Joseph, the third scanner monitor on the bridge, saw the blip first. Two point seven seconds later, his emissions analyzer confirmed his worst fears. "That's him!" he yelped, "That's the Starlane Destroyer!"
Horrified eyes turned to look at the Grand Tactical Display and watch the encroaching green dot. The acting commander had little time: "Full forcefield over all areas; all batteries prepare to fire!"
Men and women dashed to general quarters amid the sudden klaxons. All their lives depended on their performance during the next sixty seconds. Then again, they would have to perform exceptionally to survive; only one ship had ever survived attack from the Starlane Destroyer.
That didn't mean that they weren't going to do their damnedest to get past him and through the Karthosian blockade, though. That was why they'd come this way to begin with. Either they faced their deaths against the Destroyer, or they faced them against starvation.
Across dwindling kilometers of vacuum, cold eyes set in cold steel fixed themselves on the small ship that was their owner's target. The ship's weapons were doubtlessly as lethal as the mightiest of war vessels; but even the mightiest of war vessels couldn't hit a three-meter-high target if it were more than about two kilometers away. The steel-clad, once living man known as the Starlane Destroyer checked his multifunctional "battle club" (a haft ending in a uniquely bizarre twenty-centimeter mound of twinkling indicators and metal) one last routine time, and waited for the hard part to begin.
Five kilometers. Voices sounded in his head as they had sounded for the last minute. Their voices. The panic-stricken screams and pleas for help that emanated from the ship. Even with the immeasurable speed of tachyon transmissions, their messages would do them no good. They never did.
Four kilometers. He didn't want to hear their voices anymore. He tuned to a different tachyon frequency, one he liked for its gentle songs. "This is station K1010," the new voice said, "Coming to you direct from Karthos at one-oh-seven point four gigahertz. And have we got some great tunes lined up for you this morning. . . ."
Three kilometers. The main batteries of the ship flowered into life, shooting near but never quite hitting the erratically-weaving humanoid. The Starlane Destroyer took instantaneous inventory of his enemy's armament. Charged particle beams, some neutral particle beams, and a few high-energy (and low-efficiency) lasers scattered about. Things were moving right on schedule; in a few instants, he would have to turn on his personal force field.
"Starting with Grenda vil Dift's new collection," the disembodied announcer continued.
Two kilometers away. Now the ship's accuracy would prove formidable; this was the hard part. He flipped the dial on his battle club's handle to the "deflect" marking, and the massive head shifted configuration ever-so-slightly. Deflect mode was usually sufficient to deal with ship's weapons, but just in case he was overwhelmed . . .
He readied his body for the last standard procedure. At once, an explosion of blinding green light shook free of his metal shell. A residual expanding sphere of harmless green followed the initial surge outward from the steely humanoid, and when the fireworks ceased a second-and-a-half later, what looked like green Cherenkov radiation was left emanating from all points around him. This green fringe produced a haven for him as strong as any ship's shields.
The calmest of melodies and harmonies replaced the announcer in his head. This was his favorite Grenda vil Dift song.
The first wave of electron cannon fire was way off target. Only a few beams at the fringes of its blast radius came close enough to be a threat, and he barely had to alter his course to avoid those. This was followed up by a salvo of proton beams. Good thinking, the Starlane Destroyer figured. By sending out protons right after the electrons, the two assaults would — at least weakly — attract and accelerate each other.
Duck down below one beam, weave sharply to the right about another. He was right in the middle of the scatter-pack this time. Blue, violet, and ultraviolet quantum spectra flashed by his supersensitive eyes, too fast to follow but not too fast to predict.
Grenda's voice drifted out of the vacuum: "My love, . . ."
A beam came at his center too fast for him to avoid; after all, particle beams typically traveled at over half the speed of light. This was where his battle club's "reaction assist" came in. Following his instinct, the club moved its head between its owner and the incoming beam. The unfathomable matrix there caught the beam and redirected it. The angular change was small — only a few degrees — but it was enough. The proton beam missed its target.
The club shook like thunder in his hands. It would have flown completely out of any ordinary person's grip, but these metal hands made it come back down and smash a second proton beam out of the way. And a third.
". . . The center of my life, . . ."
One kilometer away. This was usually where the ship got desperate. Another hail of particles, this time neutral hydrogen atoms, flashed toward him in compact bunches, glowing with hydrogen emission lines. His club still in Deflect mode, he batted away the onslaught as he pressed forward. An approaching solid body caught his attention; not an impact missile, certainly not, since it exploded five meters away from him and expanded into a sphere of thermonuclear fire.
But his personal forcefield kept the nova-hot fireball at bay, letting the plasma skirt his body without touching it. Fusion bombs with proximity fuses were effective weapons, but only against targets without monstrous amounts of shielding.
". . . Be with me, when I am gone. . . ."
Now the ship was closer to him than it was long. Point-defense weaponry blazed. Through the mist of incoming beams, bullets, and missiles, the cold black eyes scanned the tenuous green layer that guarded the ship. He was looking for faults, for single points in the shield where — ah, there was one!
Club forward, he angled his lower legs opposite to the dark spot his heightened senses had detected, jetted some high-energy helium plasma thrust out though where the soles of his feet should have been, and dove to the force field. Beneath the spot he'd sighted lay a small, open rectangle, bordered in a thick black case and emitting radial rays of green that fed into the battle shield like a lawn sprinkler. A shield generator port; the shielding was always, ironically, lowest over those things.
