravity torp, the particle cannon spit again at separate targets. The torp did its job with quiet ease, and the cannon made a nice bang as the shields of the target failed and the antimatter hit it. "This would make a nice arcade game."
"Have I told lately that you're out of your mind?"
"Not in the last few minutes."
The immediate threat gone, Bob continued putting some distance between us and the station. We didn't feel safe until it was on the other side of the star from us.
"What's it going to take to destroy that damned thing?"
"Don't ask me. I can't figure out how it winked out like that and avoided the other three shots I took at it." I was going over the telemetry we had gotten as we bailed out of the area. "We did damage it though. Take a look."
Superimposed over the nav display was a 3D view of the station. The outer ring now had a gap in it and the edges looked like they had been melted or torn free. "Looks like the grav torp nailed the ring instead of the center. Must be one hell of a mass out there."
Bob was going over the ship status to see what our little dogfight had done to us. "Any ideas? I vote we take another stab at it with the torps. If it's damaged, maybe it's more vulnerable now."
"Maybe, or maybe it's just lost one weapon." I looked at the data streaming in from the probes what we'd left behind. "It isn't taking random potshots anymore, maybe it can't."
I had a nasty idea forming and I liked it. "The torp launcher has a way to direct the blackholes that it spits, right?"
"According to Jab, yeah. That was mostly his design."
I called up the ships' specs on the computer and began to trace control pathways. "Do you happen to know how much control it has over the blackhole once it forms?"
"Not much. The formation and guidance take place in step with one another if I remember his explanation."
"Hummmm... Vary the speed... Yeah, it should work."
"What should work?"
I pointed to the display of the station. "That thing was drawing directly on the star to fire that energy beam. Suppose it isn't capable of controlling that kind of energy now."
"So, how do we hit it with that kind of energy?"
I showed Bob what I had in mind on the computer.
"You are out of your God Damned mind. How do you know we can get out of the way of the blast?"
"You're the pilot, that's your problem. Think of it as penance for making jokes about my mate."
"If I fuck up, you go with me."
"Then she'll be pissed at both of us."
He grumbled, but turned back to the controls and began to lay in the course I'd outlined. I had to crawl through the access way to the other half of the ship and tinker with the computer that handled the gravity based weapons. "Let me guess, Jab designed this area to fit someone his size." All I got was a snicker.
An hour later we were ready. With the shields turned up as high as they would go, we dove into the photosphere of the star below us and began our approach. As we came around the edge of the star and spotted our target. I triggered the sequence I'd programmed into the fire control computer. A couple of miles behind us, a gravity torp began to form. Turning backwards in my seat, I could see the wake it left in the stellar material behind us. "It's forming, get us lined up."
"Jesus, I hope there's an opening between that things outer ring and the center."
"It's spotted us. Here comes another of those attack ships."
As we closed on our target, the partially formed blackhole we were trailing behind us continued to suck up stellar material in its wake. As the final course correction was made, the computer triggered the final part of the sequence and the blackhole completed its formation.
Accelerating with everything the power plant could produce, Bob's ship headed straight for the station and for a fraction of a second we saw it flash by as we dove between the outer ring and the central core. The attack ship was right on our tail.
Coming up right behind both of us was a good portion of the stars' photosphere as it was being sucked into the blackhole we had aimed right at the core of the station. "Now would be a good time to change course!" We were just beginning to peel away in a broad arc when the hole hit the station.
Whether it couldn't control that much energy, or no longer had the ability. The visual sensors of the ship shutdown from the overload as the station seemed to collapse on itself and then detonated. Even as our course pulled us out of direct line with it, the blackhole continued by us on its way out of the system. Behind it came a ribbon of energy and the remains of the station.
When the visual systems came on a few seconds later, we both watched as the attack drone that had been following us drift by. "I assume that means we're safe?"
The drone was starting to tumble as it passed by us. "I think so, but I wouldn't want to bet on it."
"Well at least the worst is behind us."
"Almost, I still have to explain to Kal about leaving her behind."
"Oh shit, Karen isn't going to be real pleased with me either."
Spinning the ship around, Bob headed us back to the station we had been going to explore. When our mate's arrived in a few hours, it might be safer to be facing the horrors inside the station then their tempers.
"So, you get to go in first, right?"
Whoa! Look at THIS!
We argued a full five minutes before Brian teleported me onto the station. "You still alive?"
"Cheap trick. Yes I'm alive. But when you teleport, I suggest that you do it stooped over."
Brian appeared in a crouch next to me. With a flinching glance, he looked up to see what he might hit his head on. The ceiling of the area we were in was some 200 feet above him. "What did I have to duck for?"
"Just for a minute."
"Dammit. I thought I put you in a locker or something. I was even going to apologize."
"You can do that when Kal arrives. Right now, why don't you go that way and I'll go this way" I said gesturing.
"How come you want me to go that way?" asked Brian. "I think maybe I should go that way."
"Because YOU want to go that way."
"Shit. Let's both go this way" I said, pointing a thumb over my shoulder. Brian nodded and we started off across the cavernous room we were in. There was some sort of diffused light source which lit the area gently, and neither of us could identify exactly where the light came from. The room itself was unremarkable. It bore no decorations or symbols of any kind. Nor did it seem to have any doors or hatches which would fit the size of the place.
"It looks like a cargo bay or hanger or something" I said. Brian nodded.
"Let's try that little hatch over there."
"Ok" I said and led off. Brian held out an instrument I hadn't seen before, so I asked him what it was.
"It's kind of like the Tricorders in Star Trek, except not so fancy. It looks for energy sources."
"Cool. What is it, a kind of wave identifier?"
Brian laughed. "No, it's a field strength meter. But it can read some pretty minute signals."
"Well point it at the door. After the last couple of hours, I have no faith."
We got no reading from the hatch at all. "Well, guess we should go on through."
"After you" I said.
"No, after you."
"I insist, you go fir..." I found myself on the other side of the closed doorway. "Would you cut that out! God dammit Brian."
"Is it safe over there?"
"Yes. Come on in." He appeared next to me.
"So far it's going well. Wouldn't you say?" I just glared at him. We were in a companionway that had doors on either side, and was about sixty feet long.
"Pick a door."
"Let's take the first one."
"Ok, I'll go first."
"No, you went first last time. I'll go first."
"No, I'll go" I said and pressed what appeared to be a lock plate beside the door. The door slid open a few inches and Brian pressed past me to go inside. A half second later he flew backwards and struck the companionway wall.
I dropped to my stomach a half instant before an energy blast that would have thrown me went by. "What was that?" Brian said standing back up.
"I don't know. Are you ok?"
"Yeah, just some dented dignity." I pulled up to a crouch and then dove through the doorway. I collided with Brian as an energy beam threw me back out. We ended up on the floor of the hallway.
"It's not killing us," said Brian. "I think it may be some kind of security feature."
"Wonderful. So, how do we get in?" Brian sang a note and stepped through the door. I crab-walked to my left to get out of the way before he flew back out. He didn't this time.
"It's ok. You can come through."
I put my back against the wall next to the door and jabbed my head in and then back out to get a look. Nothing hit me so I ducked inside. Brian was standing at a railing which overlooked some huge array of machinery. The door led to a balcony that was about fifty feet above the floor the machines were mounted on.
"What the HELL is THAT?" I asked.
"It appears to be a power unit of some kind. I think it's dead."
"Then where is this station getting it's light from, and what powered that security beam?"
"I don't think that was a security beam. In fact, I think that if this was on-line it would have killed us outright."
"So where is the power coming from?"
"I thought you said it was dead."
"It is. The power is just residual energy."
"Jeez. I'd hate to see it at full charge."
"You have. Or at least you've seen one just like it."
"Oh, yeah. I guess I have. You don't suppose someone operated this thing?"
"I doubt it. There isn't a lot of shielding, which makes me believe that it's an automated system."
"A robot shot at us?"
"Great. So much for my daydream."
"Yeah, I was picturing holding someone at gunpoint and giving them hell. Yelling at a machine doesn't hold the same fascination."
"You yell at machines all the time."
"I do not" I turned and stepped back into the hall. As I did, I bumped my shoulder on the hatchway. "God damn machine!"
Brian started laughing. "Ok then, let's see what else we can find and then we'll come back and do some study of how the power unit works. Maybe we can start it up again."
"You just said this had to be run by computer."
"Yes, I did. And I didn't say we'd be standing here when we started it."
"Lord. Our own space station."
"That's stay-SHUNS" said Brian.
Tell me that was you making that noise
We had spent the last two hours exploring the outer ring of the station. Other than the time we had both screamed when the comm link had beeped, it had been pretty uneventful. At seven equally spaced locations around the ring, we had found power cores identical to the first one we had stumbled across. The ring itself seemed barren, little more than huge empty rooms and power equipment.
"I'd been willing to bet the entire ring serves as the waveguide for that popgun we saw. That's probably why the other station couldn't fire at the Sunbeam after we took out part of it."
Bob had his head stuck inside an access plate we had found and was looking around inside the outer wall. "Yeah, I'll go along with that. You ought to see the size of the cables and conduits inside this wall. They're at least five times the size of the ones you use for the main power grid on the Sunbeam."
I gave a low whistle. "Jesus, those power cores must be something to see when they light up."
Bob popped back out of the access hatch. "I think I spotted something that resembles the shield emitters on my ship. You wouldn't believe the size of the damn things though. If that's what they are, it's a wonder we were even able to scratch them."
I helped Bob lift the hatch back into position and seal it up. "I think we need to keep an eye open."
"I'm gonna need another head to hold them all. What's up now?"
I pointed at the access hatch. "That thing is sized for something about our size, but everything else around here is hugh. I'd bet my turn at galley duty that there must be maintenance bots about our size around here that are designed to roam inside the walls if needed." We both looked up at the ceiling a good 35 feet above us.
"I wonder how big they come?"
"I just hope to hell they are all deactivated. Something funny is going on around here. Have you noticed it getting any lighter in here?"
"Not really. I though I was just adjusting to what light there was."
I closed my left eye, then switched to my right. "No, I'm getting more glare than before. I think the light level is increasing. We might have tripped something, or it's reacting to our presence."
"That's just great. I wonder what kind of internal defenses these things have."
"We better find out now. The girls should be here in about three hours unless something gives out on the trip in." I looked down the hugh curving corridor we had been traveling through. "I don't suppose Jab designed any kind of hand weapons that you carry in your ship?"
"Nothing he told me about."
I could see Bob was feeling the same way I was. The whole scale of construction around the station was making us both feel like some kind of insect waiting for the foot to drop.
"You're the wizard, could you rig something up?"
I chuckled. "What, I'm suppose to wave my hand and 'poof', a gun appears?"
"Something like that," came Bob's reply as he laughed along with me.
God knows why, we weren't any position to find the situation funny. The whole thing just felt funny all of the sudden. I sat down with my back against the wall and started laughing. "How about if we just scream and run instead."
My laughter managed to set Bob off. "Scream and run. What a hell of a plan. Do I need to scream in any particular key?" Bob tried to sit down, but slipped and landed on his butt with a thud. The two of us were howling at each other, and probably letting some of the stress drain away, when a dull roar reverberated up the corridor.
"Oh shit. You didn't do anything?" Bob was looking straight at me.
"Not a thing." I was staring back at him wide eyed and terrified.
From down the corridor came the sound of something moving. We both scrambled to our feet and ran the other direction, looking for the next hatch to a power core. "Shit, it was suppose to be a joke" I hissed under my breath as we ran.
We skidded to a stop in front of the door and triggered the access panel. As soon as it was open, I shielded us from the effects of the security array and we ducked inside. As the door slid back into the its mechanism, I watched up the corridor the way we had come. <click>
"I didn't see anything."
"What if it's looking for us?"
We had run around the walkway to the other side of the core. Now were each peeking around the core at the doorway. "Let's hope it was an old maintenance bot that got restless."
"After all this time? What if it's a security bot or something."
"Then I grab you and we teleport back to your ship."
"You have a fix on it?"
I closed my eyes and 'looked' for the ship in my mind. "Uh, Bob? Either the room is shielded, or the ship isn't there. I can feel the location of the hatch we came in, but no ship. I'll have to try a jump to some other part of the station."
"Where the hell could it have gone?"
"Don't ask me, did you leave the keys in the ignition?"
While we stood there staring at each other in shock, a dull rumble started making itself felt in the deck plates. We both turned to stare at the door and I tried to focus on someplace in the station I had seen well enough to use as a teleport fix.
Whatever was out there, passed us by. Gradually, the rumble began to die in volume and the floor quit vibrating beneath our feet. "Is it gone?"
"You want to go look?" I replied.
We both collapsed against the wall behind us. "Shit, I'm not cut out for this kind of thing. I'm suppose programming computers for a living."
I gave a weak laugh. "Don't worry about it. I'm the Mage and I left my stomach back in your ship. This was suppose to be a simple test flight and exploration mission. Right now, I feel worse than I did laying in that damn hospital bed."
"Yeah, I'll just bet. Built in furry gloves my aching butt."
"You have a dirty mind, you know that?"
"Tell me I'm wrong."
I just smiled. "It should be clear out there. I can't sense anything for a good distance down the corridor. We better go find out what the hell happened to your ship. It's a long walk home, not to mention trying to explain to the girls how we managed to loose it."
"Don't remind me. We'd never hear the end of it."
I got to my feet and headed for the door. With a final check, I triggered it open and peeked out. "Looks clear." I looked at the faint tracks in the dust outside the doorway. "Looks like some kind of tracked vehicle. Big sucker to from the width of those tracks."
Bob stepped out of the power core and closed the door behind him. "The exterior hatch is that way, right?"
For a second I lost my sense of direction. The whole place looked the same no matter which direction we faced. "Yeah, that seems right." Lucky for us, it was back the direction the tracks had come from rather than the following behind whatever it was. "Let's go find your ship."
I think I want to go home
"I'm not so sure we're on the right deck, Brian."
"I was getting the same feeling. Most of this looks the same, but for some reason it doesn't look familiar." I would have laughed, but I was nervous. Repeated mental calls that should have brought my ship to me had failed. There was something terribly wrong, and I didn't know what.
"How long until the Sunbeam should be back?"
"Barring something we don't know, it should be here in under an hour."
"Let's hope we know it all, then."
Moving down the hall, we came to an intersection. The first one we'd seen of this size. The hallway we were in crossed another that was a good five times its size. "I have an urge to look down this hall" said Brian.
"Shouldn't we continue back toward where we boarded?"
"Probably, but my curiosity is up." We could see the ends of the big hallway, one was only fifty yards away to the right, but the other was a great deal farther away to the left.
"I take it you want to go the long way?"
"Lead on" I said, and we moved off towards the distant end. It took us about fifteen minutes of walking to reach the end, and what we found there was another hatchway. Brian palmed the lock plate and the door hissed open. There was quite a pressure differential, and the wind created by it was strong enough to blow bits of dust from the floor through the hatch. It gave the scene an unreal quality. Brian cast a defense spell and stepped through the hatch. I followed closely behind.
We found ourselves in the most cavernous structure I'd ever seen. The station had looked large as we scanned it from the ship, but inside it the word enormous couldn't cover it. The area we were in had to be at least a mile across, and was spherical. In the center of the area, even with the catwalk we stood on, was a sphere that was rigidly hovering in the center of the huge chamber. It too was big in itself. We estimated it to be at least 700 feet in diameter. Brian raised his little meter to see if any energy was being emitted from it, and when he pressed the button it made a poof-like sound and a small wisp of smoke escaped.
"That's it for that" said Brian, and leaned over the catwalk rail and dropped the little box. We both watched it fall. Like some sort of optical illusion, it appeared to curve towards the center of the base of the chamber. I was thinking that the shape of the room was causing the illusion when I realized that it wasn't falling anymore, but curving in towards the floating sphere. As it fell, it moved faster and faster until it tore itself apart as it rushed at the sphere.
"Did you see that?" I said.
"Yeah. You throw something."
I dug a quarter out of my pocket and flipped it off my thumb and into the air. It too acted the same way the field strength meter did. Brian and I looked at each other, and sat down on the catwalk. "Lot of gravity in that ball out there."
"I think that may have been what pulled me to it" said Brian.
"No, I mean it. I think I sensed something about it and that's why I had to come see it."
I gave that some thought. It made sense to me. Brian spent a great deal of time channeling energy, and it was part of his makeup to sense the presence of even minute amounts of it. "Well, can you tell anything about it?"
"It seems to possess great energy, but it also seems dead. But there's something that isn't."
The station began its rumbling again, this time with much greater force than before.
"Like that" said Brian. As we looked into the great expanse, the floating sphere began to slowly descend. We both stood and looked over the railing to see the base of the sphere we were in begin to open at its base. Through the widening hole we could see space. "Grab something. Grab and hold on tight!"
Even as I did, I could feel the pull as the atmosphere in the big chamber began to rush out with incredible force. I'd experienced explosive decompression in an aircraft at altitude before, but the force of this was amazing. It pulled us against the railings hard enough we'd have been drawn through if we weren't holding on for all we were worth. The pressure change lasted about 30 seconds, and when it was over, most of the bottom of the big chamber was opened to space. We could see the star we orbited clearly. It was almost blinding.
* * *
The guardian needed a new base. The intruders had managed to destroy the one it had inhabited so many millennia, a thing which it found hard to comprehend. It had chosen to take the base of the companion which had, in the final days of its insanity, shut itself off.
* * *
"Jesus!" I shouted at Brian. But he couldn't hear. With the atmosphere in the chamber gone, no sound could pass. The vibration in the deck and railing had stopped, the opening was as wide as it was going to get. As we looked on, the floating sphere fell slowly through the hole and then arced in towards the star.
Brian looked at me and put his palms together, hinging them closed at the heel of his hands. Then he shrugged. I shrugged back. "I don't know if it's going to close." I yelled. Brian couldn't hear, so I went back to looking through the gaping hole in the base of the big station. Appearing as a small dot and growing larger, another sphere approached the opening. I turned to open the door. I wanted out of there and I wanted out now. Brian grabbed me, pointed to the door and shook his head 'no.' I realized what he was saying. If I opened the door, the pressure would be released and we be blown off the catwalk to fall into space and probably the star.
The only thing to do was wait for the opening to close again, and hope that the chamber would re pressurize again. I was also hoping that the environmental shields that Brian had cast would hold up. It might be a long wait.
It's an Addams!
The Guardian reached out and linked. It felt better to be at one with the appendages of an undamaged actuator. Plasma began to feed through the conduits like lifeblood, and the Guardian took a kind of pleasure from the awakening.
* * *
"We've got atmosphere again, Bob."
"How do you know?"
"Because you can hear me. Open the hatch and let's get out of here. I feel energy surges all over, I think this station is coming on-line."
I palmed the plate and moved through the door, speeding to a trot and then a run as I went down the hallway. About sixty yards later I stopped and turned. "Where the hell are we running to?"
"We need to get off this station. Enough time has gone by that the Sunbeam should be nearby. I'm trying to contact Kalindra, but there's something blocking me out."
"Like the walls?"
"No, these walls can't stop psi energy. It's something different."
"We have to find the little ship then." I moved off at a trot again, looking ahead for the intersection near the outer wall of the station. We covered the distance in half the time it took us to get to the chamber. When we got there, Brian took the lead as we ducked left and kept going up the smaller corridor. We kept moving at a fast pace, and all the while I repeated the mental command to call my ship.
As we moved along, we passed door after door to either side of the hall. After what seemed like an endless number, we passed one on the right that was open. Brian stopped so fast I ran into him. "What's the matter?" I asked him.
He said nothing, but went back to the open door and looked inside. I looked with him, but the interior of the room was dark. "I could have sworn I just saw..."
Brian lit a witchlight and stepped inside. For an instant my ship was there, and then it wasn't. Instead, it was an empty room. On one side was the doorway we stood in, on the opposite side was what appeared to be a seam of some kind in the wall. Brian looked around and turned to me. "Did you see that?"
"Yeah, I think I did. Wasn't that..." My words were cut off by a deep growling from the deck area. "What the hell?"
The seam on the opposite wall began to gape open, but there was no loss of atmosphere this time. Both of us were mesmerized by the sight of the wall opening. When the opening became some twenty feet tall, my ship glided in and settled to the deck in front of us.
"Magnetic seal of some kind" said Brian.
I didn't have anything to say, but I wasted no time. I went to the ship and pressed the de stabilizer and went inside. Brian was right behind me. I took the pilots' chair, commanded for full reverse and got ready for the lurch as the ship started moving and the inertial damper kicks in. It didn't come. We just sat there.
"Get this thing going, that port may close any time."
"I'm trying, it isn't doing anything."
Brian swung around and started to crawl into the cross tube to the power pod. I stood to help if he needed it when the ship lurched backwards out of the station. The sudden motion knocked me off balance and onto the floor. On his hands and knees, Brian turned his head and looked at me. "This is a bad dream."
"Christ. What now?" I whined. Getting to my feet I engaged the wall sensors. Three of the missiles which had attacked us and the Sunbeam were bearing in on us. "Brian! Weapons!"
Brian dove for the second seat and began to light up the targeting system --but it failed to engage. A look out to port confirmed the onset of the missiles.
"Hang on to something, they're going to hit us!" Brian and I both turned away from the incoming missiles and waited for the impact. It didn't come. Instead, we saw the missiles moving away on the starboard side of the ship.
"Fuck me! They passed through us!"
"That's impossible" gasped Brian. We stared at the missiles as they receded into the darkness of space.
"This is nuts" I spit. "It can't be. God damn!"
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, get us out of here" snarled Brian. "Go, dammit!" I tried, but the ship just kept speeding backwards.
"I have no control. What the hell is going on?"
"I don't know." Even as Brian spoke, the ship altered course and sped off in the direction I'd told it to a few moments earlier.
"There's a delay in everything. I don't understand it."
"Yes, but it's getting shorter the farther we get from that station."
He was right. In another few moments, the ship was responding with the same speed and surety it had before. "There's something about that station."
"Hummmm." was all the reply I got until; "Let's locate the Sunbeam."
I called for magnification of the sensors and we saw it immediately.
"Oh Jesus. It's heading for the station."
The Sunbeam turned instantly and accelerated towards us. "Bob, get us out of here."
%Jump/This Course/One-half Light Minute/%
Both ships accelerated together. Behind us, the station did nothing.
Brian sighed and smiled. "We need to get somewhere and think this over. But right now, where's the head. I gotta go bad."
"Yeah. Now that you mention it, so do I."
Rest and Re-group
Bob was locking down the controls as we prepared to disembark from his ship and climb up to the Sunbeam. "I still think shaving him like a poodle would be funnier," I yelled down to him as I verified the hulls were correctly locked together.
"Not a chance. We'd never be able to hold him still that long," came Bob's reply. With a final command to the onboard computer he floated up behind me as we transferred.
