Brian W. Antoine
January 20, 1994
Time flies when you're having fun
Bob stuck his head out of the cable bay to see who had been tugging on his pant leg. "Hi Lythandi, you staying busy?"
"Yes sir. Do you know where I could find the Klizach? I have something he wanted to see."
"Yeah, He's outside wiring up some new gear. Is it important?"
Lythandi looked at the data table she was holding and hugged it tighter to her chest. "I think so. Could you ask him how long he will be?"
"No problem" said Bob. *Hey, mostly useless. Your daughter or whatever wants to talk to you. When you going to quite playing hooky out there?*
*I'm in the control room* I 'pathed back. *You fall asleep in the wiring bay again? Anyway, send her up. I've got it sealed and an atmosphere pumped in now.*
"He says come on up. You need to go to the main hanger and take the jump tube. He's in the room at the top."
"Thank you" and she headed towards the hanger. Bob ducked back into the cable bay and continued his work. "Damned recycled electronics! Jab, where the hell does this go?"
"Go in plug right there. You forget again?" came the filtered voice of K1's chief engineer from the opening. "You need learn read Meenzel soon."
"Yeah, yeah. When we get a spare year..."
* * *
I was buried inside the console when Lythandi startled me. I hadn't heard her come up the tube. "Klizach?"
"Huh?" <slam> "Shit! Damn that hurts... PENNY!"
"Yes oh loud one?"
I was holding the top of my head where I'd banged it on the underside of the console. "Enough is enough! Make a permanent change to your design databases. Never, and I mean never, build another console that isn't padded on the underside."
"It would tend to save on the Band-Aids and alcohol swabs you and Bob go through" she chuckled. "Database updated."
I looked around to see who had called for me, and spotted Lythandi hiding behind one of the chairs. "Come on out" I laughed as I rubbed my head. "I'm not mad at you, just this stupid hunk of machinery."
"I have not offended the Klizach?"
"No, and the name is Brian anyway." The look she gave me said she was scandalized at the idea of calling me by my own name. "Look, on this side of the Gate I'm Brian. You can call me Klizach when we're home with Kalindra."
"Yes sir" and she stood there clutching a datapad.
"You have something you wanted to show me?" She blushed beautifully as she realized she hadn't handed me the datapad. "What am I looking at?" I said as I started scanning the pad.
"You asked me to determine where Velar and Terra were in relation to one another. I believe I have the answer for you now." That got my attention real fast. "The Klizan said you would want to be shown the results as soon as possible."
"No shit..." and I started scanning the coordinates and star charts that Lythandi had pieced together from all the crazy sources I'd handed to her. "Oh shit..." I muttered when I saw where things were showing up on the chart. "Any chance this one is misplaced?" I pointed at the entry in question.
"Possible, but not probable. I triple checked that entry to make sure it was accurate."
"Damn..." I flipped a toggle on the console above me and activated the internal PA system. "Hey folks, I've got some news. Some good, some not so good. Lythandi just handed me a chart that shows how to get to Velar through normal space. It also shows the location of both the Meenzai Empire and the Maal Home and that's the problem. The Maal are about 190 light years from Earth, maybe a little closer to Meenzeii. Unfortunately, they are less than 20 light years from Velar." I handed the pad to Lythandi and switched off the PA system. "Have you given those to Penny yet?"
"No, your mate thought you should see them first."
"Please do so as soon as you can then. How is Kalindra?"
"She is fine and says that Ficus should be back home in another day or so."
Kalindra had hauled Ficus to Velar when she and Kimi had encountered problems with his arm regeneration. Rather than risk screwing it up, she had called Wythdantis and asked if she was accepting new patients. That had been an interesting call to listen in on. "Ok, good enough. Thanks for the information, you did a great job."
"Do you have anything else for me to do?" She was beaming from ear to pointed ear.
"Not at the moment, unless you want to help around here."
"The Klizan said to stay and keep an eye on you if I wasn't in the way. She was worried you might get lonely I think."
I caught just the hint of a twinkle in her eye as she waited for my answer. "Ok, then check in with Karen and see what you can help her with. Also, before you get to involved, ask Penny to explain what 'Monogamy' means before you get too worried about my getting lonely." With a puzzled look, she dropped down the jump tube. "Crazy Velan family structures..." I muttered as I climbed inside the console again.
* * *
We were all seated around the table enjoying dinner and talking about the thousand and one things we'd been doing all day.
"Say Bob, I got a message from Kal about Ficus." Bob looked over from where he had been arguing with Jab. "He's fine and should be home tomorrow, day after at the latest. Of course he's going to look a little funny for awhile."
"His new arm is white as a sheet and kind of weak. He'd going to need some sun and exercise when he gets back."
"I don't know about the sun, but he'll get all the exercise he needs and more" Bob chuckled as we both thought about the number of things that needed work around K1.
"Can help with Bob's armor" chimed in Jasm from across the table. That got a grumble from Bob.
"Hey, it's not Kal's fault. She lost hold of it when she was captured by that Maal. Quit bitching, you'll have armor by the end of the week."
"I better..." he mumbled as he turned back to arguing with Jab.
Dinner was just about over when Penny announced that Kimi was standing by the Gate in Susan's house. "She wants to talk to you Boss."
"I'll bet she does" I muttered.
"What is wrong with you two?" asked Karen. "You have been treating her like dirt ever since the battle."
"Karen, if one of your family was in danger. Would you hand the rest of us over to the Maal to distract them?"
"You are my family..." she glared at me.
"Bad example then, sorry. Would you hand over Jasm or someone you weren't related to?"
"No, of course not. I'd fight to keep them all safe."
"Kimi wouldn't. If you don't believe me, ask Penny to tell you what was going on during the battle. Kimi was using all of you to force me to come back to my senses. What she didn't tell you was that she was willing to sacrifice all of you in the process." I hadn't said anything about it until now. Kimi had helped clean up the mess after the battle, but only after being told to help or else. We had had quite an argument as she tried to convince me that my duty was to Earth. Since Bob and his family had moved out into space, they were no longer my concern and I should return with her.
"I don't trust her any farther than I can see her at the moment. The rest of you should all consider how she feels about you before turning your back on her." I got up and left the table to see what she wanted now. The conversation as I left the room was pretty subdued.
"So, what do you want now?" I stared through the Gate at Kimi as she stood in Susan's closet. Luckily, the door behind her was closed, so we had some privacy.
"Are you going to let me come through apprentice?"
I tried to keep my face from showing just what I thought of her. "Do not call me that again. I will spend the rest of my life trying to live down the fact that my teacher has demonstrated her total lack of honor to both my family and my friends. You are no longer welcome in my home, and I doubt that Bob is going to be willing to see you when he figures out you were willing to let him die."
"How can you call those beast's family" she said with a disgusted look on her face. "They are not of your world and Robert has abandoned his claim to your protection."
"Thank the God's I woke up. I can't imagine a more horrible fate for our world than to have someone like you deciding who's worthy of protection. I only hope that someday you realize just what you done." I shut her off in mid-word as I closed the Gate on her. I had work to do, and very little time in which to do it.
* * *
Late that evening, the last of the wiring was completed. Using parts from the wreckage of both the thug and the Sunbeam. Bob, Penny and I had installed extra shielding around the entire surface of K1. Every spare or salvageable weapon had also been installed on the surface and wired into the control room I had been creating. It was all hidden as well as we could manage. Someone looking at the outside of K1 would notice a new 'bump' in the forehead of the 'cat', but that was about the only thing visible.
"Everything check out?"
"I've run the checks four times" came Penny's voice over the PA. "Every system checks out to five nine's. The salvaged powerplant from the Sunbeam is idling and waiting for orders."
"You think this crazy idea will work?" asked Bob.
"Will work, Jab double check Mage's numbers" snickered Jab.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence cat." I looked over at Bob as he sat in the pilots' seat. "Well, how does it feel to have the only Hyperflight capable asteroid in the solar system?"
"Like I'm sitting on the largest bomb ever built."
I started laughing. "Let's hope you blow up in deep space then. With the power this rock is holding, you'd screw the orbits of most of the planets in the area. Now come on, we have something else to finish tonight."
Bob shutdown all the weapons and idled the powerplants. "Do we have to? It's been pretty peaceful around here without the Meenzai bothering us."
"You claim we had a week, right?"
"Yeah, that's what it feels like."
"Well, we still have two days then. Time to find out what our allies are up to." We headed down to the main hanger where the original Meenzeii Gate had been. It had vanished when my abilities had been surpressed. Now it was time to re-create it and see what Gal Meen had been yelling about.
Even after almost a year, Bob was still uncomfortable around me when I was playing Mage. I wasn't however alone in the hanger as I set to work. Aron and Jasm sat down in the doorway and watched as I ran through the steps to form and anchor the Gate. A half hour later, when the familiar mist formed in the archway. I turned and winked at both of them as they stared back at me. "Yell at Bob to get his butt down here. It shouldn't take long for them to notice the Gate is active again."
"Bob already has his butt here" came his voice as he strode down the corridor and into the hanger. "You finished wiggling your nose?"
"You want to grow a tail?" I laughed as he politely declined my offer.
"Ok, let's see what our friends wanted."
"Friends my ass..." muttered Bob as the Gate activated and opened.
The view before us was right out of a space opera. The Gate had formed beyond the orbit of the outer Meenzeii moon's. Or at least where that moon should have been. It was a little hard to make out the rest of the scene because we were looking though an orbiting cloud of debris that looked a lot like a small asteroid belt. What we could see though was brilliantly lit by the energy beams of the Meenzai Battleships as they fought with the Maal that were swarming the area.
"Close the Gate."
"Close the damned Gate! We aren't ready for this yet."
I looked at the scene again and agreed with him. The scene before us vanished to be replaced by the normal mist of the quiescent Gate. When we turned around, Jasm was standing directly behind us.
"What you do now?" she asked.
Bob and I looked at each other. "Good question..."
Owl and Pussycat Sailed Away
"Battle Alert!" said Penny over the station-wide comm link. "All personnel should be wearing armor. Weapons checks will be conducted on the hangar deck in ten minutes."
I looked at Brian. He was sitting at the nav station in the new control room, making some final checks. "So," I said, "once more into the breach. I'm not sure why I agreed to use K1 as a battle cruiser."
"Because you couldn't resist. You never can."
"What exactly does that mean?"
"It means that you love a challenge, enjoy pressure, and take real pleasure out of destroying things that need to be destroyed."
"You paint me as a psychopath, Brian."
"No more than I am. Isn't it you who always says that crazy is the best defense against adversity?"
"Sort of, what I say is that when the chips are down, it's better to be nuts than frightened. A lunatic will press for success, but a sane man will try to run, and probably get killed for it. --One way or another."
"I detect a lesson in that" smiled Brian. "Are you giving me some sort of psychoanalysis about my experience with the Maal? Cuz if you are..."
"Wouldn't presume to, Brian. You are who you are, and that's always been fine with me. I just meant in general. I mean, think about it. We've managed to follow a specific trail to get to this point in time, and we're alive to continue. When we first saw the remnants of the Guardian, we very easily could have turned tail and split. If we had, Earth might soon be in a bad way with the Maal. They WOULD eventually come, and nobody would be ready for it. I suspect that the human race would be Maaltee in pretty short order."
"Hmmmm. You do have a good point, but how do you know the Meenzai wouldn't have stopped them?"
"Dunno. They might have, but more to the point now, they haven't. We both saw what was happening around Meenzeii when you opened the gate."
