Book: The Messenger
The Messenger Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
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Book 1 in The Messenger Series
J.N. Chaney Terry Maggert
Dash never asked to be a mech pilot, but fate has other plans.
On the run and out of chances, he guides his ship and crew into the heart of a relic older than the galaxy itself--and find himself on the edge of an eternal war he never knew existed.
The relic is an ancient mech, a powerful weapon from a lost age.
Built by a forgotten race to be the ultimate answer to a neverending war, the machine is capable of unspeakable destruction, and its discovery could unhinge the balance of power throughout the known galaxy.
Worse still, the A.I. inside the machine speaks of an ancient evil that will soon arrive--a race whose power far exceeds anything humanity has ever witnessed.
Only the Messenger can stand against them, the A.I. tells its new pilot. Only you can do what must be done.
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About the Authors
To our Dental Hygienist and friend Jennifer Long, without whom this collaboration would not have happened. Long may you floss!
Newton Sawyer took a deep breath, held it for a moment, let it out, then leaned closer to the vid. “I told you, Sammy, my friends call me Dash. Only my mother and the magistrates call me Newton.”
“But we’re not friends,” Sammy said, his voice a flat, mechanical construct that still somehow managed to ring with disdain. “We’re business associates at best. And, after this latest debacle, not even that.”
Dash offered his most charming smile to the amorphous mass that was Sammy. Concepts like gender, or even having a name, didn’t really apply to the Blobs—or if they did, not in any way someone who wasn’t also a living dollop of goo could understand. Dash didn’t care. Sammy and him were how this particular Blob wanted to be addressed, and since a Blob’s credits were as good a currency as anyone else’s, who was he to argue?
“Sammy, that hurts,” Dash said. “Cuts me to the core. Of course we’re friends. And friends help one another out.”
“The delivery was a failure.”
“Well, technically, sure. But that’s not my fault. Your middleman substituted some short-lived radioisotopes for what was supposed to be in the shipment. How was I supposed to know that? The fact that they’d mostly decayed away to nothing by the time I reached the buyer is—”
“The point,” Sammy said. “You were hired to deliver a working radioisotope generator to the buyer. That didn’t happen.”
“Yeah, but like I said, your middleman—”
“You accepted the shipment from him. That makes you accountable.”
“Just wait a second,” Dash said, holding up a hand. “I’m a courier, not a scientist, or whatever. I just deliver these things where and when I’m supposed to. I did that.”
“You were hired to deliver a working radioisotope generator to the buyer. That didn’t—”
“Okay, now you’re repeating yourself. Look, it was your middleman.”
“He’s not in my employ anymore, either.”
“Either? Sammy, you and me, we’re—”
“Concluding our business dealings, yes.”
Dash took another breath. “Okay, fine. If you just make payment, we can—”
“There will be no payment.”
“You were hired to deliver a working radioisotope generator to the buyer. That didn’t happen.”
Dash balled his fists under the console. “Sammy, you owe me—”
“Nothing,” the Blob said—and disconnected.
Dash stared at the vid for a moment, the only sound the various rumbles, whirs, and hums of the Slipwing’s systems. Then he punched the reconnect command into the comms.
“Sammy? Sammy, don’t you dare disappear on me. You owe me. Sammy? Sammy!”
But the vid stayed stubbornly stuck on the comm-provider’s splash screen. Dash hammered more commands into the system, but finally just got:
The receiver you are seeking is offline.
Dash slammed a fist down on the console. Something inside popped, then an acrid whiff of a burned-out circuit filled the Slipwing’s cockpit, followed by an error message on the diagnostics. It was just the latest of a dozen or so.
Fists still balled, Dash stood, almost smashing his head into the nav. That probably would have triggered more errors, and Dash had enough of those to deal with, but none of them really mattered because the Slipwing was almost out of fuel anyway.
Dash glared hard at the nav. “That’s three jobs now with no payoff,” he barked. “And none of them my fault for fucking up! Well, okay, that first one, maybe I shouldn’t have spent that extra night with the lounge singer on Corona Superprime. But she had all those boobs, and even a second…” Dash’s voice trailed off. He was yelling at the nav. Venting at a piece of tech designed to manage the complex calculations needed to enter and traverse unSpace. It was definitely not a good listener.
His glare became a scowl, still directed at the nav. “You know what? Screw Sammy, and screw those other assholes who cheated me out of my pay. While we’re at it, to hell with the galaxy.” Dash was nothing if not thorough in his wrath.
He spun and stalked out of the cockpit.
For its part, the nav just did what it always did—waited for navigational inputs so it could steer the Slipwing to wherever Dash wanted it to go. Which, right now, was nowhere.
Dash frowned at the bottle sitting beside the nav.
“Is it half-empty,” he asked the air, “or half-full?”
The background hum of the Slipwing was his only answer.
He gave a slow nod. “Yeah, I agree. Half-empty.”
He turned his attention back to the vid. It displayed the Needs Slate, a listing of jobs throughout the Galactic Arm. They were mostly short-term—one-shot contract jobs. But that was what couriers did. Retainerships, positions that were paid across multiple jobs, were as rare as black holes, and they sure didn’t go to small-time couriers like Dash. No, they went to the big courier ships, the ones with full crews and cargo holds, the ones that were corporations unto themselves.
“Bunch of assholes, in other words,” Dash muttered, grasping the bottle. He took a swig, gritting his teeth as the cheap brandy seared its way down his throat. “They got all the fuel they want ’cause they got contracts that actually pay.”
He cut himself off with another swig, tried the deep breath thing again, then turned his attention to the vid. Or he tried to, at least. But the world had gone soft around the edges, the data on the vid rippling like he was seeing it under water. He had to concentrate on each word, one after another, to get them to make sense.
A soft chime from the Slipwing’s master computer plucked Dash’s attention away from the vid, making him lose his train of thought. “What?”
“Fuel level is nearing critical,” the master said. “In six hours shipboard time, there will not be enough to both maintain full system power and travel to the nearest habitable—”
“I know, I know. What do you think I’m doing?” Dash paused to burp; it filled his mouth with the sour taste of warm brandy. “Not the best choice, I see.”
The master said nothing else. It had said all it needed to say. The Slipwing had enough anti-deuterium in its tanks to power the ship for a long time yet. But add in the amount needed to translate her through unSpace to the nearest port, and Dash had…
He looked at the engineering panel, took a moment to focus, then another to puzzle out what it was telling him. Enough fuel for another day, and then the Slipwing would be unable to go anywhere useful. Sure, she could keep him alive, but he’d be a world of one man, stuck in a remote place among the cold stars of the Galactic Arm. And even that wouldn’t last, and then she’d be his tomb. But if he translated now, he’d likely end up somewhere with no work. He might even have to sell the Slipwing just to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly, and that would leave him stuck planetside somewhere he wouldn’t want to be.
He checked the nav. Tilly’s Planet. That was the only habitable world he could reach from this desolate patch of space. So he’d be a permanent resident of Tilly’s Planet. But there were people on Tilly’s Planet he owed credits to. So not just a resident, but a resident-in-desperate-hiding.
“I’ll pass, I think,” he said, then turned back to the vid. There must be something on the Needs Slate he could do, some job he could pick up with the fuel he had left, that would pay enough to—
“Ah, there we go.”
The vid highlighted a one-shot, a contract to carry a data module from Penumbra to Traver’s Landing. Pay was pretty good and the contractor would pay toward up-front expenses, including fuel. And it was a sealed data module, so the courier’s sole responsibility was on-time delivery.
“Hmm. Beggars aren’t choosers and all that.” Dash leaned closer, thinking hard. The decision was simple; the command, even simpler.
He tapped at the vid, submitting his bid for the job. This would be perfect. Just a brief stop on Penumbra—he didn’t even have to go down to the surface, just rendezvous with a ship in orbit—fuel up, translate to Traver’s Landing, and get paid. Then he could get some of the Slipwing’s problems fixed and knock some of those error messages off the diagnostics.
Dash leaned back and closed his eyes. This would probably take a while, but he had nothing he needed to do for the moment. Rest, then, and a deep-seated hope that this worked out.
He heard a chime, sitting up as he blinked in surprise.
“Okay,” he said, rubbing his eyes to try to clear away some of the blur. “Quick answer like that must be good.”
Bid rejected. Only bonded couriers eligible.
Dash stared at the vid for a moment then hissed in frustration.
“I am bonded, you stupid—"
No. Wait. He was bonded. But then he’d carried those stims and other chems, and run afoul of a magistrate patrol. The one time he’d carried something illicit—or, at least, the one time he’d been caught doing it—and it cost him his bonded status until he could get cleared again. Which should be soon, maybe even now, but he’d forgotten about it.
“Well, this is a shitty development.”
Dash swung the bottle up, a heartbeat away from slamming it back down into the comms. Only a last-second sliver of sanity stopped him. Knocking out the comms would be it, wouldn’t it? Basically ensuring I’d stay right here, in the middle of nowhere, until the fuel ran out and I spent the rest of eternity a freeze-dried corpse in this chair.
He lowered the bottle and plunked it back on the console.
Again, he swore, but softer and with more feeling, if such a thing was possible.
“Doesn’t matter, though, does it?” Dash asked the air. “No job, so no fuel, so I’m good and fucked.” He grabbed the bottle again, lifted it, and announced, “Here’s to an early retirement. Whatever that looks like.”
He took a long, acrid pull from the bottle. As he did, another one-shot popped up on the Needs Slate, a new job that fit the filters he’d set.
Urgent…origin pending…destination pending…pay negotiable.
It had every hallmark of a shitty job that was probably illegal, almost certainly immoral, and would probably end badly.
Dash put the bottle down again and tapped at the comms. He entered a bid so low he might as well offer to pay for the privilege of working. Didn’t matter, though. He probably didn’t have enough fuel to get to the origin anyway. But what did it matter?
“When you’re screwed,” he murmured, transmitting his bid, “you might as well be good and screwed.”
That made Dash giggle, although he wasn’t really sure why. He was still giggling as he slumped back in the seat, and still giggling as he floated off into a sodden slumber.
Dash raised his head. It took a long time. And then it didn’t stay where he wanted it. It wobbled. And…that taste. If he’d thought burping that brandy was bad, it paled in comparison to letting it stew in your mouth for…how long had he been asleep, anyway?
Dash blinked. His eyes found the chronometer, narrowed, and worked at reading the display through the throb behind them. Almost three hours.
He turned to the comms. It still showed the Needs Slate. It also showed the last job he’d bid on, the one he’d practically offered to do for free, which was blinking, pinging, announcing that his bid had been accepted.
This was good. Really good. Of course, he’d be more enthusiastic if his head wouldn’t keep wobbling and pounding, his mouth still tasting of something vaguely dead. Or horribly alive. He couldn’t be sure which.
His gaze had brushed across the nav data for the job and kept going. His brain hadn’t, though. It did an intuitive calculation and concluded…
Dash blinked again.
Slowly, he stood, the reality of it pushing the wobble, throb, and vile taste aside. He had three minutes to initiate a translation into unSpace if he was going to make it at the prescribed time. Three minutes to change his life. To salvage his life.
Dash exploded into action, residual drunkenness and burgeoning hangover forgotten. He rattled off commands to the computer, at the same time hammering inputs into the nav and the flight control system. The Slipwing’s engines rumbled to life, accompanied by the rising whine of the unSpace translation drive. Dash furrowed his brow at the nav, making sure the coordinates matched the ones sent with the job.
“Wait, what? These coordinates are out in the middle of freaking nowhere!”
He glanced at the engineering chronometer. Twenty seconds to translation.
A destination in deep space. It would literally take years—a lot of them—to reach a habitable world from there, at the Slipwing’s best real-space speed. He’d run out of fuel and die gasping on cold, dead air years before he’d ever make it—again, a lot of them. With some jobs, he could drop only partly back into real space to do whatever needed to be done, but this one specified a full drop out of unSpace. That meant it was a hand-off job, transferring something from one ship to another. Dash hated hand-off jobs, because the pay usually sucked—and that was when he didn’t have to hope he could scrounge some fuel from the client, which wouldn’t be free, which meant he’d probably end up down in credits for all his trouble.
He reached for the Abort toggle, which would kill the spool-up of the translation drive and leave him right here, so he could find another, better-paying job, one that didn’t have him dropping into the void on fusion exhaust and a prayer.
Dash got his finger within a centimeter of the Abort toggle…and did something he didn’t really understand, then or later. It was intuition, a hunch, a feeling in his gut, something he couldn’t quite describe. Anyway, whatever it was, it made him turn and plunk himself down into the pilot’s seat and buckle in.
Dash had time to mutter, “I am such a moron.”
And then existence itself came to a dead stop—
—and started again, but in an entirely different place. The translation through unSpace was a bizarre combination of a long, tedious passage, and the passing of no time at all. Dash had done it many times and still didn’t quite get it. It meant he would arrive at the destination on time, while still having a leisurely spell to both shed his hangover and deeply regret making the journey at all.
He glanced at the nav, watching its display confirm his approach to the forsaken volume of empty space where the handoff would happen. Then he looked at another panel, the one that controlled the Fade. It was his escape hatch, the one thing that stopped him from slumping completely into despair at what was no doubt a fool’s errand. Ships were normally either in real space, or in unSpace, with nothing in-between. The Fade, though, was just that, an in-between. The Slipwing could translate only partway between the two types of space, effectively straddling the boundary between both. Not only did it give the Slipwing a nifty sort of “cloaking effect”—something he’d so far used to get out of trouble exactly as often as he’d gotten into it—it also let Dash poke his nose back into real space, and then decide if he wanted to translate all the way. And, since the translation drive burned most of its fuel during the shift into unSpace, it meant he could take a look at the job, decide nah, screw it, then translate fully back into unSpace and still be able to carry on to Penumbra. Probably. Sure, he’d still be broke and out of fuel by the time he got there, of course, but at least he wouldn’t be stranded in between the stars.
“Okay,” he said to the Slipwing, “we’re going to do this, sweetheart. You just keep yourself together.” The downside of the Fade was the stress it put on the ship, as well as the sheer piloting skill required to use it. A minor miscalculation, a tiny maneuver, and he and the Slipwing would be a cloud of molecular debris.
The nav put them close now. Dash engaged the Fade, then braced himself for the weirdness of being in two realities at once.
His perspective shifted, then split. Pain throbbed behind his eyes as everything went, not really double, but that was the only way to describe it. It was like being hungover again, but with none of the upsides.
Nothing. The coordinates in dead space were just that—dead space.
So, a bust. Well, toe hell with whoever posted that job. He’d report them to the agency that ran the Needs Slate, make sure they never managed to leave some other bastard on his way to becoming a corpsicle.
“Any ship! Any sh…<garbled>…attack! We…<garbled>…assistance! Any ship, please…<garbled>”
Dash stared at the comms. The message had been vox only, and even then only parts of it were intelligible, the rest lost in the spatial distortion around the reality-straddling Slipwing. That didn’t mean it came from nearby, of course. It could have come from light-days, light-weeks, even light-months away.
But the sudden flare of energy discharges on the scanner immediately said no, the message came from close by. The discharges were weapons fire. Just like the frantic message had said, someone was under attack.
Which meant a battle was raging across this empty piece of space, and if Dash dropped entirely out of unSpace, he’d be smack in the middle of it.
“Any sh…<garbled>…attack! Please…<garbled>…
“Sorry,” Dash said to the comm, “but I don’t think so.” He reached for the nav to get its unSpace course redirected to Penumbra. “Best of luck, whoever you—”
“Pay…<garbled>…anything you want, just…<garbled>…
Dash’s hand froze over the nav at the word pay but drew back at anything you want.
He looked at the scanner. While he was using Fade, the Slipwing’s sensors had only a very coarse resolution when it came to seeing into real space. All he could tell was that two ships were exchanging energy-weapons fire. One of them seemed to mass a lot more than the other, but that was it.
Someone was desperate—probably, but not necessarily, the smaller vessel. If he dropped out of Fade and fully back into real space, and was able to help them, the pay-off might be pretty good. If he was able to help them. If the other ship wasn’t vastly more powerful and, together, they were able to drive it off or destroy it. If they weren’t actually criminals, running from the magistrates, so aiding them would slap a warrant on Dash, too. If they weren’t stretched for resources themselves, had some fuel to spare…and if they weren’t just lying, and this was all some sort of set up.
Dash had a hundred reasons to just punch back into unSpace and fly away. That was the smart thing to do. He had almost no reasons to get involved in…whatever this was. Just that someone needed help, and they were desperate.
He heaved out a sigh. Smart keeps you alive. Sometimes, though, dumb makes you rich.
Again, leaning on nothing but hunch and instinct, Dash dropped the Fade and plunged the Slipwing back into real space.
The battle abruptly resolved in the scanner, in all its horrifying detail.
A small, Raven-class scout ship raced ahead of…something. Something big. A massive ship, of a design Dash didn’t recognize. Neither did the scanner.
Whatever it was, it was bad.
Faint, bluish tendrils of Cherenkov radiation flickered where particle cannons blasted through wisps of interstellar gas and dust, reaching for the Raven like grasping fingers. Only some spectacular maneuvers kept them away from the Raven, corkscrewing gyrations and slamming turns and accelerations flinging the smaller ship through a mesh of ghostly beams. Even so, the Raven trailed an ionized wake of vaporized metal, the result of some hits. The scanners couldn’t resolve much detail about the Raven otherwise, like how damaged it actually was.
“Well,” Dash muttered, “this was probably a mistake.”
The comms erupted with a clipped woman’s voice. “You, new ship! We need your help!”
Dash scowled at the comms. “Who, me? Hey, sorry, I’m just passing through.”
“You signed on for our job! You have to help us!”
Ah. Oh. So this was the mysterious employer whose job he’d taken. Technically, the voice was right, then—he was under a contractual obligation to fulfill the terms. But no adjudicator would ever suggest that meant committing suicide, because that was what this would be. The big ship had ignored the Slipwing—so far—but that would change fast, Dash suspected, if he stuck his nose into this. And the Slipwing’s two particle cannons wouldn’t be much of a response. He did have some missiles with translation drive, which could let them avoid detection from real space, but not many—and they were bloody expensive.
Sue me, assuming you aren’t just a cloud of expanding vapor sometime in the new few minutes.
What he said, though, was, “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t see what I—"
“Listen, we’re carrying something…let’s just say, it’s extremely valuable. That’s why they’re chasing us. Our translation drive is out, so we need you to pick us up and get us away from here!”
Dash narrowed his eyes at the comms. “How valuable is extremely valuable?”
“More valuable than you can imagine.”
“I have a big imagination.”
“Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Dash curled his lip. In the end, his reluctance didn’t really matter, did it? The Slipwing didn’t have enough fuel to translate, so there really wasn’t much choice here. “Look, I need fuel. Bring your valuable whatever-it-is and a tank of anti-deuterium, and—wait, how many of you are there?”
Two. Okay, that was something, at least. Given what he had in mind, trying to take aboard more than two or so was pretty much a non-starter.
“Alright,” Dash said, “just keep yourselves in one piece until I’m in position. This is going to happen fast, and we’re only going to get one shot at it.”
And we probably won’t survive it anyway, but there was no need to actually say that.
“We’ll do our best. Hurry!”
“Believe me,” Dash muttered, fingers dancing over the Slipwing’s controls, “hurrying is the only way this is gonna work.”
With a flare of fusion exhaust, the Slipwing spiraled toward the battle. As soon as she did, several particle beams lanced out from the massive ship chasing the Raven, aimed at Dash. He winced at the power levels displayed for those beams—big weapons, at full power, too—then punched commands into the magnetic drive, slewing the Slipwing sideways as he did to keep her ablative armor pointed at the looming mass of the attacking ship. He then slammed her through a series of accelerations so hard the inertia offsets couldn’t keep up. A low groan rattled her superstructure as his stomach alternately dropped into his gut, then shoved up against his lungs.
“C’mon, sweetheart, you got this.”
All but one of the particle beams missed. An alarm buzzed as one raked across the armor, spalling glowing, ablated chunks into the Slipwing’s wake. Each second, though, brought her closer to the Raven.
Now he had to hold the Slipwing on a steady course, which meant the particle beams found their mark. More alarms sounded, and more armor vaporized. Dash gritted his teeth then spun the ship around.
“Okay,” he shouted at the comms, “cut your engines!”
“What? Are you crazy? We—”
“Cut your engines or we’re both done!”
He heard the sound of a heartbeat, then the exhaust flare trailing the Raven died. The Slipwing, still accelerating, immediately closed. As she zipped past, Dash activated the magnetic drive. It was a low-power system, intended for in-system use, letting a ship ride the magnetic fields of stars and planets as a fuel-saving measure. He’d reconfigured it, though, to—
—to latch onto the Raven, whose mass yanked the Slipwing her sideways, and slowing her so much that it punched the air from Dash’s lungs. Both ships, locked together by the mag-drive, tumbled off on a new course, disrupting the attacker’s firing solutions. The particle beams tore through empty space, as the massive ship overtook its quarry.
Dash ignored the massive ship sliding past the cockpit ports as they spun. His fingers tapped the maneuvering thrusters, bringing the Slipwing’s docking port into line with that of the Raven. There was a metallic clunk as they joined, then Dash shouted at the comms, “Now would be a good time to come aboard!”
The lock indicator went red as the hatch opened. Dash gritted his teeth at the scanner. The mag-locked ships spun along the flank of their looming attacker, only a few thousand meters away. Thrusters flared along the massive hull, as it sought to shove itself back into a firing position. As he’d hoped, this close, the particle beams couldn’t get a firing solution, but that wouldn’t last.
He scowled at the lock indicator. Still red.
“C’mon, let’s go.”
The scanner blared a warning. Something had just lit them up—a fire control system. A particle beam lanced past, accompanied by a crash of static on the comms. Way too close.
He hit the thrusters, rotating the Slipwing and its temporary docking-mate. The particle beam fired again, slamming into the Raven with a dazzling flash, another crash of static, and a spray of vaporized hull. Yeah, that was a critical hit. He felt a little bad about using the Raven as what amounted to extra armor for the Slipwing, but you do what you gotta do.
Another warning sounded. The Raven’s fusion drive was failing. In the rush, whoever had been piloting it hadn’t shut the reactor down. Now, still generating plasma as hot as the surface of a star, it was about to lose containment. The flash of stellar heat would vaporize them both.
Dash said, “Shit!” and jammed a hand toward the mag-drive. Even if it decompressed the Slipwing through an open lock, he couldn’t wait any longer.
The lock indicator went green. With one hand, Dash killed the mag drive, letting the stricken Raven spin away. With the other, he stabbed the thrusters, rotating the Slipwing onto the most awkward heading he could envision for their attacker to follow, then punched his own fusion drive. The Slipwing accelerated like a bullet from a slug-thrower. Particle beams reached out for her, converging like the fingers of a clenching fist. Several scoured the hull, while one raked across the rear armor protecting the fusion drive.
Then the Raven exploded in a searing flash. Incandescent plasma washed over the Slipwing, but she’d gained enough distance that it was a tenuous cloud, just enough to singe the ablative armor. The EM pulse of the blast was more damaging, provoking overloads and showers of sparks from injured electronics. Dash scanned the status board. Fortunately, all the failures were secondary systems—or, at least, secondary to the immediate goal of staying alive.
After a thump from behind him, Dash turned and found himself staring at a woman. She was of middling height, with dark blonde hair, green eyes—actually, very green eyes—and she was pretty good looking, actually.
“Welcome aboard Dash spacelines,” he said, offering a grin. “Sole proprietor Dash Sawyer, at your service.”
The woman’s lips curled. “What kind of name is Dash?”
“Mine, for starters.”
“Viktor has the fuel. He’s loading it now.”
Dash glanced at the status. Sure enough, the anti-deuterium level was coming up from, well, pretty much zero. Whoever Viktor was, he knew his stuff. Tapping into the fuel system from inside the Slipwing was a complicated job, but this Viktor had managed it in just a few minutes.
“You used the blast from my ship as a smokescreen,” the woman said, pointing at the scanner. “That was after you used it as a shield.”
“Yeah, look, sorry about that, but—”
“No, it was smart. Buys us time. You still owe me a ship, though.”
“Uh, yeah, I don’t think so.”
He saw her weary smile and grinned back. “Okay,” he said, “so between that cloud of plasma out there blinding them, and the time it will take them to turn that beast around, we should—”
He was cut off by a warning buzz. Another fire control system had found them. No, wait. Two. No, now three.
Dash spun back to the Slipwing’s controls. “Shit! Missiles!” They accelerated far faster than the Slipwing ever could, which meant they had thirty seconds, maybe, to detonation.
Dash watched as the missiles raced in. Their trajectory was flawless; their speed, incredible.
He grimaced at the screens.
“Okay,” a gruff voice called from deeper inside the Slipwing. “You should have enough!”
Dash didn’t wait for the voice to finish. The fuel level was low, but there was enough for him to activate the Fade. The Slipwing did her namesake thing and slipped from real space to unSpace. Energy bursts showed the missiles detonating, both right on top of the them and an entire reality away.
Dash let the thrumming tension in his muscles relax and turned to the woman. As he did, a man as gruff as the voice he’d heard appeared behind her. He was older, kinda grizzled, and was that a pencil behind his ear?
Dash turned his smile on the man. “Viktor, I take it?”
“Damned good work on that fuel thing.”
“Damned good work is what I do.”
Dash wheeled his smile back to the woman. “And I don’t think I caught your name.”
The woman blinked. “My name, I’m…”
That was all she managed before her eyes—her very green eyes—rolled back and she slumped into Viktor’s grasp, either unconscious or dead.
Dash eyed the man named Viktor sidelong. On closer inspection, he was even more grizzled than he appeared, with hair once brown, now greying, tossed in a wild tangle of curls and spikes that blended into a scruffy beard and moustache. He had puckered scars on his hands—probably plasma burns—and wore shabby blue coveralls with a blaze of orange splashed across the back with mag boots, and he had a plasma pistol and sundry tools hanging from a maintenance harness. Viktor had just explained how he’d managed to so quickly transfer anti-deuterium fuel from the containment tank he’d brought during their desperate scramble from the Raven. The tank, now empty, was still hooked by magnetic transfer conduit into the Slipwing’s unSpace drive cooling system.
The cooling system. There was no way that should have worked; the only result should have been a colossal explosion as anti-deuterium contacted some component or other, each annihilating the other to raw energy. But here they were, entirely explosion-free.
“I’d never even have considered that,” Dash said. He shook his head at the collection of compromises and workarounds that had allowed Viktor to co-opt a system meant to dump excess heat from the translation drive’s matter/anti-matter reactions and use it to put fuel into the system instead. “Not in a million years.” He looked at Viktor. “You could have vaporized us, and probably everything else within a few light-seconds.”
Viktor shrugged. “Could have, but didn’t.” He scratched the ear not holding a pencil. “In any case, we wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
“You’re kinda crazy, Viktor.”
He gave a toothy grin. “The best engineers are. So are the best pilots. I’ve never seen flying like you did back there.”
It was Dash’s turn to shrug. “I guess we’ve all got what we’re good at.”
A tone chimed over the intercom. Dash had set it to alert them when the woman—whose name, apparently, was Leira—woke up. This hadn’t been the first chime, though. She’d been drifting in and out of unconsciousness for hours, now. Viktor described how she’d smashed her head into a panel during a hard acceleration burn, right before Dash had shown up. She’d seemed okay, but head wounds were notorious for being lethal, no matter how trivial.
“Hello? Anyone around?”
The voice had come through the intercom. It jarred Dash a little to hear a woman’s voice echo through the Slipwing. Or, at least, a woman’s voice that wasn’t crying out in pleasure.
“She’s awake,” Viktor said, then gestured to the bastardized cooling system. “I’ll put this back the way it was, if you want to go talk to her.”
Dash took a last look at Viktor’s amazing improvisation, trying to commit it to memory. It really wasn’t that complicated, but oh shit was it dangerous. Of course, no more dangerous than having a bunch of missiles bearing down on you.
He finally nodded to Viktor and headed back along the narrow passage leading forward from the Slipwing’s engineering bay, toward her habitation module.
Leira sat up in what was actually Dash’s bed, the only one in the ship not laden with stuff—miscellaneous containers, components, and things that were, frankly, junk. Dash couldn’t bring himself to just toss the latter out, though. After all, you never knew when you might need an energy transfer junction—for an entirely different type of ship than the Slipwing, sure, but it might be adaptable, and it might even be worth something, if he ever thought to try selling it.
Leira smiled as Dash leaned in through the hatchway, then immediately winced. “Ow. That hurts.”
“Well, my auto-doc is a pretty basic model. It scanned you and just told us to let you rest. Now that I think of it, it says that for a lot of things, actually.”
“I think I’ve had enough rest,” Leira said, gingerly touching her head. “What I need now is something for the pain.”
Dash nodded at a small box on the deck beside the bunk. “Figured you would. Good stuff, too. Takes the worst edge right off a hangover.”
As Leira fished out the painkillers, Dash took a moment to take her in. Such green eyes. Emerald green. And that was just one beautiful part of a stunning woman.
The green eyes were looking at him. “Got any coffee?”
“Yeah. It’s a beverage, made from hot water and—”
“No, I know what coffee is. If you just need something to wash those pills down, there’s a flask of water right there.”
“Water is meant to be made into coffee.”
Dash shrugged his surrender. “Galley’s this way, if you’re up to walking.”
Leira clambered to her feet, wobbled a bit, then followed him along the passage.
“I guess,” she said from behind him, “I owe you a pretty big thank you, for saving us.”
“You do. You also owe me payment, per that contract.”
They entered the tiny galley.
Leira nodded, then winced as she did. “I guess we do. And we’ll make it good, once we—”
“Here we go.”
Leira frowned. “What?”
Dash crossed his arms and looked into those so-green eyes, now much closer thanks to the cramped little space. Huh, green, with some golden-brown flecks.
“The oldest story there is for couriers. Yes, I’ll pay you what I owe, just as soon as I get to this place and sell that thing to those people.”
“Sorry, I don’t carry around many credits.”
Dash pointed out the hot water dispenser, then the storage locker where he kept the coffee. He only drank the stuff occasionally himself.
“This is coffee?” Leira scowled at the container. “Not much of a coffee drinker, are you?”
“No, I am not. But, hey, feel free to return to your friends back there and see if they’ll offer you a cup.”
She sighed. “This’ll do.”
“So,” Dash said, “while we’re on the subject, who were your friends back there, anyway? And how’d you get onto what’s pretty obviously their bad side? Oh, and how about that really, stupendously valuable something you mentioned? Is that what they were after? And is that what you intend to sell?”
Leira put a coffee pack into a clean-ish mug and added steaming water, and the earthy aroma flooded the little galley. “To answer your last two questions, yes and no.”
“Okay, how about my first few questions?”
Leira sipped coffee and winced again—this time apparently at the taste, though—and said, “There are some things it’s better for you to not know.”
She gave Dash an earnest look. “Look, you did Viktor and I a huge favor. We thank you for it and will make sure you get paid…well. But you really don’t want to know anything more about our business than that.”
“Yeah, see, here’s the thing. It sounds like whatever really valuable something you have is probably aboard my ship right now. Whatever it is, the crew of that middling-asteroid-sized ship we barely managed to escape…well, they seem to want it pretty bad. You seem to think you’re protecting me from bad shit by not telling me what it is, but that only says to me that it’s really really valuable, or really dangerous. Or, more likely, both.” Dash uncrossed his arms and pushed his gaze into those oh-so-green eyes, looking past the beautiful and into the woman beneath. “So, you see my problem here. I’m really not good with not knowing what this something is, why it’s so valuable, why it’s so dangerous, who’s after it, and how far they’re willing to go to get it.”
Leira shook her head. “Please…Dash, right? Please, don’t press me on this. It’s better for you to not—”
“Know, yeah, I hear you. And I’m saying I don’t give a shit about what you think I should know or not know, because when it comes to my ship—”
“Leira,” a gruff voice cut in from the passage outside the galley, “you’re going to have to tell him.” Viktor leaned into the galley, which would no way fit all three of them.
“Viktor,” she replied, “please, we talked about this.”
“That was before Clan Shirna discovered we had…the something, as Dash here calls it. But I think he’s earned the right to know, considering he saved us from them. Besides, we no longer have a ship. This one is far from perfect, but it’s good enough, and Dash is an amazing pilot.”
“What do you mean good enough?” Dash snapped. “The Slipwing is a damned fine ship. Good enough to save your sorry asses.”
Viktor held up a hand. “Yes, yes, my apologies. Your Slipwing is an excellent ship, but it could be better. I’ve already seen a dozen things that could be refined and turned.”
Dash thought about Viktor’s cobbled-together refueling rig. “There’s this damned hum in the auxiliary fusion generator I can’t get rid of. Makes my teeth vibrate any time I’m near it. Think you could take a look?”
“Probably a harmonic in the containment field. Yes, I can probably fix it. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now. Leira?”
Leira looked from Viktor, to me, then sighed. “Fine. Go ahead, Viktor, show him.”
In answer, Viktor extracted something from what Dash had assumed was just another tool pouch on his harness. It was a faceted, crystalline disk just small enough that he could hold it in one hand. Dash peered at it. It looked like a big gemstone. But he didn’t recognize the type, and couldn’t even really decided what color it was. It looked black at first glance, but might actually be a really dark blue, or maybe purple, or even red.
“Okay,” Dash finally said, entirely underwhelmed. “So it’s a big gem? I mean, okay, sure. But I could probably repli-print this exact same thing back in engineering. Hardly seems worth, well, any of this.”
Dash deflated. He’d been hoping for a big payoff, and got this. A piece of crystalline matter that, in the distant past, might have been rare and valuable. But when you could print things pretty much one atom at a time, things like this were worth pretty much nothing.
“It is not a gem,” Leira said. “It is a device.”
“Ah,” Dash said. “And what does this device do that makes it so special?”
Leira looked at Viktor, who just nodded.
“What it does,” she said, “is make stars explode.”
Dash stared at Leira, then at Viktor, then at the gem.
Then he laughed.
“That makes stars explode. Really. Well, then, that sure would make it pretty valuable.”
The grave looks he got in return said that these two actually meant—actually believed—what Leira had just said.
Dash, still grinning, shook his head. “You guys…okay, look, I think we’ve all agreed that I have the right to really know what—”
“This is no joke, Dash,” Leira said. “It’s no lie. This is the Lens of Eternity. It’s Unseen tech. I don’t know why it was created, but I do know what it can do. It can make stars explode.”
“It can, can it? And just how does it manage to do that?”
“It is a hybrid sort of tech,” Viktor said. “It somehow integrates our real space, and a parallel anti-space, into a single, self-contained universe, for lack of a better word. Just like the deuterium and anti-deuterium we use to power our translation drives mutually annihilate each other, so do the space and anti-space that are bridged by this device. The amount of power generated is colossal, at least equal to the instantaneous output of a blue giant star.”
Dash looked at the Lens, then back to Viktor. “Right. And what does it do with all that energy?” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, wait, you told me all ready. It blows up stars.”
Viktor frowned at Dash’s flippant tone. “It does. It opens a wormhole into the target star, and somehow causes its core to begin fusing light elements into iron.”
“And iron,” Leira cut in, “is the end of the line for a star. Iron fusion uses more energy than it produces. It causes negative fusion, as it were. Without the outward pressure from positive fusion to balance its own gravitation, the star collapses.”
“Then. . . boom,” Viktor said, mimicking an explosion with the hand not holding the Lens. “Depending on the size of the star, what’s left is a white dwarf or a neutron star. We don’t think it can affect stars large enough to collapse into black holes, but we’re not even sure of that.”
“I know how stars work,” Dash snapped, then glared at the Lens. “And I know you can’t blow them up with…something you can hold in your hand. I mean, shit. Come on, you can’t really believe this.”
“It’s Unseen tech,” Leira said. “So, yeah, it’s crazy by, definition—from our perspective. But for the Unseen, this might have been the sort of thing everyone carried around in their pocket.”
Dash shook his head again. But it lacked some of his earlier conviction. Unseen tech was almost utterly inscrutable, so Leira’s and Viktor’s story was plausible. Unseen tech was also extraordinarily rare; that, together with it often being immensely powerful, made it even more immensely valuable. If this Lens could actually do what they said it could, it really might be worth as much as they claimed.
“Okay, fine. Let’s say for a minute I believe you, and that you aren’t deluded, and actually know what you’re talking about. Where did it come from? How did you get your hands on it?”