With the ships docked, we both climbed through the docking port and into the lower cargo bay. Standing there to great us was Karen and Kalindra. I was first on-board, so Kal ran over to great me. Or at least that was her intention.
"About time you two..." and she skidded to a stop about five feet from me. With a small sniff, she covered her muzzle with her hands and started backing away. "What have you been playing in?"
Reaching down to give Bob a hand up, I could see Karen react to the smell that was beginning to permeate the cargo bay. As soon as he was beside me, we looked at each other and muttered the same thing in stereo. "Where is that damned cat!"
Kal was busy trying to decide whether to risk getting close enough to us to push us back down the docking port so Karen spoke up first. "He's on the flightdeck watching things."
I looked over at Bob. "I'll get the scissors and the gun."
"I'll get the glue and the spray paint, but I need to get to my cabin first."
"Oh Christ, don't make me think about it," I winced in reply.
With the girls following a good distance behind us. We both made our way to our respective cabins. I'm not sure what my mate made of the emotions that I was radiating, but when I could see straight again I found myself greeted at the door with a bar of soap and a towel. I assume Karen was giving Bob a similar treatment.
"Don't you dare come out of there until I can stand to be in the same room with you."
I didn't argue. Grabbing the soap that she was holding I headed for the shower and proceeded to scrub while my mind spent every spare moment thinking up new ways to get even with that fuzzy monster that called itself an engineer. It took awhile before I began to feel normal again. When I started singing in the shower, Kal poked her head in and asked "Want me to scrub your back?"
"No thanks, we don't have the time." For the first time since I got back, I stopped and looked closely at her. "Remind me when we get a moment and I'll help you comb out some the the tangles. You look like I felt." I got a weary sigh in response.
"Repairing this thing was not what I had in mind for my first flight into space."
"Tell me about it. Is the ship hidden like I showed you?"
"Yes, I helped Jab get us behind the planet." She winced as I thought about that damned little terror. "What happened down there?"
"I'll tell you all about it when we get together with Bob and Karen." I shut off the water and grabbed a clean set of clothes. While I was getting dressed, I thumbed the intercom and yelled for Bob. "You feeling more human over there?"
"Yeah, I'll meet you on the bridge. Bring your gloves." <click>
Five minutes later, Bob stood in one of the two doors that led from the bridge and I stood in the other. Karen was sitting at one of the stations while Kal stood behind me in the corridor. "So, are you going to tell us what happened, or do we get to guess" came the comment from behind me.
"First of all, I'm sorry for springing that wonderful smell on you like that. In the future take a note. Environment fields are great things to keep you alive. There are however drawbacks to being sealed in them for six hours without a break when you are exerting yourself." I looked over at Bob and nodded my head ever so slightly.
"Jab?" The tone of Bob's voice should have been warning enough that he wasn't real happy. The entity in question raised his head from where he was sitting in Bob's chair watching the instruments and turned back to face us.
"Why isn't there a head on my ship? You didn't even provide a damned jug!"
He was screeching towards the end as he glared at his friend. Jab looked at Bob, then over at me and decided that we meant to take out our anger on his fuzzy little body. With a leap, he jumped for the floor to get away. I caught him in mid-air with a levitation spell and prepared to hold him for Bob. I swear the little monster had a smirk on his face as he looked at me.
"Mage make mistake," and he started to grow in size.
I grinned and replied "Jab fuck up big time," as he started to choke on his collar. "Bob told me about the little drive system in your collar." I couldn't use magic on Jab himself, but that collar was fair game. I'd fixed it so it wouldn't alter its size as he did and a few seconds later Jab returned to normal size. He could still move though and he flew around Bob and down the corridor.
As Bob and I chased after him, I could hear the girls starting to laugh behind us. "No head? Then that means..." Thankfully, I couldn't hear the rest as we prepared to extract revenge on Jab.
* * *
When we returned to the flightdeck and sat down at the controls, Kal walked up behind me and hugged me. "I'm sorry I laughed."
"Don't worry about it. I suppose it was kind of funny." I scanned the panel in front of me. "Any sign of pursuit yet?"
"Nothing. We lost those spheres during the jump."
"Bob, we need time to rest and plan. I don't know about you, but I'm about to fall asleep in the chair here." Since we had started this little jaunt, we'd been on the go for almost twenty hours and most of it running for our lives."
"We seem to be safe behind the planet here. Or at least that damned thing can't take shots at us. I'm not sure I like sitting out here in the open though."
"We still have a couple of systems that need work also" came Kal's comment. "Penny needs some physical help getting hooked into the ship and I'm going to need help with the drive systems. The Hyperlight drive," she looked at me, "did I say that right?"
"The Hyperlight drive is still broke. I didn't want to make things worse, so I decided to wait for you two to get back."
I groaned. "Well, so much for screaming and running."
"Damn. Well we will just have to hide someplace until we can get out of here on our own" came Bob's muttered comment. The girls were looking at the two of us with puzzled looks.
"It's a long story. I'll tell you about it later." Bob had been scanning the navigation display while we had been talking. "Any ideas?"
"How about the planet itself. We find a safe canyon and hide the ship while we work?"
"Sounds good to me. Get us hidden and we can take it from there. On the top of the list though is some sleep. I'm about to drop right here."
"I know what you mean. Then we have to figure out how to take that damned thing out again, and for good this time." The Sunbeam arced over and headed into the wisps of what amounted for the planets' atmosphere. We stayed on the night side as we descended, since sticking our heads out around the edge of the planet would probably have gotten them shot off.
"Why push it? I think we used up our entire lives allocation of luck the first time."
"I don't like getting my butt kicked, especially by some stupid machine. No offense Penny."
"None taken" came the reply from the intercom. "I happen to agree with you. We can't leave that thing operational."
"Why?" I wasn't thinking real well, and I've never been one to go looking for a fight. "Let's get out of here and leave well enough alone."
"And what do you intend to do, oh brother of mine, if that thing has a way to follow us?"
It sounded so simple, and the implications of what she said pumped enough adrenaline into me to cause Kal to jump as the reaction echoed down the link we shared. "Oh shit..."
"Bob, are you feeling lucky?"
As he scanned the terrain below us, he glanced my direction. "No, but we haven't got a hell of a lot of choice do we."
Adrenaline or no, I was asleep on my feet. "No, I guess we don't. Okay, get us hidden and we crash for about four hours. After that we can finish the last of the repairs. If we're going to take that thing on again, we need every advantage we can scrape together."
"Before we go back there though, we need something better than those ENV fields of yours." Spotting a canyon below us, Bob slowed and descended. It took a moment to find whatever it was he was searching for, but as I sat and thought he nestled the Sunbeam beneath an overhang near the bottom. "There, that should keep us hidden from anything doing a fly over."
"You've scanned those Anime tapes I've been buying, right?"
"Yessss" came the cautious reply.
"You think you could design a Mobile Suit for Bob and I?"
"What the hell is a Mobile Suit?" came Bob's whispered comment.
"Hummm... Ever see the Orkin commercial?"
"The one with the guy in the armor?"
"That's the one. A Mobile Suit is the same thing, but with a lot better weapons." That caught his interest.
"We would wear these things?"
"Yep. If we have to go back in there, I'd rather feel a little safer." The look on Bob's face was priceless.
"I get to help with the design."
"Then I'll leave the suit design to you and Penny." I thought about it for a moment. "You might ask Jab if he has any ideas also."
"If he's able to sit down by then" came Bob's snicker. As I pulled myself out of my chair, Bob began to shutdown the Sunbeam. We might be hidden from direct view, but dropping our energy signature to bare minimum could only help keep us safe.
"Ok, four hours sleep, some food and then to work. Kal and I," I felt a light kick in the shins, "will handle the repairs. Penny, Bob and the fuzzless monster handle the suit design."
Karen had been sitting quietly the whole time we had been talking. Now she spoke up. "What can I do?"
"Bob?" He shrugged his shoulders in reply.
"Penny, you still need some help right?"
"If you want everything in top condition I do. I'm having trouble getting Zorac back on-line and I can't cover for him without a lot of re-circuiting."
I looked over at Karen. "Want to become an engineer?"
"Do I have to learn how to tell terrible puns or blow things up?"
"Only if you want to become a good one."
"I'll give it a try."
* * *
Four hours wasn't a lot of sleep, but we couldn't afford anymore time. With a quick sandwich and such from the galley, the various teams had thrown themselves into their tasks. Kalindra and I were working on the Hyperlight drive system, trying to get it back on-line. Unless we all got killed in what was to come, we were going to need it to get home again. We had been working for about an hour when I heard someone in the doorway clear their throat.
"Huh? Oh, hi Bob. What's up?" It took him a moment before he said anything and I could see something in his eye's as he looked at the two of us.
"Do you always work like that?"
"Work like ..." and I realized what he'd been watching. Working that close on the same task. Kalindra and I had fallen into sync using the link we had. Without even asking, one of us would hand the needed tool to the other behind our backs or reach over and hold something while the other bolted it in place. It had to have looked pretty strange to Bob, watching us work in complete silence like that.
I looked at the test gear Kal had just handed me and snickered. "I guess we do now. How are the suits coming?"
"Jab and I worked out the initial design and Penny's refining it. Changing the subject for a moment. Do you really like that kind of cartoon?"
"Yep, you never know when you will find a useful idea."
"Touche... Anyway, I think we have something usable. As soon as she's done, Penny is going to crank up the replicator and begin to produce the parts. It will take a while to assemble since we have to do it by hand. I'm going to need you present so we can adjust the suit to fit you. That means you also, Kalindra. I designed suits for all four of us."
"Well we still have an hour or so here. As soon as we're finished, we'll come and take a look at it. Who knows, maybe you can use yours as a costume next Halloween."
"Yeah, I can see it now. Trick or Treat, Motherfucker. Give me all your candy, or I toast your house."
I reached over and grabbing the screwdriver, handed it to Kal as she reached back for it.
"You two are weird ..." and Bob headed back to the workshop.
I looked over at my mate as she adjusted the energy regulator she had been replacing. "Maybe, but I think I'll keep her."
"I love you too..." she said as she whacked me in the face with her tail.
Who's that knocking at my door?
The lights in the Sunbeam dimmed and went red as the ship went into security mode. Brian and Kal looked at each other for a moment.
*NO! Where you go, I go*
*I may need you, STAY HERE*
Brian moved towards the door but stopped when it made a whoosh sound and opened. A seven foot figure blocked the entrance. Engaging his defense field, Brian issued a repellent field, but the figure in the door was unmoved by it. Instead, with heavy steps, it moved closer to the pair working on the Hyperdrive.
With unexpected speed, Kalindra reached into the toolbox and drew a cobalt laser used for cutting hard metals, the air ionized around the beam as it fired at the behemoth. It had no effect.
"Jesus H. Christ, you guys" it said. "Nice reception."
Brian's jaw dropped. "Bob?"
"You were expecting a Jehovah's Witness?" Two clanking steps closer, the figure reached up and gave its head a slight twist with heavy pneumatic arms. With a hiss of escaping air, the head disconnected and became a helmet in its hands.
Kalindra was still wary, but relaxed some. The lights in the Sunbeam came up to normal brightness and Zorac announced all clear. She took a tentative step, stopped and laughed. "You look like Optimus Prime, that truck in the Transformer cartoons."
I was wearing a suit constructed of hull material. It was made of a series of overlapping plates, doubled everywhere except the joints of the suit. Like the smaller ship, it wasn't mirror finished, but a dull charcoal black color. I thumbed a small plate up and pressed a finger into the recess it revealed. With a slight clack, seams opened at the waist and ran vertically up to the armpits, and the breast plate separated from the neck down to the solar plexus. Bending over, I was able to shuck off the top part of the suit which fell to the floor with a dull clank. A plate on the hip opened so that a second button released the suit bottom. It had seams which ran from the waist to the ankles. A moment later I was standing next to the pile of armor I'd worn.
"Pretty cool, huh?"
"It stopped a cobalt laser?" said Kal.
"Sure. And that's not all. There are mini rail guns built into the sleeves so the fire at what ever you point at. The suit is movement assisted, and multiplies the strength of the wearer by a factor of about 100. It's environmentally controlled inside, it won't waver from sixty-eight degrees. It's shielded against every form of radiation Penny and I could think of, and seals up so tight even Zorac didn't know what was in it. When I wore it out of the construction lab, Zorac went nuts. Oh yeah, it's also got a head in it."
"Sounds like you've thought of everything" said Brian.
"Hell, it does more than that." I turned over the top half and gave Brian and Kal a look at the back. "Check it out. Jab put tiny sprint engines on it. It flies, and is capable of short bursts of flight. We haven't tried it out of course, but we guess it's good for about fifteen minutes at full power."
"How fast?" as Kal.
"Penny says about 12,000 kilometers an hour outside atmosphere, and about two-thirds of that in an atmosphere."
Brian whistled softly. "Communications?"
"Obviously. It has both carrier wave and psionic capabilities equal to my ship. Look here. It even has pockets." I said pointing to the pants. "Not only that, but there are interchangeable outer gloves that provide a series of tools. What do you think?"
"I think you and Brian ought to glue some of the cat's fur back on" said Kal, dryly.
"I don't think so" I replied.
"You can't still be angry with him?"
"No, of course not. Look." A five foot tall armored cat thudded in the door.
"Say word kitty and you cat food."
Brian's eyebrows went up. "Does his suit have all the features that yours does?"
"As ours do, yeah. Everyone has armor that does the same thing. We even put a special area in the left leg of Kal's suit to accommodate her tail. I didn't think it would be comfortable cramming inside a pair of these pant things."
"You get a backrub for that" smiled Kal. I arched an eyebrow and grinned at Brian.
"Where's Karen?" he asked me, ignoring the grin.
"In the galley. She discovered that you had some carrots on board and is making a carrot cake. God, that lady loves to co..."
The Sunbeam rocked as an explosion blossomed against the rocks above it. The lights dimmed and went reddish again and Zorac announced that we were under attack.
"Is this thing fixed?" I asked pointing at the drive. Brian nodded as he started towards the door. A moment later he was ordering Zorac to light the fires and I was steering the ship out of the small canyon we'd come to rest in.
Fighting for our lives
We knew the shit had hit the fan the moment the Sunbeam emerged from the rock overhang we had been hiding under. The sky above us looked like it was on fire. As we cleared the canyon, Zorac tagged twelve spheres that looked real damn familiar.
"Heads up folks, we got company!" and I strapped myself into my chair as I lit up the weapon systems.
"Hang on, this might get a little rough," came Bob's yell as he kicked the drive system as high as it would go.
They were waiting for us as we came boiling out of the canyon. Before we even went supersonic, the first shots began to impact the shields we'd just finished repairing. In the seconds before the I got the weapons on-line the entire ship rang like a bell from the impacts they thankfully absorbed.
"First target, bearing 45, mark 7... Fire!" It had worked before, but this time the twin lances of the matter conversion beams just glanced off the shields of the drone I'd targeted. "Shit! Bob, get us out of here. That damned thing is learning how to handle our weapons!"
"I'm trying, but this atmosphere is slowing us down" came the growl from beside me. I spared a glance at the rear monitor. Our passage through the atmosphere was leaving a wake of destruction that would have destroyed a good portion of the planet, if it hadn't already been fried to a cinder. "Clear! We're free to... Holy shit!"
I looked forward and stared at the throat to hell. The atmosphere hadn't been on fire. It had been reflecting the glow from the blue-gold tunnel of fire that we were accelerating down.
"Kal, what the hell is that?"
My mate was still learning her way around the science station, so it took her a moment to reply. "It's solar plasma! That station is firing a beam at the planet and we're seeing the leakage around the edges. It looks like the edges of the planet are being boiled off into space."
I looked over at Bob. "That thing wants us bad."
"Worry about it later. Right now we have bigger problems. Shit!" and he through us into a turn to evade one of the drones. "Damnit, this thing flies like a brick!"
I was trying to target another drone when the hull vibrated beneath my feet. "What the hell was that?"
"Something got through the shields and hit the hull. No damage showing, but I've no idea what it was" came Karen's voice from the engineering station. "I don't know what most of these things even mean."
"Do the best you can. Ah, gotcha you son of a bitch!" and I fired a Hyperwave Torp at the drone I'd gotten a lock on. A few seconds later I was rewarded by a flash as it detonated and blew the drone into the elsewhere.
"Well you better do as well with the others." Bob was beginning to sound a little stressed. "Those things are more maneuverable than we are and they are forcing us closer to that wall."
"Let me guess what happens if we hit it."
"You don't want to know" came my mates reply. "The energy level in that wall will cut through our shields like a hot blade through snath."
Bob leaned over and whispered to me. "If you have something up your sleeve, now is the time to play it. I don't know how long I can keep this up. The Sunbeam wasn't designed as a fighter."
I sat in my chair and locked the weapons on another drone, while I ran through the surprisingly short list of options in my mind. In the end, I could only find one that gave me any hope of success under the current conditions. "Everyone strap themselves in and grab a command headset. Let me know when your set."
With one eye on the targeting screen, I reached down and pulled my headset from under the console. I was adjusting it on my head when the heads up display went <ping> as it got a target lock. "Torp away!" and I fastened the strap beneath my chin. The flare of light off the port side told me we only had ten drones to deal with.
"Set, I think."
"Bob, watch your flight parameters closely. The upper limits are about to shift."
"I hope so. This tub won't turn worth a shit."
"Your running into the safety limits. You won't in a moment."
"Get ready. Zorac, prepare to accept command override."
"Ready. Please state sequence and override code."
"Shit, hold it a moment" came Bob's scream. "Jab, where the hell are you?"
Oh shit. I'd forgotten the fuzzy little monster since I hadn't spotted him in my glance around the flightdeck. "Where was he last?"
"He was headed for my ship. Jab, answer me right now!"
"Damn, that raises another problem. Kalindra, prepare to sever the docking field with Bob's ship."
"What? You can't just abandon it! We might need it."
"Shit... Ok, get Jab onboard it and have him undock from us. We can't have it attached when I invoke the override. The stress on the hull would tear us apart."
"Jab, damnit, answer me!"
"Jab here. I heard Mage, I take ship. Give me two minutes" came his voice over the intercom.
I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We might have our differences, but the death he would have suffered had we not remembered him would have been particularly messy. "Zorac?"
I looked over at Bob and motioned towards the heads up display he was watching. "Accept command override, sequence 'Anything Goes', authorization 'Penny Louise Antoine'. Override to take effect in," I looked at the ships clock, "100 seconds."
"Authorization valid, override accepted" and he began a countdown.
"Listen up people. When the override kicks in, we are only going to be able to communicate via the command headsets. I expect all hell to break loose, so watch your consoles closely."
"What the hell are you doing" came the question from beside me.
"I'm removing the limits and safeties on all of the onboard systems. Take things easy at first, even hull metal can be shattered."
"What about us?"
"That's covered" and I went back to targeting the next drone. Bob was having a terrible time trying to evade the fire from the drones and avoid hitting the wall of fire we were slowly growing closer to.
"Jab on ship. Me help with killing."
"Docking field released" came Karen's yell.
"Good luck little buddy" yelled Bob over the noise as we took another hit from the drones.
"Me be back. Still have revenge to take!"
At the ten count, every hatch on the ship sealed itself. At the count of five, the four people sitting on the flightdeck were sealed in their chairs by a stasis and environment field.
"3... 2..." and the internal gravity vanished as well as the inertial damping effects of the main drive.
"Give'm hell boss" came Penny's comment in my headset.
"1... Override in effect" and two thirds of the systems of the Sunbeam went dead as the energy was shunted to the remaining systems. All over the flightdeck, entire consoles and gauges went dark as the systems that they monitored flickered into silence. Those that remained on, started shifting their scales as they recalibrated themselves.
*Holy shit, is that acceleration gauge broke?*
I couldn't move in the stasis field, but I could still think. Calling up the gauge in question in my mind, I checked the readings. *Looks close. Just take it easy until you get the feel of it.* The normal max acceleration of the Sunbeam was just over 1000 G's. The gauge Bob was watching had just scaled up to almost 100,000 and was still flickering as if it had trouble believing its own readings.
A second later, Bob jerked the ship into a tight turn. A minute ago, the safeties would have modified it into a wide arc. Now the ship made a violent right angle turn and ran head on into one of the drones.
<SLAM> and I could feel the hull reverberating even through the stasis field. *Damnit, I said take it slow. You have no safeties. The ship will try to do a 180 if you tell it to. It'll tear itself apart trying to obey you.*
I called up the nav display and watched it in my mind. We still had nine drones on our tail, though we were starting to pull away from them as Bob kept edging our speed upwards. With a thought, I released the interlocks on another weapon. *Bob, can you get them into a group? I've got something that should be able to deal with all of them at once if you can get them into a cluster.*
*Honey, be careful on those turns. If I'm reading this stuff correctly, you are beginning to warp the hull* came Karen's quiet thought from behind us.
*I'll see what I can do* and the Sunbeam began to make a slow spiral turn that began to decrease in diameter. At the same time, the wing tips of the ship began to take on a gentle blue glow as the weapon charged.
*I need about 20 seconds, then prepare to loose most of your power when I take the shot*
*That should be just about right*
As the Sunbeam had tightened its spiral, the drones behind us had begun to bunch up in their attempt to keep up with us. When the fire control system notified us that it was ready, Bob broke us out of the spiral and slammed on the brakes. From something like 10 percent the speed of light, and using everything the main drive could provide. The Sunbeam came to a dead stop in space in something like 100 feet. If it hadn't been for the stasis fields, the entire crew would have been compressed into small stains on the main port.
The drones flashed by us at a speed too great to even register on our eye's, but not too fast for Zorac to track. Just as Bob had set it up, they closed ranks and began to turn back towards us. The moment they were close enough, I fired.
The gentle blue glow along the wing tips became a lightning storm of energy that flashed along the hull as it raced forward and sprang from the nose of the ship. Even as they were registering it, the beam hit the center most drone, passing through its shields like a blow torch through tissue paper. As the beam hit the normal matter of the drone, about half of the atomic nuclei began to flicker between normal and anti-matter. The rest just vanished into elsewhere. Even as the first drone flashed into raw energy, the beam expanded into a bubble and began to work its way through the others. When the fire died, we found ourselves staring at empty space.
*And so endith the lesson* as I powered down the weapons systems. *Zorac, initiate...*
*Not yet!* came the cry from my mate. *We've got another problem. The tunnel is gone!*
I called up the visual feed and look to our side. *That's a problem?*
*Look behind us. I'm still getting energy readings even if we can't see the beam anymore.*
I called the rear view up on my display and found myself staring at the planet we had left behind. As I watched, the center began to glow with a dull red light that started to work its way through the spectrum.
*Holy shit. Its tightened down the beam! If it can't force us into it, it's going to blow the planet out of the way. Bob, get us out of here!* Even as I yelled, the Sunbeam had begun to accelerate. With one eye on the planet and one on the instruments. I watched as Bob began to shutdown the last of the systems that were still powered up. The weapons console went completely dead and the shields dropped. They were useless against the energy being directed our way.
