The original, 40-page short story version of


Copyright © 1980 by Roger M. Wilcox.  All rights reserved.
(writing on this story began 1-November-1980)
The original draft was written on a mechanical typewriter, double-spaced, with no right margin.  All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, etc. are as in the original.

You have been warned.

For over a century-and-a-half, travel from star system to star system to star system could never be a quick trip. Even the closest inhabited system of Alpha-Centauri was more than five years away. Through the decades, the humans and the centaurians had colonized the systems of Barnard and Sirius, and built the artificial system of Human-Centauri. However, a voyage to another system wasn't just something you could do for a joyride; it was usually permanent.

Then, a scientist thought to be mad created an advanced form of the antimatter bomb, which was directional and apparently one-way. The fascinating thing about this bomb was that when the center of the explosion was examined, it had poked a hole in the continuity of space that was two-dimensional and one-sided. Essentially, this was a hyperspace bomb! When the bombs were delivered to the five systems, an unusual and unique idea was developed. The idea was to line up the bombs exactly (within a thousandth of a second) between two systems (starting with A. Centauri and Sol), and firing them simoultaneously. Theoretically, this would make a hyperspace "tunnel" capable of shooting craft (and radio) through it at unmeasurable speeds.

Before long, the five systems had links between them in a circular fashion, formina a rather crude pentagon, and trade had become a way of life. Forevermore, light would be considered extremely slow.

When an attempt was made to measure the time it took to travel from one end of a hyper hole to another, the time registered was zero. Not even a microsecond! Thus it seemed that some of the age-old theories about hyperspace were proven. In hyperspace (which is just a coined word for the next dimension) light speed is the slowest speed possible, just as zero is the slowest speed here. And because of this, light is considered infinitely slow. For this reason, speed in "hyperspace" cannot be measured in terms of light, for infinity times the speed of light is the slowest possible non-zero speed.

The five civilizations were supposed to be at a state of armistice. However, each one of them had a minor defense system in case of "alien attack". There were basically five classes of fighting spaceships: mile-per-second type (the slowest), sub-psol (psol stands for percent of the speed of light), trans-psol, super-psol, and the fifth class may be called either hyper-psol or sub-light. Each system had their own names for their ships: The fastest of the solar system's were the Mercury series, the fastest in the Centauri system were the Gellimand series (named after the Centaurian god of light), and the other systems had their little beauties too. In order that the concept of peace not be violated, however, the five systems all agreed on a reasonable limit to the number of armed spaceships ; the SALTY VI treaty.

The treaty stated that no system shall have more than ten sub-light fighters (no matter what the size), more than twenty non-mps large space ships, more than fifty non-mps space ships, or more than 300 mps fighters. However, to the dismay of the other Pentagon leaders, the Solar system was discovered to have a supply of extra fighters—exceeding the treaty's limit by over fifty percent. For this reason, a council "meeting" was held on the neutral planet of L1011-II (the second planet of the star L1011), where the leaders of each of the five systems were to be present.

Although the trip took a little over six years in the systems' fastest sub-light spaceships, it was hardly noticed by the ones riding there, although they had to be kept in tanks of water to avoid the tremendous acceleration. When the five arrived, they were greeted by no one, as this was a barren and desert-like planet, which looks very bad on a post card. Within the hour, they all assembled at the embassy headquarters (although this planet certainly didn't need one), and began the "meeting".

Holsteader, the leader of the Centaurian system, spoke first. "Gentlemen, as you know we are faced with a ve-e-e-e-ery serious threat to intersystem peace. The Solar system, which are the notoriously backward poeple, are making more fighters than the SALTY VI treaty will allow. So, I must insist that the Solar system—"

"The solar system won't do a damn thing!", interrupted James Carter, the leader of the Solar system. "We feel that the Salty VI treaty is totally incompetent, since it was made over tewnty years ago."

"And for twenty years it has been more than reasonable!", demanded Holsteader."So why the big fuss now, james?"

"Carter, to you! Anyway, if an alien civilization is advanced enough to discover us from the depths of space, it's probably advanced enough to wage a war with weapons we've never seen before. Because of this, we need a lot of powerful fighters to prevent such an attack!"

"Hey, look. We—" The Centaurian leader's reaction was cut off so abruptly by the door barging open that some of the crowd wondered if it were fixed. The thought was instantly perished when the incomer made his startling announcement.

"Carter, sir, we—oh, hello, Holsteader!" The informer strode up to Pressident Carter, and whispered in his ear. "Sir, out espionage agents planted in Centauri V have discovered that they have in stock more than double the restricted number of fighters as specified by SALTY VI."

Carter immediately jumped to his feet with his eyes wide open. "Holsteader!", he insisted. "What is the meaning of this?!?"

"The meaning of what?"

"The meaning of your drastic overbalance of the SALTY VI treaty !!"

"What are you talking about???"

"You have even more fighters than we do! My informer, who has just arrived with news from six years ago, has told me that you have exceeded the SALTY VI treaty by more than double!"

The room grew suddely silent, and each person knew what was going on. Both systems had broken the terms of the treaty. Yet in order to discover these facts, now both would have to reveal their espionage operations. Suddenly, Yukariah Heap, the elected leader of the Human-Centauri system, spoke up. "Now, look, you two—and everyone else! I'm quite sure that since both of you have broken the treaty, most of the other systems might have, too!"

The leader of the Sirian system abruptly stood and bleated out, "This is preposterous!"

"Aha!", Yukariah snapped in return. "You are another prime suspect of treaty breaking!"

"Well, what do you have, anyway?!?", inquired the leader of the Barnard system.

"And what do you have?!! I'll admit it—I've broken ground on the fighter limit—but only by a few percent. How about you, 'Siria'?"

"Don't call me that, call me by my name—Krammer!!...Well, so I did overshoot the treaty somewhat....So??"

"And finally," the leader Yukariah Heap concluded, "What of you, Ayatullah Breshnev?"

Ayatullah Breshnev, the Barnardian leader, admitted that he had his little stash of overloads himself. "Well," commented Yukariah, "It seems that everyone here has excess spaceships. So, why don't we just rewrite the treaty, and label it 'SALTY VII'"

"Because six SALTYs is already too many!", the leader Holsteader replied. "The treaty has served us well for over twenty years, and we all were in agreement at that time that if any of us should break the terms of the treaty, then the other systems would take more drastic action."

"But, because of the situation, every system is 'the other system'!"

"Nonsense! I will not stand for this any more!! We are going to blockade you, and you, and you and you!!"

"Very well", said James Carter, "WE will do the same!!"

Soon, each system was in agreement—they'd all blockade each other. However, it was at this time that Holsteader realized what was going on. "Hold it!!", he announced, "All we're doing is blockading each other!!!"

"So what's wrong with that?", asked Krammer in a sarcastic way.

"What's wrong with that?!! Oh, never mind—you're hopeless! I declare war on you!!!"

"WAR???" retorted Yukariah, "I came here as a peace maker, not to start a war!!!"

"Peace, eh???!?", snickered Krammer. "Well, I like Holsteader's idea, so I declare war on you, too, Yukariah Heap!!!"

"You can't do that!", demanded Holsteader. "I declare war on you!"

"Oh, yeah?", announced Ayatullah Breshnev. "I declare war on you, Holsteader the idiot!!"

"Hey—you can't do that, eiter!", Announced James Carter. "I declare war on...hmmmm...aha! I declare war on The Sirians, Krammer!!! I never liked you guys, anyway!"

Before long, everyone had declared war on each other. The meeting was quickly broken up, and each leader was taken back to their respective homeland in a matter of six years, which again seemed like practically nothing to the water-contained passengers.

Back home in the Solar system, the war had begun sooner than was expected. Just as James Carter arrived on Titan (Saturn's largest moon), their scanners picked up a super-psol-type warship, ladened with Centaurian markings, headed straight for Jupiter. It was obvious that for the first battle, no one in the solar system could build any battle-type improvements into their fighters; they'd have to fight them with what little they had. A command was immediately issued to Jupiter from Titan to launch Zelta-Dee, the only super-psol fighter equipped with a radiation blaster. Although the signal took over half an hour to reach Jupiter HQ, they still had enough time to put James' plan into action.