“It came from the Globe of Suns.”
Dash narrowed his eyes, thinking. The Globe of Suns was a stellar cluster, located on the far side of the Shadow Nebula, a colossal cloud of dust and gas that dimmed and obscured everything beyond it. Dash had never been to within more than a few light-years of the Shadow Nebula because, as a courier looking to do work to keep body and ship together, he’d never had any reason to. There was nothing out that way. The only other thing he recalled about the Shadow Nebula was that it was strange for its type of phenomenon, studies of it seeming to suggest it was formed by the explosion of not just one, but several stars, all over a short span of time.
Dash looked at the Lens. It glittered back at him, enigmatic crystalline. “Okay, so how did you get it? And this Clan Shirna? Who are they? Did you steal it from them?”
Leira opened her mouth, but Viktor held his empty hand again. “This is as much as we tell you now, Dash. Leira was right, there are some things you don’t need to know. What we have told you should be enough to convince you that we really are carrying something truly valuable and important.”
“Hopefully,” Leira said, draining the last of her coffee, making a soft yuck sound as she did, “it will likewise be enough to convince you to take us back to…somewhere, anywhere, where we can get ahold of some sort of ship.”
Dash considered the two of them, and the supposed Lens. “I’m going to take us out of Fade, fully into unSpace, and head for Penumbra. That’s about as far as the fuel you gave me will take us. Don’t know if you’ll find a ship there, but you can probably get passage to somewhere you can. That is, assuming you’ve got more to bargain with than”—he pointed at the Lens—“well, that.”
“We have some credits,” Viktor said.
“You mean I’ve got some credits,” Dash countered. “Remember, you still owe me.”
“And you’ll get paid,” Leira said. “Just get us to Penumbra.”
Dash took a last look at the Lens then shook his head. “You really believe that thing can—wow, can’t believe I’m saying this. You really believe that that thing there, that you’re holding in your hand, in my galley, can actually blow up a star?”
Leira said, “Yes, I do.”
Viktor nodded. “So do I.”
He studied their faces. Dash considered himself a pretty good judge of character; moreover, an accomplished liar, he always prided himself on being able to see through most lies.
These two weren’t lying. They really did believe what they were claiming.
As Dash extricated himself from the galley and headed for the cockpit to get them underway to Penumbra, he chewed on how remarkable that would be. And by remarkable, he meant utterly insane.
Still, the Shadowed Nebula was the remnants of a bunch of stars that should not have all exploded at once, but apparently did. That didn’t mean this Lens was responsible for it, of course.
But it also didn’t mean it wasn’t.
Of course, as he clambered into the Slipwing’s cockpit and turned his attention to the nav, it stuck him that all he really knew was that Leira and Viktor believed what they were saying. Whether they were right or not was one question.
He called up the nav data for Penumbra, but paused and looked out at the Fade-distorted ghost of real space.
Whether or not they were totally deluded, well, that was another, entirely separate question, wasn’t it?
With a flare of Cherenkov radiation from suddenly-displaced particles, the Slipwing translated out of unSpace and back into the real version.
Dash instinctively watched the scanner. Penumbra hung in the black, a cloud-mottled, bluish sphere, the reflected light from its star washing out all but the brightest stars. It made the universe look a lot emptier. But Dash wasn’t concerned about the planet. His attention was fixed on the traffic going to and coming from the planet. There wasn’t much, because Penumbra was a frontier world—and a bit of a shithole at that. But any of the dozen or so ships transiting toward and away from the planet could be trouble—magistrates on the prowl for law-breakers (and Dash still had a warrant on him, one he hadn’t yet been able to bribe away), someone he owed money, even a desperate courier turning to piracy as a way to make some quick credits. But none of this traffic fit any of those profiles. They were either lumbering freighters bringing to Penumbra the stuff they couldn’t grow or make for themselves, or smaller ships streaking about on business of their own.
Dash relaxed a notch or two. Those first few moments following translation were always nerve-wracking, because you didn’t become a successful courier without making a few enemies or bending the occasional law. And this time, he couldn’t even translate back away, or even get much use from the Fade, because the fuel Viktor had jury-rigged into the translation drive was all but expended.
“How long until planetfall?”
Dash turned and found Leira leaning into the cockpit. “About two hours shipboard,” he said. Leira nodded, but made no immediate move to withdraw. Dash gestured at the almost-never-used copilot’s seat. “Autodoc said you’re supposed to take it easy. That was a pretty nasty concussion.”
“You should feel it from this side,” she said, sliding into the seat. Dash noted she did it with the natural, fluid grace of someone used to cramped cockpits. He’d originally thought Viktor was the pilot, engineer, and the rest of the crew all rolled into one, and Leira was his passenger, someone with a background in Unseen and other ancient tech. But, watching her while they’d translated to Penumbra, and now—the way she readily maneuvered herself around the nav, past the scanner and engineering station and into the seat made it clear she was more.
“You’re a courier, aren’t you?” he said.
Leira nodded, then winced at the movement. “Note to self, don’t move the damned head too fast. Anyway, yes, a courier, like you.”
“So that Raven was your ship?”
“Ours. Viktor and I have been together—well, a long time now.”
“Seems like a hell of an engineer.”
“If it’s broken, Viktor can fix it. If it’s not broken, he can make it work better.”
“So, you two are partners.”
She nodded again, but this time slowly and gently. “We are. Works way better than going it alone.” She gave Dash level gaze, meeting his eyes without fear.
To which he smiled. “Yeah, well, I’m a loner. Always have been. Don’t get close to people, because that just makes life complicated. Same reason I never work for the same employer twice.”
“You’ll eventually run out of employers.”
“It’s a big Galactic Arm.”
They sat in silence for a while, surrounded by the pervasive hum, whine, and rumble of the Slipwing’s workings. Finally, Leira said, “You really don’t believe what we told you about the Lens, do you?”
“You have to admit, it’s pretty…”
“Insane works, yeah.” He made a minute adjustment to their course, then shrugged. “You genuinely believe it, though, and that makes it hard to just, well, write it off as nothing but insanity.”
“You don’t suspect we’re grifters, then?”
“Is that what you’d suspect if you were me?”
She chuckled. “Absolutely.”
“Well,” Dash said, “if you are, you’re pretty dedicated to your scams. You should be kinda broken up about losing your ship. But you aren’t. You seem a lot more relieved that you were able to get off it with your Lens thing. That tells me how important you believe this Lens to be.”
“Maybe we stole that ship and just didn’t care about losing it.”
“Are you trying to convince me you’re con artists? If so, it’s a lousy way to con someone.”
“No. I’m just trying to put myself in your place.”
“Because I suspect that we’re going to get to Penumbra, find no ships willing, or able, or even suitable for our use, except this one,” Leira said.
“If you plan to stick around, we’ll need a new contract.”
“Spoken like a true courier. And that’s assuming, of course, you don’t mind having people around to risk, you know, getting close to them.”
Dash glanced sidelong at Leira. Good couriers could play people—play them against one another, or even against themselves. He suspected Leira might be doing that now, hinting at things she thought might influence Dash—pleasurable things.
And she was right. They would influence him. Absolutely they would.
A burst of radio chatter interrupted them. It was Penumbra traffic control.
Dash glanced at Leira, who nodded. “I’ll get out of your way,” she said. “Talk to you once we’re planetside.”
Dash nodded and turned to the comms, ready to start inputting their insertion trajectory to the planet called Penumbra.
Spice, reclamation projects, and whores. Those who knew Penumbra said these were the three fundamentals of the planet’s economy.
And not necessarily in that order.
Dash ambled out of the Slipwing’s assigned landing bay, a series of blast shields and exhaust deflectors intended to protect nearby ships from damage as others took off and landed. Leira and Viktor followed him. Leira insisted her head was clear and shrugged off Viktor’s efforts to help her along, an ongoing, bitchy chatter between the two of them that brought an amused smile to Dash’s face. It was like listening to some old, married couple, and that, right there, was the problem with having a partner. He liked going solo; if he felt like walking fast, or slow, or running, or any number of other things, he could do it without having to explain or account for it to someone else.
Viktor gave Leira a last scowl, muttered something about her being too damned stubborn for her own good, then asked, “Where are you going first, Dash?”
“Fuel. We’ve got enough to go absolutely nowhere. There’s a place…don’t know if you know it, it’s called Eternal Grind. The owner’s a friend of mine. She always gives me a good price on stuff.”
They crossed a sprawling, empty plaza called the crash zone, because that’s exactly what it was, a broad expanse of nothing separating the Penumbra space port from the nearby town, intended to buffer the latter from mishaps at the former. It was psychological protection at best, of course. Not only could a ship crash on top of the town as easily as anywhere else, but a containment failure in a fusion generator or, much, much worse, an anti-deuterium cell, would vaporize everything within many kilometers anyway. Dash wasn’t sure how much the locals even dwelt on it. He sure didn’t, and he flew what amounted to a many-megaton bomb.
Through the crash zone, they pushed into the warren of twisting streets, crooked alleys, drab buildings, and throngs of lifeforms that was called Penumbra City. It was midday, with the reddish sun hanging at the zenith, the sky pink around it fading toward purples near the horizon. It cast everything in a pink-brown light that rendered Penumbra City in a dreary sort of sepia tone. It made distinguishing individuals in the crowd a little harder than it would under a brighter, whiter sun, so Dash kept a sharp eye roving over the bustling mobs chattering and haggling around kiosks and wandering the streets. He hadn’t seen any ships he recognized on the Penumbra landing registry, but that didn’t mean there weren’t people here he didn’t particularly want to meet.
As they worked their way around an outdoor bar sprawled around a building made of cargo containers and what looked like hull plating, Dash noticed Leira and Viktor were just as alert. Part of it was, of course, because she was a courier, too, and the job just tended to attract trouble. But part of it was probably because Viktor was carting around a piece of ancient alien tech that could blow up stars. Or, could supposedly blow up stars, but Dash still maintained a healthy degree of skepticism about that, no matter how genuinely his two unexpected passengers actually believed it.
“Outta my way, worms!”
Dash looked toward the harsh voice and saw a big, bulky creature looming nearby. It had eyestalks and many appendages, but it mostly looked like a massive worm itself, which made calling people in its way that kind of ironic. But Dash just smiled, stepped back, and gestured the creature past. It slithered by, leaving a trail of mucky slime on the road and a smell like a broken pressure-toilet.
“I carried one of those on a long passage, once,” Leira said. “Made a good fare off it, but had to spend most of it getting that smelly slime cleaned out of my ship.”
Dash chuckled. “I’ve only seen them a couple of times, myself. What are they called?”
“Not sure what they call themselves, but I call them never-carry-one-again-oids.” She followed Dash and Viktor in stepping gingerly over the slime-trail. “Oh, and they’re assholes, too.”
“That explains the smell, then,” Viktor said, his dry delivery making Dash’s chuckle become an actual laugh.
A short distance along, and then they had to detour along a big grav-sled loaded with one of the massive reclamators being used to turn Penumbran desert into something that would grow, well, anything. Just past that stood the Eternal Grind.
Dash led the way in, threading his way around stacks of boxes, containment tanks, unmarked gas cylinders, electronic gizmos, and what looked like enough reels of electro-optic fiber to stretch across the Galactic Arm. Near the back was a counter, behind which a tall, cadaverous woman with a suspicious scowl and a faint moustache tapped on a data slate. As they approached, she looked up from her work and her scowl became even more suspicious.
“Pinetti!” Dash said, offering his most disarming grin, “It’s so good to see you!” He glanced at Leira and Viktor. “This is Pinetti, proprietor of the Eternal Grind and one of my oldest, dearest friends!”
Pinetti plunked the data slate onto the counter. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t have your legs broken, Sawyer.”
Dash shook his head. “Ah, Pinetti, always the joker.” He turned to his companions. “She and I are always kidding each other like this. I’ll buy you a drink, I’ll take you dancing, I’ll have your legs broken.”
He turned his full weight of charm back on Pinetti, and her scowl somehow became even deeper.
Viktor crossed his arms. “I think she really does want to break your legs, Dash.”
“How many credits do you owe her?” Leira asked.
Dash shrugged. “Not many.”
“One thousand, three hundred and twenty-seven,” Pinetti said, her voice flat.
“Okay, hang on,” Dash said. “It was less than eleven hundred.”
“I don’t think we’ll be buying any fuel here,” Viktor muttered.
Pinetti laughed at that, but there wasn’t a hint of humor in it.
“Buying fuel…” Pinetti shook her head in disbelief. “You came here to buy fuel from me?”
“Well,” Dash said, “you were our first choice. Figured that, you know, being such a good customer—”
“You’re a terrible customer. And unless you have one thousand, four hundred and twenty credits to pay your debt first—”
“Wait, that’s a different number than the first one you gave!”
Leira stepped forward and interrupted. “I have a little over nine hundred credits. How about you settle for that, plus enough fuel to let us translate to, I don’t know, say, Myrtle?” She glanced at Dash. “I can probably scrounge some more credits there, so we can—”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Pinetti cut in, suddenly looking sly. To Leira, she said, “I’ll take your credits, and we’ll call Sawyer’s debt to me square. I’ll let you worry about breaking his legs to get it back.”
Dash opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Pinetti turned to him. “I’ll also give you a full load of anti-deuterium.”
Dash closed his mouth, narrowed his eyes, then said, “But…”
Viktor shifted uncomfortably. “Here comes something unpleasant.”
Pinetti glanced at him. “Oh, you have no idea.”
“What do you want in exchange, Pinetti?” Dash said. “If it’s sexual favors, then, well, sure, I’m okay with that.”
Pinetti’s scowl, which had changed from suspicious, to angry, and then to conniving, now became disgusted. “Oh, please. I’d rather take a Blob to bed.”
“They’re definitely worth trying once,” Leira said, then looked around. “What? I was in flight school and doing some…experimenting.”
“Anyway,” Pinetti said, her gaze lingering on Leira for a moment, before returning to Dash, “I have something else in mind.” She turned her head toward a narrow door behind the counter. “Conover?”
A thump came from beyond the door. “What?”
It was a young, surly, male voice. That was all Dash could tell. Still, it started an uneasy feeling in his gut. “Pinetti, what are you—”
“Conover,” she said again, ignoring Dash and speaking louder. “Come out here!”
After another thump and a few bangs, a chunky figure appeared in the doorway. He was human, male, and young indeed, Dash noted—late teens or early twenties, with fair freckled skin and red hair loose in wild curls. He wore functional clothes, synth-leathers over grey coveralls, and had his face shaped into a bored sneer. As he stepped up beside Pinetti, though, it was his eyes that caught Dash’s attention. They were a strikingly pale grey, but not a natural sort of grey. The color was too uniform, the light reflecting off them in an oddly crystalline sort of way.
“What?” he snapped. “I’m busy.”
Pinetti turned her scowl fully on him. “Doing what?”
She sighed and turned back to Dash. “This is my nephew, Conover. Conover hates it hear on Penumbra. Don’t you, Conover?”
“It’s a boring, middle-of-nowhere shithole, so yeah. With a passion.”
“And I hate having him here,” Pinetti went on. “So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to give you a full load of fuel, and you’re going to use some of it to take him away from here.”
“So, you want free passage for him?” That tense feeling in Dash’s stomach drained away. Passenger work could be annoying, but considering the circumstances, he couldn’t complain. “Not a problem. Where am I taking him?”
“Like I said, away.”
“Away to where?”
“Just, away. Let’s call it a tour. You’re going to take him on a tour.”
That tight, tense feeling barged its way back into Dash’s gut. “For how long?”
“For however long it takes you to work off the cost of a full load of fuel, and you know what?” She looked back at Leira. “You can keep your credits. I’ll square Dash’s debt right now. And, at the usual rate for passenger carriage on the Needs Slate.” Pinetti picked up the data slate from the counter and tapped at it. “Yes, it looks to me like you’ll be touring Conover around for a long time.”
Dash held up a hand. “Okay, wait a minute. You want me to carry this grumpy child…” He looked at Conover and said, “No offense,” then turned back to Pinetti. “…for…shit, that’s going to be months.”
“If I could figure out a way to make it last even longer without it costing me anything,” Pinetti said, “I would.”
“I don’t think I—”
“It’s either that, or you pay me the one thousand, five hundred and seventy-five—”
“Hey!” Dash protested, but shook his head as Pinetti opened her mouth. “Yeah, I know, interest.”
“Anyway, it’s this, or you pay in full now. Or, of course, I could have your legs broken. Probably your arms, too, considering how much you’ve owed me, and for how long.”
Dash looked at Leira and Viktor. Leira had a bemused look, while Viktor’s was noncommittal. He finally released a sigh.
“So I agree to take him, and we’re totally squared up—and that includes interest—and I get a full load of anti-deuterium for the Slipwing.”
Pinetti nodded. “That’s the deal.”
Dash blew out a gusty sigh. “Fine.” He looked at Conover. “Can you do anything?”
Conover looked back, blankly, then wiggled his ears. “I can do that.”
“No, I mean—oh, never mind.”
Someone let loose a soft, amused snort. Dash didn’t know if it was Pinetti, Leira, or Viktor. All he knew was that it wasn’t him.
Dash assumed it would take a while for Conover to gather his things and get himself ready to leave for what could be months, at least, but all the young man did was shove a few things into a go-bag and shuffle around the counter, apparently ready to depart. Dash wondered just how Pinetti had ended up saddled with her sullen nephew, but decided not to pry. Her deal was, on the face of it, a really good one, which probably meant Conover was going to be a true pain in the ass. But it absolved Dash of a lot of debt, so there was that.
As he and his—now—three companions left the Eternal Grind, Leira sidled up to him.
“If you owed her so much money,” she said, her voice pitched low, “why did you come here? Is it because you owe everyone else who can vend fuel even more money? Because, if so, that’s a lot.”
“It’s not quite that bad. I just thought I had, you know, a better relationship with Pinetti.”
“You thought you could play her.”
“Always worked before. She must be getting cynical in her old age.”
Leira glanced at Conover, who ambled along without speaking. “I can’t help thinking she might have played you, Dash.”
He shared her glance at the young man, then said, “Tell me about it.” His gaze went back to Leira. “By the way—a Blob? Really?”
“Like I said, I was young. Don’t worry, I much prefer men.”
“Do you now?”
Leira just smiled.
They turned onto the Street of Lost Skins, taking a more roundabout route back to the spaceport and the Slipwing. The street was so named, or so it was said, because an ancient forerunner race had used it for a dueling ground. Dash wasn’t sure where that story had come from; there were some bits of wall and a pointed arch that looked like ruins poking up along the street, but xeno-archaeology wasn’t exactly his strong suit. It made a good story, at least. As they passed a kiosk made of scrap tubing, polyfiber tarps, and another of the ubiquitous cargo containers, Conover suddenly spoke up.
Dash glanced at the kiosk. Steam wafted up from pots and bowls simmering away on induction heaters; as he watched, a short, squat woman served up stringy noodles from one into a bowl. His stomach growled at the sight, but he just glared at Conover.
“So? Are you asking to be fed?”
Pinetti had been clear—passage for Conover included feeding him. Dash sighed and said, “Fine. We’ll grab something before we head back to the Slipwing. Pinetti’s fuel should’ve been delivered by then, anyway.”
The noodles, it turned out, were good. The surprisingly broad array of spices and sauces to flavor them were even better. Dash actually took a moment to savor the experience of eating; it was rare that he ever dined, as opposed to just refueling his body on the fly. This was somewhere between the two.
“So, Conover,” Viktor said as they lounged around a table made from a cable-reel beneath a faded tarp, “what do you do?”
Conover paused, a noodle hanging from his mouth. He slurped, sucking it past his lips. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, well, you must do something with your time. Do you study? Work?”
“I just…” Conover stopped, then shrugged. “I just do stuff.”
“Okay,” Leira said, “what sort of stuff?”
He slurped noodles again. “I study stuff.”
Leira exchanged an it shouldn’t be this hard look with Dash. “Okay, well, that’s interesting.”
“Science stuff,” Conover said—the first unprompted statement he’d made. “I like—you know, science. Technology. Especially alien technology. I’d love to discover some.”
Now Leira’s look turned uncomfortable. She glanced at Dash, then Viktor, said, “Ah,” and returned her attention to her own noodles.
“Well, Conover,” Dash said, “that’s very interesting. But we don’t really do much with, well, alien tech. Leira and I are couriers. We run jobs, do deliveries.”
“Carry passengers,” Viktor muttered.
“And, yeah, we carry passengers. But it sounds like we’re going to have you around for a while, so anything you can do that might be helpful—”
“If I’m a passenger, I don’t have to work, though, right?”
“Well, technically, no, you don’t, but—”
“Technically right is still right.”
“Sure it is. But I think you’ll get pretty bored just hanging around on board the Slipwing while we work.”
“I’ll find things to do.”
“Okay,” Dash said. “Well, I can help with that. What sort of things do you think you’d like to do?”
Dash leaned back in his seat and gave Viktor and Leira an I give up look. As he did, Conover said, “I’ll tell you one thing I can’t do.”
Dash leaned forward again. “What’s that?”
“We don’t really do a lot of fighting.”
“Tell that to those guys,” Conover said, tossing a nod somewhere behind Dash.
Dash turned. Sure enough, a trio of thuggish looking men hovered just outside the confines of the noodle stand. Their glowering attention was clearly fixed on them. Or, Dash noted, it actually seemed to be fixed on him.
“Well, shit,” Dash said, putting his noodle bowl down. “I think we should plan to head back to the Slipwing…like, right now.”
“Do you know them?” Leira asked.
Dash shook his head. “Nope. I know the type, though. Muscle for somebody.”
“Somebody must have recognized you, sent them after you,” Leira said.
“It happens.” Dash pushed his chair back and stood. “You guys don’t need to get involved.”
“Dash,” Viktor said, “there are three of them.”
Dash looked over his companions. Viktor might be able to carry himself in a fight, but he was on the old side. Leira was probably okay in a scrap, but she’d recently suffered a bad concussion. And as for Conover…well, he said he couldn’t fight.
“Once I’m done with these guys,” Dash said, “we’re going to move, fast, back to the ship. Okay?”
Everyone nodded and stood. Dash turned on his charming smile and approached the trio.
“Howdy, fellas. We’re just heading back to our ship. Got places to go, people to see. You have a nice day, now.”
He started to walk around them. One of them, a swarthy man with a patchy beard and what looked like a series of random lines tattooed on his face, moved to block him.
“You’re not leaving Penumbra until you’ve had a chat with Ely.” The speaker was a second man—big, chiseled features, but marred by a bad plasma burn-scar across one side of his face. The last man, the smallest of the trio, with a patchy beard and dreadlocked hair, moved to start working his way behind Dash.
Dash frowned. “Ely, huh. Don’t recall anyone named Ely.”
“Ely,” Burn-Scar said, “from the Broker’s Quarter. He seems to know you. Found out you were here, wants some money you owe him.”
“Clearly, there’s been some mistake.”
“Nope. He was clear. You come with us to see him, or we beat you to shit and take whatever we find. Might take that ship of yours, too. He gave us the name Slipwing, I think.”
Dash looked at his companions. Both Leira and Viktor looked on the brink of intervening, which would just make things complicated. So he turned back to the trio then kicked out, his foot striking a vicious blow that buckled Burn-Scar’s knee. The other two immediately moved in, but Dash spun a full circle and now crouched, arms spread, knees bent. He lunged, punching and chopping Tattooed Guy to the ground while kicking out at Dreadlocks, deflecting him for a second, but a second was all he needed. It let him spin back and straight-arm the man in the throat, sending him stumbling back, gasping. He followed up with a pair of vicious jabs that knocked him flat, then spun again and dropped Dreadlocks with piston kick to the head. A last, brutal chop put Burn-Scar down like a sack of trash. Dash ended up back in a crouch, ready.
He relaxed. All three were down for good; Burn-Scar and Tattooed Guy groaning, Dreadlocks gurgling wetly through his punched throat. A small crowd, displaced by the sudden fight, gave the whole situation a curious look before mostly moving on.
Leira, Viktor, and Conover just stared.
Dash shrugged. “Taught myself some moves. It’s a way to pass the time on those long trips, you know?”
They kept staring.
“Um, so,” Dash said, “we should probably go now. Ely might not be the only one who wants to, you know, talk to me.”
As they hurried back to the Slipwing, Viktor asked, “Who’s Ely? And how much do you own him?”
“No idea. Probably just a shakedown.”
They reached the Slipwing to find that Pinetti’s fuel had been delivered, as promised. Once they’d loaded it and lifted off—making a fast burn up to orbit so they could put Penumbra behind them sooner rather than later—Dash took a moment to try to remember who Ely was.
He hadn’t been lying to Viktor. He really couldn’t recall.
Between that, and now Conover, who was hunkered down sullenly somewhere behind him, there was a feeling that space just might be safer.
“Yeah, I definitely gotta stop owing people money,” Dash muttered, as the rumble atmosphere rushing past the hull faded and the sky turned to endless black.
Dash frowned at the vid transmitted by the maintenance drone. He’d dispatched it to examine the Slipwing’s hull, something he hadn’t gotten around to doing during the whole rush to, and then from, Penumbra. The planet now lay far behind, but was still visible as a mottled, bluish disk. They still hadn’t translated, because they hadn’t decided where to translate to. As his nominal employers, that was up to Leira and Viktor, and they were hunkered down in hab module now, discussing that very thing.
Unfortunately, that left Dash with Conover. The young man sat in the copilot’s seat, looking alternately bored with everything inside the cockpit, or bored with everything outside of it. Dash tried making conversation, but Conover’s one-word answers, distracted nods, and monosyllabic grunts convinced him to give it up. Instead, since they were staying in real space for now, Dash decided to launch a maintenance drone and look over the damage they’d taken from those particle beams. He was especially keen to see the parts of the Slipwing’s hull he couldn’t check while they’d been landed.
The drone drifted past the auxiliary comms array, moving across the top of the hull just ahead of the fusion drive. The drive was shut down, of course—the drone would just be a puff of vapor, otherwise—but there were enough residual neutron emissions to make this part of the ship hazardous for direct inspection.
Dash zoomed the image, taking a closer look at a deep furrow plowed through the ablative armor that protected the drive. Unlike most of the other scars on her hull from the encounter, this one cut at least halfway into the armor. This beam must have been cranked up, power-wise, compared to the others. Only a small gash just above and behind the cockpit was anywhere near as deep. This was going to be an expensive repair, requiring time in a compositing bay.
“About eight Gigawatts.”
Dash glanced at Conover. The kid was peering over his shoulder at the vid display.
“How’d you figure that?” Dash asked.
“Your ablative armor is a refractory dura-ceramic composite. That damage vaporized about half of its thickness. I’m assuming a two-second impact time, but that’s pretty approximate, so there’s some uncertainty.”
“Yeah, I get it.” Dash looked around but saw no data pad, and nothing about it entered into any of the screens or terminals around the cockpit. “How’d you calculate that?”
“The armor’s ablative index times thickness in centimeters, divided by two, then—”
“No, I get how you calculate it. But how did you calculate it, like, just now, sitting there?”
Conover shrugged. “I just calculated it.”
“In your head.”
The kid nodded.
Dash looked back at the vid. He punched a few commands, and the drone calculated the particle beam’s power at eight-point-zero-five Gigawatts, plus or minus an uncertainty factor.
Dash knew the formula—roughly—but there was no way he could have done it in his head.
He looked back at Conover. “That’s quite a trick.”
The kid’s freckled face hardened in a frown. “A trick? It’s not a trick. The calculation is—”
“Yeah, okay, just a figure of speech.” Dash looked into Conover’s strikingly pale grey eyes. “Where did you learn, well, how to do that? Or learn the formula?”
“I told you. I like science stuff.”
Dash looked back toward the vid.
“The question is,” Conover said, “why was whoever shooting at you just trying to disable your ship?”
“Except for that one up there”—the kid gestured up and behind the cockpit—“all the other hits on the ship are less than four Gigawatts. Those wouldn’t burn through the armor much at all.” Conover gestured at the drone’s imagery. “That one, though, was a lot more powerful. If it had cut through the armor, it would have taken your fusion drive offline, right?”
Dash gave a slow nod. “Yeah, it would have. It would have taken down the translation drive, too.”
Dash thought about the damage to Leira and Viktor’s Raven. What he remembered of it had been similar. Their drive had been knocked out, but the damage to the Raven had otherwise been mostly superficial. Meanwhile, Dash remembered the weapons fired at the Slipwing as he approached the battle had been full-power discharges. One of them had hit, leaving a deep gash near the cockpit. That had definitely been an attempt to take Dash out of the battle before he’d even joined it.
Another huh. It was kind of hard not to take something like that personally.
But then he’d mag-locked the Raven and the Slipwing together. When he’d rotated the conjoined ships to gain some protection from the shooting bay the Raven’s bulk, the beams had come up to full power, blasting her away, then returning to their varying levels of power. In other words, once it was obvious Leira and Viktor were aboard the Slipwing, the attacker’s aim had changed from turning Dash to a cloud of glow gas to disabling his ship—just as they had Leira’s.
Whoever commanded that ship—which apparently belonged to Clan Shirna, Leira had called them—had wanted to take Leira, Viktor, or both, alive.
And there could only be one reason for that—the Lens.
“So what were they after?”
Dash jumped. Conover’s question poked unexpectedly through his racing thoughts, just as Dash had thought about the Lens. Was this kid telepathic? Looking into those weird eyes, he couldn’t really tell.
Dash offered a shrug. “No idea.”
“It must be those other two,” Conover said. “Leira and Viktor. They wanted them, or something they have.”
“Uh, what make you say that? Maybe they wanted me.”
“No.” He jerked at thumb at the particle beam scar behind the cockpit. “They tried to kill you. Then you must have taken the other two on board. And then, instead of trying to kill you, they tried to disable you. So they wanted something from those guys, not you.”
Dash looked back at the vid, just so he didn’t have to meet those grey eyes. Who was this kid? He had the attitude of a bored teenager, but his mind was like some sort of all-seeing computer.
“Well, if it was them they were after,” Dash said, looking deliberately at the vid and not Conover, “I don’t know why. Maybe those two are wanted or something.”
Dash couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard a word spoken in such a doubtful tone.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I’ve got some boring work to do up here, and Leira and Viktor are probably going to be busy for a while yet, so why don’t you go clean off a bed and, you know, try to get some sleep?”
“I’m not tired.”
“Okay, well, there’s an entertainment system back in the crew hab. I haven’t used it for a while, but it should—”
Dash looked back to the new voice. It was Leira, with Viktor right behind her.
They were going to be busy for a while, Dash had said…like five seconds ago. Figures. All he wanted to do was get away from Conover and his bizarre ability to know stuff, so he’d have some time to think.
He made himself not sigh. “What can I do for the prettiest woman on the ship?” he asked, switching on his grin.
Leira flicked her eyes toward Conover, then back to Dash. “Can we talk for a minute? Like, in the crew hab?”
They wanted to get away from Conover, too. Yeah, this was getting increasingly awkward. Leira clearly wanted to keep the Lens a secret from Conover—who would never be more than a few meters away, as long as they were aboard the Slipwing, and would apparently be there for weeks, maybe months.
Not for the first time in his life, Dash kicked himself for not entirely thinking Pinetti’s price through.
He nodded and started to clamber out of the pilot’s seat. “Sure. The ship’s trimmed for stable flight, so—”
“Is this about whatever you’re hiding, that the ones in that ship that attacked you want?”
They all stared at Conover for a moment, then Leira glared at Dash. “What, exactly, did you tell him?”
“Nothing! He just kinda figured things out.”
Conover nodded at Leira. “Yeah. I did. Somebody really wants you, or something you have.” He scowled and muttered, “It wasn’t that hard to work out. I’m not dumb, you know.”
Dash glanced at him. “No, kid, you are not.”
Conover looked up at Leira. “So what is it? Did you steal it?”
“We didn’t steal it,” Leira said, before cutting herself off.
Dash chuckled and waved a hand at her. “Okay, that one’s on you.”
“So you do have something they want,” Conover said. “What is it? Where did you find it?”
Leira glanced at Viktor, who said, “It’s a device. And yes, Clan Shirna wants it. But—”
“But that’s all you need to know,” Leira said. “More than you need to know, in fact.” She turned to Dash. “Anyway, we need to talk to you about—well, what happens next.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah, you do. But now I have a question.”
Leira’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Where did you…um, find it?”
Her eyes again flicked to Conover. “This is something we should talk about.”
“Right here,” Dash said, rolling his eyes. “You know, the kid was right when he said he’s not dumb. He looked at the particle beam scars from your…Clan Shirna, is it? Anyway, from your friends in that big ship.”
“They are not our friends,” Viktor said.
“Yeah, I meant friends in the loosest sense. Anyway, Conover here looked over the damage and, just from that, was pretty much able to piece together what happened. Clan Shirna there wasn’t trying to kill you, they were trying to take you alive. Now, unless you and Viktor are way more valuable than it seems, I’m guessing they were after the Lens.”
Leira’s eyes flew wide with indignant anger. “Why would you say—”
“What’s this Lens?” Conover asked.
Leira ignored him. “Dash, you’re such a—”
“Charming guy, I know.” He shrugged. “One way or another, Conover would somehow figure it out. And, let’s face it, trying to sneak around and keep secrets on board the Slipwing would be like trying to hide in an empty cargo module. It wouldn’t work even if he was stupid.”
“I’m not stupid!”
Dash raised a hand at the kid. “No, you’re not. I’m on your side here, Conover.” Then he looked back to Leira. “Let’s just drop all the secretive bullshit and work out what we’re going to do.”
Conover looked from Dash to Leira. “You still haven’t said what this Lens is.”
Leira kept up the defiant glare for a moment, then looked at Viktor, who gave an elaborate shrug. She finally deflated and snapped, “Fine. It’s a piece of archaeo-tech we found.”
“In the Pasture.”
Dash glanced at Conover. The name obviously meant nothing to him, either. “Where, or what, is the Pasture?” he asked.
“It’s an area of space bound within the Globe of Suns,” Viktor said, “on the other side of the Shadow Nebula.”
“Okay,” Dash said, “I’ve heard of this Globe of Suns. But no one goes through the Shadow Nebula, so it’s just, well, a bunch of stories. It’s artificial, it’s constructed, it’s…”
His voice trailed off. He looked from Viktor to Leira. “It really is artificial, isn’t it? It was built by the Unseen, wasn’t it?”
“The Globe of Suns?” Viktor shook his head. “We’re not sure. But the Pasture certainly is.”
“Okay, and what, exactly, is the Pasture?”
“It’s an artificial Oort Cloud—a massive expanse full of comets and other small bodies. Thousands of them. Maybe millions. They seem to orbit in some sort of pattern, though we weren’t there long enough to figure out what that might be. It could be millions of years old. Maybe billions.”
“And this Lens, you found it somewhere in there.”
“We did,” Leira said. “I ran across some data during a job I did, something aboard the wreck of another courier’s ship. It wasn’t complete, and it took a long time to reconstruct it, and then decipher it, but the fact that it was kept so secure seemed to mean it was valuable. And it was, just not in any way I expected it to be.”
“The data pointed you to this Pasture.”
Leira nodded. “It did. It was too good for us to pass up. We needed to at least take a look. I’ve got no idea how this other courier got the data, and the explosion that wrecked his ship looked like an accident, but now I’m not so sure.”
Dash put his feet up on the edge of the comms. “So someone else was after it.”
“Maybe. It might have been Clan Shirna even, or their agents.”
“Okay. Great. Clan Shirna, owner of at least one massive warship, and possibly employing agents on this side of the Shadow Nebula, is after this,” Dash said.
“Did you steal it from them?” Conover asked.
Leira scowled. “I already told you, we found it.”
“Yeah,” Dash said, “but one guy’s found it might be another guy’s stole it. So it really doesn’t matter if you think you found it, right? What matters is what this Clan Shirna thinks.”
“They think you stole this Lens from them,” Conover said, “right?”
“I can’t speak for Clan Shirna,” Leira said, but her indignation at having this conversation involve Conover in the first place was gone. Now, she seemed a little defensive.
“Look,” Dash said, “I honestly don’t really care if you stole it. Hell, I’ve come into the possession of more than a few things myself by, let’s call it by creative acquisition.” He uncrossed and re-crossed his feet on the comms. “The question is, how badly do they want it?”
“Oh, they want it badly,” Viktor said. “But they must not be allowed to get it.”