*Keep us behind the planet, I'd be willing to bet it would spot us if we ducked out from behind it to dodge the beam.*
*I don't doubt it. That thing has to have sensors scattered all over this system.*
Behind us, the center of the planet was now glowing white hot from the energy it was absorbing. It wouldn't be long now before it split like a grape and exploded from the inside out. Navigation was one of the few systems still powered up and I watch our track as we passed the orbit of the second planet in the system.
*I don't think we are going to make it. Even like this, we can't out run that beam when it breaks through* came Bob's quiet remark in my mind.
I looked at our speed and had to agree with him. We were at about 50 percent of the speed of light and accelerating as I watched. *I know* and I thought about my mate sitting behind me. Nobody would ever know what had happened to any of us.
Farewell, good friend
We each sat in the Sunbeam staring glumly ahead, not wanting to look behind us. But we had to. The sight of the energy boiling the planet was compelling, and we'd steal reluctant glances at its vicious beauty. "Look!" whispered Kalindra hoarsely, and we did.
The center of the disk that was the planet was beginning to glow a dull red. As we looked, it brightened to a yellow and then brilliant white. "It's going to go any second now" said Brian quietly.
"Yeah, I know" I replied. "We're toast." I started to call to Karen but then changed my mind and stayed quiet. There was no reason to say good-bye, it would be better if we just flashed out of existence, and Karen wasn't seeing what we were. I looked at Brian. "Well, my friend. A fine kettle of fish we're being boiled in."
He sighed in response and looked ahead of us again. His eyes straining to find something else we might hide behind. It didn't matter. We had about five seconds before the planet flashed and was gone. Then we'd be gone too.
*KAI TAY EN MEENZAI*
It was so loud it startled all of us. "JAB! Get the hell out of here!" Like a spectral disembodied claw, my ship appeared dead ahead and grew like topsy. Jab was coming into the solar system at about .7C. Weapons on the ship were powered up to maximum, and it made gave the ship more of an ethereal look; energy plasma rippled across its skin like Saint Elmo's fire as it rushed straight at us.
Brian yelled for Jab to turn, but before the first word was out of his mouth, the little ship winked past us. At the same moment, space lit up behind us in a pyrotechnic display of awesome brilliance. The remains of the planet exploded. Chunks flew in every direction, some even passing us as the release of energy launched them at near light speed. We looked to the center of the blast, and saw my ship turn from a tiny and receding black dot to a growing pool of nothingness that began to grab and draw everything around it into its maw.
"oh jab. oh no, jab" I croaked.
"Shit. He released containment on the engine" mumbled Brian.
As we watched, the growing black hole that was my ship and my friend screamed in at the star, drawing and holding the station's stellar beam as it went. It kept moving in on the star, to envelop and consume it with so little fanfare that it was an anti-climax. Space behind us was empty and still.
"Your ship, Brian." my voice cracked, and I began to undo my restraints.
"Stay there, Bob" said Brian evenly. The ship has no life support for a few moments, and no gravity. It has very little on-line at the moment." I nodded and sat back, laying my hands limply on my lap. They hung in the weightlessness. I couldn't resist the burning in my eyes, and I gave in to the tears. We were alive, but Nahn was dead.
"He gave his life to save us."
"Save you, Bob. Nahn loved you as much as you love him."
I couldn't respond. My shoulders began to shake and the sobs erupted. I could feel Kal in my mind, trying to soothe the pain of loss I felt. In my frustration I repelled her, but she held me that much tighter. Brian looked at me with sad and moist eyes. In that instant I knew that all of the fights were just the antics of two competing friends. I could feel his pain over Jab, and his empathy for me.
"What's happening?" asked Karen from the engineering section. "What's going on up there?" I could hear it in my mind as Brian began to explain, but I couldn't make out the words. Things around me were a blur, and I could only hear the blood in my ears.
The comm system, coming on-line line crackled to life. "You dock Jab now yes?"
Everyone stopped what they were doing and thinking instantly.
"Low fuel for sprint. I dock now?"
"Zorac! Engage the tractor" barked Brian.
"Minimal power available. Both ships will have to pace each other" said the computer in return.
"Jab, you have to..."
"Jab here is pacing. Do quick ok?"
Zorac: "Tractor beam locked...latches ready."
There was a slight bump as the docking mechanism grabbed the little ship and held it tightly to the Sunbeam's belly.
"Discontinue all overrides, restore gravity, and engage life support." Brian told Zorac. Our ears popped as the stasis and environment shields Brian has given us released and we were in cabin pressure. I felt my weight press into the seat and I rushed to get the restraints off of myself. As I stood on unsteady legs, I called to the computer myself.
"Zorac, engage space normal speeds, auto-nav to the lunar lab."
"Heading is oh-two-eight point one. Velocity is point-three see. Auto nav engaged." I didn't hear him. I ran to the cabin door and pulled at it furiously.
"What the hell?" The hatch refused to budge. "Zorac, release all doors and unlatch all the locks."
"There are no locks engaged."
I kicked the door. "Goddamn it!"
"I have a feeling that the door frame is warped" said Brian. "Here, let's try this together." The two of us began to yank on the door, but it was stuck firmly.
*Jab. The door is stuck.*
*Jab open. Stand away*
"Stand away?" said Brian. I pushed him backwards as the door suddenly exploded open as Jab fired a small charge from his railgun. A second later, still wearing his armor, was standing next to me. I grabbed his neck and hugged him hard against the ungiving suit.
"I thought I'd lost you" I said. "I thought you were gone. When we saw the ship release the containment on the singularity, we figured you for star food."
"Nahn no put call for Doktor Kevorkian. You kill self with no Jab." He tried to sound firm, but he couldn't hide the purr in the back of his throat. "Gone Jab would miss you bad."
"But how? How can you have blown the ship and still used it to catch up with us again?"
"Jab blow engine, crew pod fine."
Brian started to laugh. At first it was a slight chuckle, but turned into a warm guffaw. We all joined in. "That's rich" said Brian. You traded a power plant for five lives. Remind me never to negotiate a barter with you."
"Shit. That's great!" I fairly yelled.
"A shame in a way" mused Kal aloud.
Karen appeared in the blown hatchway. "What's a shame? That, that, THING being gone? That's no shame, that's just the way it should be!"
"What?" snapped Karen. "What did you say? How can it be gone to have that thing dead?"
"Not wrong to want gone. Is wrong think it gone."
My stomach tightened. "Don't tell me that fucking thing is still with us? How can that be? We saw that black hole eat everything!"
"Move out of way" said the cat simply.
* * *
The Guardian reached down and found the well dry. It pondered the thought that it's main source of power was gone, and how long it could function on the reserves it had siphoned off of its assault on the planet. There was something more important to consider, and it did. The intruders had killed the star. The center of its universe was gone. Ancient programming told the Guardian that this could not go unpunished. Again it brought its propulsion systems to life, and with a vengeance which would be relentless, it began its search for the intruders.
NOTE: This story contains gratuitous violence, dropping anvils and other such silliness. Those with weak senses of humor, should have bailed out several chapters back.
We had been working on it for a week, but the inside of the Sunbeam still looked like a bomb had been detonated inside it. When we had first landed back in the lunar lab. Karen had taken one look at the galley and had informed Bob that, "You made it, you clean it up." The two of them had headed home with the argument going full tilt.
The first day back had been filled with planning. As much as we both hated to admit it. Both Jab and I had found the other to be a decent engineer when we sat down and started planning the modifications to our respective ships. Having once been the chief engineer on a starship that made my poor thing look lame, he had been able to point out a great many ways that I could improve its function. My turn came at mixing things in odd fashions to produce something completely new. Between the two of us, we figured we had a decent chance at beating that damned mechanical nightmare we had left behind us.
As we had left the system to return home. Penny had left the survey probes behind with a communications relay in deep space. None of us was yet sure that the thing couldn't follow us home. So, the probes had been feeding us sketchy updates on what it was doing. So far, we seemed to have gotten lucky. The station had survived the implosion of the star, but had made no move in our direction. Instead it had slowly moved to take up orbit around the largest of the two gas giants that had once orbited the star Jab had wiped from the universe we knew.
Back in the lab, things were going pretty smooth with the repair and refit. The Sunbeam was capable of flight, but most of the newer weapons and auxiliary systems were still being installed. Bob's ship was still un-usable for the moment. It would take time to rebuild the half of his ship that was missing. That didn't mean though that Jab couldn't work his furry butt off fabricating and installing systems in the crew half that rested on the lab floor. In short, things were humming along nicely until Penny told me I had a call from Kalindra waiting for me.
"I'm a tad busy at the moment, can you pipe it in here?" I had my hands full of the control array for the port grav-torp projector. I only had one of the anchor bolts on place, and didn't want to waste the time to undo it, drop the mess on the floor to answer the phone, then start all over again.
"I think she wants to talk to you in private."
"So? You would listen in anyway."
"I would not!" came the indignant cry from the speaker. "Or at least not to the real personal stuff."
"Tell me all about it later. Meantime, pipe it in here." There was a click and a short burst of static from the speaker.
"I'm here, I've just got my hands full at the moment. What's up?"
"Do you have a moment? There is a small problem we need to take care of."
I mumbled something under my breath I hoped neither of the them heard. "I'm standing here with my hands full. What's the problem now?" I said in an exasperated tone of voice.
"The Central Library is questioning the family name I tried to register for us."
"Huh?" I damn near dropped the whole assembly on my foot. "You called me to tell me some clown doesn't like the name?"
"No, I called you to tell you some stupid clown says you aren't my mate."
I may have been sleepy. I may even have been an ass when I didn't need to be. But, I was rapidly growing to learn what that tone of voice meant. "Who do I have to kill?"
"What? Kill? You don't have to kill anybody. They just claim that the ritual was invalid because of the modifications I made."
Hah, I'd caught her by surprise. I needed a way to relax and this latest screwup promised to be entertaining. Throwing the wrench across the bay, I released the assembly I'd been working on and stomped my way to my home lab. Before I'd gone five feet, there came a loud screeching noise at it stripped the single bolt that had been holding it and crashed to the floor. "Kill! Idiots die!"
"Huh, Penny what's wrong with him?"
"Ah oh. He's in one of his moods again."
I swaggered my way to the gate and keyed it open. "Kill! Maim! Destroy!" I was having a great time!
That stopped me, and I swung around to point a finger at the monitor on the wall. "You! Silly female type construct!"
"Yes?" came the timid reply.
"Either teach my mate the difference between the meaning and the word, or quit trying to teach her how to cuss. One more slip like that and I'll sell you to a jewelry shop at cost." I was standing in front of the gate, swing my arms beneath me as I bent over like an ape. "Grrrrrrrrr...."
"Better!" I screamed as I leapt through the gate. A second later I had focused and teleported to the entryway of the Central Library. Just before I faded, I heard a quiet whisper coming from the lab behind me.
"Should we stop him?" asked my mate.
"Naw, he gets like this sometimes. Just have some chocolate and peaches ready and he'll be fine" came the snickering reply.
As I appeared, I whipped up a smoke cloud and bounced a small lightning bolt off the floor. "Arrrrgggghhhhh." People were already starting to scatter as I swaggered my way out of the cloud and to the information desk. "Grrrrrrr... Where is the family records section, I'm hungry!" The poor female behind the desk just pointed down one of the hallways and watched as I rumbled my way the direction she had pointed.
By the time I got to the area labeled 'Registration' I had changed my gait to a fair imitation of Quasimodo. Dragging one foot behind me, I swished my way to the first open terminal along the counter. The short male behind the terminal was staring me like he had just seen a rabid animal appear in front of him.
"You!" and I tried my best to drool out of the left side of my face. "Brian Wayne Antoine ne Kan! Type it in and tell me what shows up!"
A few key clicks later, and a small argument over how it was spelled using the Velan character set, he gave a weak smile and said. "Uh, no such record?"
"Gurrrrrrrrr....." and a little more drool. "Kalindra nal Kan" and I nodded at the terminal again. A few more keystrokes, "No record?"
"Arrrrrgggghhhh. Wrong answer! Stupid machine, needs fixing!" I reached out and touched the back of the cabinet. With a shower of sparks and all the smoke it could generate, the terminal made a quite <poink> sound and died. With a grin that showed teeth, braces and my tongue hanging out of my mouth, I shuffled to the next terminal.
"Name, Brian Wayne Antoine ne Kan, type!"
I give the attendant credit for trying. She must have typed every variant of my name she could think of. The result was the same, "No record" and she ran away to stand by the first attendant. "Stupid machine, no got brain." With a gesture, a large anvil with the word 'Acme' on the side materialized in the air over the terminal and destroyed it. I turned without moving and looked at the next attendant. She just screamed and ran before I even moved.
"No fun, have to look up by self." I shuffled to the terminal she had vacated and swung it around. "You", and I pointed at the person standing in the next line over. "What mean 'remove all record, date..."
"Stop right there!"
I grinned and turned to see who I'd gotten this time. I found myself facing the head archivist judging from the insignia on his cloak.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Fixing stupid machine" and I turned back to the terminal to start typing.
"Here, stop that" and he ran up to grab my hand.
As he grabbed my hand, I levitated him and spun him around until he was upside down. "You give mate problem. Me give you problem. Grrrrrr."
"Damned animal. I knew I was right to refuse the registration."
"Jackpot!" Reaching over, I touched his nose and discharged enough static electricity into him to make every hair of his pelt stand at attention. When he finished screaming, he looked like one of those old cartoon cats that had just come out of the dryer. I stood up and wiped the drool off of my mouth on his cloak. "Now, I'd like to discuss this small problem me and my mate seem to be having with her registering our family name."
"Put me down you hairless..."
I reached out with a thought and detonated the terminal behind me. "I said, I'd like to discuss..." It took three more terminals going bang before he shut up and started to listen.
"I think there has been a slight paperwork foul-up, and you would be more than happy to straighten it out for my mate, correct?"
"You can't intimidate the Central Library. I say the ritual was invalid and that is all that counts."
Ok asshole, time to call and raise. Sitting myself down on the floor, I patted it and asked him "How well do you think this place will function from orbit?" With a harmless glow spreading from my hands, I reached out mentally and began to shake the floor. The rumble that resulted was all that I could have asked for.
"From orbit?" came the squeak.
"I say the ritual was valid. It might be wise to believe an ArchMage when they explain something to you nicely."
I dropped back into my drooling idiot routine. "Kill! Maim! Write bad microcode!"
Gathering what little dignity he had left. And hanging upside down looking like a hugh powder puff hadn't left him much. He cleared his throat and told me, "Maybe a small paperwork error did occur."
I spun him rightside up and lowered him to the ground. "Good thinking. Let's get it fixed shall we?" I followed him to one of the few terminals that was still working and watched as he entered the data to confirm the family name Kalindra had wanted to register. "Thank you. Nice having done business with such a professional staff. I may have to visit more often." I swear he went pale beneath his pelt.
With a grin, I focused and teleported back to the gate. As I stepped through, I could hear Penny and Kal arguing over whether to go find out what I was up to. "No need, I've gotten everything straightened out."
"What did you do?" came the suspicious comment from Kal.
I put on my best 'who me' face. "Why nothing, much. I just talked to the library and helped them figure out their little paper work problem." Trying to hide my grin, I stepped through to the lunar lab and went back to work on my ship.
"I don't trust him" came the comment from the open line.
"You better call the library. Knowing him, he's either telling the truth just to be obnoxious, or you are going to be paying the damage bills for years."
I just snickered and began to whistle 'How much is that doggie in the window' as I tried to figure out how to straighten the assembly frame to fit it into the slot in the wing. Yep, it felt good to relax.
Ah, safe at home!
Karen and I got about two hours of time alone before the kids descended on the house. All arriving at the same general time from the places they'd been, each immediately set about making life as difficult as it could be. Ficus threatened to show me the exploding cat trick --an act involving a family pet and the microwave. Megan commandeered the phone to continue a five day phone call to a girlfriend. Aron and Brenna simply began to fist fight. No fancy stuff there.
I turned on the television and the stereo <parent note: when it gets bad, make lots of noise yourself and you won't notice all of the specific incidents, only the ones that let blood.> and sat down to the computer to catch up on e-mail and news.
Karen was flitting happily between the shelves of the kitchen, pausing to grab ingredients from here or there to do some baking. All in all it felt like home, and it was good to be there. For two whole days nothing tried to kill or even wound me. But times come and go, and before long it was time to turn my attention back to the business at hand. Karen and I hopped into the car to drive to Brian's. From there we'd use the gate to get to the Lunar Lab. It took about three feet to realize that the car had a flat tire, and two seconds to remember that my spare was flat too. "Damnit!"
I got out of the car and glared at the deflated rubber on the front left. "Son of a bitch!" I felt a burst of rage boil up from inside me. It exploded in my mind as a kaleidoscope of negative images. The tire was suddenly gone and the wheel rim hit the driveway with a clank. "Huh?" I looked around to see where Brian might be. He was nowhere in sight.
*Brian, that wasn't funny. Put the tire back on... but put air in it while you're at it, will you?*
No response. I was impatient and angry. I hate flat tires, and Brian's little joke was pissing me off.
*BRIAN! GOD DAMNIT!*
In the Sunbeam, Brian sat bolt upright and slammed his head into the underside of the control panel he was working on. *HUH?*
*GIVE ME BACK THE TIRE!*
*What are you talking about?* %confusion%
*My tire. Give me back the stupid tire.*
*Bob, I don't know what you're talking about... Where are you?*
*I'm at home, and don't give me that.*
*You aren't very telepathic, are you using the old headset?*
Actually no, I wasn't. Standing there in my front yard, I shouldn't be able to raise anyone more than a few feet away. Unless it was Jab, of course. Him I could talk to over a fair distance.
*Brian, we need to get together.*
*Ok, but a little later. I have to finish attaching this silly unit to the bulkhead.*
I could picture Brian, wedged halfway under a panel, with a few tools laying on his chest. A half second and a >pop< later, and I was on the Sunbeam's bridge.
"Brian, I asked you to warn me before you did that." Brian came out from under and looked at me. He blinked a few times and then he swiveled his head from side to side looking for whoever else might be there.
"I didn't teleport you. Penny! Where's Kal?"
A remote floated in through the still damaged hatchway. "She's in your quarters taking a bath." Brian stood and looked at me closely.
"I want you to try something. Picture the two of us looking at your car."
"Just do it. I have this idea..."
I closed my eyes and imagined Brian and I standing in my yard, looking at the three-legged Honda. When I opened my eyes, we were still on the Sunbeam's bridge. "Ok, so?"
"Try again. Picture us being there. Feel us there. You know, what we'd hear, feel, see. Do that." I did and nothing happened. "Maybe it's Nahn."
"Hey Jab!" I called. "Where are you?"
*On surface. Test armor*
Brian looked at me. "Hmmm. This is odd." Brian then got a look as though he'd found himself the brunt of a practical joke. "Penny, what do the gate logs show?"
"No activity since Bob and Karen used it to go home. The Velan gate was used --you used it when you went to the library."
"Something funny is going on here" I said. "And I'm not sure I like it. I mean, I've got you popping me in here and out there, and now something we can't even see is helping you. I'm going to end up living tissue in solid rock somewhere."
Brian nodded. "That's a real possibility."
"Thanks loads" I said. There was ice forming on my words. I turned to go through the hatch and into the lab. I was going to head to the air lock and see if Jab was giving me shit. As I turned, I hooked my arm on a sharp edge of the splintered hatch frame. Blood began to seep down my arm. "Son of a BITCH!" I glared the the shard of metal, and with a fast hiss, it vaporized.
"Blessed Spoor!" Kal had apparently finished her bath and had come out the the ship to see how things were going.
"Blessed spoor?" I asked.
"Holy shit..." said Brian, looking at Penny. He took my arm and ran the sleeve up. There was a two inch tear in the skin over the biceps. Brian sung two notes and it healed.
I looked at the cooling metal. "I did that, didn't I?"
"Yes, I think you did" said Brian. "The question is how."
"I don't know. Nothing like this has ever happened before."
"It's the virus" said Kal.
"What do you mean?"
"When you had the virus, and were healed, you absorbed certain qualities of those round you. Think about who was there."
"Well, it was you, Brian, the cat and Karen."
"And now you're demonstrating psi powers."
"Get outta town." Kal turned to leave.
"Wait, Kal. That's a figure of speech. Bob just meant he doesn't believe it."
"Oh. Well Bob, you should believe it. It's the only explanation."
"Then how come I haven't been able to do any of this crap before?"
"It takes time for the strengths to build" said Brian. "But these sure came on fast."
I stooped down and stared at another shard of metal protruding from the door frame. I pictured heat, the depths of hell, zillions of free electrons flying in all directions. I pictured anti-matter, bloody corpses, and even President Clinton, but the metal stayed where it was. It didn't even get warm. "I don't get it."
"We're going to have to teach him control" said Kal. She was looking at Brian.
"Yeh. With his temper he's likely to fry half the planet."
"HELLO!" I snarled. "I AM here, you know. Ever think of talking to me?"
"Relax Bob. Don't get upset."
I growled. "I hate it when people tell me not to get upset."
"What we're trying to tell you, Bob, is that your powers are tied to your emotions. Particularly anger. Looking at what you did to the door frame should tell you that you need to be careful. You could damage or even kill." I felt a little sheepish.
"So what do I do now?"
"For now just make sure you don't get pissed. Get Karen, and when you come back, we're going to have you spend some time with Kimi and Kal."
Obla dee, Obla dah
The old woman sat listening to Brian. Kimi hadn't spoken a word from the time Brian started until he wrapped it up. "And that was the last incident we saw. I don't think there have been any others since."
Now she spoke. "It is wise to have the upstart trained. But I sense an irreverence in him. I would wonder about what he might do as his power increases and he learns the subtle controls to use it. Perhaps it is better to kill him and have done with it."
"No. Bob is impulsive, it's true. And he is a cynic. But he has a good heart."
"White easily becomes black. We shall see."
* * *
Reaching out with sensors and probes, the Guardian searched for the infidel intruders. It could not find them. Engaging the thrusters, it broke free of it's orbit and began a slow drift to the next of the gas giants. The dead star beckoned with gravity from a mass the size of a golfball, and greater strength that it had before collapse. The Guardian knew it would move from the innermost planets of the solar system to the outermost. And always in the direction the infidels had departed in.
* * *
Dreams came and went at a furious pace. They were a mixture of quiet scenes, chaos and confusion, and deadly nightmares. The restraint Brian and Kimi cast over me confined me tightly.
"He is a complex man."
"I think we all are" said Brian.
"He is as you say he is. But his power is different. Look here" and Kimi and Brian looked into me. "Do you see?"
"I see it, but I don't get it. His burning isn't steady, it's strobing."
"Ah. I see. The time between the strobes is changing. It's getting longer." Kimi beamed at Brian.