He braked an instant before he hit the force screen, allowing the rebound to absorb most of his momentum before he sidled up next to the craft. Now mere decimeters from the outer hull of the ship, he was out of the firing arcs of all but the weakest of the ship's weaponry. The node in the shields was right below him; it was time to strike. He pointed the head of his club down and twisted the end of its handle. Vibrating, shining emissions instantly drowned the twinkling of the head's jeweled facets; its Smash mode was active. Raising the club above his head, he swung the shimmering head sideways onto the ship and thrust it through the shields, through the helpless shield-generator port, through the ship's protective armoring, and through the hull to leave a hole big enough for him to enter.
The shield over that area was down, but the force of his own strike sent the three-meter-tall metal humanoid tumbling away. It usually did. The damage-control doors would slap down in seconds, but not before he would make it through. He canceled his tumbling when his legs were pointing away from the hole, and thrusted back into his prey, beating the damage-control barrier by exactly 1.3 seconds.
". . . The warmth of your love can propel me . . ."
Blue-white fluorescent light bathed both his gleaming skin and the white cylindrical hallway he'd entered, an oddly comfortable alternative to the dark of space, he felt, despite the intensity of the ultraviolet. His shielding all but unnecessary here, he reduced it to its minimum setting — a tenth of its full strength — and in so doing took a great strain off himself. Smash mode wouldn't be of much use to him either, until his final strike; he twisted two segments of the handle-bottom in opposite directions, setting it partly back in Deflect mode and partly into what its makers called "Sense mode."
Air was refilling the hallway — or rather, oxygen at a fifth of an atmosphere pressure. He could tell by the barely-perceptible resistance his new environment showed him. A lead was sticking out from the club's handle; he plugged it into a jack in his right hand and immediately got back a direction-and-range signal. The sensor in the club had picked up the ship's main engines — common FTL corrugators sent out a beacon of paragravitational flux in all directions, no matter how well shielded they were — and pointed to them like a compass. A direct course would precipitate moving through several layers of wall. Though he could easily do this, there was no reason not to take his time; the hard part was already over. He looked for the most likely place for a perpendicular shaft.
He drifted lazily forward for about five meters, then the security troopers made their grand entrance from his rear. A little ahead of schedule; this crew was more aware of how much trouble it was in than most. He could see them gasp in panic and mouth cries of, "It's him!" in what he figured must be loud voices. And just as they normally did, no matter how futile, they opened fire with their pathetic portable weapons.
His club, though only partly still in Deflect mode, was more than sufficient against their first barrage. Batting away low-energy lasers and tiny high-speed projectiles was far easier than redirecting near-light proton beams. He deflected their feeble attempts for about five seconds, then grew bored and advanced toward where his club's Sense mode had pointed him. The troopers in his way scattered.
". . . past the deepest darkness, and on. . . ."
His only opposition behind him, the Destroyer wafted toward the perpendicular ladder shaft at the end of the corridor. Despite the zero-gravity situation the spacecraft now experienced, it was engineered so that "down" pointed toward the back of the ship, for whenever it accelerated. The ladder was for going "up" and "down," so — down he went.
Not by holding on to the rungs or anything, of course. He merely angled toward the bottom, grabbed one rail, and flung himself engineward. He hadn't flown without his impellers like this for quite a while; it would have been exhilarating if he were still fully human. Nevertheless, he was headed in the right direction: the Sense mode signals strengthened with each passing deck.
". . . My love, the beacon in my nights, . . ."
The bottom was more like an arena than a deck. Red-labeled access hatches filled the center of the floor — or rear wall, depending on how you looked at it — all leading straight to the main engines. Unfortunately, between the ladder and the engine hatches stood three nervous armspeople, manning what looked vaguely like a mortar cannon.
'A portable plasma gun,' the Starlane Destroyer thought. 'Won't these people ever learn?'
He could have taken the plasma blast, or deflected it easily; nothing this small was a tenth as strong as a ship's main weapons. But his patience was running out, so instead he switched his club to its least-used mode. A reddish halo rose up from the head like jets of flame; he pointed it at the plasma gun and pushed a switch. Thunderous orange waves of energy leapt from the club's head and melted the plasma mortar into a fused stump. The three armspeople made themselves as scarce as their allies.
". . . Don't let your thoughts of me despair. . . ."
Contentedly, he switched the club back from Burn mode to Sense mode, just to assure himself that the engines hadn't moved since he last looked. Burn mode was one of those early experiments they'd tried with the club, no longer very useful but still nice to have around.
He moved to one of the hatches and ripped it from its housing with his left hand. The reading from his club's Sense mode jumped to triple; this was the place. He pulled himself through.
The lowest floor of the spacecraft lay but a few meters ahead. Indicator lights, graphic displays, and tiny windows to the cabin beyond all lit up the dark steel barrier like a children's game. And in the middle of it all, holding desperately onto the wall and shivering with fright, was a lone female mechanic. The Starlane Destroyer could have brushed her out of the way with the back of his hand, yet he just stood and studied her. Long brown hair. Somewhat muscular of build. She was short — only two meters tall, like nearly all Outsiders — yet she still reminded the Destroyer, somewhat, — of . . .
"Oh, what difference does it make," the mechanic's belt transceiver suddenly barked. The voice was metallic and almost a monotone, yet it still rang with a heavy Karthosian accent. "You'd just die with the rest of them anyway."
