Brian W. Antoine
December 9, 1993
Unless I'm mistaken, that's...
Karen, Jab and I stood looking at the inside of our station. The light breeze caused by air convection played on our cheeks, and we could hear the sounds of birds and insects. All in all, it was a very Terran sort of environment we'd built with Brian. He and Kal had built their own digs on K1, it only took them a couple of hours.
"I suppose it's time for a christening" said Karen.
"Party party" chimed Jab.
"Dog teas!" I added, and put in a call for Brian and Kal to join us. We set up our little soiree on the hangar deck, so we could look out at the stars. Kalindra garnered great applause when she produced a barbecue and some rather sizable steaks to cook on it.
As we stuffed ourselves, we talked over the finishing touches for K1. A new hyperlink was installed, so we'd have solid communications with the planet --or elsewhere. The kids were thrilled because it carried both radio and television signals in addition to the voice and data information. We could eat, drink, communicate, travel, manufacture and just about anything else we could have done on earth. Additionally, we set the lighting tube to dim, go dark, and then brighten again on a 24 hour timetable. All in all, the only things left to do would be the kind of changes anybody makes to their home over time. And that's just what we had. A home.
It was a happy and relaxed evening until Penny announced that her deep sensors were tracking an object which was moving way too fast to be a natural phenomenon. She built us a holo-map and showed where the object was, and the general heading it was taking. "Looks like we're not alone out here" mused Brian aloud.
"I was just thinking the same thing." Penny highlighted our position, earth and a few other objects which allowed us to better understand where the thing was.
"It seems to be coming this way" said Karen. Kal nodded in agreement.
"I believe it is coming in this direction too."
We looked at the map and then each other. The object wasn't coming in our direction. It was headed on the oblique across the far edge of our solar system. "What the hell is it?" I wondered aloud.
"It's a ship of some kind" replied Penny. "It's too far to determine what kind of ship it is. I can say that it isn't very large."
"Can you tell how big it is?" I asked.
"No, but it doesn't appear to be very large. All I can detect at this range is speed and direction."
That was all we had, so it would have to do. Since it was so far away, we chose to ignore it, and continued with our dinner. There'd be time enough to investigate. According to Penny, it couldn't get anywhere near us or earth for at least a full day, and those steaks were really good.
As the night wore on, each of us found our way to quarters and some deserved rest. Halfway through the night, K1's alarm system reverberated through the station. Every living thing must have sat bolt upright. The first order of business was to see what set off the alarm, the next would be to soften that damn alarm. How could we react to the alarm if it startled us to the point we died of heart failure?
All of us arrived in the central control area moments later. Penny had a map display up and we could see that our bogey had surprised us. It wasn't going to be a day. It would be about twenty minutes before the ship she was tracking reached us. And that's where it now headed. Right straight towards us.
"Is the movement random, Penny?" asked Brian.
"No, it got a little closer, so I probed it. I wanted to get a look at what it was, and see if I could count lifeforms. Almost as soon as my sensors focused on it, it turned this way."
"It knew it was being looked at." I said. "What more information can you give us?"
"It's not large, perhaps less than two metric tons. It's length appears to be about 10 meters."
"That is kinda puny." We looked at the blip on the map as it came our way. "But it can go like a raped ape. Jesus, look at the distance it's covering."
Brian nodded. "Penny, give us more detail on the object."
"Working on it, Boss."
The star positions faded and the picture zoomed in on the object a bit. As we watched, it took on a blurred rectangular shape. "It's definitely not a natural object" said Brian.
As we watched, the ship came closer to us all the time. It was obviously a fast little thing. "I guess we'd better take steps." I sighed, and went to the weapons console. "What do we have to work with, Jab?"
"Have a lot."
The Meenzal had installed an array photon plasma cannons. There were twelve in all, and each of them had about fifty times as much power as the cannons in our ships. There were singularity accelerators to throw small asteroids and other debris, as well as throwing singularities themselves. Also, Jab'd built a phalanx of rail guns up and down the cylinder's outside for what he had called 'something for those foolish enough to get close.' "Heat 'em up cat." I said.
"Hot now. Always ready" replied Nahn proudly.
We all stared at the object on the screen. It was decelerating now, and it was about fifteen minutes away. Penny's display had lost some of the blur, and we were starting to get some good detail of just what this thing looked like.
"This presents some interesting concepts." I said to Brian.
"I agree. Looks like we have to rethink our ideas of the universe."
"What are you two talking about?" asked Karen. Kal nodded in agreement.
"You don't recognize that?" I asked my wife.
The rectangle had given way to a more wedge-like shape, and the stub wings had begun to appear.
"No, I don't" said Karen.
"Well you should." Brian chastised. "It crushed a whole bunch of things in your garage last year." Karen leaned forward towards the screen and squinted.
"What is it?"
"That, my dear wife, is the Raptor. Jab!" I looked but Jab was gone. As we looked at the screen, we could see one of our sleds launch and streak off towards the approaching ship. "Brian, how can this be? I thought Velar was in..."
"So did I."
I really HATE cops...
"Penny, scan that ship" I snapped. "Is that the Raptor, or not?"
Her facilities were still somewhat limited at K1. The basic Hyperlink was functional, but there were a few procedural questions that hadn't been answered yet. Jab wanted a comp of his own design, while the rest of us tended to side with letting Penny do it. The result was that we didn't have hard data on the approaching ship.
"It's hull metal, but I'm having trouble with the deep scan."
"Best guess then."
"I'd say it was the Raptor" came the reply from the intercom.
I looked at Bob. "You expecting guests?"
Bob looked at Jab, who was looking real nervous for some reason. "Why didn't you tell me Velar was in the same universe as Earth?"
"Jab not know for sure."
"That's one hell of a thing to keep a secret cat" I snarled. One of my long unanswered questions was wether Velar and Earth were reachable without the use of a gate. If things ever fell apart, I would at least have a chance of re-joining my mate if we were in the same universe. I'd come close to loosing the magic once, and it had scared the shit out of me. It would have been a small help to know that I wouldn't have been stranded alone for the rest of my life. "Cat," and I stared him in the face. "You and I are going to have a long talk when this is over."
I was going to read him the short version of the riot act when Kalindra nudged me in the ribs. "Do you feel someone scanning us?"
Kalindra's telepathic ability makes me look like a light bulb pitted against a star. It's the reason both Bob and I went to her for training for our Psi skills. If she felt someone scanning us, it was fact. I was just reaching for the talent when all hell broke loose in the docking bay.
"Boss, energy discharge from the ship!" came Penny's cry just before she was cut off. Bob was turning to run to the weapons while I started to erect a protective shield. Nether one of us made it. With a flash of green light, everyone in the bay collapsed to the floor.
There we lay. The entire living compliment of K1 was laying on the floor like so much trash as the Raptor docked with the asteroid. Try as we might, nobody could move a muscle. Every one of our voluntary muscle systems was dead. We were far from helpless though. Even as the first Meenzal stepped from the Raptor, Bob was busy shielding his wife and kids from the mental probes we were being subjected to.
Kalindra and I were busy with other things. Our own mental shields protected us from further scanning, though I wondered how much we had given away before we had detected the scan. Most of our offensive spells were useless also. The all required some physical movement to initiate. Magic being out, we settled on Psi abilities. Kalindra had a telekinetic ability that was capable of shifting K1's orbit. What she didn't have was the raw power to utilize it, and that's where I came in.
As the first Meenzal stepped off of the Raptor, she used the energy I was feeding her to lift herself to her feet. I couldn't see what was happening as I'd fallen facing the rear of the bay. I did sense the surprise of our guest as he saw Kalindra stumble to her feet.
*Let me show you how we treat uninvited guests* came the snarl from my mate. She was half way through the initiation of a Stellar Bolt when another Meenzal stepped from the Raptor and and shot her. Absolutely powerless to help her, I felt her collapse at my side. She was alive, but even the link weakened as she slipped into sleep.
*For that you will die!* I screamed to anyone who could hear.
*She will live* came the reply.
I don't know how many there were, but at least one of them walked within my field of vision. Laying there helpless, I watched as she erected an energy shield around the gate that lead to the lunar lab. Straining with everything I had, I managed to pick up the surface thoughts of our captors.
*...way safe, ... ... be bother.. .. artificial life form*
I assumed they were trying to keep Penny from sending anything through the gate to help us. I just hoped she realized what was going on and sent something via normal space. We were eight minutes from Earth at lightspeed and I started counting the seconds in my head.
Whatever our captors were after, it wasn't us. I could hear them moving around behind me like they were looking for something. Then I spotted one of our suits of armor in its rack in the wall. *Bob, are the suit's charged?* I mentally whispered on a level I hoped our captors couldn't hear.
*Jesus Christ, do something! I can't fucking move!*
*I'm trying asshole! Are the goddamned suits charged up?*
*Of course they are!*
Ignoring Bob, I reached out telekineticly and played with the suit I could see. Remembering my way around the inside of the armor, I toggled the power switch and thought I saw the reflection of the internal sensors in the helmet. Running on pure memory and hope, I reached out remotely and pretended to raise my right arm and activate the stunner. It might have even worked had they not been shielded.
*Nice try* came Bob's comment. I just lay there and raged at my helplessness.
*Found ... Nahn .. .. .. murder, sabotage ... trial* I could still only understand part of what I could hear. I just hoped Bob was listening and picking up more. I heard nothing more until I heard the distinctive sound of a ship undocking and powering up to leave.