"You do understand, then."
"His is a power which is out of synchronization with his reality. You see how each period between the strobes is becoming longer. But see as well that the strength of the strobes increases as well."
"Yes, yeah I see that."
"He has experienced a change in time."
"I don't follow you at all."
"When a ship is getting ready to dock, what do your instruments tell you? Do they not show a series of contacts before the ship is properly moored?"
"Yes, but what is Bob docking with?"
"How can that be?" asked Kalindra. "How can he be apart from himself?"
"The answer is within him. Did you not see it?" Kimi looked at Kal, and then at Brian. "He has been caught in time."
"In time for what?" asked Brian.
"No, I did not mean it that way. I meant he is caught in this time we perceive together, and another one. A time which exists only for him. He has this time, and one an infinitely small moment just ahead of or just behind this one."
"I'm getting a headache" mumbled Kal.
Brian smiled. "It could happen that way. We were caught in time rifts when we were near the station. It's the only explanation for what was happening. But why weren't we all affected?"
"It is difficult to say. Perhaps he moved through a curve in space that you did not. Time is a paradox."
Brian mused this over. "I think that's it. What we have is two Bobs. One that exists in time with us, and another which exists slightly before us."
"Or after. We also saw that distance decreased the effects, so the other Bob is slowly merging with this Bob."
"Can you hear yourself?" Kal asked Brian. "It sounds like equine..."
Brian raised his hand. "That's horse shit you're trying to say. And I'd agree, except that I can imagine this. What if there are actually three Bobs. This one here, one just ahead of here and one just behind. Say that the time for the other two Bobs is in flux. Maybe they're moving ahead and then behind. Or maybe it's even an orbit around this one. Each time they pass, they cancel out, and each time they're to the front and back of now, they're all somehow joined."
"Imagine sending a fax from the beach" said Kal. "I don't believe a word of this."
"It is not so far-fetched" shrugged Kimi. "It is even better than my explanation."
"If I'm right," said Brian, "then we have to find a way to get all of the Bobs together, or get them split apart like they should be."
"It would seem that it would be the first. The dark periods are still lengthening, and the light is ever stronger. The upstart which emerges will have the additive energy of all of the Bobs. No matter if they are one, two or ten."
The three of them looked at each other for a moment, then Brian spoke. "How can we help him?"
"To help, we must turn away. Let him find his own way. He would be a powerful man. If he had magic, he would be a strong Mage."
"Yeh. I think he would." Brian pictured himself being teleported as he'd teleported Bob, and shuddered. "We better let him up."
It was like climbing out of a deep hole. Waking was hard, but when I had, I found myself laying on a couch with Brian, Kal and Kimi looking at me.
"How do you feel?" asked Kal.
"Groggy. What did you guys do to me?"
"Nothing, little one. We looked into you." I pictured a messy room with open drawers, clothes laying all about, and other clutter and disarray.
"Actually, it is" said Brian.
"Yeah, how so?"
"You're a telepath."
"Oh gee. I thought it was a new car." I knew I was as telepathic as a rock. "If I'm so telepathic, how come I don't know what you all are thinking?" Ha! That showed 'em.
"Because your strength is telekinesis."
I sagged. "I don't want to hear this."
"Yes, upstart. You do."
"Stop calling me upstart. Why do I?" I was getting annoyed. I felt probed and prodded, and I didn't like other people knew what was on my mind when I didn't.
"So you won't hurt someone, or yourself."
"Then," said Brian, "I'll leave you to Kimi. I have to continue to work on the ship, and Penny and Nahn have to get started with the replacement pod for your ship."
"Wait" said Kal. "I'll help you" and the two walked off.
I was left alone with Kimi. She looked at me like an entomologist looks at a beetle pinned to cardboard. "And now," she said as she sat down, "we shall see what we shall see."
Double, Double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and Karen bubble
"Karen, we have got to stop meeting this way." She just laughed and handed me a large plate of cheesecake. Balancing it on the edge of the console I'd been working on. I proceeded to dig in. "But maybe we can make that much later," I muttered around a mouth of cheesecake.
"Good to see you like it. I was afraid you were going to waste away to nothing there for awhile."
"Fat chance of that with all the food you girls keep pushing at me." At the mention of girls, Karen had turned to look towards the door of the cabin Kal and I shared on the Sunbeam. "Hey, remember me? Quit worrying about them. Bob is probably safer in there then anyplace else on Earth."
"She's still female and I can't help wondering."
Bob and Karen had made the trip up to the lab to bring me dinner. Or rather Karen had dragged Bob along when she had decided that I needed some food in me. They hadn't been on board more than about ten minutes when Kal had taken a good look at Bob and said, "You need to relax before you fall over and hurt yourself." With that, she had decided that it was a good time to give him the back rub he had earned by building the custom suit of armor for her. I thought Karen was going to explode.
"Well stop wondering." I closed my eyes and visualized the link to my mate. %Curiosity%
"He's fine. I can tell you from first hand knowledge just how good she is at giving a back rub. By the time she's done, he won't be able to do much beyond falling asleep."
"As long as it's by himself..." she muttered.
"It will be, unless you want to borrow the cabin for the night. Kal and I can use one of the others." I could see her thinking it over.
"No, we have to get home. The kids have probably destroyed the house by now."
"Who did you leave in charge?"
I blew crumbs all over the console. "The house is gone, and probably a good part of the neighborhood."
"Actually, he's been getting better lately."
She was staring at me like she wanted to ask something. "Go ahead. I don't bite, or at least I don't leave marks." I think that was the first time I had ever seen Karen blush.
"Actually, I was thinking that it might be nice to return the favor."
"Would you like a back rub?"
I did my best to hide it, but Kalindra felt the shudder along the link. %Worry?% I put the plate down and fiddled with my napkin. %Calm.% "Karen, please do me a favor and never ask me that again."
"Why?" she asked with a puzzled look on her face.
"You haven't known me nearly long enough to understand. That single question once caused me more grief than I care to remember. If you ever get me drunk enough. Ask me to tell you about the story of the ArchMage and the Unicorn. Until then, please let it drop." She was still puzzled, but she let it drop. While I was handing her the plate and cleaning the crumbs off the console, Kalindra stepped out of the cabin and closed the door quietly behind her.
"He is asleep now. I've never seen someone that keyed," she looked at me and I nodded, "keyed up. I was getting some of the most odd images from him as he finally started to relax."
"You were reading his mind?"
I thought Karen was going to have apoplexy right there. "No, he was broadcasting his feelings. He has more talent then he has cared to put to use." It didn't help things that my mate was wearing little if anything. I was slowly getting use to it, but given Karen's earlier worries, the lightweight robe Kal was wearing just pissed her off more. She turned and started in on me first.
"You said he was safe!"
"And he is. Keep in mind that Velans' don't wear clothes for the same reasons we do. Hell, with all that fur, they don't need to wear much of anything. Now sit down and shut up." I was raising my voice towards the end and Karen sat down in her chair and glared at me.
"What is her problem?" and Kalindra pointed at Karen.
"She's worried that you were trying to seduce Bob or something."
It was Kalindra's turn to blow a fuse. "I have already taken a mate," and she walked over to hug me. "Are you suggesting that I would dishonor him?"
I think Karen realized she had goofed and I let them work out who was going to apologize to who while I turned to finish cleaning up the mess from dinner. We were all startled when Bob came staggering out of the cabin looking like he had seen a ghost.
"Jesus, what's going on?"
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"Something is seriously screwy here. Watch," and I stared at him as he waved his hand and muttered something. Nobody but I understood it, and some part of my mind wondered just where he had heard that spell. When nothing happened, he looked at his hand like it had bitten him.
"You were expecting a witchlight, weren't you."
He looked at me and then closing his eyes, shook his head as if to clear it. "It had to be a dream..." He opened his eyes and looked at each of us standing there. "You would not believe the dream I just had. You, Kimi and Kal were getting ready to dissect me to find out how I had learned to teleport and cast spells." He looked at his hand again. "God that seemed so real."
"Kal was right, you are stressed even worse than I am." When his attention was elsewhere, I cast a small diagnostic spell to see if I could spot anything wrong. It came back showing the stress related deviations I'd expected, and the various problems Bob was already aware of, but everything else seemed normal. I was about to tell him to quit worrying and relax, when we all got the surprise of our lives. As I stood there with my mouth open, a second Bob stepped out of the cabin. This one was holding a familiar glowing sphere in his hand.
"Nilfhelm, what's going on?"
Chapter Twenty One
DDoo II kknnooww yyoouu??
Witchlight Bob looked at me and smiled. With a twist, he began to spin the witchlight sphere on the rip of his finger and walked towards me. When he was close, he extended his arm as if to shake hands. Suddenly, a large and ugly pistol appeared in his fist. He put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
I sat up bolt upright and looked around me. I was in the Sunbeam still, but I was alone. My hands stole up to my head and felt for blood, but came away dry. Starting to stand, my head felt like it would explode. There was a baseball sized knot on my forehead.
"Bob? Are you coming?" asked Karen. "You said you'd just be a minute, but we've been waiting almost 20 minutes.... say. Are you ok?"
"Yeah. Bumped my head I guess." Karen looked at the way the door frame was bent from Jab's blast.
"I can see how you might. Does it hurt much?"
"Of course it hurts. Weird dream too."
"Dream? Did you knock yourself out again? Well, hurry up. Everybody's waiting."
* * *
The Guardian considered its options. It had a few. But with the failure to eradicate the intruders on the first meeting, it had resolved to be effective when it met them next. And it knew they would meet again.
* * *
"Is big list, Mage"
"Yes it is. But then we learned a lot in our last trip. We weren't ready to take the trip we took."
"Was a problem" nodded the cat.
The two began to pour over the list and look at the drawings used in the building of both ships. Occasionally pointing and commenting, the two worked together for a solid seven hours. When they were done, they had the basics of the changes they would make. "I'm going to get some rest, Nahn. We can get back to this tomorrow. For now, I want to find a bed and fall into it." Jab said goodnight and went off to find a kitchen. He was tired, but much more than that, he was hungry.
The lab's galley was empty. The majority of its stores had been loaded onto the Sunbeam to feed the crew. The food was still aboard the ship, but wasn't really edible. Most of it formed a slime layer on the forward facing bulkheads, slammed there as the Sunbeam twisted its way out of the attack. The only way this Meenzal was going to get dinner was to go back to Earth and find something there. The gateway was still live, and was keyed open to allow everyone to come and go as they needed.
The cat stepped out of the gate and into the Earthside Warehouse. In a few moments, he was making his way down the street towards the store. For all the excitement of the previous hours, only one image was clear in the Meenzal's mind.
"Heggs!" he snorted joyfully. "Many heggs!"
* * *
It was the first real sleep I'd gotten. No dreams, no nothing. Just the warm alluring comfort of a soft bed and warm covers. So when the computer began to issue the annoying beep to wake me, and succeeded, I was pissed. "This better be good, Penny!"
"It is, and I'm not Penny."
"Yes, Brian asked me to call."
"What's up?" I sighed.
"Jab is missing."
I was fully awake instantly. "What do you mean he's missing?"
"Brian says he's not here anywhere. He and Penny are running scans right now trying to locate hi.... wait a second. Here's Brian."
"Jab's in jail."
"Well, cat jail, anyway. The humane society has him."
"Ok, I'll handle it."
"No guns, Bob."
"What guns. I'm going to go get my cat. They'll make me pay for license and then I'll bring him home. It's no big deal."
I switched off and got dressed. I figured that it was someone's lucky day. If Jab hadn't chosen to accompany the animal control officer that there'd be a job vacancy shortly. Shuddering at the thought of trying to hide that, I got into the car and drove to the pound.
The door was locked, and a sign gave their hours as 9am to 6pm. I went ahead and knocked on the door anyway. There was no answer, but I heard some sounds that indicated that someone was in there. "Probably the nighttime caretaker" I mumbled aloud, and went in search of a window or another door. If I could catch the attention of whoever was inside, I might be able to get Jab without waiting for the morning. I spotted a door about halfway down the building, and started towards it. When it was about fifteen feet away, it burst open and a uniformed man ran out. He got five steps past the door and then wheeled back. With a powerful shove, he slammed the door closed.
"What was that about?" I asked.
"Jesus." he said panting. "Damn cat. Never seen anything like it. Cat."
"Say, speaking of cats, mine was apparently picked up and brought here. It got out the door somehow."
"You'll have to come back during business hours. I can't help you."
"I'd really appreciate it if you could make an exception. My cat's pretty high strung. He's a big orange cat, kinda tiger striped. He'll answer to the name Jab."
"Big cat?" Say, he isn't about so big, is he?" asked the officer. He held his hand about two feet off the ground.
"Well, a little smaller."
"Come here." The officer took me over to the door, and then he opened it a crack. "Is that him?" he hissed in my ear.
I pulled the door all the way open. "Hey Jab! What'cha doin cat?" The officer took two quick steps backwards.
"You better be careful. He's upset. You know, that cat _kicked_ a pan of cat food out of my hand, and then clawed the lock off of his cage. You better be real careful."
"Oh, he's a good kitty. C'mon cat! Let's go."
"You want me to call a cop?"
"In case he gets loose."
I groaned and stooped. Jab walked over and rubbed his muzzle on my chin. When stood and walked towards the car, Jab fell into step with me. As I got to the Honda, I called back. "Hey, do I have to pay a fee or anything?"
"No!" returned the man. "Just take him home!"
"Home yes! We go home now. Have many heggs, yes?"
"Yes, Jab. We have a lot of them. Karen was going to bake tomorrow."
"She need go to store."
"Out of heggs very soon."
Chapter Twenty Two
We don't take shit from a machine
"Boss, you better come see this" came Penny's worried remark as I sat back in my chair and tried to relax for the first time in days.
"What's up now?" I reached over and flipped the switch that fired up the main holotank display on the flightdeck. "Bob trying to play handball in his armor again?"
"Nothing quite so humorous as that. This is the remote feed from our friend." As the tank cleared and focused, I found myself watching a wide band sensor scan of the station. Shortly after our arrival home, it had shifted its orbit and taken up station around the larger of the two gas giants that had been the only remaining planets of the system.
"What the hell is that on the thermal scan?" I wasn't sure I was reading it correctly. Hell, I was sure I wasn't reading it correctly. "Did we loose the thermal sensor in the remote?"
"Nope, and it's getting worse."
The image on the screen showed the orbit of the station becoming an inward spiral. The distance from the planetary core stayed the same though because the planet itself was shrinking and heating up.
"Now wait a minute. That's not fair. I'm the only one who gets to steal good ideas from movies. That can't be what it looks like."
"You better think about sueing then. I give it about an hour before the density reaches the ignition point. We stole it's star, so that thing is going to create another one."
I reached over and slapped the comm-link toggle. "Bob, Kalindra, you better get your butts up here. Our friend is coming to life."
"Have you called Karen?" came Bob's remark over the link.
"No. I got the impression that she didn't want to get involved again."
"We had a talk about that."
"I'll just bet you did" I muttered under my breath.
"She decided that if I was going to risk my neck that she wanted to be around to either pick up the pieces, or identify the body."
I flipped another switch on the console, and punched in a number.
"Hi cookie lady."
"Hi Brian, what's up now?"
"Pack your bags and come a running. It looks like act two is about to begin."
"Is Bob going to pick me up?"
"Wait a second." I conferenced Bob into the link. "Do you want to pick her up or shall I?"
"I'll get her. Kal can finish," and I heard a metallic thunk, "Sorry, Kalindra can finish loading the last of the supplies. I'll see you in a minute honey."
"Give me five to grab my stuff."
I disconnected and started running through the pre-flight sequence. There were still a few things that weren't working, but nothing that was flight critical. "Yo Nahn, get that crate ready for departure. I'll get the docking locks sync'd."
"We go give machine headache?"
"Damn straight. We don't take no shit from a machine."
I was about half through the sequence when I heard someone in armor clanking their way up the corridor. A glance over my shoulder showed it was my mate. "I see you got the design into the metal. How much of a fit did Bob throw when he found out you'd polished our suits to mirror finishes?"
"About what you expected. I told him it was half family and half magic related. He shut up and muttered something about what good targets the two of us would make."
I continued to check off things as Zorac verified them. "You get the gloves modified?"
"Yes, they work great. Just don't pop them without your ENV field active."
"And be shot out the arms of my suit. No thank you." One little problem with the armor Bob had designed was that he didn't take some of the problems a Mage would have into account. The original gloves had been permanent fixtures. Without modification, they would have prevented both Kal and I from using quite a few useful spells because we couldn't perform the somatic component of the spell. Now the gloves would pop open on hinges and allow us free movement of our hands. That had been the first, and by no means the last of the changes my mate and I had made on Bob's creation.
"Better get out of that thing and get it locked down." I didn't hear her moving, and when I looked back she was staring at the tank display. "Kalindra? Get your armor locked down for the flight."
"Oh, ok. Sorry" and she clanked her way to the lower weapons bay.
She got back about the same time Bob and Karen showed up. With Penny giving a running narration, we watched the holotank as our enemy looked to be completing the last of its own repairs.
"Any chance we could get there in time to stop it?" Bob was running checks on the nav systems and the changes that had been made during the redesign.
"None. We may be faster, but not that fast. Besides, this is suppose to be a stealth approach this time, remember?"
"Yeah, but I'd like to keep that thing as weak as possible."
"Amen to that, but not much of a chance." I was watching the display as the planet reached critical density. A single high energy beam leapt from the station and flashed through the high density Hydrogen that had been the planet's atmosphere a short hour ago.
It started as a dull glow on the sensors, but quickly spread through the super dense gas envelope. With a blinding flash, the entire atmosphere reached ignition point. The outer layers were blown outwards by the force of the flashover, but as the display began to clear we could see the station orbiting a new star in the heavens.
"Damn, and we're going to take that thing on again?" Karen looked none too happy about the situation, and I can't say that I didn't share her feelings. As I watched the most deadly thing I'd ever had to deal with get ready for our return, or as I feared getting ready to come after us, I decided it was time to get mad and get even.
"Ok folks, we know what to expect. It learns fast so it will probably be ready for any weapon we used last time. Let's hope the new gear will be good enough to give us the edge." I looked around the flightdeck at the people who were risking their lives to help me correct a problem my own curiosity had created. "Remember, we don't take no shit from a machine! Launch stations."
Outside the Sunbeam, Nahn was buttoning up Bob's ship and getting ready to dock it with us once we lifted. Kalindra was continuing to monitor the feed from the remote probes, while Karen and Penny check over the last few details.
When we were ready, the lab was opened to vacuum and we lifted through the access doors to hang about the lunar surface. <clang> "Nahn docked. Will be there in a moment."
"Bob, she's all yours. Let's go kick some butt."
The Sunbeam swung on its axis and began to climb into the lunar sky. The first order of business was to get us out of the local gravity well and at 2000 G's it didn't take very long.
"She's riding smoother, but where is this great speed you were telling me about? 2000 isn't much of an improvement."
I kept a straight face and watch our distance and a corner of the main console that was unlit at the moment. A minute later Zorac piped up and announced that "GALA cleared for operation". The corner of the console now came to life.
"GALA? What the hell is GALA?"
"Something I cobbled together using that crazy singularity generator you and Nahn like using so much. Of course there were a few teething pains..."
"Big hole in moon also. Hold lots of Hegg's" came the comment from Nahn.
I snickered. "We had a little trouble with the scissors the first time out. For now though, get us lined up on our final course."
"Huh?" I could see Bob glance at the velocity gauge. "We're not even close to jump velocity yet."
"We will be. Just get us lined up." He didn't understand why, but I think Bob was getting used to not knowing why I asked him to do things that didn't make sense. It took Penny, Zorac and him a couple of minutes to get us lined up.
"Ok, we're set. Now will you kindly tell your pilot what the hell is going on?"
"Just watch your screen. Zorac, give us a thirty second countdown to GALA transition. Everyone get buckled up, this may not be as smooth as I would like." Considering the results of the last time I'd asked them to buckle up. They all showed remarkable restraint in getting situated in their chairs. "Watch our course Bob. You should still be able to make changes, but it might be a little sluggish."
"5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. 1.. GALA initiated" came the voice from the speakers.
The wing tips of the Sunbeam began to glow as the dual singularity generators buried in them came to life. Normally they were the basis of the grav-torps that Bob liked so much. I'd found another use for them. When they were ready, they began to generate micro black holes directly in front of the ship. The holes were short lived enough that they had evaporated from quantum tunneling by the time we fell into them. But during their lifetime, they pulled the Sunbeam forward like no other drive system would ever be able to push us. And I was right, it was a little rough.
"Jesus, whattt the hellll is thattt?"
Even as Bob spoke, the vibration was damped out as Zorac completed the final calibrations on the system. "That my power hungry pilot is speed" and I pointed at the velocity gauge that was climbing like it had been shot out of a gun. Instead of the hours it would have taken us to get to jump velocity using the Momentum Wave Drive, GALA brought us to .9C in a few minutes.
With what I swear was a touch of smugness, Zorac announced that we had reached jump speed and were ready for transition. I leaned back and rested my feet on the console and looked over at Bob. "Well, are you going to sit there with your mouth open all day?"
"Damn smartass. Never tells me anything" came the mumbled reply. With a quick sequence of commands to the ship, Bob engaged the Hyperlight drive and we fell into Hyperspace once more. We had a few hours flight time to get to our programmed exit point and a lot of prep work to make sure we didn't get spotted when we arrived.
"Time for act two" and I headed to the weapons bay to begin the checkout on my armor.
Chapter Twenty Three
Welcome to the machine...
The Sunbeam emerged from Hyperspace on schedule. At least that's what Brian's ship computer told us. Since we began this trip Zorac seemed a little different in voice inflections, and I suspect it was building an ego or something. I queried for course status and it replied "What do you think it is..." and then mumbled something about humans.
"Jab, get the minirail off my armor and bring it here, will you?"
"You clean now?"
"No, I'm going to blow a section out of the computer." Brian's right eyebrow arched as he cast a sideways glance at me.
"Why you shoot talkbox?"
"To shut it up. We already have one machine giving us shit, and we don't need another." Zorac immediately put the ship into red alert, and I immediately disabled it. "Get the point, Zorac?"
"Message received and understood" then, "Sir."
"Good, now back to the business at hand. Brian, I think I've hatched a plan."
"Hatched?" said Jab, hopefully. I ignored him.
"How much debris do you think that star's ignition has thrown off?"
"Quite a lot. But I don't think it's going to pose navigation problems if that's what you mean."
"No, our shields will protect us from most of that, and we can steer around anything too big for them. I was thinking in terms of approach to the station. What do you think of this..."
I explained my plan. There was a series of rogue planets which had probably been a part of the original star's system some eons ago. Maybe they'd never really taken an orbit, but simply coalesced the stellar dust and hung outside the gravitational fields of the solar system members. They were small --barely more than rounded and oversized asteroids with diameters of maybe 30 miles or so. Not big enough to really amount to anything, but big enough for my purposes.