James' plan was an unusual yet very simple one. The Centaurians (especially under Holsteader's command) had always prided themselves on loading down their fighters with "secondary" or weak weapons, and not having any super-major offensive weapons at all. However, recent experiments had developed what was known as a "screen"—a super-powerful electric shield that completely stopped any minor weapons hitting it. This was essential against light or radiation weapons, since they can't be tracked down by radar or intercepted by anti-missles (or anti-anything for that matter).

The first experiments with such a device were with Zelta-Bee, the second experimental craft in the Zelta series. In order to make the screen function, it had to be ejected from a spotlight-like device, which shone it at about five hundred times its diameter, and about one hundred meters in front of it. However, on Zelta-Bee, the spotlight was stationary, and if an attacker came in from the side, instead of the fixed front position, the fighter would be extremely vulnerable. On Zelta-Cee, however, the idea of having it moveable greatly increased the fither's defensive power. Finally, on Zelta-Dee, the final touch was added—the screen control was hooked up directly to the Cray-3 battle computer.

Zelta-Dee was an unusual looking fighter, and from its design you'd never know it was a fighter. If you could imagine a tiny, tiny front cab, connected to a small box supporting the radiation gun's dish by a big, long connector resembling a human spine, and that connected to a medium-sized engine by another spine, that's exactly what it would look like. It was obviously not designed for maneuvering quickly, but simply for travelling fast in a straight line to its destination, whatever that may be.

Weapons were, of course, the largest concern of Zelta-Dee. Their major weapon, the radiation gun, took an unbelievable amount of power. In fact, it took thirty seconds of preparation for every four seconds of firing! Since that weapon could only be used against really big attackers, the fighter had to be equipped with other minor or "secondary" weapons. Not the least of these were small missiles of both conventional and warhead types. The only problem with them was that they couldn't be restocked while in the middle of a battle, unlike the energy weapons which could be fired as long as the ship had power. The best weapons on the fighter, with the exception of the radiation gun, were the proton ionizer cannons. These extremely potent weapons, first conceived in the late 1960's, worked on the principle of making all the molecules they hit positively charged, and thus repell each other. And if these molecules happen to be part of a solid object, it will essentially blow a big hole in the mass. The only setback of these weapons was that they used a good fraction of the power the radiation gun used, and so only a few could be fired at a time.

Aha, but modern technology has forged ahead again! If only two or three may be fired simoultaneously, then the enemy would have no problem avoiding them. But what if a whole bunch of harmless decoys were fired with the few real proton fireballs?? The proton ionizers shot out streams of protons which soon turned to large balls of energy from the equalizing forces existing in all energy forms. These energy balls shone a bright blue-violet-white, and were easily visible (and avoidable) by the enemy. That's where the photon cannons came in. Photons are just the microparticles that conform light waves, which are completely harmless. And if they can form any type of light in any apparent shape, why not make them into shining balls of blue-violet-white light? Even though the balls are harmless, dozens can be fired simoultaneously, since they use so little power.

Among the other weapons were: Micowelding lasers, vulcan cannons, and static generators (for "lightning").

The motion drive, or "engine" if you will, was an advanced form of rocket-type thrusting, called a "plasma drive". Instead of using chemical rocket fuel, a plasma drive simply used super-heated plutonium. In fact, if it were really necessary, it could use hydrogen fusion for thrust, since the reaction chamber could withstand temperatures in the millions of Celsius degrees.

After a good three-and-a-half hours of travel, the enemy spaceship was on Zelta-Deel's scanners. By this time, James Carter had already taken a super-psol passenger spacecraft into space toward Jupiter so that he could have a better view of the Hyper hole and any space battles, and also reduce the time lag from the radio signals.

"Aha!", announced the commander of Zelta-Dee. "There it is. Look at that weird design! It looks like a few cabs and weapons ports attatched to a big, featureless cylinder. Hmm, possibly their power supply. Oh, well, I'm not concerned with that now. Weapons engineer! Let's give 'em a fireworks display!"

"Right you are, sir!" The weapons engineer quickly typed out a series of commands on a computer console, and sent three proton balls and sixteen photon balls out to greet the Centaurian fighter. The commander knew as well as everyone else that the only way to tell the difference between a proton ball and a photon ball was to either allow yourself to get hit by it, or to thrust a thermometer into it and check the temperature. If the balls didn't kill the enemy, the radiation gun would certainly wipe them out.

There was one flaw in James' plan. The distance from L1011-II to the Solar system was 4.7 light-years; the distance from L1011-II to the Centaurian system was only 4.6 light-years. This subtle difference of 0.1 light-year gave Holsteader over two months to plan his strategy. And that two-month period gave him just enough time to develop highly sensitive heat detectors. With these devices, the Centaurian fighter easily picked out the three proton balls, and carefully avoided each of them. "Well," said the commander of Zelta-Dee, "If the proton balls didn't stop them, then the radiation gun will! Prepare to start the generating sequence!

"Uh, yes sir!" The weapons engineer had an uneasy feeling about this. Exactly how did they know which were the proton and which were the photon balls? And if they pulled off one miracle, could they possibly pull off another?

Just as the commander was giving the order to start the generation sequence, the helmsman barged in with an urgent message: "Commander— put the display up to 20x magnification!!"

He reached over to his console, and typed in the command "DI,20". What he saw froze him, as he stared with open-mouthed astonishment. The top of the Centaurian fighter was opening up, via two hinged doors. It was then it dawned on him—this thing was designed just like the twentieth century space shuttle, with a big, cylindrical cargo hold. But what could the hold contain??

The commander's question was soon answered—it contained a smaller cylinder, with a big hole in the front end. The whole thing was supported and manipulated by an intricate set of cables and girders, some girders probably hydraulic, and some cables probably electrical. But why lift it out durning a battle, unless—of course, it was a super-advanced weapon of some sort! At that point, the commander quickly revived himself fron a state of astonishment, and gave an order to the weapons engineer: "Stop generating proceedures—we're going to need that power for the screen!"

Just as the weapons engineeer terminated the generating proceedures, the enemy weapon went into action. It sent forth at first what appeared to be a proton bolt, but the thought was quickly dismissed when it stayed rod-shaped instead of forming a sphere. Besides, it was much too large for any conventional proton bolt, unless that enemy fighter was all generator.

"Sir!", announced the helmsman, "That 'thing' is picking up on my scanner!"

"Picking up? That's impossible! Energy doesn't pick up on radar!!"

"Well, then, sir, it must not be all energy!"

"Then what are you waiting for?? Send out an anti- missile!!"

The helmsman didn't waste time in responding, but simply carried out the order. The small missile streaked toward its intended target, but instead of exploding when it hit, it...melted! That thing must've had a temperature of over three thousand degrees celsius!! As the thing continued to race toward Zelta-Dee, the commander gave the order to split it with their most powerful microwelding laser. The laser went through it as a sword through butter, but it did not split in half— instead, it reassembled into a long, narrow cylinder. Now it became obvious—yes it was matter, but in the form of a very hot liquid or gas— probably liquid. The commander made his biggest defensive order: "With the only exception being life support, divert all power to the screen!"

There was only one way to find out whether or not the screen could take such a load of power — execute the commander's command. The lights throughout the fighter dimmed and finally went out, and the only things working were the life support, the bridge's scanner, and, of course, the screen. All that was visible on the scanners were the long glowing "thing" heading toward them, and a circular grid representing the screen. For a good amount of time, the screen held the load.

Suddenly, the automatic screen control shifted 45 degrees. This left the area the "thing" was sure to hit completely unprotected. Suddenly, it became clear what had altered the control: a small drone ship was attacking Zelta-Dee from the left side. Even though this was a very minor emergency, the battle computer had taken it as a bigger one than the "thing", since the "thing" was not hostile (yet). The drone was obviously an extremely intelligent and sneaky plan of the Centaurians.

The Commander quickly ordered that manual control be retained, so that the screen could be aimed back in front again. But even though the weapons engineer typed the command instantly, and the commander brought the screen to the front in a split second, the rod of light had passed by the screen and was just inside of its reach. The impact was imminent.