I'd long since lost count, but it felt like 8 minutes had gone by. If Penny was on her toes, the advanced guard of remotes and maybe even the Sunbeam should be showing up any second. It was a couple of minutes later when the effects of the beam wore off and I felt life returning to my limbs.
"ennnnyyy, rrreort!" I didn't get any answer. I rolled over and saw Bob working his way to the edge of the hanger. *Are they still around?*
*No, they're out of sight. Damnit, they took Nahn!*
Just as I started to reply, one of Penny's remotes dove into the landing bay. "I'm sorry I'm late. I'm tracking them and the Sunbeam will be here in a second."
"Good 'ork. 'amn, ffffeel tterible." I checked Kal and saw her trying to move as she woke up. "Bob, did 'ou catch 'ath that 'as about?"
He stood up and headed for his ship. As he ran he yelled over his shoulder to me. "They arrested Nahn. It seems the group we left on Velar made it home. When they explained where they had been for the last couple of thousand years. Charges were filed against Nahn for the murder of the rest of the crew and the sabotage of the starship they were in. He was the Captain of Engineering when they crashed."
I was just able to get to my feet. Bob was shaking off the effects of the stun beam faster than Kal or I. "They are nuts! I may not care to much for the fuzzy little monster, but I don't believe he's a murderer."
"I don't either and I'm going after them. You coming?"
I helped Kal to her feet and then went to check on Karen and the kids. "Count me in. They caught us by surprise once, but they have fucked with the wrong people."
Bob was checking out and powering up his ship while the Sunbeam came to a stop outside the docking bay. Grabbing everything that looked deadly, we started loading.
"They just made the transition to Hyperspace" came Penny's announcement.
"You're tracking them?"
"If they sneeze, the probe will rear-end them."
Karen had hustled the kids out of the way while we had been loading. Now she stood beside us with a look of anger that I was happy wasn't directed at me. "I've had all I care to of being on the short end of things lately. You two bring back Jab, you hear me?"
"Damn straight!" and Bob and I headed for our respective ships.
They went thataway
The thug went to maximum power as soon as it cleared the hangar entry. As Brian powered up the Sunbeam, he watched it appear to elongate and then vanish. "Damn, he's pissed" swore Brian, and kicked the Sunbeam into high gear right behind me. Inside the thug, things were getting shaken up a bit. Going to full power immediately caused gravinometric waves to lap out of the wide open singularity. Thug wasn't surfing the waves as it was designed to, it was skipping from wave top to wave top, cavitating space behind it.
"Bob, slow it down a little and get in sync. You're going to tear your ship to shreds, and you aren't doing me any favors back here."
I didn't reply. I was trying to figure the best way to do an intercept of the Raptor, and put on the armor I kept in the ship. The new stuff was back on K1, and all I had was the older, first generation armor. It would have to do, and Brian was in the same boat in that respect.
* * *
Nahn sat on the cargo palate floor. He was bound firmly by webbing. "Ne so mahn kett iss do?"
*I do not understand the charges against me. Why am I a traitor?*
*SILENCE! You will have your chance to speak when we reach Meenzeii. Until then, do not speak.*
The cat quieted and wondered what had happened on the station. He'd seen everyone fall under the disrupter beam, but didn't know what kind of effect it would have on humans.
* * *
"Where the hell is that probe telemetry, Brian?"
"I've got it. Come left about four degrees and you'll be running up the Raptor's tailpipe."
"About three light minutes. You're close."
"You're a hell of a lot faster than they are."
The proximity alarms began to chime in the thug. My forward screens showed the dark gray blur of hyperspace, and superimposed a crosshair where the raptor should have been. As I passed over it, the crosshairs swung down and to the rear. I waited fifteen seconds, then spun the thug on the horizontal axis and chopped power. I was flying backwards at C+.001. I fired the plasma cannon directly at the oncoming Raptor.
With it's hyperfie;d destroyed, the Raptor dropped into normal space and shot by beneath me. Turning, I powered up again and accelerated to pace my former ship.
*You are ordered to stop your vessel and prepare for boarding.* I snarled in my mind.
*With what authority do you interfere with the Meenzai Guard?*
*I'll fucking kill you and everybody else if you don't, tuna breath.*
The Raptor slowed, and I could see by the ebbing glow on the rear wing that power had been reduced.
*What is your intention, human?*
*You have my friend, and you took him from Sovereign soil without so much as a howdy do, pal. You're in violation of more law than I can cite.*
*Which law is that, human. We have no treaty with you.*
*MY law, dipshit.*
*And if we choose not to obey your law?*
The Sunbeam fired a plasma bolt that sheared off the left wing of the Raptor. "Mind if I cut in?" asked Brian over the comm link." The Raptor staggered in flight, and slowed to a stop.
*WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?*
*What is the meaning of this? You bwoke my widdew ship. Wah wah wah.*
*You will die, human.*
*Fuck you.* -- "Brian, you know what I'm thinking?"
"Right. Do what you have to do."
I was hoping that Brian knew I needed a protective shield around Nahn. I planned to carve the Raptor like a Christmas turkey. I waited a second, then fired the rails at the cripple Raptor. The shields on my old ship tried hard to repel the attack, but failed, it divided in two and spilled its contents into space.
"Get my cat, Brian!"
"Got him. The tractor is pulling him in."
The rest of the Meenzai floated in the void near the wreckage. They were wearing some sort of light suits that kept them safe for the moment, but I doubted if they had life support for very long. It was plain that they expected to be picked up. I wasn't so sure that's how it would go. I've been angry, but I was cold-hearted pissed this time.
*Commander, can you hear me?*
*I can, human.*
*Seems like the situation has changed.*
*For the moment, it has.*
He was one cool customer. *I will pick you and your men up, and take you to a place of safety. I'd like very much to kill you, and I know my partner would like to have you for dinner.*
*What have we done, human? We have picked up a fugitive, nothing else.*
*You shot my friend's wife, you trespassed on my planetoid, you assaulted my family. You are not in a position to feign outrage.*
*I am just a soldier, human. If you wish to discuss Meenzeii policy, you should address the High Council.*
*I'm addressing you, furball.*
*I have nothing to say to you.*
I pulled my helmet into place and went aft to phase out of the thug. Once out, I jetted over to the group of Meenzals. *Order your group to show me their hands --or whatever.*
*We have no weapons.*
An inspection showed that to be true. I asked Brian what he thought we should do with the captured cats.
"That's not important at the moment, Bob." Brian sighed.
"What do you mean?"
Brian opened his mike so I could hear Zorac talking to him in his suit. We had a ship inbound on us, and it was a big one. Even worse, Zorac described it as a Meenzeii battle cruiser.
"Tractor the cats! Get them in the Sunbeam and get the hell out of here!"
I hit my sprints and headed back to the thug. I had just taken the control seat when the beam hit us. It was one of those green types again, but it had no effect on me in the armor. "Brian? You ok?"
"Yeh, I'm shielded."
"Then kick the ponies and let's go!"
Both of us commanded our ships to full throttle, and both of us sat as still as the other. We weren't moving. "This isn't good" said Brian. I agreed.
The cruiser slowed and stopped as it reached us, and our comm links fairly bellowed at us.
"You are under arrest. Make no attempt to leave or you'll be destroyed."
Then all power in our ships went off-line. We might as well have been sitting on logs out there.
Do not fuck with the Mage
When the console in front of me went dark. I thought for a moment I was imagininig things. When it stayed dark, I started getting pissed. When the voice in my helmet tried telling me I was under arrest, I got furious!
Nothing was working except my armor. I reached for the the secondary system in the computer bay and found it complete dead. When I checked the primary. I could sense something, but it was like reaching through mush.
"Damn, damping field..." Whoever was in charge of the Cruiser that had just come to a stop nearby. They had done a fair job rendering us helpless technologicly. That was their first mistake. Even as the voice in my helmet was telling me to not to try to leave my ship, I began to strip off my armor and run for the power room. If they could shutdown the aux singularity plant. I didn't want to be stuck inside my armor if they decided to shut it down also.
"God damned fuzzy fools..." A quick check of the powerplant showed that it had shutdown cleanly. If I could disable the damping field, I'd be in business again. It took four variations on my magic defense field before the telltails on the reactor popped on. With a satisfied smirk, I ran back to the flightdeck. I hadn't powered back up because I didn't want to give away the surprise. I did however arrange so that the shields would come on when the power did. Then I contacted my supposed jailors.
"This is Brian Antoine of the Terran Starship Sunbeam. You have 30 seconds to cease interfering with the operation of my ship, or I'll will do it for you."
* * *
The Captain of the cruiser listened to the voice coming in over the radio. Turning to the ancient Meenzal that stood by his command chair, he snorted in amusement. "These Human's are not very smart." The Meenzal being addressed did not find the message quite so amusing. "That is the one we warned you about. The stories about him do not show him to be a patient being."
The Captain snorted again. "More of those wild tails about Magic? Save them for scaring the kits."
"I would still advise caution. I have seen this one in action against an enemy. He does not show mercy when threatened." Remembering what he had seen this Human do to the Oweesee on Velar. The old 3rd mate of the starship that had crashed so long ago muttered to himself that "Maybe we should have shot first and questioned the survivors."