"What's the idea?" asked Brian. "We're you thinking of trying to move them somehow? Maybe use them as a weapon? I don't think we have a way to do that..."
"No, I'm thinking of using them as a screen, that's all. Like a staging area for us. Kal, you've been studying the area, how far are these guys from the station?"
"I'm not sure. I just had them added to the navigation database, I didn't really inspect them very closely. If I were to estimate, I'd say the closest of them is about three quarters of a light minute from the station."
"What I'm thinking of is this, we park the Sunbeam on the backside of one of these dudes and leave the ship behind."
"All of us go in the smaller ship?" asked Karen.
"No, we go in with just the armor."
"I don't like this already" said Kal. Her tail twitched.
"I think I understand" Brian said. "That's why you asked about debris."
"Yeah it is. If we throw ourselves at that big mother and just coast in, I'm hoping that it will think of us as just more crud floating around and getting caught in the gravity of the star."
The tail twitched. "I don't just dislike this, I hate it."
"I think it's workable" said Brian quietly. "That thing is going to see us coming if we approach it in a ship, and it's got a whole new star to energize itself with."
"I didn't say it wouldn't work. I just said I hated the idea."
"Let's figure out how to do it then" said Brian.
We looked like one of those velvet paintings with animals playing poker. Two long haired human males, a human female wearing upper body armor, a Velan and a Meenzal all sat hunched around a chart table talking in quiet tones. We were just finishing up when Zorac announced that we were coming out of Hyperspace. I took position at the flight console and Brian readied weapons and defenses. We didn't know whether the station would see us emerge, and if it did, how fast it could react. We came out without incident.
An hour later I put the 'Beam into a parking position behind a rogue and we all went aft to put on our armor. Brian and Kal teleported us to the surface of the planetoid and we began to set up for the trip in towards the station. Brian had plotted a close approach course which took us from the body we were on past another which was closer to the station. The gravity of the second planetoid would bend our trajectory so that we'd bear straight in on the station.
We readied for the blast from the small sprint engines in our armor when Karen's voice came over the comm. "What's that noise?"
"Huh?" said the rest of us. We all quieted and listened. She was right about a noise. There it was, a sound like a group of people quietly drumming on a desk.
"What the hell is that?"
It took a minute but we figured it out. All of our legs were shaking and it made our body armor clack slightly. We were scared.
"We go" said Jab, and five sprint engines fired us off the plaentoid.
Chapter Twenty Four
Be Warry Warry Quiet, We're Hunting Stations...
"We're in position, bring on the diversion." I blipped the suit radar display for a second to identify the incoming asteroid fragments and waited for Penny's reply.
"Does everyone have their suits in slave mode?" came the quiet voice over the laser link. The acknowledgements came back in short order.
The idea was to make us look like just another cluster of planetary debris that happened to be heading in the direction of the station. To that end, Penny was going to use the tractor fields on the Sunbeam to slam a couple of asteroids together. Out of the collision would fly enough debris to hide our approach. As soon as she had a decent course plot after the collision, Penny would add the five of us to the random mix and head us in the direction of the station. I just hoped we didn't stand out too badly from the rest of the debris.
The approach wasn't the only problem I had to deal with while we floated above the planetoid the ships were hidden behind. Until we managed to get on our way, I had to devote part of myself to keeping my mate sane. We'd been ready for it, but it had still taken my by surprise when she had looked down from our position and made the mistake of thinking the planetoid was down. The terror that had flooded our link had almost swamped my attempts to calm her down. She was functional, but far from happy about being here.
*Hang on, it will only be another few minutes.*
*Easy for you to say ...*
"Get ready and face away. There might be a small flash from the impact when they collide."
Using the small gas jets, I spun my armor around and double checked to make sure the variable surface was set to jet black. Bob had raised hell about Kal and I modifying our armor, but had quieted down when he saw what the results had been. I didn't want to rely on the shields to protect us full-time, so the surface of the armor had been altered to act as an all purpose camo setup under either manual or automatic control.
"Five seconds..." came the announcement.
I closed my eyes and waited. I caught a tiny flash even with them closed, so Penny had been right to warn us. "Give me a second to sort through that rubble. Ok, got it. Bob, you're first up." Watching out of the corner of my helmet, I saw Bob take off under Penny's control and join up with the outbound debris cloud. At random intervals afterwards the rest of us followed.
The trip inwards was a slow one. We had started from quite a distance out and were limited by the velocity of the expanding debris cloud. Under Penny's control though, we made micro adjustments to our course. The idea was to slingshot our way around larger asteroids and planetoids further in to keep our use of the powered thrusters in the armor to a minimum. One thing I was thankful for. As we left the original planetoid behind, Kal's fear receded into the background. Other than our final approach to the station, she would be fine.
Turning my head to face the general direction Bob was in, I keyed the small comm laser. "You asleep yet over there?" A few seconds later I spotted a small red light in the distance.
"Not yet, but this is sure boring."
"Wait until we get close. I suspect you will get all the excitement you want when we get back inside. How's Karen doing?"
"Fine so far. I talked to her about ten minutes ago. She was busy comparing notes with Kalindra."
"I wonder which of us is in trouble this time?"
"Hard to tell. Probably both of us" came the chuckle in the dark.
Finally we got close enough to see the station. Using maximum magnification, it was possible to see that the outer ring had taken some damage. Being that close to the original star when Jab had caused its implosion had taken its toll. I had the nasty idea that the important parts were all in working order though. Everything was going fine until I heard Bob start cussing over the comm laser.
"I'm slowing down."
As the rest of us and what debris remained caught up with him, we all found ourselves coming to a rest about ten miles from the station. "Damn, I was afraid of this. At least it didn't decide to vaporize us."
"Huh?" came Bob's and Karen's reply.
"Deflection shields. That thing doesn't want anything to mess up its operation by accident. There is some kind of field in force that deflects all incoming debris away from the station."
"Shit, so now what?"
"Well, we switch to plan B."
"You have a plan B?"
"Yeah, just give me a moment to think of it. I left myself a note around here someplace..."
"Ok, everyone see that chunk of rock that looks like an anvil about 100 yards above my position?" It took a couple of minutes for everyone to agree on which rock I was talking about. "Ok. Using your gas jets only, start making your way towards it."
"What do you have in mind this time oh hairless one?"
"Flattery will get you no where. We're going to have to teleport the last little bit. I'll take Bob and Karen, you can carry Jab."
"Jab fly in on own" came the first remark I'd heard from him in hours.
"Go right ahead. I'm sure that area around the station that has been cleared of debris will make a great kill zone for whatever defenses the station has. If we can find any remains afterwards, where should we send them?"
"Jab go with furry lady" came the subdued reply after a second.
When we all came together, I peeked around the rock and started searching the surface of the station for something I could use as a teleport reference. I wanted something close to one of the spokes if possible as it would make our journey shorter, but I'd settle for almost anything. Using maximum mag on the helmet screens, I spotted an airlock similar to the one Bob and I had used during our first visit.
"Kal, just to the right of the spoke that is pointing our direction. See the airlock?" It took her a moment, but she located the airlock and agreed it was our best bet. When we both figured we had a good mental image of the lock, we returned to the rest of the group.
"Did you find something?" came the question from Bob.
"Yeah, should be easy."
"And if it isn't?" came Karen's remark.
"Then, we materialize inside a wall or far enough away to attract attention. Either way we get to find out whether there is such a thing as life after death."
"Then you better get it right, or there will be no more chocolate chip cookies."
I gestured in horror at the thought. "Yes sir!" If Kalindra had been able to swat me with her tail, I'd have gone sailing out into open space. As it was, she just tweaked me mentally with a warning to behave myself.
Popping the gloves on our armor, Kalindra and I grabbed a hold of our respective groups and focused for the jump. "So that's what you did that for." I grinned at Bob though my helmet. "That's one reason. I have to be in direct contact to do this the safe way." I looked at my mate and nodded. With a silent <pop> the five of us vanished.
Chapter Twenty Five
Please tell me that was you that sneezed?
As soon as we appeared, I released my hold on Bob and Karen. With a quick snap of my wrist, the gloves of my armor resealed themselves and the cloaking unit came on. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Kalindra and Jab flicker into existence about 20 yards away, and vanish as their suits cloaked themselves.
"Bob, the airlock is all yours."
Using the sensors built into his armor. Bob went about figuring out how to get the lock open without tripping anything. The time would come to announce our presence, but not until we were ready to handle it.
"That should do it. I bypassed the sensors that would have relayed the lock being used. I'm going to have to remember to thank Penny for including that little computer link in the gloves. It makes quite a burglary kit."
"Yeah, she's had a lot of experience breaking into places. About time it got used for something useful" I said with a chuckle.
With Bob in the lead, and me bringing up the rear, the five of us filed into the lock and closed it behind us. One bit of luck was that it looked just like the one we had used before. When the inner door opened, we found ourselves looking out into the corridor that ran down the center of the outer ring.
"Ok, you know the plan. Give Kalindra and I about 30 minutes to work our way to the center, then raise as much hell as you can. Whatever you do, make sure that damned plasma beam is out of action. If we need to run for it, Penny won't be able to pick us up with it operational."
"30 minutes then. You two be careful."
I reached over and tried to hug Kal in her armor. "Oh, we plan to!"
Bob, Karen and Jab turned and headed down the corridor at a careful pace. Kalindra and I turned the other direction and began to make our way to the spoke that would give us access to the central core. Our plan was to try to subvert the internal operation of the station with Penny's help. Locked inside the small hatch on my side was a Hyperlink that I hoped to use to give her access to whatever kind of network this thing used for its operation. Bob's group was to keep the internal security busy and make as much of a pest of himself as he could. Hopefully, that would give Penny her shot.
"How are you feeling now?" I asked my mate.
"Better, but next time YOU get to be the one terrified, Ok?"
"I'll see what I can arrange."
It took us about five minutes to reach the branch that lead to the to spoke. We were both fully shielded and cloaked so as we turned the corner and found ourselves facing the largest bot I'd ever seen, the only thing that suffered was our clothing.
*Against the wall!* and I flattened myself against the closest wall. Our cloaks did their job well. At one point I could have reached out and touched the monstrosity that rumbled by, but it didn't seem to even notice our presence. When it turned the corner and started down the outer corridor, I released the breath I'd been holding.
*Let me guess. That was one of the small one's* came the sarcastic comment from Kalindra. I didn't bother to reply.
*Those two hundred foot ceilings. They need to be that tall for a good reason.*
*Tell me about it! Did yours have treads?*
*No, this one was walking on multiple telescoping legs.*
*Got a can of 'raid' with you?*
*I thought the idea was to INTRODUCE bugs, not get rid of them* I chuckled.
With a final look down the corridor, Kal and I set off again towards the core. We made pretty good time and only had to go silent once more before coming to the set of safety doors that separated the core area from the spoke.
*Damn, this was open last time.*
I was staring at a set of clamshell doors that were the better part of 150 feet in height.
*Want to take bets on why they are closed?*
*Nope. I'd be willing to bet we'd set off every alarm in the place if we tried to open them also.*
*You want to wait for something else to wander through them?*
I thought about it for a moment and decided we couldn't waste the time. *No, it could be days before they would open again. You have any ideas?*
*Only one, and I think I'd like to save it for an emergency. It isn't something that I consider safe to try under these conditions.*
I popped the gloves of my armor and reached out to touch the door. The ENV field prevented me from actually touching the metal, but I could still feel a faint vibration. Cupping my hands in front of me, I proceeded to call up my version of the infamous crystal ball. In my case, it took the form of a small oval area defined by my hands that I could use to see other areas with. As the image snapped into focus, I pushed the focal point through the doors to see what was on the other side. They turned out to be almost ten feet thick!
*Good thing Bob isn't here*
Kalindra was peeking under my arm to watch the show. *Why?*
*I'd have just 'ported him three feet in that direction* and I pointed my elbow towards the door, *and he'd have been history.*
*Messy way to die*
Moving the focus around, I tried to find someplace out of sight of the center to teleport us to. I wasn't having a lot of luck with my search. *I don't think we're going to get lucky this time. I just hope the internal security sensors aren't a lot better than the ones on the bots.*
*And everything we can add to it. Make sure your grav field is on automatic also. It's a long fall* and I could see her shudder *to the center if we get blown from the catwalk.*
Popping her gloves, Kalindra began to weave a cloak around the two of us to augment the one the armor generated. I'd been inside the core once before, and paranoia didn't begin to describe how I felt about doing it again. When she was finished, we both resealed our armor and she stepped into my arms as I 'ported us through the doorway.
The moment we flickered in, our suits began to scream warnings. The radiation inside the core was pushing the gauges off the top of the scale even through the shields. I'd come in facing the wall and Kalindra was looking behind me towards the center. Looking down at her I could see her looking in fascination at something behind me. When I turned, I almost regretted that our job was to destroy what lay before us.
Sitting at the heart of the core was the familiar black sphere Bob and I had watched take over the station on our last visit. Now though, it glittered like a diamond from the thousands of laser beams that were flickering from its surface to the walls of the core. Thinking about it, it made sense. How else was something that resided inside a neutronium shell going to communicate with the outside world? *Kal? Coimelin?*
*Time to get to work.*
*Yeah, I suppose you're right. Kind of a shame though.*
*I was thinking the same thing.* I looked closely at the lasers as they flickered. Several times I thought I saw them hit the same area on the walls around us. *Let's see if we can find out what they are targeting. It might be the interface we can tap into.* At a slow walk, we started working our way around the core. The nearest area that showed activity was probably a half mile away from our current position and we didn't have a whole lot of time left according to the chronometer winking at me from my helmet.
When we got close, I could see what looked to be thousands of little pinholes in the wall of the core. As we watched, each one would occasionally light up as the laser in it flared to life. *Do you see anything that might be an access hatch for repair bots?*
Kalindra had been searching the walls as we had walked. *No, the access must be from the inside only.*
*Shit. We're this close to tapping into the damn thing and I don't have the right equipment.*
We were standing there bouncing ideas off of each other when we both felt the floor shudder underneath us. In seconds the inside of the core tripled in brilliance as the activity increased. *What the hell was that?* I was getting ready to call Bob when I happened to glance at my chronometer. *Oh shit. Our 30 minutes is up. He's started the diversion!*
My mate just stared at me with expectation in her eyes. *Now would be a good time to pull a lemur out of your hat.*
*That's rabbit, not lemur.* The floor shuddered again and I swear I heard the explosion that time.
*I've seen you work under pressure before. Time to be brilliant again.*
There's never a rabbit around when you need one...
Chapter Twenty Six
When mamma ain't happy - nobody is
Karen, Jab and I found a small hatch that opened into a corridor much smaller than any of the others we'd seen. Jab opened the hatch and we could see a series of light beams which traveled magnetic wave guides. They each bent to point at a large panel behind the wave guides.
*Is switch for data*
*I think so, Jab*
*What's a switch?*
*Well, actually a concentrator or hub of some sort, Karen. Those beams carry information and feed it into that big thing on the wall. See it?*
*Yeah, it's sort of pretty*
*Is too bad for pretty*
*What does he mean, Bob?*
*In about fifteen minutes, we're going to blow it up.*
Karen straightened noticeably. She has a strong ethic about destroying anything. Before we could talk about it, a vibration in the floor caught our attention.
*Another robot? Dunno. Cloaks all the way up, no talking*
A hatch down the corridor we were in opened, and another robot, wheeled this time, trundled through and turned towards us. This robot was small, about four feet tall and generally cube shaped. On each of it's corners was a whisker-like antenna of some kind. These wires stood out about six inches from the apex of each corner. As I started to try and guess what it was for, the antenna began to glow and sparkle, and then an arc of electricity danced from the tips of the antenna to the tips of other antenna. As it neared us, our armor sensors began to climb steeply. In seconds the alarms were ringing loudly.
Jab was closest to the bot, and when it was a couple of feet away from him, he stepped out in front of it and moving up the corridor to keep away from it. Karen edged closer to me and looked back at the bot just in time to see it's arc fields touch Jabs. The cat flew up the corridor and slammed into the wall next to the open hatch. "You lousy machine!" yelled Karen. She stepped into the center of the hallway, and I saw all of her weapons discharge ports open.
She fired at the robot with both wrist rails, her shoulder mounted plasma cannon fired twice right behind the railguns. The mass from the rails blew through the robot's field like it wasn't there, and their impacts opened fist-sized holes in it's chassis. The plasma bolts went through the holes and vaporized the inside of the bot. It stopped with a squeak, dead. I was about to tell her good job, but she'd turned and was lining up on the open hatch. Again she fired both the rails and the cannon, accept this time the cannon was on rapid fire, and sent twenty bolts behind the rails.
Sparks and superheated vapor from boiled metal belched back out of the hatch, and Jab rolled himself clumsily away from the door. I heard his idea of a chuckle through the comm link. "No hurt through armor. But still is make scared."
"Jesus. Nice shootin' Miss Oakley."
"That, that THING!" she shuddered in her suit. It's like a big bug. Spider. Egh!. And what it did to Jab! That wasn't appropriate."
"Appropriate? This isn't elementary school you know."
"Well it wasn't appropriate. And that other thing was helping to make it go. How many more of them did it have? What would they do ..."
"Whoa, whoa! How do you know it was controlling those bots?"
"It's this place! The whole station. It's like a nest of spiders. I hate spiders!"
"I suppose any reason is as good as another. Nice job. I don't think that thing is going to work very well until it has a major repair."
"We go meet Mage now"
"Yeah, let's get going."
We made it two step before all of the doors up and down the corridor opened and about thirty bots of assorted kinds started making their way towards us. A few of them had lasers and other low power weapons, and started firing at us as they approached. Jab returned fire against one of them, and it turned to vapor as a plasma shot struck it dead center. They weren't very powerful and they weren't well defended. Karen and I joined the fray and then all 3 of us were firing at the variety of bots moving in. As the fire slowed, we heard a one of the big babies coming.
It trundled at us on treads like a tank. It was moving quickly and headed straight at us. As it reached the fallen robots, its treads ground the bots into junk and scrap metal. Jab moved on all fours into the center of the hallway, and a tube extended upwards from his sprint pack, and latched into place on his right shoulder. There was no noise when the cat shot, but an irregularly shaped hole appeared in the behemoth. A heartbeat later, the huge robot exploded. The shockwave drove us all backwards into the bulkhead where the hatch was.
"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT, JAB?"
"Gun" said the Meenzal, and he walked toward the smoking hulk of the robot.
"I think it's probably dead, Jab." I said looking at the chaos of pieces littering the corridor. "Let's meet up with Brian and Kal."
Chapter Twenty Seven
Karen makes toast
We only had one way to go. The savaged remains of the huge robot blocked the corridor, except for one door. Behind us was the access panel into the still-glowing information concentrator. We took the one door. It led us through a short hallway to another door. This one opened onto a large hangar area, like the one my ship had picked us up from on the previous trip. The bay doors into space were to our left, and the wall ahead had no door. To the right was a large sliding door. I looked at Karen and she shrugged.
"Can't go back."
We found a control lever which opened the door and Karen pulled it. The door began to slide and we ducked through. We were in a staging area. There were ten preparation stations in the room. Each was fed from somewhere below decks with fifteen foot diameter spheres. They line up in a feeder rack like bowling balls in a ball return. Each of the stations was in a different state, although each was motionless. By looking at the condition of each of them, it was easy to see what happened here. Spheres were sent into these loaders, where they were installed in a catapult like device which fired them through the large sliding door, through the hangar area and out into space. Once there, we guessed that something propelled them on a specific course.
"These chase balls. Go whoom!"
"No kidding. This place gives me the creeps."
Through the staging room was another door, this one was hatch sized. We threaded through the stations and Karen palmed the door open. I stepped through to be greeted by a drilling white light, a sound so loud that I couldn't really hear it, and I was thrown backwards to the floor.
My head was spinning, and it felt like I'd just gotten one hell of an electric shock. I had warning indicators going off in my armor, and my shields indicator read zero output. Whatever hit me came way too close to overwhelming my armor. Another few joules in the jolt I took and I'd be cosmic dust.
"Bob? Are you all right?" asked Karen.
"Yeah, but my suit needs recharging. I have no shields and minimums on everything else."
Jab came over and started checking over my armor from the outside. "No look like broken. Take five minutes to recharge"
"We need to figure out how to get through that damn door."
"Could we wait for a machine to go through, and go through with it?"
"We don't know how often --or if the robots use this door. We have to get through it."
"Maybe we can find a control panel and disable that beam."
"Security field. I think Brian and I got a taste of these the last time, except they weren't powered up very much. This is pretty serious stuff. A control panel? Maybe. Let's see if we can find a pa..."
The wall next to the door exploded. "No talk. Just go" said Jab and he stepped through the hole into the next chamber. Karen and I looked at each other and followed him. Where we were was a crossroads. We could look well in towards the center of the station, to where I pictured Brian and Kal to be.
The blast took Karen by surprise. A medium sized robot came around the corner and reacted quickly. Jab fired his shoulder cannon at the robot, but it had no effect. It lined up and fired a shot at Jab, and hit him in the thigh of a foreleg. It knocked him to right and off balance. He stood just in time to avoid a second blast that struck the deck right behind him. I started to fire at it with my rails and also targeted the ugly machine with my cannon. Jab resumed fire and Karen joined him. We stood there in a line and fired together.
The robot, a spider walker sagged on its legs, and then dropped to the deck with a loud clang that shook the deck. Jab moved in on it to make sure it was disabled, and I tried to follow. I could barely move my legs, and my arms had grown heavy. My armor was totally drained. All that was left was my support environment. "Karen, Jab. I can't move. I'm dead out of power." I got no response. *Karen, Jab. I'm out of power. I can't move.*
*Then we take break now. Yes?*
Karen and Jab sat down on the deck and waited with me. It took twenty minutes before my armor was showing green in all systems. We decided that we needed to find more of the concentrator panels, and destroy them. We figured there was a good chance that the robots we encountered were controlled by some central unit, and maybe we could knock that out. The three of us moved off to where the spider seemed to come from, and had gone maybe five hundred yards when we found the next one. There was no ceremony to it. Karen blew the door off and all of us fired into the conduit. There was an explosion greater than the other one offered, but then, we all fired into this one, and the response was immediate.
From farther down the corridor, we could hear the clacks of spider feet, and the grind of treaded bots as well. "We need to get the hell out of here" I said. If one good bolt could kill my shields, I figured that the small army of robots were probably more than we could handle.
Going back the way we came, we reached the intersection again and found a spider making its way from the center of the station. Ahead, another door opened and a wheeled robot swung out and towards us. The only way out was still the way we came, so that's the way we went. We were in the hangar bay when we the first of the bots caught up with us. It was one of the spiders.