James Carter came to the visual scanners on-board his craft just in time to see the rod of liquid light pierce the spine of Zelta-Dee, and shear it in half just before the radiation gun. Now, both the fighter's engines and her most powerful weapon were no longer part of Zelta-Dee, but part of the infinite void of space. And along with the engine and radiation gun went the fighter's biggest power supply. The only thing the fighter had were its emergency batteries. If they hadn't been Duracell, they would be doomed instantly. Nevertheless, Zelta-Dee's screen was fading fast, and would be gone within thirty seconds. James could do nothing but watch, as they were more than thirty minutes in the future, and what James was seeing was thirty minutes in the past. Destiny for Zelta-Dee had already taken place.

The screen was gone. The only available shuttlecraft were filled to overflowing with crew members, and launched. Now the only people remaining on board Zelta-Dee were the commander and a recruited weapons "engineer". With the last remaining power available, Zelta-Dee launched all her missiles and bullets at the enemy fighter in a last attempt to not die in vain. Following this, one feeble microlaser beam was fired at the Centaurian fighter, afterwhich all light within Zelta-Dee was completely extinguished. Some say that both passengers died from lack of life support before the secondary weapons of the enemy reached them and tore the remains of Zelta-Dee apart. But whichever happened, it made little difference; both people were dead beyond repair.

James Carter could be no more than astonished, or else he would have a nervous breakdown. The latest and greatest of all the super-psol fighters was torn apart in a ruthless battle which left no trace of its existence. The great space station circling Jupiter was known system-wide for its hangars containing both the entire Zelta series and the Mercury series.Soon, it was to be greeted by another entrant, Zelta-Ee. But that would hardly compensate for the loss that every space fighter engineer had felt or was soon to feel. In the section marked "Zelta," the hangar labeled "D" would forevermore be empty.

James soon became so enraged at the Centaurians that he completely neglected his war duties to the other three systems of the Pentagon. He just wanted vengeance on that Centaurian fighter. And because it was moving away at such an awesome speed, even for a super-psol, there was only one way James knew of to catch up with it and have it torn apart in exactly the same way it tore apart Zelta-Dee.:

"Cabinet member J.R. Wewing, what is our fastest fighter?"

"The fastest?", J.R. asked in a somewhat rhetorical way. "Mercury IV, sir. Mercury V wasn't designed for extreme speed."

"Good. Send Mercury IV out there with orders to kill that Centaurian fighter on sight!"

"Well, okay—you're the boss!" The command was immediately sent to Jupiter at the speed of light, and thirty minutes later, Mercury IV took off from the Jupiter space station at over fifty psol. The design of the Mercury series fighters, especially Mercury IV, was totally opposite of Zelta-Dee, and for that matter, of Zelta-Cee, Zelta-Bee, and the original Zelta. At the speed the sub-light fighters travel, they had to be streamlined to cut through the few atoms of gas present in the nearly perfect vacuum of space. And Mercury IV was by no means any exception. It was designed like an elongated "sphere" at the front, with two big space intakes on the "top" and "bottom", which led to two big rectangular exhaust outlet ports (the same shape as the intakes), with several small plasma-drive engines between them for activation speed. All the sub-light fighters (and other types) had to be ramscoops. Those were the only craft capable of this kind of sub-light speed. The main difference, however, from the Zeltas was the fact that Mercury craft didn't have any screens; they didn't need any.:

The way the old ramscoops worked was by sucking in the hydrogen molecules of space, ionizing them by removing their sole electron, and using them for high-thrust exhaust. The way the newer ones worked (the Mercury series) was by not only using hydrogen, but using the cosmic energy and light bombardment of space as well. When travelling at speeds of a ramscoop the hydrogens and other energies of space become so energetic that they build up an incredibly powerful magnetic field and electrostatic charge which acts as a sort of screen against minor weapons. And even if that gave out, all the ramscoop fighters are coated with a heavy layer of titanium armor so that more major weapons would have less effect, and at low speeds minor weapons would be deflected.

Mercury IV, or in fact, all the Mercury fighters, weren't equipped with the radiation gun or proton ionizer cannons that Zelta-Dee had, but were extremely loaded with weapons that required practically no energy to fire, i.e. conventional and nuclear missles, vulcan cannons, etc..The reason for this was that all their power had to go to producing the extremely powerful magnetic field required for the ramscoop.

At last, Mercury IV had the Centaurian fighter on its scanner. Even though the crew members had to be kept in tanks of liquid during the acceleration to half light speed, they were travelling at a constant speed with no acceleration, so it was safe to come and watch the battle take place. The thing was, no one could actually fight in a battle like this. Since the spaceship was going at almost 55 psol (it's safe to drive 55), time for everyone and everything in there would be moving much, much slower. Therefore, battles came and went just like THAT, so the CRAY-3 battle computer had to do all the work.

All the crew (or just one member) had to do was type in the battle sequence command to the computer. The weapons engineer strode up to the terminal, typed in "AT,0", pressed -RETURN-, and jumped back to the viewscreen to watch the battle which shouldn't have taken more than twenty seconds, ship time. When the Centaurian fighter realized Mercury IV's existence by sighting a volley of bullets flying by it, it sped up by almost 50%. It attempted to fire back a large volley of pulses from its rear gas lasers, but none of them collided with their target; it was moving much too quickly to obtain a 'fix' on. The centaurians knew they had only one chance to escape Mercury IV: leap through the nearby hyper hole to the safety of the Centaurian system, or Alpha-Centauri.

The five hyper "holes" that formed the Pentagon of systems were extremely useful for trade in a time of peace, but during a war they were just a harassful nuisance. There was no known way to plug up the hyper holes, and in any case they would probably be there for thousands of years. Now, waring vessels could come and go as they pleased, leaving havock and destruction behind.

Mercury IV's CRAY-3 knew enough to follow the exact course of the Centaurian fighter just before it passed into hyperspace. Within a very short length of time, Mercury IV had passed into the same place as the hyperhole, and was instantly teleported in through the other end to the system of Alpha Centauri. The little super-psol cried out desperately for help, hoping there'd be a helpful fighter in the vicinity. The weapons of Mercury IV fixed upon the Centaurian fighter, and were at it instantly. The first big wound came when a large "Genie" warhead missle scored a direct hit on the fighter's plasma drive. At that point, all engine power within the fighter ceased, to be replaced only by the feeble energies of its rockets normally used for launching and landing.

A large volley of conventional missles followed this, vaporizing great gashes of titanium and rubble used for radiation protection. The fighter containing Alpha-Centauri's most powerful offensive tool was done for at last.

Soon, there were only a few metal filings floating around where the fighter had once been. Now, two sides had avenged each other with a grand strikedown of technology.

Although hardly any single fighter had a chance against Mercury IV, the jungle of an alien system was a sure deathtrap for anything happening to stray into it. For this reason, Mercury IV twisted around in a long turning arc so that it could go back through the hyper hole and return to the Solar system. Unfortunately, since the guidance battle computer was so intent on killing those Centaurians, it had lost the coordinates of the hyper hole, and had to relocate it once again. During the search, the engines had to be completely shut down so that Mercury IV wouldn't accidentally crash into anything. During this phase, the sluggish CRAY-3 (capable of only a mere 10 billion instructions per second) made a continuous search for a single point in space where there was nothing, which took a good amount of time.

Maybe too good an amount of time, for before the searching sequence was over, a Centaurian sub-light fighter (which could have only been a Gellimand, for those were the only sub-lights the Centaurians had) sighted the enemy fighter, and commenced an attack. The crew of Mercury IV were unreluctant to set the commands to immediately dive for the hyper hole once it was found, and scurried hastily to their respective water tanks so they would be able to avoid the twelve-gravity acceleration.

They knew they should never have instructed the battle computer to find the hyper hole, for it was much too slow. Once it located it, however, the swift CRAY-76 navigation computer took over, and Mercury IV was off like a flash. But was the flash fast enough? It seemed that the Gellimand fighter was even faster than Mercury IV—which meant the Centaurians had fighters faster than Sol's, and seemingly better weapons.

The crew would never know the output of that battle, but would inevitably know the outcome by whether or not they woke up dead. The Gellimand fighter drew ever closer to the rapidly escaping Mercury IV, and when the range was lowered to less than fifty kilometers, fired a Genie missle at the central back. The missle streaked to the rear of Mercury IV, scored a direct hit, and blew up in a giant blue-violet cloud. The explosion rocked the entire ship, but the crew members inside would never know, contained in those shake-proof tanks of water. The missle had hit in the exact center of the rear, which was fortunate, since the ramscoop engines were on the top and bottom. When the flash of the warhead concurred, half the plasma-drive engines were rendered useless. The Gellimand fighter was not going to give up until Mercury IV was non-existent.