"Then I guess we better quit philosophizing and get going."
"I agree. I can feel them coming."
"Feel who? The Maal or the Meenzals?"
We got up and headed for the hangar deck. As we walked, we discussed the general plan of action. We'd first go to Meenzeii, and see if we could help there. It wasn't that we had any particular love or duty sense for the cats, our reasons were much more pragmatic. If we helped the Meenzai kick ass there, we'd have a reduced number of Maal to deal with afterwards. We grabbed our armor as we went through the Gate room.
On the hangar deck, the family was already there in force. Cannon fire and wrist rails spit their venom into space from the edge of the docking area. Penny had sent some targets out, but by the time we'd arrived, they were space dust. Cosmic debris for the next forming star somewhere. It took a minute, but I realized that Jab wasn't there, and turned to look back to the station main hatch when he came thumping through it.
"Hey, cat-breath. Join the party" called Brian. I asked him what took him so long to respond to the alarm. He told me he was finishing up a new gun.
"So, let's see it, Ja..." The words froze on my tongue. On each side of the cat's armor were two squatty tubes, and in each was a series of smaller ones. It almost looked as if the cat was wearing a pair of 20mm Vulcan cannons. "What the fuck have you got there?"
"Shoot particles." said the cat, and he took position on the lip of the docking area. "Watch." he said, and then the hangar bay filled with the sound of huge WUMP!. Jab flew backwards almost twenty feet, and about the time he came to rest, all of us were momentarily blinded by a flash of blue-white brilliance. Visors on everyone's armor instantly darkened, only to go slowly back to transparency. We could see the shockwave emanating from the center of the explosion, it rippled out like waves from a rock tossed into a quiet pool. It was impressive.
"Brace for impact!" called Penny. "Force eight shockwave in five, four, three, two, one..." We never heard her say zero. The station rocked crazily, as though a giant child had kicked it. If the triships hadn't been held magnetically in dock position, they'd be a pile of rubble. The sleds would have been wall decorations.
"What the FUCK was THAT?" I yelled at the cat. Jab picked himself up from the deck and thudded over to where the rest of us were.
"New gun." he replied.
"Not that again. What kind of goddamn gun? I think you've left a hole in time out there."
Brian looked at me and then the cat. "Jab, what did you use to make your gun?" he asked quietly.
"Right side shoot negative charged ionized undepleted plutonium, left shoot positron of same." I could almost see his smirk through the armor.
"He may well have blown a hole in time" said Brian. "Hats off to you, that's a hell of a gun."
"Jasm help." he shrugged.
* * *
Even though it would be a little draining, we decided that a gate was the best way to make the first part of the trip. Brian had Penny position four bots to anchor the corners, and he expanded the mouth of the existing gate to Meenzeii so that K1 would slip through. Once we had, the bots would follow behind. The gate would start to fold in on itself like a sock, and be destroyed in the process. We didn't want to leave any doors for the Maal to step through, and especially to our solar system.
I found that piloting K1 wasn't much different than driving the now dead Sunbeam. Brian, Jab and Jasm had done a great job at making the rock pretty maneuverable, given its size and mass. The station moved through the gate, and we were instantly as deep in shit as a dung beetle at home. Jasm was monitoring the Meenzai channels, and they were surprised at our appearance. They didn't know who we were, and the defending force turned three of the cat's ships against us. They broke off as soon as they saw us directing our cannons against the Maal.
Involved in the battle were thirty of the Meenzai dreadnoughts, and five galaxy class battleships. There were a collection of smaller craft which were making interference trips with a hit and run strategy. The Maal force they were up against appeared to be a one dimensional sea of tinker toys that stretched off into the far distance. Like waves lapping a shore, they just kept advancing and withdrawing in never ending sorties.
Brian brought a tactical map up into a holotank in the control room. Unless we read it wrong, all but two of the solid ring of stations about the planet didn't exist anymore. As we watched, three of the dreadnoughts dropped from the display, destroyed by Maal fire.
"Stand by," I said through the station link. "We're coming about." I swung K1 so that the giant energy emitter we'd constructed on the tail end of the station was lined up on the advance Maal picket. "Firing." I called out.
The entire station played a deep, almost musical note as the power generator was temporarily switched from internal systems to the emitter and forced to full power. When it let loose, the entire station vibrated, sending unfastened materials skittering across the decks and tabletops. Outside, a beam the size of the Terran sun coned out from K1, and carved a swath of Maal into non-existence. When the beam subsided, there wasn't even the dim phosphorescence of vapor.
The first shot went directly through the Maal, and as soon as it had stopped, I repositioned the ship to fire across the parallel of the advance Maal. The station sang again, and fifty miles of the front Maal joined their partners in oblivion.
"This is working pretty well, don't you think?" asked Brian. He was looking pretty smug.
"Yeah, it is for now, but look out there." I pointed at the screen with the aft view. The Meenzai ships were breaking for the farside of their planet, and the Maal had started to subdivide into the same collections we'd seen before. We knew that they'd soon maneuver to encase us in one of their spheres.
"God damn cats" snarled Brian. "They always take off just when you need them."
Karen appeared in the doorway. "I'm not sure, but I think we have some Maal trying for the hangar bays." We looked, and she was right. A group of small ones had collected forward of the station while we were watching the aft.
"Damn, can you swing us around?" asked Brian.
"Not in time, I don't think." I was already putting the station in motion, but before we started to move the sound of Jab's new gun echoed all through the station, and the threatening Maal disintegrated.
"And that ends them" said Kalindra. She'd been sitting quietly in the control room through the start of the fight, and we'd only known she was there by the jingle of her tail bell when the station shuddered or accelerated.
"BRIAN! They're everywhere!" I yelled. Some realization had crept into my mind. I didn't know where it came from, but I knew to trust it.
"I don't see anything, Bob. The closest Maal are... wait a minute." As he was speaking, the pink to yellow aurora we'd seen before began to materialize about the station. I leaned over the console and drove K1 into hyperspace. As soon as we transitioned, we found that we were enwebbed in a sphere of condensing Maal.
I reacted by instinct more than brains. I lit off the aft beam cannon and began to drive the station into a tumbling gainer. The ship swung like a high diver out of control, its beam slicing through the Maal sphere. As it wiped across the tightened collections, they exploded like novas all around us.
The station, jury-rigged as it was couldn't take the stress of the repeated shockwaves and vibrations. Somewhere along the temporary buss, a circuit let go and the station dropped out of hyperspace.
There's never a spare fuse when you need one...
As we dropped back to normal space, K1 was still spinning end over end in a slow dance with the remains of the Maal that we had destroyed...
"We've still got gravity and partial shields, but you can kiss everything else good-bye." Out of the corner of my eye I saw the diagnostics running on one of the consoles. Even as the Maal plasma field began to reform around us, the computer narrowed down the fault. With a satisfied beep, it highlighted an area of the main power grid that ran the length of K1. "We lost the central power bus, shit! Jab!" I yelled into the comm.
"Jab busy at moment!" he yelled back. "Want Maal inside?"
"Shit!" I was trying to re-route power to the drive systems so Bob could get us under control, but finding something that could pass that kind of power wasn't easy.
"Anytime Brian" came Bob's worried voice from behind me as I tried to convince the computer. "What shield's we have aren't going to stop that plasma shit for long."
"I'll trade you jobs... Damnit!" The computer highlighted another area of the power grid as my attempt blew one of the lighter secondary systems. I was starting to get frantic and wondering if I could tap the power core myself for a shield when a quiet voice behind us both cut through the alarms.
"I'll take care of it" said Kalindra as she looked over my shoulder. *Cope as best you can* she 'pathed to both of us as she 'ported directly into the area shown on the screen.
"She better be quick about it. I'm starting to lose the external sensor displays."
I re-routed another power transfer and prayed for luck. This time it held, though the computer was showing every circuit in the grid starting to overload. "You should have basic weapons, see if you can punch a hole in the sphere!"
"No drive systems?" yelled Bob even as he opened up with the smaller particle beams and torps.
"Miracles take longer" I muttered as I caught sight of Kal on the internal security monitor. *Come on, we need it now* Then the monitor showed the main power bus that ran down the center of the station. Where it had been tapped to power the new drive systems. A six foot chunk of the bus-bar had vaporized. I was just starting to wonder where we could find something to splice it, when Kalindra read my mind.
*Robert, how good is the insulation in my armor?*
Bob and I looked at each other, then back to our controls as K1 shuddered from the recoil of Jab's gun in the landing bay. I didn't hear what Bob said, but a second later Kal broke in on me as I tried make sense of the tactical display. *Please shut down the power for a second.*
I reached over and shutdown the grid in question without looking at the display. *Done, work quick!*
Three seconds later she asked me to *Light the candle, please*
"Bob, we've got another group forming outside the first!" I was still looking that the tac-display when I told the computer to energize the grid. Even as I finished issuing the commands, I looked over at the security monitor and screamed. "Nooooo!"
The view on the monitor was insane. Kal had rammed her hands into two of the broken ends of the power buss, and buried her feet in the junction. I was half out of my seat when the lights dimmed and Bob let out a whoop as the main systems came back on-line. "About damn time!" The plasma beam fired and began to slice the sphere around us in half. "Tell Kal she does good work!" I was still watching the screen. Where her armor was in contact with the three points of the power grid. It was starting to glow a dull red.
*Right here. Don't worry, I'm shielding inside the armor. You are going to have to cut me out of it though. Every single circuit exploded when the power came on.*
I dropped back into my seat in shock. *And you guys think I'm crazy.* Bob had stopped our tumble and was taking potshots at groups of Maal as they came available. "Bob, take it easy on the power if you can."
"Why, how fragile are the repairs?"
I looked at the monitor. "You don't want to know..." Turning back to my console, the two of us began to clear the area around Meenzeii of Maal. The problem was that they just kept coming. Then I noticed that where we fired the plasma beam, they made real attempts at avoiding. There was so much weapons fire though, that they couldn't always manage it. As I watched the tac-display, one of the larger Maal dove through an area we had cleared. It lived just long enough to fall apart as it flew out the other side.
"Jesus Christ... That's why they live in deep space!"
"Huh? What the hell are you mumbling about now?" asked Bob.
"They can't take close contact with high energy plasma. Look at the monitor!" One of the Maal had dodged to avoid the blast from Jab and his gun. As we stared at the screen, it brushed the still slightly glowing area we had fired at with the plasma beam. It just kissed the edge of the area, but the Maal seemed to shudder and then break apart as we watched in fascination.
"Damn..." muttered Bob. "Yeah..." I replied.
"Well, have we got the weapon for them" came the cry from beside me as Bob lined up another shot. Once again the beam sprang from the rear of K1 and once again countless Maal simply vanished.
A glance at the tac-display showed they had decided to focus back on Meenzeii and avoid us. "We must leave a bad taste in their mouth" I said to no one in particular. With a moment to think, I let Bob and Jab shoot at anything that moved while I tried to work through an idea.
"Jab, do you need an physical target for that gun of yours, or can you target empty space?"
"Need target, bigger is better" he yelled as he popped another group that had tried to sneak in behind us.
I switched over to the nav display and began to search the immediate area around the planet. "Come on... I need a nice large chunk of wreckage for a target..."
"What the hell are you doing now?" asked Bob between shots.
"Making a firecracker" I muttered. "Ah hah! Got it!" I'd found a chunk of one of the Meenzai space stations traveling in a slow arc away from the planet. With a flick of a switch I nailed it with a tractor beam and began to shift its trajectory.