Jab went into a crouch and his big gun unfolded from his back. It fired it's noiseless shot, and half of the spider vanished in an explosion. A laser fired at us from the back of the staging room, and then a plasma bolt glanced off of Karen's armor. We all fired at the robots collecting in the room, but we couldn't keep up. It seemed like they wouldn't stop coming through the door. That was when Jab fired a wild shot with the big gun and hit one of the spheres.
It was like a series of hammer blows. The sphere detonated and my sensors went dark. A moment later a second sphere exploded. I had the sensation of freefall, yet I was spinning wildly. My sensors came on slowly, and I found myself in free space, some distance from the station. My sensors went dark again as a half of a ring section burst in brilliance from a blast that had to be a series of spheres detonating simultaneously. The shock wave hit me a little less hard than the first, but hard enough. Still spinning, I was driven even further into space. It took a few seconds to get stabilized, and I tried to raise Jab and Karen. Both came back immediately.
"Can you see anything?"
"No, my sensors are off-line."
"Jab too. Big bang."
The only thing we could do was wait the few moments it took to get our sensors operating. When we did, each of us was amazed at what we saw. The station's orientation to the star had changed slightly, and the ring was missing a full section between spokes.
I whistled. "Jesus. We broke it."
"Bob, what do we do now?"
"We get my ship." I gave the mental command for the ship to come, and watched the sensors tell me that it was unlocked, the tractor released, and it was on it's way. While I waited for it, I plotted the locations of both Karen and Jab, so the ship could scoop them up too.
"We're safe now, right?"
"Let's hope that either Brian and Kal get their stuff done, or that thing is out of spheres."
"Shit poo. Damnit follow balls."
The ship appeared when it was almost on top of me. I'd set my sensors to standard visual, and the black hull was hidden against the black of space. "Well! There you are, you butt ugly dog."
We boarded without incident.
Chapter Twenty Eight
The communications activity in the core had doubled in the last few moments if the light storm we were watching was any indication. Whatever Bob was doing, he certainly had the things attention.
*So, you have any brilliant ideas yet?* came the subdued comment from Kalindra.
*I think so, bend over.* I got swatted before I'd even realized what that had sounded like.
*You picked a terrible time to become interested.*
*You have a dirty mind, have I told you that?*
*Not in the last day or so* came the amused reply.
*I meant, bend over so I can get at the comm laser assembly in your helmet. I think I've got an idea.* Thank God Bob wasn't around to watch as Kal lowered her head so I could pop the hatch on the communications assembly in her helmet. He wouldn't have passed up a chance to comment on something like that.
Grabbing the toolkit from one of my armors compartments, I started taking the array apart. I hopped I was remembering the design details correctly and that the parts I needed were inside. It took a couple of minutes to get the thing opened up and I spent most of it cussing a blue streak. If Kal hadn't learned how to cuss from Penny, she was getting the crash course.
*Son of a Bitch! <Ping> Shit, I hope that wasn't it.*
*What are you looking for? The best parts are further down.*
I bounced my armored glove off of her helmet, hoping to shut her up. *I'm trying to find a beam splitter for the comm laser that's in here.*
*Why didn't you ask. It's towards the back and under the multiplexer.*
I stopped dead for second. *Damn smartass engineers ...* She didn't 'path anything, but I could still feel her chuckle through the link. *Ah ha! Found it.* I wasted even more of our valuable time gently removing the parts I needed. This wasn't the time to break something as the nearest parts store was about 5 light years away. Popping my gloves, I cradled the splitter in my hands and grabbed the Hyperlink from the compartment in my armor.
*Ok, now to get them connected together and powered.* Looking at the wall of the core, I picked out one of the comm beams that looked active and stepped up beside it. I'd brought enough junk in my kit to anchor the assembly to the wall, but I still ended up pulling some more wires from the remains of Kal's comm system to get everything working. I was just completing the last of the connections when the floor started to shake again.
*Well, Bob's still alive out there somewhere.*
*Feels like he's having fun also.* <Whang/Slam> *Or at least he's keeping busy.*
When the last connection was made, the little handful of circuitry lit up with a soft glow and I knew we were in business. *Ok, cross your fingers and pray.*
I shook my head and told her *Never mind* Holding the array against the wall, I slid it along until it was almost ready to touch the beam the was emerging from the wall of the core. I wanted to get enough of the splitter into the beam so that Penny would be able to tap into whatever was going on, but not interrupt it completely. I had just began to nudge it into the beam when the catwalk began to shake violently. *Damnit, not now Bob!*
We both had to grab a hold of something and hold on. When the shaking settled down, I looked at the tap and found it had slid completely over the beam. *Oh shit...* I pulled it back rapidly, and the laser within the wall began to flicker again. *Just hope that didn't get noticed.*
We weren't that lucky. Even as I was anchoring the tap in place, a half a dozen hidden hatches on either side of us slid open. I heard Kal scream that we had company and the first shot slammed into the back of my armor. Company or not, I finished anchoring the tap and snapped my gloves closed as the next shot took me in the side. *It's attached. Let's hope Penny is listening!*
Kal was trying to hold off at least three of the nastiest looking bots I'd ever seen, and there were four coming in from my side. At almost the same instant, we stepped back to back and opened up with everything we had.
The lead bot took both railguns in what I hoped was his head from less than ten feet. All they did was dent the casing and push it back into the one behind it. *Oh fuck.* And I switched to the particle cannon on my shoulder. Kalindra was having a little better luck with hers. The lead bot had come apart at the seams when she opened up on it with the miniature version of the grav-torps.
We were just barely managing to hold our own when the whole damned station seemed to take two steps to the right. The only thing that saved us was that it shifted us into the wall rather than over the edge of the catwalk.
*What the hell was that?*
*Bob, who else!*
For almost a second, all activity in the core came to a complete halt. Even the light show died to just a few flickers. It didn't last. When things came back to life, our helmets polarized to almost jet black to keep us from going blind from the light storm that flared to life around us.
What ever Bob had done, it seemed to piss off our enemy. All around the core I could see hatches opening up and an army of bots come pouring our direction. *Kal, I'm fresh out of ideas. If you have any, this would be a good time to tell me.* I took another shot at the next bot in line and watched it as it vanished in a cloud of raw energy. Just when I didn't think things could get more desperate, they did. As I went to open up on the next bot, my armor began to scream that I was almost out of power.
*Remind me fire the guy who designed these suits!*
*Fire him? I'm going to feed him to his damned Meenzal!* came Kal's reply. *I've got that idea you were looking for. Grab a hold of my armor and hang on!*
I was still mobile, so I latched on to the back of her suit and hoped for the best. Turning to face the wall of the core. Kal cocked her fist and slammed one of her hands into the wall and dug in. She was kicking with both feet to anchor herself better when I used the last of my armors power to pop the bot that had gotten too close.
*This better be good!*
*Just hang on back there!*
With both feet and one arm almost imbedded in the wall. Kalindra turned with her free arm and targeted the catwalk itself. With the first shot, every bot within shooting distance came to a complete stop and the ones in the front tried to turn around. Three more times my mates railguns spat their intention. When the smoke began to clear, the catwalk at our feet began to peel away from the wall of the core and fall inwards. A hell of a lot of bots fell with it.
*Jesus! I hope you've got a good grip!* I was watching out of the corner of my helmet as a slow parade of robots and debris began to accelerate towards the sphere in the center of the core. However tough they might have been to destroy. Falling into a neutron star managed to take them out with ease. Except for the occasional shot from something at the far end of its range, we were safe for the moment.
*Ok fuzzy butt. Now how do we get out of here?*
*You're going to be difficult about this, aren't you...*
Chapter Twenty Nine
Feet, do your stuff!
*Do you have anyplace memorized well enough to jump us to?* came Kal's question as I watched the energy gauge for my armor slowly crawl up to operational level's. I looked over at the door we had come in. The door was there, but the catwalk was long gone.
*It's not there anymore, but let me think.* I tried to remember what it had looked like on the other side of the door when we had first arrived. Closing my eyes, I tried to build up the mental picture piece by piece of what it had looked like when I had been standing there looking for a way through it. *I think I've got a* and I almost emptied my stomach inside my helmet.
I was in no condition to answer. A wave of nausea had hit me like a kick in the stomach.
%PAIN!% *Kal, get us out of here. I'm not feeling real good.* The last thing I remember was looking at the inside of my helmet as the armor came back to life. As the shields re-established themselves I felt a little better, but the radiation gauge showed I'd been exposed to one hell of a dose when the armor had powered down.
* * *
*Brian? Coimelin?* He was still hanging on, and I could sense him through the bond, but I could also sense him dying. Whatever was causing the problem, I had to get us both out of here and quickly. Looking towards the door we had come in I started to move along the wall slowly.
Pull a foot free, shift over slightly, <Slam!>. Pull my arm free, <Slam!>. Pull the other foot free and <Slam!> Over and over again as I inched my way towards the doors. Unfortunately, my movement brought us within range of the bots that were waiting at the edge of the remaining catwalk. The first couple of shots were aimed at me and my mate. Then they switched and began to try to blow us off the wall. I turned and aimed with my free arm to convince them to back up when I felt Brian moving on my back.
*Fucking stupid 'chines. 'Teach you to shoot at my wife.*
*Wait!* Turning my helmet as far as it would go, I could see him pop his gloves open and begin a spell. I could feel the delirium in his mind and as I recoqnized what he was doing, I wondered what would kill us first. His spell, or the robots that were still firing at us. The energy discharge as the spell fired slammed us into the wall. When I could see again, the robots and the catwalk for about a half lome were nothing but a glowing scar on the wall.
*Bye Bye Bot* and I sensed him pass out again.
*Two weeks dead indeed ...* Making sure he was firmly anchored to my armor, I resumed my crawl towards the door. I hoped that I was remembering correctly that the doors were about ten feet thick. What I had in mind couldn't be done from point blank range. I had more than enough evidence that the shields on our armor could be overwhelmed. When I opened up on that door, we were going to need to be a safe distance away. Unfortunately that meant letting go of the wall and backing up.
I had no idea whether he could hear or understand me as I spoke to him. *Wish us some of that 'luck' you keep talking about* and I let go of the wall. Even as I jetted to what I hoped was a safe distance, I could feel that abomination at the center reaching out for us. The further we got from the wall, the stronger came the pull. I just hoped Robert was better with engine design than with power systems.
Balanced on the armors drive systems, I lined up on the doors and let loose with everything I had. If the Kirkpatricks were still on the station anywhere, I hoped they understood who shook the ground under their feet. As soon as I could see the doors again, or rather the twisted remains of them, I opened up the drive and flew us through the gap in the wall. As I got close enough to see beyond the entryway, I had to smile.
*I see Robert has been having fun.* As we flew down the spoke, I could see signs that it was warping under stress. When we had come less than half the distance to the outer ring, the spoke gave way to twisted metal and open space. Where the rest of the spoke, and the outer ring itself had gone I had no idea. *Having a great deal of fun.* My private comm link was in pieces back in the core, so I opened up the general link and started calling. Stealth was not much of a worry by this time.
"Bob, Karen, can anyone hear me?"
"Bob here, where the hell are you two?"
I looked around as we floated above the remains of the spoke. "Admiring your marksmanship. We're both at the edge of the spoke, or what remains of it. We need to get out of here and someplace safe. Brian is sick and it feels like he's dying."
"Are you capable of flight? That thing is making the area around it a little hard to fly through."
I could hear the worry in his voice. "I've got a hold of him and my armors still working. Where are you?"
"I called my ship and we're hanging just outside the cleared area." In the upper right corner of my helmet, a tiny map popped up. "Follow the map and we'll meet you as soon as we can."
Double checking the latches, I flew away from the station and began to try to find Robert's ship. As we lifted above the damaged section, my armors tracking systems notified me that we had almost 4 hansta of those spherical attack ships following us.
"Bob, get ready to move quickly. I have about 24 of those globe ships following me and they look mildly annoyed about something."
"I'm tracking them. It looks like we didn't get them all when that weapons bay went up."
As I passed through the edge of what Brian had called the 'kill zone' I spotted Robert's ship coming towards me at an angle. When we got close enough he slowed and I flew along side him until I could grab a hold of his hull. "I'm locked on, get us out of here now!" I could see the first of the spheres coming up quickly behind us. As I phased Brian and myself through the hull, the weapons on Robert's ship began to fire.
"Nice to see you. How is Brian?"
It was a little hard to hear over Nahn's screams as he began blowing spheres out of the sky. "He's alive. I need to get him back to the Sunbeam before I try to correct the damage." I didn't pay much attention to what was going on around me. Popping the latches on Brian's armor, I pulled him from it and laid him out on the deck of the ship.
"He doesn't look good ..." came Karen's remark during a lull in the shooting. I didn't have any reply.
He was holding on, but I could feel him getting weaker. I didn't realize we had docked until Karen touched me on my shoulder.
"Do you want some help carrying him?"
She meant well, and I regretted snarling at her later. "His life is mine to guard!" Lifting him gently, I carried him onboard his ship and to the cabin we shared. I vaguely remember Robert screaming at Penny and Zorac to get the Sunbeam ready to fight as I sealed the door. Then I started in to save his life.
As I opened my healing senses and searched backwards up the bond we shared, I was almost overwhelmed by the pain. As I worked, it quickly became apparent that his body was failing faster than I could repair it. From the most basic cellular level upwards, his body was falling apart as I watched. In the end I was left with only one choice. During the last few months, I had found a way to heal that would even correct the gross changes happening before my eyes.
Brian had commented once that he was not in the least interested in knowing how I had managed the 'disguise' I had worn the night of his Birthday, even though he was pretty sure he knew what I had done. Now that same change that I had learned from Penny was his only chance to live. He knew how to trigger the change from his work with Penny. What he didn't know was that I had discovered it could be used for healing. During the shift from matter to pure energy and back. The energy field that comprised life tended to revert to its pure state. If the shift was from energy to matter, that state meant that the being reformed without gross errors. My disguise had been to introduce minor exterior changes during the reversion. I just hoped that the result of my mate undergoing the transformation would correct whatever was killing him. Diving in through the pain in his mind, I triggered the transformation.
* * *
I remember the pain, and I think I remember being as angry as I had ever been in my life. When the pain vanished, I found myself floating peacefully in my mind with Kalindra close by. *Hello, good to see you again. Am I still alive?*
*You are, though I need to explain something before you go too much further.*
I felt real weird, but I was having trouble placing the feeling. I knew it was familiar, but at the same time it felt different. Then with a start, I recognized what was going on. *What the hell did you do?*
*Saving your life. It was this or watch you die in my arms. Now that you're here you can guide yourself through the reverse transformation and correct the damage that was killing you.*
*I hope you know what your doing. Do you have any idea how dangerous this can be?* With a small flash of light, I found myself staring at the same form I had seen once before.
*I think I know ... Now you need to come back to us. Our little trip to the station seems to have caused all sorts of things to occur. I'm sure Robert could use your help about now.*
*Ok, let's get this over with.* I could still feel the link with Kal as I began to build my mental image of myself in my mind. It was odd to view myself like that with someone watching over my shoulder as it were. When I was satisfied, I triggered the change and prepared to return to the real world. The first thing I did was scream.
"Look at me! Damnit, I knew something like this would happen."
Kalindra was cocking her head and looking at me with a smirk on her face. "I don't know, I kind of like it." I was just getting ready to reply when I felt the deck shudder underneath us. "Quick, were do you keep your robes?"
"Third drawer down" came her reply as she flung the door open and headed for the flightdeck. After a quick search and a grimace at the color of the robe I found in the drawer. I wrapped myself in it and followed her.
"About time you got up here. See if you can get a track on... Jesus Christ! What the hell happened to you?" Bob sat looking like he'd been kicked by a mule. Karen and Jab spun around to see what he was talking about and acquired the same expressions.
"I'd advise keeping your comments to yourself" I snarled as I ran for my chair. I could hear Karen laughing anyway and Jab snickered and said "Mage better looking now". As I ran, I almost tripped myself and landed face first on the deck. My most immediate problem was the gawd awful hugh tail I had following behind me. The fact that I was now less than five feet tall, and covered in short golden fur was incidental.
"Tell me what's going on... <Screech> Damn, that hurts!" I'd tried to sit in my chair and had landed tail first.
"Curl it to the side and under the chair as you sit" came the snicker from my mate. Slower this time and taking her advice, I sat down at my station.
"Ok, tell me what's going on out here." I was firing up the targeting systems and bringing weapons on-line as the Sunbeam shook again.
"We've got a small army of those spheres on our ass and a couple of new things just launched from the station. Did you get the tap in place? I can't get anything but from Penny and Zorac acts like he's in slow motion."
"It's there, but I don't know if it's operational. We kind of got distracted after placing it." My board was showing green lights and the tracking was painting better than two dozen targets and a couple of blips the size of the Sunbeam were just leaving the station. "Weapons hot and tracking. Time for some of that pilot shit Bob."
He gave me one final look, snickered to himself and the Sunbeam blasted out of orbit from behind the asteroid. "Now to find out what's wrong with Penny" and I opened up the direct link to her.
Sit Mage. Sit.
The new low speed drive brought the Sunbeam well ahead of the spheres without much trouble. The gap between us increased little by little until we had about a 50 kilometer lead. "Zorac, engage all restraint fields in the ship. Do it now."
After a three-count, Zorac announced that the restraints were in place. I slammed on the brakes and drove the ship downwards at the same time, and our screens showed the spheres pass over us. The move had happened too quickly for them to react to, which was what I was hoping for. "Ok Whisk Broom, shoot 'em." Brian snarled at me, but took his anger out on the spheres. The Sunbeam's cannons, all of them, opened up on the loose formation of those deadly mines. What spheres weren't destroyed by a hit were knocked to the side to collide with others. It took about two seconds to wipe them out in a very entertaining display of pyrotechnics.
"Now, what was that Whisk Broom crack?" said Brian.
"Well, look at you. A horsehair brush would be envious." He glowered at me and then smiled.
"Yeah, I guess it is quite a change. I kind of like it."
"I don't" said Kal. "Your fur has the markings of a Fyenwa!"
"Fee yen wah? What the hell is a fee yen wah?" I asked.
"They are those who will mate with anything for gain." I started to laugh hard enough my stomach cramped.
"Well, Brian. You must be the ugly one who dances with the 39 others."
"Oh, shut up" grumbled Brian. Kal asked what I was talking about and Brian sent her a mental image.
"If I wasn't restrained, I'd whip your legs, Robert!"
The lights in the cabin went red. "I think someone's going to try that for you, Kal" I said. Our sensors showed that we had two new targets taking position. One was dead astern and the other was approaching on the oblique from starboard, and they were moving with incredible speed.
"This doesn't look good" said Brian. I would have agreed, but just then the Sunbeam heeled portward under the impact of a weapon fired from the thing behind us. I didn't have time to speak and started to concentrate on a flight path that would get us out of the line of fire before it's friend started shooting too.
"Jab, get an analysis of what hit us." The Meenzal bent to look, but was held by restraints.
"No can tell on sure. Zorac heavy on Nahn. But has power for star beam."
That was bad news. Whatever the station had tossed at us this time was carrying miniature loads of the same stellar energy that the station had fired at us before. The only reason we hadn't been destroyed was because of the smallness of the burst, and the distance it was fired at us from. "Shit! Ok, Zorac, release the restraints. Kal, go with Jab to my ship and get ready to disengage."
"No. I will not leave my mate!"
"Look Kal, I don't have time for your holier than thou codes of ethics. Get your furry ass into that ship."
"I will not leave my mate."
"Do as he says, Kalindra" barked Brian.
"Fucking great. Ok then. Karen, get into my ship. Jab get in there and fire it up."
"But I don't know any..."
"GOD DAMNIT! Karen, do as I tell you. We're going to..." The Sunbeam rocked hard again as another shot found it's target. "...get our asses killed. Now get in the damn boat. Brian, take the con, Kal, you take weapons." I got up and started to go aft.
"Where do you think you're going?" hissed Kal.
"I'm going to try to keep us alive, fuzz bucket. You see, I figure all of your fucking codes aren't worth a shit if you aren't alive to live them" and I stormed back and phased into the ship below.
As soon as Jab saw me on the deck, he broke loose the tractors and engaged the engines. We rocketed forward ahead of the Sunbeam as I took position in the pilot's chair. "No weapons yet, Jab. Get me a good reading on those things. I want to know what they are." The lights went off and the whole interior became a screen into the space around us. Magnification brought the target on the oblique into close focus.
It was a triangular shaped ship or missile. No telling what to call it, but it was obviously a smart weapon of some kind. As soon as we broke free of the Sunbeam, it changed course and tracked on us, leaving the other one to chase Brian. "Oh, that's just great." said Karen when she caught on to what was happening. "Now both of us have one of those things after us."
"That's the idea."
"It gives us a chance to figure out what to do. Two of those could corner us and blow us to Perdition. But with only one behind us, we can deal with it easier. Besides, the other one hit us twice without much effect."
"No much effect? Hit drain shields a third."
"That's better than three thirds."
"Is better, yes."
"Let's go play now."
"Nahn no like sound of that."
I pulled the little ship around and flew it straight at our pursuer. "Is this a good idea?" asked Karen.
"Let's find out" I said. "Weapons please, Jab."
"Then you may indulge yourself. But let's not try a ballistic singularity right off. I want to see what it can stand."
* * *
"Where are they now?" asked Brian.
"They're off to the left there. See them?"
"No, I don't. I'm watching that thing get closer to us. What are they doing?"
"Flying to meet the other one."
"Shit. He has balls of steel."
"No, you destroyed those."
"I meant Bob."
"Bob has no balls after him." %confusion%
"It's a figure of speech. I meant that he can be brave and mean at the same time." Kalindra harrumphed.
"Keep an eye on him, let me know what he does." The Sunbeam began a slow spiral twisting turn, and the weapon in their wake tracked them exactly. "Damn."
* * *
The small ship bore down on the smart weapon like a falling boxcar. Jab was poised at the firing console, ready to unleash whatever he thought was necessary. As we fell in on it, it slowed and rotated. We passed over it at close range and it was immediately in pursuit of us again. "How can it do that?" asked Karen. "How does it know where we're going?"
"It's tracking us."
"Looks at our energy signature, the radiation types we emit. From there it's just arithmetic."
"Well then, stop radiating."
"Stop radiating. Don't let it see us."
"Karen, it can see us. It would find us as easily as it finds a rock."
"Maybe is not like that."
"What do you mean, Jab."
"Power off and make cloak."
"It can't be that damn easy..." I shut everything off and engaged the cloak. The weapon responded by firing a burst of stellar energy at us. The blast took the ship dead-on and sent it tumbling wildly. Karen was thrown across the cabin to collide with Jab.
"No easy at all" said Jab. "Please move nice cookie-lady off Nahn now?"
"Sorry" said Karen. She returned to her seat.
"We must have forgotten something," I said. It saw us.
"See shields maybe?" said the Meenzal.
"That could be it."
"We try again? No shields no power?"