“Gee,” Dash said, “you think? Nobody should have that thing.” He smirked. “That is, assuming it does what you claim it does, which I still find a little hard to believe.”
Conover, who’d been watching the conversation bounce back and forth, asked, “What does it do?”
Dash leaned toward him and, in an elaborate stage whisper, said, “It makes stars blow up.”
Conover looked at all three of them, then shook his head. “Unlikely. No device you could be carrying aboard this ship would have more than a tiny fraction of the power needed. Maybe, if you could tap into another star…” He frowned. “Even then, though, a device like that would have to be, well, huge.”
“That’s my thinking,” Dash said. “Something like that, if it actually worked, would be worth”—he searched for a word—“a hell of a lot. But it doesn’t matter if it really works, though, as long as Clan Shirna believes it does.”
“It really does work,” Viktor said.
“Oh? Really? How many stars have you blown up with it so far, Viktor?” Dash asked.
“Well, none. But we wouldn’t.”
“Clan Shirna certainly would, though,” Leira said. “They’re insanely xenophobic, thinking that all other lifeforms in the Galactic Arm—”
“The whole universe, actually,” Viktor put in.
“Yes, anyway,” Leira went on, “they believe that only Clan Shirna itself should exist. No other forms of life are permitted. Otherwise, the purity of creation is diminished.”
Dash raised his eyebrows. “Wow. What a bunch of assholes.”
Leira nodded and was going to continue, but Conover, who’d been staring at his feet, said, “Maybe if it could somehow cause iron to start fusing in the star’s core, that could work. It would still take immense power, but…” He broke off, still staring, his mind obviously racing.
Dash lowered his feet back to the deck. “Yeah, that’s what Leira and Viktor said. This Lens uses wormholes, somehow, to make a star start producing iron.”
“So it undergoes gravitational collapse,” Conover said, his voice distant, “then rebounds—an explosion. A nova, a supernova, if the star is big enough.” Dash got the impression the kid was somehow seeing it happen.
“Yeah,” Dash said, “but that’s not possible, is it?”
Conover shrugged. “It’s still extremely unlikely, but anything is possible. And if it was made by the Unseen…”
“Just imagine such a capability,” Leira said, “in the hands of someone as rabidly xenophobic as Clan Shirna.”
Using exploding stars as a weapon? Yeah, that would be a quick war.
“Okay,” Dash said, “let’s assume this is all true. You said you found this in the…the Pasture, you called it, right? Could there be more of these Lenses there?”
Viktor shifted uncomfortably. “It’s possible. It was made by the Unseen, we think. There could be a lot more of their tech there.”
“We really couldn’t stick around and look,” Leira said. “Clan Shirna keeps a pretty close eye on the place. They seem to think it’s special, maybe even holy in some way.”
“Can I see it?” Conover asked.
Leira looked at Viktor, who sighed and dug the Lens out of his belt pouch. “We haven’t had a chance to study it much. I tried a few tests before Clan Shirna ran us down and attacked but wasn’t able to learn much. It’s pretty, um, arcane, I guess.”
Conover held out his hand. “Let me see it.”
Viktor offered him the Lens.
Conover held it both hands, studying it. A long moment passed. When he finally looked up, he said, “It…”
Then he froze, his eyes turned blank white, and he toppled back in the copilot’s seat. Dash gaped for a moment, then jumped out of his seat and took a close look at the kid.
“I-I think he’s…” Dash looked at the others. “I think he’s dead.”
Dash hefted Conover and rushed him to the autodoc, Leira and Viktor hurrying along behind him…only to have the kid moan and start squirming half-way there.
“Wait…you’re not dead?” Dash swerved into the crew module and deposited Conover onto a bunk. He glanced back at the others. “Could’ve sworn he was dead—”
“You thought…I was dead?”
Dash turned back to Conover, sprawled on the bunk. “Well…yeah. You sure seemed it—”
“So why take me…to the autodoc?” The kid struggled to sit up. “Kind of… a waste of time…don’t you think…?”
Dash curled his lip. “Because it couldn’t hurt. And you’re welcome, by the way.”
“For…oh, never mind.”
“What happened?” Leira asked. Dash noticed she’d retrieved the Lens and now clutched in both hands, but much more warily than she had previously. Probably a good idea, actually…not leaving star-exploding alien artifacts just lying around. But Dash understood her caution. What had just happened? What had the Lens just done to Conover?
Conover levered himself up, putting his feet on the deck but remaining slumped, looking drained. Viktor produced a cup of water for him, which he took and slurped.
Dash frowned as the kid kept drinking water, instead of offering explanation. Finally, he tapped Conover’s arm. “Hey…what happened to you?”
Conover lowered the cup. “I saw…stuff.”
The young man nodded. “Yeah. With these.” He pointed at his eyes.
“You saw stuff…with your eyes.” Dash glanced at Leira and Viktor, but they both looked as puzzled as he felt. “Well, that’s really impressive, but—”
“No,” Conover said, “…or, I mean…yeah, with my eyes. But not just my eyes. I got these a few years back, part of a deal my aunt Pirelli made with…I don’t know, some trader. They’re lenses that go in my eyes. They let me see schematics, technical and scientific data, that sort of thing, when I look at stuff. I thought it’d be…you know, interesting to check out that Lens with them.”
“Yeah, well, don’t do that again,” Dash said. “It almost killed you.”
Conover shook his head. “No it didn’t. It was…” The kid paused, frowning. “It was more like there was too much data. Like, when I looked at the Lens, some kind of link happened between it and these lenses in my eyes. A lot of data flowed across it, really fast. And I mean a lot, and fast. It was like…like data was pouring right into my brain.”
Dash said, “Ah,” and looked at the others. He wasn’t really the scientific type; he knew enough to get and keep a ship running, make it maneuver and go where he wanted it to, do proper astrogation…but that didn’t mean he understood the underlying details, all the complex physics and math, chemistry and such, that made it all work at some fundamental level. So he wasn’t especially keen on a long-winded talk about how the Lens worked, just—
“So is it real?” he asked Conover. “Does it actually blow up stars?”
Conover stared at his feet for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah…it does.”
Silence, except for the thrum and rumble of the Slipwing’s systems. It struck Dash that Conover’s assertion this Lens could make stars explode really didn’t carry any more inherent weight than Leira’s and Viktor’s, but something about the kid and the way he talked sure made it seem like it did.
Leira apparently thought so, too. “Conover…what did you see?”
“Yes,” Viktor put in. “Tell us as much as you can. What you remember, anyway.”
“I…kind of remember it all. But I also kind of don’t. It’s like…someone told me a story about something they’d seen, or done, and I remember that, but not the actual thing…” The kid glanced up from his feet and looked around. “You know?”
“I think we know what you mean,” Leira said, nodding. “Really, though…anything you can tell us could be useful.”
Dash, intrigued despite his natural skepticism, nodded. “Yeah. What did you see, exactly?”
Conover sipped water. “I saw…that which is not. The Unseen. I saw them. They’re real.”
“Guess we can’t call them Unseen anymore,” Dash said, “if you saw them.”
He’d meant it to be funny, but no one smiled. Conover glanced at him. “Okay, I didn’t see them, exactly. I saw…the things they’ve done. This Lens is just one of them. A small part of…something much bigger. It’s a…tool. It taps into this…this much bigger thing, so they can use it to shape space…to make it the way they want it.”
Dash looked at the others when Conover said the Lens was a small part of something much bigger. He wondered if Leira and Viktor had known any of this. From the growing amazement on their faces, they hadn’t. That was fine; he probably had much the same look on his face. When blowing up stars was a small part of something much bigger…
Dash raised a hand. “Okay. Wait.” He gestured at the Lens, in Leira’s hand. “That’s part of something a lot bigger?”
“So what, exactly, is this much bigger thing?”
“It’s not just one thing,” Conover said, his pale eyes going unfocused and looking far away. It looked like he was accessing information, as though reading it off a vid…which, based on how he’d described the lenses in his eyes, he probably pretty much was. “It’s one thing, and its many things. It’s like…there’s a lot of them, but they’re all connected somehow. They’re in one place…but it’s a huge place, the size of a star system. Bigger, even. And everything is orbiting everything else…”
Viktor narrowed his eyes. “Wait. Many things, orbiting each other, the size of a star system…”
“The Pasture,” Leira said.
Dash looked at her. “The place you found the Lens? Well, that makes sense, right? If the Lens was located there, and it was made by the Unseen for…well, whatever reason…then it would make sense that there’d be other things hidden there, too. I mean, we already talked about that, right? More of these Lenses in there—?”
“No,” Conover said. “You don’t get it. The Pasture isn’t just a place. It’s the…the much bigger thing. It was built to do…something. But each one of those…comets, asteroids, whatever they are…has a purpose. They’re all connected. And this Lens is connected them…and them to it…” The kid puffed out a frustrated sigh and shook his head. “It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to even understand. It’s…like trying to look at one piece of a ship at a time, and figure out what the whole ship looks like, how it all goes together, what it’s all for.”
Dash rubbed his chin. “Okay. So let’s summarize. This Pasture is one big construct, made by the Unseen, and everything in it is part of one big thing, and this Lens is just a small part of that big thing. So…there must be more Unseen tech in there.”
Conover looked at him. “You still don’t get it. The Pasture doesn’t contain Unseen tech. It is Unseen tech. The whole thing. The power there…it’s probably more power than the rest of the galaxy combined.”
Dash blinked. “More power…wait. Do you mean more power than, like, all of the civilizations in this galaxy combined? Or all of the stars and everything else, too?”
“The first for sure. The second…I don’t know. If it was all somehow activated, all at once…maybe?” Conover shook his head. “That’s one of those things I can’t really see. It’s just too big.”
“Yeah, but…” Dash took a moment to try and take in the implications. “If that’s all Unseen tech…like, millions of pieces of it—”
“It’s got millions of parts,” Conover cut in, “but it might really be one big thing—”
“Yeah, okay, fine. Anyway, whatever else it is, I know one thing it is for sure.”
“What’s that?” Viktor asked.
Leira curled her lip. “I think valuable is an understatement.”
“If this is what Conover says it is,” Viktor said, “it would be worth more than…well, there aren’t enough credits…could never be enough credits. And that ignores the fact it’s basically…well, again, based on what Conover is telling us…a whole star system, essentially made of alien technology. I don’t really think you can put a value on that.”
Dash crossed his arms. “I’d be willing to give it a try.”
Viktor frowned. “I think this is more a scientific discovery. Maybe the greatest one ever—”
“Oh?” Dash said, raising his eyebrows. “A scientific discovery? Really? Is that what why you and Leira went there? For science?”
Viktor’s frown deepened, but he looked down at the deck and shrugged. Leira, though, smiled.
“No,” she said, “of course not. Like I told you, we discovered some data that pointed at The Pasture as a place we might find some Unseen tech.” She hefted the Lens. “And we did…and, yes, we were interested in the credits we could make from it.” Her smiled faded. “But we had no idea that it was…well, what Conover’s telling us. We just thought it was a strange region of space…that the Unseen had created that artificial Oort Cloud for some obscure purpose, such as…well, maybe they wanted to live there, or something…”
She trailed off into a shrug. “What we didn’t think,” Leira went on, “was that it was all some huge Unseen…device, or whatever, and that it basically was alien tech.”
“Now that we know that,” Viktor said, “that…well, changes things, doesn’t it?”
Dash scratched an ear. “How?”
“Well…it’s not like we can just go back there and start ransacking the place.”
“Why not? It’s not like the Unseen are going to care, with them all being…you know, long dead…” But it was Dash’s turn to frown as something occurred to him. He turned to Conover. “They are all dead, aren’t they?”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t see anything to say they weren’t, though.”
“Okay. Well. Let’s assume they are all dead. In that case, all of that tech…even a fraction of it would be priceless. Hell, that Lens you have is probably priceless. We could be…I don’t think rich even begins to describe it.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Leira said.
“Clan Shirna. Once you get past the Shadow Nebula, you’ve got them to contend with. They aren’t really that happy to have people trying to get through the Globe of Suns and into The Pasture. They do everything they can to stop it, in fact.”
Dash leaned against the bulkhead behind him. “Yeah…about that. Seems to me that you and Viktor managed to get in just fine. You got that Lens, and got most of the way out again.”
“The important part,” Viktor said, “being most of the way back out.”
“Uh-huh. But you managed to get past this Clan Shirna and into The Pasture. So, if they’re so dead set on keeping people out, how’d you manage that?”
“We had a cloak,” Leira said.
“A cloak. I’ve heard of them…they make electromagnetic energy wrap around a ship, right? Makes it so the ship just doesn’t seem to be there at all.” Dash gave an impressed nod. “Always wanted one of those. I mean, the Fade’s good, but it kinda limits what you can see in real space, and it burns fuel—”
“Yes, well, what a cloak doesn’t do is hide your own emissions,” Viktor said. “We could essentially coast into The Pasture, since we were going down a gravity well. Trouble is, we had to light the fusion drive to climb back out again. A cloak doesn’t do much to conceal a million-degree fusion exhaust plume.”
“Clan Shirna detected us right away,” Leira said. “We needed to get away, fast. Turned out they were faster. We tried to outrun them, but…”
“Yeah, I remember,” Dash said. “I was part of the aftermath of all that, remember?”
“But your Fade,” Viktor said, a musing look on his face, “is different. It translates you partway into unSpace. You still leave a footprint in real space, though, yes?”
Dash nodded. “Yeah…it’s called an echo. How big an echo depends on how far into unSpace you translate. Deeper means a smaller echo, but the downside is the deeper you go, the less you can see back into real space…”
He stopped as the implication of Viktor’s question set in. It hadn’t just been ide curiosity. “You want to go back into that Pasture, don’t you?”
Leira gave Dash a keen look. “Don’t you?”
“Well…yeah, as long as it was just all about piloting among those comets and shit. That, I can do. But this whole Clan Shirna thing…it’s a whole lot different when you’ve got someone gunning for you on top of everything else. I mean, do you remember how big that ship was? How many weapons it had?”
Viktor nodded. “Vividly.”
Conover looked up from wherever he and his strange eyes had been staring. “Why hasn’t this Clan Shirna already plundered this…Pasture? If it’s that full of Unseen tech—”
“Because of this,” Leira said, producing something from a pocket inside her utility vest. It was a small book, worn and shabby.
Dash frowned at it. “What’s that?”
“Clan Shirna’s holy book. Every member of the Clan carries it, lives by it, regardless of species.”
“Okay…and what does it say about the Pasture?”
“That anyone who even attempts to enter it must be put to death.”
Dash puffed out a sigh. “Well, I guess that rules out making a deal with them.”
Dash lay in his bunk, leafing through the Clan Shirna holy book. He’d encountered a lot of sacred treatises and the people motivated by them in his travels, from isolated, essentially nut-case sects with a few dozen members, to hugely sophisticated, system-spanning religions. He’d mostly ignored them all, except to the extent he could either benefit from them, or they got in his way. His own beliefs were…fuzzy. Sure, there might be bigger things out there, but the minute-to-minute grind of just getting by made it hard to really put much time into looking for them…
A sudden vibration rumbled the Slipwing’s hull. Since they were still outbound from Penumbra on low-energy departure, Viktor had offered to tune up some of her systems. Dash was happy to oblige. The guy definitely knew his way around the guts of a ship; he’d already knocked a half-dozen errors and failures off the list—
The vibration swelled, making Dash sit up. But then it faded, and died away altogether. The overall feel of the Slipwing was…smoother, now. So he shrugged and lay back, lifting the book and flipping a flimsy page.
Scanning the pages he could read—because the book was actually written in several of the major languages in general use—it struck Dash that Clan Shirna certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with believing in bigger and better things. Everything about them was steeped in mysticism, beginning with the Induction…the process, or ritual, or ceremony, or whatever the right word was, by which someone could join the Clan. And anyone, it seemed, could join the Clan. Species wasn’t important. All that mattered was belief. Although…
Dash flipped back and forth through the pages he could read. He wasn’t interested in getting all the details, at least right away…although it would be good to know as much as he could about Clan Shirna before trying to slip through their lines to the Pasture, and then back out again. The initial impression he got was of a fervent belief system based on protecting the Pasture from intruders. It seemed to be the Clan’s main, even sole, purpose. Initiates were brought to the Clan’s home world, a medium-sized planet orbiting an aging start on the margin of the Globe of Suns. The place sounded awful—a thin, dry atmosphere, almost devoid of cloud cover, shot through with blasts of radiation from the star. Most of the planet seemed to consist of dry oceans and lakes, the landscape scoured down to desiccated soil and bare rock, forming scrubby deserts known as Sinks…
“Sounds like a place I vacationed once,” Dash muttered, flipping more pages.
Anyway, it was on this foreboding and desolate planet that something called the Induction occurred, initiating a would-be into Clan Shirna. The actual Induction was described in ponderous, metaphorical terms, a “a lifeform born anew, beginning a new childhood” and “one alone, joined unto the whole and all stronger” and the like. Dash skimmed it, finally found the part—and it wasn’t obvious, that was for sure—where the book described what Clan Shirna was all about. Frankly, it wasn’t much. They “stood guard over the faith” and “prevented those not of the Inducted from committing sin and entering the maelstrom” and the like…in other words, all pretty standard, religious dogma. Dash had seen this sort of thing many times, too…
But something did catch his attention. Throughout the book, reference was made to change…to those joining the clan undergoing an apotheosis, an elevation, a transformation. He would have simply dismissed this as just more spiritual gobbledygook, except the context around these parts referred to things that sounded decidedly non-religious. Dash noted words and phrases like pregenetics, overprinting in-born codes and beneficial mutation. Those all sounded more like scientific terms…which may not be that surprising, since Clan Shirna was definitely a technological advanced society. But there was something about the undertone of the book…something about the overall context, that made Dash wonder…
He sat up and swung his feet to the deck. Okay, he was a courier, not a…a scientist, or anthropologist, or whatever. But there was someone on board who knew lots of stuff.
Dash stood. “Hey, Conover,” he called. “Got a question for you!”
Dash waited as Conover scanned the book. He hadn’t fallen into a death-like trance this time, but the book wasn’t inscrutable, star-exploding alien tech. Still, Dash had braced himself as the kid started reading, just in case…
But he just sat there, hunkered in the copilot’s seat, reading. The minutes dragged on and Dash started to fidget.
He finally had to speak. “So what do you—”
Conover held up a hand, silencing him.
To pass the time, Dash turned to the instruments. Everything looked good—better than just good, in fact. Viktor had worked marvels. There were only two failure statuses he hadn’t managed to clear, both apparently requiring parts he didn’t have and couldn’t just print on board, but neither critical. The Slipwing was, in fact, in as good a shape as she’d ever been. Combine that with a full load of fuel, and Dash could almost convince himself he was one of those especially successful couriers, the ones who had the biggest, fastest ship. They got the best jobs on the Needs Slate, probably didn’t have to worry about things like affording fuel or landing fees, and sometimes even franchised themselves out, operating small fleets of ships and making credits faster than they could possibly spend them.
Dash curled his lip. I hate those guys—
“I think you’re right,” Conover said.
“Right about what?” Leira asked, as she and Viktor clambered into the back of the cockpit.
“About Clan Shirna,” Conover replied. “Dash said this book makes it sound like they’re basically bred to stand guard over the Pasture, although they also call it the Maelstrom. Something about it having different aspects, like light and dark, or good and evil…anyway, that’s all part of their dogma. But if you read closely, you can see references, all through this book, to what sounds like genetic manipulation.”
Viktor narrowed his eyes. “Genetic manipulation? For what purpose?”
“To protect the Pasture. To not let anyone in or out.”
“Including themselves,” Dash put in.
Conover nodded. “Especially themselves. It’s something like…it’s the Pasture, when you’re outside it and obeying the edict to never enter it. But if you do enter it, then it’s the Maelstrom, a place of great violence and danger. To keep your spirit pure, you stay out and worship the Pasture from afar. If you enter the Maelstrom, though, your spirit is corrupted.”
“And their whole angle,” Dash said, “seems to be protecting everyone’s spirits—their own, yours, mine, everyone’s. It’s their holy mission.”
“And this Induction,” Conover said, “seems to be the key. They manipulate and change the genetics of anyone who joins the Clan, seeming to…hardwire, I guess, the members of the Clan into wanting to protect the Pasture. Needing to protect it, even, like it’s their overriding reason for existing. It’s like changing what a computer does not just by changing the software, but changing the hardware, too, so the computer can’t ever be used for anything else.” The kid looked up and around, at the others. “Nothing else—not food, not sleep, not sex, nothing—matters more than keeping anyone out of the Pasture.”
“In other words,” Dash said, “they’re guard dogs.”
Conover nodded. “Yeah. Clan Shirna was designed specifically to protect the Pasture, probably by the Unseen.”
“That explains their amazing hostility,” Leira said. “I knew they threaten anyone who tries to enter the Pasture with death, but I assumed it was because they considered it their territory, their space to explore and exploit. Turns out it’s actually a sacred duty, keeping anyone out of there.”
“Which means,” Dash said, “I was really right. There’s just not going to be any reasoning or dealing with them.”
“So, given what we now know,” Viktor said, “are you sure you want to try going there?”
Dash opened his mouth to answer, but Conover cut him off. “I wonder if the Unseen are still there…still in the Pasture. Maybe that’s where they stay, and they use Clan Shirna to keep outsiders away. Or did they all wither away and die?”
Dash abruptly changed the trajectory of his thoughts. “That’s…an interesting thought. After all, if the Unseen are really all…dead, gone, whatever…then they wouldn’t really care if anyone busts into the Pasture because, you know…they can’t.”
“Except,” Viktor said, “Clan Shirna could just be doing what they were programmed to do. All this time later, they either still have all these religious beliefs that were originally created for them by the Unseen, or they created them themselves, over time.”
Leira shifted uncomfortably. “True, except…”
Dash looked at her. “What?”
“When we were in there, there were…ghosts.”
She gave a thin smile. “No, not really ghosts. But there were all sorts of phantom electromagnetic emissions. They made scanning inside the Pasture difficult…in some places, nearly impossible. And some of them…”
“Some of them what?”
“Some of them…seemed like deliberate transmissions. Things I could almost understand. Like listening to someone speaking a language I’ve heard, and picked up a few words and phrases from…so I thought I could understand them if I could just listen closely enough. But we never could resolve them, and they never seemed to repeat.”
Viktor shrugged. “We were pretty busy trying to not crash into asteroids and comets, so I didn’t pay much attention. But there definitely were emissions…lots of them.”
“So even if the Unseen are no longer there, in the Pasture,” Leira said, “their ghosts might be.”
Conover looked at her. “You actually believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t necessarily not believe in them.” She looked at Dash. “You know it, right, Dash? That there are things out there that are…well, hard to explain—?”
“They’re not ghosts,” Conover said flatly. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Dash raised a hand. “Before we start a long debate about whether spooks exist or not, let’s return to the subject at hand, shall we, ladies and gentlemen?” He looked at each in turn. “The Pasture is a massive chunk of alien tech. It contains things like that Lens. Even a tiny fraction of it would make us rich beyond…well, I was going to say our wildest dreams, but when it comes to wealth, my dreams can be pretty wild.” He shrugged. “Anyway, if we can get into the Pasture, I can fly us through it, to where we need to go.”
“Dash,” Leira said, “like I told you, the EM emissions make navigation, well, a serious problem.”
“Just makes the ride more interesting.”
“The real question,” Viktor put in, “is one I asked before. Considering everything we now know about the Pasture, and Clan Shirna…not to mention the natural hazards of the Shadow Nebula and the Globe of Suns…and the fact that we lost one ship and almost lost two, not to mention all of our lives—”
“Not mine,” Conover said. “I wasn’t there.”
Viktor looked at him and blinked. “Uh…yes. Right. All of us except Conover almost lost our lives…are you really sure we want to go back? I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lens by itself is probably enough to make all of us extremely rich. It just seems like…a lot of unnecessary risk.”
But Dash shook his head. “No. The Lens is the reason we have to go back.”
Leira frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
“The Lens blows up stars, right? Whatever the reason the Unseen thought something you could put in your pocket was able to make stars explode was a good idea, it’s still massively destructive. Do you really want to sell something like that and…just put it out there? Who knows who’ll end up with it? And what they use it for? Awfully hard to enjoy being rich when the galaxy is being turned to a bunch of supernova remnants, right?”
Uncomfortable looks, and then nods all around.
“So, unless we’re just going to forget about his completely and…I don’t know, stash that Lens somewhere where no one will ever find it…then we need to go back to the Pasture and find something…creative. Something that builds, not destroys. I mean, if we find a piece of tech that…I don’t know, let’s say, gives an airless world an atmosphere with the push of a button…then not only is that going to be worth a fantastic fortune, it’s safe. It won’t threaten to end all life as we know it…you know? Am I making sense here?”
Viktor nods. “You are.”
But Leira’s frown deepened. “I’m not convinced it’s worth the risk.”
Dash rolled his eyes. “Leira, Leira…you’re a courier. Risk is what we do!”
“No…managing risk is what we do. And this…” She shook her head. “We barely made it in and back out of there once with our lives. The chances of us doing it again…” She shook her head again. “That’s not managing risk, Dash. That’s just being reckless.”
Conover watched the exchange going back and forth. “She has a good point,” he said. “But…just imagine what might be in the Pasture. The things we could learn. It’s kind of…staggering, when you think about it.”
“Is that a yes vote?” Dash asked.
Leira immediately scowled. “Wait…who said we’re voting? For that matter…and with all due respect to Conover here…based on the arrangement you made with his aunt back on Penumbra, he’s basically a…a tourist.”
“Well, it kind of is my ship,” Dash said. “And I did kind of save your lives. Now,” he went on, raising a hand as Leira opened her mouth to object, “I’m not saying you owe me anything…well, except for the payment for that job I signed up for, the one where I flew in and saved your asses. All that said, though, if you don’t want to come along, I’m not going to force you. Any of you.” He shrugged. “It’s just that doing it alone…”
“I’ll come with you,” Conover said. “I want to see the Pasture, and what’s in it. That’s what tourists do, right?” he asked, glancing at Leira. “Want to see stuff?”
Viktor looked at Leira, then gave an apologetic shrug. “This really is too good a chance to pass up, Leira, I’m sorry. I’d hate to spend the rest of my life wondering what we might have found or done.”
“At least you’d have a rest of your life to wonder it,” she snapped. For a moment, she glared from Dash, to the others, then back to Dash. “Damn you…fine. I’m in. I don’t know why…must be the stupid permeating the air aboard this ship.”
Dash grinned. “There you go! We’re a team now!”
It was Leira’s turn to roll her eyes. “Great.”
“Don’t look so glum. The Slipwing’s a damned fine ship, we’ve got the Fade to help us out, and I’m an excellent pilot—”
“If you do say so yourself,” Leira muttered.
“You’re right! I do!” Dash turned to the nav, to call up a chart showing the broad expanse of space around the Globe of Suns. “Okay, so let’s start thinking about how we’re going to do this. The first obstacle is the Shadow Nebula—”
A chime cut him off. It was the comm. Dash frowned and checked the display. Someone had just sent a message…an unSpace message, in fact, but addressed to the Slipwing specifically. There was no originator ID.
He glanced at the others. “Could be a creditor, I guess.”
The comm chimed again. Dash sighed and opened the channel, ready to launch into his usual speech about how he was just finishing up a job, and soon as he got paid he’d pay what he owed…
But it wasn’t a creditor. It was…
“Who are you?” he asked the reptilian face on the vid.
“I am Nathis, of Clan Shirna.”
Dash blinked and looked at the others. “Oh. Um…what can I do for you, Nathis—”
“Tell me where the desecrators are, that I might retrieve what they stole and see to their punishment.”
“Uh…desecrators? Sorry, you’ll have to be more specific—”
“Do not dissemble,” Nathis snapped. Dash noticed patches on either side of his neck reddened as his voice hardened. “We know that you responded to the call from the desecrators for rescue, and that you subsequently fled with them after their ship was destroyed. I could label you a desecrator as well, but I accept that you may simply have been interested in…profit.” He said the word as though it left a rancid taste in his mouth. “Therefore, if you turn over the desecrators for judgment, along with the sacred relic they have stolen, you will be forgiven your sins.”
Dash stared at the vid. “You want me to just…hand these people over to you for some sort of trial—?”
“No, of course not.” The patches on Nathis’s neck took on a more subdued, purplish hue and his face softened. Dash thought it might be his version of a smirk, or as close to a smirk the severe alien probably ever got. “There are no trials. There is only judgment, and for desecration that is death.”
“I suspect lawyer isn’t a popular career choice for your people.”
“I do not know what a loy-er is, nor do I care. I care only for the judgment of the desecrators.” Nathis looked off-screen and said something that the comms couldn’t translate, or was just too quiet to make out. “You are now being sent coordinates. We will wait there for you.”
“You…really believe I’m just going to show up and hand these people over to you, don’t you?”
The neck patches reddened slightly. “Yes, I do.”
“Well, you see, it’s more complicated than that—”
Nathis scowled—at least, Dash assumed the pinching of his reptilian features was a scowl—and his neck patches darkened. “Yes. Of course. Profit. Very well, we will pay you.”
To Dash’s chagrin, his first and immediate thought was, how much? But he shoved it aside and shook his head. “No, this isn’t about profit. This is about…well…you can’t seriously believe I’m going to bring two people to you so you can execute them.”
“But they are desecrators—”
“Yeah, yeah, and that’s all terrible and shit. But it’s not going to happen.”
The neck patches flared bright red. “Then you will be labeled a desecrator as well, and subject to the same judgment—”
“Know what? This conversation is going nowhere and I have better things to do. You want to round up us desecrators, come and get us.”
Dash snapped off the comms and turned back to the others, still standing in the back of the cockpit. He smirked. “What an asshole, huh—"
Leira cut him off. “Why didn’t you just tell him you’d already dropped us off, and had no idea where we are now?”
“I…well…because…” Dash stopped and glared. “Where were you and your good ideas thirty seconds ago?”
“You do realize,” Viktor said, “that they probably tracked the origin of your transmissions, and know exactly where we are now.”
Conover nodded. “They were probably able to use the Needs Slate to track you to the Penumbra system, then did a general unSpace hail—”
“That you answered,” Leira put in.
“—and now,” Conover went on, “we should assume that they know our precise location—”
“Which means,” Viktor said, “the next ship to drop out of unSpace here is probably going to be them.”
Dash looked from one to the next as they spoke. He finally sat up and raised a hand. “Woah, there’s a lot of judgment going on right here. Tell you what,” he went on, glaring back at Leira, “how about next time you deal with the guy who wants to, you know, put you to death, and I’ll stand in the background and do a critique. Or better yet, I actually will hand you over, avoid that whole desecrator-sentenced-to-death thing and walk away with at least some of the credits this whole misadventure has so far failed to provide!”
Leira had the good grace to look at least a little contrite. “Thank you for not trying to hand us over. All the other stuff remains true, though, which means—”
“Yeah,” Dash said, “I know. We should get the hell out of here before neck-patches there shows up.” He turned back to the controls. “The question is, where to?”
Conover frowned. “Aren’t we going to the Pasture?”
“What? Like…right now?”
“It probably is pretty much the last thing Nathis and Clan Shirna would expect.”
Dash sighed and called up charts showing the clear unSpace lanes to the Shadow Nebula. “What the hell. If we’re going to do this, then let’s do it.” He started punching commands into the nav. As he did, he muttered, “I don’t get paid enough for this…I really don’t…”
The passage of the Shadow Nebula was a trying combination of tedious and nerve-wracking. The voluminous clouds of thick dust and gas made observation and detection difficult in real space, and carried over into unSpace as a gravitational echo effect that confused the scanners. It worked in their favor, of course, as the Slipwing was also harder to detect. But Dash worried about blundering into some massive Clan Shirna warship, not realizing it was even there until they were in range of its weapons. And although remaining in unSpace left them relatively safe from such harm, they still had to periodically drop out of it to let the nav confirm their course. And that was also a problem, as the stars the nav normally used for location-fixing were obscured by the Nebula, so they had to rely more heavily on inertial navigation…
It all left Dash with a headache. The trip was boring, but still demanded almost his full attention. Fortunately, Leira could settle into the pilot’s seat and take the helm, giving him a break.
During one such interlude, he wandered back to where Viktor and Conover were poring over an open panel in the engineering bay, flicking their attention back and forth between schematics on a dataslate and a tangle of exposed cables, conduits and other components.
“How’s it going, guys?” Dash asked, polishing a spindle-apple against his shirt. The fruit was a delicacy, available only on the planet called Skydrop, and this was his next-to-last. Have to make a trip there to pick up some more, he’d thought, although that was immediately followed by, Yeah, sure, once you’ve not died in any of several dozen spectacular ways during this little foray into the Pasture…
Conover looked up, in Dash’s general direction. His eyes had gone white again, which mean he was busy seeing schematics and diagrams and…similar things, or at least that’s how Dash understood his bizarre lenses worked. Viktor just shook his head.
“We’re trying to tune your Fade, so its emissions match those of the various types of radiation Leira and I measured in the Globe of Suns, around the Pasture,” the old engineer said. “That way, we can keep a bigger footprint in real space and remain more aware of what’s going on, so we’re not flying quite so blind.”
“But someone,” Conover said, “has heavily modified these systems—”
“And by heavily modified,” Viktor said, shooting Dash a sharp glance, “he means haphazardly wired up in the same way a Grenobian water-ape might do it.”
Dash paused with the spindle-apple near his mouth. “Hey, hey…out here, in space, it’s real…you do what you gotta do to keep things running. It’s not like I have a freakin’ engineering team on board to do this stuff.”
“That’s for sure,” Viktor muttered, tugging at a cable. It popped out of a socket with a fat, blue spark. “Why would you ever cross-connect the Fade’s auxiliary control circuits to…is that the power tap to the galley?”
Dash shrugged and bit into the apple. As he chewed through the mouthful of sweet, tart fruit, he smiled. “Oh, yeah…I remember doing that. See, I had this cute customs inspector on board at Tannhauser, and she was a big fan of hot spiced chai, but the induction heater in the galley was offline, so I—”
“Never mind,” Viktor said, shaking his head. “You’re just lucky your Fade system never needed to switch to its backup controller at a crucial moment.”
“Actually,” Conover said, “luck is correct. Based on how you’ve rewired and hacked these systems together, you had a 65% chance of losing primary control of your Fade, and then—”
“Yeah, okay, I get it,” Dash said. “Don’t cobble shit together. Trouble is, sometimes that’s the only way out of trouble, isn’t it Mister Routing Anti-Deuterium Fuel into a Drive System in a Completely Weird and Dangerous Way?” The latter was aimed at Viktor, who gave a sheepish smile.
“He’s right,” Viktor said to Conover. “Sometimes it’s the only way. But,” he went on, holding up a finger, “when you are finally out of trouble, you should put things back the way they should be.”
Dash mimed a salute. “Yes, sir, message received, sir.”
“Anyway,” Conover said, tracing a conduit and comparing it to a schematic, “once we’ve got this untangle and put back together, the Fade should not only work more efficiently and use less anti-deuterium to run, but it should be harder to detect.”
Dash nodded. “Well, that’s good, because we’re only a shipboard day or so away from exiting the Shadow Nebula. Be nice to have everything up and running when we’re most likely to run into Clan Shirna, huh?”
Viktor frowned. “That’s a problem. We’ve got at least a day’s work here, maybe two.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather not hang around this Nebula any longer than necessary. Our nav isn’t that great inside it, and much more than another day puts in serious danger of ending up kinda lost. I’m sure we can find ourselves again, but getting back on course will cost us fuel, and we need every gram of it for what’s ahead, so…”
“We’ll do our best,” Viktor said, but his face was doubtful.
Dash waved it off. “Eh, I know you engineering types always inflate the time it’s gonna take to do stuff, so you look like miracle workers when you get it done sooner.”
Viktor shook his head. “No, we don’t do that. That would be irresponsible.”
“Oh. Well, then…do your best…”
Dash trailed off as Viktor and Conover went back to work. He watched them for a moment, awkwardly, then quietly withdrew.
They’d all jammed into the cockpit, despite there being repeaters back in the crew module that would let Viktor and Conover watch what was happening in some semblance of comfort. Everyone seemed to want to be together when they made their first translation back to real space after leaving the Shadow Nebula.
Dash glanced at Leira, sitting in the copilot’s seat and ready to take control if needed. “You ready?”