And with that, the Starlane Destroyer collapsed her ribcage as he smashed her across the cabin.
". . . My love! You're all the difference I need . . ."
Now to overload the engines. There was probably a half meter of hardened steel between himself and the corrugational-gravity generators; there always was. They armor-plated corrugation drives to protect them from exactly what he was about to do. He checked his Sense mode's readings once more to be certain — he had to hit it in just the right place for the ship to implode — then switched the club back to Smash mode and burst through the final wall.
The force of his impact carried well beyond the half-meter steel floor; he followed through until he hit the yellow, glowing gravity-generator at its critical point, wrecking the gravity bottle that was its only safety valve. He could barely see the flashing klaxon lights against the ultraviolet glare of the doomed gravity generator. It was time to get out.
The antigravity generator in his groin carried him through the hole he'd just made and the hatch above. Antigrav would serve until the sucking of the gravity generator he'd just hit overwhelmed it; then he would have to kick in the thrusters in his feet. Or rather his calves. He was all thruster from the knees down. They could just as well have planted his central thermonuclear furnace in his calves, for Karthos' sake.
". . . Our lives' pure light shall dare! . . ."
He whizzed past levels full of crewpeople who were too terrified over the ship's imminent destruction to worry about him anymore. He kept from concerning himself over them; he'd killed people before. His death count must be in the thousands by now. He told himself for the fiftieth time this was the only way: if they were rescued, they could detonate the ship and take out a few units of the home fleet in the process. Besides, they were only Outsiders anyway.
At last he reached the original hole he'd made in the ship's hull and exited the same way he'd entered. He could already see the hull of the ship begin to heave. As his anti-gravity coils carried him away from the doomed craft, he twisted the handle of his club past Smash mode, past Burn mode, past Scan and Sense modes, even past Deflect mode, until it reached its final setting: Warp mode. From there, the same prong that had appeared in the end of the handle for Scan and Sense modes once again popped out to receive his interface; he plugged it into the base of his right palm so that he could program the final stage of his escape.
". . . I still recall a time . . . "
Warp mode had always seemed like a stupid name for that setting. Oh, sure, that was what it did to the space he occupied and all, but the equivalent device had been called a "corrugation unit" on spacecraft since before he had been born. Maybe the Karthosian engineers who'd built the club couldn't fit "Corrugation" onto one of its mode labels. . . . In any event, he glanced down at the squarish LED display at the base of the handle to make sure it was programming itself right. The display briefly flashed, "WAIT G-," "CF 45000," and finally "PROGRAMMED." It was ready.
The gravity was getting too strong for his gravity-control coils to counter. He turned off his gravity coils, switched on the thrusters in his lower legs, pointed his club away from the collapsing ship, and pulled the activator trigger. The gravity produced by the overloaded gravity-generator on the ship was much too strong for the club to engage its corrugator now — it had plenty of safety catches to prevent spinning him off in some wild, unpredictable direction — but the ship wouldn't be producing that gravity for long. Not for long at all.
". . . before you turned my night to day, . . ."
The ship rolled itself up into a little ball. Most of the Outsiders on board it were doubtlessly killed by now. The midsection folded inward the most severely, giving the crumpling ship a barbell-like appearance for a few seconds. Then, the craft reversed its seemingly endless collapse as the deuterium in its fuel tanks reached fusion pressure and blew the ship apart.
". . . And I wondered then, as I wonder now, . . ."
And the instant the ship flowered into that gamma-ray fireball, its artificial gravity generator disintegrated. That was all the Starlane Destroyer's club needed to know. Before the first wave of gamma rays had passed him by, the club courrugated the space occupied by the Starlane Destroyer forty-five thousand fold, and he shot off at eighty times the speed of light.
". . . How could it have been any other way?"
Tachyon noise buzzed in his head where Grenda's soothing voice had just been. That always happened whenever he set off a ship; uncontrolled fusion explosions produced damn near as many tachyons as they did neutrinos. But the tachyons were as harmless as the neutrinos, and neither the neutrinos nor the dangerous gamma rays could reach him now. Like all his other successful missions, everything that star ship ever was was behind him now.
He tuned in to his Karthosian military frequency. There wasn't much tachyon noise on that band. "Mission accomplished," he transmitted. "Headed back to rendezvous with Karthos Orbital Port One."
It always took a few seconds for them to clear his voice patterns and make sure it was him. Then, a dull voice replied simply, "Copy."
'Yeah, another mission accomplished,' he thought as he flew on. 'Another shipload of suffering people vanquished for the greater glory of Karthos. Yeah. Right.'
At one end of the ornate chamber stood the three-meter-tall metal-skinned behemoth known to Outsiders as the Starlane Destroyer. At the other end, ten three-meter-tall men and women stared at him across the top of an oaken table. Only a single plastic transceiver box broke the polished void of the tabletop.
"All right," a solemn mechanical voice wafted from the transceiver, "What do you want this time?"
Ten pairs of eyes fixed themselves on the cyborg before them. The man at the center gripped the table slightly as though it would protect him, then jerked his hands away. He had to project power, not fear.
"Your deuterium consumption has been unusually high on your last three missions," another man spoke into his jacket microphone. He didn't have to transmit it anymore, actually; the Destroyer had already taught himself to read their lips.
"That is an engineering problem," the speaker on the table replied, "Not mine." The cyborg shifted his head slightly as he transmitted it.