The guidance system in the smart weapon was gauging the decrease in the distance between it and it's target when it faded into nothing. It had been programmed to recognize when a target had disintegrated, and broke off it's approach. We sat in the powerless ship, unable to see or track the thing.
*A little busy here*
*Power off. Shut off everything. Leave no systems on at all.*
*I don't have time for experiments!* Brian was working the Sunbeam hard. It took a twisting, zig zag course in an attempt to keep the weapon from getting a good firing lock. It worked some. Another blast hit the 'Beam from aft and made the ship shudder violently.
Kal looked at Brian and shook her head to indicate no. Brian smiled at her. "Zorac. Complete systems shutdown. Now."
The Sunbeam went dark and began to slow. Their pursuer flashed past them.
*Way to go, Bob! How'd you figure that one out?*
*Karen figured it out.*
*Tell her I owe her a dozen cookies*
Our two ships sat in the blind for another twenty minutes. When I powered up the sensors, the space around us was vacant. I had Jab engage all of the ship's systems and set out to rendezvous with the Sunbeam. My ship barely docked before I phased onboard. I went straight up and stood in front of Kalindra.
"I have great respect for you on the whole, Kal. But if you ever just refuse to follow instructions because of some high cause, I'll shoot you. You risked everyone onboard both of our ships with that attitude, and I won't tolerate it again."
Kal flared. "Who are you to tell me what I will and won't do?"
"I am one who shares life with you. Here, in this place, I am your equal, I'm your subordinate, and I'm your master."
She started to speak, but stayed silent. Brian looked somberly at her. "I hate to say this, but Bob is right. If we don't cooperate here, we'll die."
"And what does your ethic say about that?" I added. It wasn't unkind.
"I have dishonored my family. I apologize" said Kal, bowing gently.
"No, you've learned something." I stretched out an armored arm, and Kal clamped onto the forearm with hers. "I'd give you a little hug, but I've seen what happens when people get close to you." I nodded towards Brian. Kalindra tried to suppress a giggle, but failed. We all laughed hard when Jab appeared in the hatchway and tossed a rolled up piece of paper toward Brian.
"Fetch!" said the Meenzal.
Brian looked at the floor and held his head with furry hands.
Chapter Thirty One
Watch where your putting those hands asshole!
I looked at the wad of paper on the floor and tried to ignore it. I'd remember this little attempt at humor though. It might take a while, but everyone on the flightdeck was going to get their's one day soon. "I have something to take care of and then I'll be in the computer bay trying to figure out what's going on with Penny."
"Do you want Karen to loan you one of her combs?" came Bob's remark from behind me as I walked towards my cabin. "Your tail looks terrible with all those tangles in it."
"I... <achoo!> Oh shit." I stared at my hands in horror.
"What's wrong now?"
"Shit. I think I'm allergic to myself" and I ran for the cabin while the entire group behind me broke into laughter. With a nasty though for Kalindra to *Leave me along this time*, I ran back through the transformation and found myself in my normal form. Except for the three foot ponytail I now had of course. I guess my subconscious doesn't want to wait for it to grow on its own. When I got dressed, I headed for the computer core to check on my sister. What little information I'd retrieved during the battle had shown me she was still with us, but she was devoting her entire focus to something that was keeping her busy. I suspect I knew just what that was.
With a <clack/hiss>, the door to the computer core swung open and I found myself almost blinded by the light show from Penny's crystal. Normal for her was a kind of muted glow that waxed and waned as she thought. Whatever she was working on, it had her busier than I'd ever seen her. "Penny? Can I help you anyway?" I almost gave up on getting an answer when I heard her break into the comm system in the core.
"Hi! Damnit, stay away from that you bastard! Oh no you don't. Hah, take that in your comm links! Oh, so that's the control sequence for the launcher. Shit, that tickles! Hello Boss."
I sat down and wondered if I was talking to Penny, or if I'd linked into a Soap Opera somehow. "I take it the Hyperlink got you into the system?"
"Worked like ... I said stay away from ..." For a few seconds the speaker broke into a language that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It was guttural and almost sounded male in nature. "I'm back. Damn monstrosity got around the safeguard on Zorac's comm channels for a moment."
"Got around the safeguards? That damned thing is in my ship?" I was calling up the status display on the console when Penny broke in again.
"Not really. I'm deeper into the guardian then it's into Zorac and I. Though it got real interesting when it first discovered I was running around inside it. <Screechhhhhhh> Oh, yah? Stondath ne maclicthick your own comm channels asshole!"
"Would you please tell me what the hell is going on?" I was half tempted to shutdown the link and run for home after doing our best to blow that damned 'guardian' into raw energy. If there was a chance it could destroy Penny, it was time to break things off and fast. Busy as she was, I think she heard the concern in my voice.
"I'm trying to get control of the guardians weapon systems. I was far enough into its control centers when it discovered me that I was able to open several secondary links and keep them intact when it tried to get rid of me. There is a nice large hole in the core where it vaporized its own control circuits to get rid of the Hyperlink you installed."
"How dangerous is all this. It sounds like it has at least some way of attacking you directly."
"Not really. I'm using Zorac as a filter and firewall for my work. You may have noticed he's a little sluggish at the moment."
"No shit. Bob was having fits about the response time during the battle."
"I assume that was in-between chuckles?"
"Oh, you saw that..."
"Yep. I didn't have time to remark about it, but I've got it filed away in storage. You looked kind of cute with that tail."
"I may help that guardian myself ..." while I listened to the snicker coming from the speaker. "Are you having any luck getting control of the weapons on that thing?"
"It's slow going. I'm having to decode its command language and figure out things from watching what its doing during attacks on us. Between that and fending off attacks, I'm staying busy. I've no idea how long this will take. Every time that damned thing gets lucky and crashes some part of Zorac, I have to reload the crashed sections while covering for them myself. You may warn Bob that he might notice occasional short systems failures."
"He's going to love that!"
"Tell him I'll trade him jobs anytime. Now if you don't have," and the lights blinked for a second. "Shit, he got to the environment controls for a second. As I was saying, if you don't have anything else. I'd like to get back to dismembering that bastard a piece at a time. I'm stashing everything that looks interesting in Zorac's archives until I can sort through them later. I'll tell you one thing I pretty sure of though. That thing is old on a scale you can't imagine, and it's about half insane after all that time. It isn't going to give up on us until either we or it is dead."
"I vote that it dies, thank you very much."
"I'm working on it boss, I'm working on it."
I stood up and opened the door to leave. Behind me the light show had kicked into high gear again. "Take care of yourself. You're the only sister I've got." Just before the door closed I heard a final burst from the speaker.
"Look you snathingt bastard, I said stay away from ..." and the door hissed as it sealed itself.
It was a short jaunt back to the flightdeck and as I stepped through the door I was attacked by Jab. Or at least he tried to attack me. He had been leaping at where my tail would have been and he couldn't correct his leap in time to avoid hitting the wall behind me. "Serves you right you little monster!"
"Mage no fun. Got rid of pounce and chew toy!" he said as he stared at me from his upside down position against the wall.
"You want to chew on something? Oh Kalindra my sweet, would you come here for a second." She didn't even bother to reply, but she did tuck her own tail up underneath herself after a sideways glance at Jab.
"Ok, we're on our own for a little while." I settled into my spot in front of the weapons console. "Penny is trying her best to shut that damned thing down from the inside, but it's slow going."
"Has that got anything to do with the lights blinking?" Bob was trying to watch the tracking systems and me at the same time.
"Yes. It's fighting back and Zorac is caught in the middle. Things aren't going to get any better as far as response time is concerned, and they might even get worse."
"Fucking great... Our friends the triangle twins are working their way back towards us and you tell me the ship might not be at full flight capability. What else could go wrong!"
I snickered. "How would you like a tail?" While Bob sat and sputtered, Karen looked at him with an evil glint in her eye. Jab piped up also with a "Bob grow chew toy?"
Chapter Thirty Two
There wasn't a lot to do but wait. We'd exhausted any hope of getting back onto the station for more sabotage, so it was going to be up to Penny. I'd set the ship to station-keeping and took up watching the screens for any activity. It wasn't a long wait.
The sensors showed two targets approaching at high speed, and magnification identified them as our triangular friends. "Zorac, thrusters to manual, full power standby." I pressed for the ship to move at an oblique to the oncoming ships. The Sunbeam didn't move. The controls were locked at station keeping and there was no control available at all. The triships bore in on us, and I estimated we had about fifty seconds before they'd be in firing range. "Brian! We have no power!"
"Zorac must be engaged filtering Penny."
"Kal, take the con. Brian, come on. We need to route some power or we're going to be toast."
"You take the splitter, I'll get to the source" said Brian. Each of us was yanking access panels five seconds later. There was some experimentation involved. Brian knew the ship like the back of his hand, and I'd gotten very familiar with the systems, but we needed to find a sufficient power source from a circuit that could handle the greater loads of propulsion.
"Everyone suit up!" I called out. We had no idea what was going to happen, and the armor would provide at least some added measure of protection, and especially if the hull lost pressure. It wasn't likely that it could, but at this point I was willing to believe that anything could happen.
Our probing into the circuitry of the Sunbeam produced some odd effects. As we tried one jumper combination after another, systems would light up and then drop away. "Here they come!" called Kal, and we all braced for the impact of the alien weapons systems. We got a reprieve. The ships overflew us. "They're looking us over, I think."
Jab came thudding down the corridor to where I was. "You get armor on. Jab work pa..." he started to say. Suddenly, he was just gone. I blinked at the empty spot in the hallway, and rose to my feet. Walking to where the cat had been, I suddenly felt the floor give way and I fell into my ship with an unceremonious thud. Jab had just stood up and moved, or I'd have dropped right on top of him. He had his armor on completely, so it wouldn't have hurt him, but I was only wearing the leggings and torso components so my security field wasn't engaged. The fall onto the cat would have hurt me.
"What the hell?"
"Ship phased. We fall out."
"I'm glad my ship was down here" I said. I wouldn't have liked falling into space."
The cat's helmet bobbed up and down in agreement. "We climb back up?"
"No, they have no power, get us fired up and we'll see if we can push the Sunbeam out of harm's way." Jab took the pilot's chair and began to start up the powerplant couplings while I fetched the rest of my armor. I was glad I left it on my ship instead of taking it to the Sunbeam. "Hit it, Jab" I called out, and the Meenzal hit full thrust.
The ship darted out and away from the Sunbeam. "Uh oh." said Jab.
"God damn it. This isn't our day." The Sunbeam's tractor wasn't engaged, and we'd just torn the docking latches off of it when we went to thrust.
"Oh, great" I said. Jab hopped over into the second seat and I took the con. "Fire up our weapons systems and let's see what we can do."
"Is one good thing."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"Both ship come for us. Leave Sunbeam alone."
"Well, isn't that just lucky for us."
The ship was already at full thrust, and was accelerating as best it could. But the triships had it all over us this time. They were already moving at high speed and didn't have the inertia to overcome that we did. What started as a flying wedge formation with us in the lead turned into a ragged line. One took position just slightly ahead of us and the other just behind. They opened up with their star plasma guns. I rolled my ship and flipped it up, over and around the ship to my left and took up a position underneath the triship. I pulled up under it and tried my best to be close enough that the other triship couldn't fire without hitting its partner ship.
Had a human been controlling the triships, the ploy might have worked. As it was, these beasts had only one consideration, and it was our destruction. The second ship maneuvered under us, and climbed so that my ship was caught between the two. "Was not good idea" said Jab with surprising calm.
"You want to shoot at these things, or just watch them?"
"No can shoot. Guns go fore and guns go aft. No up. No down."
"Well, isn't _that_ just fuckin' peachy" I snarled. Jab clumped out of the seat and thudded back to the entry area.
"You seal suit?" he asked.
"Of course. Why?"
Jab palmed the phasing plate and was gone in a rush of purged atmosphere. Almost immediately, light exploded through the sensor screens. Jab was standing on top of the ship below me, blasting at it. I caught a glimpse of him as the other ship tore away from the formation. A second later, the ship exploded in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.
"Give nice cat a ride, mister?" spoke the comm system. I yarded my ship away from the other and spun around to get the Meenzal. The remaining triship turned with me. For the next two minutes, I tried everything I knew to get separated from the ship, but it was like we were docked.
"It worked once. Maybe it'll work twice." Leaving the controls as they were, I got up and moved back to the cargo area and phased open the cargo drop door. Above me by thirty feet was the triship. I goosed my armor sprints, and slammed against the ship. I almost bounced off, but kicked my pack a second time lightly to hold me in place. It must have looked pretty stupid, me standing on my head against the triship, but I wasn't interested in how it looked. My shoulder cannon swiveled up and I began to blast against the hull. It wasn't as effective as Jab's attack, but it had the effect of disturbing the ship. It wrenched away from me, and I was left hurtling through space.
"Jab, where are you?"
"Not close." The cat blipped with his wrist rail and the flash caught my eye. I could tell generally where he was, but couldn't see him or gauge the distance. I hit the sprints again and propelled myself towards where the flash came from. A few seconds later, my suit sensors had him, and I changed course slightly to rendezvous. I also called to my ship.
Jab and I hung in space about a hundred feet apart. "That was a great idea Jab."
"Not so good."
"What do you mean?"
An armored paw gestured behind me. I touched my thruster lightly and rotated around. There was no mistaking the triship. It was headed right at us. "Oh fuck."
We both started firing at it with our cannons and rails, but they didn't have much effect. Jab even brought up his 'gun,' but that wasn't helping a lot either. I thought that Jab had come up with yet another Meenzal weapon when a huge plasma bolt erupted from just behind us. I looked back towards him in time to see the Sunbeam decloak and fire a second shot. Brian's voice came over the comm link.
"This is going to take all of us... I have all my power shunted to the guns but I don't think it'll be enough." Jab and I added our cannons and rails to the fire. In the glow of the weapon strikes against the triship I could see my own ship bearing on us. I issued the command for it to engage its weapons too. It began to fire just as I took a light hit from a close blast from the alien. It knocked me into a head over heels tumble that was strong enough I rotated three times before I could stop it.
The cannons from the Sunbeam struck the triship from the front as my ship's cannon hit it from the rear. The triship detonated into nothing but sparks emitting from a fireball. "Yee ha!" yelled Brian over the link. His glee was short lived. A plasma bolt came from behind us and struck the Sunbeam, driving it hard towards me. I couldn't get out of the way, and it slammed hard into me. The armor absorbed the impact, but not my surprise. A third triship streaked between the Sunbeam and Jab and fired at my ship. The blast took it head on, and my shipped stopped in it's tracks as though it ran into a wall.
It swung in a lazy arc and came back at us. "My weapons are out!" Brian screeched angrily. "I don't think we have shields either." I directed my cannon towards the approaching ship and fired. Nothing happened.
"Fuck! I think the collision damaged my armor."
"Jab low power."
I commanded my ship to open fire at the triship with the quantum cannon, but there was no reaction. The triship glided smoothly up towards us and stopped a couple hundred yards off. It just sat there.
"Well, go ahead you shitball!" I yelled at it. "Get it over with!"
"I don't think so, Bob" said Penny. "I'm in control of the station."
Chapter Thirty Three
Star go boom?
"Or at least this small part of it." Commented Penny as all of us stood around watching the ship sitting there with suspicion. "I managed to over-ride the guardians control link when it got close enough to the Sunbeam."
I could hear Bob starting to breathe again over the comm link. He was still floating in space in front of the triangular monstrosity that had come bearing down on him. "Jesus, nice of you to warn us. I about had heart failure. Are you ok Bob?"
"I'm going to kick her crystalline ass all over the ship when I get aboard."
"I'll take that as a yes. Jab, you want to take some time and fix the docking clamps? You made one hell of a mess when you pulled free."
"Jab fix. Mage fix Zorac?"
"If I have to take a sledge hammer to the damn thing. Penny, I thought you told me that we'd have controls?"
Her reply filtered back in a sheepish little girl voice. "Well... I needed Zorac full time when I went after control of the ship. Sorry about that."
I made sure my displeasure reflected in my voice. "You and I are going to have a little talk about that. You left us high, wide and handsome when everything went dead." I felt Bob's ship nudge up against the bottom of the Sunbeam and saw the tractor field snap on. A few seconds later, Bob came storming onto the flightdeck and he was barely hold his temper.
"I get to talk to her first. This kind of crap has to stop and right now. First your mate over there refuses to take orders." I could see Kal's ears lay down as she listened. "And then Penny decides to drop us in the grinder by shutting down the onboard computer while she's off playing.
"I'm the Captain of this..."
"Pilot" I said quietly.
"Your the pilot, I'm the Captain. If I ever feel the need to override you, I will. Until that time though, continue your ranting. They both need it." Nobody on the flightdeck but me caught Kal's reaction to that. I knew we'd be having words about it when she got me alone, as she wasn't about to argue family honor and such in front of what she considered strangers.
For the next ten minutes, Bob proceeded to remove a good portion of Kalindra's and Penny's hide verbally. I just sat back in my chair and listened to him work off his anger. Karen on the other hand looked like she would have been munching on popcorn if we'd had any available. I guess she got to see this more often than I did.
"Now, when I yell frog, what do you both do?"
There was a short pause before both Kal and Penny answered "Jump and then ask how high?" at the same time.
"Damned right!" With that out of the way at least for the time being. Bob slammed himself into his chair and began to swat controls. "Status report, all stations!" Everyone started to answer at the same time and I had to snicker. It got me a real dirty look and the wink I added didn't improve his mood.
"Got to be the worst flight crew I've ever seen..." he muttered under his breath.
"Maybe, but we work cheap." I made sure I was studying my instruments as I said it.
"Any damage?" snarled Bob.
"Nothing more than a few smudges on the finish."
"Then lets go kick some mechanical ass. Penny, is Zorac on-line?"
"Yes. He's still helping me, but you will always have at least fifty percent of his capacity available. That should give you almost normal control of the Sunbeam."
"How much firepower does that ship you're controlling carry?"
"Got any planets you don't like?"
Bob started rubbing his hands together like a kid in a candy shop. "That's what I wanted to hear. Do you have a layout of the station that shows the location of the control systems and memory banks? I'd like to leave enough behind to study when I teach that bastard some manners."
Behind us, the holotank lit up and began to display a 3D model of the guardian. "Most of the memory banks are in the central core inside the sphere that protects the guardian itself. The control systems and secondary memory are contained within the walls of the core."
"So we aren't going to save a lot of the good stuff when we take that sucker out. That's a pisser..."
"Not necessarily true. I've been snagging anything I could get my hands on and copying it into Zorac."
Bob look up in surprise. "Hummm... I take back half the things I said about you. Good work." He looked at the display for awhile. "Anyone have any ideas? I'm half tempted to just try blowing the sphere away and hoping we don't frag the rest of the station."
"You aren't going to be able to kill that thing. It's protected by a shell of neutronium and nothing we have will even bother it slightly."
"Even if we start tossing black holes at it?"
"It would probably toss them back at you. It's control of gravity is something to behold."
"No thank you. I've gotten as close to the core as I wish" came the comment from Kalindra. "I agree with Bob. Saving the rest of the station is a nice thought, but we need to shut that thing off once and for all."
I hadn't been saying anything as the rest of the group argued amongst themselves. "You've been awful quiet sitting there. You thinking of something in particular or going to sleep on us."
"Thinking. Gravity based weapons are out. What about something momentum based?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"Well..." I swung my chair around and called up the chart of local space. "We can't damage it, but maybe we can shove it. Suppose we find a good sized asteroid and accelerate it up to about fifty percent of the speed of light. That's a hell of a lot of kinetic energy in a small package."
I sketched a rough flightplan into the computer and transferred it to the holotank. "Ok, we take the mass and aim it at the heart of the core." The tank display expanded to show a display of the system and the station. "The mass will just get absorbed by the neutronium, but its kinetic energy has to go someplace. If we hit it hard enough, it will have to rebound like a pool ball. We will punch a small hole in the top of the core, and one hell of a hole in the bottom, but maybe we can disconnect the guardian from the station."
Bob was looking at the display and I could see a smile growing on his face. "I like it! Neat, clean and it makes a hell of a bang!"
"Don't let me spoil your mood, but you are going to have to push that thing a lot faster then .5C to effect the guardian" came Pennys voice over the speaker.
"Try .98C or better, and the higher the better."
"Shit... That ruins that idea."
"Maybe not" piped up Karen for the first time. "How fast will this wreck of your go?" she asked me.
"Wreck?" I sputtered.
"You haven't seen the cabin Bob and I are in, have you."
I was still sputtering when Penny broke in and began to fill Karen in. "We can hit about .92C with the last set of changes we made."
"Ok, how fast can Bob's ship and that other thing out there go?"
"About the same I think? And their drive field isn't as large as..." and I realized what she was driving at about the same time the rest of us did.
"Penny, can you sync the drive fields of Bob's ship and the Sunbeam?"
"Yeah, but I'll have to link with his onboard computer."
"What about that angled widget your controlling?"
"Hummmm... The drive works on a different principle, but I think I can rig something up with your help."
"Will the overlap boost the top speed" asked Bob.
"It should. Most of the power is going into keeping the ship intact at those speeds. With the fields overlapped, we share the protection and can push our velocity higher." Karen and Kalindra turned to their stations and began to call up the engineering specs for our ships. Within about a half hour we had all come to the conclusion that it might just work.
"Ok, pick out an asteroid and we can begin to haul it outwards. Bob and I can begin the work on the drives while we get into position to make our run. Penny, what is the guardian up to?"
"I'm not sure. It's still trying to get at me through Zorac, but it isn't launching anything else at us. According to the information I can decode, those triangular ships are the best it has with that plasma beam out of action. If I had to guess, I'd say it was getting worried that it was outmatched and was trying to figure out its next move."
"Then lets give it as little time as possible. Grab that rock with the tractor field and drag it within the Sunbeams flight field. We can get to the turning point while Bob and I work."
"We're going to need a hell of a run to bring that thing up to speed."
"Then we better get started."
With a rock in tow, and everything cloaked as best we could manage. Our tiny fleet began the outward leg of our trip. It was going to be about five hours to turnover, and every minute of that was spent installing the gear in the ships to allow Penny to sync the flight fields. Working on that alien ship was even more fun. Penny had only a rough idea of how the thing even worked, so most of what we did was 'try and duck'. At least once we managed to shut it down completely and then had to play catch-up with the rest of the fleet when we repaired the damage. Finally though we were resting dead in space about 25 AU out from the guardian.
"So that is the flightplan?" I said looking at the tank display.
"Yes. We guide it in to this point and then peel away and let it continue on. That will give us plenty of safety margin to get around the star behind it as we flash by."
"Then lets do it" came Bobs comment. And he headed for his ship.