The Gellimand fighter cut back engine power ever so slightly. The rear of the sub-light fighter was the only place it couldn't possibly have any armor, and where electrostatic deflection would be minimumized with respect to the rest of the fighter. There could only be one reason for the Gellimand fighter lowering its power output; it was obviously saving generator power for launching a proton ball. And since the battle computer had to be off for their rapid escape, there would be no way Mercury IV could avoid an accurately placed proton ball.

There was just one flaw in the brilliant plan of the Gellimand fighter—the Sirians!!! Just as the Gellimand fighter had gained enough power to commence its firing proceedures, a fleet of three sub-light fighters, immersed in Sirian markings, shot through their respective hyper hole, and with no one to stop them, commenced a brutal attack on some of the Centaurians—one being the Gellimand fighter!! The offender immediately began firing high-powered pulses from their several on-board gas lasers. The Gellimand fighter immediately broke off its attack from Mercury IV, swerved its proton cannon 180°, and fired one single ball of energy at the Sirians. It was obvious that the Sirians never prided themselves on maneuverability, for the little proton ball gashed at the side of the Sirian fighter, and made a big artificial crater. But a simple wound like that would never stop a determined and quick-tempered Sirian. The gas lasers on the Sirian fighters were the most advanced ever devised: they not only consisted of the multiple-stage gas tubes, but also used a special system of "frequency adjustment" so they could tune in on the exact frequency of their target, and thus inflict the most damage.

The Sirian fighter let loose in a few gas lasers, but mostly in an attack made of missles. Fortunately for the Centaurians, missles were solid matter, and so could be intercepted easily. The Gellimand fighter quickly sent out a stream of bullets designed to intercept the oncoming missles, most of which did their job. However, no technology was perfect, as several of the missles did reach their intended target, and tore great gashes of armor from its surface, but did virtually no internal harm. However, these were just to use the supply of Gellimand bullets; to throw the Centaurians off guard. Suddenly, the stream of conventional missles ceased, which was followed by the appearance of two larger missles. These missles were obviously designed for instant-death combat, for they were propelled by a much faster engine than rockets—probably plasma drive. Vainly the Gellimand fighter attempted to shoot them "down" with as few bullets as remained.

Suddenly, in a blinding flash of blue-violet light, one of the missiles exploded in mid-space. It seemed that some of the bullets had reached their target, and vaporized it indirectly. But they still had to get the second missle, which was then so close that with the small number of bullets remaining, the chances of stopping it were almost zero.

Which turned out to be exactly what it was—zero. The missle had reached the Gellimand fighter, and removed such a big gash that it was impossible for it to be 'alive' still. With a few good blasts from the Sirians gas lasers, the Gellimand fighter was reduced to three sections of hull—definitely "dead".

By this time, Mercury IV had escaped back through the hyper hole to the Solar system. When the engines had shut off, and deceleration had reduced to less than one Earth gravity, the crew was released from its water tanks. And when they got out, every one of them was cheering, and cheering loudly. Everyone, except for one—the computer technical engineer. He was scared—not of the fact that replacing half the plasma drive would cost a lot, not of the fact that they barely escaped with their lives—but of the fact that they had to chase the Centaurian super-psol fighter through the hyper hole. If they had a good battle computer, then why didn't they stop it within a matter of seconds?? There could be only one explanation—at sub-light speeds, a CRAY-3 was much too slow. The battle computers of not only Mercury IV, but the entire Mercury series had to be replaced with the speedier CRAY-76 computers, which were 273 times quicker than CRAY-3s, or about 9,444,733,300 trillion times as fast. And he knew that there was only one person who had knowledge enough of the battle computer systems to replace each of them—himself. The responsibility had to fall on his shoulders at one time or another, but why a whole day into the war?

Before long, Mercury IV had reached its designated hangar in the Jupiter space station, which was named Cape Jovial (appropriately). Now, two replacement jobs had to be done—one for the computer, and one for the partially destroyed plasma drive. The latter was done in the blink of an eye, but the former took a little longer.

The technical engineer re-entered Mercury IV after doing Mercury I, II, III, and V, saving his own fighter for last. The CRAY-76 he held in his hand was a whopping 5 inches by 1½ inches by the standard ¼ inch high. How could they ever fit such a massive computer chip into a fighter? he wondered. A CRAY-3 was only some 2" X ½" X ¼", which was considerably smaller, so not only would the Technical engineer have to replace the chip, but the chip shunt (chip clip) was well. The CRAY-3 was the least expensive computer chip for its speed, which was invented long ago in the late twentieth century, in the mid-seventies. Its inventor was, of course, first developed by Prof. Cray. Cray had never gotten as far as the CRAY-76, but when he died, he left behind the foundation for building better and faster computers under his name. However, when the CRAY-76 was developed, its inventors reached a dead stop; a point where they could go no further, as the CRAY-76 was, and forever will be, the fastest computer ever designable.

The CRAY-76 was bulky, true, but how much bulkier would it have been in the days before base ten transistors and other semiconductors of the modern Pentagon. Not only were base ten transistors much more useful because they could operate on zero through nine instead of just zero to one, but they were also much smaller and faster than the old binary ones. In the old days, one cubic millimeter could hold no more than one thousand binary transistors. Nowadays, that many decimal (base ten) transistors could fit in half that space, especially since they were "grown" in the void of airless, gravityless space.

Soon, the Technical computer engineer had reached the battle computer center. He then proceeded to open the protective cover while bracing himself to the ground in order to avoid spinning the opposite direction of his screwdriver in zero-gravity. After it was carefully removed, and the screws carefully stowed away, he popped out the CRAY-3, disconnected the shunt, reconnected the new shunt, and put in the CRAY-76. This was by no means an arduous task! For within one minute, the protective cover was replaced, and the technical computers engineer could leave Cape Jovial to do other, more vital things.

Of all the systems, why did Human-Centauri have to get involved in the war? The Human-Centaurians were peace loving people—they never wanted to get in a war. Well, then, they just wouldn't go to war. They would use all their fighters in defense; that was all. None would leave the star system; it was as simple as that.

There was no Human-Centauri sun when it was first created; it had to be produced by forming a big cloud of hydrogen, and then lighting it with an atomic bomb. There were five artificially constructed planets orbiting around the central sun. These were not your typical planets; at most their orbits were one thousand miles apart, and even that was to be altered. The planets weren't spheres like you'd expect them to be, but big plates, curved exactly as the path of their orbit. The idea was that one day, all the planets would be connected, followed by adding more curved material onto either end. And finally, this would form a "planet" completely encircling their sun, a "ring world". Larry Niven would have been proud of them. But not now, in a time of war.

Soon, the unavoidable had happened. Two Barnardian fighters, the Nina and the Pinta, and one Sirian fighter, the Santa Maria, had entered the Human-Centauri system by their respective hyper holes. There was no choice for the Human-Centaurians except to fight. Yukariah Heap sent out three of their sub-light fighters (from the Mercurand series) with which to combat the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Somewhere in Yukariah's mind that combination of names rang a bell, but he couldn't decide where.

Nevertheless, Mercurand-two, Mercurand-one, and Mercurand-leader set out to make that familiar combination of names not so familiar, and bring a quick, temporary peace to Human-Centauri. The mercurand series was not so nearly advanced as the newer hydrogen-and-other-cosmic-junk ramscoops, as it only sucked in hydrogen, but it did have the advantage that its fighters were about 20 psol faster than the Mercury or Gellimand serieses. They were designed with twin scoops on the front several kilometers across, and between them was strung the works of the fighter, with the engines on the outside. The works included some proton cannons, missle and shell launchers, the crew and computers, plus a huge array of generators for additional power besides that produced by the ramscoop engines.

Mercurand-one took the Nina, Mercurand-two took the Pinta, and Mercurand-leader took the one with the biggest name, the Santa Maria. Mercurand-one began by starting its generators to fire some proton balls. However, since generation time is precious, the Nina began to attack Mercurand-one when it saw the opportunity. It seemed the missles and bullets were primitive weapons to this Barnardian fighter, but it still insisted on using material weapons. Yet these weapons were not of solid matter, but of liquid saturated gummy material. The Nina quickly ejected a big white mass of something white which formed into sort of a streamlined glob.