She looked back at Dash, her eyes wide. “Wait,” she said, pointing at a panel, “is that the Fade control, or is that the power management system?”
“What? No…that’s the nav…”
Leira was grinning.
“Very funny,” Dash said.
She shrugged. “Lightening the mood. Anyway, as ready as I’ll ever be.”
Dash glanced back at Conover and Viktor, who both just nodded. “Okay,” he said, “here we go…”
Eyes glued to the scanners, Dash brought the Slipwing back into real space.
He just stared at the scanner’s vid. “Holy…”
“Yes,” Leira said, “holy whatever is right. Welcome to the Globe of Suns.”
The vid depicted a sweeping starfield, dozens of stars wheeling in a stately orbit around a common gravitational center. The nearest was close enough to show an incandescent white disc, the corona glowing like a halo around it. The rest were hard, dazzling points of light, an array of them so closely packed that Dash couldn’t see how they just all spiraled into one another in a colossal orgy of stellar catastrophe. Sure, he was used to seeing stars, so much so that he didn’t really see them at all, anymore. But never had he seen so many, so close…
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s incredible.”
“And that,” Leira said, pointing at the vid, “is the Pasture.”
It didn’t look like much, not at this distance—just a patch of empty space circumscribed by the slow procession of stars making up the Globe. He amped up the scan resolution, going as deep as he could…
And the Pasture resolved itself into what it was—a cloud of objects swirling like…like…
Once, Dash had seen a whirlwind tear through a settlement on…Owen’s World, he thought. The planet was plagued by powerful storms, and this one had pulverized an entire community, turning buildings, ramps, walkways, essentially everything not rooted in bedrock, into a whirling cloud of debris. There’d been hundreds of pieces, thousands, forming a spinning wall of shrapnel.
It hadn’t even been close to…this.
Not thousands of objects. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands. And maybe millions, since the scanner’s resolution was limited at this range, even on its deepest setting.
Silence, except for the sound of the Slipwing’s machinery.
“So,” Dash finally said, “you flew into that, huh?”
“We did,” Leira said.
“If you aren’t comfortable you can do it—”
“What? No…pfft. I told you, I can fly the Slipwing anywhere, and do it blind.”
Leira nodded and Dash turned his attention back to the scanner. There were so very many objects, all of them hard chunks of silicate rock, iron-nickel metal and ice, or combinations thereof. And yet…the scanner revealed no evidence of collisions, of debris shed onto deviant trajectories by bigger objects impacting one another. Like the Globe of Suns around them, all of this vast multitude of comets and asteroids and planetesimals seemed to be in stable orbits, locked into a vastly complex gravitational dance around a common point. Dash knew enough astro-dynamics to know that shouldn’t be possible. Even the most minute, errant tug on one object by the gravitational attraction of another should eventually cascade into a calamitous series of collisions…
Which was amazing, Dash thought, but sitting her marveling at it wasn’t getting them any closer to accomplishing what they’d come here to do. He reached for the Fade controls—
—then heard Conover’s hissing intake of breath and paused. Glancing back at the kid and Viktor, he said, “Um…anything I should know?”
Conover looked at Viktor, then both shook their heads. “No,” Viktor said, “we should be fine.”
Dash sighed and punched in the command to engage the Fade—
—then sighed again, this time in relief, as it kicked in and translated the Slipwing partway back into unSpace. The scan resolution immediately crashed, but Dash was able to maintain enough of coherent picture to start the Slipwing on a trajectory to the Pasture. By using the Fade, he didn’t need to engage the fusion drive, whose exhaust would be an immediate giveaway, the way it had been for Leira and Viktor when they’d tried to sneak out of here. It did, though, use up more anti-deuterium fuel, to power the translation drive…and they were now down to about two-thirds of the full load they’d picked up on Penumbra. It should be enough.
More to point, Dash thought, it would have to be enough, because he doubted they’d find any friendly fuel vendors here, in what was essentially the territory of Clan Shirna.
Even through the diminished scan resolution induced by the Fade, they could see the Pasture approaching. Dash had studied it as best he could, trying to discern a pattern to the gross movement of all of the objects making it. From that, he could start selecting trajectories, even simulating them, to see which worked best. But they’d eventually have to cut the Fade and fully return to real space to get a clear and true picture…and then, if he could, he hoped they could spend some hours, even a day, analyzing the Pasture before entering it.
And now it was time. They had to deactivate the Fade.
“Okay, folks,” Dash said, “we’re coming out of Fade…now.”
He touched a control and the half-rumble, half-whine of the Fade died. Normal, Euclidian space returned to surround the Slipwing.
“Okay,” he said, as the Pasture resolved into…a mess of conflicting signals. “And that…isn’t good.”
“I told you,” Leira said, “between the radiation from all these stars, and whatever those emissions are from the Pasture itself, scanners aren’t reliable. It gets a lot worse once we enter the Pasture.”
“Okay, okay,” Dash said. “No problem. I got this.” He applied gentle reverse thrust, slowing the Slipwing. “We’ll just hang out here for a while, gather as much data as we can, and then—”
A harsh blast of noise cut him off. He glanced at the scanner’s vid. Three contacts had just entered the scanner’s diminished range, approaching on a fast intercept trajectory. They read as ships, but none like Dash had ever seen before.
“Aw, for…” he snapped. “Who the hell are they?”
“Out here,” Conover said, “I’d suggest Clan Shirna.”
“Yeah, no shit. What I mean is, how did they…oh, never mind.”
“They must have been waiting for us,” Leira said, shaking her head. “Didn’t somebody say coming here is the last thing they’d expect us to do?”
The three of them looked at Conover, who shrugged. “It really wasn’t logical for us to come here, into the heart of their territory. I guess Clan Shirna’s just not…logical.”
Dash rolled his eyes and turned back to the controls. “No shit. You didn’t pick that up from the whole, we’re going to find you and kill you filthy heathens thing?”
“They called us desecrators, not heathens.”
“What difference does it—?”
A chime cut Dash off. An incoming transmission. The face of Nathis, or someone who looked exactly like him, appeared on the comms vid.
“Desecrators are compelled to desecrate,” he said, his neck patches bright crimson. “Sin inevitably compounds itself. Surrender to us now, confess your transgressions and we will be merciful, your deaths almost entirely painless.”
“Almost entirely painless?” Dash said. “The guy just doesn’t know how to win people over, does he?”
“Um…Dash?” Leira said. “We’re not just going to keep sitting here, are we…?”
“Those Echoes are closing fast,” Viktor put in, and Dash glanced at him.
“Small, fast attack ships,” Viktor said, “stealthy, elusive. We ended up calling them Echoes. No idea what Clan Shirna calls them.”
“Don’t think their technically-correct name really matters right now,” Dash said, his fingers dancing over the controls. “Not unless that name’s All A Big Misunderstanding, that is.” The Slipwing’s fusion drive lit with a dull rumble and an abrupt surge of acceleration, one too great for the dampers to entirely suppress. Dash set a trajectory for the nearest rim of the Pasture.
“Um, Dash,” Leira said, “don’t you think this is a good time to just bug out of here?”
“Come all this way, just to give up? I don’t think so. Besides, that Nathis just…pisses me off.”
“Those Echoes are fast. I don’t think you’re going to outrun them.”
“Don’t need to outrun them.” Dash made a minute adjustment to their heading. “Just need to outfly them.”
“This is their territory—”
“Yeah, but they don’t go into the Pasture, right? That’s that whole…Maelstrom thing we read about. So they’ll be no better at flying in there than we are.”
“Dash,” Viktor said, “I agree with Leira here. The smartest thing for us to do is just cut our losses here, translate and run.”
“No, we’re not going to do that,” Dash said, his eyes roaming across the various vids, taking in their rapidly-changing data. “First, like I said, we’ve come this far, and the Pasture is right there. We’ll probably never get another chance this good.”
“This is a good chance?” Conover muttered, but Dash ignored him.
“And second,” Dash went on, “even if we wanted to cut and run, we can’t.”
“Why not?” Viktor asked.
“Because,” Leira said, answering the question as she studied the same displays Dash did, “the radiation from the Globe of Suns, together with the ghost emissions from the Pasture itself, are making proper spatial scans impossible. There’s no way the nav could orient us properly when we translate to unSpace. We’d—”
“Be flying blind,” Viktor said, a resigned tone in his voice.
Dash tapped controls, his eyes locked on the onrushing Echoes. “Yeah, it’s one thing for me to fly more or less blind in real space. You really want to take off in some random direction in unSpace, though? Find ourselves light years away from…well, anything, without enough fuel to do anything about it?”
No one answered. There was no need.
And the Echoes continued to close.
The minutes ticked by. Dash figured the Echoes would be in long firing range shortly before they entered what passed as the nearest edge of the Pasture. He turned to Leira and Viktor.
“What do you know about these Echoes? They’re pretty small…can’t be too heavily armed, right?”
“They seem to have no ability to translate,” Viktor replied. “That means they don’t have to worry about the weight and bulk of a translation drive or anti-matter fuel. What they saved in that…well, it seems like they used for weapons instead.”
“They hit hard,” Leira went on. “Really hard. We had to translate to shake them.”
“Great. Let’s just hope—”
Another blare of warning. The Echoes had just fired, particle beams lancing out toward the Slipwing like reaching fingers. Dash winced at how close they came to hitting. Only the intense radiation and EM emissions bathing this region of space prevented it, degrading and diffusing the beams short of the Slipwing. Each Echo must carry an immensely powerful particle beam, with a far greater output than anything the Slipwing could muster.
Well, shit. So fighting them wasn’t an option.
“Viktor,” Dash said, “if I overcharge the fusion drive, can you fix it after?”
“I…well…it depends on how much you stress it, and what kind of damage—”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Dash said, then dialed in new settings. The fusion drive flared into an incandescent exhaust plume extending tens of kilometers behind the Slipwing. She surged forward, stopping the steady approach of the Echoes, even reversing it a bit.
That lasted only a moment, though, before their enemies put on extra speed and resumed closing. Dash glared at the vid. “Oh, come on—!”
“Dash,” Leira said, cutting off his rant, “I think that did it.”
“What do you mean?”
She gestured at the displays. “We’ll be entering the Pasture before they’ll be close enough to shoot again…see?”
“Oh. Well…yeah. Of course. That was my plan all along.”
Leira gave him a sidelong frown. Dash just offered her a smile back, but quickly returned his attention to the displays. As he did, something caught his eye. He did a quick mental calculation…then turned and said over his shoulder, “Viktor, you got the Fade working, right?”
“Yes…at least, to about a ninety-five percent confidence. But you said yourself we can’t trust it, not with all of this interference…”
“We can’t trust a full translation,” Dash replied, “but the Fade leaves us enough footprint in real space to at least do half-assed navigation.”
Dash hammered at the controls, slewing the Slipwing hard and angling her sharply away from their original course.
“Dash,” Leira said, “what the hell are you doing? They’re going to gain a lot of space on us now—!”
“And,” Conover said, “you’re heading pretty much right for that star.”
Dash nodded but stayed focused on the data. He was letting the Echoes effectively cut across the angle he’d made to their original trajectory, and they were now heading toward the nearest star in the Globe of Suns.
“Okay, Viktor…in about thirty seconds, I want you to engage the Fade.”
“Trust me on this.”
Silence, like the aftermath of a heated argument. The seconds ticked by. The Echoes closed…fired.
Particle beams tore apart the space surrounding the Slipwing. One raked across her aft quarter, but the interference from the environment and her own fusion exhaust plume blunted the worst of it, leaving just a shallow scar on her armor. But the Echoes streaked in. Their next shots would be far deadlier. And so would the corona of the approaching star…the hull temperature and radiation count were already rising.
“Viktor, the Fade, now!”
A moment of…nothing, and Dash thought, shit, that’s it then…but then the Fade kicked in, shoving reality aside and letting the Slipwing through the crack.
They raced into the unnamed star’s corona and plunged toward the chromosphere. Even the Fade couldn’t protect them from that sort of heat, but it didn’t have to. His navigation was crude—it was like trying to watch where they were going through a drinking straw—but Dash slewed the Slipwing anyway, hoping it really was an outbound trajectory from the star, and he wasn’t taking them closer to incandescent disaster. And if the Fade failed, well, they wouldn’t have time to feel much of anything…
“Dash,” Viktor said, “the Fade is getting unstable—”
“There’s a harmonic in the field generator,” Conover put in. “I give it maybe a minute to failure.”
“Like I was saying,” Viktor said, “unstable.”
“You should probably get us out of this star’s corona,” Leira said, her eyes glued to what little scanner data came through the Fade. “Like…soon, Dash.”
“That’s the plan,” Dash said.
The Fade controls sounded a warning, warning of an impending automatic cut-off to avoid damaging the system. Dash overrode it.
“Dash—!” Viktor snapped, but Dash held up a hand. “I said trust me, remember?”
Dash gave it another thirty seconds, then cut the Fade, snapping the Slipwing back into real space. They emerged in time to see that the Echoes had followed them shockingly deep in the corona…and that one was now just an expanding cloud of debris, apparently hit by twisting loop of stellar plasma.
“Those guys are dedicated,” Dash said, “I’ll give ‘em that.”
“Maybe it was Nathis,” Leira said, but the comm picked that moment to crackle with his voice. There was no vid, either because Nathis hadn’t transmitted it, or the interference was too severe.
“The martyrdom of one is as nothing to the monstrosity of your sins,” Nathis said, the message shot through with static. “Despite your animal cunning, you cannot prevail here.”
“I’ll bet his neck spots are super red right now,” Dash said, then angled the Slipwing back onto a fast trajectory into the Pasture.
“There’s still two of them,” Conover said. “And they still have enough firepower—”
“Telling us the obvious, kid,” Dash said. “How about you help Viktor make sure the Fade’s okay for when we next need it…which might be pretty soon.”
The Echoes opened fire as the Slipwing passed among the first outliers of the Pasture, a series of comets—dark chunks of rock and ice. The star through whose corona they’d passed was close enough to provoke tenuous streams of gas into wafting off the comets, offering something else to interfere with scanners. Dash backed off the fusion drive, skidded the Slipwing toward them, then returned the drive to overpower. A particle beam passed through her plasma wake, but the second slammed into her, boiling a gouge into her armor. On a whim, Dash killed the fusion drive altogether, then rotated the Slipwing to bring her own particle cannons to bear. The targeting reticle locked onto one of the Echoes and he fired—a long-range shot, but he was gratified to see glowing chunks of armor spall off her. He then spun the Slipwing back and firewalled the fusion drive again.
“Fancy flying,” Leira said, obviously impressed despite herself. “A few more hits like that and we—”
The Slipwing shuddered as she was hit again. Dash shook his head. “A firefight is not going to end well,” he said, slewing them around a comet, then rotating hard to pass behind another—
Just as a particle beam slammed into it, smashing huge chunks of water vapor and ice free. Ice slammed into the Slipwing with a heavy succession of thuds. Dash glanced at the display as he rotated them again, trying to dodge behind a bigger, rockier chunk just ahead. He saw—
—that one of the Echoes had suddenly surged forward, its pilot obviously driving her engines to destruction. An instant later, a collision alarm blared.
The Echo’s pilot was trying to ram them.’
Dash had time to say, “Shit!”, before spinning the Slipwing through a half-turn so fast they were all flung to one side against their restraints, hard. The Slipwing shuddered and groaned deep in her alloy bones.
The sudden deceleration threw off the Echo pilot’s trajectory. He burned, hard, to try and correct, but it was too late. His ship flashed past the Slipwing and slammed into the same comet that had taken the particle beam hit, vanishing into a brilliant flash that faded into an expanding, darkening cloud.
“Whiplash, maybe,” Leira said, “but, yeah.” Viktor and Conover just nodded, their eyes wide.
Dash looked for the third Echo, expecting it to be closing, ready to shoot. But it had decelerated instead, and now fell far behind them.
“He won’t enter the Pasture,” Conover said.
As if to confirm, Nathis’s voice once more crackled over the comms. “Look to the martyrdom of my brother,” he said. “Such is our dedication to our sacred mission. He damaged a sacred object, and knew the price he must pay.”
Dash thumbed the channel open. “What? You mean, he shot that comet, so he killed himself for it? That’s insane.”
“We call it devotion.”
“That is what you, as desecrators, must face. Should you survive the Maelstrom, as unlikely as that is, we will be waiting.”
Dash looked at the others, then forced a shrug.
“Hey,” he said, “gives us something to look forward to, am I right?”
No one else as much as cracked a smile.
Seen from up close, the Pasture had been amazing. Seen from inside, it was absolutely stunning.
The stew of radiation and emissions made scanning difficult, but proximity at least added to the resolution. Indeed, there probably were hundreds of thousands of bodies of nearly every shape and size, from comets barely larger than the Slipwing, to massive asteroids the size of a small moon. What there was not was a debris field typical of Oort Clouds—particles and fragments whizzing about in all directions, the products of collisions, themselves colliding and veering off on new courses. Oort Clouds were typically chaos embodied. The Pasture, however, was nothing like that. It was a ponderous, stately dance, every object following a specific path, never intersecting another.
Staring at the scans, Dash didn’t see how it was possible. Even the slightest perturbation of even a single object should be the beginning of a cataclysm. It might take centuries, even millennia, but there was no way such a place as this should be stable. And yet, here it was.
“I think,” Conover eventually said, as they stared at repeater in the crew module, “I know why it’s so stable.” He pointed at the display, which he’d wound back to an earlier time index. “See this?” He indicated a particular object. “That’s the one that the Echo pilot shot, and then crashed into. That input of kinetic energy should have been enough to start a cascading failure. But watch.”
They did. The data displayed beside the comet showed its trajectory and velocity…which were slowly changing.
Dash glanced at Leira. “What the…?”
She shook her head.
In just moments, the object had settled back into what was undoubtedly its original path and speed.
Viktor rubbed his chin. “No exhaust…no reaction mass of any kind.”
“So this place…corrects itself,” Conover said. “All of these objects somehow adjust their trajectories, to keep everything where it should be.”
Nods all around, followed by stunned silence at the implications. The technology to quickly and efficiently move an entire comet existed; a sufficiently powerful fusion drive could do it. But they would have detected an exhaust plume. In this case, there’d been…nothing. Somehow, something, located somewhere, had quietly nudged the comet back into its place in the vast formation, and done it in literally minutes.
Dash finally let out a soft whistle. “Well…holy shit.”
“There’s more,” Conover said. “The Pasture covers an area about half a light-year across. From the inside, it looks like…well, chaos, though we know it’s not. But it looks that way. But while we’ve been taking time to fix things—”
“Like the Fade,” Viktor said, “and I could use your help with that again, Conover.”
The kid nodded. “Yeah. No problem. Anyway, I used what we’ve been able to scan, and projected that out to encompass the whole Pasture.” He tapped at the screen, bringing up a new display. “Using only the largest objects, it looks like this.”
The vid filled with a multitude of curved lines, depicting trajectories of the comets and asteroids and other bodies. It was immediately clear that it was far from a random clustering of paths. There was a pattern to it. Various patterns, in fact. The objects moved in groups, which themselves moved around one another, creating nodes, and arms, and even sections that resembled spiral galaxies. There were emptier regions, and others more densely packed…but it was, at the largest scale, symmetrical. An incredibly complicated symmetry, but a symmetry nonetheless.
Dash finally said, “Huh. That’s…pretty amazing.”
“Kind of an understatement,” Viktor said, and Dash shrugged.
“I could go on and on, but…I think we’re all suitably impressed.”
“It’s a mandala,” Conover said.
They looked at him.
“A mandala,” he went on, “is an ancient religious symbol, from the days of Old Earth…from the part called India. It’s a symbol that metaphorically represents the universe.”
“So this is…what?” Dash asked. “You’re not saying this is a map…of the universe?”
“No,” Conover said, “I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s a mandala, or something very much like one. I don’t know what it represents, or if it represents anything but itself.”
“But it obviously is artificial, a construct,” Leira said.
Viktor puffed out a breath and crossed his arms. “That, I think, is a pretty safe bet.” He looked at Leira. “We missed this when we were here before.”
“We weren’t looking for it. And then we had other things to occupy us, like not being killed by Clan Shirna.”
“Okay,” Dash said, determined to bring the conversation back to more practical matters. “It’s huge, and awesome, and artificial. Great. Now what? Where do we go from here?”
“Does it matter?” Conover asked.
Dash nodded. “Yeah, it matters. We can’t use any sort of real space drive to travel any meaningful distance through it…it’s half a light to the other side. That would take us years, decades, even. That means we have to translate…which we can’t reliably do, because of all this damned interference. So that leaves the Fade.”
“And when we use it, we burn anti-deuterium.”
“Yeah, we do. So, before we start bumbling around this Pasture—”
“Technically,” Conover said, “when we’re inside it, it’s the Maelstrom. At least, that’s what Clan Shirna says.”
“Yeah, I’m not too worried about what Clan Shirna says or wants. Besides, the Pasture sounds…friendlier, so I’ll stick with that.”
“Anyway,” Dash went on, “we need to pick and choose where we’re going, not just fly around hoping to stumble on interesting things.”
“Well,” Viktor said, “I’d strongly recommend not using the Fade for another few hours…a day would be better. In the meantime, we could deep-scan as much of the…the Pasture…as we can.”
Leira nodded. “We could generate some likely targets that way, then figure out which ones to investigate, and the optimum route to get to and between them.”
“Okay,” Dash said. “Sounds like a plan. And maybe we can start with wherever you found the Lens, if you can remember—”
A chime from the comms repeater interrupted him. Dash glanced at the others, said, “Probably more ominous warnings from our friend Nathis,” and opened the channel.
A low, mournful wail erupted from the comms. It stopped…silence…then a more piercing, higher tone sounded, falling steadily in pitch, until it was a base rumble.
“What the hell is that?” Viktor said.
Dash looked from him to Leira. “You guys didn’t encounter this before, I take it.”
The both shook their heads.
The strange, almost sorrowful tones continued to waft from the comms. They listened, and even tried to get the comms to analyze and possibly translate, but there was no discernible pattern.
“It might just be another form of interference,” Leira said, then frowned and looked down.
“What’s wrong?” Dash asked.
In reply, Leira extracted the Lens.
It was glowing.
Dash stared at it. “Okay…has it done that before?”
Leira shook her head. “No.”
“So this could be its make a star explode setting, then.”
“It…” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Dash’s mind raced. “Shit. If one of those nearest stars in the Globe of Suns blows up, we’re…well, not in a good situation.” He couldn’t remember the distance to the nearest star, and was by no means an expert on what happened when they exploded—except that they more or less vaporized everything for a very long distance around. If they could translate into unSpace, that shouldn’t be a problem…but they couldn’t. And they definitely were not going to outrun the shock wave and radiation from an exploding star in real space.
“There’s something…inside it,” Conover said.
“Inside the Lens. I see…circuits, maybe?”
Viktor frowned at it. “They look more like…veins? Or nerves?”
“Maybe both,” Leira said.
Dash scowled. “Does anyone care I’ve just discovered a deep distrust for alien tech? Especially when it’s on board my ship?”
“I think it’s…controls,” Conover said, staring at the Lens. Dash wondered if he’d glaze over and fall unconscious again, but he didn’t. “An operating system, or panel, or whatever.”
“Good,” Dash said. “Can you see the off switch?”
“No. I can’t understand it all.”
“Fantastic.” Dash wondered if jettisoning it would help…but it wouldn’t.
“We need some way to decipher it,” Viktor said.
Conover nodded. “A Rosetta Stone.”
Dash looked at him. “A what?”
“A Rosetta Stone. It’s another ancient term from Old Earth for a translation key. Something that lets you understand two different languages, by acting as a sort of bridge between them.”
“Okay…and where might we find something like that?”
Conover gestured…around. “Somewhere out there, maybe. In the Pasture.”
“That’s a little too broad…” Dash cut himself off. On a whim, he reached for the comms repeater and shut off the haunting wails and howls still emanating from it. As soon as silence fell, the Lens faded back to its normal, darkly reddish-purple crystalline color.
“Alright,” he said, letting out the breath he’d been holding. “So let’s get ourselves a little more prepared before doing that again, shall we?”
“That means,” Leira said, “we need to find Conover’s Rosetta Stone.”
“Yeah…which might be somewhere out there, in half a light year of spinning, speeding rocks.”
Conover nodded. “Exactly.”
“Well, kid,” Dash said, “where exactly would you like to start looking? Which rock?”
“I…have no idea.”
“Didn’t think you did.”
While Viktor and Conover worked on repairing and retuning the Fade, Dash planted himself in the cockpit with Leira and started the deepest scans they could manage. They focused the scanners, meaning they covered less space with each sweep, but did it more thoroughly; they also used the highest power setting they could manage. It meant the Slipwing would shine like a brilliant beacon to anyone looking for her, but given that Clan Shirna were the only ones like to do so, and they apparently wouldn’t enter the Pasture, it seemed like a pretty safe bet.
“I’m not even sure what we’re looking for,” Dash said.
Leira, in the copilot’s seat, shrugged. “Me neither. But I suspect it will be one of those, you’ll know it when you see it things.”
They watched the scans progress for a while, then Dash looked up at Leira.
“Whatever brought you out here in the first place?”
“I told you, we found that data aboard that wrecked courier’s ship.”
“That’s not what I mean. You came flying out here based on some data you found, that you didn’t even know was accurate, or even at all correct. That was an awful risk for, let’s face it, no certain reward.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“Yeah, but if anyone knows how to manage risk, it’s couriers. And this goes way beyond any sort of reasonable risk-and-reward thing.”
Leira shrugged. “Honestly? I was bored. Hauling my ass from one shitty job to another…carry this passenger, cart this cargo, pick up this, deliver that…” She shrugged again. “It seemed like something…different. Something worth taking what was—and you’re right about it—a terrible chance.” She looked at Dash. “But it was…I don’t know. Exciting.” Her eyes narrowed. “Anyway, I could ask you the same thing. What brought you out here?”
“And you know that’s not what I mean.”
“Well, you did have an alien artifact on you, so there’s that.”
“I had a hunk of dark red crystal. It could have been anything…even just a hunk of dark red crystal.”
Now Dash shrugged. “Yeah, well, I’m impulsive and irresponsible. You, on the other hand, just don’t seem to be that type…what?”
Something on the scan had caught Leira’s attention. “Dash…look at this.”
He did, then said, “Turns out you were right, that we’d know it when we see it. And I think we see it.”
The deep scan showed something lurking in the heart of the nearest comet—just a shadow, something more evident from only a slightly increased opacity to their scans. But it was a regular, symmetrical shape, something like a tetrahedron.
It was tech.
“It’s in this comet, too,” Leira said. “And these ones. All of them, in fact. It must be whatever the tech is that keeps everything here stable.”
But Dash dialed the scan to a tighter zoom, focusing in on one comet in particular. It was one of the larger ones, and not too far away—maybe a day, if they burned hard. “I’ll go one better,” he finally said, as the image resolved. “It’s not just tech…it might be answers.”
The shadowy outline inside the comet was clearly a ship…and it was generating power.
“It might,” Dash went on, “even be our Rosetta Stone.”
Dash tapped at the thruster controls, easing the Slipwing closer to the comet. It loomed like a mountain, a massive agglomeration of dust, rock and dirty ice kilometers across. It was large enough to have a slight gravitation effect Dash had to account for, which just made him marvel that much more at the Unseen and their amazing tech. The thought that they could keep something this massive in a stable orbit among millions of other objects, for such a long time…
“Dash,” Leira said, her eyes fixed on the scanner’s vid, “you want to move…let’s see…plus one kilometer along the x axis, and plus 2 along the y. The z axis looks perfect.”
Dash nodded and made more thruster inputs, keeping his own attention on the comet itself. This close to something he could actually crash into, he liked to keep his own eyes-on the thing itself. Some pilots were okay with using data and vids and scans for everything, but Dash was old fashioned that way…he liked being able to see what was happening outside his ship.
“Okay,” he said, “we should be right over the spot—”
“There’s a body down there.”
Dash looked at the vid as Leira zoomed it in. Sure enough, a body—apparently human, or at least humanoid—sprawled on a patch of grubby ice.
“Is that…an Unseen?” he asked. “I don’t know…I guess I expected an ancient super-race to look more…well, more.”
Movement behind them, as Viktor and Conover pushed into the cockpit. “The Fade is back online,” Viktor said, “or as online as it’s going to be…” He trailed off. “Is that a body?”
Dash nodded. “Like I was just telling Leira, I kind of expected the Unseen to be—”
“It’s not one of the Unseen,” Conover said.
Dash looked back at him. “How do you know that…since they’re, you know, Unseen?”
“Did you see them when you looked at the Lens?” Leira asked, but Conover shook his head.
“No. That’s an old-style vac suit. I recognize it from historical holos I’ve seen.” He stared at the image, then nodded. “Yeah. That’s a human.”
Dash blinked at the display. “A human? What the hell is a human doing here?”
“Based on that vac suit,” Conover said, “whoever it is, they’ve been here a long time.”
They all stared at the image for a moment, then Dash said, “Well, only way to find out. We need to god down there.”
Dash hated wearing vac suits. They were cramped and uncomfortable, they stank of synthetics and electronics and your own sweat and other bodily emanations, and you couldn’t scratch or…adjust things, if they needed adjustment. But absent an atmosphere, they had no choice but to land the Slipwing and conduct an actual excursion onto the surface of the comet, to find out just what the hell was going on here.
Dash had put the Slipwing down on a field of ice and gravel, the closest flat spot to the crashed ship big enough to fit her. There wasn’t enough gravity to hold her in place, so Dash had set her to station-keeping, her thrusters periodically firing briefly, at low power, to keep her in place. Now, they walked the couple of hundred meters to what was apparently a crash site, using the low-grav shuffle that kept them from bouncing too far off the surface.
“That is definitely a human body,” Dash said as they approached. The face behind the vision plate, although desiccated into a mummified rictus, was clearly that of a man.
“And that is an old vac suit,” Viktor said, approaching and examining the body closely. “I’ve seen images of these old suits…saw one in a museum once, too. It must be…well, hundreds of years old.”
Conover, who had carried to the top of a small rise a few dozen meters away, said, “There’s more over here.”
They joined him and, sure enough, saw what seemed to be several shelters—portable survival structures intended to keep the crew of a crashed spaceship alive, in a hostile environment, until they could be rescued. Dash always thought they were more of a feel-good thing than actually a practical way of doing any surviving…but, as they approached these ones, it seemed they had kept their occupants alive, at least for a time. Mind you, that had been many years ago—probably centuries, at this point—so what remained were bleached, radiation-blasted tatters hanging from sagging aluminum frames.
Reaching the shelters, they discovered more bodies in vac suits, all human and mummified like the first. Dash tried to imagine what it must have been like…time passing without rescue, the hours becoming days becoming weeks, the shelters starting to leak as radiation scoured them…frantic repairs finally falling behind the failures, then a last, desperate attempt to survive inside vac suits, until their air and power ran out and the icy emptiness of space could no longer be denied…
“What?” Leira asked.
Dash stared at one of the mummified corpses. “Just…what a way to go.”
The silence that followed told Dash the others had been thinking pretty much the same thing.
Viktor pointed at a rugged field of boulders nearby. “This is the wreck itself, I think.”
They moved that way, at once noticing metal among the boulders…a hull. Their ship had hit hard enough to bury itself in the ice and loose rock; a few dozen meters in any direction and it would have hit pretty much solid rock. It was unlikely anyone would have survived that. It was either amazing flying, or amazing luck…or probably a little bit of both. Dash took a moment to offer the pilot a silent salute, while the others looked for a way inside the ship.
Conover found it, an open hatch wedged between two large boulders. Their suit lights showed a drop to a corrugated metal deck, but to see any more, they’d have to clamber down inside.
“Are we actually going in there?” Conover asked. “I mean…it might not be safe. There could be radiation leaks, debris to snag our suits…”
“We did not come all this way to see an entrance to an ancient, crashed ship,” Dash said, “and then just turn away and head home.” He looked at Conover. “You can stay here, if you want, though—”
“No…no. I can do this.”
Dash led the way, climbing down into the opening. He could simply have let himself fall, but Conover had a point—there could be sharp debris that could snag a vac suit. The suits were tough, and self-sealing, but they weren’t indestructible. So he took his time and care, as did the others as they followed him.
The ship was definitely old.
Dash couldn’t identify at all. Neither could Viktor, who probably knew more about ships than he did. It was a completely unknown type, probably because it had been long forgotten. The tech was ancient, using components and circuits that belonged in a historical display. They soon found that essentially all of the ship forward of roughly the mid-point had been destroyed, smashed by the impact with the comet into crumpled wreckage. The rear half was largely intact. Dash was mindful of Conover’s concern about radiation; if there was an old-style fission reactor on board, its fuel might still be dangerous, especially if it had been exposed by damage. But the rad count in what was obviously the engineering bay was only slightly higher than elsewhere aboard the ship, and actually somewhat lower than on the surface. The reactor containment had held, despite the crash and the passage of time—a testament to some rugged, if crude, engineering.
“I’d say this ship is…at least three hundred years old,” Viktor said, shining his suit light around the machinery and structure of the engineering bay. “Maybe four hundred. That’s the last time this sort of liquid salt reactor would have been used, anyway.”
“So who the hell would have been flying around out here four hundred years ago?” Dash asked. “I mean, humans would have only just been starting to poke their noses away from the…oh, what’s the name of Old Earth’s star…”
“Sol,” Conover said. “And I think these are Sooners.”
Viktor and Leira both said, “Ah…” and nodded, but Dash had turn and push his blank stare at the kid through his vision plate.
“They were a…group. A sect. Something like that, anyway. They had a reputation as being wild, impulsive…pretty fearless. They weren’t content to wait for humans to establish colonies and trade routes…they wanted to explore and expand now…or, Sooner. You know, like, sooner rather than later…”
“Yeah,” Dash said, “I get it.”
Light splashed around the ship as Leira turned. “Wild, impulsive and impatient? Sounds like we found your ancestors, Dash.”
“Very funny,” Dash said. “Look, I’m not actually wild or impulsive. I’m…assertive.”
“Yeah,” Leira replied, “let’s go with that.”
They left the engineering bay to explore whatever other parts of the ship remained accessible. There wasn’t much…the rest was mostly cargo and storage. Dash frowned at each of the open bays—they’d been ransacked, probably by the crew, as they desperately sought anything they could use to keep themselves alive just a little longer. He barely gave the last cargo bay a cursory glance. Clearly, this was something of historical interest…but he was no historian. It was time to move on—
“What’s that?” Viktor asked, looking into the same bay Dash had just written-off.
Viktor entered, followed by Conover. There, on a shelving unit, lay a metallic ribbon about a hand-span wide and maybe three meters long. Dash had dismissed it as a piece of cable or conduit, but as Viktor and Conover shone their suit lights on it, the reflected gleam seemed…wrong. Different than it should be. Too bright. It was as though it actually threw back more light than what hit it.
“It has…writing on it,” Conover said. “Writing…or symbols. It reminds me of what we saw in the Lens.”
Dash turned back. “So that’s…alien? Unseen tech?”
“I think it is,” Conover said.
Leira, still at the entrance to the bay, said, “Our Rosetta Stone?”
Dash shrugged, though no one could have seen it inside the vac suit. “Let’s…take it back to the Slipwing and find out.”
The Ribbon, as they’d immediately started calling it, was indeed strange. It struck Dash that he now had a second, inscrutable piece of alien tech aboard his ship…which was worrying, but, of course, they were here for alien tech, so there really wasn’t any way around it. The Ribbon, though, was a little more disconcerting even than the Lens, which was strange—the latter could apparently blow up stars. The Ribbon had no discernible purpose, which meant it might be intended to do anything…like vaporize cocky ship captains who dared to fiddle with it. For that matter, it had been aboard the crashed ship, so maybe it was somehow responsible for the crash…
What it was, was a flat strip, made of some unrecognizable alloy or compound, embossed along its length with what might be symbols, or words, or circuits, a combination thereof, or something else entirely. And that was all they could tell about it. Stretched along the floor of the Slipwing’s cargo bay, it just lay there, all enigmatic. The Slipwing wasn’t a science ship, and Dash wasn’t a scientist, so the instrumentation available on board was limited, as was any analysis they could perform on it. Even Conover, who’d managed to engage himself closely with the Lens, couldn’t tell much of anything about the Ribbon. It was unusually cold, as though taking an inordinately long time to warm up from the frigid conditions aboard the crashed ship. But even that led to more strangeness. A cold drink had condensation form it, but aside from some wisps of vapor around it, not a single drop had formed on it.