*Excuse me, but it's getting a bit warm down here*
I looked at the security camera. Warm was an understatement, Kal's armor was glowing white hot and was overloading the camera. *Hold on just a bit longer. I've got an idea...*
*You are going to owe me when this is over*
*I will personally groom every hair on your furry hide* All I got for a reply was a snicker.
"Bob, see that chunk of station I'm dragging behind us?"
"Yeah, what of it."
"I'm going to throw it out in front of us. I want you to fire the plasma beam in front of it when I tell you, and make sure you miss it."
"Miss it... Jab, you see the junk behind us?"
"Jab see. What got in mind?"
"That's your target, but you need to be at a right angle to us when you fire. How wide a beam does that gun of yours fire?"
"Good, here is what I want you to do..." I explained what I had in mind and was rewarded by a smile from Bob. Jab just yelled "Meenzai!" and dove out of the landing bay.
K1 came to a stop in space and the remains of the station shot by us on its way into Jabs sights. To the left of us was the approaching picket line of another wave of Maal. To the right was the remains of the station and hanging in open space was Jab and his gun. We didn't have long to wait.
*You ok down there?*
*It cooled down a little, is it over?*
I glanced at the security camera. We hadn't fired the plasma beam for a few moments and the reduced power draw had let the remains of Kal's armor cool down slightly. I could still see however a white hot puddle beneath her where the armor had started to melt. Knowing the melting point of hull metal, I just prayed her shields were holding. *Almost I hope. We might have something that will break the attack.*
"They're almost here" came Bob's quiet comment as he watched the tac-display.
"Make sure the beam is set for max dispersion." He double checked the setting and nodded at me. "Jab, on my mark."
When the leading edge of the Maal passed an invisible line in space. The plasma beam of K1 fired directly along their ranks and I yelled at Jab to fire away. Our timing was a little off, but it didn't really matter. About the same time the plasma beam had passed the remains of the space station. Jab's gun blew the station into a cloud of superheated sub-atomic particles. Then the cloud hit the plasma beam dead center.
In the years to come, the neighboring solar systems are going to think that the Meenzai sun has gone nova. Those of us who were there got to view the explosion up close and personal. The shockwave caused by the vaporized station, t-boned the plasma beam and ruined its integrity. Together, they formed an expanding cloud of plasma that blew outward along the line of fire. The Maal never knew what hit them.
"We've lost the entire rear sensor array!" I screamed as K1 was slammed in the ass by the expanding shockwave of energy.
"Hell, I think we lost part of the rear of the station!" yelled Bob as he tried to bring K1 under control.
"See if you can swing us end for end. The forward sensors seem to have survived better." In a lazy kind of roll, K1 tipped over and lined up face on to the blast. We still couldn't see anything because the sensors were overloaded by the energy discharge. "Jab, you ok out there? Can you see anything?"
"Jab need new armor, but is ok. Lucky blew outward, not inward."
"Can you see anything?"
"Not much, Maal that not vaporize running like being chased by hoard of Earth demons!"
The screams of success as everyone on K1 started yelling, were probably heard all the way back on Earth. We were still yelling, and watching the screens as the sensors slowly managed to deal with the overload, when the comm system crackled.
"This is the Meenzai Battlecrusier Phatock. Drop your shields and prepare to be boarded." I looked at Bob who was staring back at me in amazement.
"Now they show up" he laughed.
"They've got to be kidding..." I chuckled as Bob swung K1 around. I opened the channel the Battlecrusier and waited for Bob to get us lined up. With Meenzeii sitting dead center in the target scope, and the plasma chamber glowing with the pent up energy, I answered the Meenzai Captain.
"Captain, perhaps you could answer a question first. Do Meenzal's taste better with Tangy Mustard, or Horse Radish?"
We were waiting for an answer when Kal's voice chuckled in our minds. *Any time you would like to cut me out of here, I'm still waiting...*
Oodie Woodie Kitty Poo
"What the fuck did he just say?" I couldn't believe my ears. Brian was staring at the console with a priceless expression of disbelief.
"Bob, swing this thing about five degrees to the right and burn that son of a bitch" said Brian. The man didn't look happy. I started to reach to the controls, then pulled back.
"I have a better idea." I said, and opened the comm channel. "This is the Terran Station K1. We cannot lower our shields. Battle damage has fused our circuits. However, we'd be pleased if you'd send us a crew to repair the damage."
Brian slapped the switch and closed the channel. "Are you fucking crazy?" The last thing I want is a bunch of furballs here."
"Hold your water" then to the internal comm: "Jab, Karen, Ficus, Megan and Aron. Assemble on the hangar deck." To Jab, *Hey cat, we have a few of your furry friends about to show up. Entertain them until I get down there.*
*Jab sing for them?*
*No asshole. I mean corral the little fuckers. Use any force you think you need, and if one or all of them taste vacuum, it won't show up on your report card.*
*Ok* chuckled the cat. *Not so much like Meenzai today.*
"Me neither." I mumbled to nobody. "Captain of the Battlecruiser, we await your shuttle in our hangar bays. Dock at your convenience."
* * *
Five Meenzai Engineers filed into a shuttle with three well-armed Guardsmen. The trip from the cruiser took about eight minutes door to door, and another two minutes to dock. Once the ship was moored, the gangway of the shuttle extended and the hatch opened. Aron stood at the base of the gangway.
"Hello in there!" He called cheerfully. The Guardsmen were the first to deplane, and the leader stepped up to Aron.
"Where are the rest of your crew?" He barked. Aron cringed noticeably and stepped back.
"They're fixing the power things." he said. "They should be here in a minute." The Meenzai sergeant raised his gun and pointed it at the boy's chest.
"You are my prisoner. Make no attempt to communicate with your crew." He then called the other out of the shuttle.
"Why are there so many of you? Didn't you come to help us?" asked Aron. He peered around the Meenzal and looked into the shuttle. "Are there any more of you?"
"We need no more than this. You ask too many questions" snapped the sergeant.
"No, that was enough" smiled Aron. Right after that, five well-aimed railguns blew the weapons off of the armed member of the party, and Penny dropped a stasis field over the cats. Aron was grinning from ear to ear. "Did I do ok?" he asked.
"You did great, sweetie" said Karen as she walked over to look eye to eye with the surprised and embarrassed Meenzal's. Then, looking at the sergeant, "I wouldn't be you for anything, you know that?"
"Why would that be, human?"
"I'll tell you why, shithead." I said walking across the bay. "Look at this!" I was brandishing a pair of electric clippers.
* * *
Two hours later, the Meenzal shuttle was running on autopilot and delivered all of the crew back. They were completely shaved, except for a large smiling happy-face on their chests. I felt I owed Aron something for being the bait, so I let him write his name across the butt of the sergeant with a can of spray paint. It was pink.
* * *
"Oh, Captain." I cooed over the comm channel. "Your men are back, and they want to talk to you." There was no reply to the communication for a full five minutes. Then the battlecruiser armed her forward batteries.
"They're going to fire" said Brian. He was fairly unconcerned.
"No they're not." I said, and fired K1's plasma beam. The battlecruiser was reduced to a gray silhouette amidst a bright golden glow, and then vanished.
"Post battle PMS?" asked Brian.
"I've always had a tenuous relationship with felines." I replied. "I expect that the planet will be calling us soon."
"Should we wait for it?"
"Fuck 'em. Let's go pry Kal out of her armor."
*At least SOMEONE remembered me* she 'pathed. There was a smidgen of shortness in her tone.
Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of
Kalindra's armor was a mess. Seeing it on the monitor was one thing, but in person it was wholly different. The definition of shape was gone, and what was an intricate mechanism was now slag.
*Are you ok in there?* 'pathed Brian.
*Mostly. I would like to get out now.*
Easier said than done. The integrity of the hull metal was still there, so it had a great deal of its strength. We had only two choices. One, we could cut her out. The other was for Brian to disrupt the structure of the suit. We decided on the latter.
With a few notes sung, the suit simply disintegrated, and there was a bright flash then darkness. When the suit lost its metallic properties, the bus complained heavily and tried to maintain it's connection with a huge arc. The next thing we knew, Kalindra was rolling across the floor, her fur aflame. Brian and I both reacted the same way. Each of us dove across her to use our bodies to smother the flames. Her fur wasn't very damaged by the fire, but as the Jab brought us up on emergency lighting, we saw something completely unexpected.
Kalindra looked as if she'd aged a thousand years since we saw her. What was a luxurious coat had turned white and shrunken. The hornlike tufts of hair on the tips of her ears were gone, and so were the light whiskers on her muzzle. The two of us looked at Kal with widened eyes.
"What is it? What are you looking at me this way for?" asked Kal. Then she glanced down and saw herself. "Oh!" She swiped at her thigh and raised a cloud of fine white ash.
"So, uh, Brian." I stammered.
"Uh huh." Neither of us could look away, or change our astounded expressions.
"Just how goddamn hot did it get in there?" I asked.
"It was quite warm, thank you, Robert. At least one of you has the courtesy to inquire." It may have been warm in the armor, but there was a definite chill in the air. Brian warmed it considerably by stepping over to Kal and taking her in his arms.
"You should have told us to stop." Brian's strong voice cracked a little, and then he coughed. The ash on Kal's coat blew off and swirled around the two of them. "Come on, let's go get you cleaned up."
As they walked down the corridor, Kal left a gentle rooster tail of white dust, like a car travelling over a gypsum road. I watched them until they turned and were out of sight. "She have died." I said aloud. "She'd have died and not said a god damn word." At that moment, and from then on I'd be thinking of Kalindra in a completely different way. Looking after them in the empty walkway, I nodded to myself and then turned to inspect the broken bus.
* * *
"Hey Bob." called Brian as he strolled into the control room. Three hours had gone by, and things were coming back too normal slowly. "We have a message from Meenzeii."
"I didn't hear anything." I said looking at the console.
"Didn't come through here, there's no comm up here yet. We got it down in engineering. We've been ordered to surrender to the Meenzai Council to face charges of murder. They're unhappy that we destroyed their cruiser."
"Oh, they are, are they?"
"You have the sensors back. Turn them on and take a look at the neighborhood." I did so. Outside us was a semicircle of battlecruisers, all facing our direction.
"Their armament is powered up, if that's what you mean."
So the cats wanted to play? "Ok, let's go on down to engineering and have a little chat with our feline friends." A few minutes later we were opening the channel. "This is Terran Station K1. Who's talking there?"
"I am Zlee Fet, Commander of the Meenzai Guard. You are dead."
"Last I knew my name was Bob, dipshit. And you ought to feel pretty goddamn special that your planet still has a core. The next time one of you jerkoffs powers up a weapons array at me, you can kiss that fucking ball of dirt good-bye."
The sound of the Commander was one of outrage. "You will surrender at once or be destroyed." I kicked the channel open so they could hear what was happening.
"Jab, what's our weapons status?"
"Is on-line. First thing we fix. Target is now planet Meenzeii."
"Fire control on full automatic. If ANY energy comes our way, I want that planet missing. No matter what, that planet goes. Do you understand me?"
"Ok, Commander, can you read our current power? If you can't then I'm happy to send you telemetry." Brian stepped up to the control center.
"You will power your weapons down, and surrender your world."
"We would rather die, human!" came the snarled response.