The glob streaked toward Mercurand-one, and made an impact with a splat. Suddenly, the surface of Mercurand-one began to be sizzled off; stripped of its metal armor, was SMOKING!! In space? There could be only one explanation—the white glob contained an extremely potent acid! From the fumes it was obviously nitric. This was a situation never before handled aboard Mercurand-one, so the commander took the most obvious action.:

"Quickly—activate all the starboard ammonia jets!", he announced.

As soon as the crew carried out this order, great fountains of foam began to shoot out from the blob of white stuff—the ammonia had neutralized the nitric acid!! The commander had thought well.

As soon as the ammonia jets were shut off, Mercurand-one began to avenge its wound by attacking the Nina once again. The generators were completely done, and all that had to be done was the proton gun had to be fired. The helmsman (named Torra Zorra) entered the coordinates into his terminal, and readied to fire. Just as Torra was about to fire, an overwhelming urge came over him to re-enter the coordinates exactly 5° to starboard of where the Nina was.

The weird urge immediately took control of his hands, and did exactly as they were told—re-enter the coordinates. The posessed hands immediately entered the command to fire the proton cannon, and the ball of energy raced toward a place five degrees from nowhere. The commander had noticed this, and rushed to his viewscreen. There he saw it: a big ball of energy, costing twenty seconds of generation time, hurling on toward nothingness because the stupid helmsman had entered the coordinates five degrees off! But was it going to hit nothingness??

Suddenly, the big fighter Nina swerved as though it were programmed into her memory—exactly five degrees starboard! As suddenly as the commander's anger was created, it was replaced by astonishment. How could Torra Zorra know that the Nina was going to swerve like that?? Well, however he knew, the ball hit—not a direct hit, but a hit, nevertheless. On the top of the Nina was a big, clean crater made by the impact and the energy of the proton ball. Yes, the Nina was down—but not out.

The nina struck again with her acidic gum gun. This time, however, it was not intended for its acidity, but for its gumminess; it was going to clog up one of Mercurand-one's ramscoop intakes! The gun took careful aim, and launched its ammo. This time, how could Mercurand-one survive? It was surely half-death.

Except for one thing. The gum was soft and jelly-like, so why not just shear it in half? The commander dashed to his private console, typed in the command to give him weapons control, and entered another string of commands which told the strongest microwelding laser to shear the glob right down the middle. Unfortunately—although it did exactly as instructed—the laser had cut the glob vertically, rather than horizontally as the commander had expected. But this was only a small problem, for all the commander had to do was enter a simple command which told Mercurand-one to spin 90° so that it was on its side. He typed in the command, and Mercurand-one spun in one-fourth of a circle so quickly that most of the crew was thrown to the sides of the fighter by the brief centrifugal force.

The two halves skimmed by the top and bottom of Mercurand-one, almost hitting, but not quite. Now the commander could concern himself with other matters, like his psychic helmsman. He walked over to him in the zero-gravity, and spoke. "How come you never told me that you were a psychic?"

"Because I'm not a psychic, I don't even know what happened!"

"Oh, one of those things, eh? Well, if you get any more of those weird spasms, don't hesitate to carry them out—we need all the help we can grab!"

Suddenly, the weird urge returned, this time instructing his hands to type in the command to fire five gas laser pulses directly at the rear of the Nina. The commander quickly came to look at the phenomena of the urge, but as abruptly as it had started, it ceased. The five green-white pulses zoomed toward their target at light speed (of course). The first three hit the armor surrounding the plasma-drive, merely weakening it for the fourth, which stripped the armor off completely. The fifth actually went into the engine, and started a chain reaction. Four blasts to remove the armor, and one to remove the Nina! The commander doubted that this was just psychic—he could feel that it was a much stronger power; almost divine, but not quite. Well, whatever it was, he had to notify the Mercurand-leader about this. But first, why not look at the viewscreen and see what's happening to the Nina?

What was happening to the Nina was the little chain reaction had flourished intio a full-scale atomic explosion, and was causing the Nina to actually break apart. Within a minute, all that would be left was the top and bottom hull, torn apart by the continuous blast.Now he could notify Mercurand-leader in peace. He picked up his picturephone receiver, and punched "0". The operator immediately came in, and connected him with Mercurand-leader's commander.

"Hey, Merky baybee! You'll never guess what just happened!"

"Your stuffed mutant bear finally came by spacemail!"

"Better than that—we just destroyed the Nina, and we were helped by some weird force!"

"You too?"

"Whatayamean, 'too'??"

"The same thing just happened to me; I was in the crossfire of one of their nuclear missles, and something just told me to cut off the tip with a gas laser. At first I ignored it, for the tips were usually built much too solidly, but I stopped ignoring it when it took control of my hands, and forced ne to typed in the command!"

"That's odd. I wonder if this has happened to Mercurand-two,too."

"To two too. I like that."

"Nevermind that, I'm calling Mercurand-two!"

With that, he put down the receiver, and punched in "2". This time, no operator was present, so he was connected up much more quickly.

"Merky two, you'll never guess what just happened to my helmsman and Mercurand-leader's commander!"

"They were taken over by uncontrollable urges."

"How'd you know??"

"The same thing happened to my navigator. All-of-a-sudden, he commanded the computer to make the fighter shoot downward, and he said he had nothing to do with it. Then the weirdest part—the Pinta fired three white globs of acid gum at us, just over our heads! Weird, weird!"

The commander didn't bother to respond; instead, he just put down the phone. Why had all these urges come over them; and more importantly, why a helmsman, a navigator, and a commander named J. Doe?

Suddenly, Torra Zorra became posessed again. This time, however, it wasn't by action; he was receiving a thought message. The message consisted of four words: "Help...Universe...End...Epsilon Urandi".

The last word(s), Epsilon Urandi, was the name of a close-by star. The other three words were completely undiscernable as to their meaning. Torra was just about to tell the commander about this, when the same thing happened again, only this time saying, "We are from Epsilon Urandi, the second planet out. And we are not in material form..." The message faded out at that point. Torra wasn't going to tell the commander about this until he was sure what it meant.

Once more, the message came. "We controlled your hands and the hands of the others. We needed to help you because there is something wrong with the universe. We don't have to know it by experiments, we feel it by our psychic power. Long ago, we left our material bodies, and literally became spirits. No, not dead; we had machines that did this,which are long gone and long forgotten. Anyway, we know there's something wrong with the universe, and we need your help. Years ago, before we all became spirits, we developed the most extreme break in the laws of physics: a "zero-drive", which allows a spaceship to move at completely zero speed— no movement whatsoever. We hadn't much use for it, so we buried it deep within the first planet surrounding E. Urandi. Now, its existence may mean the existence of everything else in the universe.

"Through the hyper holes of your creation, you must go at the speed of infinity—you have no choice. But that's only because you aren't going at speed zero. If you used our zero-drive, however, you'll be able to go slower than infinity but faster than light. I believe you call this "Limbo". Anyway, when you're travelling between light and infinity—in Limbo—you can control your speed, and go a quadrillion, a quintillion, or even a sextillion times the speed of light. But if you are going less than infinity, you'll have enough time while travelling inside a "hyper hole" to use one of those immense "hyper blower bombs" to blow a hole back into the known universe. Now, using the ideas I have given you, find the zero-drive within E. Urandi-one, and even if you have to wreck the planet to find it, go to the edge of the universe in the general direction of the red giant Betlejuice. Goodbye...."

There was no way he was going to tell the commander about this before he told the commander of Mercurand-leader. Out of all the billions of humans and Centaurs (short for Centaurians), three were the chosen ones, and he was among them!!! He was among the trilogy of Torra Zorra, navigator Ken Tractor, and commander Jennifer Doe!!!

It wasn't long before Mercurand-one came in to the flat, curved, artificial space station circling the Human-Centauri sun at the same speed and orbit as the other five "planets" (only one-fifth the size). Torra Zorra got out of Mercurand-one, and waited patiently until Mercurand-leader arrived, and its commander left the fighter. At that time he asked, "Hey! Jenny! I just got a psychic message from these guys called 'Epsilon Urandians'! How 'bout you??"