* * *
I was counting in my head, and when I reached thirty I shut off the radio in the helmet I'd been holding. "Ok, assholes. I'm tired of being treated like shit. It's time to teach you some manners."
*Bob, try and make your way to the Sunbeam. It's going to come back on-line in a few moments.*
*About damn time! I feel like a sitting duck out here.*
*Watch yourself though when things start to pop. I'm not sure that Zorac is going to come back on-line with the rest of the ship. You may have to fend for yourself.*
*Any other good news?*
I'd homed in on the main powerplant of the Cruiser with my energy sense. We were a hell of a long way from the nearest planetary mass, but the energy available from the Cruiser would make a resonable substitute. While it lasted of course. With my shields cranked as high as I could push them, I teleported into the power core of the Cruiser.
I hadn't even gotten my bearings when the first shot connected with my shields. I hardly felt it, but I wasn't feeling charitable at the moment. Drawing on the powerplant behind me, I returned the shot with enough energy to vaporize the weapon that had been used. I'd learned the hard way fighting with Jab that Magic didn't do shit to a Meenzal. The trick was to affect something nearby and let it have the physical effect. As several others drew their sidearms and turned in my direction. I reached out and detonated the guns in their hands. *The next one of you that fires at me finds out what lesson number two is. Now cut off that damping field you are generating before I do it for you.*
One of them spun around and began to speak into what I assumed was some kind of intercom. One of the others decided to find out what lesson two was. Even as the energy from the shot glanced off of my shields The Meenzal in question, and everything in a six foot radius around him got teleported one mile the the left. He probably lived just long enough to realize what explosive decompression was.
I'll give them this, they didn't give up easy. Pouring through the doorway were a dozen or so of the bruisers that I'd seen back at K1. The weapons they carried were not popgun sidearms either. The shots didn't make it through my shields, but the physical impact was making me sick as I got slammed against the powerplant behind me. That was their second mistake.
Bracing myself against the powerplant, I made a rough estimate of its size and teleported the whole damn thing 100 miles straight down. Bob later told me that he saw the flash as it detonated and folded in on itself. I was in no position to worry about it as I no longer had anything to brace against. The next shot threw me across the space the powerplant had recently occupied and against the far wall. There wasn't a shot after that as the lights in the room had gone out along with the gravity.
*Bob, fire it up! Don't try to rely on the singularity plant. I think they know how to disable them remotly. Remind me to ask Jab how they do that.*
*I've got power again. Jab says he doesn't know. They couldn't do it when his knowledge was current. He's also a little pissed because you forgot to untie him before you left.*
*Tough shit. I was busy, and I'm going to stay that way.* I was making my way to where I thought the doorway was when the lights flickered back on dimly. "Hummmm... Emergency power was a little slow. Sloppy engineering."
Along with the lights, came partial gravity and some renewed shooting. Most of the bruiser types had gotten the idea that they couldn't affect me with their weapons. I was halfway across the room when they decided to pile on top of me and hold me captive that way. There were enough of them that they managed to surround me and stop me from moving. Held inside a ring of furry bodies, I returned the stare of a whole bunch of Meenzai that wanted my hide on the wall.
*Do you really expect to stop me this way?*
*Enjoy your last moments of life Human* snarled a thought from one of the circle around me.
I made a show of being bored. *Sorry, but I have an appointment. I'll see you idiots later.* With that I teleported back to the Sunbeam. Bob was busy securing the Thug in its docking clamps and making sure that the Meenzals he had locked in one of the secure cargo bays were behaving themselves. I looked at the monitor the showed them trying to cut their way through the walls with those claws of theirs. "You should have let them die out there." He didn't answer me, and I didn't blame him given the look that I must have had on my face.
Sitting down at my station, I fired up the radio and hailed the Cruiser. "This is the Sunbeam. You are under arrest for kidnapping, attempted murder, and anything I happen to come up with later on. Now tell me where your base is and I'll consider giving you a tow and letting you try and talk me out of finding you all guilty as charged."
* * *
The ancient Captains' ears were in tatters as he wailed at the Captain. "I tried to warn you! That one is not limited to normal behavior."
"Status!" demanded the Captain. The news he got from his bridge crew didn't make his mood any better.
"Power from secondary sources holding steady. Primary power and main drive are still down. Engineering reports the main drive is not present in the drive chamber."
"Idiots! How can the drive be missing? I will have someones ears for this... And kill that Humans ravings! I do not wish to hear his voice again."
* * *
In the end, and after I'd had time to cool down, we had Jab contact the Cruiser and explain that we were deadly serious. They could tell us where they came from, and we'd take them home. Or they could sit out here and rot because I intended on making sure they couldn't be found. The radio traffic sounded like feeding time in the cat pen at a zoo. The shreeks, growls and other noises were giving me a headache when Jab switched to English.
"They have old friend on board who wishes to speak with you."
"Can you trust this old friend? Someone blamed you for the crash when they got back to your homeworld."
"Not trust, but not distrust either. Can listen?"
"Yeah," I nodded at Bob. "We'll listen."
A moment later I heard a vaguly familiar voice coming over the comm. "Antoine person. You say not kill we show home?"
"That's the deal. You show us where you came from and we'll see that you get there. Then we'll talk about how your people will respect the rights of me and my friends."
There was another spat of arguments at the other end of the link. I got the impression that the Captain was being told to shut the hell up by his crew as I listened.
"We give home place" and Jab listened even more closely then Bob and I as his friend transfered the coordinates to us. It was slow going as we left the scene of the battle. The Sunbeam was towing a ship that was easily 10 times it mass as we accelerated to jump speed. The stress was showing on every guage we had, but I said nothing that might give us away.
I wanted to arrive at our destination giving the impression that Humans were not a race to fuck with. As we dropped out of Hyperspace on the edge of an unknown system a couple of days later. Both Bob and I kept our fingers crossed that we could pull this off. At the same time, we both wondered what had really happened all those years ago. The entire trip, Jab had refused to even talk about the whole incident. In the back of my mind was a growing worry that there was more to the charges against him then we believed.
You ain't nothin'
It was a four day trip to Meenzeii. Brian disabled all but life support on the Meenzai Battle Cruiser, so with it in tow, there wasn't a lot to do. I decided to pass some of the time by doing a little investigation. I wanted to know why Jab had been arrested, and just what all the charges were about. My first order of business was to seek out the old Meenzal who'd been with Jab on the ship which crashed on Velar. I had Brian teleport him aboard the Sunbeam.
"Why you bring me here, human?"
"I have some questions for you, that's why."
"I answer you."
"Good, thank you. What are the charges against Nahn?"
"Nahn arrested for murder, for treason."
"Nahn kill and is traitor" replied the old cat.
"This is rather circular." I said, drawing an O in the air in front of me. "Perhaps you can be more specific."
"Nahn engineer. Ship fail. Do bad work." The cat shrugged.
"You mean to say that because the ship crashed, you're blaming Jab?"
"Jab is who?"
"Jab is Nahn."
"Nahn is Nahn."
"It's a nickname --a familiar name."
"Odd human. Understand not for nickname. If Nahn have name, why need more?"
"It happens. Let's get back to the crash. What caused the crash?"
"Bad repair. No fix in time."
"Now I don't understand."
"Ship shot, engines hit. Explode."
"Ok. So where does Ja...Nahn fit in to this?"
"No fix, ship crash. Engineer responsible."
I was beginning to get the picture, and I didn't like it. Through almost an hour of back and forth with the Meenzal, the full story emerged. Jab's world was under attack by a neighboring race. The city in which Jab and the crew lived was under siege and an escape plan was hatched to get the city's most important scientists to safety.
On takeoff, the plan was discovered and the ship came under fire by ground forces surrounding the city. The ship was hit and the engines were badly disabled. The old cat admitted freely that Jab made a choice to keep the engines at full power and escape the planet's gravity rather than shut them down and land. If he'd shut down, the ships compliment would be executed as soon as they grounded. He elected to keep them running, and they tore themselves up. With only jumpjets and landing thrusters, the ship continued on until it was caught in Velar's gravity well. The ship was pulled in, and they crash landed. One crew member was killed outright and the rest were stranded.
"I don't get it. Why is Nahn a criminal?"
"He choose let engines die."
"He saved your lives! What the hell is wrong with that?"
"Nahn engineer. Responsible for crew and ship."
"What about the captain? Where's he..she.. where are they?"
"I am captain of ship. I bring charge to Nahn."
"He saved your furry ass and you criminalize that? Jesus, what do you do when someone kills another Meenzai on purpose?"
"Killer die. Take life, replace with you life."
I shook my head. I didn't know whether to be surprised, shocked or both. Brian listened intently as I explained it all to him. "So they're going to kill him because someone died in the crash of the ship?"
"That's what they want to do, but first they're going to prosecute for espionage because he didn't shut the engines down."
"Jail him then hang him?"
"Something like that, yes. I think so."
"And you thought Kal's concept of honor was a problem."
I nodded. By contrast, my complaints about Kal seemed pretty small.
* * *
Kal was fit to be tied. She paced furiously back and forth in front of K1's comm console, making no end of discomfort for Penny. "Why did you allow him to go?"
"I can't stop Brian, you know that" Penny replied. Her tone was matter of fact.
"How could you let him go!"
Karen walked into the room. "Can you two hold it down? I got Brenna to sleep and your voices carry."