"Fire control, let's give that planet a tan." The station began to humm and vibrate as the plasma discharge began to build. *Jab, just enough power to toast the treetops*
*Start big fire.*
*Keep them busy down there, won't it?*
The comm link carried the yell of the Meenzai Commander as soon as the beginnings of the plasma belched from the emitter at the planet. The station began to shake from the incoming fire from the cruisers. It lasted five seconds, then stopped.
"Station Commander" said Zlee, "We ask a truce to negotiate."
"Fuck you." I answered. I gave thought to dialing the beam to maximum, but decided against it. Instead I told Jab to shut it down, but raise the power setting to maximum. Brian reached past me and fired the maneuvering thrusters so that the station rotated to aim at the center cruiser.
"You have ten seconds to tell us why we shouldn't destroy your ships, starting with yours." he said.
The response was immediate. "Because you need us human."
"Wrong answer, asshole" sneered Brian.
"Cruisers shutting off weapons" called Jab over the internal comm. "Shields down too."
"Smart move, fuzzwart" I mumbled. Both Brian and I were tired of those cats and their methods. Either of us would be willing to send the whole race to Perdition on a whim. As it turned out, we had given them something to think about. Nearly a 20th of the planet's surface was on fire. "Our telemetry tells us we don't need you at all. In fact, it looks like the other way 'round." This communication was rewarded with silence.
"Commander. You will transport Gal Meen to this station immediately. You have twenty minutes to comply" barked Brian.
"We cannot comply, human. Gal Meen is dead." Brian and I looked at each other.
"Do you believe him?" I asked.
"No." The on the comm, "Explain."
"There has been a revolution. You are aware that there have been some problems." That much was true. Our last few contacts with the cats had been a direct result of their conflicts. We told the Commander to shuttle over, and offered him safe conduct to come and go. To our surprise, he said yes.
Searching the remains...
Bob was still keeping an eye on our 'friends' when I stepped back onto the flightdeck of K1. They were still there, but had decided to leave us alone for the moment. Having set fire to a large portion of their world, I think they were finally learning that we would indeed carry out our threats.
"How is Kalindra?"
"Asleep, she was dehydrated on top of everything else. All she could think of was that her fur might not grow back as beautiful as before. I almost had to give her a sleeping pill to get her to rest. She kept saying she would be ready if we needed help." I saw Bob shake his head.
"I'll bet she would be too..." He turned to face me after glancing at the monitor again. "Are all Mage's as crazy as you two?"
"What do you mean?"
"You would have killed yourself if it had been needed to keep the Meenzai from invading Earth. Now Kalindra almost cooks herself alive, and all she has to say about it is 'The family needed me'."
I thought about it for a moment, and had to agree it seemed like a strange mixture. "It might be better to say that most Mage's seem to focus on helping others rather then use their abilities for their own advancement. The ones that don't, tend to get weeded out by the rest."
"You mean like Jon?"
"If need be, yes."
"Remind me to never become a Mage" Bob muttered as he turned back to his station.
"No problem..." and I started running checks on the console in front of me. "Any word from our friends?"
"Not a peep. They just insist that Gal Meen is dead and that things are changing rapidly."
"Damn, I'd like to know whether he is really is gone. He is just capable of faking his own death to flush out his enemy's."
"You and me both..." said Bob as he watched the ships around us shift position slightly.
"There is a way to find out you know."
"I could go look."
"Yeah, I'm sure they would let you waltz right in and view the remains."
"They would never know I'd been there. That is of course if I have your permission." That got his attention.
"Run that by me again. Since when do you need my permission?"
"Since I'm sitting in your home. In case you missed it, I've taken great pains to avoid doing any 'wizard shit' around here without asking. Taking off to scout out Gal Meen's home would require my use of Magic." I could see Bob thinking about it and replaying things from the last week in his head.
"You want to explain this?"
"I've learned humility?" Bob made a rude noise. "Ok, I've been told that I'll get my butt kicked if I screw around with your home?"
"More likely, but not probable. Who would do the kicking? Out with it Antoine. There has to be a better explanation. Hell, you LIKE playing with Magic."
"Well... Let's just say that while I can usually get myself out of any trouble I get myself into. The same can't be said for anyone in the general area of one of my mistakes. If I ask first, then the risk is shared by people who realize what's going on."
Bob just stared at me for a moment. "First Kalindra, now you. I'm not in command of a warship. I'm head keeper at the asylum!"
I snickered at the expression on his face. "I've done all my homework. Can I go play now?"
He snorted in disgust and told me to "Get out of my sight. Dinner is in two hours, don't be late."
"I won't. I saw Karen cooking a lemon cheesecake..." I could hear him laughing as I ran out the door towards the landing bay. Grabbing my staff from my locker, I cloaked myself and flew out the entrance. My armor was left behind once again. I didn't expect to need it where I was going. Picking my way slowly past the picket line of Meenzai ships, I snuck up on the planet below us.
The first thing I noticed was the complete lack of defenses. Not only were the orbital forts gone, but the planetary shield was down as well. The Meenzai must have been getting pretty desperate before we showed up. They had been real close to having their race snuffed out like a candle in the night. As I dove towards the surface things got even worse. There was damage apparent everywhere I looked and most of it was a lot worse then our little 'solar flare' could have caused. What was worse was that little if anything seemed to happening to bring any of the fires under control.
*Bob, I think we goofed* I 'pathed back to him. *No matter what the provocation. I think all we managed to do was kick someone while they were down.*
*Then what the hell was the 'drop your shields' crap about?*
*Someone with no hope, running on auto pilot?* I didn't get an answer and I didn't really expect one. *These people have been at war so long. Maybe they can't imagine anything else.*
*Maybe they need a teacher then.*
*Maybe... We need to talk to Jab and Jasm when we get a chance.* I was coming up on the mountains that held Gal Meen's fortress. It took me almost no time to find the hidden landing pad I'd used on my first visit. It was the area that was still glowing from the weapons fire that had burned away the side of the mountain. *Well, so much for the front door. Let's see if the servant's entrance is intact.* I came to a stop above the remains of the pad and build the image of the throne room in my mind. Still cloaked, I teleported into the room about twenty feet off the ground. It was a good thing too. I'd have never found a place to stand in the pile of bodies that littered the floor.
Reaching up, I activated the mini-cam that I strapped to my harness. *Bob, are you getting this?*
*Jesus, what the hell happened?*
*Good question. Let me see if I can find out.* Landing beside the remains of the throne that had one dominated the room. I started a scan for signs of life and came up empty as expected. On a hunch, I extended the healers sense Kalindra had taught me and looked for a specific genetic pattern I'd memorized the last time I was here. The entire room started to sparkle around me.
*Uh Bob. I don't think they lied about Gal Meen being dead. I'm finding enough blood and remains scattered around the room to account for almost half his body mass. It looks like something ripped him apart and scattered the pieces.*
Then I noticed something missing that was conspicuous in its absence. The dais closest to the throne was empty. It was the one that the Varn had been standing on the last time I was here. Even as I realized it was missing, I strengthened my shields and began to scan for Magic. That just made things even more puzzling. The entire room was radiating a dim Magical background radiation, but the dais was glowing like the noonday sun. Dropping down to get a better look at it. I was startled when the surface of the dais seem to glow brighter as I approached. As I came to a rest on top of it, the Magic flared once and a familiar crest appeared.
*Bob, are you catching this?*
*Catching what? I'm not seeing a thing over the camera.*
*Then it was meant for me to see and only me.* Glowing on the top of the dais was the revised family crest I'd been working on for the last few months. I hadn't actually used it yet as it was to be a surprise for Kal when the Sunbeam II launched. "The damned thing picked my mind..." I muttered aloud. I looked around the room and tried to see if I could spot the remains of the Varn. Somehow I had a good idea what had happened and I hoped the Varn had joined the rest of its race at peace with itself.
*Bob, Gal Meen is dead. Whatever is going on down here. We will have to deal with whoever was strong enough to take his place.* Lifting from the dais, I floated out the remains of the great doors that had once dominated the entrance. Behind me, the crest flared with a final burst of radiance and faded away, its message delivered. Picking my way along the corridors I remembered. I eventually came to a collapsed area of the tunnel and could go no further. Behind me were the bodies of enough Meenzai to pack K1 to the bulging point. When Gal Meen had died, his death had triggered something that might be years burning itself out. My search at an end, I 'ported back to where I had started above the ruined landing pad and headed back into space.
*So what do we do now?* came the faint thought from above me.
*Kalindra, I told you to get some sleep!*
*I was cold* she whined.
*With half your fur gone, I don't doubt it!*
*Are you coming back soon? You always keep the bed nice and warm.*
If I could have blushed over a telepathic link, I would have. I definitely heard Bob laughing at us. *I'll be back when the job is done. I want to check out those ships before I return.*
*Make it quick. I don't want to think about how cranky Kalindra might get if she catches a cold* thought Bob as he continued to laugh. *She might decide to set fire to the rest of Meenzeii to stay warm!*
*I'll hurry then* and I headed for the line of ships in front of me. As it turned out, we didn't have much to worry about. As I flew over the surface of the first ship, I began to notice signs of damage that had been hidden instead of fixed. With a sneaky thought, I scanned the ship for signs of life and get another shock. I wasn't sure what the normal compliment of a Meenzai Battleship was, but this one was working with a skeleton crew or less. The rest of the ships circling us were pretty much the same.
As I came flying into the landing bay, Bob was standing there with Jab to greet me. "You aren't going to believe what I found out there. That whole damn fleet is a sham. There isn't a ship out there that hasn't got damage that was hidden rather than repaired. That, and there might just be enough Meenzal's spread around the entire fleet to fully man a single ship."
"That explains the way the tried to board us then. They were trying to render us harmless without letting us know how bad off they were."
"Yeah, I'll bet the boarding party would have been the entire crew of one of those ships with a single Meenzal left aboard to keep the ship from drifting away."
"So what Bob and Mage do now?" asked Jab as he watched both of us.
"What do you mean" asked Bob in return.
"Want rule Meenzeii? Not much stop you now..."
We both shouted "Not on your life!" at the same time and were greeted by a smile from both Jab and Jasm as she walked into the landing bay.
"Told you they good people" said Jab to his grand daughter as she sat down on the deck at his side.
"Then what you do now?" asked the Meenzeii Ambassador to Terra as she looked up at us.
New from the Old
"Commander Meenzai Fleet. This is the Commander of Terran Station K1."
"We hear you, human."
"We surrender, prepare to board this station."
"ARE YOU FUCKING NUTS?" roared Brian.
"Acknowledged, K1" said the cat.
"Brian, are you into being a planetary ruler?" I asked.
"Not particularly." was the response. "I think I understand. JAB! shields down, weapons off-line and on standby."
Twenty minutes later, a shuttle from the battlecruiser docked on K1. We extended full diplomatic honors. I had to smack Brian in the back of the head to get him to bow, but he did so grudgingly.
"Greetings, Commander. I'm Bob Kirkpatrick. This is the ArchMage Antoine. We are at your service." I averted my eyes from his gaze.
"Rise, Commander. Your honor is recognized." The Meenzal bowed deeply in return. I made it a point to hand my sidearm to the Meenzal, but also said nothing about the fact that his head was in the crosshairs of three railguns held by my children. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and then moved into the station and sat down to a meal. The cats all ate with a hell of an appetite. I had to wonder if they'd had anything to eat for some time. The way Brian was looking at them, I suspected he had the same questions.