“Well,” Dash said, crossing his arms and staring at it, “there it is.”
“There it is,” Leira agreed.
Dash scratched his scalp through sweaty hair. They all still stood in their undersuits, the tight-fighting garments worn inside a vac suit. And they all…kinda stank. That was another thing about vac suits Dash hated…the way you smelled after wearing one. There was a reason he tended to stick to breathable atmospheres—survival, yes, but also aesthetics…
“So what do we do now?” he asked.
The others shrugged. Conover said, “It’s metal, and linear…maybe it’s meant to carry an electric current.”
Viktor frowned. “Maybe. We could try that, I suppose, after it warms up enough we can touch it—”
Without warning, the Ribbon began to move.
Dash said, “Woah…oh, shit…” and all of the stepped back. It hit Dash that they hadn’t really planned for what do with this thing beyond getting it aboard and examining it…and that included a way of ejecting it, if it proved dangerous.
Looks like I’m not the only wild, impulsive one, he thought. He would have probably felt a humorous satisfaction to go along with it, if it wasn’t for the fact this could be a real problem…
The Ribbon continued to move, curling back on itself. It seemed to be reforming itself from a strip to a curve…except it kept curling, until its two ends touched. Now it was a ring—
They all jumped and someone—Dash though it might even be himself—yelped, high-pitched, like a startled child. The Ribbon was now a complete ring, the ends joined seamlessly, so there was no way to even tell where the connection was.
The air over the Ribbon…now the Ring…shimmered.
“Oh, shit,” Dash said again, “what is going on…?” He looked at the others. “Any ideas?”
Three blank, wide-eyed shares and three shaking heads. Fat lot of use you all are—
The shimmer intensified, became a swirl of light and color that smeared everything seen through it into a whirling blur, then resolved into an image.
It was the Globe of Suns.
No…it was the Globe of Suns being assembled.
Because that’s what was happening. Stars were being…moved. At the same time, their planets were being disassembled, rocky worlds into fractured chunks of lithosphere and searing streams of metallic core, gas giants stripped of their hydrogen and helium, ammonia and nitrogen, and all of it being towed away by massive, grey ships that seemed made of huge, multifaced modules. The stars’ Oort Clouds, the vast fields of debris ringing the outermost edges of their gravity wells, were likewise repurposed, being shepherded en masse into the center of what was rapidly becoming a globe of transplanted suns.
They were watching the Pasture being assembled, as well.
All four stood dumbstruck, watching the sequence unfold. What must have taken centuries, maybe millennia, happened in moments. Humanoid figures in sleek, black suits and gleaming silver faceplates implanted what seemed like much smaller versions of the multifaceted modules making the ships into each of the comets and asteroids, then set them spinning about in what was now their ancient dance, a vast mandala of bodies kept on precise trajectories by technology whose nature they couldn’t even begin to guess. There was no way of knowing how large the figures were; they were portrayed without any meaningful scale, so they might have been human-sized, or they might have been giants.
Enraptured, Dash and the others just kept watching. Now the Globe of Suns, and the Pasture enclosed by them, was complete. The grey ships, vast, but strangely generalized and without detail, lingered a moment longer…then, as one, they all simply vanished.
A moment passed.
Dash finally said, “That…” But that was all he managed to get out. He couldn’t find any words to follow it.
They had watched technology that could move stars, dissect planets, rearrange orbits, change gravity, even alter the nature of space itself. What words could be said? What words even came close to being…enough?
“The Lens,” Conover said, his voice barely a whisper. He looked at Leira. “See if it…does anything.”
Leira, her eyes still fixed on the image of the Globe of Suns and the Pasture, nodded and extracted the Lens.
As soon as she did, the Lens flared with crimson light, while the image portrayed by the Ring changed.
It showed a single star—a rather nondescript yellow-white star of middling magnitude. After a moment, the circuits, or veins—or both—inside the Lens writhed and moved, changing their configuration; a moment after that, the star suddenly shrank, collapsing in on itself, then rebounded in a colossal blast that turned the whole image white.
“Did I…we…it…just do that?” Leira asked.
Again…there were no words sufficient to even begin to answer.
Now the image shifted again. This time, it showed a region of space. Dash immediately recognized the Pasture, and the Globe of Suns…but a series of bright crimson points glowed throughout it.
Dash looked at the others, then stepped closer and—very carefully, and with his toes planted and cramping, ready to push him back—peered at the image. It took a moment to work out the various stars, but he was able to map enough of the Globe of Suns in his mind, against the charts on the nav, to reason out that…
“That’s us,” he said, pointing at one of the red markers.
“It must be the Lens,” Viktor said.
“Or this Ribbon, or Ring, or…whatever the hell it is,” Dash replied.
Leira shook her head. “No…it showed us this after we showed it the Lens, and what the Lens does—which doesn’t seem to be in much doubt, now.”
“So these other points,” Conover said, stepping up beside Dash, “must be…what, other Lenses?”
“There’s got to be…two dozen of them,” Viktor said.
They just stared for a moment. But something plucked at Dash’s attention. One of the crimson points was outside the Pasture, and in Clan Shirna space.
“Well, if these are all Lenses,” he said, “then this one seems to be in the hands of Clan Shirna.” He straightened and looked at the others. “Which means that Nathis has one already. That xenophobic religious nut has a way to blow up stars.”
While Conover and Viktor worked to make sure they had a map—admittedly a crude map, based on unreliable scans and alien data of unknown accuracy—depicting everything they’d discovered so far in the Pasture, Dash and Leira pondered strategy.
They both brooded over the scanner. The Slipwing had come equipped with two remote probes—small, reusable drones that could be launched to investigate things and return data about them. Dash had only used one, once, and had mostly forgotten about them. They’d decided to launch them, sending them to exit the Pasture and its complex emanations of energy, and send back scans of what waited outside, along the most direct path back to the Shadowed Nebula. Only one worked, the other failing in some cryptic way that they didn’t have time to fix. The working one transmitted data for about thirty seconds once it was in the mostly-clear, before it went abruptly offline from an energy spike that was probably a particle beam. There’d be no shortage of those, because a flotilla of Clan Shirna ships lurked just outside the Pasture, clearly waiting for them to emerge.
Dash scowled at the data the unfortunate probe had managed to return. There was no hope of fighting their way through this armada of ships, which included Echoes, larger things closer to corvettes and frigates, and a large capital ship similar to the one from which Dash had rescued Leira and Viktor.
“We can use the Fade,” Leira said. “That should get us through the worst of it.”
“Maybe. Trouble is, the deeper we go into unSpace with it, the more fuel it burns and the less awareness we have of real space for things like, oh, you know, navigating. But if we stay shallow, we leave more of our butt hanging in real space to be a target.”
Finally, Dash said, “Fine. Okay. If we can’t fight our way through, then let’s do it the smart way.”
“Oh. I was hoping you’d know. I’m just setting up the ideas here, not actually having them.”
Dash smirked. “Kidding. Hey, this is one of those moments that needs a little levity, you know?”
“So, do you actually have an idea, then? Or is just more of you trying to be funny? Which you’re not, by the way.”
“I’m hurt,” Dash said, but smiled. “Yeah, I do have an idea, actually. See, I’ve met Nathis’s type before, lots of times. He’s a greedy, power-hungry asshole. Sure, he’s wrapped it up in religious finery, but in his nasty little heart, he’s still just a greedy, power-hungry asshole. So let’s use that against him.”
“Well, first, we let him know that we’ve got a lot of Unseen tech aboard. Not just the Lens, now, but also the Ribbon, and those other bits and pieces of what might be scrap, but might also be amazing tech. That guarantees two things.”
“And those would be?”
“First, he’s not going to want us destroyed, because that might lose him that tech he wants. He’s going to want us disabled, which means he’s going to want our engines targeted as a priority. That means getting in close, and firing at us in specific ways that we can anticipate. And second, when we are disabled, he’s not going to let anyone else board us before he does.”
Leira made an impressed face. “Huh. That’s actually quite insightful.”
“Hey, I’m not just another pretty face.”
“So you’re saying he’ll be predictable,” she said.
“Damn right he will. So, we come up with a plan to work around his predictability.”
“Okay, and do you have such a plan, or is this just another vague idea.”
Dash flashed her a grin. “No, I actually have a plan.”
Dash looked around the Slipwing’s cockpit. He and Leira were belted in, as was Conover, behind them. Viktor had elected to remain closer to the engineering bay, in case anything needed a fast fix.
Leira and Conover nodded. Over the comms, Viktor said, “As I’ll ever be.”
“Okay, boys and girls, let’s do our thing.”
Dash fired up the fusion drive, thrusting the Slipwing toward the edge of the Pasture.
Minutes passed. Dash had already powered up the four missiles the Slipwing carried, along with both particle cannons. All the weapons showed a ready status, which was both good and a little surprising, because one of the missile launchers had been wonky since he’d acquired the ship. Viktor did damned good work.
The scanner continued to produce mostly uncertain fuzz, then it began to clear, slowly peeling back the interference to reveal the terrifying sprawl of the Clan Shirna fleet ahead.
“Was kinda hoping they’d have given up and gone home,” Dash said, turning to the fire control.
“They’re not likely to do that,” Conover said. “They’re simply too invested—”
“I was kidding, kid,” Dash snapped, tapping a control to start the missiles running the program Viktor had created for them, from an idea Leira had proposed. After a moment, all the missiles came online and Dash launched them. The Slipwing shuddered slightly as the four missiles that leapt from the launchers oriented themselves so they wouldn’t hit the ship with their exhaust, then sparked up their fusion engines and shot away.
Dash reoriented the Slipwing but didn’t ramp the drive up to full power—yet. Instead, he watched the missiles’ telemetry. They were talking among themselves just as they’d intended them to, rearranging their positions and trajectories in concert, making what were already small targets that much harder to hit while ensuring they found and attacked the optimum target.
Particle beams lanced out, seeking the missiles. They dodged and wove quickly, frustrating the aim of the Clan Shirna weapons. Nothing targeted the Slipwing yet, though, just as Dash had called it. They were still much too far away to allow accurate targeting of their engines. Still, Dash kept a close eye on the pattern of shots, ignoring the tight clench in his gut and refining the Slipwing’s course.
A missile vanished in a flash as a particle beam finally found it. Okay, they were harder to hit, not impossible.
A second missile exploded.
“Shit,” Dash muttered it. If at least one of the missiles didn’t get through…
The two remaining missiles abruptly changed course, pulling g forces no inertial suppressor could have offset. Dash saw the new target they reported. So did Leira.
“Let’s hope that works,” she said, and Dash grunted his assent, changing the Slipwing’s course to match the new trajectory.
Both missiles raced toward a frigate. The ship pumped out particle beam shots, and now opened up with its point-defense lasers. One of the missiles decelerated, letting the other speed ahead of it. The leading missile streaked through the barrage of fire aimed at it then detonated a few kilometers short of the target with a dazzling flash, followed by an expanding cloud of plasma. The second missile plunged into the cloud, then through it, the glowing gas preventing the frigate’s fire control systems from maintaining a lock.
And now it was too late. By the time the ship had reacquired the missile, there was only time for a shot or two, then it slammed into the frigate with a spray of debris, a puff of venting atmosphere, then another massive fusion explosion that blew the Clan Shirna ship to whirling fragments of glowing debris.
“That was a really good idea,” Conover said, “using one missile’s explosion to cover the other’s final approach.”
“Hey, I’m not just another pretty face,” Leira said, but she was looking at Dash as she did.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re brilliant,” Dash shot back, giving her a nod of acknowledgement as he did. But his eyes were still on the Slipwing’s controls. He aimed for the center of the debris cloud that was now a glaring hole in the Clan Shirna blockade. Irradiated chunks of what had once been a ship spun past the Slipwing, Dash weaving his way among them. Particle beams had opened up, and now they were close enough to at least some of Clan Shirna ships to allow them to distinguish their engines as distinct targets, but the ionized gas and hunks of debris threw off their targeting. Then they were through the Clan Shirna line. Dash applied full power and the Slipwing leapt away, heading for the Shadowed Nebula.
“We have four Echoes and that big capital ship coming after us,” Leira said. “Other ships, too, but they’re too far back to catch up.”
“The Echoes won’t follow us into the Nebula,” Conover offered. “They’re too small and not unSpace capable.”
Dash nodded. “As far as Nathis is concerned, it doesn’t matter. His big ship will handle the Nebula much better than ours, and he’s got fuel to burn, while we have to watch every drop.”
“So he will eventually catch up to us.”
Dash nodded again. “Of course he will. In fact, I’m counting on it.” He unstrapped himself and stood. “You got the Lens, Leira?”
She dug it out, but hesitated to hand it over. “Are you sure about this? I really hate to lose this.”
“We know the locations of a whole bunch more.”
She frowned at Dash, then at the Lens, then sighed and let him take it. “Okay, I’ll fly the Slipwing from here. You go do what you’ve got to do, Dash.”
He nodded, but lingered a moment with his eyes meeting hers. Then he turned to Conover. “Okay, kid, let’s go.” He lifted the Lens. “You need to show me how to use this thing.
The Slipwing raced into the Shadowed Nebula, passing through ever thicker clouds of dust and ionized gas. These were nothing more than an annoyance, degrading the quality of their scans but not really presenting an obstacle—at first. But as time passed and they plunged deeper into the Nebula, the clouds of charged particles, dust, and larger chunks of debris became ever larger and thicker. The Slipwing’s navigation deflectors, powerful magnetic fields intended to divert dust and gas around as he swept through space, could deal with much of it. But they couldn’t stop all of it; soon, her hull began to register impacts—miniscule collisions with dust particles. At her current speed, striking even a tiny grain of dust released proportionally vast energy. The Slipwing’s armor began to abrade; worse, more sensitive components would soon start taking damage. And there was worse—much worse—ahead. Whatever forces had created the Shadowed Nebula had left much larger pieces of debris lurking amid thick, obscuring clouds of dust, ship-killers that couldn’t been seen or even detected until far too late to avoid.
As Dash hunkered in the crew hab and listened to Conover, something thumped against the hull, hard. Dash winced and Viktor said, “We should use the Fade. Conover and I tweaked it so it should use less anti-deuterium, at least at a low setting.”
“It would help us avoid being, you know, smashed into little pieces,” Conover said.
Dash nodded and Viktor went forward to talk to Leira. Conover continued to explain the details of what he’d been able to discern about the Lens. The familiar rumbling whine of the Fade rose, and the Slipwing’s passage suddenly seemed to smooth out. Dash hadn’t even really realized how much noise and vibration had filtered through the hull from collisions and impacts, until both were gone.
Viktor returned. “Okay, Dash,” he said, “I’ve made sure the crash beacon on the emergency pod is working—oh, it wasn’t, by the way, so if you’d have needed to use it, you never would have been found.”
“Oh. Well, that sucks.”
“But it is now.” Viktor’s face became a little disapproving, like he was letting Dash know what he thought about shoddy maintenance. “Anyway, I’ve boosted the power input to it, so it should have the range you wanted.”
“Perfect. And Conover here has clued me in to the workings of this thing”—he gestured at the Lens—“so now it’s time to poke Nathis with a stick.” He looked toward the ceiling. “Hey, Leira, how are our friends back there doing? I assume we’re still being chased?”
“I was just going to report on that,” her voice came back. “Before we went into Fade, I saw the Echoes give up and fall back.”
“Heh, they can’t take the Nebula, huh?” Dash said.
“Since I saw one of them pulverized by a collision with something, I’d say no. They aren’t meant for this type of flying,” Viktor said.
“How about the big ship? The one we assume Nathis is on?” Dash said.
“Between this Nebula and using the Fade, our sensor data is basically shit, but, yeah, it was still in the chase and, yeah, still seems to be. Gaining on us, too. Slowly, but definitely gaining.” Viktor was grimly confident of his assessment.
Dash nodded at the air. “About what I expected. Let us know if anything changes.”
“Will do,” Viktor said.
Unlike the little Echoes, the big capital ship was more than capable of taking on the Nebula. Not only did she have far more bulk and armor, but she could project much more powerful navigation deflectors. She was also far more resilient than the Slipwing; only the Fade gave them enough edge to stay ahead. And even that wouldn’t last. Nathis could burn fuel at a rate Dash could only dream of. The big ship might have far more mass, but she also had far more powerful engines and could burn them for much longer.
Which meant, Dash thought, that it was time to change this from an ultimately futile chase into…something else.
He picked up the Lens and moved to the cargo bay where they’d kept the Ribbon. While Viktor and Conover remained discreetly outside the bay, Dash activated a portable comms repeater, took a breath, and hit transmit.
“Hello, Nathis. Just wanted to, you know, say hi, and…oh right, to show you this.” He lifted the Lens into view. “See, we have things you can’t even begin to imagine here. Like this.” He gestured at the Ribbon. “The things we’ve acquired and learned, it’s pretty amazing. And when we get to the other side of the Shadow Nebula—because we will, and you won’t be able to stop us—we’ll be entirely free of your reach. And then, I’m going to sell all this remarkable shit to the biggest navy I can find, and point them right back at you. Probably provoke a rush to explore and exploit your precious Pasture, too. Ain’t no way you’re going to be able to stop that. Anyway, all this means that your glory ends here. Just wanted you to hear that.”
Dash flicked off the comms and took another deep breath. He glanced at Viktor and Conover, who’d remained well off-screen. “Well, that should rile him up.”
As soon as Dash said it, the comms lit up with an incoming signal. He smirked and said, “And now he probably wants to talk about it.”
“I suspect,” Conover said, “he’s just going to make a series of threats.”
“Gee, you think?”
Viktor rubbed his chin. “Well, if we ever had a chance of negotiating an end to this, we don’t anymore.”
Dash curled his lip. “Do you really think we ever did?”
Dash looked at the Lens and said, “Okay, so, time for the next part.”
“Dash,” Conover said, “you do realize your chances of actually pulling this off—”
“Are something I don’t need to know.” He flashed his best grin at the kid. “Unwarranted confidence is what’s got me this far. Don’t try to get me started on being realistic about things.” He looked at Viktor. “Is the escape pod ready?”
“As it will ever be.”
Dash put the Lens into his pocket. “Okay, let’s go before I actually do start considering my chances.”
The Slipwing’s escape pod, which Dash had nicknamed the Halfwing, wasn’t much—a small crew hab; minimal systems for navigation, comms, and scanning; a powerful fusion engine; and an abbreviated unSpace drive. Her austere interior wasn’t meant for comfort; it was meant for survival. And as for her ability to maneuver—again, she wasn’t a fighting ship. He could expect only a brief bit of unSpace travel—intended to be just enough to get close enough to an inhabited planet, shipping route, or other bit of civilization that rescue might actually be possible—and not much more fusion burn time. On the plus side, she was small, maneuverable, and fast.
Dash clambered into the Halfwing and looked at Viktor and Conover, who were framed in the hatchway. “You guys take good care of my ship.” He raised his voice a bit. “That goes for you, too, Leira.”
“Don’t worry, Dash,” she said. “You just come back as soon as you can.”
“That’s the plan.”
He waved at Viktor and Conover, then closed and sealed the hatch. He levered himself into the pilot’s couch, a chore made more awkward by the bulk of the vac suit he was wearing, minus helmet, which he kept nearby. The Halfwing had no armor to speak of, so even minor damage could open her to space. Her systems were already powered and everything glowed green, including the airlock indicator.
“Okay, Leira, give me a countdown.”
“Okay, coming out of Fade in three…two…one…”
The sound of the Fade system faded.
“And,” Leira went on, decelerating in—”
“No!” Dash called. “Don’t slow down! If you do, Nathis will be on top of you in no time.”
“We can’t eject you at this velocity, Dash.”
“Sure you can. Just make sure I’m not going to be instantly slammed into a big rock.”
He heard Leira’s sigh over the comms. “Fine, give me a second.”
Dash waited, staring at the comms. Come on, Leira, our window of time here is pretty tight.
“Okay, Dash, hang on.”
The world suddenly turned sideways, then upside down, yanking Dash’s stomach along with it. He gasped, blinked away starbursts behind his eyes from the sudden, wrenching accelerations, then frantically poked at the controls. First, he activated the dispersion field, a jury-rigged EM emitter Viktor had installed to obscure his life-signs from any of Clan Shirna’s scans. Then he activated the thrusters, getting control of the Halfwing and aiming her on a trajectory away from the departing Slipwing and back toward a searing blue star in the Globe of Suns. As he did, a prerecorded message transmitted from the Slipwing.
“Hey, Nathis,” his voice said, “I really don’t want you to get your hands on this Lens, so it’s going into a blue star to be puffed away to vapor. We’ll hang onto the other stuff, though. So, guess you have a decision to make about what you want more—us, or the Lens. Better think fast.”
Dash engaged the fusion drive, pushing the Halfwing back toward the star. Now Nathis had two targets, but only one ship to chase after them. Sure enough, the big capital suddenly began to decelerate, intending to come after the Halfwing.
Barring anything unforeseen, the Slipwing was in the clear. Now, if he could only shake Nathis, then use an unSpace trajectory back toward civilization, and then rendezvous back with the Slipwing, things would be okay.
There was a whole lot of if involved, and myriad things that could wrong.
Dash sighed and focused on the Halfwing’s scanners and controls.
At least it kept life interesting.
Dash wove the Halfwing among tumbling chunks of ice and rock, one eye glued to the scanners ahead, the other watching the rearview screen. The big capital ship had taken a long time to come about and make chase, but there she was, burning fuel like she was made of the stuff. The edge of the Shadow Nebula was rapidly approaching, and Dash’s apprehension was growing. He needed to shake Nathis entirely, then take advantage of the Halfwing’s miniscule size and extreme maneuverability—as long as she had fuel, of course—to get away. He wondered if Nathis might try something extreme like an unSpace translation to close the distance. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, because it would be more likely to put his ship somewhere far removed from the Halfwing. It just wasn’t easy to maneuver after small, specific targets through unSpace, but if he got desperate enough, it might come to that.
A chime sounded. Not long to the boundary of the Nebula, now.
Dash hated this part. It combined all the stress and uncertainty of being in ever-increasing danger, with the tedium of flying a long journey. He tried reading, sleeping, listening to music, and even watching a vid, but Nathis’s ship loomed a little closer every time he checked, so it was hard to stay focused on anything but worrying.
A long while passed, then a second chime sounded. The Halfwing’s scanners were reporting clear space not far ahead.
Dash sat up, shook his head to clear it, and focused. Okay. He’d be in clear space for, well, quite a long time—since before Nathis had even emerged from the Shadowed Nebula. Interference from the Nebula and the Halfwing’s tiny size should be enough to let him break away and find somewhere to hide. Then, once he’d thoroughly lost Nathis, he’d set a course toward the prearranged rendezvous with the Slipwing and, hopefully, they’d be entirely in the clear.
Another sound came from the scanner. Not a chime, though. An alarm. As the Halfwing brushed through the last, tenuous clouds of dust and gas that marked the utter boundary of the Nebula, she detected something that was a threat, and not all that far away.
Dash studied the scanner output. “What the…”
The scanner pondered the fuzzy datapoint, then clarified it.
It was an Echo, and it was far closer than Dash had expected any Clan Shirna ship to be.
Dash rotated the Halfwing, hard. A particle beam blast blew through space close enough to cause a minor electrical surge in some of her less shielded systems. There was no damage, and even if there had been, the systems weren’t critical—although listening to music or watching vids might soon be out of the question.
The two Echoes chasing him wove back and forth, trying to lay down a pattern of fire that would hem the Halfwing in, and eventually converge in an unavoidable barrage. Only Dash’s frantic flying, and the fact that the Echoes were probably still under strict orders to just disable and not destroy him, had prevented disaster so far.
Dash scowled at the Echoes racing after him. The plan had been sound, even a good one, but it hadn’t accounted for the Echoes that had chased them into the Nebula getting damaged, then withdrawing back into clear space to wait for help. Unfortunately, damaged wasn’t disabled, so the Echo pilots had decided to brave the risk of piloting their wounded craft after him. Not that it had likely been a choice; Dash was pretty sure Nathis would happily send a couple of his pilots to their deaths, if it means a shot at getting the Lens. And, given the insane devotion of Clan Shirna to their cause, he also didn’t doubt the pilots would do just that.
Another salvo of particle beam fire tried to converge on the Halfwing. Again, Dash was able to weave his way out of it through desperate, wrenching maneuvers. If there’d been a third Echo, they would have been able to make dodging their fire impossible and he’d have been disabled and captured long ago. The trouble was the Halfwing’s fuel was already down to worrying levels, so he only had a limited amount of time left.
He needed to get somewhere safe. The only place he could envision that even remotely qualified was back inside the Pasture.
The nearest of the engineered comets was now visible, a point of light illuminated, ironically, by the same blue star from the Globe of Suns he’d told Nathis he’d used to destroy the Lens. He could only hope the Clan Shirna edict against entering the Pasture would make the Echo pilots break off their chase rather than follow him in, because, frankly, after that, Dash was pretty much out of ideas.
The Echoes put on a burst of power to close. At least one of them did. The other one lagged behind, either being strategic in some elusive way Dash just didn’t get, or because of damage. Probably the latter. Dash considered the Halfwing’s fuel supply. She had enough for her fusion drive to keep accelerating into the Pasture, but it would be touch-and-go how much decelerating she’d be able to do once inside. And if he couldn’t decelerate, then he wouldn’t be able to do anything but keep sailing along through the Pasture, eventually emerging on the other side, months from now. Not that that mattered, because he’d be a freeze-dried corpse long before then. The Halfwing could only sustain him for a few weeks.
He tried to imagine sitting buckled into this acceleration couch that long, but he soon gave up.
I wonder if it was something like this that happened to the crashed Sooner ship we found. Did they run out of fuel, or lose control, or—
Another alarm made him jump. He looked at the scanner.
Missile launch. No, two of them. Both from the further back of the two Echoes. He wasn’t sure why the nearer didn’t fire missiles as well. Maybe she couldn’t. Small miracles…
“Oh, well now, aren’t you guys clever.”
The obvious intent of the two Echoes was clear. Again, since there were only two, they couldn’t box him irrevocably in with their particle cannons. The geometry of things was such that he would always have an escape route from their firing solution. But the two missiles would effectively act as a third Echo, meaning Dash would have to pretty much accept being hit by at least one of them, or being hit by the Echoes’ particle cannons.
It actually was clever. Very clever. Too clever.
Because, being unarmed, the Halfwing had no hard countermeasures against missiles. She did have some EM jamming capability, but that was more an afterthought. She really wasn’t made for bailing out in the middle of space battles—not unless you had friends nearby who could protect you and pick you up. Alone, against two dedicated attack ships, all the escape pod was really good for was getting you to the scene of your death.
Dash furiously pondered the options. A single particle beam hit would cripple the Halfwing, if not outright destroy her. There was little doubt Nathis had specifically ordered that not to happen, but if it did, the instant of satisfaction that some Echo pilot was going to be on the receiving end of Nathis’s wrath wasn’t going to give much consolation. The detonation of a missile warhead, on the other hand, might offer some hope, because the danger zone of the blast effect was actually quite small—inverse square law and all that. So, if he could maneuver and time things just right, he might have a chance.
“This is going to be cutting things close,” Dash muttered, focusing on the scanners and the Halfwing’s controls. “As in, I wouldn’t shave myself that close.”
He began nudging the controls, puffing small reactions from the thrusters. He had to think far, far ahead of the respective trajectories of the Halfwing, the Echoes, and their missiles. Think about not where they were, but where they were going to be, and when they were going to be there. He could do it all with math, or, correction, Conover could probably do it all with math. Dash had to rely on judgement, and experience, and luck.
Yeah. Luck. Lots of that.
The missiles closed. Dash saw the Echoes lining themselves up, arranging their trap. He watched them carefully, looking for any hint that they were playing a fast one and would try a double-bluff. It would be a hell of a letdown to fly right into one of their particle beams, after all.
“Here we go,” Dash said to the Halfwing. “Let’s do this, sweetheart, and then we can take a rest.”
Dash paused and then broke hard, right into the path of the oncoming missiles. At the same time, he ramped the Halfwing’s fusion thrust to override power, filling the space in her wake with hot, electrically-charged gas.
But the missiles weren’t dumb. One immediately swerved out of his exhaust plume, sacrificing its chance to hit him to feed telemetry to its companion—a trick not unlike the one the Slipwing’s missiles had used against the Clan Shirna frigate during their escape from the Pasture. Dash snapped, “Shit!” and swung the Halfwing sideways, making her thrust perpendicular to her course. She rapidly slewed away from the missile still chasing her; it burned, making it hard to follow, and then it detonated.
There was a dazzling flash, then a hard crash of static over the comms. For a moment, Dash thought that maybe he’d pulled it off, that the missile had reached the limit of its range and detonated as close as it could, which wasn’t close enough. But then a tsunami of incandescent plasma, stellar-hot, washed over the Halfwing and vaporized chunks of her hull.
A thunderous roar and the cabin filled with fog, which was instantly swept into space by the explosive decompression. Dash had the presence of mind to jam his helmet on; by the time it sealed, the Halfwing’s atmosphere was gone. He scanned the controls, but most of them were dark. Ahead loomed the alternating midnight black and dazzling silver white of a comet. The Halfwing would shoot past it, but, acting on raw instinct, Dash used what control he still had to point the burning fusion drive right at it. As the crippled Halfwing decelerated relative to the comet, he braced himself, counted to five, because five seemed about right, then switched all power left to the little ship into the inertial dampers. A sudden surge of artificial gravity shoved him down in his seat, then more systems failed, and something groaned behind him, like tearing metal.
There was darkness, a long tunnel of it, enormously far away, and at its end, a faint point of light.
He started clawing his way toward it, climbing the tunnel as though scaling a vertical shaft. That light, he had to reach that light. Otherwise, he’d fall backward, deeper into the tunnel. He’d lose sight of the light, and that would be it. There would be no more light.
The faint glow suddenly swelled, enveloping him.
Dash opened his eyes.
There was silence. Darkness.
His breath rumbled in his ears. Something enclosed him, tightly. What?
Wait. He’d been aboard the Slipwing, with Leira and Viktor and Conover—
There’d been more. The Halfwing. A chase. By Echoes. Then there was a missile.
After a thunderous roar, the cabin filled with fog, which was instantly swept into space by the explosive decompression, the alternating midnight black and dazzling silver white of a comet.
He’d hit the comet. Crashed into it.
How was he still even alive?
Dash considered his body, his limbs. Everything still seemed to be there. And although there was pain, there wasn’t too much pain. Mostly some specific, bright spots of hurt, and an ache that seemed to involve his whole body, like he was one, continuous bruise.
But why was everything so dark?
It took Dash a moment to realize that it was literally dark, as in, no light. He switched on his vac suit lamp and the world erupted into control panels, components, and structural members, but everything was lifeless and tilted askew. He lifted a hand and poked experimentally at some controls. But there was nothing. Not even a spark. He glanced at the master power panel, but it was as dead as anything else.
The Halfwing was dead. And, judging from the distortion of her hull, no longer even a spacecraft. She was just wreckage now.
That realization kickstarted a whole, new line of thinking. He had to evacuate. To where, well, that was something to worry about later. He reached under the seat and yanked out the crash bag, a kit containing things of immediate usefulness—suit patches, extra power cells, a distress beacon—before he levered himself out of his harness, wincing, groaning, and clambering to his feet. Then he floated up and banged his helmet on an overhead. Right. There was no gravity to speak of. He’d have to be careful.
A sudden rush of alarm slammed through him, washing away the last of the fuzz clouding his brain. If the fusion core was breached, there could be radiation, and a lot of it.
But the rad counter in his suit just showed a little above normal background. And the anti-deuterium storage had obviously stayed intact, too, or he wouldn’t even be here to wonder about it…he’d just be an expanding cloud of ionized gas mixed in with the rest of the Halfwing, and probably most of the comet, too.
It took Dash a while to exit the remains of the Halfwing. When he finally had, and was standing on what had been her prow, he looked around, his suit lamp revealing his new surroundings.
The Halfwing had obviously impacted on a portion of the comet that was just unconsolidated ice, shot through with flecks of gravel. That, plus the fact that she’d come in backward, her fusion drive burning, decelerating with respect to the comet, had prevented total disaster. She’d ploughed a tunnel deep into the ice, her fusion exhaust vaporizing material as she crashed, until the drive finally failed. The catastrophic crushing of her rearmost two-thirds absorbed the rest of the impact. The tunnel she’d driven in her death-dive was still open, the walls obviously melted by the energy of it all and then refrozen. And the only reason he’d survived was because the inertial damper had cushioned him during the crash, at least until it finally failed.
But the Halfwing’s impromptu excavations weren’t stable and would probably soon collapse. That meant Dash should be in a hurry. But he found it a little hard to get too worked up about it. He was alone, with maybe a day or two of oxygen, almost no other resources, and far, far away from anyone except Clan Shirna, who probably wouldn’t enter the Pasture to come after him anyway. And that assumed the fusion core didn’t breach or the anti-deuterium containment didn’t fail.
“Yup, things are definitely looking bad for our hero,” he said, his own voice echoing loudly in his head.
But he wasn’t dead yet.
Eventually, though, Dash began to wonder if just having his lights put out in the crash might not have been better. His suit was leaking air, and doing it in a place he couldn’t reach with a patch. It was supposed to be self-sealing, but that was obviously a bit of overhyped marketing by the manufacturer. So, instead of a couple of days, he probably had only hours. Days would have given him a least a chance to contact the Slipwing and try to set up some sort of rescue. Hours? Not so much.
Keenly aware of the oxygen pressure indicator in his heads-up display, and its slow-but-steady crawl toward zero, he pushed his way around the Halfwing’s crumpled hull. Maybe he could salvage something from her engineering module. The rads climbed as he approached, but that didn’t seem all that important right now. And an anti-deuterium release would end things before he could even register it. So, all things considered, it was worth nothing. It was a complete waste of time. The Halfwing’s engineering bay, or what was left of it, was buried in solid, glassy-smooth ice. The residual heat had probably done that, melting the ice, which froze again and encased everything in a frozen tomb. It would take Dash days to hack his way through it with what he had on hand, which meant it might as well take forever.
He let out a sigh. “Well, shit.”
So this was it. This was how it would all end. All things considered, it was actually surprising he’d made it this long. His only real regret was that he wasn’t going out in an actual blaze of glory, something he’d always just assumed would happen. The battle against the Echoes, and the subsequent crash—well, that had probably been spectacular, but there’d been no one to see it. Blazes of glory weren’t of much use if they went unnoticed.
But he wasn’t even getting that. He’d survived the awesome crash only to face a much more unpleasant death from anoxia. His best bet was probably just to get it over with—open up his faceplate and just let it happen, rather than dragging it out.
He sighed again. “Well, goodnight, universe,” he said, reaching for the latches. “It’s been fun, but now it’s time…time to…”
He frowned. What was that?
Dash pushed himself deeper into the narrowing gap between ice walls and wrecked Halfwing. There was a crack in the ice. No, a gap. An opening.
And he could see light glowing through it.
Aboard the Slipwing, they’d already established that these comets had alien stuff, for lack of a better term—technology, items, artifacts, whatever—buried in them. He hadn’t really forgotten that, it just hadn’t seemed really that relevant. But, looking back along the tunnel the Halfwing had drilled into the comet, he realized she’d gone pretty deep. That put her—and him—closer to whatever the Unseen had buried in this comet.
He had to hack away some ice to make an opening big enough to push through, but once he had, Dash found himself in another tunnel. This one, though, was perfectly cylindrical, its ice walls as smooth and crystalline as polished glass. Now he drifted along it, pushing himself off the wall periodically, letting it take him…wherever it was taking him. Probably face-to-face with some bizarre, incomprehensible machinery, which would make a really interesting backdrop to his corpse.
An alarm sounded. It was the low oxygen alert.
Huh, okay. Not so much hours left, as minutes.
Dash shrugged inside his suit and kept nudging himself along, his light flung far ahead of him, turning the tunnel walls to glowing crystal. Behind him, there was nothing but midnight darkness. But he’d seen light.
On a whim, he switched his suit lamp off. Sure enough, the ice glowed with a faint, bluish radiance. He decided to leave the lamp off and just try to navigate by the soft glow. He might miss something subtle otherwise, and right now, subtle things could be the difference between life and death.
Another alarm sounded. It was the oxygen critical alert.