"Me too! And according to reports from Mercurand-two, the same thing happened to Ken Tractor, their navagator."

"Aha! So we are the chosen ones!!!"

"It would appear so! C'mon! We'd better try to carry out our 'mission' before it's too late!"

Before another hour had passed, all three of the chosen ones had arrived at space station central, and presented their problem to the big man, elected leader Yukariah Heap. Yukariah was one of the most understanding and flexible leaders elected by the "people", and would probably be in office for years to come (a Human-Centauri year was about 250 days, the average between a solar year from Earth and an Alpha-Centauri year on A. Centauri-III, named "Gorla"). Thus, he gave this problem much more serious consideration than would've Holsteader or Krammer.

Within a few minutes, he arrived at a verdict. "Well, it seems that you're the chosen ones, so you might as well do as asked. And remember; the fate of the entire universe may be in your hands! Er...take Mercurand-leader, and bring a hyper bomb with you."

The three quickly left space station central, and arrived at the foot of Mercurand-leader less than half an hour later. Once aboard, the plasma drive was instantly fired, and the three were off on a lonely quest; a shining planet, known as (dramatic pause) E. Urandi-I. The three soon had the course set in the CRAY-46 navigational computer, and were given a thirty-second delay until the ramscoop was kicked in. In that time, they had to get into their wet suits and enter their respective water tanks. Each made it in time, but Torra Zorra made it with a margin of only a few seconds.

Six-and-a-half years later, the ramscoops ceased operation, replaced by the feeble 2-psol power of the plasma drive. The three got out of their water tanks, and resumed control of Mercurand-leader (now just called, "Mercurand"). They were indeed orbiting around Epsilon Urandi. As they circled in closer to the central star, the first planet (with a rrreally incredibly original name, Epsilon Uriandi-I!!) came into their view. It looked like a planet completely dead, just like the other two. So that's why no one had discovered life on Epsilon Urandi-I, or II or III—all the life forms were composted long ago, and were now all spirits!!

They hadn't much time to worry about these types of things then— they were too concerned with blowing that planet apart, and getting at its contents. This was where Torra Zorra's helmsman's techniques were to be put to the test. Already, Jennifer's had been used for command and quick thinking, and Ken's had been used for laying the course to Epsilon Urandi-I. Torra sat down at a console, and typed in a single command which would send out their only hyper bomb to the planet, and break it apart (if you remember correctly, a hyper bomb is just a weird and powerful antimatter bomb capable of rupturing an entire planet).

The incredibly powerful electromagnetic launcher went in to use to launch the massive hyperbomb. This was the first time the launcher had been used since the testing of Mercurand, but it performed perfectly. The bomb was now a missle.

Although Mercurand was fast, the hyper missle was unbelievably slow. In fact, it was at least seventeen minutes before...BOUM!!! No more bomb, no more planet, and a new asteroid belt, all formed at the same instant. What was among those debrises was soon to be revealed by the three, as the plasma drive of Mercurand was quickly brought to full power.

It seemed that this planet, not unlike a few discovered in other star systems, was composed entirely of rock—solid rock—with no liquid mantle in its interior, or at least very little. But this was to be of no importance, for more important things had to be discovered.

And they soon would be. Suddenly, as the helmsman (good ol' Torra) was into his fifth minute of searching, he noticed an asteroid of an unusual shape—conical. In addition to its shape, it was perfectly smoooth, smoother than a cheap antimatter explosion could create. There was only one thing it could be—and there was no doubt in anyone's mind as to what it was; a zero-drive.

Now, only one problem haunted their brains (well, ok, 3 or 4—but only one major one): how were they going to get that thing aboard? There was conceivably only one way to do this—launch a one-person shuttle, then go out in space in one of those old-fashioned,bulky spacesuits, manually attach big tow cables, then connect those to the shuttle, get in, and tow the big black cone back. The launching was simple, and went quickly using the same electromagnetic launcher used to launch the hyper "bomb". Torra, being the helmsman, was the one selected to do the dirty work.

Within ten minutes, Torra Zorra arrived at his destination. He donned his bulky pressure suit, and entered the airlock. In a brief gush of air, he was outside, carrying a tow cable. As he approached the cone from its closest point, he noticed a most unusual spectacle: the cone was perfectly smooth—not even a bump or scratch from age. When Torra came nearest to it, and rubbed his hand along its surface, it felt slippery—in fact, it felt frictionless. Those Epsilon Urandians must've been the first race to achieve perfection in anything they constructed.

Nevertheless, he found a planned protrusion in the cone, and attached the cable to it. With a gentle push, and the re-engaging of his suit thruster, Torra was off back toward his shuttle, guided only by the tow cable.

The airlock door closed silently behind him, and with a "whoosh", the inner airlock opened up, pouring the atmosphere of the shuttle into his presence. The shuttle was a small one, and it only took three arm pulls on its stationary handles to bring Torra to the control panel. There was only one problem concerning Torra Zorra now: the shuttle was a small one, so small that it could only be powered by chemical thrusters(rockets), so would it have enough fuel to tow the zero drive back to Mercurand?

A quick glance at the fuel pressure gauge answered that immediately. It read five hundred pounds; about enough to dock at a ten-foot range. It was obvious that Jennifer had intended Mercurand to intercept the shuttle, and not the other way around.

But why was he sent out to tow it back, if Mercurand was going to get it in the first place? Torra glared out the window at Mercurand. It seemed to be aimed at him in its normal fashion, travelling at its normal speed. But when looking at an object head-on, no one can be sure of its speed. A glance at the control panel's range radar (radar range?) revealed that Mercurand was going much slower than one psol, and that it was slowing down dramatically. But why, so far away?

When Torra Zorra looked back up at his viewscreen, his face grew white with horror. Mercurand had twisted into such a position that its forward proton cannon was aimed straight for Torra Zorra's shuttle, and a shining ball of light-energy was zooming toward him at barely imaginable speed! Torra quickly scanned his control panel, searching for something to avoid the proton ball with. It was obvious that this shuttle wasn't designed for combat; it was weaponless. Suddenly, his eyes came across a button labeled,"Bottom-side thrust". His fist jammed down on the button, and the entire shuttle quaked. The direction of acceleration was barely noticeable from the inside, but outside almost a ton of thrust was being spewed out the bottom, and "pushing" the shuttle upward, and out of the way of the oncoming proton ball.

The ball of light-energy just barely missed its intended target. Instead of intercepting the shuttle, it was bound to intercept—the zero-drive! The only hope for the entire universe was about to be vaporized! Torra glanced back at the soon-to-be-non-existent zero-drive. There was something odd about it—of course! It had twisted around, and the vertex of the cone was now pointing at the oncoming proton ball. It seemed it was attracted to the source of energy near it.

Impact suddenly occurred. However strange as it may seem, the cone wasn't evaporated! Instead, the proton ball became a pinpoint of bright blue light on the tip of the cone, which dissipated after a couple of seconds. During that time, Torra could've sworn he'd felt the shuttle quiver and shake. So that was the zero-drive in action! And now he knew it worked.

But what about that proton ball coming toward him in the first place? Ken had absolutely no knowledge of Mercurand-leader's weapons system, and had very little knowledge of weapons at all. Ah, but this was Jennifer's own fighter, and all commanders know practically everything about the spaceship they command. She had obviously found her way into the weapons room console, and ordered it to launch a proton ball at Torra.

Most likely, she wanted to be the only one in control—the chosen one, not amongst the chosen three. This was probably the case, but now we will never know....

Aboard Mercurand, Ken Tractor (navigator) had discovered Jennifer Doe's operation. Taking a stun pistol from his wall cabinet, he rushed to the weapons control room console. There, sitting in the chair made for a helmsman, was Jennifer, plotting another attacking plan.

Ken drew the pistol, and fired, not bothering to take careful aim. (Un)fortunately, the spark of stunning hit a little too high, impacting with Jennifer on the back of her neck, killing her instantly. But it was better her than Ken and/or Torra.

Ken immediately radioed Torra, and instructed him to stay where he was, while Ken went out to get him. Although Torra didn't have much choice, he stayed right where he was, and acknowledged Ken. Since Ken had to use the plasma drive it took only a matter of seconds before Mercurand-leader was close enough for docking.