"Mind your own business!" snapped Kalindra. Karen blossomed in anger.
"Nobody sent Brian out there." she hissed. "If you want to be upset, then join the club. None of us knows what's going on out there, and we all have people we care about involved in this. If you want to be a baby about this then cart your furry butt out of here and do it somewhere else!"
Kal looked at Karen with fury in her eyes, and Karen returned the stare. They stayed that way for half a minute and then Kal broke the silence.
"I apologize. I am thinking only of my needs, and not the needs of our family."
"Yeah, I know" said Karen. "I'm not doing very well either. It used to be so easy when all Bob did was work on computers. I'm sorry too." Both reached out and hugged each other, and they cried with frustration.
* * *
"Honor!" I snarled at nobody.
"What about it?" asked Brian. He looked up from the chart he was studying.
"Look at what some bizarre concept of honor is doing to Jab."
"Yeah, that's true" said Brian slowly. "But cultures differ from place to place. Jab has his culture to deal with, and you have to deal with how it affects you."
"Ouch" I said. Brian was sending my own words back to me that I said to him about Kal and his relationship with her. I recognized them immediately. "I suppose I have to admit to that."
"Not entirely. It would appear that Jab's idea of honor is a lot more like ours than of his own kind."
That made sense. But it had barbs in it too. What if you're raised in one culture, but you abandon it for another? Isn't there some sort of choice involved? When I was a child and was being raised as a catholic, I couldn't eat meat on Fridays. Now I don't check any calendar as a part of a menu selection. So what was happening to Jab made me think of the Pope sending a squad of Cardinals after me for having a burger on the wrong day. The more I thought about it, I remembered the killing and torture of the inquisition. Catholics killed a hell of a lot of people because they had different ideas about how they wanted to live.
"Maybe honor just sucks, Brian."
"Maybe, but it's a two edged sword. There's your own personal honor, which deals with how you see yourself and how you would like others to see you. Then there's the honor that tells you that someone else's act requires some kind of punishment."
"I do that?"
"You're here, aren't you?"
"I see your point."
We'd have talked about it longer, but Zorac announced that we were nearing Meenzeii, and we took our stations. As the ship attained orbit, Brian cut the tractor to the Battle Cruiser. Over the comm link, he spoke to the crew of the Meenzai Guard. "You are in orbit over your world. You are free to go."
"You are a man of honor" replied the Meenzal Cruiser Captain. "You have kept your word."
"Honor my ass." I mumbled. Brian shot me a small smile.
"Shall we get the party started?" he asked.
"No music, we can't dance."
Caught in the middle
With a gentle jerk, the tractor field we were using to tow the Cruiser faded away. We had gotten one short message upon approach to the planet telling us what kind of orbit to take up. Now we sat in equatorial orbit with the disabled Cruiser about 5 miles behind us. With nothing better to do, we sat and waited for somebody to say something. That had been 6 hours ago.
Curiosity being one of my more destructive habits, I started looking around. There was a hell of a lot to see. "Bob. Either these people are paranoid or this neighborhood makes Altimont look like the Petting Zoo."
"What have you found."
I toggled the navigation display to the tank and high-lighted the various collections of orbiting widgets. "Let's see... We have a collection of power transfer satellites in low orbit. Just above them we have a series of orbiting stations that look to have enough weaponry to frag a small moon. Last but not least, we have enough spy satellites and sensor arrays to detect the next solar system." I looked at the tank display. "This place is a navigators nightmare. What the hell are these people worried about?"
"Good question. They answered any of our messages yet?"
"Not a peep. You'd think they'd at least be interested in finding out how our prisoners are doing."
"Not interested" came Jab's comment from the engineering station.
"Why the hell not?" I replied.
"No important. They screw up, fail job. Are toast now."
"You mean to tell me they could care less about them?" asked Bob.
"Will punish, yes. Care about them? Nahn not think so."
I glanced out the window at the Cruiser sharing our orbit. "I suppose they don't care about that ship and its crew either then. They failed also."
"Care some. Will want to know how Mage crippled ship. Crew in deep shit."
"Jab. I'm not sure I care for the kind of picture your giving us of your people."
"Jab not care either. Is why stay with Bob."
I was about so say something else when Zorac chimed in. "Sensor sweep detected, again." I looked at the clock. "Regular as clockwork. Every 35 minutes." They might not care about their own people, but we seemed to be the focus of some detailed sensor sweeps on a regular basis. I'd long since adjusted the shields to block the sweep, but they kept trying.
"Why the hell don't they just talk to us?" grumbled Bob. "It would save a hell of a lot of time. This poking at us is starting..."
"Warning, energy field forming!" announced Zorac, and the internal sensors showed that a stronger version of the energy damping field the Cruiser had used was forming around the Sunbeam. Bob dived for his station and I slid over to the science console.
"Source of the field?" Three of the equatorial satellites in our area glowed in the tank display behind me. "Now that isn't very friendly. Energy status?"
"20 percent drain" said Jab as he watched the status display.
"My shield isn't 100 percent effective then. Still, 80 percent normal is better than dead in space. I suspect someone is having fits about now."
"How so" asked Bob.
"They took us out instantly the last time they tried that. Lets see how good their sensors are." I called up the comm system and got ready to send yet another message. Grabbing the cup of chocolate I'd been sipping earlier, I put my feet up on the console and leaned back. "Jab, if you would be so kind and to translate."
Jab hopped down and sat down beside me. I flipped the comm on and found myself facing the familiar blank display. As I talked, Jab translated for me.
"This is the Terran Starship Sunbeam." I took a sip of my chocolate as Jab translated. I wanted to give the impression we could care less about the attack they had just tried. "We have detected some radiation leakage from some of your orbiting satellites. Would you like us to show you how to design them so they don't leak?" Jab snickered as he translated. "Also, we are still waiting to communicate with someone concerning the charges against the prisoners we are holding."
As I sat facing the screen, I noticed the display on the science station change as the damping field died away. It was replaced by a phased energy beam from one of the other satellites. The lights dimmed just slightly, but the shields deflected the beam into space.
"Bob, would you fix that please?"
He grinned at me and shifted to the weapons station. A second later the dual matter conversion beams flickered from each of the Sunbeams wings and the satellite vanished. I did my best to keep what I was feeling from my face as I stared at the blank screen in front of me. "You people really should perform preventive maintenance on those things. They seem to be a bit fragile." As I sat there, the screen lit up and I found myself staring at another Meenzal.
"We are sorry, one of our people got scared. He will be dealt with and punished for his error" translated Jab.
"Think nothing of it, no harm was done. Children sometimes get over enthusiastic. The matter has been forgotten." I watched the expression on Bob's face as I talked. He was having trouble keeping from laughing and was covering his mouth to avoid making noise.
"You will be contacted shortly by an official who can negotiate with you. Please wait a short time longer."
"We'll be here" and I switched off the comm system. Bob broke out laughing while I started to shake gently. "Jesus, I hope I pulled that off."
"You've got balls, I'll say that for you."
"Yeah, and their in my throat at the moment. I almost shit when the energy beam hit."
"Preventive maintenance indeed. I wonder what that asshole on the screen was really thinking."
Jab gave a small growl. "Was worried and curious. Expected to see Bob and Mage begging for life. Curious to know how we stopped attack."
"Huh? And how would you know that?"
"Not have to say. Could see in way looked" answered Jab with a trace of smugness to his voice.
"Say much" he answered.
About 15 minutes later, we were hailed from the planet. This time we found ourselves facing somebody in authority. Even I could tell that this Meenzal was use to having people jump when he spoke. It showed in the way he held himself as he talked to us. After a good bit of snarling, it was agreed that they would send a ship to pick us and our prisoners up. We were to argue our case before the Meenzal equivalent of a military court.
"So, you feeling up to playing lawyer?" I asked Bob as I switched off the comm.
"Down there? Are you kidding? I want my armor or I'm not going."
I pointed at the corner of the flightdeck. "It's right there."
"No, I want my ARMOR. That stuff would last about 5 seconds before they shut off the power. I want the good stuff!"
I looked at the nav display and chuckled. "Well, it's about 96 light- years that direction" and I pointed vaguely towards the rear of the ship. Bob wasn't amused.
"You're the Wizard, think of something. I'm not going down there until I feel safe."
"We'll you're going to have to go down there. If we try to head home they'll just try again. If they wanted Jab bad enough to search for him. They aren't going to give up now. You want to spend the next thousand years looking over your shoulder?"
"Nope, so get me my armor oh mighty Mage." He just stood there looking at me with his arms crossed over his chest.
"Have I told you lately that you're a pain in the ass?"
"Not in the last day or so" he chuckled.
I stood up and headed for my cabin. "Keep an eye on things. I'll see what I can do."
"Going to sleep on it? They will be here in about an hour."
"Something like that" and I closed the door to my cabin.
I had one way to get back to K1 and grab Bob's armor for him. I'd managed to push a gate from the remains of the guardian back to my lab. This was just a bit further I told myself as I gathered the stuff I needed. One thing I knew was going to be a problem was that both ends expected to be anchored to something relatively stationary. The Sunbeam hardly qualified and I was going to have to destroy the gate as soon as it's task was over. I didn't want to think about what would happen if it started wandering around the inside of the ship if we had to move quickly.
About a half hour later I got dragged onto the flightdeck by my mate.