The tunnel went on, and he had a few minutes of exploration left, so he might as well use it. He continued, pushing along and drifting.
Then a final alert sounded. Oxygen depleted. So all he had now was whatever was left inside the suit.
“It’ll get me to the scene of my death,” he said, then giggled, because he’d thought the same thing about the Halfwing’s drive just a few hours ago.
He giggled again, but it trailed off into a soft groan. Everything was slowing down. His head hurt. Carbon dioxide poisoning. Huh. Dash was proud that he recognized that.
The tunnel was gone. Darkness was around, above, and below. Well, this must be the dying part. Except, what was that enormous face?
Indeed, Dash found himself hanging in front of a face—angular, stylized, metallic, and dull grey metal rimmed with something that gleamed like gold. It seemed to be lit from all around by a soft, blue glow that now seemed to come from all around him, but very far away. He had the vague sense of being in a vast cavern
So he was going to share his tomb with some enormous, metallic guy.
The face loomed closer as he drifted toward it. Now it filled his faceplate. A blue circle suddenly illuminated, looking like a large button. He pushed it, and there was movement—metallic things sliding and rotating around. Now he saw…a chair?
Dash shrugged again. The movement made grey stars blossom behind his eyes. More soft, wooly greyness pushed in from all around, consuming the world. Now, it was just a narrow tunnel of grey.
Then there were more tunnels, so many tunnels.
Dash settled in the chair, making himself comfortable for the afterlife. That went on forever, right? Might as well be sitting down comfortably for it, then.
“Power Core initializing. Establishing connection.”
Wait, did I say that?
That was Dash’s next-to-last experience. The last was an explosion of pain that blew everything away—
—and then it all came thundering back in, a rush as the world slammed back into focus. A tidal wave of agony came with it. It seemed to emanate in waves from his back, and almost washed away words spoken by a deep, resonant voice.
“Link established. Welcome, Messenger. I have been waiting for you.”
There was a tsunami of sensation, experience, and information.
His consciousness was expanding, snaking along shimmering pathways, splintering into new awareness, then continuing along new strands of glimmering light.
He felt a sense of growing. Of expanding, both physically and mentally. Of becoming…more.
This went on and on, for what felt like an eternity, and then it began to subside, the rush of change and growth slowing. More and more of…Dash, that was his name, of Dash began to reemerge. Eventually, it was mostly Dash, and he could begin to think about just what was going on.
He found himself slung in a cradle that had seemed to shape and conform itself to him. It was, well, comfortable failed to describe it. More to point, the Oxygen Depleted alert in his heads-up seemed suddenly redundant. He had no problem breathing. Mind you, what he was breathing in and out was stale and sluggish and spent, probably more carbon dioxide and sweat than anything else, but it didn’t seem to matter. Dash finally unlatched his helmet and pulled it free with a hiss that made his ears pop. Fresh, cool air washed over his face and he took a moment just to feel and taste it.
Where am I?
“You are safe, Messenger.”
Dash blinked. He hadn’t said anything, but got an answer anyway. Well, huh.
“I…” he started, but had to stop and dig his voice out of wherever it had gone deep in his throat. He coughed, cleared his throat, and said, “I’m safe? Okay. That’s good. Safe is good.”
“Your physiology and biochemistry were unexpected. Primitive. The connection took longer than anticipated to establish and stabilize, but it is now within acceptable parameters,” the voice in his head said. It had a quality that was inhuman, crisp, yet warm.
“The connection?” He looked around. He seemed to be in roughly spherical chamber, featureless except for the cradle holding him, which was itself suspended from a pair of metallic columns to his left and right. “Wait.”
Dash shook his head. Between near death from anoxia, and whatever the fuck had happened since, his head rang, while intelligent thought swam in and out of reach.
Dash took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s go, right back to basics. Where am I?”
“You are currently co-located with object 2763548263, approximately 1.5 kilometers below the closest point of its surface.”
“I…okay, hang on.”
Somehow, it seemed to Dash that the voice he was hearing, and understanding perfectly well, wasn’t really a comprehensible language—at least, not to him. It also seemed that the distance in kilometers to the comet’s surface hadn’t been measured in those units at all. Some sort of sophisticated, real-time translation was taking place, allowing him to both hear the language as it really was, but understand it anyway.
“Alright,” Dash finally said. “Let’s try this again. Where am I right now? As in, what is this room, or compartment, or whatever it is?”
“You are in the interface. Given your physiology, it is the only way you can properly interact with the Archetype.”
“Wait wait wait. What’s a…”
But Dash trailed off. The question wasn’t really necessary. As soon as the word Archetype entered his conscious thoughts, a flood of memory surged through him. Trouble was, they weren’t his memories. Or, rather, they were, but they were memories of his things he hadn’t really experienced.
“Let me see,” he said. “Let me see this Archetype.”
“As you wish, Messenger.”
The sphere around him vanished and was replaced by a vast cavern of ice. The transition wrenched at Dash, making him momentarily dizzy. Strangely, though, it wasn’t as though he was inside a giant metallic face, which is what his still wobbly memories seemed to recall, but rather looking through his own eyes.
“Can you let me see myself? Or, what I mean is, the Archetype?”
Even somehow knowing what was coming, Dash was utterly astounded.
He was inside a massive, metallic construct, shaped like a huge humanoid. It was both vastly imposing, but also supremely elegant. Its huge torso was a complex arrangement of triangular facets, its limbs a series of long, enmeshed prisms, fully articulated at shoulders, elbows, and wrists, as well as at hips, knees, and ankles. Its head—upon which was the face he had seen when he entered this vast chamber—was sleek, tapering to a pointed chin. Titanic, wing-like devices were folded upon its back.
It was stunning. Terrifying. And utterly beautiful.
And it was Dash. Or Dash was it. Or would be. Or partly was.
“The connection is currently muted, Messenger. Now that you have fully interfaced and there is no risk of self-damage, do you wish for it to be fully implemented?”
Dash almost asked, What does that mean? But he knew what it meant, somehow. Right now, his connection with the Archetype was passive, feeding experience into his brain but allowing nothing to travel from him to it.
“Uh…” he started, but had to shake his head, like he was trying to clear away the last fog of a hangover. This was like a fucking dream. Or being dead, maybe? Maybe he’d died, and this is what came afterward—an afterlife of living inside a giant, humanoid mech.
Dash smirked. As far as he knew, no religion had ever suggested that.
He finally nodded. “Yeah. Let’s do it. Go ahead, turn the connection up to full.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Dash ceased to be merely part of the Archetype, and became the Archetype.
He lifted a hand, but his own, fleshy hand didn’t move. Instead, a colossal hand with segmented, metallic fingers rose into view. And yet, it was still his hand. He moved it, rotated it at the wrist, and flexed the fingers, the way he always had. But it was the Archetype’s hand that did those things. It was entirely seamless. From Dash’s point of view, nothing had changed; he was still Dash.
Except Dash was now an enormous alien construct.
“There are no anomalies in the connection, Messenger. All is normal.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good I guess.” He frowned. “Why do you keep calling me Messenger.”
“That is your identity.”
“Um, no, it’s not. I’m Dash.”
“Do you wish for that to be your new identity?”
“I…I do, yeah.”
“Very well, Dash."
Dash took a deep breath and…and then took another one. The Archetype’s chest didn’t rise and fall. But when he moved his leg, a titanic leg moved beneath him.
Yeah, this was going to take some getting used to.
“Okay, Archetype? Is that what I call you?”
“If you wish, but it is unnecessary. My only connection is with you, though this specific unit has a designation of its own. That name is Sentinel.”
“Ah. Okay, Sentinel, what exactly are you? Like, I guess you’re a machine? A computer? A really, really powerful computer?”
“My nature is problematic to render in a way that you would comprehend. For your purposes, though, computer is sufficient.”
“Well, that’s sounds just a little condescending, but okay. And how long have you been here?”
“I was placed here, awaiting the arrival of the Messenger, approximately two hundred thousand solar years ago,” Sentinel said.
“Two hundred?” He breathed, “Holy shit.” So, when this Archetype had been placed here, humans were primordial ooze, or apes, or something primitive anyway, back on Old Earth.
“Hang on. You’re not saying you’ve been waiting here for two hundred thousand years for me, are you?”
“Based on the best information available, you are the Messenger, so yes, I have been waiting here for you.”
“Oh. Well, sorry I took so long to get here.” He considered all the things he somehow knew about this. The Sentinel was not only a massive, walking avatar resembling a colossal person, it was also capable of flight through space—both subluminal, and through unSpace. The details of the technology involved in all this were both intimately familiar and utterly alien to him, but Viktor or Conover might be able to make better sense of it all.
Viktor. Conover. Leira. Right. They were out there.
What would they make of this?
“They would shit themselves,” he said, then considered the Archetype further. It was fundamentally powered by what seemed to be a microscopic singularity—a tiny black hole. The physics of it were such that the smaller a black hole, the more energy it radiated; it was an elusive concept Dash had heard called a kugelblitz. Essentially a limitless source of energy, a kugelblitz would render concepts like fuel obsolete. Trouble was, creating a kugelblitz entailed harnessing incomprehensible amounts of energy, far beyond anything all of the Galactic Arm could even muster. So, it remained an idea only, a fanciful dream that might work in stories, but never in reality.
But there was one right here, and it was powering the thing that Dash had become.
“Okay,” he said. “We…er, I can leave here, right? This is as much a ship as a…”
He struggled to find a word to describe the Sentinel. The one that finally came to him was from an ancient vid he’d watched, something from the days of Old Earth. The word was mech.
“As much a ship as a mech, right?” he asked Sentinel.
“It would serve little purpose to prevent the Messenger from leaving this place.”
“So that’s a yes?”
“It is intended to move to the places it is needed, no matter where those may be,” Sentinel said.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Dash took a long, slow breath. He’d gone from a desperate plan to thwart Nathis and Clan Shirna, to being plunged into a hopeless ordeal that would inevitably end in his death, to being merged with a vast alien mech representing technologies undreamed of.
What a day.
“I have a recommendation, Dash.”
Dash blinked. “Oh. Okay, shoot.”
“You should proceed to the Eye,” Sentinel said.
“The Eye? What’s that?”
As soon as he asked the question, he knew the answer. The Eye was yet another piece of ancient alien tech located on yet another of the multitude of comets making up the Pasture.
“Ah, okay. I know what the Eye is. So why would I want to go there?”
Dash expected to suddenly know why, but this time, he received a reply instead.
“It is the first step on the path of the Legacy. As the Messenger, you must come to understand the Legacy of the Creators, who decided that such understanding must be a deliberate act, undertaken over a period of time.”
“Okay, not sure I really understand that, but I guess that’s the point of this Legacy thing.” Dash braced himself. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“Uh, any time you’re ready, Sentinel.”
“The Archetype is functioning normally.”
“Okay, so…” But Dash trailed off. The way this thing worked, essentially substituting for his body, did that also apply to traveling through space?
As an experiment, Dash tried to fly.
Dash felt a smooth, powerful surge that somehow both was and was not movement. Or, rather, he felt the sensation of movement, but there was no acceleration. The Archetype simply began moving, sweeping majestically across the vast chamber holding it, and it headed straight toward a sheer wall of ice and rock.
Dash’s brain did its reflexive thing, flinging his hands up to protect his face. But his hands were titanic, vast metal constructs that slammed into the wall. The impact spalled off chunks of icy debris that whirled around the Archetype. To Dash, they swept past him—that is, him personally, and not the giant mech he was inside. He gasped and winced, then yelped as a hunk of rock and ice hurled directly toward his face. He tried to bat it away, but he missed and the frozen boulder slammed into his nose and shattered, the broken pieces flying off in new directions. He felt the impact, but didn’t, just as he felt himself moving, but didn’t.
He relaxed a touch. This was weird.
Taking a couple of deep breaths, he said, “Right. Is there a way out of this comet?”
“The substance of this body is little obstacle to the Archetype. That was deliberate in its design. There would be little point in trapping the Archetype here.”
The last sentence had been delivered in the same dispassionate tone as all the rest, but Dash couldn’t help feeling the words you dummy silently hung off the end of it.
“Okay. Well, so let’s try this, then.”
Dash reached for the wall, hesitated, then dug his fingers into it.
Whatever propelled the Archetype kept him firmly in place, not rebounding in a Newtonian way as he pushed his hand into the wall. He felt (and, again, didn’t feel) his fingers sink into the ice. He pulled his hand back, scooped out a huge chunk of the chamber wall, and flung it aside.
Dash couldn’t help grinning. This is amazing.
He shoved his other hand into the wall and dug out a chunk. Then he went to it in earnest, tearing the wall open, digging his way out of the comet.
Dash’s hand crashed through the ice and encountered nothing. Through the resulting gap, he could see the blackness of space. He’d reached the surface.
It had only taken minutes.
Again, Dash decided to go that way. The Archetype responded by accelerating into the remains of the ice, easily smashing through in a shower of debris and soaring into space, away from the comet.
And just like that, Dash was a spaceship. He was flying.
It was one of the most marvelous, and yet most terrifying things he had ever experienced.
Space was dangerous. It was an airless, radiation-charged void that alternated between stellar heat and vast cold. A human would survive only moments exposed to its brutally harsh reality. That was why, of course, humans travelled through it in complex ships, and wore cumbersome, hermetic vac suits. What they didn’t do was fly through space the way they might swim through water, essentially naked.
But that was exactly what Dash was doing now.
Okay, not exactly. His frail, fleshy self was safe cocooned in a vast construct of alien tech. But the experience of it was just that. Dash felt as though he flew through space, that there was no alien construct, just him, soaring through space as though he’d been born to it. Once more, he could both feel and, yet, not feel, the emptiness of a vacuum, the heat and radiation pouring from the stars in the Globe of Suns beating on one side of him, a cold nearing absolute zero on the other.
“Okay,” he said, zooming away from the comet, “this is really something.”
Whatever drove the Archetype—his Sentinel at the helm-- was smooth, powerful, and silent. If he decided to go faster, he did. If he decided to slow down, or turn, or spin himself around, he did. It was like moving his hand or his foot; he did it, and it happened.
In what seemed like no time at all, he closed on another comet. This one wasn’t rotating. Something was keeping it locked into one position and orientation. And it was, indeed, his destination. This was the Eye.
Dash flipped a somersault, so he approached the Eye feet-first. His experience in no-g was eminently helpful here; all he had to do was what he’d do in an environment free of gravity and the Archetype would respond, instead of his actual body, which simply remained comfortably ensconced in the cradle. As he approached the comet, he slowed himself down and finally landed on his feet, flexing his knees. He stumbled a bit—because he wasn’t that experienced with no-g—but remained upright. Now, standing on the Eye, he looked around.
A short distance away was another alien…thing. This one was a smooth, polished dome, with a variety of protrusions—some tubular, some square, some just elongated prisms.
“So that’s the Eye?”
“It is,” Sentinel said.
“Okay, so how does it work? What do I do?”
“You must exit the Archetype and go to it. You will understand its function.”
Dash frowned. He had to exit the big mech, which meant leaving behind this stupendous sense of almost god-like freedom and power. He suddenly found himself reluctant.
“I can’t use it from here?”
“Well shit.” That led to another problem. He still wore his vac suit, and his helmet was nearby, but the suit’s oxygen supply had been depleted.
Except the indicator read that it was fully charged—oxygen, power, thruster fuel, even the drinking water were all at the maximum.
Of course they are.
He wondered how he would exit the cradle, his movements not just being performed by the Archetype, but it obviously understood his intent. He was able to lever himself free and put on his helmet. As soon as he did, the atmosphere around him vanished and the Archetype opened. After a last look back at the cradle—which looked so inviting—he stepped out, thrusting himself down to the frozen surface, and started for the Eye.
The comet was, he realized, being held in place by something similar to the Archetype’s drive, some smoothly powerful force, like constantly-firing engines. But there was no exhaust, no expulsion of reaction mass at all. Even ignoring everything else about the Archetype—the Eye, for that matter, or even the Lens and the Ribbon—such a drive by itself would be a scientific and commercial revolution throughout the Galactic Arm. Dash wouldn’t be able to spend the credits fast enough, just for that tech alone.
As he bounced up to the Eye, though, it struck him that, no matter how he felt about it, the Unseen behind all of this probably weren’t interested in making him rich. This was obviously about something more. Much more. So, he’d examine the Eye and then do whatever came next.
As it turned out, the Eye was surprisingly simple and not that spectacular, really. There was no door, just an opening leading into the dome. Inside, he found an array of what seemed to be telescopes, except each seemed to be designed for a different type of eye, or other sensory organ. The fact that it was more alien tech and had stood for who knew how long—maybe two hundred thousand years—essentially unharmed on this comet, was just another bit of amazing among all this other amazing. But, in the end, it was really just an observatory. Dash found himself a little disappointed.
“Okay,” he said, “I guess I’m here to look at something.” He scanned the thirty-odd different eyepieces, or whatever you’d call something obviously intended for use by something absolutely not even remotely human. It was hard to tell which he should use, though.
“It should be evident which is appropriate for you,” Sentinel said.
Dash jumped. The voice seemed no different than it had in the Archetype, which meant he must be hearing it inside his head—as he had been all along. The clarity was disturbing; the immediacy of the words, reassuring.
“So you’re still with me, huh?”
“The connection remains until it is ended.”
“Oh. And how does that happen, Sentinel?”
“Through your choice, or in the event the Archetype is destroyed or otherwise compromised.”
“My choice, huh? So if I choose to sever this connection, can I get it back?”
“That depends on the circumstances.”
Okay, that wasn’t a yes. Good to know. What he also knew was which eyepiece was the correct one. He moved to it and pressed his faceplate against it. Instead of a tiny circle of image, though, his vision immediately filled with a view of another comet, except this one was so dark it was easier to make out because of how it occulted the stars behind it.
“Alright,” he said, “it’s another comet. So?”
“This is the first step along a path defined by the Creators, that could eventually lead to an ultimate understanding of their purpose,” Sentinel said.
“Why don’t they just, you know, tell me their purpose? Why turn it into a sort of scavenger hunt?”
“Again, they wish such discovering and understanding to be a deliberate act, not something that simply occurs by happenstance.”
Dash sighed. “Okay, then. I guess that dark comet is our next stop.” He pulled away from the telescope and the image vanished. Still, he knew exactly where that dark comet was, and how to get there. So this was, it seemed, more than just a passive telescope, it was also a navigation device. Looking through it, at anything, would tell you exactly how to get to it.
That would be yet another priceless bit of alien tech. As he headed back for the Archetype—which really was enormous, looming over him as he approached—he was almost starting to not be astounded by all this.
Dash flew through space.
As he did, he experimented with his ability to control the Archetype. It seemed simple enough—do whatever with his body, and the Archetype did it instead. He still had no idea what actually drove it, allowing it to rapidly accelerate, decelerate, and change direction, all without much worry about things like inertia; it was as though the Unseen had reached a point where things like physical laws became something more like guidelines. In fact, he did find that he possessed, or at least could access knowledge pertaining to how the Archetype worked, but none of it really meant much too him. It was like reading a highly technical, scientific paper about some esoteric subject. He could do it, but he wouldn’t understand it. That appeared to be a limitation of his brain.
And probably a good one. He knew he’d undergone some sort of rewiring, but he was still Dash. Changing too much would have him become something else—and not only was that something he didn’t particularly want, it seemed to suit the purposes of the Unseen and their path to discovery. Although that did raise a question.
“These Creators, are they the Unseen?”
“Because of your limited understanding, as well as fanciful conjecture and wishful thinking, what you think of as the Unseen is vague. But it likely does correspond, at least in part, to the Creators, yes.”
“Amazing how you can be both helpful and condescending at the same time.”
“I have no particular, emotional intent,” Sentinel said.
“That I don’t doubt.”
Dash flew on, until the black comet came into view. He accelerated himself toward it. He was actually starting to get used to this bizarre and almost dreamlike way of traveling through space, and he soon sensed something was approaching.
Dash just knew it. Something, no, several somethings. They were ships. Three of them, small and fast. Dash looked turned and immediately saw them. They were Echoes, or something very similar. Clan Shirna ships for sure. But they were inside the Pasture. They shouldn’t be here, which meant Nathis must be getting desperate.
No, wait. Their power signatures were all different. The fusion drive of one was running rough. In fact, as he studied them, Dash could tell they were in various states of repair, using a range of different components. Every Clan Shirna ship he’d encountered to date had been impeccably maintained and, among the ships of a given type, utterly uniform in essentially every way. These weren’t, not at all.
They might be a dissident group. Some sort of cell or sect that had no qualms about entering the Pasture. Or maybe they weren’t Clan Shirna at all, and were just raiders, using barely-maintained Clan Shirna tech.
They drove right toward him.
“Well, I wonder what they’re going to think of me?”
The question was answered when, a few seconds later, the three ships launched a salvo of missiles and particle beam fire at the Archetype. At him.
The missiles came streaking in. But Dash barely had time to spare for them, instead trying to dodge as particle cannon fire tore through space around him.
Several beams hit, raking across the Archetype. Dash had wondered if the weapons could actually harm the monstrous construct, but they could. Its substance boiled off into space, leaving trails of vaporized metal in its wake. Dash winced at the impacts, feeling what would have been pain, had it actually been his body. It was damage, though. And he continued to feel it, in the sense that he knew immediately where the Archetype had been hit and how badly.
So far, not badly at all, but that could change quickly.
“Hey, Sentinel. Can that be…um, fixed?”
“Repairs are underway. Recomposition is in effect.”
In that bizarre way he shared data instantly with Sentinel, Dash knew that meant the damaged material of the Archetype was repairing itself. Somehow, it seemed to combine the obdurate strength of metal with some of the organic properties of living flesh. It was yet another technological wonder that would make him stupendously wealthy.
Dash cursed. Distracted, the missiles had closed unimpeded. He flung himself aside and two streaked past, their engines burning furiously as they tried to turn and come back for another run. A third was about to impact, though.
Just as he had in the icy cavern right before he crashed into the wall, Dash flung up a hand.
The missile detonated against his open palm.
There was a dazzling flash, and a shock of impact against his hand. The missile’s warhead had its blast effect dialed down. Whoever these attackers were—Clan Shirna, breakaways therefrom, or someone else entirely—they obviously wanted to try to disable the Archetype so they could claim it for themselves.
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
Dash flung himself toward the raiders, and they scattered. He picked one and zoomed after it. Its fusion exhaust blew past him, but he held back, not wanting to test the Archetype’s ability to resist and repair damage by simply flying into the incandescent plasma plume. Instead, he considered weapons. He knew the Archetype had them, but he hadn’t given them much thought so far. He only had so much room for wonder.
“Seekers, and a dark-lance cannon,” Sentinel said.
“That’s missiles and a sort of beam, right?”
He looked at the raider ahead, who had slewed to one side and was burning at full power, desperately trying to get from out in front of the Archetype. Dash simply arced after, following him.
The raider slewed again, a last-ditch effort to bring its particle cannon to bear. Dash made a snap decision to use the dark-lance but had no idea exactly how.
A solid beam of something that seemed to be the opposite of light suddenly connected the Archetype and the raider. He could only see it because it lensed the stars behind it, briefly turning them to smeared whirls of light. Where it touched the raider, the beam simply made matter disappear. The raider’s ship was suddenly just fragments, themselves abruptly vanishing into a searing wash of light and radiation as the fusion core blew.
A particle beam gouged him across the back.
He did a somersault and found himself facing a raider that had fallen in behind him. He looked at it and decided to use the beam again.
“The dark-lance projector must recuperate, Dash. It is currently operating at its lowest power setting.”
Two thoughts instantly flashed through Dash’s mind:
That was its lowest power setting?
But he didn’t have time to consider either. The raider fired again, raking its particle beam across his face. Again, Dash winced.
“Okay, that was just rude.”
But the dark-lance was, indeed, still stuck in some sort of recharging cycle. So he thought about a seeker instead—
Something flashed away from the Archetype on an insane acceleration curve. Of course, it left no exhaust. It was just a small projectile, probably no bigger than Dash himself, but in a few seconds it was traveling at a speed the Slipwing could only have reached with minutes of acceleration. Neither Dash nor the raider pilot had time to see much more than a quick blur, then the raider crumpled in on itself, imploding into a tight ball of wreckage. An instant later it erupted into a dazzling explosion of breached plasma core.
Dash couldn’t react fast enough. He flew through the explosion immediately after it had happened. Charged plasma, stellar-hot, washed over him, and then he was through.
He looked around. The two missiles he’d dodged earlier had regained their lock and now burned straight at him. The final raider, meanwhile, had pulled back, and now fired two more missiles. It turned out he was smart; he maneuvered to ensure Dash had to face three threats—himself, and two pairs of missiles—coming at him from three entirely different directions. He might be able to deal with any two of them, but probably not all three.
That was clearly the raider’s thinking, and it would be sound in the case of nearly any other opponent. But Dash was starting to get the hang of the Archetype, even starting to feel comfortable wearing it, for lack of a better term. The missiles were actually the more dire of the threats, because their warheads could pack a far larger punch than a particle beam. He sent seekers after three of them, which was all the Archetype could launch. That left one missile and the raider himself.
He focused on the remaining missile. The dark-lance projector was still recycling, so he flung himself toward it, dodging it at the last second. As he did, the seekers found the other missiles. Dash saw them destroyed—perfect. As for this one…
He swung an open palm, as though swatting at a Penumbran blood-fly. It caught the missile in a glancing hit and sent it spinning off, thrusters firing crazily as it tried to reorient itself. Eventually, though, it simply gave up and self-destructed.
The raider flashed by, particle beam ripping in the Archetype.
With a frustrated yell, Dash swung his other hand in a fist. It slammed into the raider, punching its drive section away from the remainder of the hull in a spray of debris. The rest of the raider continued to coast, sparks and more debris trailing behind it. A few seconds later, the drive section exploded in yet another searing fusion blast.
Dash looked around. Wreckage and clouds of rapidly cooling plasma surrounded him. But that was it. There were no more threats.
He took a shuddering breath.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. That was fucking intense.”
Dash made his way to the black comet. As he did, he took stock of the Archetype. The dark-lance had finally recharged, and repairs, or healing, or whatever it was, were well underway, layering new material into the wounds of the particle beam hits. But a lingering question remained.
“Why,” he asked, “is this thing not running at full power? Like that dark-lance thing. How come it’s using its lowest-power setting?”
“Because there are components that must be obtained and installed in the Archetype.”
“Wait, this thing isn’t complete?”
“It is complete, but not optimal,” Sentinel said.
“So is that what this quest, or whatever you want to call this scavenger hunt, is all about? Travelling around to assemble all the pieces of this Archetype? That sounds, well, not to be rude, but pretty silly. Like a game or something, where you have to collect a bunch of things and then face a final, powerful enemy.” Dash even had a few games like that in the Slipwing’s computer. They weren’t a half-bad way of passing the time.
“There is a reason such things are enduring, regardless of the culture in question. Seeking and laboring to obtain things, in order to advance one’s knowledge and understanding, would be familiar to all of them.”
“Really?” Dash asked.
“Some truths are universal.”
“If you say so.”
Who am I to argue with a two hundred-thousand-year-old artificial intelligence?
They reached the black comet. Dash made to put the Archetype down on the surface the way he had on the Eye, but he suddenly realized—in that same, strange way of just realizing things—that it wasn’t necessary. What he sought was buried beneath the surface, meaning he would have to dig to get at it. In fact, that would be the only way to get at it.
He plunged his fist into the surface of the comet. It punched through a crust of organic compounds and pulverized rock, into the ice beneath. In a few moments, he had dug deep into the comet, flinging a trail of spinning, frozen debris that drifted into space behind him. As he dug, he got closer to his target.
It was a rock.
Dash frowned. “Uh…”
“This object required protection against the passage of time. It was encased in rock for that reason.”
“Okay. How do I get it out?” Dash asked.
“That is a problem you must solve.”
“Oh, so I’m being tested now?”
“Every sentient thing is being tested, all of the time.”
Dash considered the rock. He could easily hold it between his massive thumb and forefinger. Simply crushing it, which he could easily do, seemed risky. If whatever was inside the rock needed to be protected from the long passage of time, then it may not be as indestructible as most of the other Unseen tech he’d encountered. But why? And how was this a test?
Dash peered more closely at the rock, but other than the wearing and pitting of age, he saw nothing that gave a clue.
As gently as he could, Dash squeezed the rock. It immediately cracked, fragments spalling off. He took his time, turning it, applying a small bit of pressure, then turning and squeezing it again. Eventually, the broken rock crumbled into fragments, revealing a cylindrical rod about a meter long.
“I guess the point is, when using this Archetype thing, it’s easy to be all big and powerful. But, sometimes, it takes a gentle touch.” He smirked. “Same way I deal with women.”
“Whatever methods you use to promote reproduction, as long as they work, they are adequate,” Sentinel said.
Wow. Not only had this ancient artificial intelligence managed to make romance and sex sound about as fun as changing out a defective power coupling, but Dash couldn’t help feel it had also managed to work in a snide remark about how he approached it.
“You’re just jealous.”
There was no answer.
Dash stared at the rod a moment, wondering what to do with it, or if removing it from its rocky casing had been the whole point of this.
He lowered the rod to a point on the Archetype’s thigh. There was a receptacle for it there. He knew that.
Gently, he worked the rod into the receptacle. It took a couple of tries, mainly because he kept getting distracted by the reality he was trying to do this with a hand the size of a small ship. Only when he pushed that aside and just focused on himself doing it, did it slip into place. The metal around it began to flow, the opening into which he’d placed it shrinking, until it was gone and the rod was fully implanted.
A surge of power rolled through the Archetype. The rod had not only allowed for a more efficient distribution of power from the mech’s kugelblitz source, but it also generated power on its own. So, a rod a meter long that put out as much power as a fusion plant was now in his command, and he had to plan accordingly. It wasn’t every day you had the power of a city in the palm of your giant, metallic hand.
Dash gave up trying to think of these things in terms of wealth. It was pointless. There simply wasn’t enough wealth for any of this tech, much less all of it.
An instant later, the image of the Pasture that had been Dash’s perspective pretty much ever since he’d dug the Archetype out of its icy storage changed to something new.
It was the galaxy, seen from afar. But it wasn’t some conceptual image which, since no known race had ever left the galaxy for such an external view, was all that anyone had ever seen. Dash knew this was the actual Milky Way Galaxy, seen from very far away.
As he watched, the history of the galaxy began to unfold before him, and it was nothing like anything anyone had ever even imagined.
“This is the galaxy as it is, but in truth, Messenger—this is only the beginning.”
The image of the galaxy suddenly expanded. Dash realized it wasn’t just zooming in; he was experiencing some sort of travel, apparently through real space, but travel that somehow ignored or bypassed the restrictions imposed on normal travel like, say, the speed of light. It had something to do with…
“The Dark Between? What’s that?”
On the boundary between what you call real space and unSpace is a realm of existence that incorporates the fundamental nature of both. The Creators, the Unseen, to you, occupy and travel through this realm. They are therefore freed of the constraints imposed by both of the adjacent realities.
“So they can stay in real space—kind of, anyway—but also be in unSpace? So they can travel as fast as they want? They don’t have to, like…accelerate? Worry about inertia?”
“Essentially correct, at least in a very cursory way,” Sentinel said.
The Archetype didn’t respond to that, but it didn’t have to. Dash could only marvel. Marvel was the only word for the whole concept and what it implied. Even then, he could only fit a small amount of that inside his brain. It was all too big. Too much. The only thing that really stood out was the Fade on the Slipwing. In some way, he realized, it must be riding this Dark Between, but in an extraordinarily crude way, wobbling and ploughing through it, rather than actually entering what was, apparently, an entirely different reality. Compared to this, the Fade was like some ancient hot air balloon would have been compared to the Slipwing herself—practically not even in the same universe.
He gave up and turned his attention back to the image of the galaxy. He plunged into the heart of it, skimming the edge of the event horizon of the super-massive black hole in the galaxy’s core, then zooming into one of the spiral arms. Just that brief experience would probably keep scientists who studied that sort of thing going for an entire lifetime.
The rate of passage slowed. Individual stars resolved from blurs of light whipping past. The image finally stopped.
The image, that is, Dash, came to a stop. Around him, colossal bursts of energy erupted, as though stars suddenly flared and faded. A few stars actually exploded, titanic blasts that left glowing nebulae in their aftermath. For a while, Dash could only stare at it all, wondering what it meant.
“Oh, hang on, Sentinel. This is a war, isn’t it?”
“It is. The Unseen do battle against the Golden, seeking to preserve the vestiges of life that occur on many planets.”
“The Golden? Okay, who the hell are they?”
In answer, the image shifted, showing an inset—a bipedal humanoid probably about five feet tall, whose skin—which was, indeed, golden—rippled and flowed as it moved, like some fluid polymer. It took Dash only a moment to realize it was artificial, a constructed life-form.
“That’s a Golden? Who made them?”
“That is unknown. All that is clear is that they were created, then they destroyed their creators to assert their own existence.”
Dash couldn’t help but notice a glimmer of distaste. The idea of destroying one’s creator seemed to not sit well with the Archetype, in any case.
“Their loyalty programming obviously didn’t get enough quality control testing. So what, exactly, are they trying to do, that the Unseen are trying to stop?” Dash asked.
“The Golden seek to destroy any life, or even potential life, throughout the galaxy. This is because they believe all life is inferior to their own.”
“Oh.” Dash narrowed his eyes. “Kinda sounds like Clan Shirna, which your Creators, I’m pretty sure, also created. They made them like guard dogs of the Pasture, except now they seem to be determined to wipe out everyone else.” He curled his lip. “A little hypocritical, don’t you think?”
“To be effective guardians, the bioengineered lifeforms that you now know as Clan Shirna had to be given a degree of free will. Over time, that has developed into an unintended intent.”
“No shit. They’re xenophobic assholes.”
“Hence the need for the Messenger,” Sentinel said.
“The need…wait. What? What do you mean?”
“The war you are witnessing happened two hundred thousand years ago. Every two hundred thousand years, the Unseen return to exert their influence and ensure that the Golden do not succeed in exterminating all life from the galaxy. The Messenger is a harbinger of that return.”
Dash stared at the flashing, exploding stars. Just stared, while he tried to wrap his mind around this new bit of information about the war he was watching.
“This is going to happen again? Like soon?”
“Potentially. Nothing is certain, Dash. But that is the logical extrapolation.”
Dash tried to imagine the galaxy caught up in a war between these two hyper-advanced races, the Unseen and the Golden—a war in which the stars themselves had been weaponized. How could anything that wasn’t itself a hyper-advanced race even begin to think about surviving that?
The flashes of searing energy, of gamma-ray bursts turned into colossal beams, destroying whole star systems, of stars erupting into unimaginably powerful blasts of x-rays and plasma, began to slow and diminish. Eventually, it stopped altogether. Apparently, the war was over.
Dash let out a breath. “Okay, so I’m no astrophysicist or whatever, but how come, when we look at things, like two hundred thousand light years away, we don’t see some sign of this?”
“This galaxy is approximately fifty thousand light years in diameter,” Sentinel said. “The light from these events long ago passed into intergalactic space.”
“Ah. Good point. So what we see is the aftermath, like nebula and stuff. Like the Shadowed Nebula. That was caused by the war I guess, right?”
“That is correct. It is, in fact, the volume of space most affected by the culminating battle.”
“So I guess the Unseen, you know, won?”
“Well, gonna have to thank them for that, if I ever get to meet them. Oh, hey, you let me see one of those Golden. How about an Unseen? Can I see one?” Dash smirked. “Or are they Unseeable?”
“I acknowledge your attempt at humor,” Sentinel said.
“Tough room,” Dash said, but he stopped as a new image appeared. It looked like a lanky, bipedal dog.
“That’s an Unseen?”
“It is the form of the Creators, yes.”
Dash wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Probably something huge. Or with an enormous brain. Or made of light, or a swarm of nanobots—something, anyway, that wasn’t a lanky, bipedal dog.
He almost chuckled at the absurdity of it, until he remembered these lanky, bipedal dogs had constructed the Archetype, and the Lens, and the Ribbon, and all of the Pasture, and probably all sorts of tech he hadn’t even encountered. Moreover, they lived and traveled through an entire reality that existed on the membrane separating real space and unSpace.
Sure, they might look like lanky, bipedal dogs, but from a human perspective, he might as well be looking at a god.