"No," a woman retorted, "That is your problem! You're already a damned liability in cost overruns without wasting precious energy doing who-knows-what aboard those craft before you destroy them. Karthos has invested a fortune in you —"
"I know, I know," interrupted the tinny voice from the speaker, "Just so you'd have some vehicle to use The Artifact." He heaved the club in his right hand to eye-level; he was surprised they let him take it into the audience chamber at all. "You found out that this little wonder-from-a-dead-civilization would only do tricks for you by drawing its energy from a biological source. So you tacked a control handle onto it and let some of your flunkies test it, only to discover that it can exhaust even a Karthosian human in a few seconds. Then you kidnapped me, put me through that hideous operation, fired up my deuterium furnace, and channelled the equivalent of a small sun through my metal-cased body so that your alien toy would think that all that energy was coming from a biological source; and you did it all just to blackmail the rest of the human race. I'm surprised The Artifact fell for it."
The silence tightened enough to choke the room. 'Perhaps,' the Destroyer figured, 'I shouldn't have said all that.'
The woman who'd just spoken to him drew a breath. "Do you know who you're speaking to?!" she insisted.
"Certainly," he said listlessly. Even though his hand was built like a mitten, he gestured as though pointing a metal finger at her. "You're Histori Nancina Urlin of Karthos, chief efficiency consultant for military operations. You were the one who came up with the Karthosian blockade in the first place." He re-aimed his arm so that it pointed at the man next to her. "And you're Frisco Dissern of Karthos, head mechanical consultant for military operations." He pointed at the man in the center, the one sitting next to the transmitter. "And you're Bourne the Third of Karthos, commander-in-chief for military operations." Lastly, he pointed to himself. "And I'm Strangen of Karthos."
"NO!" Bourne shouted. He slammed his fist against the table, sprang up, and pointed vehemently at the cyborg. "You are not Strangen of Karthos! You are nothing! You got that?! NOTHING! We built you, we financed you, we give you your orders! We gave you a shell that had the familiar shape of a human body — "
"Because you didn't stop to think that another shape might make a more efficient killing machine," Strangen's metallic voice interrupted.
Bourne continued to rave undaunted. "We built a force field generator into your mechanism —"
"Because the first vessel I attacked nearly blew me to pieces."
"We added the Deflect mode to The Artifact's handle —"
"So I wouldn't waste so much of your 'precious' deuterium on using my shields."
"ENOUGH! You know what will happen if you cross us! We only keep you around because you haven't worn out your utility, and because we've already wasted too much effort on getting you built this well! Never forget that the entire Karthosian space fleet could rip you to dust!"
'And never forget,' Strangen reminded himself, 'That they know about Dorsa, too.'
Shaking with still-unspent rage, Bourne chunked himself back down into his seat. "Now get to Orbital Station Eight, load up your deuterium tanks, and await further orders there."
The metal-plated man paused, finally replied "Yes sir" through the transmitter, and clanked lethargically out of the room.
The sight that greeted him outdoors would have turned his stomach if he'd still had one. Surface visits by the Starlane Destroyer were rare; this city population wanted to be there when he came out of the building. And so it was. Thousands of three-meter-tall, selectively-bred and genetically-engineered Karthosian humans mobbed the building's exit, barely giving him enough room to walk into their midst. Hands grasped at him as he clanked slowly through the human dam. The whole mob jumped, and waved — and cheered. It cheered with its mouths open wide, it whistled with fingers stuck in its cheering mouths; it made what he figured must have been a terribly loud din, all for a steel-armored experimental killing machine.
It almost made him glad he was deaf.
"Request permission to ascend," he transmitted to the local air traffic control station.
"Granted," a voice as cold as his finally echoed back.
He glanced sternly at the cheering mass surrounding him, then down at his thruster-legs. Aviation laws prohibited the use of thrusters at less than 500 meters above ground level when you were over urban areas. Sometimes he wished those laws weren't there; then he could vaporize these people as he left. Sometimes he wished he had the courage to just go and do that anyway. Hell, what courage did it take to kill people you despised when you'd already killed over a thousand whom you didn't even know?
He'd never been able to find that kind of courage. He never, ever did. He turned his metal head to the sky, kicked in his antigrav coil, and wafted away into the clouds.
They'd called him out to tackle another Outsider ship. This one had a corrugation factor of around fifteen thousand and a local speed of about half the speed of light. This meant an absolute speed of seventy five hundred times c; that was a good deal slower than normal, but he didn't stop to worry about it. He'd catch these trespassers easily.
As yet his club's tachyon radar, labelled Scan mode, hadn't picked up the Outsider. He was still following nav instructions from the station that had picked up the intruder. Scan mode was relatively short-ranged — particularly when part of the Artifact's attention was focused on corrugating space for him. That was one of the things about corrugation drive: it made a lot of gravitational interference.
Represent 3-dimensional space by a 2-dimensional sheet of paper. Nothing new in that concept, right? Gravity — from a planet or a star or an artificial gravity generator — warps space, as though you'd bent that piece of paper downward in the middle. If you continue to warp space enough — that is, if you keep on bending the paper more and more steeply — you find that the edges of your warp actually touch. Thus you could say that you have "folded away" the section of space underneath where the edges touch. Any object moving across that area of folded space would just skip from one edge of the fold to the other, without crossing the distance in between; and to any observer outside that folded-space zone it would seem as though the object had magically vanished from space at one point and reappeared, at the same time, some distance away. Which it had.