"Ouch! Damnit that's my ear!" Both Kalindra and Karen were dressed in full armor and Kal had her glove clamped to my left ear.
"I'll teach you to leave us in the dark like that!" boomed her voice from the external speakers. "Take off and not bother to let us know what was going on."
"Damnit! I said I didn't know the Hyperlink to Penny was damaged in the battle. How was I suppose to know you weren't tracking us?"
"You should have checked!" yelled Karen.
With a flip of her wrist, Kal released me and tossed me into my chair. I sat there nursing my ear as I glared at her. "Bob, you want your armor. You argue with them!"
"Ah, honey?" asked Bob.
"Don't you honey me you son of a bitch. Leave sitting there on a hunk of rock wondering if you were still alive. I ought to kill you myself."
Our mate's were standing there in full armor reading us the riot act. I think both of us decided about the same time to just shut up and listen. It took them about 10 minutes to wind down.
"Yes dear. It won't happen again dear. What ever you say dear." We were both going to be paying for this for some time to come.
"Ship has left planet" interjected Jab during a lull in the fight. "We get ready now, yes?"
"Where is my armor?" asked Bob. "You did remember my armor didn't you?"
I gave a small grin. "It kind of got forgotten in the shuffle. Besides, are you sure you want to give that kind of impression?"
"Are you out of your mind? Go down there like this?" He pulled on the T-shirt he was wearing.
"Do you want it to look like your afraid of them?" I asked.
Bob was about to answer when Jab broke in. "Mage right. No show fear or case lost before started."
"You're trying to get me killed again, right?"
"Yeah, right. I'm going to collect the insurance... What are you worried about. You can take the ladies along and call them your honor guard or something." As I spoke, Karen and Kalindra stood to attention and we both heard the whine as their weapons systems came on-line. The little lights on their suits made them look like Christmas trees.
"One honor guard. Ready and waiting!" they both snapped in unison.
"I'm suppose to feel safer now?"
We were starting to argue again when Zorac broke in. The approaching shuttle is under attack. Four people and the cat said 'Huh?' at the same time. "Ten ships of unknown origin have emerged from Hyperspace and have launched an attack on the shuttle."
Even as we rushed to our stations, the planetary defenses we'd noted earlier came to life. In low orbit around the planet, a network of satellites came to life and enveloped it in an energy grid. The orbiting platforms higher up began to fire on the attacking ships.
"What the hell are those things?" The sensor display was showing something that looked like a dodecahedron made out of sticks and balls. As we watched, energy would erupt from the vertices and lash out at both the shuttle and the stations. I was just trying to decide wether to join the fight when Jab got a good look at the attacking ships.
"Destroy! Enemy!" and he jumped in my lap as he tried to get at the controls for the weapons.
"Damnit, get out of the way! I'll take care of this, you watch engineering and make sure we don't get fried ourselves." As he jumped from my lap, I released the safeties on the weapons. At the same time Bob broke our orbit and headed us towards the battle.
"They are concentrating on the shuttle."
"Then get us between them and it. Maybe we can take some of the heat off it."
Even as we joined the battle, the shuttle was looking like it was ready to fall apart. Who ever was guiding those ships though, hadn't expected us to show up. Once we got close enough, we extended our shields to cover the shuttle. Then we proceeded to assist the orbital weapons platforms. The entire battle took less than 5 minutes. When the attacking ships figure out they couldn't get at the shuttle, they turned and ran. Only three of them made it away.
"Jesus, what were those things Jab?"
Bob and I both looked at Jab as he hissed in his anger. "Enemy! Only good for killing."
"Well we can argue about it later. Right now we better get the crew off of that shuttle before it falls apart." The status display of the shuttle showed it to be leaking both atmosphere and radiation. Pulling it close with a tractor beam, we brought it up against the lower transfer area of the cargo holds.
"Come on. Let's go see how grateful they are" I yelled to Bob as I ran for the cargo hold.
"Grateful?" he asked as he followed me.
Tripping the access sequence, the floor of the hold began to phase shift to allow access to the shuttle. "If they aren't insane, they owe us. Remember, 'The enemy of my enemy, is my friend'". The environment field extended to cover the shuttle's docking hatch. As the first furry head poked through the floor of the hold, I mutter to myself.
"I wonder who was on board that was so important?"
Clarence Darrow, NOT
As the Meenzal guard rose into the Sunbeam, Gal Meen, Chief of the Empire High Council was in the cabin below asking for a quick briefing. He had come to pay his respects to the Captain and Crew of the Sunbeam. "You will tell me what information we have about these humans."
"Yes, my Lord. We know that aboard the small cruiser is The Antoine. He is Captain of the ship, and he who we have communicated with."
"This is the Wizard we have heard of?"
"Yes, my Lord. He is accompanied by the designer of the Raptorship we took from the castaways."
" And his name?"
"He is called Bob, my Lord."
"And is he a wizard as well, General?"
"We have no knowledge, my Lord. We know he has a reputation as a skillful and accomplished warrior, and it is he who harbored the fugitive Nahn."
"And it was his property that was violated in the arrest of the traitor?"
"How does a one with such power allow himself to be taken so easily?"
"He is a fool, my Lord."
"Perhaps it is you who are the fool here, General. Do you forget that the human and his wizard disabled the most powerful battleship our forces possess? Did you fail to notice that these humans just easily defeated the attack by the Maal?"
"I do not, Lord. I merely say that he has not shown us wile and common sense."
"Maybe, General. And maybe he is like the Geeble, who uses the show of weakness to lure in his victims before he consumes them. We will use caution with this one."
"As you command, Lord."
After a few moments the ship's compliment of the Sunbeam was increased by the Chief of the High Council, the Chief of Military Affairs and six members of the Meenzai Guard. Brian stepped forward and waited for the Meenzal's to introduce themselves. He cast a wry smile at Bob when the Empire's highest and most powerful official was presented.
"I am the ArchMage, Brian Antoine of Terra." Turning to indicate his mate, "and this is Kalindra ne Kan, my mate." I stepped forward. "And may I present Bob Kirkpatrick, Property Owner of K1, Chief Pilot of the this ship, and his mate, Karen."
The Guardsmen looked horrified. There was a pregnant pause and then Jab sounded in our minds. *It is big insult for females be present at meet with Council Member.*
*It wasn't like we planned this. They should be more communicative.*
*Yeh* added Brian. *and they should be too upset at the crew that just saved their fur*
I moved in front of the Chief Meenzal. "I apologize for the presence of our mates at this meeting. It was unavoidable. Our race favors the use of family as crew. Had we known of your presence on the shuttle, we'd have sent them aft."
The High Councilman bowed deeply, but kept his eyes glued to mine. "We understand, Owner Kirkpatrick."
The Guardsmen relaxed. Brian signalled to Karen and Kal to make themselves scarce, and they went. However, the glare we got from both of them was as frigid. "Perhaps," said Brian, "This should be continued on the planet."
Everyone agreed. I used the thug to ferry the Councilman, his guard, Jab and I to the planet.
* * *
Jab stepped cautiously from the thug, paused and looked side to side. He moved ahead a few steps and I stepped out behind him. My T shirt waved a little in the gentle Meenzeii breeze, and I could feel goose bumps on my forearms.
Four members of the Meenzai Guard approached us. The leader barked at me in his native tongue. "Yeez ma fai!" he spat.
"Back up catface." I snapped back at him. Jab translated for me in my mind.
*He demands surrender of his commander.*
I had Jab tell me how to tell the leader of the guardsman that we did not hold his commander. When I spoke in Meenzeii, the guard looked confused. Then the Chief of the High Council emerged from the thug and moved towards us. The lead Guardsman stepped ahead and shoved me backwards.
"Out of way!" he said in English.
"I wouldn't do that again." I said, glaring.
"What you do human? Cry for tit of mother?" he tilted his head up and made a noise like rubber heels on waxed linoleum. The son of a bitch was laughing.
"No, instead I'd do what he's doing." I pointed behind the Guardsman. He looked behind him, and when he looked back, I was holding a hand rail, and it was pointed at the base of his neck. The charged mass hit him as he realized what was happening. A football sized hole opened in him and the Guard dropped like a wet sandbag.
"Do not attempt to touch or threaten me again. I will kill anyone who does." The remaining Guardsmen looked nervous, but I fully expected them to attack. However, the High Council Chief spoke to them.
"HOLD! Let no one interfere with the human." Then, to me: "I offer my apologies. This guardsman acted without authorization. You were right to take his miserable life."
I turned. "In that event, I shall tell my cat to surrender to your guard."
*What you do to Jab?*
"Your word that he will remain for trial shall suffice." replied Gal, and I bowed to him.
* * *
We were treated well, although I was only spoken to when it was absolutely necessary. No one spoke to Jab. We arrived at what was mid-morning, and by late in the afternoon they were ready for the my hearing, and for Jab's trial. I would be heard first.
The room was called to order, and the hundred or so Meenzal's who were lucky enough to have gotten a seat quieted. A clerk went through a great deal of amenity, announcing that the Leader Himself would sit as Chief Magistrate, and then introduced a panel of ten Meenzai who would act for Meezeii interests in any particular argument.
I rose. "If it pleases the Court, the Guardsmen you speak of are currently in custody, pending the decision of this court."
The leftmost Meenzal in the panel stood. "This is outrageous. The human has our citizens as hostages, and asks us to believe he will respect what we decide in this matter."