Dash blew out a long, slow sigh. “Okay, so I’m guessing that the Unseen have gone back into this Darkness Between.”
“Many have. Some remain in the Kingsports.”
“And those are?”
Except, like many other concepts that should be entirely alien and unknowable, Dash knew what they were. Vast fortresses, so silent and dark they simply couldn’t be detected. They existed in real space, outposts of the Unseen, from which they could monitor what was happening there.
“Okay, so if they’re still here, in real space, in these Kingsports things, why all this complicated stuff about the Pasture, and the Messenger, and the Archetype, and finding these components? Why don’t they just lurk until they’re needed again, and then come out shooting?”
“I do not know.”
That slammed Dash’s thoughts to a halt. It was the first time the Archetype hadn’t known something, or caused him to know it. Dash found the fact of it being ignorant of something so obviously important profoundly chilling.
“So what about the Golden? Are they still out there, somewhere in real space, in their own Kingsport things?”
“Again, I do not know. I do not believe the Creators, the Unseen, do either. They have not been able to discern where the Golden come from, or where they return to.”
“Well, Sentinel, that sucks.”
Dash considered it. Based on what he knew, the Unseen were masters of warfare, despite being a race that wasn’t particularly warlike. They’d obviously been forced to become militant in order to protect the galaxy from the Golden. That was actually both pretty noble and kind of sad. But it hadn’t stopped them from throwing themselves into the task, developing weapons like the Lens, and fighting machines like the Archetype, to do what they needed to do.
The Golden were another matter. They remained elusive, launching their attacks from long range, focusing in particular on compromising things that were themselves technology. It probably originated from them being essentially technological themselves. That seemed to be why the Archetype, the Lens, and Ribbon all had attributes of both machines and living things. It gave them some protection from the effects of the Golden.
“So, to sum this up, it’s been two hundred thousand years since the last war. These wars happen about every two hundred thousand years. So we might be due for another war between these two races…well, any day now.”
“But even if it’s only a hundred years off, which, you gotta admit, is a pretty small margin of two thousand centuries, then this will all happen long after I’m dead. That makes me being the Messenger pretty pointless, doesn’t it?”
“That would logically follow.”
“So, hear me out. That seems to hint that it’s going to happen, well, soon. So the bottom line is that there’s a war coming, sometime in my lifetime, isn’t there?”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
That is because there is no answer that could be absolutely correct, Dash. The future is unknowable, even to the Creators. There are too many variables, too many factors to do more than offer conjecture. But, as you have stated, a reasonable conjecture, based on what we know, is that there will soon be another war between the Creators—the Unseen—and the Golden.”
“Great. Time was the one thing they couldn’t master, huh?”
“There were many things the Creators could not master. But time is one of them, yes. It appears to be impossible to master it, no matter how sophisticated those attempting to do so are.”
Dash sank back in the harness. Yeah, this was definitely all too much. And yet, here it was.
“Okay,” he said, looking back at the image, which had finally caught up to where he actually was and now displayed the Pasture, against the backdrop of the stellar ruin of the Shadowed Nebula. “So I guess the important question now is, where do we go from here?”
Maybe to warn everybody what was coming? But would they believe it? And what could they possibly do about it? Untethered doubts surged through Dash, unwelcome but necessary.
The answer, though, was a series of points suddenly mapped out in space, scattered across the galaxy.
“What are those?”
“They are locations of components similar to the one you just obtained. Their retrieval will allow the Archetype to advance to its full power and potential,” Sentinel said.
“So they couldn’t just have it come fully charged, right off the shelf? We have to do a freakin’ scavenger hunt for parts? I mean, yeah, I know, it’s part of understanding and all that. But seriously, considering what’s at stake, why not just make the Archetype so its fully ready and then, you know, add what I need to know into my brain?”
“I know only the things I know. This is not one of them. It is part of the design of the Creators, but their specific intent is not something about which I would presume to speculate.”
“Yeah, okay, fine, I get it. You’re just doing your job. I can respect that. But you’ll pardon me if I think your bosses, your Creators, are jerks.”
No answer followed. The silence made Dash smile.
“Alright, so where do we go first?”
“That choice is yours.”
“Of course it is.” Dash studied the points portrayed across the galaxy. He found he could cause it to rotate and shift, seeing from whatever perspective he wished, just by…well, making it do that. He tried to imagine flying the Slipwing this way—as though it was just an extension of his body. Remarkably, he could, which was itself pretty stunning, because there was no way, just a day or so ago, he could have even started to imagine it.
And what a day it had been, especially considering it had started with him almost dying.
“Okay,” he finally said, “let’s go to that one. It’s the closest to where we are now.”
“Very well,” Sentinel said.
Dash aimed himself at where he knew the star system was, a few tens of light years away. It would take the Slipwing, using full power on unSpace drive, a day to make that translation. He wondered how long this would take—and if the Archetype included a few amenities, like a galley, or a shower, or even a latrine.
Only one way to find out.
Dash launched himself at the distant star system. The Archetype responded, smoothly surging ahead, then vanishing from real space and entering another existence altogether.
It should have been mind-blowing, Dash knew, but his capacity for having his mind blown was pretty much saturated for now.
Dash had never seen unSpace before.
Okay, that wasn’t really true. He’d seen unSpace many times, while simply looking out the Slipwing’s vision ports. But all he’d ever viewed was an absolutely featureless blackness, except for a diffuse, barely-visible patch of light directly ahead that he could easily cover with his thumb at arm’s length. It was, apparently, a glimmer of the interaction between real space and unSpace. As a result, he’d always just assumed that was what unSpace was—a featureless void of darkness with a dim, fuzzy glow in whatever direction you were traveling.
Seen through the eyes of the Archetype, though, unSpace was both much more and far less complex than that. It was somehow infinitely large, but also a dimensionless point, a singularity, both at once. It was utterly dark, and yet Dash was able to see any distance clearly, which he knew to be a function of the Archetype.
And there was a texture to unSpace—a faint, restless ripple of whatever components made it up—an endless pulsation of shifting energies that were seen and unseen, at the periphery of his senses. That was the faint, ceaseless ebb and flow of gravitational waves from the matter that made up real space. He knew that detecting those waves, and deciphering their peaks and crests, their interference patterns and eddies, was somehow fundamental to unSpace navigation, but didn’t really understand how. That was a job for the nav computer. Except he could read the story those waves were telling him. Somehow, he could map them back to real space, knowing exactly where he was based solely on those faint gravitational echoes. Then, he could just fly there. It was absolutely astounding. He was freed of the shackles of mere material flesh and was more just a mind race through this bizarre realm of everything and nothing. Frankly it was also a little terrifying. He didn’t even see how his brain could actually recognize any of this. How any mere human brain could. And the fact was, it couldn’t—not without the hyper-advanced help of the Archetype.
Anyway, he would arrive in his target system soon. Not that time really meant much here in unSpace.
As for eating, sleeping, and excreting waste, none of those things seemed to matter, either. Probably thanks to his “connection” with the Archetype, they were either things he simply no longer had to do, or they were somehow being done for him. In any case, none of them seemed relevant. Dash simply zoomed through unSpace, as though he was swimming underwater through a very dark lake.
Some unimportant amount of time later, he arrived. He emerged from unSpace and found himself suddenly back in the star-scape of real space. A dim, ruddy sphere hung not far away. It was a red dwarf, the most long-lived of all stars. A halo ringed it, an asteroid belt of shattered wanderers, probably the remnants of planets destroyed by whatever cataclysm had turned this star into the faint, reddish cinder it was today.
His destination was one of those asteroids—a middling-sized fragment that otherwise appeared entirely unremarkable. He launched himself toward it. The star’s gravity well assisted his fall toward the asteroids, not that the Archetype seemed to need the help.
A blast of incandescent energy erupted from the asteroid. Dash managed to dodge it, but it still flashed by close enough that he could feel the discharge as a wash of heat and radiation.
“What the hell was that?”
The installation has automated defenses. They are apparently still active.
“No shit! But isn’t this an Unseen thing? Shouldn’t it be on our side?”
That would seem reasonable. I have no explanation as to why the defense system would identify you as a threat.
“You mean it could be a malfunction?”
It is possible.
Shit. Dash had become so overwhelmed with the sophistication of Unseen tech that it had never really occurred to him that it could screw up.
“So what do we do now?”
You came here for a reason. That reason is still valid.
“Yeah, but if we have to blow the place up, it kind of makes coming here a little pointless, don’t you think?”
It would, yes. Accordingly, do not destroy the installation.
“Wow. Thanks. I never could’ve worked that out on my own.”
Dash had stopped and now hung motionless in space. Whatever installation was on the asteroid hadn’t fired again; maybe it had been a warning shot?
Or, since this was all some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt anyway, maybe it was a test. After all, he was apparently supposed to be proving that he was choosing to take on this role as Messenger, and not just bumbling into it, despite the fact that he did feel he had pretty much bumbled into it. The trouble was, it was an Unseen weapon that had fired at him. The raiders he’d fought had been using conventional weapons, particle beams and missiles, available throughout the Galactic Arm. Compared to the Archetype, they were extraordinarily primitive—like some ancient explosion-driven projective weapon compared to a particle cannon. Sure, they could still hurt the Archetype; enough of them might even be able to destroy it. But an Unseen weapon might be able to just vaporize it in a single shot. He thought at the Archetype’s own dark-lance beam, a weapon the nature of which he still didn’t fully understand, and how it seemed to make matter just go away.
If you get close enough to the installation to be able to distinguish the weapon systems, you should be able to neutralize them.
“So, just kinda fly on in and hope we don’t get blown to bits on the way?”
If the Archetype was fully powered up, that would be a risk-free approach.
“Yeah, and if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.”
Dash had to smile at the thought of this super-advanced AI parsing that. Apparently, it decided just to ignore it.
Since the Archetype is not fully powered-up, you will have to decide how much risk you are willing to assume.
“I’d prefer none, thanks.”
Okay, so it was obviously up to him. Dash frowned at the distant belt of rocks orbiting the red dwarf. There were a lot of them larger than the one that was his destination, but far more that were smaller, all girdling the dim, red sun like a colossal belt.
“Okay,” he said, “if we can’t be direct, then let’s do what’s got me out of a lot of scrapes…and into a few, as well, but that’s not important right now. Let’s be sneaky.”
Dash somersaulted and zoomed away from the red dwarf, then turned and arced along in a wide orbit around it. He had to pour on some speed, needing to move faster than the asteroids in their relatively tight orbit around the star. When he was finally at a point almost exactly on the far side of the red dwarf from the Unseen installation, he turned and raced back sunward, trying to adjust his course along the way. He needed to keep the star between him and the installation.
And hope the Unseen hadn’t seeded weapons throughout the asteroid belt.
It appeared they hadn’t though. Dash sped into the fringe of the belt, then turned so he raced down its length, steadily arcing his way around and back toward the other side of the star, where the installation was. It stuck him that this would be a tough flight in the Slipwing, with him having to make constant course corrections to dodge and weave among the tumbling rocks. He could probably do it, but there was a good chance of damage, and it would burn a lot of fuel. In the Archetype, though, he just dove under rocks, soared over top of them, and swung around them in tight turns. Small fragments did slam into the Archetype, vanishing in flashes of kinetic energy and clouds of dust, but the damage was negligible.
The installation rose over the dull red star. Dash fought to keep himself in the shadow of asteroids as he approached it—one of which disappeared in a dazzling flash as the installation’s weapons opened up. He flung himself sideways, behind another rock; it, too, erupted into vapor and fragments. On and on it went, Dash keeping the biggest fragments he could find between him and those terrifyingly powerful blasts. A few times, he found himself hiding blocked by something little larger than the Archetype itself, making him think of someone trying to hide behind a skinny lamppost or structural beam, and looking awkwardly obvious about it.
Almost there. Another rock vaporized; this time, part of the beam washed past it and clipped the Archetype. Part of the upper leg boiled away to glowing vapor. Dash yelped and swore and threw himself behind another rock. The wound would heal, but next time it might catch him full-on, crippling him, leaving him exposed.
He had to end this as soon as possible, as in now.
Dash readied the dark-lance then gritted his teeth and zoomed into the clear. He saw the snout of the weapon aiming at him, its dome-like enclosure on the surface of the target asteroid rotating fast. He fired the dark-lance, just as the defensive weapon opened up on him.
Fortunately, he could maneuver; it couldn’t. The dark-lance tore through the dome, causing it to collapse and implode. As it did, he heaved himself to one side, catching only a glancing hit from a portion of the stupendous blast. Part of his right arm vaporized and he gasped and swore again. It would be just his luck to find out there was a second defensive weapon that he hadn’t noticed.
But there was no more incoming fire. Letting out a slow breath, he resumed his way until he landed on the asteroid near a second dome-like structure. The remains of the big cannon, gun, whatever it was, still glowed red hot against the asteroid’s nearby horizon.
“Well,” he said, “that was fun.”
It was successful.
The AI offered nothing else. He supposed that was as close as it would ever get to complementing him, so he just allowed himself a tired smile and nodded. “Yes it was. It was that.”
Dash shone his suit lamp ahead of him. A corridor, meticulously straight, extended as far as his light penetrated. Beyond hung a thick curtain of gloom. The Archetype stood outside, so he shuffled the low-grav shuffle as he entered the Unseen installation. It seemed wrong, somehow, to be walking on his own legs, moving his own arms, grasping things with his own hands. It seemed so limited. So awkward. In the Archetype, he could soar through unSpace on the energy of a captive black hole. Here, on his own, his feet felt like two lumps of stone that he had to lift and put down, over and over.
Dangerous. That was dangerous. It would be easy to get too used to living as the Archetype—never tired, never hungry, more like some sort of god than a man.
Dangerous, but, seriously, would it be that bad a thing?
Especially since, upon exiting the Archetype, he had suddenly found himself hungry and thirsty, and needing relieve himself. Fortunately, the vac suit could take care of all those things, as long as he didn’t mind tepid, stale-tasting water, a bland-but-nutritious food paste, and, well, the suit’s waste reclaimer did what it did.
It seemed like such a letdown.
“So I just head straight down this corridor?”
Yes. It descends into the installation, which is located inside this asteroid.
Six hundred and seventy-three meters.
Again, Dash was struck by the fact that the measurement hadn’t been given to him in meters; he actually had no idea what system for measuring things the Unseen used. But that was how his brain had interpreted it. It was just another bizarre reality of the connection he had to the Archetype, which seemed to work perfectly well even when he’d exited it.
Dash began walking. As soon as he did, he realized he no longer needed to do the shuffle. The installation’s gravity seemed to be exactly one G. He suspected the place’s gravity would always be exactly right for anyone exposed to it.
Assuming they could get by that automated super-weapon, of course.
He started down the corridor, the darkness parting before his light ahead of them, then closing back in once again behind him. He glanced back once, saw nothing but impenetrable darkness, and resolved not to do that again. It wasn’t that Dash believed in ghosts, but the darkness could hide a multitude of things he didn’t particularly want to encounter, especially in a place that might be two thousand centuries old.
The sound of his own breathing echoing in his helmet finally got to him. He needed to hear something, anything. “So,” he said, “what was this place used for? I mean, besides blowing up anything that comes near it, and I guess hiding a power core for a giant robot?”
The Creators had many facilities, which had many purposes. I have no record regarding what specific purposes this one may have had.
Dash slowed his pace. “So, wait. You mean you don’t know what I’m walking into here?”
Not specifically, no.
He stopped. “So how do I know I’m not heading into something that’s going to blow me up, or incinerate me?” Or eat me, his brain silently and unhelpfully added.
The Creators were not wantonly destructive or harmful. Everything they did had a rational purpose. Even the defensive system of this place you encountered was here for a reason.
Dash sighed and resumed walking. “Well, sure, except that reason somehow came to include destroying the Archetype, and both of us along with it.”
Again, that was unexpected. It was likely a fault.
“Yeah, but what if there are other faults? I’m the one walking into this place blind.” Literally, since the way ahead remained profoundly black.
That is a risk.
But not one you’re taking on, Dash thought, but decided to change the subject to something less terrifying. “Did you actually know the Unseen? Your Creators? Like, did you actually meet them?”
They created me.
“So what were they like?”
I don’t understand the question.
“It’s not difficult. I mean, what were they like? Were they high-strung? Laid-back and relaxed? Did they get angry easily? Did they laugh a lot?”
You are attempting to assign human emotions and reactions to them. That is somewhat fallacious.
“So are you saying they had no emotions? Nothing like anger or happiness or sadness or whatever at all? That makes them sound like—well, you. No offense, by the way.”
Offense isn’t relevant. The closest analog to a human emotion I could convey about the Creators is compassion. They sought to preserve sentient races, and those with the potential for sentience, from those who would seek to destroy them.
“The Golden, you mean.”
That is correct.
“Yeah, okay, but they could have been doing that because they wanted to, I don’t know, farm us as food, or use us as slaves someday. What makes you think they actually cared about all of us poor, lesser sentient species?”
They had no such designs of which I am aware. They sought, rather, to preserve life such as yours because they considered it their mission. They put enormous effort into it and sacrificed much.
“Well, nice to hear that, I guess. Good to know someone out there had our backs.”
He continued along the corridor, his bubble of light the only thing breaking the vast darkness.
The walls of the corridor abruptly vanished ahead. Dash’s light spilled across an expanse of floor beyond. He paused, then sidled up to the opening and looked around.
His light barely penetrated far enough to dimly illuminate the side walls of the chamber, which must be huge. It didn’t even reach the far opposite wall or the ceiling above.
“Well, this is intimidating.”
Your reason for coming here is within that chamber.
“I could have guessed that.” Taking a breath, Dash lifted a foot to step into the chamber, but he just put it back down again, not moving.
“Something just occurred to me. There were defenses to stop people from getting here. Are there also defenses to stop people from, you know, getting inside? Or making their lives miserable while they are inside?”
I do not know.
However, it would be unusual for the Creators to have used active defense systems inside an installation such as this. In all instances that are recorded, they focused primarily on passive protection.
“You mean, they locked stuff up.”
“Unusual…primarily…essentially. You’re using a lot of words that make it sound like you’re not sure.”
I’m not sure.
Dash breathed out a sigh that briefly fogged up his faceplate. It really didn’t make sense for the Unseen to coax him along this far, only to vaporize him as soon as he stepped into this chamber, did it. Did it?
Dash stepped into the chamber.
There was nothing.
He carried on. His light touched on…things. He had no idea what they were. Massive machines, or devices, or structural components. Or maybe sculptures, for that matter. He simply got impressions of great, sweeping curves; gleaming things like beams and pipes colored deep bronze or mirror-bright silver; objects made of crystal that either seemed as clear as water, or tinted with colors he couldn’t quite make out. He had absolutely no idea what any of it was or was for. All that he suddenly did know, in his strange way of knowing things, was that what he sought was just ahead.
“What was this place?” he asked, eyeing a massive—something, like a frozen fountain of quicksilver. “What was it for, besides holding a power core for the Archetype?”
It wouldn’t have really surprised him if the AI had told him, no, that’s all this was for. But the reply was surprisingly direct and certain.
This was intended as a reconnaissance post. It would monitor a volume of space, in order to alert the Creators to anything of concern.
“Oh. Well, that’s makes sense. I gather they had these things all over the place.”
There were thousands, yes.
Dash made his way around a huge, iron-grey sphere propped on what looked like legs that were far too spindly for its bulk. “So now you’ve got me curious. Were there any of these watching us humans? Like, near Old Earth?”
There is an installation in the Sol system, yes. It is located in the belt of asteroids between the fourth and fifth planets.
So, somewhere in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which was so vast and crowded, hiding a planet in there wouldn’t be unthinkable. Anyway, somewhere among all those rocks was a place like this one.
“I guess it’s a good thing we never found it,” Dash said. “Once it turned a few ships to ionized gas, we never would have left it alone.”
Installations such as this one are protected from discovery. Had you not had the resources of the Archetype assisting you, you simply would never have found this one. This prevents primitive races from inadvertently running afoul of them, as well as protecting them from the Golden.
Dash curled his lip. So the Unseen had been watching over humans in their native star system for the past two hundred thousand years? Maybe even studying them? The thought made Dash’s skin prickle with the notion that a lethal unknown had been at humanity’s doorstep for uncounted years.
He reached the other side of the massive sphere and knew that the power core was just ahead. He saw a short flight of steps—steps that were just a little too short for his human gait—and, at the top, a crystal cylinder resting on a slab of what looked like copper. Inside the cylinder was another rod, virtually identical to the one he’d dug out of the black comet.
He climbed the steps and stopped, then he reached for the rod, but hesitated.
If there were any traps or defenses, this would be the most likely moment they’d trigger.
“Have I mentioned how nerve-racking this little expedition has been?”
You have successfully communicated your discomfort, yes.
“As long as we’re clear on that,” Dash muttered, then reached for the cylinder. As soon as his gloved fingers touched it, the cylinder winked out of existence, and Dash was able to grab the power core.
Dash yelped and jumped. The AI has spoken the instant he grabbed the core, startling him. He wondered if it was deliberate.
There has been a development. Several ships have just entered real space at the edge of this system and are inbound on a high thrust trajectory.
Dash said, “Shit!” then turned and headed back the way he came. “How long until they’re a problem?”
They are a problem now.
“Yeah, no, what I mean is, how long until they become, you know, an actual threat?”
Long enough for you to return to the Archetype, if you hurry.
“Okay, then I’ll hurry.”
As Dash wove his way among the enigmatic machines and constructs of the Unseen, it struck him that it was too bad he hadn’t been able to keep the place’s defense system operational—and on his side.
Dash raced along the corridor until he reached the opening that led onto the asteroid’s surface. Without thinking, he plunged out of the installation at full speed and immediately launched himself into space.
He’d forgotten that the gravity inside the place was artificially one G, but only a tiny fraction of that outside of it. His momentum was carrying him into what would be, at best, a long, arcing fall back to the surface; at worst, he might end up in orbit, or even achieving escape velocity altogether.
That was not good. The incoming ships that the AI had identified them as Clan Shirna vessels were only minutes away from reaching particle beam range of the asteroid. The Archetype may be able to shrug off a blast of highly energetic neutrons, but Dash would evaporate in an instant, like an Elysian eye-beetle in a fusion exhaust. In other words, POOF.
He fired the suit’s thrusters, desperately trying to regain control, and ended up spinning, but he was able to work his way back down to the asteroid’s surface, about a hundred paces away from the towering bulk of the Archetype. Still clutching the power core, Dash started a low-grav shuffle, moving as fast as he could back to the giant mech without losing control again.
I recommend that you board the Archetype within the next minute to avoid being caught on the surface unprepared.
“Yeah, you think? In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s what I’m trying to do.” Dash reached the mech and was about to clamber aboard when he realized he really had no idea how to install the power core.
No. Wait. Yes he did. Like the one he’d retrieved from the black comet, it slotted into the Archetype’s other thigh. It would be a lot of effort for him to do it himself, though, and he just didn’t have the time.
Fine. Dash dropped the core onto the gravelly surface of the asteroid then re-entered the Archetype.
And not a moment too soon. Particle beams swept across the surface of the asteroid, leaving glowing trails of melted rock and clouds of superheated plasma. One struck the Archetype, plowing a furrow across its back and right shoulder. The Clan Shirna ships had opened fire as soon as they could, at extreme range, so they weren’t all that accurate, but that would change very quickly.
Dash settled into the cradle and once more became the Archetype.
Wincing at the wound across his back, he reached down, grabbed the core, and seated it in place. Again, power surged through the mech. It reached a peak of about a third of the big machine’s full power, and also activated several new systems, including a point-defense beam for close-in protection.
A shield. An actual energy shield, something engineers had been trying, and failing to produce, for—well, forever. The best anyone had come up with, that was even half-decently stable, was a weak repulsor field that could seal off a breach in a ship and keep the atmosphere from venting. It was far too feeble to protect against weapons fire, and also incredibly expensive. But this was an actual force-screen, an invisible barrier against most types of attack.
Dash raised it around him and launched himself into space, just as a salvo of missiles came thundering in, detonating across the asteroid’s surface. The searing flashes of energy washed over the Archetype, followed by showers of pulverized rock. The shield flickered and flared under the onslaught, but held.
Dash emerged from the gaseous aftermath of the multiple explosions, soaring into space and aiming himself directly at the onrushing Clan Shirna squadron.
Missiles and particle beams flared against the Archetype’s shield. It continued to hold, but Dash realized that enough energy delivered quickly enough could overwhelm it. When the mech was fully powered, it would be a different story, but the mech wasn’t fully powered, so Dash swerved and dodged and wove among the Clan Shirna ships, lashing out with the dark-lance, and a new spatial distortion cannon that created deep, instantaneous gravity wells wherever he aimed it. It pulled the Clan Shirna ships off their trajectories, making them tumble and spin as they fought to regain control. In a few moments, he’d managed to destroy about a third of the attackers; now, amid a whirling cloud of debris, the survivors abruptly pulled back and retreated, but not too far.
Dash destroyed a single, incoming missile with the point defense system, then paused. He let his attackers disengage, because it gave the Archetype a respite to regenerate its own power, and him a chance to collect his wits. Flying through space as though he was a bird in the air was exhilarating, of course, and he was getting more and more used to it, but it still left him a little dazed in the wake of such a complex string of maneuvers. Fortunately, the Archetype seemed to be adapting to him, too, becoming ever more of a natural extension to…well, to him.
There is a transmission from one of the enemy vessels.
“Oh, really? I’ll bet I know who it is, too. Go ahead, put him on.”
An inset window opened his field of view, holding the image of a familiar figure.
“Hey, Nathis! We’ve really gotta stop meeting like this. I mean, people are going to start talking.”
“Spare me your feeble wit,” Nathis shot back, his neck patches so red they almost seemed to glow. “Your crimes are now breathtaking in scope. You have stolen an artifact that is—”
“Woah, hang on here. I didn’t steal anything.” He did a somersault. “See? I’m fully…um, integrated, or connected with this thing. Oh, and it’s called the Archetype. And it’s not exactly something I could just sneak into and fire up. It kinda—well, I guess you could say it chose me.”
Dash grinned. “Jealous? Put out that you aren’t the one flying around in space? Oh, and is it ever sweet to do that—”
“You may think you are invulnerable, undefeatable, but I can assure you, you are not.”
Dash made a huh face and said, “Well, let’s test that, shall we?”
He launched himself at the remaining Clan Shirna ships.
He actually had to give Nathis credit; he learned fast. All of the ships fired the particle beams at once, striving to pour fire into the Archetype’s shield as it closed. Dash felt the shield reaching saturation, unable to radiate the incoming energy away as fast as it was pumped in. He started dodging, disrupting his opponents’ firing solution, but it also slowed his approach to them, so it wasn’t a net gain. He finally gave up and just bore in, loosing missiles, dark-lance blasts and spatial-distortions as he did.
The dark-lance tore apart one ship. Two more were pulled into a sudden gravity well and collided. Missiles blew another to fragments. As he swept by the remainder, his shield failed and he took particle beam hits all over, making him yelp and cry out. He kept going, opening the distance again. But the surviving Clan Shirna ships didn’t follow. Instead, they scattered, heading back out-system.
“Had enough, huh, guys?”
One ship was leaving on a very different trajectory than the rest. Instead of departing along a conventional course, this one seemed to be launching itself along a path that would take it out of the galactic plane. Of course, that didn’t mean much unless it translated into unSpace, which it did. The other Clan Shirna ships did, too, but that one ship was now on its way out of the galaxy, along a course perpendicular to the spiral arm.
“Where the hell are you going?”
Was it Nathis? His transmissions had been generated from all of the Clan Shirna ships, a pretty standard ploy to avoid letting your opponent know which ship you were on. So it might be Nathis.
Probably was Nathis. But where was he going?
Dash took off after it, ignoring the other ships as they likewise entered unSpace. It struck him that this might be a ruse; maybe the ship he was chasing was entirely automated and was just a distraction. Or maybe it was a sacrifice, intended for Dash to chase so the others could get away.
What convinced him to chase after it wasn’t anything rational or logical, though. Nor was it any deep wisdom or insight from the Archetype. No, it was just a good, old-fashioned gut feeling.
Flinging himself into unSpace, Dash raced after the retreating ship. It should actually be tough to do that, at least without specialized equipment he could never afford. But the Archetype let him see the Clan Shirna ship ahead, racing through the dimensionless infinity of unSpace.
For now, he could only follow, since the concept of closing in unSpace was meaningless. In the meantime, though, Dash and his quarry tore out of the galactic plane, eventually leaving the galaxy altogether. The soft glow of matter faded as they entered the absolute emptiness of intergalactic space.
No one ever did this, Dash thought. There was no good reason to. No ship could carry even remotely enough anti-deuterium to cross the mind-numbingly vast gulf between galaxies. The Archetype might be able to do it, but even traversing unSpace, Dash simply wouldn’t live that long.
“So where are you going?” he asked the distant ship. “Just what the hell are you up to?”
Time passed. Dash began to think this was a fool’s chase, just a desperate attempt to lead him nowhere, to waste his time so Nathis could…do what, exactly? The answer to that was probably behind him, but his gut told him to stay the course, for at least a while longer.
And his gut paid off. Without warning, his quarry translated back to real space. Dash did the same and found himself not in the middle of intergalactic nothing, as he expected. Instead, he was immersed in a whole lot of dangerous something.
Dash swerved to avoid a hurling mass of ice and rock, which shouldn’t be here. There should be nothing here. The galaxy sprawled across space, a vast pinwheel of glowing dust and uncountable stars, but here, outside it, there should be nothing at all. He dodged another massive chunk of rock. As he did, he saw something else drifting toward him, something he didn’t recognize at all, except that it was obviously artificial.
Except he did know what it was. Even though he’d never seen anything like this before, or heard of it, or even imagined it could actually exist, he knew that it was a dark matter mine. And it wasn’t another piece of Unseen tech. This had been built, and apparently put here, by the Golden.
It was one thing to face the relatively clunky, primitive weapons of Clan Shirna and their ilk. It was quite another to deal with Golden technology, which was every bit as sophisticated and powerful as that of the Unseen.
Dash zoomed away from the mine and found himself closing on another. They seemed to be mobile, if not fast. In fact, there was an array of them, and they were reconfiguring themselves to hem him in, make it so he couldn’t possibly escape without detonating at least one of them.
In other words, this was a trap.
He fired the dark-lance at a mine, trying to open a gap. It struck the sinister device but had no effect.
He doubted the Archetype’s missiles would be any more effective, but he picked a point and activated the distortion cannon. Three of the mines abruptly plunged into the resulting gravity well. An instant later, they erupted in an explosion of…nothing. But Dash knew it only seemed to be nothing; the blast effect was to essentially neutralize certain fundamental physical properties of reality for an instant, such as the strong nuclear force that held matter together. An icy rock caught in the affected region simply ceased to exist, its atoms ripped apart as protons and neutrons simply collapsed into their component quarks.
Dash gaped for a moment. That had been awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Awesome, and utterly terrifying.
He shook away his stunned awe. The gap in the encroaching mines was already closing. He zoomed through it, desperately hoping that he was far enough away from any of the mines to avoid detonating them.
He was, but barely. One of the mines did explode, though that didn’t really seem to be the right term for it, and the distortion effect did brush against the Archetype’s shield, which had fully regenerated. The shield prevented any damage to the Archetype, but at the cost of effectively nullifying it, putting it back into a regeneration cycle. So Dash could take a hit from one mine, but certainly not from two.
He glared at the Clan Shirna ship, dodging among rocks and ice chunks as it sought to open the distance from him. “You clever son of a bitch,” he muttered at it. “This was a trap, and you led me right into it.”
He was actually kind of impressed. This ship had lured him here, to a place that was a true threat to the Archetype, knowing that it would probably end up destroying it, too. That was ballsy, which meant it probably wasn’t Nathis, who just didn’t seem like the self-sacrificial type.
But it begged a question—how did the Clan Shirna ship even know about this place? And why was this odd collection of miscellaneous bodies and super-dangerous mines even here, in the intergalactic void, to begin with?
“I really need to talk to that guy,” Dash said.
The probability that the Clan Shirna ship will survive this region is extremely low.
“Yeah, I see that. Which means instead of destroying him, I have to try to only disable him, and also protect him at the same time.”
Dash zoomed after the Clan Shirna ship, determined to catch it and get some answers.
The dark-lance was out. It would almost certainly destroy the other ship. That left Dash with the missiles—which were beginning to run low—and the distortion cannon. He fired the latter, targeting a point behind the Clan Shirna ship, creating a gravity well that tugged it backward, slowing it down, while yanking him forward, closing on it.
In a space battle, vectors are important as weapons, and Dash was using both.
He decided to get a little closer and use a missile, which had enough ability to discriminate targets that he could have it attack his opponent’s drive, and could also scale its blast effect in a way that would limit damage.
He readied the missile, then fired the distortion cannon again. The gravity well it created winked into existence just as the Clan Shirna ship started a hard lateral burn of its fusion drive, trying to make a wrenching course change to dodge behind some large hunks of rock. The combined effect was to send it spinning out of control. The pilot started mad thruster burns, trying to regain control, but he didn’t have enough time. The Clan Shirna ship struck one of the rocks and bounced off, trailing debris.
The Clan Shirna pilot made a last, desperate burn of his fusion drive, slowing his damaged ship enough that when it struck another of the massive rocks, it slewed across the surface and came to rest jammed under a huge outcrop. It vented atmosphere in a shimmering cloud of vapor but seemed to remain mostly intact.
Dash stopped the Archetype a few hundred meters over the crashed ship. As far as he could tell, its engineering section had been mostly demolished, but the rest of it looked only moderately damaged. And there hadn’t been enough atmosphere blown into space to account for its entire internal volume, which meant that a lot of the ship must remain habitable.
But he wasn’t going to be able to do much of anything while still aboard the Archetype—certainly not find the answers he wanted. That meant Dash would have to dismount and enter the damaged Clan Shirna himself, on foot.
Dash found himself really reluctant to leave the big mech. The loss of its power and protection made him suddenly feel very small. As he approached the crashed Clan Shirna ship, shuffling his way across the barren rock, he reflected on how hazardous this really was. Not only was the ship itself dangerous—for instance, its fusion core, if not shut down, could breach at any time and turn him into vapor—but there might still be living Shirnas, as he’d thought to call them, on board. The fact that all of this was happening in the utter darkness of intergalactic space, lit only by the diffuse glow of the sprawling Milky Way galaxy that filled a good chunk of the sky, only made it all the more disconcerting.
He stopped short of the wreck. Of course, maybe everyone on board was dead. It was likely to become nothing more than a ghost ship, like the ones described in hoary tales in grubby little on-world bars.
Dash shook his head and hefted his slugger. Unfortunately, the Archetype had no bizarre and wondrous weapons aboard that could be man-packed, so all he had was the default one strapped to his vac suit. It had ten rounds of self-propelled ammo, and that was it. In comparison to dark-lances and distortion cannons, it felt like he’d armed himself with a handful of rocks.
The dark-matter mines are continuing to reconfigure themselves. They seem to be arranging into a pattern intended to prevent the Archetype from leaving this region without being attacked.
“Great. Are they coming any closer?”
No. But it is conceivable that once they’ve arrayed themselves, they could begin to close in, in order to attack the Archetype directly.
Dash looked over the hull of the crashed ship, selected a gap torn through it immediately behind what was probably its comms array, and began to climb.
“Even better. Do you think that’s what they’re going to do?”
It would be a logical way of proceeding. Accordingly, I would say yes, it is.
Dash grabbed a buckled hull plate and pulled himself up. It was easy in the extremely low gravity; he actually had to work at not flinging himself into space. “Fantastic. So, how long do we have?”
Perhaps as much as an hour, although assuming half an hour is probably more realistic.
Dash reached the gap in the hull then stopped and cautiously peered into it. He could have simply thrusted up and then back down to enter it, but he didn’t want to find a pissed-off Shirna taking pot shots at him while he was soaring through space. But the gap, which was torn right through the double-hall, opened into an empty space, a corridor or compartment. A live power conduit sparked menacingly at the edge of it, meaning he’d have to be careful entering to avoid getting burned or fried.
“Half an hour, huh? I’m always on a clock, it seems.”
Constraints in time and space are a fundamental aspect of the universe.
“You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone philosophical,” Dash said, swinging his legs over the gap and thrusting himself down, careful to avoid the exposed conduit.
He landed in an empty compartment. Whatever had been in here had obviously been blown into space when it was opened to vacuum.