Folding a huge enough section of space out of the way to facilitate interstellar travel — say, by planting an artificial gravity generator between two neighboring stars a few light-years apart — would require more energy than a small star produces in its lifetime. Instead, what you want to do is build a portable gravity generator into a space craft and have it fold space out of the way along the length of the craft throughout its journey. If you had a hundred meter long spaceship, and you warped 100 meters of space out from the center of it in one big chunk, an outside observer would see fifty meters of spaceship, a hundred meters of nothing, and another fifty meters of spaceship. Say, instead, that you warped 100 meters out in two separate fifty-meter chunks along the ship's length; then the ship would appear in thirds, with two 50-meter bands of nothing breaking it apart. Of course, anyone on board this ship or staring along its length wouldn't see those separations and could step across them as though they didn't exist, because those people and the light reflecting off of them would be in the space-fold's path as well.
If you warped 100 meters of space out from under your 100-meter-long spaceship, and those hundred meters were distributed among an infinite number of infinitessimal space folds, then an outside observer would merely see a somewhat-transparent 200-meter-long space craft. And that was just about the only space-warping feat that artificial gravity generators could accomplish: warping space infinitessimally in an infinite number of places. If you looked at this space edge-on with an infinitely powerful microscope, then, you would see loops of space warped out of the way, connected by flat sections of space that hadn't been warped. It would look like a cross-section of corrugated cardboard; hence, the name "corrugation drive." That theoretical 100-meter-long spacecraft that appears 200 meters long would have a "corrugation factor" of two. If it appeared a thousand meters long, its corrugation factor would be ten.
The Starlane Destroyer was heading toward his adversary under a corrugation factor of fifty thousand. Few vehicles in the known universe could outrun him.
But few vehicles in the known universe ever moved with a corrugation factor of 15 000, either. Either you were a passenger ship with a corrugator that had trouble exceeding 10 000 or you were a military vessel capable of corrugation factors of 30 000 or more. Or you were a racing vehicle whose corrugator was half your total mass, in which case you could corrugate space at a factor bigger than a hundred thousand. No standard ship design used a corrugation factor of 15 000 — particularly if it could go faster through the Karthosian blockade.
And this craft was going the wrong way, too.
Whatever its reasons, it wouldn't be around to explain them much longer. A blockade runner was a blockade runner, whether it was headed toward the terraformed worlds on one side of Karthos or the mineral-rich star systems on the other side. A few more seconds and—
There! The stars just popped back out into their normal pattern. His club issued the familiar warning as well, a blinking "G+ C-," meaning that his corrugator had shut down because he was too close to another gravity source. That always meant that his opponent's ship, which generated the gravity his club had just responded to, had also shut down its corrugator because of his gravity field. He had crossed the 207 kilometer limit; everything from then on would be sub-light, and fast.
He switched the handle on the Artifact completely into Scan mode as he continued to accelerate. Plugging his right palm into the data prong at the handle's base, he read a click at 200 kilometers range, the maximum range at which Scan mode was reliable. Right where the ship was supposed to be. Nothing was ever any different.
He had made one little modification to the tachyon receiver in his head, which would have infuriated his builders had they known about it. They built his transceiver to operate on one frequency and one frequency only; he'd managed to get into his metal head and free up the tuning capacitor. Now he could receive and transmit at any tachyon wavelength used by humankind. He sometimes liked to switch to Outsider frequencies at this point and listen to them panic; not always, but sometimes. This was such a time. They doubtlessly knew he was there.
He listened to the Outsider's emergency frequency and heard only background hiss. That was puzzling, but not the first time it had happened. He scanned around that frequency and out into more distant ones, picking up a few snatches of local space traffic control, some extrastellar news stations, and of course K1010 — he did so love listening to music when he got the chance — but nothing even barely reminiscent of emergency transmissions or panic. Perhaps, he figured, this was an unmanned vessel.
That would explain its fifteen thousand corrugation factor. If it was just a hastily constructed unmanned supply transport, part of some foolish Outsider attempt to feed the worlds that Karthos had gone to the trouble of starving, its corrugator-to-total-mass ratio could be way off from standard. Hell, it might even be a decoy to get him away from where a real blockade runner would show up. Should that be the case, he grumbled silently, he had every confidence in Karthos Space Control's ability to find the other ship and order him to murder everyone on it.
He watched the blip close with him. A hundred kilometers had already gone by; time to put those thrusters forward and start braking. He actually had to slow down to catch a ship retreating at full thrust. At fifty kilometers he caught the first ultraviolet glimpse of its engines. His curiosity aroused as to what strange design this new craft might be, he switched on his magnifiers and amplified the image tenfold.
The telescoped image became less fuzzy and larger even as he approached. The engine which had caught his attention was shielded by a hemisphere and pointed about thirty degrees away from him. It looked like little more than a fireball. Behind it, through a haze of both helium and hydrogen plasma, he could make out several spherical fuel tanks, and behind them a rather slender yet lumpy fuselage. No doubt about it, this craft was operating on bare fusion. He shook his metal head. Bare fusion was less than ten percent efficient; modern thrusters had nearly perfect efficiency and had been around for over half a century. They used only the helium fusion products for thrust, whereas bare fusion wasted about ninety percent of its deuterium simply because the reaction wasn't contained. Somebody was either very stupid, or stuck with a very old spacecraft.