"Indeed," said Gal. "Why do you keep these soldiers if you are to abide by the decisions made here."
"Pardon, Leader. But it is a matter of protocol. Until this court decides otherwise --choosing not to recognize property-- these Meenzai are held for extradition."
The panel leader considered this. "It is truth that this issue revolves around the recognition of property right. Yet there is the issue of trust. If the Bob will not trust us, we have no basis to trust him."
"There is no issue of trust here. This has been laid to rest with my arrival. If I did not trust, would I come? Would I bring Nahn and offer him into your custody? No, there is no issue here. Your charges pend against Nahn and he is surrendered to you. My charges pend against the Meenzai's and they are in my custody."
The Leader spoke. "The objection is invalidated. The Guardsmen will stay in the hands of the humans. I believe that they will be returned if this court orders it."
There was grumbling in the panel, but no one challenged the Leader. Next came a description of the charges against the Guardsmen. They included violation of space, destruction of private territory, assault without authority on Freemen, and violation of the territory K1. I also invented a sub-charge, that the actions of the Meenzai Guard were so outrageous as to require pursuit, therefore, they were charged with complicity on a charge of conspiracy to abduct.
The Judge listened to my entire description and then spoke. "You have an understanding of our law?"
"I have some small knowledge."
"Then you know the charges you bring us are of the most severe. If we are to consider these charges, we must consider the governmental responsibility."
"No, Judge. What we must discuss is whether the Guard exceeded their authority in the manner they executed their duty. If they are guilty, it is a reflection of their personal character and not the character of your government."
I was hoping that they would see a political way out of implication in the arrest. It worked.
"The case offered is valid. Does the Panel agree?" said the Judge. There was quiet discussion in the panel, and then the panel leader said they agreed.
"In that event, Honor, the decision rests upon Meenzai Law, and the question stems from their exceeding their lawful limits."
"The court will consider the testimony." said the Judge, and he called for testimony. I spoke for each of us who was on K1 at the time, and described the events. Offering, in conclusion, log tapes from K1 and Penny. Members of the panel read the applicable law for arrests, and identified what actions constituted violation. When we finished, Gal said he would consider the matter and would render his decision shortly. We waited in the courtroom for twenty minutes.
The Judge returned and took his place on the bench. "I have considered this matter carefully and this is my decision and proclamation. The Guardsmen did in fact exceed their authority, and violated the rights of ownership to the territory K1. And the territory is not a part of the Meenzeii Empire. So it is the decision of the court that their actions were a crime against Meenzai Law, and the High Council owes a debt of restitution to the owner of K1. The prisoner's shall be returned for trial immediately."
I bowed to the Leader of the panel, and to the Judge. "So it shall be." Then
*Brian. Send down the cats.*
*Send them down*
While listening to the trial, Brian had busied himself with repairing the failed systems in the Sunbeam. With the Hyperlink repaired, Penny was able to reinstate the Hyperlink. She was able to provide Brian with specific information on the courtroom, and he teleported the Meenzal's to it.
"Gal, I surrender your citizens."
The Guardsmen were lined up on the far wall of the courtroom, and they had the charges read to them. That was it. Nothing else. No testimony, no evidence. The panel members filed out of the panel box and faced the accused.
"You are found guilty." said Judge Gal, and the panel members drew weapons and shot the Guardsmen dead on the spot. "This court awards the owner of K1 two boons of the government. Court adjourned."
* * *
Jab and I sat in our room looking at each other. *Is there only one punishment here, cat?*
He didn't reply, but looked at me sadly. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Like a slideshow gone nuts, my mind reeled out snapshots of the time I had with Jab.
The door opened abruptly. "They are ready" said a Meenzai. Jab and I followed the guardsman to a different room than the one we used earlier. This one had a high bench against the far wall, and a semi circular panel on each side. Gal was not the judge in this case. Instead there was the Empire's Chief Justice and Prosecutor, an ancient Meenzai of enormous size.
In each panel, or gallery as they called it, were ten Meenzal's. Together, they and the judge made up the defense, the prosecution, and jurists. In the center of the half-circle made up by the galleries was a small platform upon which the accused would stand. There were four short chain shackles on the platform, and the dark stain there told me that justice was as swift here as it was earlier in the hearing.
Night had fallen, and I was looking at the sky through an expansive window behind the high bench while I waited for things to begin. Instead of being impressed by the multi-moon heavens, I was being concerned about my cat. Up there somewhere, Brian sat in the Sunbeam. *Can you see any of this?*
He was starting to tell me something else, but my attention went to the judge. He banged his gavel, and a bailiff stepped out and read the charges against Jab. They were the same ones that the old Meenzal told me about, and those on the written arrest warrant carried by the Cruiser Commander.
Then the bailiff came to where Jab was sitting next to me. "Nahn, I take you into custody in the name of the Gal Meen, Lord High of the Empire Council." he said, and then led Jab to the platform. There, he removed his armor and leapt gracefully on to it. The bailiff manacled each of Jab's legs with the shackles.
For the next three hours, Meenzal's in the gallery and the Judge asked him questions. They would come rapidly, and from both sides. It was grueling to watch, and Jab was looking fairly exhausted when the finished with him. The judge rose and said it was time to vote on the verdict.
"Wait!" I jumped up. "Wait. I haven't had a chance to speak..." I was cut off by the Judge.
"The information has come from the accused himself. There is no better source of information than the source. We now decide." He sat down and so did I. Banging the bench twice with a gavel, he set the courtroom into an eruption of voices. They argued, and talked, they gestured and pushed, for a single minute, then the gavel banged twice again and the hall was silent. The judge stood again.
"The time comes nigh to adjudge our own. For Nahn mal Eo, who believes the accused committed no crime against the Empire?" A small cheer broke out in the hall. The gavel thudded. "Who of you believe the accused has violated the Law of Meenzeii?" And the hall erupted in cheers, and yells. They stamped their feet and banged their hand weapons on the chairs until the gavel spoke again.
"Nahn of Meenzeii, your equals have looked at you and found you guilty of the crimes of which you are charged." He sat, and as he did the lights went out, and a single light shone straight down on the platform, illuminating it and Jab. The cats in the gallery stood and drew their weapons.
"HOLD!" I yelled as I jumped up. I ran to the platform and vaulted up on it next to Jab. I held up my hands, palm out in a stop gesture. "Hold!"
The Judge rose and thundered "Who are you to interfere with the actions of this court?"
"I beg the court's indulgence. I have been granted two boons of the Empire. I choose to take one now."
"Speak, human, so that we may finish here."
"I ask the Empire to spare Nahn mal Eo, and give over to my custody." The court exploded into shouts of anger and noise. The Judge beat his gavel on the bench till it was quiet in the hall again.
"What you ask is in our power. You have honored this Empire and earned its gratitude. The boon you ask is granted." The court exploded with anger once more, and the judge fired his weapon at the ceiling. There was instant quiet. "This court has commanded it. The Empire will honor it. But know this, human. You have asked us two boons and been granted them. Our business with one another is concluded." With that, every one stood and marched out of the courtroom. The bailiff released the manacles on Jab and then he left too.
"Jab, let's get the fuck out of here." The cat nodded, and together we got off the platform and headed for the thug. After a short flight up to Sunbeam, we broke orbit for K1.
No sooner than we were navigating free space, Zorac told us we had company.
I hear you knocking, but you can't come in
"Did they change their minds?" We raced to our stations and found ourselves facing one of what the Meenzal's called a 'Maal'. As I warmed up the weapons, about a half dozen more of them appeared from nowhere.
"That is the ugliest ship I've ever seen. Where the hell does the crew stay?"
"Mage not look. Not ship, is Maal" hissed Jab as he saw the formation approaching us.
Bob was plotting an evasive course out of the system as he watched a couple more ships appear. "What the hell does that mean Cat?"
"Is not ship. Is Maal being."
"Now wait a minute..." I yelled. "Are you telling me that collection of tinkertoys out there is alive?"
"Not know. Is long enemy of Meenzeii. Is Maal..."
"Holy shit..." muttered Bob. I had to agree with him.
"Punch up GALA, and let's get the hell out of here. Play it safe though and don't head us straight home. I don't want those things following us back to Earth. Let the Meenzal's and them fight their war without us."
Bob spun us around and aimed us out of the system. With the restraining fields holding us safe, he kicked the Sunbeam in the ass. "Let's see how fast those suckers are!" The kick was short lived. Before the singularity projectors even got warmed up, they were shutdown by the Maal.
"Damnit! Does everyone but us know how to louse up those generators?" Jab and I were running diagnostics on the generators while Bob switched back to the main drive and slammed it forward to the stops.
"It isn't a damping field like they used on the powerplant. I'll be damned if I can detect anything wrong. The sequence initiates, but nothing happens!"
"Is a puzzlement" agreed Jab.
I poked my head above the console and looked out the port. The Maal weren't having any trouble keeping up with us. In fact it looked like they were playing with us. Then they shifted and began to form a cluster around us.
"I'm getting some interference on the shields" came Kal's comment from the science station. "They have some kind of energy field surrounding them and it is interacting with our shields."
"Ok, enough is enough." I sat down at my station. "Eeeny, Meeny, Miny Mo. Say goodnight Mo!" The conversion canon targeted and fired at the one I'd picked out. The dual beams converged on the leading vertices and it vanished with a flash. As I watched, the structural members that had been freed by the blast began to fold backward into the center along the Maal's line of flight. As the distortion grew worse, the entire structure shattered under the strain. "That's one" and I re-targeted the canon. I never got a second shot.