After we ate, the Meenzal Commander stood and walked up the path towards our 'forest.' He beckoned that I follow him. In turn, I caught Brian's eye and gently tossed my head as a signal for him to join us. We walked in silence for a short while, then the Meenzal stopped and turned.
"I am not a perfect telepath, human. But I know that you are aware of our situation. Why did you surrender?"
"We don't believe in conquest" I answered simply. The cat though for a moment and then nodded.
"I can do nothing but believe you" he said.
"If I'd known sooner, I wouldn't have fired on your ship. I apologize."
"In your place, I would have reacted the same." He looked me square in the eye. "It's true, human." I looked at Brian who nodded.
"How many of you remain?" I asked the Meenzai.
"We estimate half a million." I tried hard to stand my ground, but couldn't. I sagged to my knees and vomited the dinner we just ate. Brian had a look as if the blood had drained from his body. He was stronger than I was. I fought burning in my eyes and looked at the Commander.
"Forgive me" is all I could say.
A strong grip pulled me to my feet. "Your pain is... most evident. But it is not you who is responsible. We honor defense, and you have acted with honor."
"My station is yours. Tell me how we can help." Brian looked at me a little sideways.
The Meenzai came to attention. "Ees te ah! Meenzai Kirkpatrick!"
I looked at Brian who shrugged slightly. "He hails leader of Meenzeii, Lord Kirkpatrick" said Jab. My cat had come up on us as we spoke.
"He said what?" I asked.
"Congratulations, Bob. You've just been elected President" smiled Brian broadly. "Now each of us has a planet we're responsible for."
It took nearly six hours to convince the Meenzal's that I couldn't be who they wanted me to be --and do it without offending. In the end, it was my own Jasm who was named as the new Leader of the High Council. She was the first female ever to occupy any position of power, and she was the highest authority there was.
Jab was considered for the post, but he refused. Instead, he assumed the position of Commander of Planetary Security. It required him to spend time on Meenzeii, but allowed him latitude to decide from where he would use his authority. All of the Family Kan was honored that he chose K1 as his post.
"So, do I salute you now?" asked Brian. Jab bit him.
After the ceremony, Karen, Kal, Brian and I sat quietly in my quarters. "So, do we really have the right to dictate to all those cats who's going to be in charge?" I asked.
"Government has never been a matter of the people, Robert" said Kal. I thought about this a while, and had to bow to her observation. As Brian pointed out, the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of any government was often beyond the people it governed. The government that acknowledged the sense of its people survived, but the government that bellowed "It's my country, just do it!" was relegated to mediocrity. I'd had a job like that once, and knew the truth of this as soon as I heard it. I'd quit that job because it was a sentence to mediocrity to stay, and a betrayal of my own abilities as well.
We were celebrating the appointments when Penny announced that there was an aurora approaching.
You take the high road, and I'll ...
Bob and I sprinted for the control room while the Meenzai Captain and his people headed for their shuttle. This whole thing was becoming so damned annoying, that I half expected 'Q' to step out of a wall and snicker 'Red Alert' as we got ready for our next battle with the Maal.
"We'll cover your return to your ship" Bob yelled through the comm as we got seated.
"Grand-daughter on-board, better be safe!" snarled Jab as he skidded into the room behind us.
"Commander, would the prototype dreadnought and Rak Zi be among the survivors? The rest of you should get the hell out of the way until this is settled." Note for future diplomats to the Meenzai Empire. Never suggest to a high ranking officer, who has the current leader of his people standing beside him, that he should run away. The translator missed a lot of what he called me, but I got the gist of the insults he piled on me and my family in general.
"Ok! Bad idea!" I yelled. "If he's still around though. You might let him lead your formation. That ship is safe against the Maal's mental attack." In between a quick lesson on my family tree, he finally allowed as how that might be an acceptable idea. I doubt Rak Zi thought much of it considering how our last meeting had ended. As K1 swung around and accelerated towards the incoming energy field. A familiar looking ship broke from the middle of the Meenzai fleet and pulled up beside us.
"Hai Meenzai!" yelled Bob.
"Hai Kirkpatrick!" came Rak'z snarl from the comm. "We kill many Maal, yes?"
"Every last one of them cat" I added ahead of Bob. There was a pause as he realized I was still alive and I might have a few words to say to him.
"Just don't run out of kitty litter in the middle of the battle" I said as I warmed up the weapons once again.
"Mage is Mage again?" came the quiet query.
"Want to see?" I snickered.
"Maybe later" he replied. "What you plan now?"
I looked over at Bob and found him giving me a blank look back. "Damned if I know" I told him as I covered the mic. "You got any ideas?"
"Yeah, we scream and run away..."
"Tried that last time. Didn't work worth shit as I recall." I noted the indicators around me were showing full power available. "'Fraid we're stuck this time." We were still at it when we heard a soft bell chiming behind us. Neither of us had heard Kal sit down behind us, but she was once again at her station. "You ok?"
"I'll be here when you need me" was all she said.
I glanced at Bob. *We are going to try real hard to not need her, right?*
With the systems on-line, I started punching in commands. At three equa-distant points around K1, the cloaks and grapples that had hidden three triships dropped. Their plasma bottles at full charge. They were now going to prove to be real handy. With a small shudder, all three blasted away from their docking latches and flew along side of us. Then their GALA drives kicked in and the screamed out ahead of us.
"Bob, I just had a thought" as I watched them diving towards the incoming threat. "What if it was the Maal that the Guardian was designed to fight off all those years ago? I mean building ships with plasma based weapons is a little odd for some of the other technology we saw on that station. It seems odd that they would design a series of ships that just happen to carry the one weapon that works best against the Maal."
"I don't want to even think about it. That would mean the Maal have been chewing up solar systems for longer than our race has even existed, and that a lot better people than us have tried and failed to get rid of them."
We were still thinking about it when the triships reached the approaching cloud and made the transition to Hyperspace. Sure enough, the whole area was seething with Maal. "Damn, don't those things learn?"
"Or maybe learn faster than us" said Jab from where he sat behind us. "Time I go get ready to fight" he said as he waddled off to climb into his armor.
K1 and the Meenzai fleet was still about 10 minutes from the cloud as the triships began to reek havoc on the Maal. Instead of firing their plasma in a coherent beam, they were spraying it in a wide angle dispersion and clearing a path for us to follow. I reached over and flicked the button on the mic. "This is K1 to the Meenzai Commander. If your ships have any kind of plasma generation ability. It is suggested that you use it to flood the space around your fleet. It will keep the Maal away from you and may serve as partial protection."
"Our Engineers already modify backup fusion plant to leak" came the immediate response. "We see how you make Maal scared and dead. We not forget lesson like that."
"In that case, how big a cloud can you make?"
"How big need? We got plenty fuel and is hard to keep plant from leaking already with damage ship have taken."
I glanced at the clock, 6 minutes and counting. Them Bob chimed in an idea that everyone loved as he described it. "How about if we blow the plant with an overload? That ought to generate one hell of a plasma cloud."
"Hard to not blow some ship we have" said the Commander. "Not have time to fix good yet."
Bob was figuring fast and furious on the nav console as I waited to see what he had in mind. He transmitted it to the Meenzai at the same time it popped up on the holotank. "Ok, here's the idea. We take the worst of the Meenzai ships and let them fall behind us a little. Pull all the crew off and slave them to our computers so they stay in formation then let the fusion plants go critical. As we pass through the Maal formation, the rest of the fleet concentrates their fire on the ships and blows them away. Between the fusion plants and our weapons vaporizing the ships themselves, there ought to be enough high energy plasma floating around to flood half the damned system."
I looked at the plan in the tank and couldn't find any obvious flaws. From the lack of comment over the comm, I assumed the Commander didn't see anything wrong with it either. "Commander? You willing to sacrifice a couple of your ships?"
"Crew's already running to shuttles..." he replied as we heard orders being yelled in the background. "Two ships will do as you say and seem to fall behind rest of fleet. Maybe Maal stupid and swarm them thinking they easy target."
I took a fast look at the clock. "You have 3 minutes before first intercept with the Maal. Tell them to move fast..." Bob and I were both scrambling to get everything ready on K1. It wasn't until Kalindra cleared her throat and nodded at the monitor that we saw we were out of time.
Flashing by the monitor was the leading edge of the Maal formation and K1 began to shudder under the energy beams that attempted to shatter our shields. In the back of my mind, I could hear the Maal's song as it whispered to us. God only knows what it was like on the un-shielded Meenzai ships.
"Meenzai!" came the yell over the comm.
"Earth kicks butt!" yelled Bob beside me with a silly grin on his face.
"Magi nas Kan!" I added as I targeted the first Maal that showed on the screen.
"Battle stations!" rang through the station. The shuddering of K1 grew more intense as we began to cut a swath through the forward picket of Maal. Loud thuds began to echo on top of the shudders as Jab began to cut loose with his opposed-charge neutrino cannon. We could hear him chuckle through his armor comm.
"Remind me to have more respect for his sense of humor" said Brian after a fast series shots.
"That would be wise, dude. Kal, have you got the triships?"
"I have, Robert."
"I want a fleur de lis. Roll the center ship in a 5 klick arc and break the other two out to a 90 degree opposed oblique. Have 'em dump in three, two, one..."
With the triships breaking off to parallel the picket, and the center one pulling a barrel roll, we were carving a five mile wide swath through the Maal. The Meenzai craft had moved up and were nestled in a circular formation around K1. Rak's ship had moved to advance slightly ahead of the station. As promised, they were oozing plasma. Jab's gun silenced as the number of threat targets close to the ship vanished.
As we moved into the Maal, our swath became an ovoid as they bent back in behind us, and began what appeared to be an assault on the two Meenzai cruisers lagging behind. I was about to send to Rak to detonate when they exploded in an spectacular array of pyrotechnics. K1 rocked crazily as the shockwave of their destruction passed by us. Behind us and around us, the plasma emissions from the explosions seared out spherical at the speed of light, initiating a chain reaction.
The chaos was spectacular. Maal everywhere exploded when touched by the photons driven by the shockwave. In an attempt to evade, Maal ran into Maal, causing secondary explosions and destruction.
"Jeezuss Haitch Keeryste" I mumbled. "That was too fucking cool.."
"Don't be too sure" said Brian. He tapped my shoulder and pointed to the aft monitor. To each side of us, there was a sea of Maal which had started to collect, moving from a single dimensional wave into a cylinder of condensing Maal. It looked as if two paper scrolls were rolling both ends towards the middle. A look ahead showed even more doing the same. Like big logs in space, they connected at one end to make a flying vee.
"Kal, bring the triships back around us. I want them to come in at the unconnected end of those formations." She looked at the display, and then began to issue controls to the ships which had gone left and right to reverse course and accelerate. The Maal saw them coming, and the open and of the oncoming vee began to close. When it did, I nudged Brian and nodded towards fire control. He fired the master cannon.
The station began to hum its note, and the emitter aft of K1 broke the darkness of space with its semicoherent beam. Brian played a short burst, recalling the weaknesses of the station that had not only nearly compromised us, but his mate as well. The effect of his firing was more than enough. The leading end of the cylinders erupted into blue-white flame, and began to run back through the cylinders of Maal as though they were carbon arc rods in a searchlight. As the burning moved through, it burned more brightly and quickly. When it had run half way to the intersection of the cylinders, the remaining portion erupted in a stellar explosion of light which sent a new wave of Maal killing photons forward of K1.