Fifty kilometers dwindled to thirty, to twenty, to ten, to five, and finally to three. It was time for them to start firing and for him to turn on his shields and switch the Artifact to its Deflect mode. He waited for a few seconds, not turning his forcefield on just yet to conserve the "precious deuterium" his review board had warned him about. The ship didn't fire. This ship must have been smart enough to know to wait until the two-kilometer death zone.
He switched fully into Deflect mode and kicked in his shields five seconds later. Two point three kilometers . . . two point two kilometers . . . two point one . . .
Two kilometers. A ship's effective weapons range. The death zone. The hard part.
Still, the ship held its fire.
What were they up to?
One point five kilometers . . . still no enemy fire. One kilometer. Half a kilometer. He could see the shields illuminating the ship's surface now, even with his normal vision. They were weak shields at best. Point two kilometers . . . point one kilometer . . .
Contact. He braked over a shield generator port and Smashed his way inside.
The interior lights were too dim, and what few light sources there were were blocked by plastic crates. He must have hit a cargo hold. The room was also evacuated — there hadn't been any air in there even before he breached the hull. Either this cargo required vacuum storage, or someone was piloting a very old starship. Not bothering to wait and see if a damage control door would come down to cover his entrance, he switched the Artifact's handle into Sense mode and looked for the door.
The door was all too easy to find. It was an airlock, and less than ten meters away from him. How big this cargo bay was he could only guess, since the crates obscured his vision so thoroughly. He thought about ripping both airlock doors off of their mounts and just letting all the air in the ship rush out into space. He thought about that; but he also thought about how easy it had been to get this far. Perhaps this was the trap they were planning. He engaged his forcefield at a tenth of its full power, stood to one side of the door, and pulled the handle.
The door burst open from the overpressure inside the airlock chamber, but did precious little else.
He stepped into the antechamber and closed the outer airlock door behind him, nervously raising his shields to half strength as he did. Perhaps their booby traps wouldn't go off if he worked the airlock like everyone was supposed to. He counted the seconds before the light over the door changed from red to green — indicating full repressurization — then stepped to one side, reached over, and turned the inner door's handle.
The door opened. Nothing blew up.
He was in a dull gray hallway devoid of markings. The only sources of illumination were three widely-spaced fluorescents, two of which were either turned off or dead and the third of which flickered only dimly. No matter; it gave off more than enough UV for him to see by.
Samuel's eyes opened wide. "That . . . that club can corrugate space?"
"At what factor?"
Fifty thousand?, Samuel mouthed. "I knew Karthos had invented some pretty impressive things, but—"
"Karthos didn't invent this. They found it."
"You mean . . . that's —"
"An alien artifact. Humans weren't the first ones on the planet. There's a lot outsiders don't know about Karthos. Like the fact that two hundred thousand standard years ago, the planet was inhabited. Like the fact that every pregnancy has to be approved by the state, and those that aren't are subject to immediate abortion. Like the fact that
"Can I change my underpants now?"
"O fain to ye, who underestimate the living spirit."
"What's that all about?"
Samuel shrugged it off. "Just some second-millennium poetry."
"Bragging aside, Samuel," the Starlane Destroyer transmitted as he divorced himself from the Outsider's ship, "This will be easy."
Up until this moment he still had the option of backing out. He could make up some story about systems failure and go right back to Karthos. But if he blatantly attacked that patrol outpost . . .
Samuel could hear the cheers from the gathering crowd even before his shuttle touched down.
"Dorsa!" his transceiver cried. He clanked toward her.
"Strangen!" she replied in her own Karthosian accent, and rushed to him with outstretched arms.
"Oh, Dorsa!" the transceiver cooed as she embraced him and his arms folded about her.
He backed off two seconds later and hung his head down. "Aw, what's the use." He gestured with his hands. "I can't hug you with zinc-plated arms!"
"Uuung," the transceiver barked. He doubled over in shock. "My . . . force field. . . . What's . . . wrong?! . . ."
Joden shook his head as the blue-white arcs tore at his metal skin. "I was afraid it would come to this. You didn't think we'd make you totally invincible, did you? When we installed your shield generators, we purposely flawed them for exactly this sort of occasion. Your battle screens are useless against 30 Hertz alternating current; electricity of that frequency goes right through them as though they didn't exist."
"Oh . . . no . . ." the transceiver moaned.
Those were his last words before he passed out.
The universe was a contorted mess.
Samuel and Dorsa still clung to each other like acrophobes to the side of a skyscraper. They had passed through the walls of that quite-solid building and now spiraled across the surface of Karthos through a squished atmosphere that should have burned them to cinders but didn't. They were too tenuous to feel the non-corrugated world, but substantial enough to be tossed around by it all the same.
It took almost half a minute for the panic to wear off and for Samuel to notice that they were oscillating.
They bounded up into the air on an arch that must have been ten kilometers long. Then, they plowed right through the ground. A few seconds later, the ground spit them back up into the air like a grape between its fingertips; and so the cycle continued, weaving their path through air and ground like sewing thread.
"So this is what happens when you corrugate in gravity," Samuel commented dumbly.
"Oscillating, yeah," Dorsa shouted back. As if this whole experience wasn't bad enough, an awful lot of wind sounds were doing their best to drown out their voices. "Gravity draws us down, solid-matter repulsion forces us back up. I read up on it when I heard they'd turned Strangen into that cyborg."