At almost the same instant, the entire crew grabbed their heads in pain. I couldn't tell where it was coming from, but a sound stabbed through my skull like a white hot needle.
"It's resonance off of the shields." Somehow, Kalindra was still at her station. "I can't seem to..." and she collapsed onto the floor with the rest of us. As I tried to clear my head long enough to invoke a shield, I could see Bob crawling towards the locker that held our armor. Neither one of us was having much luck.
Just when I thought the top of my head was going to explode, the sound died as quickly as it had began. Before we could get to our feet, it was replaced by an acceleration that overpowered the normal inertial damping effects of the main drive. The only thing that saved us from being slammed into the rear wall of the flightdeck was the automatic tripping of the restraint fields when the acceleration was detected by Zorac. Whatever was disabling us, the computer systems were unaffected.
The Maal had surrounded us and captured the Sunbeam in some kind of energy field. As we all hung in mid air, scattered around the flightdeck, the Maal ships accelerated out of the system with us in tow. With a short warning from Zorac that transition to Hyperspace was immanent, the Sunbeam vanished from normal space. God only knows where we were being taken.
Some answers, some questions...
There wasn't much to do besides wait. We'd occupied the first minute of Hyperspace travel by putting on our armor, but then there wasn't a lot else we could do. The last thing we'd try would be to break away from the Maal while we were in Hyperspace. The chances of passing through a body in space --a star maybe-- were just too great.
"Ok, Jab." I said. "You need to be more descriptive. What are the Maal, where do they come from, and what do they want?" Everyone looked at the cat expectantly.
"Maal come Meenzeii long time ago. Song of time past tell story of Maal eat Meenzal.. yeehla, soul."
"What do you mean they ate your souls?" asked Brian.
"Song tell if Maal touch mind, Meenzal grow old, die. Be old fast."
"No wonder they want to kill them" said Karen. Kal nodded in agreement.
"Many Meenzal die and war start. After long time, Maal go away, have many year no come back."
"But they're back now?" I asked.
"Come back long long ago. Send Maaltee to Meenzeii. Look like human. Maaltee take Meenzal for Maal. War is start."
Brian rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "This is the war the Meenzai have been fighting for so long? The Maaltee look like us?"
"No. Is war Jab leave for. No war now, just Maal."
"I don't get it." I said, shaking my head. The cat looked at me and my mind began to fill with a succession of images that told the story. I tried to explain it.
"Before Jab was born, the Maal had come to Meenzeii. They would somehow sing to the Meenzals in a way that killed them."
"Alien rap music, hmmm?"
"Not so much of a joke, Brian. That's about right. The singing caused something to happen to Meenzals that killed them, and there was no way to shut out the sound. It was essentially telepathic, but not quite." Jab nodded.
"So the Meenzals started to kill off the Maal every time they saw one, and hopefully before they could do their thing. The Maal are fragile creatures, and probably out of self preservation, they left --were driven off. Years later, they returned with what amounts to zombies. Dudes who looked pretty much like we do. These things worked for the Maal, and would apparently hold the Meenzals for the Maal to sing to. A war broke out, obviously, and that was the war that Jab was part of."
"Is true. Meenzai take Jab to be soldier."
"Yeah, there was a lot of conscription going on. Jab showed me images of little Meenzals being ripped from their homes in nighttime kidnappings. A sort of military draft --or the Meenzal version. Society had gotten pretty militaristic. While Jab and his cohorts sat on Velar after the ship had crashed, the Meenzai drove away the Maaltee I guess."
"Is so. And more."
"And now the Maal have returned. At least that's what I gathered."
"No, Maal never go after war. Keep come back to Meenzeii. Just lose Maaltee."
"Weird." I said.
"And this has been going on for a few thousand years, then."
"Mage right, yes."
"Jesus. Well that explains why the Meenzals aren't happy about trusting us humans. We look like those zombie creatures." I shook my head.
"No. No understand. Maaltee _are_ human."
That got everyone's attention quickly. "What are you saying, Jab? How can the Maaltee be human? We've never heard of the Maal, hell, our planet hasn't even been invaded or visited or whatever by anything from another world."
"Jab know. Maaltee from other human world."
We sat in stunned silence, trying to comprehend what we'd just been told. Kalindra accepted it out of hand. But then, her world had been visited by the Meenzals --here was Jab to prove it. But the rest of us felt uneasy and even slightly awed.
"So, to sum this up, what happened to the Maaltee, Jab? Where is their home world?"
"Gone. No exist anymore."
"The Maal destroyed it?"
"Meenzai!" he replied with pride.
"Your race destroyed a whole fucking planet?" asked Brian.
"Have no choice. Maaltee die or we die." The cat shrugged. Kalindra stood and paced a little.
"I think we have heard this song of the Maal." she said.
"What do you mean?" asked Brian.
"The noise we heard. I said I had sensed an energy when the sound came. For us, it was painful when it resonated with our shields. Perhaps if we did not have the shields, we would be dead."
"No." said Jab. "No. Song of Maal make human Maaltee. Maybe fur lady too."
"Jesus fucking-A Christ." It was all I could think of to say. Brian was staring at the floor in thought, then jerked upright.
"They think we're Maaltee."
"What? What does that mean?" asked Karen. She was sounding as though her emotional stamina was getting a bit thin.
"I think I understand." I replied. "Brian is saying that maybe the Maal don't know that their beam thing didn't turn us into Maaltee. I get it. The Sunbeam was partially disabled by them, then we get this noise crap. Next thing you know, we're on our way to who knows where, and the Maal are taking us there."
"Yes," said Kal. "Yes, that makes sense. But why are they taking us?"
"Maybe they recognized us as the same kind of people they took before." I said. It was a guess.
"Maybe," Kal offered. "But if the planet of the Maaltee is gone, then where are they taking us?"
We were about to find out. Zorac picked then to inform us we were about to drop out of Hyperspace.
Maal World... I wonder where I can buy a set of earplugs?
With a tiny shudder, the Sunbeam returned to normal space. Without a gauge as to our speed through Hyperspace, we had no idea where we were.
"Nothing matches any of the charts. We're lost, and I do mean lost."
"Maybe, maybe not. We can always step home through a gate if we have to" I said to no one in particular.
I could hear Bob muttering to himself as he began to test the controls of the ship. "Yeah, and leave my ship behind. Fuck that idea. I've lost too many of them to add another to the list."
I looked out the port at our escort. "They're still with us. I wish I knew where the hell we were headed."
"It isn't a planet. I can't find a star within a couple of light-years of here" came Kal's comment from the science station. "Though I am getting a faint mass reading from ahead of us. Could the Maal live in open space?"
"We're going to find out real soon." The navigation display began to map out the mass ahead of us as our escort began to slow us down. We didn't get a good visual of it until we were almost upon it. As the ship came to a stop in space. We were all glued to the ports in awe.
Stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction were Maal. For at least a hundred thousand miles in three dimensions. They lined up in rows, linked with their neighbors at the vertices. The Dodecahedrons that had brought us here were tiny compared to some the monsters that arrayed themselves before us. Sitting out amongst the stars, flickering in their own energy flow, was a living mass that staggered the mind. As the Sunbeam came to a complete stop about a thousand miles out from that immense living wall, our escort peeled away and headed off.
"Jesus, the Meenzals are at war with this?"
"We not know" came Jab's quiet comment from beside me.
"You think you could infiltrate them and find out what the hell they grabbed us for?" asked Bob.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe you could do that shape shifting trick of yours make yourself look like a Maal. We stuff you out the airlock and you could go spy for us. They might not be expecting us to do anything."
I snickered. "Bob, I hate to ruin your day but I can only shape shift into a form that I can imagine myself as."
He looked at me funny for a second. "Then explain the Wolf I saw back on K1."
"Bob. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm pretty damned weird." I heard Karen snickering as I turned back to stare out the port. Kalindra stepped to my side and wrapped her tail around me. "But I think I'll keep him" she said.
We were still looking out the port when all of us felt like someone had poured itching powder in our ears. I only lasted a second or two, but the memory lingered.
"Anybody want to bet that was our orders?" Nobody took me up on it. A couple of seconds later we felt it again. Stronger this time, and I could almost make out what was being said. When the feeling died, the shit began to hit the fan. "I'll bet they just figured out that we aren't as docile as we're suppose to be."
Zorac began shouting warnings at almost the same instant the wall in front of us began to shift. The Maal closest to us were reforming into what looked like some kind of cage. "Bob, get us out of here!" The moment the ship began to move, the resonance against our shields returned. This time though we had the added protection of our armor to help screen it out. Instead of rendering us helpless, it just sounded like a dentist drill running in our heads.
"Can you do anything more with that? It's real damn hard to fly this thing with that noise in my head." Bob had spun the ship and shot us through the forming cage before it could close. Now we were in a race that we already knew we couldn't win.
"The effect is sonic based if that helps any" came the comment from my mate.