The forward vee of Maal saw it coming, and immediately separated into twin cylinders again and moved away with tremendous acceleration in opposite directions. Just as I though they were going to escape, ten triships, five on each side decloaked and fired plasma guns. The Maal ran directly into the bursts of fire and detonated.
"What the fuck? Where did..." I was at a loss for words.
Brian smiled broadly. "Never under estimate a Mage." Kalindra stood and stepped over to Brian, slipping her arm around his waist.
"I did this correctly?"
"You did great" grinned Brian.
"I think Jab needs to be warned about your sense of humor too, man." I said through a large smile. Between us, we'd just managed to take out an entire Maal advance.
"Don't smile too widely, Bob" said Brian.
"But why? We killed them all."
"No. we killed the ones who came here. Think about it. Was this the same number that we saw in the homeworld area?" I had to admit it wasn't.
"Well, I didn't mean ALL of them. I meant the all that came here."
"It may be ego, as you call it. But I think I understand something."
"What's that, Brian?"
"Why we haven't seen the Maal on Earth, and why Velar hasn't been a victim either." Kal looked interested.
"What is it we're using as our primary weapon?"
"A goddamn big gun. Why?"
"Think again. What do our guns make?"
"Loud noises?" Brian looked momentarily disgusted.
"No, I'm serious. What do our weapons make?"
"Impact, fire, noise... uh, chemical reactions sometimes? I don't know what you're looking for."
"They make light, Bob. They make light. We're using plasma as our most effective weapon. We just proved it."
"I get it. Light. We have more of it from Sol than --wait a minute. Meenzeii has a sun. It can't be just light."
Brian had that goddamn grin on his face again.
Paying a debt
It had taken a few minutes to call up the data on the computer, but graphed on the screen before us was the answer to why the Maal had left Earth and Velar alone. "It still a guess, but it fits all the facts" I said as I turned back to Bob. "The figures... What's wrong?" Bob was giving me that 'you're strange' look again.
"Nothing... It's just real strange watching you and Kalindra work together without saying anything." He looked over at where Kal had sat down to access the data from the Velan Astro Database. "No offense you understand."
"None taken" answered Kalindra. "The bond we share is not exactly common, even among my own people. It does however save a great deal of time." She just smiled at Bob, while I tried to keep from laughing.
"Ok, so what do those crazy charts show?" Bob leaned over to look over my shoulder at the screen. "I know what the Solar Wind is, but what is the rest of this shit?"
"The density of both the particle and magnetic flux versus distance." I pointed at the screen. "Here is Velar, Earth, Meenzeii and K1 with the field density at each site. We've never seen a Maal around either Velar or Earth, but we've seen them at K1 and around here. We've no way of knowing what their limit is, but it has to fall within this range" and I pointed at the area in question. "Somewhere between the density at Velar and K1, the Maal either can't or won't show up."
"So we could make K1 safe..."
"By shifting its orbit inward some. Park it in say, one of Mars' Liberation points, and I doubt you'd ever see another Maal."
"That does not solve the Meenzal's problem, or make interstellar travel safe for any of us" added Kalindra from behind us.
"No, but if we're right. It does reduce the number of things we have to keep an eye on while we take care of the Maal. If I knew we were right, I could pull the triships from Earth and add them to our tiny fleet."
"So how do we test this theory of yours?" asked Karen from where she stood in the doorway.
"Got any tiny Maal in the tray of food your carrying?" I replied.
"No, but added plenty of spice to the sandwiches I made for you and Kalindra. You should be able to kill them by breathing hard when you've eaten."
"Thanks, I have to sit up here with these two..." grumbled Bob as he grabbed a sandwich from the tray. Kal and I just laughed as we each grabbed one with the large red 'X' marks on them.
"So, what are you going to do then?" asked Karen as she sat down. "Are we going after the Maal? Is Jasm and her fleet coming with us?"
"We go after..." and I felt my link with Kalindra thrum to itself. I turned my chair around and looked at her as she 'explained' things to me. When she wound down, I turned back to face Bob and Karen.
"I have just been reminded that we have a matter of honor to settle with the Meenzal's. Kalindra thinks, and I agree with her, that we have to do something to help them before we take off."
"Christ, haven't we done enough? Dragging my home and my family around the galaxy, saving their hides from the Maal attack..."
"Setting fire to half their world" I finished for him. "No, we acted out of anger and we have to make things right somehow."
Bob looked at the monitor that showed the Meenzai fleet with their world in the background. Even from this distance we could see the gray clouds that were forests going up in smoke. "Got a bucket?" he muttered as we saw what we'd done.
"No, but..." and I was interrupted by Kal again.
"I wish you would stop that. You get this really silly smile on your face when you are thinking about or to her" muttered Bob.
"If you want dinner ever again, you better start smiling like that when you think about me" warned Karen as she glared at him. Bob just buried his head in his arms and sued for peace.
"I was going to say, I think we might have a way to keep them safe while we take on the Maal. With your permission of course..."
"Let me guess, magic?"
"What else?" I sat and smiled my best 'who me?' smile.
"How long will this take, and who gets the bill afterwards?"
"Hopefully no more than an hour, maybe a little more if Kal forgets what I taught her about creating a Gate."
"Gate? What do you need a Gate for?"
"We're going to raise the density of the Solar Wind around Meenzeii to the same level as Velar and hope our theory is correct. Kalindra..."
"Your going to WHAT?" yelled Bob.
"I said we're going to raise..."
"I thought that's what you said" he interrupted. "What if you screw up?"
"Then you die, she dies, everyone dies" came Penny's voice from the speaker overhead.
"You've been watching 'Heavy Metal' again, haven't you?" I laughed.
"Maybe a little" she replied. "Wanna buy a nice green glowing ball? I'll sell it cheap!"
"Maybe later... Right now Kalindra and I have something to do. With your permission of course" I said to Bob as I stood up.
"The sooner you get going, the sooner you get back" he replied. "Say though, what do you need my permission for? Your not planning on using K1 somehow are you?"
"No, but we will need a little of your power" answered Kalindra as she followed me out the door. "So, do you want the planet or the star" she asked me as we headed to the landing bay.
"I don't have a preference, but maybe I'd better take the star. I've had a little more experience with them than you, and your fur already looks like you've gotten to close to one already. I'd hate to have to brush you down again after swimming in the stellar chromosphere."
"You talked me into it" she laughed. "You get the star and I'll take Meenzeii." She was still laughing when her flight/env fields formed and she dived out the entrance to the bay. I thought about wearing my armor, then settled for setting a 'recall' on the landing bay. I'd saved my ass once that way when fighting Jon, it would serve me here just as well.
*I'll race you to Meenzeii* I 'pathed as I dove out the entrance right behind her.
*Loser handles the winners cooking duties for a week* she 'pathed back as the two of dove towards the world in the distance.
* * *
Even as I dove towards the star ahead, Kalindra began her half of the task before us. Reaching out to the tremendous energy available from K1, she began to spin a gossamer thin energy field around Meenzeii. Neither defense nor protection would it offer the tiny blue gem that hung in the night before her. Rather, its only reason for existence was to act as a guide for the particle stream I would be sending its way. Almost invisible to the eye, the hemispherical shield began to form at a distance of almost a light minute away from the world it was to serve.
*Robert, please tell me if I draw to much power from your home*
*I'll yell, don't worry about that. The only thing I've seen so far is a small flicker in the lighting. You are sure pulling a lot of juice for something though. The backups just kicked in to augment the primary plant.*
*I am just glad I do not have to provide the energy myself. It takes more power than I could hope to generate to form something this large.*
*Just what the hell are you two doing?*
*Watch the world below you. You will know when it begins to work*
Bob later told me that he got the distinct impression of hearing a small chime and laughter in the distance as he and Karen watched the screen before them for signs of our work. Mean while, I was thanking the Gods that I wasn't wearing fur. Even shielded as I was, I swear I could feel the heat of the star I now floated above.
*Hey fuzzy butt, be glad you took the planet. This star doesn't look glad to see me. I think it knows what I plan to do to it.*
*Then I will get to see what you look like with a tan* came the voice in the distance.
*Nothing to see, I burn easy. You may have to deal with a real cranky Mage while my skin peels.*
*Then I will have to keep you distracted while you heal.* Her laugh bounced around inside my mind as she flashed me an image of how she planned on keeping me busy.
*I'm going to need a lot of rest after that. Remember, I'm only human and I have my limits.*
Turning my attention to the star that was literally at my feet. I began to scan the area around me. "Never a planet when you need one..." I muttered under my breath. *Guess what? There is nothing to anchor the Gate to around here.*
*You expected that.*
*Yeah, but I can always hope that the gods were feeling generous for once. Damn...* Re-enforcing my shields, I started my descent into the star below me. With nothing in orbit to anchor to, I was going to have to anchor the Gate to the star itself. That meant getting close enough to the core to extend a force beam into it. One additional problem was that my shield began to opaque to protect me from the intensity of the energy around me. Before I'd even gotten close, I was flying blind.
*Whose god damned idea was this anyway?*
*Yours as I remember. It was this, or leave one of us behind to guard the planet.*
*Oh yeah, remind me to fire myself when we get back. I keep coming up with real stupid ideas like this.* Downward I plunged towards the heart of the star. The single bit of luck that was on my side was that stars actually get cooler after you pass through the corona. They still however would melt hull metal instantly. That thought kept running through my mind as I finally felt some resistance to the probe I was pushing ahead of me.
*About time... I think I'm close enough to anchor this damn thing.*
*I am almost ready here. The basic bubble is formed and the diffuser is almost in place.*
*Let me know when you are ready then* and I began the spell to open the Gate to her. Creating an energy bubble configuration of that size required took time. When she signaled she was ready, I was ready for the final sequence to open the Gate to her.
The configuration was complete. Now came the time to energize it, and my mate merged herself with the shield she had created. Anchored to the planet that glistened in the distance, the energy matrix began to glow faintly among the starlight. Using herself as the focal point, Kalindra noted her position in all five dimensions and passed them on to me as I waited balanced above the heart of the Meenzeii sun. *It is done, begin the transfer."
Floating in an energy shield above the core of the Meenzeii star, I opened the smallest Gate I'd every attempted. The exit point was where Kalindra hung in open space in the distance. Even closed down to the smallest diameter I could imagine, the energy that flooded through would have vaporized anything in its path. Kalindra though caught and held it as she locked the exit point of the Gate into the shield she had created.
*I have it* was all she said, but I could feel the pain as she tried to control the raw energy coming through the exit point. As the raw stuff of stars began to funnel through the Gate, I adjusted the diameter of the Gate to regulate the flow. Halfway across the system, the population of Meenzeii looked at their sky in amazement.
In all my time on Velar, I'd never seen anything that resembled the Aurora of my home world. Now, as the energy pouring through the tiny Gate we had created, and impacted the Meenzeii magnetosphere. The population of that world watched the sky above them catch fire. Starting at the poles, the Aurora marched its way towards the equator. As the density of the Solar Wind around Meenzeii increased, the atmosphere itself became our way of measuring the effectiveness of our work. The sky itself became the indicator of the protection we were attempting to bestow upon their world. When the energy transfer, and the focus of the Gates was stable, Kalindra and I stepped back from our work and knew that we had done what we could.
*It is beautiful to watch* came her comment across the void.
*Remember it well then. This is what we were born to do* I called as I climbed out of the stars gravity well. *Whether my own world knows it or not, this is what I was empowered to create. Where ever my abilities come from, this is what they were meant to be used for.*
*Then return and watch them in action my mate. What ever may come of the future, we have at least done our best here and now. One more world is now safe against the Maal. One night at least you may sleep and feel at peace with the universe.*
Knowing that I had done everything that I could do, I headed home to my mate and the rest of the family. Come what may tomorrow, we had done what we could to preserve a world against destruction.