"I read up on a lot of things. Had lots of time."
"Wh-what's gonna happen to us?"
"Nothing, as long as we stay corrugated."
Samuel had to abort his next question to clench his eyes shut. The ground rushed up to greet them, swallowed them, and spit them back into the air once again. Each time added fifty years' worth of fear to Samuel's life, he was certain. "And what happens when we stop being corrugated?"
"We'll . . . we'll turn back into normal matter, I guess. If we're in the air, we'll fall, and if we're under the ground we'll be instantly killed."
Dorsa watched the ground approach and started counting when they entered it. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thous— four-and-a-half seconds. That was how long the "down"-side of one oscillation took. They had to come out of it while going up, and as close to the ground as possible without being beneath it. She turned to Samuel.
"When I tell you to," she told him, "Turn off the corrugation."
"What?" he replied, having heard most of her words through the background din but wanting to make absolutely certain.
"On my signal, turn off —" She stopped and counted again as they plowed through the ground. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousa— four-and-a-half seconds, again. Good. "Get ready to turn off the corrugator."
Samuel breathed an "Okay" in between gasps.
Their ride bottomed out yet again. One thousand one, Dorsa counted, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one — "NOW!"
Samuel released the trigger. The universe froze back into stark reality.
And they were too high up. Damn it, Dorsa cursed herself, you forgot that Outsiders have longer reaction times than Karthosians do. "Oh no," she panicked, "Now what?!"
Samuel saw it too. This time, that ground coming toward them would splatter them to pieces. He had about four seconds before they both became street pancakes. Dorsa clung to him since he was the only thing around; he in turn clung to the Artifact's handle. What was it that Strangen had taught him about it?
Three seconds to impact. . . .
Burn mode. That was it. Burn mode. The Artifact could fire a jet of plasma. His trembling left hand, its voluntary control already waning to the overwhelming Primal Fear of Falling, twisted the far end of the handle until the indicator clicked on Burn.
Two seconds. . . .
His right hand was even worse. He needed to grab the trigger, and the fool thing kept skipping out of his grasp. Finally, he clutched the club against his body and hooked his right trigger-finger where it belonged.
One second. . . .
He pushed the club out as far in front of himself as his arms would reach, clenched his eyes shut, barked out, "Hold on tight!", and squeezed the trigger all in the same instant. Thunder and heat washed over them from below as the kick of the plasma jet hammered them back against the sky. He barely held on; even Dorsa, with her Karthosian reflexes and muscles, fumbled for her grip. But the column of flame slowed them, and when the ground finally did meet up with them —
"Oof!" Samuel rolled as he hit the ground. The club bounded out of his grasp. Dorsa pushed herself free of him at the last instant and landed, catlike, on all four limbs, then leapt for the club and recovered it. "You okay?" she asked.
Samuel blinked twice, panting hard, then said with relieved surprise, "Yeah! I don't even think I broke any bones."
Dorsa lifted him up unceremoniously by one arm to get him back on his feet. "Come on, we've got to hide. It won't take 'em long to figure out where we went. Here." She held out the club for him to take.
Samuel took it, but it felt unusually heavy now. He had to hold it with both hands just to keep from dropping it. He felt . . . fatigued, all over, more than even his recent panic could account for. He hadn't time to argue with his body, though; Dorsa was running ahead and dragging him by one arm, forcing him to keep up. She was only jogging, but with those long Karthosian legs it may as well have been a sprint, and Samuel could barely keep from stumbling.
"Wait, wait," he insisted. He crouched to catch his breath, then thrust the club out handle first. "You hold it. It's —" he forced two quick breaths to assuage his laboring lungs — "Something happened when I used the club's Burn Mode just now. It's like it drained me. I can't" — more panting — "I don't know if I can keep using it."
Dorsa took the club, and glared at it for half a second. Then her eyes opened a bit wider in understanding. "Biological energy," she muttered. "That's what he meant. The alien artifact must be powered by . . . by its wielder. Directly."
Strangen may have been unconscious for a few minutes or a few days; there was no way to tell. In any event, his arms and legs would only move a few millimeters before they hit shackles. His video cameras sent him crude images with pixels the size of playing cards. When the fuzziness finally resolved into the sharp outlines of the real world, he found that he was clasped to a wall in a crucifix position, his arms out to both sides and his feet together beneath him.
Beneath him. There was gravity. Down still had some meaning. Then he must still be on Karthos. Or on a space station opulent enough to afford artificial gravity. There wasn't much the blank gray wall in front of him could tell him, except that it had a sliding door. That sliding door opened a second-and-a-half later to pass the most spiteful creatures he could think of at the moment: Joden.
But he wasn't alone. Joden stood aside like a stiff Lieutenant, and Strangen was greeted by a face he'd hoped he'd never have to see again. "So you've finally cracked, have you?" Bourne the Third sneered.
"I've finally come to my senses, if that's what you mean." Strangen's voice came from a tachyon walkie-talkie on Joden's belt.
Dorsa would be killed the moment they caught up with her, Strangen thought as the ship turned off its corrugator. And Samuel . . . what kind of a public display would they make out of him? What kind of torture would they put him through so that the fanatics on Karthos could laugh at the squirming Outsider?
"YOU!" the lieutenant pointed. "You're not supposed to get loose!"
"O fain to ye," his transceiver crackled, "Who underestimate the living spirit!"