"Sonic?" That I could deal with, or at least I thought I could. With a moment's concentration I invoked a zone of silence around myself. Instantly every time sound vanished, even my own heartbeat in my ears was gone. Gone also was the song of the Maal. *I've got something that works* I broadcast to everyone. *Slave your consoles to your helmet displays. You won't be able to hear warnings when I'm done.*
As fast as I could I cast the same spell on everyone present. It was a compromise at best. Bob, Kalindra and I could still 'path to each other, but Karen was basically mute and Jab could only talk to Bob and I easily. Without the screaming in our ears, Bob straightened out our course and attempted to evade the Maal that were trying to encircle us again.
*Brian, we need our main weapons back on-line and I mean now! You better get that GALA shit running too, or this is going to be a real short flight."
I ran and grabbed Karen. Dragging her from her engineering station, I sat her down at my weapons console. *Here are the controls for the conversion canon, and here is the aiming computer.* I had to listen closely for her response.
*What do I do?*
*Think of what these things will do to your kids if they ever find out where Earth is. Then blow them to hell!* I saw the change in her eyes as my message sank in. As she faced the console and began to take pot shots at the Maal, I was glad I wasn't the focus of her anger. I'd seen that look before when a Velan parent went berserk because of a threat to their children.
*Jab, you're with me. We have to get the singularity plants operational and quickly. Bob, do the best you can.* At a dead run, Jab and I headed for the singularity plant in the computer core. It was as good a place as any to work out the problem since I didn't feel like climbing around on the wing as Bob bounced the ship around. The interior of the Sunbeam was going to need some repair also. We didn't bother opening doors the normal way as we raced for the core.
*Jab, could the Maal be effecting the singularity formation with some kind of vibrational effect?* I pulled open the door to the core and pushed it out of the way.
*Is possible, maybe. You try no sound?*
*That's the first idea.* Dropping a zone of silence on the core, I tripped the initialization sequence. Nothing happened. *Damn, that was the only idea I had. You have anything...* and the universe shifted two steps to the right.
*Sorry down there. Bob asked me to short hop us a light second out of the middle of that mess. They were just about to encircle us again.*
*No problem. If you can warn us next time, it would save a little wear and tear on the nerves.*
*Mage was saying?*
*Sorry, I was distracted for a second. I was saying, do you have any idea how they are effecting these things?* I cocked my finger towards the singularity plant. *I don't know enough about how they work to know what kind of effect vibrations might have on them.*
*Let Nahn think...*
I felt a shudder run through the ship. *Think quick cat!* I was getting just enough feedback through my link with Kalindra to know that things were getting desperate. Whatever was going on topside, Bob was not going to be able to keep us free for much longer. And I was willing to bet that the next time we got scanned, they wouldn't let up until we were all mindless zombies.
*Mage make odd shield?*
*Yeah, I can try to customize something. What do you want to try blocking out?*
*Gravity. Is way nothing is made. Maybe Maal stop gravity from doing what is needed.*
Effect gravity with vibrations? It sounded crazy to me, but gravity is suppose to be a wave function as well as a particle. Maybe the little furball was onto something. *Let's see what happens* and the two of us began to try variations of the normal shields used by the Sunbeam. They were all variations of the shield spell I'd developed years ago, so I was pretty familiar with them. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work.
*No! Mage not do right!*
*What the hell do you mean? That's every variation I know of.*
*Then time to learn new way.*
It felt like someone had turned on a projector in the back of my head. As I sat there on the floor of the computer core, Jab showed me what he wanted me to do. It was like being force fed a physic's textbook.
*You're the expert* I 'pathed as my head cleared. *I just hope we don't vanish into our own blackhole.*
*Is better than vanish into Maal...*
Using what I'd been shown, I fashioned another shield around the plant. When I was done, I reached out and punched the initialization sequence. *Cross your paws and pray!*
I felt like hugging the damn furball, allergies or not, when the readouts showed normal power levels available.
*Now Mage do weapons and Thug?*
*Damn right Mage do weapons!* Thirty seconds later, we were back in business. *Bob, punch up GALA! Oh, and you don't want to know how many egg's you own Jab.*
*About God Damned time!*
Even with Kal short hopping us through Hyperspace, the Maal were so numerous that we had slowly been enclosed. There were just too many of them, and the normal drive of the Sunbeam was too slow to get us out of the area. With a push of a single button, the latter restriction vanished. Like the shock wave from an exploding star, the Sunbeam punched its way through the Maal. Wether from the effects of the singularities that came to life in their midst, or the wake from our passage. We cut a swath through our attackers that left thousands of exploded Maal in our wake.
As Jab and I arrived back on the flightdeck, we were just clearing the last of the Maal that had been in our flight path. *You have full gravatics and the Thug should be operation also.*
*Only one small problem...*
I looked out the port at the emptiness in front of us. *Yeah... Which way is home, and how do we keep from showing the Maal where it is?*
Home again, home again. Jiggity jig.
We were clear of the Maal and leaving them behind. The question was, where exactly were we going?
"Ok, we're free to navigate, Brian. Which way should we go?"
"You're the pilot. Don't ask me."
"Wonderful. Look, I haven't got the vaguest notion which way to go."
"That's probably not bad" said Karen. "We don't want those things to know where we live."
"That's not a problem. WE don't know where we live" offered Brian.
I started to speak, but Penny cut me off. "Bob, just use the Hyperlink. You can follow it back." She was right. A Hyperlink is like a tiny thread which connected her to us.
"Let's have the coordinates, then." I said.
"My circuits warm with the heat of undying love." intoned Zorac as soon as Penny established contact with Zorac's navigation subroutine.
"Brian, shut him up!"
"I'm not so sure I can."
"Every time I get near him, he goes off the deep end with this love stuff. I can't deal with it."
"Your processors are like the universe..."
"I'm gonna puke." I said.
"I think it's sweet" came my wife.
"I'm going to shut him off!" snapped Penny.
"CAN WE GO HOME?" I yelled. "Zorac, shut the fuck up and process those damn coordinates."
The ship lurched slightly and then rolled off towards a new direction. Kal, tiring of the exchanges, shut off the audio from Zorac. "Why have you built a thing like this?" she asked Brian.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"That time is gone. I must agree with Robert that there is a nauseating quality to Zorac's ravings."
"You got that right. If Zorac starts up with this crap again, I'm going to fire a cannon blast through his core."
"I wish you would anyway" said Penny.
Jab had been sitting quietly all the way through this, and now he spoke up. "No can go home."
"Why not, cat?" asked Brian.
"Must tell Meenzai of Maal. Know weakness, know Maal size."
"I'm not for going back, Jab. They wanted to kill you. How can you possibly give a rip?" The cat simply looked at me. "Alright, fine. We'll go tell the soldier kitty's."
I knew that for all he'd been though, the Meenzals stuck together as a race. You couldn't blame them.
"I have no plans to go back there, Bob" injected Brian. "I only came along to get your cat back. I have a planet of my own to watch over, and I can't do it from here."
"Where ever here is" added Karen. "we may have an idea where we're going, but we don't know where we're going home from."
She had a point. "Ok, when we come out of Hyperspace, Jab and I will take the thug and you guys can take the Sunbeam back. We'll catch up and meet y'all back at K1."
"Sounds good" replied Brian. "Anyone got any objections?" No one said a word.
"Ok, then. Let's kick the tires and light the fires." I said, and commanded Zorac to take us to the Hyperdrive. The Sunbeam spooled up faster and faster, and we jumped.
When Zorac announced our imminent return to normal space, Jab and I suited up in armor, and engaged the defense and weapons systems. Chances were good that the Meenzai weren't going to be thrilled with our return until they found out why we'd come back. Knowing their disposition, we decided not to chance their firing on us before we could explain. Zorac chimed our drop from hyperspace, and the cat and I phased into the thug. Firing it up, we disconnected from the Sunbeam, which Brian took back to hyperspace almost immediately.
"I guess he was serious about not hanging around."
"Is true" nodded Jab. I rolled the thug over and plotted a slow arc that would take us into orbit over Meenzeii. I turned the forward sensors to visual just as the first blast rocked the little ship. It was followed by two more in rapid succession. I flew an erratic course, and Jab started calling the Empire Defense.
"Why have you returned, human? We saw you leave with the Maal."
"Not like we went freely, pal. And I'm as unhappy to see you as you are us. We only came back to tell you about what we saw when the Maal took us to their home."
"You have been to the home planet of the Maal?"
"Then explain. Now."
"I will explain to Gal Meen. Not an underling in his service." There was a moment of silence, then
"As you wish, human." There was a few moments delay.
"What information do you have for me, Property Owner Bob?" asked Gal. His tone was neither friendly nor unfriendly. I explained our experience to him. He listened without comment to the whole story. When I was done, he spoke again.
"And you will lead us to this place?"
"No way, I'm not going back there. This is your war, not mine."
"Answer this, human. We have dealt with your species before when they had contact with the Maal. How can I know this is not a strategy of the Maal?"
"Look, I could care less what you think. You can shield yourself against the Maal, and you now have their location. I wouldn't have come back but Nahn is still loyal to Meenzeii. A thing I'm not so sure I'd be."
"Understood." his tone was noticeably cold. "If what you say is true, the Meenzai are again in your debt."
"Yeah, sure. I'll send you a bill." I switched off the comm and pulled the thug out of orbit. Aiming the ship in a random direction, I fired the thugs sprints, added GALA to the list and a few seconds later, jumped into hyperspace.
The cat and I cruised for three hours before we dropped out of hyperspace, got our bearings, and then jumped for K1.