"Yeah it's pretty, but does it work?"
"It's nice to see you too Bob" I said as Kalindra and I arrived back in the landing bay. "There is only one way to find out, and we are going to need to open a Gate to the Maal anyway. That is unless you want to get there the slow way."
"Not if I have a choice about it. The less time we give them to prepare, the better I feel about it. Of course Jasm may have a few things to say about your opening a highway for the Maal to use."
"We can always close it again if we guessed wrong. Still, we better let her know what's going on." I started towards the control room with the rest of the group following behind.
"I've got another question for you while you figure out how to break the news to Jasm" said Karen as she tagged along. "Are you suppose to be the same color as Kalindra?"
I looked at my arms and had to laugh. "No, I got a little sunburned out there. We do make a good match though, don't we." I held my arm up next to Kal as we walked. "Think we could start a trend?"
"Not when they learn how much it hurts" she replied as she poked my arm with a claw.
"Hummm... This is going to hurt like a son of a bitch when I drop the pain block. Guess who gets to clean up after me when I start to peel?" Kalindra was looking everywhere but at me, but she'd help when the time came. As Bob and I sat down at our stations, he fired up the comm and got in contact with Jasm. It took a bit of convincing, but we got permission for our test.
"If your theory is correct, my forces will follow you through the Gate to assist you in the battle."
"Every ship you can spare will be appreciated. In any case, please have them assemble around us for the test. If we are wrong, they may need to kill any Maal that make it through before we get the Gate closed again."
"I will give orders" and she signed off. A short time later the fleet Commander contacted us for instructions. Bob handled him while I got ready to open the Gate.
For the test, we would open a Gate large enough to allow our passage about half way between the edge of the plasma shield and the planet proper. When he yelled over the intercom that K1 and the Meenzai fleet was in position, I sat down in the middle of the landing bay and got started.
"Can we watch?"
"Huh?" I turned and found Bob's kids standing in the doorway behind me. "Yeah, just don't bother me if you can help it." They nodded and sat down in the doorway. Everything was ready, so I began the light trance that would keep me focused. It also let me recall the memory of the one time we'd visited the Maal home. Twenty minutes later, I reached the point where the Gate was formed and ready to key to its destination.
"Bob, I'm ready when you signal. Keep a sharp eye open. It won't take them long to notice the Gate."
"Kick open the door and lets get this show on the road."
"I hear and obey..."
"That would be a first..." came the mumbled comment over the intercom.
With a clear picture of the destination in mind, I sang the single note that opened the Gate. As I looked out of the bay entrance, an area of space began to shimmer and then changed color as the view cleared and showed us the home of the Maal.
"Consider it kicked! Keep an eye out for Gate crashers!" I spun and ran past the kids on my way towards the control room. "You guys better get to your stations. Here we go again!" I could hear them running behind me as the klaxon began to go off.
"Incoming!" came Bob's yell as I skidded through the doorway and sat down at my station. The screen before me showed one of the smaller Maal snooping around the far side of the Gate. Then with sudden flash of movement, we got our test.
That's one" and I quietly crossed my fingers. We didn't have long to wait. The Maal was hardly through the Gate when we all noticed it starting to act odd. Then the screams began to heard from every ship of the fleet as the Maal literally melted before our eyes. "Hot Damn! Scratch one Maal! Even as the first died, another that had been following behind it tried to reverse and duck back through the gate. Its coordination was failing as it died, and it clipped the edge of the Gate as it fell apart.
"Jesus... Now I know why you warned me to avoid the edges" came Bob's comment from beside me.
"When it isn't anchored, that edge is the sharpest thing in existence and doesn't play favorites." On the screen before us was part of the Maal that had tried to run. The edge that had clipped the Gate was polished to a mirror finish as even the atoms themselves had been sliced through by the collision.
"Hey, aren't we supposed to be moving or something?" I reached over and nudged Bob as he sat and watched the screen in front of him.
"Let's do it" was all he said and the orders flashed out to the rest of the fleet. Lining up behind us, the Meenzai ships followed behind us as Bob kicked K1 in the ass.
"Remember to miss the edge please..."
"Would you please shut the fuck up..." and we left Meenzeii space behind us. Unfortunately, it wasn't the welcome wagon that was waiting for us on the other side. As we changed course to clear the lane behind us, K1 shuddered slightly as the first of the converted fusion plants detached and began to spew plasma. Under Kalindra's control, three more detached and headed back towards the Gate. By the time the first half of the ships following us was through, the Gate was now anchored at four corners by the plants.
"Anchors set and functioning" came Kal's update as she completed the spell I'd taught her. "The Maal are avoiding the entire area as we hoped."
I didn't bother to reply as I was more than busy targeting clusters of Maal. "Brace for firing" I yelled, and I triggered the massive plasma beam that was K1's main weapon. No beam sprang forth this time as we wanted to do as much damage as possible. Jab had modified the field coils and what belched forth from K1 was a quickly expanding cloud that vaporized everything in its path. Arrayed behind us, the Meenzai fleet began their own attack. The once dark and remote home of the Maal, lit up like a Christmas Tree as our weapons fire sparkled in the void.
I almost no time, we had a kill zone cleared around the Gate. While we stayed within it, the Maal couldn't attack the majority of the fleet. They did however demonstrate just how upset they were when one of the crazier ships Captain's ventured beyond the slowly expanding plasma bubble. In a flash, the Maal surrounded and crushed it. The final message we heard was of the crew screaming as their minds were destroyed. The rest of the ships made real sure they stayed within the protected area after that. All except for Rak Zi and us. With the shielding we alone had available, we were the ships that took the battle to the Maal. Of all the ships of the Meenzai fleet. His alone was now fully manned and functional as we dove into the heart of the Maal before us.
"Ok, we have our beachhead. Start looking for something we can use as the trigger" I sent to Rak Zi as he flew along beside us.
"You show great faith in this idea of the one who calls herself Penny. How do I know this not another Mage mistake?"
"Cat, if my sister thinks it will work. You can bet your family honor that it will work. Now start looking for something about the size she specified!" With a flash, K1 fired again to clear an area ahead of us. The Maal were learning though and we offering us fewer targets as time went by. "They're up to something..." I said to Bob as he wove K1 through the remains of the Maal we destroyed.
"Then you better figure out what it is, and fast. With only about 200 hundred of us versus all of them. We can't afford to get surprised very often. They aren't just going to sit around and let us fry them a few at a time."
"I will attempt to find out what they are up to." Up went her shields and she vanished into Hyperspace to act as our scout. We were right to be worried. *There are more of them here than with you. They appear to be getting ready to form one of their globes around K1 while you fight with their brethren in normal space.*
"You heard that?"
"I did" muttered Bob. "Shit, we can't be two places at once."
"Then we stick with normal space. We won't find what we need floating around in Hyperspace. We'll just have to deal with the Maal attack when they launch it."
"Easy for you to say..."
"Hey, I've been through it before, remember? The second time I'll be ready and I'll be prepared. For now though, let's kick some Maal butt!"
"Bob, lets see if we can clear an area around us. Can you spin K1 on it's horizontal axis?"
"How fast do you want to spin?"
"How about six revs a minute?"
"Coming right up!" he chimed. "Hold on to your hats, this is going to be like riding a rollercoaster." He wasn't kidding either. It took me a couple of seconds after he began to spin the station before I could fight down the urge to lose my lunch. The control room was at the far end of the station, so we felt the effects the most.
"Next time I ask you to do something like that. Tell me to go screw myself!" Cranking the dispersion of the plasma beam to maximum, I set it to random fire and triggered the first burst. As K1 spun like a slow top in space. We began to leave large arcs of plasma across the sky in our wake. "Can you add some random movements and add a vertical component to the spin?"
"Go screw yourself..." but he tapped a few commands into the computer. A second later, K1 began to act like it was drunk as it wobbled its way into the heart of the Maal formation ahead of us. With our movements and firing pattern randomized, the Maal had no idea where to run. When we noticed them starting to pull back, we slowed our rotation and returned to our original base course.
"They aren't returning very quickly" I said as I watched the screen in front of me.
"They aren't stupid. We did it once, we'll do it again. That, or... Damn!" Bob tripped the Hyperflight field and instantly K1 was sitting in Hyperspace. "Bingo, that's why they were pulling away."
*Nice of you to show up* came Kal's dry comment in our minds. *I was just about to warn you that they had begun to form up around you.* Both Bob and I turned to see Kalindra 'port back to the control room to her seat. "They don't look happy about something. What have you two been up to?"
"Clearing a path from where we entered towards the center. We can't waste a lot of time here either. I'll bet Rak Zi is having fits about our vanishing like that. His ship can't just sit stationary in Hyperspace like ours can."
"Then we had better clear this mess away and get back to him" said Bob as he watched the Maal forming their bubble around us. "You said you had a way to stop them?" Bob was giving me a worried look as the sphere of Maal that surrounded K1 began to contract and the energy field form that would tear us apart. "Now would be a good time to use it..."
"Are you sure I said that?" The look on his face was priceless and I knew I was going to be cleaning suits for the next month. As my hands ran over the weapons console, two of the conversion cannon that resided on the surface targeted the forming energy cloud. One of the things Penny and I had noticed during our last encounter with this attack was the odd magnetic signature it produced. A little brain work had come up with a possible counter to it. With my fingers crossed, I fed energy to the two converted cannons and watched as their muzzles began to glow.
"Say goodnight" and both cannons fired. The effect was instantly visible and insane to watch. Penny had figured that the main component of the clouds were magnetic monopoles. The converted cannon, flipped the polarity of them. It also turned the Maal that were generating them inside out. "Holy..."
"...shit!" finished Bob. All around us on the external monitors were the fragmented remains of the Maal. Every single one of them had shattered when the polarity had switched. "Somehow I don't think they will be trying that again."
The ones who had been standing by in the distance vanished from sight. "No, I don't think they will. Get us back to normal space, I'll bet Rak Zi has his paws full about now." One short command later, and the stars came back on in the surrounding sky. They didn't stay on long.
"Incoming!" and Bob began to spin K1 as I engaged the plasma beam once again. The beam worked as well as ever, but it quickly became obvious that something was different. As we spun around, the Maal melted and fell apart by the thousands. What quickly became apparent was that they no longer seemed to care.
"Bob, is it me or are we starting to get a little more sluggish than normal?"
"No, something's wrong with the engines I think. We're loosing power or they are loosing efficiency." We both heard Kal start to move behind us when her bell started to chime. Both of us turned together and yelled "SIT DOWN!" in unison. She stood there with her mouth open for a second, then sat back down. Bob turned back to the controls while I read her the riot act.
"Once per adventure is more than often enough for you to run off and try to get yourself killed. Jab's the engineer around here, get ahold of him and have him find out what the problem is. You stay put!" She wanted to argue with me, but instead got ahold of Jab on the intercom. He was already looking into it and not liking what he was finding from the volume of the Meenzal cursing that flooded the room.
"Maal not even make good sludge!"
"Run that by us in English?"
"Nothing wrong with ship, just getting fat with Maal. They leaving sludge on surface where they desolve. We gaining mass with every one we kill!"
"Uh oh. Bob how hard are you having to push the drive system?"