He planted his right foot firmly against the floor, pointed the sole of his left foot at the doorway, and fired his left thruster.
Five gravities of acceleration. Given a few minutes, those troopers might make it back to where they could hurt him; but Strangen had no such limitation. He engaged his antigravity coil and wafted toward the navigation panel as effortlessly as a man in freefall.
He leapt off the floor, engaged his thrusters, and crashed through the three-centimeter plate glass. Transmissions on military frequencies could guide him to them the rest of the way.
He only hoped he was in time.
Dorsa panted and bent over. She was exhausted. Samuel took the club from her hands, aimed it at the incoming troopers around the corner, and squeezed the tab. The same orange plasma ripped through the air and charred the first two Karthosians, but the others merely sidestepped their incinerated bodies and kept right on coming and shooting back.
That one blast had worn him out nearly as much as Dorsa was. He tugged on her arm and they wearily trotted away from the oncoming footsteps. Their feet must have weighed a tonne; every step was a challenge. They were half way down the corridor when another group emerged from around the corner in front of them, pointing and running and shouting, "There they are!"
They both glanced around, but there was nowhere to turn. There wasn't a single doorway in this corridor. Blasting their way to safety would take minutes -- and stamina -- that they didn't have. Dorsa turned to face the soldiers who'd just come around the corner, and backed up slightly. Almost instinctively, Samuel faced the other way and braced his back against hers. "This is it," he said in solemn terror.
The bunch in Dorsa's direction jogged closer by the second. They knew they had them. Dorsa and Samuel knew what to expect. Dorsa expected that the soldiers wouldn't even need to fire on them until point-blank. Samuel expected those four-hundred-kilo Karthosian behemoths to rip him to bits with their bare hands.
Neither of them expected the ceiling plate over the troopers in front to crash down on top of them.
Samuel jerked his head around and gaped. A large metal object was standing on top of the plate that had just collapsed. The object twisted around and hit two of the petrified troopers into the rest of the line-up with a square metal rod. No, it was a square metal arm. The head turned around and beamed at Dorsa and Samuel with its pair of blue tinted eyes. "I thought you could use some help," its transceiver said.
"Strangen!" they both sighed in relief.
The troopers in the line-up who were still conscious turned around and scattered. Strangen scanned his lover and his Outsider friend, noted how exhausted they looked, and then caught sight of the artifact still in Samuel's hands. He stepped loudly toward them.
"I think," he began, reaching for the long, narrow end of the club, "That I might be able to put this to better use than you could."
Samuel gladly relinquished it. Strangen grasped it in his zinc-plated clutches once more, then looked up as his transceiver sent him the sound of running, metal-tipped boots. He couldn't tell where it was coming from, but just having heard it was enough to alert him; he'd almost forgotten how useful hearing could be in these situations. Samuel pointed around the far corner at the group that had been chasing them originally. That was all Strangen needed to know.
He stepped out in front of Dorsa and Samuel and turned on his shields. Force field activation did indeed make quite a loud rushing sound. As the first two troopers came into view and stopped cold at the sight of the Starlane Destroyer, Strangen pointed the club at them and transmitted, "Get out."
"Destroyer!" the first trooper yelled. The clatter of bootsteps instantly loudened, now coming at random intervals as tens of soldiers hidden by the walls panicked and scrambled away. The three of them were safe for the moment.
"Tanks," Strangen's voice decided. As he watched them drop, he glimpsed green halos fringing their hulls. "With shields. You two've got to get out of here."
He would have smiled if he'd had a mouth. He stepped toward his battle club to retrieve it.
"Don't you move either, Starlane Destroyer!" the loudspeaker blared. "Everybody keep their fingers interlocked behind their heads until we get this mess straightened out!"
Strangen slowly moved his metal hands behind his head and began to chuckle. His chuckle grew. It was the first time he'd laughed joyously since he was flesh and blood. "It doesn't matter," he transmitted. "It doesn't matter! Ha ha ha ha ha, I did it! We won!"
"Damn you, Starlane Destroyer," Strangen received Bourne the Third's voice. He glanced around telescopically and picked out Bourne standing less than a hundred meters away . . . speaking into a collar transmitter with his hands behind his own head.
"No, Bourne, no!" he half-insisted, half chortled. "I'm not any Starlane Destroyer. I'm Strangen of Karthos, and you and your precious Karthosian fascism are nothing — do you hear, Bourne?! NOTHING!!"
Afternoon sunlight gleamed cheerfully off the hospital floor. It was Earth's afternoon and Earth's sunshine in an Earth-based hospital. There were tri-video cameras in every corner, but the area had been roped off from all nonessentials so there was very little human traffic. A two-meter-tall brown-skinned intern turned from his charts and spoke to the Karthosian female towering above him. "Well, his chances look good, considering."
Dorsa wouldn't let him get away with only telling her that little. "Considering what?"
"Well, considering what those Karthosian surgeons did to put him in that metal shell. There was hardly any of him left in there — just his brain, his spinal cord, and a few peripheral nerves. Everything else was electronics, motors, and fusion containers. I mean, if they had cut off his arms and legs, and maybe a few internal organs, we could regrow them with salamanderone; but he can't even sustain himself without a lot of mechanical help. We're having to clone him one piece at a time and graft the parts on until he's functional, giving him full salamanderone treatment along the way. We're basically growing him a brand new body."
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