Since the shuttle was partially constructed of steel, all Ken had to do was turn on the docking magnet, and let it pull the shuttle in to a perfect docking position. Once both the shuttle and zero-drive were inside, the outer airlock was closed, and pressure was equalized. Ken came out to check that Torra was still in one piece, and Torra explained the situation with the zero drive: "You see, what happened was that the proton ball was intercepted by the cone's tip, which was pointing at it, when it wasn't before. Then, the whole proton ball was absorbed into the works, and at that moment I could've sworn I felt a shaking and a quivering sensation go through the entire ship. I think that thing is actually attracted to high concentrations of energy, and will work on any source. Even maybe...the PLASMA DRIVE! We could rig it up so that its right behind a lead shield, and when its time for use, expose it to the plasma drive. Even if the drive is off, it naturally creates enough energy to un an entire GTE building!"

"Well, then," said Ken, "Why don't we test it right now? You rig it up in the plasma drive near the most powerful energy tower, and...uh ...put a lead box over it with a lead shutter, like those on Pentax 78,654,451 ZX-AE3's (cameras), so it can open with a margin of only microseconds. That'll give it more than enough power when it's OFF."

Torra did as instructed, and soon the shutter and zero-drive were in place and working. Now it was ready for the acid test , and I don't mean litmus paper! The test was to use it to stop Mercurand while it was using its ramscoop.

Torra send in a complicated string of commands to the computer: give them a thirty-second delay, then fire the ramscoops, and after exactly five seconds, open the shutter. The two dashed to their respective water tanks, this time filled with a thick, gummy solution to resist the force of being thrown from over 20 psol to zero in no time at all.

Mercurand suddenly fired up its plasma drive, and a few seconds later ignited its ramscoops. Flying along at such a short distance and at such a small clip couldn't possibly have any of the time altering effects of greater speeds.

Suddenly, the gigantic twin-ramscoop came to a dead stop. Torra Zorra and Ken had expected to be thrown to the front of their water tanks at collossal G's, but instead only vibrated, as did the rest of the ship (or so it seemed). After ten seconds, the virbations ceased, and the computers once again waited for input. The experiment was a success.

Torra sent the final sequence of commands to the computer, which would send Mercurand back to the Human-Centauri system, and the orbital space station. For the last time in 6½ yrs., the two dashed to their water tanks, and awaited acceleration. It came just as was expected.

Six-and-a-half years in the future, the two returned with the news of the late Jennifer Doe, and with their remarkable technological discovery. When Yukariah Heap learned the news, he was unhesitant to contact the two neighboring systems of Sirius and Barnard.

At first, Krammer and Ayatullah Breshnev were a little skeptical about the crazy idea of "the fate of the universe", especially in this time of war, but after several long hours of conversing were finally convinced, except Krammer took a little longer than Ayatullah Breshnev.

However, before the Solar system or the Alpha-Centauri system could be contacted and/or convinced, the Human-Centuarians had blown a hole with a hyper bomb, pointing in the general direction of Betlejuice, as specified by Torra's and Ken's visions. Soon after that, the two were launched out in the direction of the hole, armed only with one hyper bomb. Instead of actually entering the hole on full ramscoops, however, they were to speed up so that they were only a few hundred kilometers away from the hyper hole, then switch to their plasma drive. The reason for this was that if they entered the hole at a non-zero speed, they would never come out—there was no second hole lined up with the first!

The two did as instructed, and soon were less than 100 km from the hole. Ken caused Mercurand to accelerate and decelerate with pinpoint accuracy, until it was only a few millimeters from the hole. He then fired the plasma drive and the zero-drive simoultaneously; the plasma drive would fire instantly, but in the few milliseconds it took for the 0-drive shutter to open and the power of the plasma drive absorbed into its system, the fighter will have edged into the hole, and the 0-drive will have brought it into Limbo, or dimension 3½.

In a soundless concussion of milliseconds, amidst a great surge of rattling, the two and their space ship had entered the fantastic universe of Limbo. The dimension was so spectacular, that Torra had to inform Yukariah Heap of what he saw just looking out the window:

"My god, this is great! I can see all the tints of the, yellow, green, blue, and, of course, white. I recognise some of these galaxies, but its difficult to get a fix on them because I'm travelling at about fifty-six quintillion times the speed of light. This is obviously our universe, and I'm sending a picture of it back to you. Unlike travelling at sub-light speeds, there's no distortion of time in limbo at this acceleration, nor is there any dopler effect. With all the star clusters and galaxies whizzing by, this is better than a laser show!"

Within about two hours of randomly changing speed, the two had arrived very near to the edge of the universe. Torra then came to the console, and sent in to the computer the command to launch the hyper bomb, and typed in the command to make it explode, but did not hit "RETURN". The bomb streaked out in front of Mercurand, and at the last possible instant, Torra stabbed his finger down on the large return key, and the bomb made its mark.

He hadn't much time to waste; he immediately typed in the command to, while he was braced to something, seal off the 0-drive. In a time not measurable by anything in the universe, the two and Mercurand were outside the hole, travelling at almost 60 psol. Before the two could recover from this shock, the ramscoops were shut off and put on "decelerate", and they were thrown to the front of the fighter. Nevertheless, both survived the twenty-second braking without any internal injuries.

Within a matter of minutes, the two were in the frontal control room of Mercurand, which had the biggest view. The sights here were even more phenomenal than those of Limbo.

"My god!", exlaimed Torra Zorra. "Look at that bright galaxy!!"

"That's no galaxy," replied Ken Tractor. "That can't be more than the size of a red giant, according to these scanner readings."


"Simple...that's a Quasar—a Quasi-stellar object. Now the Pentagon can be certain of what those bright-white objects are...left-over burning coals from the creation of the universe...glowing cinders from the Big Bang. How could anything else be so bright?"

As Torra Zorra looked out in awe at the brightest singular thing in the universe, Ken studied his long-range scanner. There were the usual readings of nearly starless voids, such as the ever-present cosmic rays, the few existing stars, the one Quasar and the one Hydrogen molecule per cubic decimeter (litre—in a galaxy it's one molecule per 10 cu. cm); up until a point. At that apparently infinite line (or ½-plane, if you prefer),all readings ceased. This couldn't have been a black or hyper-hole, for it was much too large, and it was moving away an an incredibly fast pace. There was only one thing it could possibly be. "Torra," announced Ken, "Come look at this!"

Torra slowly came over to the radar screen, with his head facing the Quasar, admiring its splendor still. But when he glanced down at the screen, his mind instantly snapped out of that world. There was that half-plane, just sticking out on that flat surface of a monitor. "What is that?", he inquired.

"There's only one possibility: that's the edge of the universe."

So, now it seems that all of the Pentagon's scientific theories about the universe were either proven or disproven. However, the chosen ones were about to discover just one more odd fact....

Torra once again returned to the viewing window to search for more unusual things, as all good scientists do. There was the Quasar, and the starless void at the end of the universe, but...what was that? It looked small, a good deal bright, and extremely blue-shifted. "Ken— what's this thing?"

As he came to the window, he announced, "I don't know. What could that be?"

When he looked at the radar screen, he saw nothing of the sort registering. It had to be in the void beyond the universe's edge. With this fact in mind, Ken knew exactly what it was.

"That's another Quasar," he announced, "Only beyond our universe, and coming toward us instead of away."

"But all Quasars have to be contained in a universe, so that means—"

They both knew what it meant. It meant that there was a second universe out there, converging on their own. And it seemed that another poignant theory was proven: several universes exist at once, and if they should ever touch each other, then the two will instantly, at the speed of infinity, zap back to the form they had before their big bang.

The two had to get back with this information, for according to the speed of the universes, it would only be a few H.-Centaurian days before they made contact with each other. This was undoubtedly armageddon. Ken set the course for the newly made hyper hole, then dashed with Torra to the water tanks. In five real hours, the two were back at their space station.

Yukariah was as frightened as anyone in the Human-Centauri system could've been. He immediately sent the word out to Krammer and Ayatullah Breshnev, who were more willing to believe it than they were before. Finally, when Alpha-Centauri and Sol were informed, all war-time efforts ceased. The chaos of war was replaced with orderly hoping and prayer. Although it was argued that more than the chosen two should go out and stop the universes, the idea was quickly dismissed.