"You don't want to know. We should be pushing .5C and we're not even close. If we keep picking up mass at this rate. We're going to be dead in space inside of a half hour."
"Damn..." I checked the monitor and saw that Rak Zi was getting the same treatment. It was already getting hard to see the outlines of his ship beneath the sludge the desolving Maal were leaving behind. "Suicide attacks... Why now? What made them decide that we were such a threat all of the sudden?"
"Showing them they couldn't stop us with their energy globe probably" yelled Bob as he tried to dodge the larger areas of sludge.
"Maybe, but something doesn't feel right. They are almost acting like..." Bob had this real weird expression on his face. "What is it?"
"They are acting like parents protecting their kids." Bob was looking at his monitor, but his eyes weren't focused on it. It was like he was staring at something beyond it. "Yeah, protecting their kids..." With a sudden surge, Bob turned K1 slightly and pushed the drive system passed the red line. "I think I know where we need to go" was all he said.
"Kalindra? If you want to try blowing away some of that stuff that we are collecting, I won't say a word."
She looked me straight in the eye and smiled. "In other words, you would like me to do the housework?"
I groaned, but nodded. "Make that two months of cleaning suits..." I muttered as she winked and ran out the doorway. Bob and I had more than enough to do, so it took us awhile before we noticed we had stopped slowing down. "Are we running out of Maal?"
"No, but something is clearing the outer surface almost as fast as they suicide against it."
"Where are you taking us?"
"To the center. I think we'll find our answers there." The next half hour was one long running battle. I had no idea what Bob was thinking of, but I'd learned to trust his ideas about the Maal. Whatever was at the center, it had to be important. The closer we got, the more frantic the Maal seemed to become. Somewhere along the way, we also lost contact with the Meenzai Cruiser. Their drive systems overloaded and shutdown, while Bob nursed ours for what he could. Even so, we started slowing down again as the attacks grew worse and Kalindra got tired. Then we passed through some kind of barrier and found our target.
It was like popping through a wall of honey. Behind us we were leaving a wake of Maal as they poured through the opening and came after us. In front of us hung a single Maal that glittered in space. One single Maal that could have swallowed a star and had room to spare.
I'd long ago ran out of curses, and Bob didn't seem to have a lot to say either. He just pointed at the monitor and told me, "Say hello to mother." Looking closely at the screen, I could see what he meant.
Sitting inside that hugh body was a collection of planets, comets and enough other junk to build a good sized solar system. What it was building out here was Maal, and by the thousands. As we drifted closer to it, we could see areas where small energy clouds were desolving chunks of matter. When the clouds dispersed, left behind was a tiny Maal that immediately headed for the nearest mass and began to feed on it.
"So that's what the energy clouds are for. They use the stolen mass as building material for their own bodies."
"Eating our minds must just be the equivalent of candy or desert for them." It wasn't until Kalindra stepped back into the control room that we snapped out of our amazement.
"I believe you two were looking for enough mass to use as the seed for Penny's little toy?" She pointed at the screen. "Will that do?"
Bob and I looked at each other in shock. "Damn, this is going to be seen all over this spiral arm!"
"And if we don't find a way to clear the hull. We're going to be the second ones to know if it works" said Bob as he looked back the screen.
"The second? Who's the first?" asked Kalindra as she knelt beside me.
Bob pointed at the Maal on the screen. "Her..."
"Ok, here's what we need to do. We need to clear all the crud off the station, kill all the Maal, and go home heroes. All right, Brian, it's up to you."
Brian looked at me deadpan. "Excuse me?"
"This is your plan, right? So, what's the next step?"
"Uh, plan. Sure. I..."
"You don't have a plan, do you?"
"Well, I got us here."
"That's your plan?"
"If you can do better, then do it." That damn smug look had come back to haunt his face.
"Robert, Brian..." injected Kalindra, "It would be wise for one of you do do something. Perhaps you could discuss this later."
I looked at the Mage. "Shit."
"How much heat would you say K1 can take, Brian?"
"Well, alot more than most ships. It's solid fused rock and damn well shielded."
I turned to the console and began to feed a course projection into the nav system. Brian watched me as I punched it up.
"You've got to be kidding! Do you have any idea what that's going to do?"
"Yeah, actually I do." Turning to the station comm, "Fission Alert. Everyone into armor and engage all shields."
The station began to lumber forwards towards the gargantuan Maal in a slow sweeping arc. As we gained speed, I set the plasma cannon to wide dispersal and dropped the exit velocity to nearly zero. With that done, I hit the fire button and executed the course projection.
It was like the station had run into something. It stopped cold in space for a second before tumbling once. With the course reversed, but the inertia still with us, the station moved forward through it's own effluence of plasma. The reaction was immediate. The outside of the station went into fission, burning with an intensity that rivaled a star. The temperature in the station soared 180 degrees in a matter of a few seconds, and I knew our plant life was going to suffer. The Maal which had been approaching us in a huge wave started to back off.
We in the control room were the only ones without armor. At least I hoped so. If it was hot in the control room, it was untenable everywhere else. All in all it took thirty seconds for the station to regain its original mass and begin to respond to controls like it should. At that point, I took us to hyperspace and back to normal space. The move disturbed the free fission on the surface of the station, and quelled it. As soon as we'd divested ourselves of the thick coating of sludge, we could feel the inbound fire from the Maal. Not only were they rushing us to become the sludge that we just burned off, but they were firing everything they could at us.
"Rak, prepare to be taken in tractor. Do NOT exit your ship on docking. You'll be cooked." I said into the ship-to-ship link. There was no response. "I wonder if he heard that?"
Brian and Kal looked at each other, and then my head almost blew apart from the PSI energy they emitted as their joined 'path strength sent the same message to the foundering Meenzai craft.
The station swung around and headed back in the direction it came from. "Brian, we need tractor about now."
"On it. --ok, we've got it."
"Let's hope this works. PENNY! It's up to you, babycakes."
Outside our vision, a single triship decloaked in hyperspace and dropped into space normal. It paused for a moment as it began a sensor sweep, and then began to accelerate towards the momma Maal.
We were able to track it as soon as it dropped into normal space, and we watched it going in on target. In its wake it left the tiniest tendril of energy, a guidance filament that would make the path for what would come next. As we watched, the triship made for the densest portion of the stellar mass that the Maal Mother was using as raw materials for her 'eggs.'
With a FOOMP noise we could hear in the station, an energy pulse greater than any we'd seen since our experience with the Guardian popped out of hyperspace and trailed the triship into the mass.
"Bob" said Brian.
"Wait a second, I want to see this."
"Bob!" said Kalindra.
"Hang on, just another..."
"BOB!" yelled Brian.
I hit the control, and K1 spooled and went hyper. An instant before we left normal space, space disappeared into brilliant whiteness. Even in the control room, the extreme brightness permeated. For a moment, we could see through the station like looking at an eclipse through leaded dark glass. Then it was dark, and the consoles provided the only light in the room.
"So, do you think it worked?" asked Brian. It was hard for his mouth to work with that bigass smile on his face.
As an answer, I dropped the station back into normal space to take a look. It was awe inspiring.
Where the big Maal had been was a star. It shone brightly through the expanse of space. Around it, as far as we could see, were billions of tiny sparkles, the remains of the rest of the Maal. There were so many, that the new star was decorated with rainbow rays which probed out into space. In ever widening rings were shock waves. They too emanated from the star, and as they spread and intersected with the particles of brilliance that were once Maal, a tiny nova occurred. Behind the innermost ring, gaseous nebulae of burning helium and hydrogen formed static rings about the star.
"I think we just changed every astronomy book on Earth" said Brian dryly.
"I think we just changed fucking history."
"Speaking of which, maybe we better get the hell out of here so we don't become history." Brian nodded towards the console. It clearly showed that we were being overtaken by some hellacious shockwaves.
"Good idea." I said, and pushed K1 back into hyperspace, and set course for the Meenzeii home world. "Jab! You can tell our friends that they can get off the ship now."
Brian and I looked at each other. "Kal, you drive." I said and Brian and I were up and running. We reached the docking bay quickly and found why there'd been no answer.
The Meenzai craft was jammed angularly against the rear wall of the bay. It had been broken in half. A group of cats were working with prybars and makeshift torches. As we approached, one of the cats stood and came towards us. It was Rak Zi.
"Commander Nahn is trapped in wreckage. We try to release him."
"When ship drop from hyper, Commander release locks so crew can leave ship. Air low inside, very hot. We have casualties. When station reaccellerate, ship fly against wall and break."
"Shit. Can he talk?" asked Brian.
"No communicate. Commander wear armor, may not be able hear or reply."
"Station alert! All crew to the hangar bays." I barked. We could hear it echo all over K1.
It took about forty minutes to get everything clear. When the last sheet of hull was pulled back, we saw Jab's armor. It was pressed into the wall as though it had been molded there. I hit the exterior releases and the armor hissed as it equalized pressure.
"Took long enough" grumbled the cat.
"I can hit him now, right?" asked Brian. Jab gave him a dirty look and stepped back to look at his armor.
"Look like Jab need new gun again."
* * *
We worked for six weeks to help the Meenzeii rebuild. By no means did we have everything back to normal, but they had a good start. Jasm was a good choice to lead the council, her first aim was restoring the means of production for the planet. Military would come later, "When we have something to protect." she said.
Brian was in and out. He had to catch up on what he might have missed on Earth, the planet he was sworn to protect. Two days before K1 was due to embark back to her station on the rim of the Terran solar system, Brian returned from a trip to Earth. He was slightly bruised and cut.
When asked what happened, he quietly said that Kimi had become a student, and there was some disagreement about enrollment in class.
On the day we were due to leave, Rak Zi came to see us. In tow were Jab and the fifty remaining members of the elite Meenzai Guard. It was they who would build a new police and protection force for their world when the time came. They'd taken one step in that direction already.
Each wore a gray uniform, and on the breast was a symbol of their charter. It was round patch embroidered in silver and gold, showing two worlds side by side. Looking down on the planets from a field of stars was the head of a wolf, braced on the left by the Gamma symbol. Beneath the planets as the single word "Eikeo." The Meenzeii word for selfless honor.
Peace and Quiet
"There... That's much better then a 'Do not disturb' sign." Kalindra tilted her head and looked at the small sign I'd hung on the master Gate. Just above the carving that was the trigger for Velar, was a small hand letter sign that simply said:
'Caution, Cranky Mage looking for volunteers'
"Which of us is it intended to warn the others about?"
"Neither, both, who cares? It will make them think twice before bothering either of us for awhile." All these years and I'm still not use to her grin when all those teeth are visible.
"We get some time to ourselves?" she said with a vaguely predatory look on her face.
"I hope so. The last few months have about worn me to a frazzle."
"Look who is talking" she answered as she ran her hand through the remains of her fur. "This is going to take forever to grow back."
I touched the Velar symbol and watched as the gate cleared to show us a mid-morning view of the gateway meadow. As we were stepping through, I heard someone clear their throat behind us.
"Does that include me also?" came Penny's disembodied voice from mid-air.
I paused for just a second, then answered. "You are allowed to disturb me if, and only if. World War III breaks out, the Meenzai, the Guardian, the few Maal that haven't been tracked down yet, my family and Kimi, all launch simultaneous attacks on you. Anything less then that and Bob can handle it." Then I took Kal's hand and stepped through the Gate.
It would have saved a lot of time and doctor bills if I had seen the wink Kalindra threw in the direction of Penny's security scanner as she stepped through with me.