It took a couple of attempts before the drives were in sync. The first attempt sounded like the Sunbeam was going to tear itself apart as it shuddered from the imbalance. Eventually though we got moving and our speed began to build. Our three ships were arranged in an equilateral triangle with the drive fields overlapping in the center. Nestled in its energy cradle sat a hunk of stone that had been minding its own business a few short hours ago. Now it was building up enough kinetic energy to push a neutron star out of its path, or at least we hoped it would.
As we came within 2 AU of the guardian and began to make our final course corrections, Penny gave us the bad news. "It's detected us and has launched a couple more triangles and about two dozen spheres."
"What the hell does it think that's going to do? We've already shown it we can handle those. I wonder if it's getting desperate?"
"No. It's got something else in mind. I just caught part of a command to target the asteroid. I figures we have to turn aside at some point and it's going to try to vaporize the rock before it hits it."
"Shit!" I rattled around random thoughts for a moment. "How much of a safety margin did you allow for us to miss the star?"
"Loose it. We're going to have to stick with this thing until the last second and maybe a little beyond."
"Now wait a minute" came Karen's yell from behind me. "I want that thing dead, but I'd like to be able to enjoy the feeling afterwards."
"I'll keep that in mind. Bob, do you and Jab have your armor with you?"
"Of course, why?"
"Because you're going to want everything in the way of shielding you can get." I called up our flight plan on my console and began to watch the changes Penny was making. "No, cut it closer still. Both the Sunbeam and Bob's ship can handle the temperature within the solar corona. We can worry about the scorch marks afterwards."
"You're the Captain" and the flight tracks altered a little more. "We have about five minutes to closest approach and release. I suggest everyone get suited up and ready. Our friends out there are going to be trying their best to ruin our little party. The first will be here in about two minutes."
We all made one hell of a racket getting into our armor. I heard Kal curse at least once when her tail got caught as she sealed up the leg. By the time the first of the triangles got close enough to fire on us. We were all ready and determined to end this once and for all.
"First target, 120 mark 15." I sang out from the weapons console.
"Tracking, it go boom soon" came Jab's war cry over the comm.
We both punched our fire controls at the same time and twin lances of energy leaped at the on coming ship. Its shields held for all of about two seconds before it erupted into stellar plasma. Before the cloud could get out of the way, our combined fleet shot though it at almost .98 light speed. The passage was not smooth.
"Damn, do we still have the rock?"
"Yes, but don't do that again" came Pennys scream. "I almost lost the sync on the drive fields and you don't want to know what would have happened."
"Ok. Nahn, time for something better. You designed these things, pick something." I watched my console began to shift configuration in front of my eyes.
"Got nice whizbang. Do job good."
"You're getting as bad as Bob."
"Thank You" came the snickering reply. As I watched the next target approach, the ships shuddered slightly as whatever weapon Jab was using fired. This time the stellar plasma seemed to warp in on itself and wink out as the attacking ship vanished from sight. There was no turbulence to speak of.
"Is much better?"
"That will do fine Nahn" answered Penny.
The rest of the spheres had lined up aimed straight for the rock. I simply slaved my console to Penny and let her pop them at her whim. When we cleared the flash, I could see the station approaching on the display. At our speed, Penny was the only thing fast enough to register and react to events as they happened. The last few seconds of our flight before we broke away were completely under her control.
"Bombs away!" came the cry from the speaker and all three ships spun on their axis and began driving for everything they were worth. Even locked into our restraining fields, I could feel the pull as we tried to bend our course away from the star. It wasn't until afterwards, when Penny showed us the images captured by one of the probes that had survived everything that had happened, that I appreciated what we had done.
At something like .99C, our three ships had flashed through the lower part of the stars' atmosphere. The only thing that had kept us from becoming ash had been our speed. Behind us we left three great curving arcs of stellar plasma that our passage had ripped from the heart of the new star. It was nothing compared to what happened a fraction of a second later.
We never knew what happened to the guardian. Judging from the images captured by the remote though, it was never going to bother us again. The probe was to far away to see the actual impact. What it did record was the view of the star folding in upon itself as the neutronium sphere that held the guardian impacted one side of it and blasted its way out the other. It was like a gunshot. A small entry hole, and a hugh blowout at the exit point. The star itself shuddered and oscillated from the impact. The rebound threw huge amounts of stellar material back through the entry point and out into space. Then it settled down a little and just spewed matter at random for a few hours.
When we finally got our ships slowed and were headed back into the system. We all sat and stared at the replay Penny was showing us.
"Star go boom..."
"Yeah Jab, star go boom. You getting any reading from the guardian Penny?"
"Nothing. From either it or the station."
"Well" I said. "Let's go see if we left anything to look at," and a greatly subdued crew headed back inwards.
Chapter Thirty Four
Through the looking-glass
We left the Sunbeam and my ship parked near the broken ring of the station. The hub was entirely gone, and only broken stubs remained of the spokes. We each headed off to different areas to explore.
This time, it was like a trip to a museum. There was no threat at all, and every measurement we took revealed zero energy emissions from the defunct station. I blasted a hole big enough to enter the station with my wrist rail and sailed in. The lack of any decompression showed clearly that the station had no atmosphere. Kal had built a number of flares to use to give light, and I was glad of that. It was blacker than black inside.
I was in one of the large hangar areas we'd seen before, but this one held five of the triangular ships. Each was in a state of partial completion, with unmoving 'bots frozen like mannequins about them. The robots were stopped mid motion as they were either putting the ships together or arming them. It wasn't really evident, and it didn't matter much. For the hell of it, I fired my shoulder cannon at one of the spider things. It collapsed in a heap immediately. I guess that when they were powered up, they had some sort of field around them for protection. This one disintegrated without fanfare.
"What was that?" came Karen over the link.
"I killed a bug, that's all."
"Should we come? Are there any more?" injected Brian quickly.
"Naw, everything is immobile. I just don't like them."
Brian chuckled. "Yeah, that's what I'm seeing too." We chatted about it for a moment, and realized that the chambers that were empty when we explored on the two earlier occasions were now little islands of activity.
"Space wheel get ready to fight" mused Jab aloud.
"That's what I was thinking" Kal replied.
"Let's get on with this," said Brian. "We can compare notes later, after we get a look at everything."
I started making my way through the hangar into the next chamber. It dawned on me that every hatch I'd seen was wide open now. It didn't mean much to me, but I noticed it. I figured that all bays were open to speed the preparations for a fight with us, but it didn't matter anymore. The station was dead.
Every time I looked into an access panel, all I saw was debris and disarray. When this thing died it either did a self destruct on itself, or the violence of the core's removal caused some kind of chain reaction. "I'm glad Penny saved the information she did" said Karen.
"Yeh," replied Brian. "Is everyone seeing what I am?"
"Only if you're not looking in your pants" came Karen's retort. Brian snorted.
I worked my way from one side of the ring to the other, and didn't see anything worth noting, so I turned and started towards the others. I passed from one chamber into another, and they were empty, held a bot or two, or showed signs of devastation.
Until I came to a hatch that was still closed.
The latches didn't work, and appeared to be jammed from distortion of the door frame. There was no power, so trying the door control wouldn't do any good. My curiosity was peaked, so I stood back and blasted the door with my wrist rail. Tossing a flare inside so I could see, I went inside. There was a row of twenty rectangular boxes made of some kind of transparent material. The insides of the containers was fogged or frosted, and they had the look of a bathroom mirror after a shower.
Something was inside each of the containers but I couldn't tell what. Wearing my armor made it impossible to try and wipe them for a better look, so I shot at one. It shattered like window hit with a baseball, and I could see clearly what was inside it. It was a human male. He was very dead, very rigid, and very preserved. I whistled under my breath.
"Hey you guys, I think y'all better come see what I found" I said.
"What you find?" asked Jab.
"I'm not so sure I can explain it. You guys need to come see this."
"There's nothing to see here," said Brian. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Go outside and fly the top of the ring. I'll blow a hole in the roof so you can see where I am easier." I aimed my shoulder cannon upwards and fired. A thirty foot hole appeared in the ceiling, and I could see stars behind it. Then I jetted up to the hole and dropped a flare on the ring as a beacon. It took about five minutes for everyone to collect in the chamber.
We looked at the figure in silence for a few moments until Jab spoke. "Why it here?"
"I don't know" I answered.
"Maybe it's someone who got abducted from Earth by flying saucers. We all have heard stories about that kind of thing" said Karen.
"I don't think so" Brian said slowly. "This thing is way too old for that."
"Then where did he come from?" I asked. There was no answer.
"This is not an honorable way for life to greet eternity" said Kal with obvious disgust. "We should give them to an honorable peace."
"I agree" I said. "What do the rest of you think?" Everyone nodded.
"We should investigate them first, though."
"Yeah, I think so too. Let's open the rest of them, Brian."
Jab fired the rail on his foreleg. The shot ran along the front of all of the containers, shattering them.
"I was thinking of a less destructive way, Jab" said Brian dryly.
"They open now" shrugged Jab.
Closer inspection showed that the figures were indeed human. The features were definitely those of more advanced homosapians, with small skulls and completely erect posture. We looked, measured and generally made every observation we could before we decided it was time to give them a burial. Each of us made four trips to the top of the ring with a body. When we were done, they lay in state in a line along the spine of the station's ring.
Kal spoke in her native tongue as she wished them good speed on the journey they were about to take, and Jab touched his helmeted muzzle to the forehead of each while Brian, Karen and I stood aside. Then we took each one in turn and shoved it towards the healing star we orbited. It still boiled and spat as it recovered from the indignity the core did to it as it passed through. When we were finished, we all returned to the chamber for a last look around.
"Are we done here?" Brian asked nobody in particular.
"I guess so" I answered.
"I am still thinking of their origin" Kal said.
"I still think they were abducted" Karen returned.
Brian mused a moment. "You know, there was a time anomaly we went through here. I think that may be a key to this."
"Is maybe" nodded Jab.
"Guys, there's another answer here you know." Four heads swivelled and looked at me. "We may be looking at the builders of this thing."
"I would like to leave now" said Kal. She shuddered visibly.
Chapter Thirty Five
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's homeward we will go
"We can't leave quite yet" I said as the group re-entered the ring.
"And why not? There isn't a lot left here for us with the core gone."
"Still, I'd like to go through the remains and try to sort out what we might be able to use. At the very least we will need to pick up what spare parts we can for Penny's new toy."
Bob was looking at me like I'd lost my mind. It was getting to be a familiar look. "You're going to take that thing back with us?"
"Maybe, someday. For right now I hope to use it's powerplant to restore power to part of the ring here." I was looking up through the gloom towards the ceiling when Kal nudged me. When I looked at her she was nodding towards Bob and Karen. They had shut off their radios and had touched helmets so they could talk in private. A short time later, Bob came back on the radio.
"This sounds like you plan on sticking around here for awhile yet."
"At least a couple of days, yeah."
"We need to get home" and he nodded towards Karen. The look on his face said he might not agree with that, but wasn't about to argue the point.
"Hummmm... Can you wait a half hour or so?"
"I suppose, what do you have in mind?"
"I'll tell you if it works. In the meantime, you can get back to the Sunbeam while I do some puttering around down here." Bob gave me that look that said he knew I was up to something, but didn't press it. Even after all these months I think he still distrusts the whole idea of magic. When he thinks I'm playing wizard, he tends to find someplace else to be.
Kal spoke up as Bob and Karen turned to head back to the ship. "Does that order include me also?"
"As if I could give you orders." %Warm/Fuzzy% "I'd like it though if you went and talked with Bob. I know you still have reservations about him and taking his orders."
"He is not family. I have no base upon which to trust his honor."
"Well, you can start with his saving our lives. That sounds honorable to me."
"Yes, but his faulty design almost cost you your life. The two acts now balance his honor, but I will talk to him as you request."
"The design was a mistake. Did you expect perfection from someone who was installing computers for a living when he tried to design something as complex as personal armor? He isn't the only one who can flub a design. Ask him how sensitive the PSI scan on his ship is someday. If he can quit laughing, you might try and fix it so it doesn't pick up our link. He turned about five shades of red when he picked up your feelings about me." As she thought about it, my mate blushed herself.
"I'll go talk to him."
"You do that" I said as she walked away. "I'll be along in a little while."
With everyone gone, the corridor was kind of spooky to wander around in. The memories of our previous jaunts made the back of my neck itch every time I passed another of those open doors. "I need some light in here." With a thought, my armor began to glow pale blue as the witchlight began to brighten the area. I told myself that there was nothing to fear, but I don't think I believed it myself.
I was looking for one of the hangers we had spotted that was still in good condition. It took three tries, but I found one that might even stay air tight if we could seal the door. Walking to the blank wall at one end, I popped the latches on my armor and shucked it off into the corner.
Standing there in nothing but my environment field, I waved my hand and retrieved my staff from its resting place in my cabin. Using it to sketch the outline on the wall, I began the creation of a gate home. This one would be linked to the one in the lunar lab. I'd had more than enough of using my mountain lab as a freeway interchange.
I wasn't really sure this was going to work. In theory a gate didn't care about the distance. Since I'd never been able to resolve the question about wether Velar was in the same universe as Earth, the question still stood unanswered. Punching a gate five light-years home would at least start to answer that question. When the time came, I fixed the image of the lunar gate in my mind and brought the gate to life. When I opened my eyes, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had worked. Either I was getting better or the gods decided to give me a break after the hell we'd been through the last few weeks.
*Are you done now?*
*I felt the magic ripple when you began.*
*Thanks for not interrupting me. Yes, it's done. I'll be along in a minute.*
*Good, there is something you should see.*
I felt rather than heard her chuckle. With my curiosity up, I grabbed my armor and headed back to the ship. As I stepped onto the flightdeck I could hear everyone laughing their heads off.
"Ok, someone want to let me in on the joke?"
"Metal man got..." and Jab desolved back into a fit of laughter.
"Ok, anyone else want to try?"
Bob waved me over to the front console. "Take a look at this..." and he broke out into chuckles.
I walked over to the console and looked at the screen. It took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing. It wasn't the normal status display of the onboard systems. "Ok, so someone found a book of bad love poems." I looked at the console again. "Really bad poems if that stuff is any sample." The whole crew desolved into screams of laughter. "Ok, what's the joke?"
"Boss, I want you to kill Zorac" came the comment from the speaker.
In between fits, Bob finally told me what was going on. "That isn't a book, it's Zorac. When we got back, I found that the response was still pretty sluggish. When I asked Penny what was going on, she showed me this stuff. Somehow during the fight, Zorac kind of woke up a little. Now he thinks he's in love with Penny and he's bombarding her with this drivel." With that, he desolved into laughter again.
"Boss, I can't shut him up! He's pumping this crap over the direct link you installed and he won't leave me alone!"
I almost swear I heard desperation in her voice as she begged me to shut him down. "What? You want me to kill true love?"
"Damnit Brian! This isn't funny!"
I didn't agree and found myself laughing with the rest of the crew. I had Kalindra, Bob had Karen and now Penny had Zorac. If we could find a nice hairball for Jab we'd be set. Grabbing Bob by the shoulder, I motioned him and Karen to follow me.
"Damnit Boss, you can't leave me this way! Will you please shut the hell up! Boss!" She was still yelling as we got to Bob's cabin.
"You two grab whatever you want to take with you. I've got a way to get you home now."
"Oh no. I've had enough teleporting. You told me that was dangerous!" Bob was looking for something to hold me off with, while Karen started throwing stuff in a bag.
"Don't worry. I've got a gate established down in one of the hangers. A couple of steps, a hope through the transfer at the lunar lab, and you can jump home."
"A gate here? Cool..."
"I want to keep this place if I can and the commute to work is a bitch. I figured this was easier and a hell of a lot more convenient."
"You want me to send anything back for you" asked Karen.
I put on my best smile. "I'd take some cookies, chocolate of course."
"Of course... I'll see what I can do. You two take care of yourselves while we're gone."
"I'll watch over him" came Kal's comment from behind me.
Oh great. That did wonders for my ego. With Bob, Karen and Jab suited up. I showed them where the gate was and sent them home. Bob was going to give us a couple of days to get the orbit of the station stabilized and then he would be back to run the Sunbeam home the long way.
"Damn that feels weird" he muttered as we stood in the lunar lab. "Five light-years in a couple of steps."
"Just part of the door to door service sir" I chuckled as I sent them home to their kids. It didn't dawn on me until I was back on the Sunbeam that they had still been in their armor. "Oh boy, the kids better not mess with dad and mom." I sat down in my chair and began to call up the plot of the stations orbit. I was still sitting there studying it when Kal snuck up behind me and gave me a hug.
"Have you figured out what's next?" she said as she blew in my ear.
"Not yet, but I will."
"I know, you always do. I'll have dinner ready for you in about twenty minutes" and she headed back to the galley.
Resting my feet on the console, I stared out the port at the station and the star beyond. Three humans, one Velan, a Meenzal, a Crystal and now a lovesick starship. We made one hell of a crew and I wouldn't trade any of them for the world.
Chapter Thirty Six
Come fly with me...
I was sitting in the lab when the call came in. I looked up from the sketches of the Sunbeam I'd been studying and saw three figures in the doorway. They we standing in a flying wedge formation and were all wearing armor similar to the design Bob had come up with a few weeks ago. The memory made me shudder.
"Hi Brian" said the one in front. It had Ficus' voice. The two behind him each raised a hand to wave.
"Your father is going to kill you" I said.
"Why would I do that?" asked Bob. He threaded his way between the kids and sat down next to me at the table. "So, what do you think?"
"What am I supposed to think? Besides a firming belief in your being nuts, that is."
"It's the new armor" said Bob with a touch of reproach. "Kal told me I needed to redesign it all because it nearly killed you. So I did."
"She wasn't very happy about that, no."
"Well, it's like I told her. All of us were out there with untried artificial quantum singularities on our backs, and I wasn't very keen on giving them too much power. Besides, I got screwed by a power drain too."
"So I heard. What's different about these? Besides the fact that they come in ridiculously small sizes." The three figures in the door way shuffled a bit, and Ficus looked at the particle accelerator on his arm where we'd had railguns before. I noticed this and amended my remark. "I meant to say that they look more form fitted and less heavy than the old ones."
Bob snickered and winked at his son. "That's not all they are. I'm getting to the point where I've given up measuring what Jab knows about. He did the rigging on these, and designed the weapons system. Those big ass tubes on the arms are full blown particle beam accelerators, the same thing that Jab had mounted on his back."
I whistled. "They pack a wallop."
"Yeah, and better yet, they don't have the recoil that the rails did."
"Good work. What else?"
"They're shielded way beyond the others. I doubt that you're going to get radiation sickness while you're wearing one of these. In your case, that'll cut down on barber bills."
"Couldn't resist. Kal insisted that she handle the comm systems. Said she had an idea on how to improve the psi mux. Personally, I didn't notice anything wrong with the original setup in the suits, or my ship either. She was really determined to work that over. No offense, but she can be kinda weird about things."
I smiled to myself. "Kal can be a perfectionist at times. This was apparently one of them."
"I'll say. I told her to stay the hell off of my ship --you know me, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But she had a major cow, so I figured what the hell and told her to go ahead on."
"She calmed down and trotted off to work on it."
"I can see how that might have made her feel better."
"Never mind. Let's just say she has her quirks like the rest of us."
"Yeah, well it doesn't matter. When she got done, I sent Jab in and he put it all back the way it was."
I choked. "You didn't."
"Sure I did. Hell Brian, that system worked great. Just because she has a quirk doesn't mean I'm going to give up on something I have faith in."
"Hmmmmm. I suggest that you don't tell Kalindra you did that. She can be pretty formidable."
"So can my cat. Star Trek 20, the Wrath of Nahn. He mistrusts her."
"Velans don't like Meenzals either" I reminded him.
"Jab says they're jealous because most of their magic doesn't work on 'em."
"That's partly true, but Velans are also a very private race. You've heard the trouble I had with them accepting me as Kal's mate."
"I guess. But I'm kinda with Jab. I don't trust her. She's got pretty different ways of looking at things --told me I didn't have honor."
Ficus clumped forward. "You should have heard my dad."
I can imagine" I said.
"No, it wasn't like that. Dad was great. He told her it was fine with him if she didn't think he had honor. Said he knew he did, and her not knowing it simply proved her ignorance."
"You said that?" I asked Bob.
"Yeah. Why not? I'm not a bad guy, man."
"No. You're not. What did she say to that?"
"She made a spitting kind of noise and told me I was too stupid to know what ignorance was."
"And you said?"
"I said I was smart enough not to put you out, and wise enough to know that you and I had made our last journey together. I'd rather have a friend than an adventure anyday." Bob shrugged at me. "That's what I came here to tell you. I think it's better all around. You can fly the Sunbeam just fine, and now that you have Kal... well, you get it, right?"
"No. Not really. Why can't you two just find some common ground?"
"I guess I have a human weakness. You screw with me, and that's ok because we're friends. Sure, I didn't like you playing Pop goes the Weasel with me, but I also knew you wouldn't hurt me. I don't know that of Kal. She considers me a tool from Sears or something. I'm not going to put myself --or my family-- at risk like that. If Kal wants to have a power trip, let her win it."
I was stunned. I knew there was friction between the two of them, but Bob was telling me that it was serious enough he didn't trust her to protect his life, and he didn't think she'd protect Karen either. "I don't know what to say about this. I need to think on it a bit."
"Look, Brian. What we have here is a cultural difference. I mean, it's not like racism really. I think you know that."
"But you've immersed yourself in a totally different culture. It goes way beyond the cultural differences of some white person marrying a black, or an Indian marrying a Swede or something. You and she share stuff --like magic and all that, and you guys love each other. So in a way you don't see things from our perspective. Karen is worried about her too. And for the same reasons I am. She doesn't want Kal to toss me in front of some inbound projectile to protect you, and that's a really strong possibility."
"No, she wouldn't do that."
"Brian, she could have caused us all to die when she locked onto you like a hungry anemone when we were under fire."
I felt myself getting angry. "You've gotten us stuck in some tight spots yourself."
"Yeah, but never by refusing to act as a part of the whole. And that's the way I see Kal."
"So this is it? After all of this you just take off?"
"Show me another way, man."
I was stuck. If he really didn't trust her, it would make things dangerous for everyone. Hearing that Karen felt the same way just made it worse. "I may have another way. Maybe not. But I trust you. You don't run in a pinch, and you think in a strange enough way... well, you're an asset and a friend."
"Thanks. That part won't change." Bob grinned at me. "Anyway, we're going to go on back home. I'll catch you later."
"Ok, but don't give up. Let me see what I can think of."
"You know where I live" and he was up and gone.
I sat there considering what just happened. I turned and looked at the screen on the wall. "Penny! Give me a link to Bob's house. I want to talk to Karen. It'll take Bob a little while to get home, and that'll give us a little chance to talk."
"Can't do it, Boss."
"What? Why not?"
"Kalindra cut my links. She said nobody had a right to spy on anyone's home. Since she's your mate, I..."
I bellowed. "God damn it! What the hell is going on here?" The lab was silent.