There was hardly any conceivable way to stop the universes from colliding, until the Epsilon-Urandians gave the two a vision of two words: "Hyper...Bomb". At that point, the idea was made instant-ly clear.

Thw two would take a hyper bomb to the edge of the universe, and use it to blow a hole in the universe, and cause it to shrink instead of grow. Then everyone's problems would be solved for at least several billion years. They had no time to waste, as more than two Human-Centaurian days had already passed.

The two once again entered Mercurand-leader, but this time launching in a different manor. Instead of jumping immediately into the water tanks once the ramscoops, with their extreme acceleration, were started, they were going to place a large wall behind the frontal control room, and when the ramscoops were ignited, they would just be pinned horizontally to the wall, and when the acceleration period was over, they could easily return to the control panel within five seconds. This speed was essential, as the hyper bomb would have to be fired with accuracy of sight not obtainable by computer, and then they would have to get away extremely quickly.

After launching, Ken set the ramscoops and commanded the CRAY-44 to ignite them, and instantly lept back for the wall. The acceleration was a little more than either of them had expected, about five G's worth. Within a few seconds ship time, Mercurand found the hyper hole, and was instantly thrown to the edge of the universe.

By then, the acceleration had died down to a mere ¼ G, and Torra Zorra was able to easily pull himself upto the weapons console. The outskirts of the universe flashed by his eyes at an unconceivable speed, and yet he was going nowhere near the speed of the universe. That little push of speed had to be dished out by the electromagnetic launcher to the adjoining hyper missle. The few days of waiting for armageddon had reduced itself to less than an hour, or about fifty minutes. At the speed Mercurand was moving, those fifty minutes normal time were reduced to less than fourty seconds ship time.

Now not only was Torra Zorra pulled up to his console, but so was Ken Tractor, for after the universe was made to stop its growth process, it would fly back on them, at much faster than Mercurand was capable. And if the universe closed on them before they escaped through the hyper was not a concept worth thinking about, being trapped between universes in that way. But first, trillions of stars had to be saved.

The shot had to be timed perfectly, so that it could strike the universe within the timed limit (which was now only thirty ship-time seconds) and in addition give them enough time to escape. The explosion needed not be worried about, as it was armed with a proximity fuse.

Torra Zorra glared intently at the edge of the universe for several seconds. Suddenly, his fingers flew over the keyboard, a loud rumbling was heard through out the ship, and the hyper missle zipped out of the front of Mercurand. At that instant, Ken entered a single command into the keyboard, and Mercurand spun 180 degrees.

Neither Ken nor Torra would be able to see the universal disruption in the full and natural view of a window, but they would be able to "see" it via a twenty-four inch video monitor, although they had already re-accelerated to five G's. In the little video screen, the missle raced toward its intended target, as was visualized. As it was about to go out of sight, the two were distracted from the screen for a moment by a blinking red light on the warning panel, which indicated complications imminently. It couldn't be further from the truth, for now there were less than five seconds

Suddenly, the whole ship started rocking and warping with a strangeness never before thought possible. Was this armageddon? The two took a glance at the video screen. There, as plain as a Quasar, was a big hole torn in the fabric of the universe—moving toward them. The missle had done its most awe-inspiring duty. The universe was safe for matter once more. The two cheered with joy.

Their cheers were abruptly halted by a horrifying message from the computer terminal...the ramscoops had flamed out! Ken quickly lept from the wall, and sat before the console. Within a split-second, Torra had joined him.

Torra quickly ran a breakdown of the entire fighter. As he scanned the computer-drawn sketches of Mercurand, he saw the problem, sticking out like a sore elephant. It was centered in the cyclotron, used for shearing electrons off the Hydrogen atoms of open space. It seemed that one of its P-239 isotope racks had toppled over, and caused a dominoe effect on five other racks. He thought about this for several precious seconds, and then came to a solution.

He passed his agile fingers over the control console, and suddenly the airlock doors on the side of the cyclotron opposite the dominoe effect flew open. Torra could feel the rumbling of the air rushing out of the airlocks, and flinging out into space. Suddenly, a second, much stronger rumbling was felt, and Torra knew what it was.

When Torra heard the "ClackackacKackack" of the five isotope racks falling back into line, he entered the command for the airlock doors to close, and the cyclotron to fill with air. At a nod from his head, Ken entered the command for the ramscoops to fire.

Both of them were instantly torn from their seats, and plastered to the protective wall. In the rear screen, the universal shell slowed its approach tremendously. But the battle of technology versus universe was not over yet; there was still a long distance to go before Mercurand came to its hyper hole.

Suddenly, a small green light illuminated on the navigational instrument panel, and a small black point appeared at far range on the radar scanner. At last, Mercurand had found its gateway, and was closing in quickly.

Torra Zorra thought a bit about the relief of being out of all this. As his thoughts were searching through all that had happened, they finally came across the 0-drive, which was still on-board. It was enough that they had one item that broke all laws of physics, ie the hyper bomb, but that in accordance with the 0-drive would be much too havocky.

To Ken's great astonishment, Torra suddenly pushed himself away from the protective wall, constantly fighting the now double gravity. His feeble arms pulled and clambered over any protrusion available; normally he would never have made it. But this was a special case.

Against all odds, Torra had finally managed to pull himself into the seat of his console. He put forth his arms, and commanded the computer first to detatch the 0-drive from the plasma drive, and second to open the plasma-drive airlock. Lastly, the command was sent to spin the 0-drive at over five hundred revolutions per minute on its tip, and finally to release it in the opposite direction of Mercurand.

The little conical zero-drive promptly disappeared from plain rear view, and on long-range was seen disappearing through the hole in the universe.

Before Torra Zorra or Ken Tractor could be glad even for a few seconds, something rocked Mercurand-leader. They had made it through the hyper hole, back to the known section of universe they called their own. Now, only one thought haunted their minds: what would they do 20 million years later when the universe closed in on them???

Now that it was all over, a second meeting of the heads of the system leaders was scheduled on L1011-II to discuss peace terms. But never again would anything like a SALTY treaty be made. Nevertheless, all the representatives from all the systems made it there in time.

"Now then," announced Yukariah Heap, "I'm sure you all know what has happened in the recent past. That war we had was a foolish thing, and we shouldn't have to rely on petty things like the end of the universe to bring us out. Now, for some peaceful terms..."

As he was thumbing through his brief case, a short-of-height Alpha-Centaurian opened the meeting door, and trudged into the room. "What are you doing here," demanded Yukariah Heap, "Interrupting this important peaceful meeting?!?"

The little intruder pulled his hand from behind his back, and revealed a small box with a nozzle-like protrusion sticking out of one end. "As I was examining the remnants of Epsilon Urandi-I," he said, "I came across this little box. So far, however, I haven't been able to figure out what it does...."

The five representatives immediately crowded around the strange Centaurian with the even stranger-looking and "sounding" box. Why was it in the remains of E.Urandi-I, and more importantly, what was it??

Although the midget Centaurian tried to keep it away from the curious hands of everyone in the room, someone eventually got hold of it, and began searching for anything heat- or pressure-sentitive.

At first, none could find anything worth interest, but as it was being passed from person to person, Yukariah Heap finally found a small hatch on what was apparently the top of the device. When he opened it, it revealed a large red disc, almost entirely consuming the area uncovered by the hatch. Finally, pointing the nozzle in some awkward direction that he didn't take time to choose, Yukariah passed his right index finger over the disc.

Suddenly, Holsteader (also one of the device-grabbers) yelled for a split-second, tightened up, and fell forward; dead. The nozzle had accidentally been pointing at Holsteader!

As the meeting attendants examined the device and Holsteader's dead body, a sudden, powerful, psychic voice came into all their heads from the spirit world. It was that of Holsteader—so that was what that device was, because all his voice said was:

"WOW!!! I LOVE IT LIKE THIS!!!!!!!!!!"
   T      H     H   E            E         NN    N    D  D
   T      H     H   E            E         N N   N    D   D
   T      HHHHHHH   EEEEE        EEEEE     N  N  N    D    D
   T      H     H   E            E         N   N N    D   D
   T      H     H   E            E         N    NN    D  D
   T      H     H   EEEEEEE      EEEEEEE   N     N   DDDD
(or so they thought!)

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