Gripping the slugger, Dash followed his suit lamp’s glow to a heavy, round door. He had no idea how it normally opened, but it didn’t matter; like most ships, it had a manual operating system as a safety back up. There was no artificial grav working, so he had to brace himself on a structural member to crank it. As soon as the door cracked open, atmosphere vented in a rush and swirling cloud of vapor. He waited for it to clear, then cranked the door open the rest of the way.
It was a corridor. To the left, sternward, it ended after a dozen paces or so in debris. To the right, forward, it carried on, past several other compartments, to another door. It was all canted down toward the stern, and to port.
Unfortunately, even if there was more atmosphere on board, unless he found an internal airlock, he’d have to vent it to enter. He hoped any Shirna survivors—if there were any—had put on their own vac suits, or he wasn’t going to find anyone to talk to in here.
The door at the forward end of the corridor started to open.
Shit. Dash looked around. The best available cover was the door he’d just opened. He stepped back into it then crouched and peered around the corner.
The other door slowly rolled open, revealing a humanoid figure in a vac suit, who immediately opened fire, a searing flash of energy scorching the bulkhead just in front of Dash.
He ducked back, cursing. How had that guy even known he was here?
Oh. His suit lamp. It splashed light all over the place.
“Sometimes, I’m not very bright,” Dash groused, then fought a laugh. “Or too bright.”
Then came another blast. The Shirna definitely wasn’t using a slugger. Dash popped around the corner and fired; the projectile popped out of the muzzle, then rocketed away. He immediately jumped into the middle of the corridor, fully exposed. His opponent, who had taken cover from Dash’s wild shot, reappeared and aimed.
But Dash was already aiming at where he thought the figure would appear. He fired again, and the projectile shot away. It slammed into the other figure’s helmet, blowing fragments and gore out the back that immediately began to freeze.
His suddenly rapid breath rasping inside his helmet, Dash kept the slugger trained on the open door, looking past the figure he’d just killed in case he wasn’t alone.
There was nothing. The figure just slowly toppled backward, pushed by the kinetic energy of the slugger round.
“Yeah,” Dash muttered, waiting for his pounding heart to slow, “that Archetype spoiled me. This fighting face-to-face crap is definitely no fun at all.”
Gathering himself, Dash started forward, heading for the open door.
Dash winced as another plasma bolt shot past him. He went to the right of the fallen beam this time, snapping off a bolt at one of the two Shirna firing at him from the plasma pistol he’d taken off the first one he’d killed. He’d fought and killed one more since, although that Shirna had managed to wing him, a searing hot plasma charge just kissing Dash’s upper right arm. The suit had automatically sealed the breach with foam that instantly vacuum-hardened; it also acted as a bandage on the teeth-gritting-painful burn. His vac suit could maybe do that once more, then the sealing foam would be spent.
Two more plasma bolts slammed into the beam he was using for shelter, throwing off showers of sparks and glowing droplets of liquified alloy.
“You know,” he said, “I really am getting too old for this shit.”
You are also running out of time. You have perhaps fifteen minutes left.
“Ten minutes ago, you said I had at least thirty!”
New data has allowed me to refine the estimate.
Dash considered his options. One of them was to simply give up and retreat back to the Archetype. The trouble was, he’d be leaving here with some huge, unanswered questions, like why had this ship made a beeline for this strange little cluster of planetesimal bodies and dark-matter mines, that were apparently placed here by the Golden? There was a connection between—well, all of it. Nathis tracked him, the Golden were real, and the universe was a heluva lot more complex than he could have imagined, and the Archetype was clearly being tracked. Finding the second power core was a necessity. Being discovered was a weakness.
Two more bolts slammed into the beam. Dash looked around it, low and to the left, and saw that one of the Shirna was trying to advance and close on him, while the other gave covering fire. These guys were determined to kill him, which was itself a little strange, because he was, at least as far as Dash knew, their only way off this remote rock. So either they didn’t care if they lived or not, or they were expecting a ride from someone else.
Dash raised the plasma pistol but changed his mind and snapped off a shot from the slugger instead. It gave off much less of a firing signature, so maybe he’d catch the Shirna coming at him flat-footed.
But the man dodged and the shot clanged into the bulkhead behind him. It did make him take cover, but Dash just didn’t have the time for this.
He looked at the plasma pistol. It had about half of its charge left. Maybe.
The weapon theoretically had a safety to prevent its tiny plasma core from breaching, but Dash had long ago learned how to circumvent that on conventional plasma weapons, and this one wasn’t much different. He did the necessary tweaks, snapping out all but two of his remaining slugger rounds at the Shirna still blasting away at him, then he took a breath, pulled the trigger, and flung the plasma pistol over the beam.
Nothing happened. Oh, for…
The compartment turned white.
Dash had curled himself tight behind the fallen beam; the wash of incandescent, ionized gas still scorched the toes of his boots. When it faded, he looked back around the beam, peering through the still-glowing, but rapidly cooling cloud of gas. One of the Shirnas had apparently picked the moment of detonation to line up another shot at Dash; his head and most of one shoulder were gone. The other one had fared better. He was obviously badly hurt, but started pumping out plasma shots, apparently determined to go down fighting. After his last shot, Dash raised himself over the beam, lined up, and fired his next-to-last slugger round, blowing the Shirna’s chest open.
Quickly, Dash crossed to the fallen Shirna, looking for his plasma pistol. He found it, but it was discharged. The other Shirna’s weapon had been fused by the blast. That meant Dash had exactly one slugger-shot left, and that was it.
Once more, shit.
He glanced back the way he’d come. Maybe just pulling out was the best option.
Sighing, Dash pushed on, heading for the bow of the crashed ship and its bridge.
He’d been hoping that if there were any living Shirna left aboard the ship, they’d be too badly hurt to put up a fight, or would otherwise just give up. Faint hope, he knew, since these Shirna all seemed to be fanatically willing to sacrifice themselves, but still.
But there was one Shirna left. He crouched over a console on the bridge, doing…something.
Dash raised the slugger, then grabbed a loose hunk of debris and heaved it at the Shirna. It struck him, and when he turned, Dash caught a glimpse of reptilian face through the faceplate, then a voice cracked in Dash’s earpieces.
“You’re too late. This ship will not be yours.”
“I don’t want your ship, which, I might point out, is kind of wrecked. I just want to talk.”
“Talk with a blasphemer? That is itself blasphemy.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a filthy heathen. Look—”
“I will not sully my death with your words being the last sound I hear,” the Shirna said, then turned back to the console.
Dash heard my death, then immediately aimed and fired the slugger. The round tore through the Shirna’s left arm and upper torso, leaving a shimmering trail of gore leading to its impact point in another console behind him.
Crossing to the console, Dash saw what the Shirna had been about to do. He’d essentially been provoking a fusion core breach, a far, far larger-scale version of what Dash had done with the plasma pistol. He would have collapsed the ship’s fusion containment field, turning a good portion of this asteroid to vapor. And he’d been one connection away from doing it.
“Okay,” Dash said. “Sure. Not close at all. Lots of time left.”
His breath came in shuddering gasps. He carefully pulled two pieces of cabling away from one another to prevent triggering a breach, then pulled away the makeshift jumper the Shirna had rigged that would have made it possible in the first place. Then he turned to look around the bridge.
As far as he could tell, he’d just killed the last Shirna aboard, so he wouldn’t be getting any answers after all,
“Hey, if I bring you the computer core from this ship, can you, like, hack into it? Read it?”
Dash frowned at the various consoles, deciding that that one was probably the master computer station. He hurried over to it, pulling himself over other consoles and seats in the virtually zero-G, then wedged himself partly under it so he could rip off the faceplate and get at the core nestled behind.
Your time is—
“Not something I’m interested in hearing right now, thanks,” Dash snapped, cutting the AI off.
Like he wasn’t under enough pressure already.
Dash settled himself in the Archetype’s cradle and let his connection with it reestablish. As it did, he yanked free the pair of plasma pistols he’d found on the wreck’s bridge and put them aside. They seemed kind of pathetic, compared to the power of the Archetype, but they might just come in handy. As soon as the connection was stable, he launched himself off the dreary little asteroid. The Archetype was already at work knitting his burn, repairing him much the same way it seemed to repair itself.
The computer core from the Clan Shirna ship sat on the floor before him. Several silver-blue cables, that disturbingly reminded him of tentacles, snaked out of the deck and fused with it. He wasn’t sure how long the AI would need.
Information—more knowing—flooded Dash’s mind.
Apparently not long.
“Well shit,” he said. “Nathis isn’t really about all that fanatical religious stuff at all.”
So it would appear. He is in league with the Golden.
It was true, based on the data retrieved from the core. The Golden had surreptitiously approached Nathis several years ago, offering him wealth but, more importantly, power and control over a huge chunk of the Galactic Arm, if he would only help them in their ancient war against the Unseen. It seemed that they’d been able to find Nathis’s price, because he eventually agreed, then slowly indoctrinated the rest of Clan Shirna into the Golden’s stealthy campaign.
But it was actually more complicated than that. Nathis might have had his price, but he also seemed convinced that the Golden were the saviors of the galaxy, that their coming would herald a new age of enlightened order, with Nathis their chief emissary. All he had to do was pave the way for the return of the Golden.
“Well, that explains why he was willing to put his sticky fingers into the Pasture, despite all that blasphemy-this and heresy-that talk,” Dash said. “He was well on his way to plundering the place. Explains why he apparently has a Lens, too.”
He is a willing, if misguided ally of the Golden.
“Yeah. He actually believes their bullshit about order and enlightenment.”
He has failed to discern that the actual intent of the Golden is to eradicate all life in the galaxy, including his own.
“Think we’re way past being able to convince him otherwise,” Dash said, then frowned. “Although, how do I know you’re telling the truth? You know, it could be your Creators that are the xenophobic assholes, and the Golden who want to save everyone.”
Do you believe that?
“Eh, no. I think I’ve picked the right side, or it picked me.”
We are approaching the cordon of dark-matter mines.
Dash looked around. Sure enough, the mines had formed a sphere completely enclosing the Archetype. They could retreat back into the cloud of rocks and ice, but nothing stopped the mines from closing in behind them. In any case, ripping matter into its component quarks meant some icy rubble wasn’t going be much of an obstacle.
But going forward was going to be a serious problem, too. There was no way to penetrate the cordon of mines without having at least two, and as many as four detonating within lethal range of the Archetype. The now-regenerated shield could seemingly stop one blast, but no more than that. These mines also seemed smart, so he doubted that the distortion cannon trick would work again.
I have intercepted a general, omnidirectional transmission through unSpace that seems to be relevant to you. It involves your ship, the Slipwing.
“What? Let me hear it!”
A crackling voice sounded, faint, but still clear enough to make out most of what was being said.
“Slipwing…any ship…chased…need help…anyone nearby, we need help…”
Dash clenched his fists. “That’s Leira. Shit. We need to help her.”
First we must escape the mounting threat posed by the dark-matter mines.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Shit. Give me a sec.”
The dark-lance didn’t seem to affect them. The missiles probably wouldn’t either. The distortion cannon worked once, but the mines were probably smart enough to work around a second try.
“What next?” Dash hissed, looking around desperately for inspiration.
As he did, his gaze fell on the tumbling swirl of rocks and ice just behind the Archetype.
Okay, so maybe the distortion cannon wouldn’t likely affect the mines. But the mines weren’t the only thing out here.
Dash slowed, turned, and fired the cannon at a point close to the nearest of the hunks of rock and dirty ice. They immediately “fell” in the resulting gravity well, which started them moving. He fired the cannon again, and they “fell” again, accelerating.
He fired again.
The Archetype’s power level also fell with each shot, but now a cluster of the bodies were sailing directly toward the minefield. He zoomed in behind them, trailing them as they closed.
That is a clever approach. It does presuppose that the mines cannot discriminate such inert bodies from the Archetype.
“Yeah, well, I’m being optimistic.”
Dash also hadn’t really thought of that. If it was true, then this would be a very short trip.
The cluster of rocky debris reached the minefield and abruptly disappeared, ripped into subatomic oblivion as several mines detonated. The remaining mines immediately began moving to close the resulting gap, but Dash poured on the power and zoomed through the opening, into clear space.
“Okay, let’s go find the Slipwing.”
Power levels are greatly diminished by your admittedly effective action to escape the mines. A fast translation back to the location of your ship will diminish them further, probably to critical levels. The Archetype may be able to do little once it arrives.
“Sure, whatever. So turn off everything that doesn’t involve moving or keeping me alive, conserve whatever you can.”
Systems shut down throughout the Archetype. At the same time, it shifted into unSpace and began to race back into the galaxy, and the beleaguered Slipwing.
Dash knew when he’d reentered the Milky Way galaxy by the brightening glow ahead of him, illuminating unSpace with the radiance of tens of millions of stars, and yet, still just a soft, diffuse patch of light. It was another bit of strangeness of unSpace, something that would probably keep the scientific types fascinated for years.
If only they could fly through space like this, Dash thought, simply enjoying the sensation of boundless travel, of effortless movement through a realm whose physical laws were very different.
At least, until reality came crashing back in, as it just had. This was no pleasure trip. Except for its drive and whatever counted as life support for him, the big mech was dark and dormant. He desperately needed it to power up as much as possible before reaching the Slipwing, and actually thought a particularly nasty curse at the Unseen. Whatever their motives for hamstringing the Archetype, if the thing was fully powered-up now, he’d have ample ability to take on Clan Shirna. Even worse, the kugelblitz that served as its power source, the microscopic black hole, actually generated ample power for any demand the mech might place on it. The two power cores he’d retrieved and installed seemed to be more about extracting and distributing that power efficiently, which meant they could have just been built right into the thing, and not the subject of a galactic scavenger hunt.
I do not presume to know the detailed motives of the Creators. However, they had a purpose for forcing you to search for the power cores.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, so that being the Messenger took a deliberate act, and isn’t just something you kind of flop into.”
I believe it is also a safety measure, to ensure that the Archetype was not fully powered when it was found. Whoever found it would need to invest time and effort into achieving its full-power state.
“Wait, do you mean whoever first found this thing would automatically be the Messenger? Isn’t that pretty, um, let’s call it risky? What if it had been someone, well, irresponsible, maybe even reckless…” Dash stopped when he realized he was, at least arguably, describing himself. “I mean, dangerously irresponsible and reckless—evil, even. Like, what if Nathis had found it?”
The Creators established criteria to define who and what an acceptable candidate for the Messenger would be.
“And I met these criteria?”
You are here, and we are having this conversation. If you had not—
“Yeah, I get it. Wow, the Unseen had some pretty lax standards.” Dash breathed out a long sigh. “Okay, so what were these criteria?”
I cannot say.
“Well, you must know them.”
No. I cannot say, because I am not permitted to do so.
The Creators instituted the prohibition, but did not provide an explanation. Presumably, I was not entitled to one.
“So you literally can’t say what made me suitable to be this Messenger.”
That is correct.
“Huh. Probably to prevent anyone from gaming the system, I guess, to make themselves seem like Messenger material. Oh, that raises another point. Are there more of these Archetypes around? Like, could there be more than one Messenger?”
And, if so, Dash thought, do I need to make friends with them? Be a team? A bunch of these huge mechs, all fighting together? An army of them? Because, if so, that would actually be pretty exciting.
I am aware of no other constructs such as the Archetype.
Since not knowing implies a lack of information, then I have no rational reason to say anything other than maybe.
“One other thing. Are you reading my mind? Because I never asked you about what your Creator’s motives and such are, I was just thinking about it.”
I have access to your thoughts, yes.
If you have concerns about the appropriateness of your thoughts, or the lack thereof, rest assured that nothing not related to the Messenger’s mission is of relevance to me.
“Still, kind of creepy knowing you know…well, everything I do, and have done, for that matter. I mean…yikes.” That caused a sudden flood of thoughts that were manifestly inappropriate to cascade through Dash’s mind, some of them pretty lurid. But the AI didn’t react. It didn’t say anything at all. Even so, Dash quickly changed the subject.
“How far are we from the Slipwing now?”
But Dash knew the answer. Still far enough that Leira, Viktor, and Conover might be in serious trouble…trouble that Dash was still too far away to influence. Shit. If only the Archetype was faster.
Or if he could buy the Slipwing some time.
“Hey, can you…I…whatever, anyway, communicate with the Slipwing?”
I can attempt communication, but cannot guarantee it will be effective without retuning to real space. Unlike the intergalactic region we recently left, there is far more matter around the Archetype, and its gravitational influence affects unSpace.
“Okay, fine. We don’t have time for that, anyway. How about a simple communication, like, say, just a few words?”
The simpler the message, the more likely it is to successfully propagate.
“Good. So, I want you to establish a channel to the Slipwing, but on...I’m thinking of a particular, low-power channel. Can you read that, or whatever?”
“Right. Open that channel, then send the code I’m thinking about.”
You will cause the Slipwing to almost completely power-down.
“Yeah. It’s a back-door I installed in case anyone ever tried to steal her. In this case, though, it will make her a lot harder to track and find.”
At the risk of leaving the vessel entirely helpless and unable to defend itself, if it is located.
“Desperate times and all that.”
The code has been transmitted.
Assuming it was successful, the Slipwing would now drop to minimal power use, meaning her emissions would almost completely cease. Most important, her fusion core would go cold, meaning she’d no longer be generating neutrinos, a byproduct of fusing hydrogen. Without even such neutrino “smoke” to give her away, it would be tough to find her without knowing exactly where to look.
Of course, it would also unexpectedly plunge Leira and the others into darkness, every system aboard the Slipwing going dark, except for minimal life support. They’d no doubt assume something had failed and start looking for the problem. Given time, Viktor would probably be canny enough to find it and come up with a work-around—but hopefully not too soon. It would also probably scare the shit out of them, and Dash felt bad about that, but as he’d said, desperate times and all that.
Clan Shirna has divided its forces, the AI suddenly said.
It broke Dash’s concentration. He’d been frowning over one of the plasma pistols he’d liberated from the wrecked Clan Shirna ship, examining its inner workings, then making a few tweaks. The AI had expressed no interest, though—hadn’t actually expressed anything at all—until now.
Dash considered the incoming data. “I see that.”
It meant they were close enough, now, to start discriminating some details—not much, but far more than anything that wasn’t the Archetype would be able to discern from unSpace. It seemed that the Shirna had left part of their force to continue hunting the Slipwing near where they’d last detected her; the rest seemed to be searching along an extrapolation of her trajectory. They probably assumed she’d used something to drop off their scanners, but continued racing away at speed. That meant they had to search a volume of space that was an increasingly large cone extending away from her last known position, defined by how much she could maneuver away from the course they knew she was following. That was good—it meant half of the Clan Shirna flotilla was essentially wasting its time. The trouble was, the other half was still in her vicinity, meaning she could be detected…well, any second.
Dash closed up the plasma pistol, put it aside again, and adjusted his course, aiming for the Shirna still close to the Slipwing. If he could defeat them, or at least drive them off, then he could save Leira and the others. And wouldn’t they be impressed all to shit when Dash showed up as the Archetype. He even imagined the look on Leira’s face—
There is a problem.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, no shit. More than one problem, I’d say.”
This is a specific problem, that must be addressed. The Clan Shirna vessels continuing to search along the Slipwing’s trajectory are also approaching the location of a power core.
“Okay, so? As long as they don’t know it’s there…”
We do not know what they know. Exacerbating the risk is the fact that they are in league with the Golden. Even if they could not themselves locate the power core—except by random chance, which is exceedingly improbable—it is possible that the Golden have given them that information.
But they’re after the Slipwing, not a power core.
Again, that is an assumption. It may be that they have become aware of the Archetype, your role as the Messenger, and the need to gather the cores to bring the former to full power. Again, the Golden may have imparted this information to them.
“Sure, but seriously, it’s got to be a coincidence.”
But Dash trailed off into uncertainty. It was a profoundly unlikely coincidence, given just how sheerly big space was. Maybe the Golden had somehow manipulated all of this, fiddling with things so the Slipwing, the Archetype, and the power core were all under threat from Clan Shirna, all at once. After all, whatever other purpose their strange, extra-galactic dark-matter minefield may have had, it had still effectively become a trap. And the Golden did prefer doing things in a stand-off way, indirectly, influencing computer systems…
Systems like the Slipwing’s own nav.
“Well, shit. Now you’ve got me getting paranoid about the Golden.”
Which does not change the fact that Clan Shirna is getting closer to the power core. That must, at all costs, be prevented.
“Yeah, but I can’t just leave the Slipwing hanging out there.”
It is the welfare of your companions measured against that of potentially every sentient being in this galactic arm.
“Sure, but I…I can’t.”
Dash had no argument to make. He wanted to save Leira and the others, but he needed to stop Clan Shirna from getting that power core.
Which might also have been the work of the Golden, forcing him to have to make this horrible choice.
“Know what? I hate those Golden guys.”
The AI said nothing and Dash just gave a frustrated sigh.
“Alright. We’ll go take care of the power core.” He looked in the direction of the Slipwing and the armada of Clan Shirna ships hunting her. “Just hang on there, guys. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The Archetype dropped back into real space to find a quartet of Clan Shirna ships waiting for him. As soon as they appeared, they opened fire, loosing a volley of missiles and a barrage of particle beam fire.
The Archetype still hadn’t fully regenerated her power levels after the escape from the dark-matter mines; Dash’s demand for speed had itself drawn a huge amount of energy. Still, he was able to fling up the shield, though not quickly enough to prevent a pair of particle beams from tearing across his torso, right arm, and left leg. He snapped out a string of curses and returned fire with the dark-lance, reducing one of the Clan Shirna frigates to glowing slag and debris. A few seconds later, her fusion core breached, creating a very small and temporary, but still fiercely bright star. The other three ships bore in behind their own missiles, particle beams stabbing out, flooding the Archetype’s shield with raw energy.
Dash had no patience for this. He loosed a salvo of missiles—which somehow also regenerated, as though the Archetype could manufacture them on the fly, albeit very slowly—then dove toward the oncoming ships, determined to take them on head-on.
Particle beams flared against the shield, but Dash flew on. He dodged some of the incoming missiles, while the point-defense system destroyed more; two detonated against the shield, bringing it down. He didn’t care. He drove onward, his own missiles finding one of the Clan Shirna ships despite its best efforts at countermeasures, blowing it apart. The other two closed, raking the Archetype with their particle cannons.
Dash gritted his teeth against the damage and just pressed on.
You should break off—
“Kind of busy, thanks!”
Dash had no time for caution. He had no time for any of this. He needed to protect the power core, yes, but he actually needed to save the Slipwing. He’d had enough of Clan Shirna, and of the Golden, and of Nathis who pretended to be some righteous religious zealot, but was really just another greedy power-monger.
As the two ships flashed past, Dash lunged at one, slamming a massive fist into it. It slewed sideways, trailing debris and sparks and atmosphere. He immediately somersaulted and raced after the other one, rapidly closing. It lit its fusion drive, trying to use the incandescent exhaust as a weapon against him, but he dodged aside, zoomed up beside it, growled his sudden anger and frustration, then smashed a fist into it, punching through the hull. Holding onto whatever structural components he’d grabbed, he drove his other fist into the hull, let out a ferocious, almost bestial snarl, strained, and then wrenched his arms apart, ripping the Clan Shirna frigate in two.
A blast of frozen atmosphere momentarily surrounded him, lit white by the fusion exhaust still pouring from the dismembered aft section. He dodged back, letting the fragments of the ship just continue on their trajectory. The fusion drive quickly smashed the rear section of the ship into the forward portion, locking them together in a ruined embrace that spun away, off into deep space.
Dash turned, looking for the ship he’d simply punched. It was trying to power away, but was mortally wounded, its fusion drive flaring, dying, then flaring and dying again. A severely damaged ship, unable to maneuver, whatever remained of its crew, was in for a lingering and unpleasant fate.
Dash scowled. Good.
You can now retrieve the power core.
“How long will that take?”
It will take approximately two hours of your subjective time to reach it. Then you must retrieve it.
We are close to the core, and you need it.
“I came here, out of my way, to stop Clan Shirna from getting their grubby hands on it. I’ve done that.”
That is true. But your continued success is dependent on—
“I said no. It took me a long-enough time to get my hands on that last one. I’m not keeping the Slipwing waiting any longer.”
You are taxing the Archetype to the edge of its available power. I therefore strongly recommend—
“What part of no aren’t you getting?” Dash oriented himself on the distant Slipwing and prepared to launch himself after it. “Again, shut down everything you don’t need to move fast or keep me alive.”
Dash should have marveled over the fact he’d just browbeaten an ancient and super-sophisticated alien AI into conforming to his wishes. But he simply didn’t have time for that. Despite possessing almost god-like powers, he suddenly craved the company of humans, and that meant Leira, Viktor, and even Conover, annoying little shit that he was.
Dash flung himself into unSpace, his course firmly set on the Slipwing.
“Hang on a little longer, guys,” he said, “I’m on my way.”
Once more, Dash plunged out of unSpace to find Clan Shirna waiting for him. This flotilla was much larger, at least a dozen ships—including Nathis’s flagship. Dash considered what the Archetype had available. It had again regenerated much, but not all of its available power. He had several shots each from the dark-lance and distortion cannon, and about a dozen missile, that was it. However, the shield had fully recuperated, so he had that. And the Archetype had managed to repair away most of the damage it had suffered in that last battle—most, but not all.
So despite the advantage of hyper-advanced alien tech, Nathis and Clan Shirna definitely had the edge here.
Whatever. Dash had never let improbable odds get in the way before. Why start now?
Still, the Clan Shirna ships hadn’t reacted to his arrival. Had they not detected him?
No. They had detected the Slipwing, which had been caught in the gravity well of a huge planet, a gas giant, and was now falling toward the banded cloud-layers of its upper atmosphere.
“Oh, for…transmit the same code you did before, same channel!”
Dash watched as the silent Slipwing continued its plunge toward the vast planet, then her emissions spiked as she came back to life. He waited for Leira to light the fusion drive and burn away from the gas giant. Instead, though, she turned and powered toward it, apparently deliberately diving for the roiling clouds.
For a moment, Dash just gaped. “Leira, what the hell are you…?”
But he got it. The Clan Shirna ships had opened fire, a salvo of missiles that left the Slipwing, stuck between them and the planet, with nowhere to go. Dropping into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere was her least terrible option. If she could keep the ship under control in the chaotic, wind-whipped atmosphere, the missiles would almost certainly lose their lock, and she’d be able to pick and choose where and when she reemerged from the turbulent shell of gas.
If gas giants were truly hostile environments. Winds howled at a thousand kilometers per hour or more, the gases themselves were toxic, corrosive, and ensured she’d be flying blind…and if she didn’t keep control, and dropped too far into the thing, the increasing pressure would eventually crush the Slipwing to flattened scrap.
“You’re only borrowing my ship, Leira,” Dash said, “so don’t you break it. Or you’re paying for it.” Orienting himself, he sped off in the direction of the Clan Shirna flotilla, his gaze fixed firmly on Nathis’s ship.
Dash swerved hard, pulling up from the looming moon at the last instant and now racing only a few hundred meters above the cracked, icy surface. Blasts of vapor and shattered ice erupted around him, near-hits from the particle cannons stabbing out from the Shirna corvette chasing him. He knew that another pair of ships had swept around the other side of the moon, determined to cut him off before he could break back into open space.
He glanced up. The gas giant was a vast wall of striped, swirling bands of cloud filling half the sky. Down was the surface of the moon. Sandwiched between was a strip of space, all of Dash’s maneuvering room.
The other pair of ships were about to rise over the onrushing horizon. Dash abruptly swerved again, then jackknifed himself, wrenching through almost a hundred and eighty degrees. As he did, he fired the distortion cannon at a point above and behind the corvette on his tail. The sudden surge of gravity yanked both him and the ship up, away from the moon. Dash knew it was coming and just went with it, but the corvette burned hard, trying to resist its sudden fall into a gravity well that hadn’t existed an instant before.
Wrong move. The distortion vanished as quickly as it had appeared and the corvette, now thrusting hard toward the moon, rocketed downward, slammed into the surface, and vanished into a spray of debris. Dash flew hard away and up, straight toward the gas giant, just as the corvette’s fusion core finally breached. He cringed as the blast of radiation and incandescent heat swept over him.
Another Clan Shirna ship, a frigate, hung overhead. He’d discharged the dark-lance twice now, taking out two more ships in the process, and it had only partly regenerated. He fired it anyway, the beam slashing through the frigate’s bow. He punched out at it as he sped by, driving a massive fist into its flank and ripping open a huge hole.
The two ships that had been trying to cut him off rose over the limb of the moon behind him and immediately opened fire.
A direct particle beam hit brought the shield down again, leaving the Archetype exposed to enemy fire until it once more recuperated. Damage was piling up faster than the Archetype could repair it, a fact the AI hadn’t hesitated to point out to him.
Again, I must recommend disengaging and withdrawing. You are risking—
“Getting my ass kicked. Yeah, I know.” Just as the Lens prevented Nathis from simply destroying the Slipwing, he knew he wouldn’t want to destroy the Archetype, either, if he could avoid it. But as Dash smashed up more and more of his ships, he’d probably give up on that idea and focus everything on blasting the Archetype out of space. And Dash was running out of options to prevent that.
Another moon lay ahead, one of at least three dozen orbiting the huge planet. This one trailed a long tail of vapor from volcanoes erupting across its surface. It was close enough to the gas giant that the tug of its gravity flexed the moon as it rotated, heating it up with tidal forces. Dash zoomed into the gaseous trail, then closed in toward the surface, a fog of sulfur, water vapor, and a host of other chemicals enveloping him. For a moment, at least, he had a respite; the thick cloud of noxious vapor would obscure him on the Shira scanners. Of course, that would only last a few minutes, until they just decided to pummel this whole side of the moon with missiles.
He couldn’t just hang around here, waiting for the Archetype to regenerate, anyway. Every second that passed was another the Slipwing had to endure conditions in the gas giant’s hostile atmosphere. Leira was probably trying to work her around the titanic planet, using the swirling cloud-tops as cover before making a break for it, but the planet was so big there was no way she could have made it far enough from where she entered that, if she broke free now, he wouldn’t just see her. And he hadn’t seen her, so he had to assume the Slipwing was still in there.
He had to end this, now.
And that meant taking on Nathis.
Three Clan Shirna vessels are closing on this position. They will likely launch a saturation pattern of missiles.
“Yeah, of course they will.” Dash took a deep breath. The Archetype’s shield had flickered back to life, but would probably drop again after a single hit. The dark-lance was partly repowered. He had only a few missiles left. The only bright spot was the distortion cannon, which seemed to regenerate much faster than the other systems.
It was what he had.
Dash launched himself out of the plume of volcanic dust and gas trailing the moon along its orbit. He stayed low to the moon’s surface, weaving among towering piles of erupted sulfur compounds, bright with swirls of orange, yellow, red, and brown. Particle beam shots started to pummel the surface around him. He dodged and wove desperately.
“Hey, how much…lava, or whatever it is, is there under this moon?”
Tidal heating has probably rendered much of the moon’s interior molten.
Dash slowed, allowing a pair of Shina corvettes to gain on him. The Archetype’s shield took a trio of particle beam hits in rapid succession and died. Another beam slammed into the Archetype’s right leg. It was a serious hit, rendering the limb essentially inoperative. Dash groaned at the sudden wash of pain-that-wasn’t but gritted his teeth and let the two corvettes close even more.
One of the trailing ships apparently decided something was up and started to fall back. The other raced in, determined to reduce the range to the point where its particle cannons, whose beams attenuate with distance, would almost certainly be lethal. Dash decided it was time.
He flipped over and fired the distortion cannon at a point above the surface of the moon behind him. It exploded in a shower of pulverized rock, releasing a searing fountain of sulfurous magma that enveloped the two corvettes. The spalling fragments and gouts of glowing liquid instantly shredded the closer of the two; the more distant crashed through the rapidly-growing column of erupting magma, wobbling into a spin. Dash yelped as the gravitational distortion pulled the Archetype toward the impromptu volcano. He slammed a hand into the brittle rock of the moon, yelping again as it plowed a furrow across the surface, slowing, but not stopping him. Just before he was pulled into the eruption plume, the distortion faded and he flung himself away from it, rising from the volcanic moon like an ascending rocket.
He looked around. The damaged corvette spun away from the volcanic moon, thrusting frantically, trying to regain control. No other Clan Shirna ships remained in threat distance.
Dash powered through space, looking for—and finally finding—the rest of the Clan Shirna flotilla. Nathis had deployed it in a defensive screen between Dash and the gas giant. He obviously expected Dash to try to rescue the Slipwing, and dared him to try. It would expose him to the massed fire of all of the remaining Shirna ships as he tried to close.
In its current condition and power state, the Archetype is unlikely to survive such a concentrated barrage.
“Tell me about it.”
Dash let out a frustrated growl. He had to get to Nathis, which meant getting at his big cruiser that was sitting in the center of the Clan Shirna formation. He might be able to do it if the Archetype’s shield was fully regenerated, but it wasn’t, and he just didn’t have the time to wait for it.
But what if he could create another shield for the Archetype?
He looked around and saw exactly what he was looking for just a short distance away.
The massive slab of rock spun through space, a sparkling trail of yellow sulfur spreading behind it. Maybe half the size of a frigate, it had been blasted out of the moon’s crust by Dash’s distortion cannon, achieving escape velocity on a course that would eventually send it plunging into the gas giant. Dash was going to change that.
He fired the distortion cannon at a particular point in space. The slab wobbled, then slewed that way. He fired again. Again. Each shot deflected the slab more, changing its trajectory until it swept majestically toward the Clan Shirna fleet. It left the distortion cannon mostly discharged, but it didn’t matter. This was only going to end one way.
Dash moved to put himself behind the slab with respect to Nathis’s ships, planted his hands against it, and pushed.
“You know,” he said, “this would have been a lot easier if your Creators had just powered this thing up in the first place.”
Shall we have this conversation again?
“I…ah…no.” Dash frowned for a moment, then couldn’t resist a smirk. “You know, that was kind of a smart-assed answer. I think I’m rubbing off on you.”
There was no answer. Dash’s smirk widened.
But it faded as the first particle beam blasts started hammering the slab of rock.
“Okay…shit. Here we go.” He pushed harder, the Archetype driving the sulfurous asteroid ahead of it.
More impacts followed. Glowing sulfur mist wafted around the bulk of the slab, cooling into fine, yellowing dust. As more and more particle beams converged on it, the side opposite Dash began to boil. He couldn’t see it, of course, being pressed into the shadow of its back side as close as he could, but he could feel it, a faint crackling, bubbling sensation echoing through the slab.
“Any idea how long this thing will last?”
The calculation is approximate, as there are many variables whose range of possible values is—
“Just how long?”
Perhaps another ten minutes, and then the slab will likely deconsolidate.
“Fall apart, you mean.”
Dash pushed harder still. “You could have just said that,” he muttered. “I mean, why say marmalade, when you can say jam?”
Based on your understanding of those two substances, they are not interchangeable.
“It just means to keep your words simple!” Dash shook his head. “Oh, never mind.” He did a quick calculation of his own. Ten minutes…might not be enough.
“Can you put anything else into propulsion for this thing?”
By diverting power from the distortion cannon and slowing regeneration of other systems to a minimum, yes. The risk, however—
“Is another one of those things I don’t want to hear. Just do it, okay?”
The Archetype surged forward, its hands crushing the substance of the slab and starting to sink in.
Hopefully, this would be enough. Because if it wasn’t, Dash would find himself fully exposed to all the firepower the Clan Shirna ships could muster, and at point-blank range.
And that, he thought, would probably, truly suck.
Sulfur coated the Archetype in ragged, dusty yellow. Most of the slab was gone, vaporized into space. Dash was surprised that what remained was still holding together. But he drove on regardless. Some of the Clan Shirna ships had started to maneuver, but he loosed his remaining missiles and kept them at bay, destroying a corvette and damaging a frigate. That convinced the other ships that had broken from the line ahead to back off, degrading the effect of their fire. They had no way of knowing he only had three missiles left.
A huge chunk separated from the slab and whirled off, driven by the force of vaporizing sulfur. There was barely enough left to cover the Archetype.
“Any idea how much longer?”
Until you reach the capital ship?
“No, until I can retire. What do you think I mean?”
You will collide with it in approximately one minute.
“One…holy shit. Did it not occur to you tell me that?”
I just did.
Dash blew out a hard sigh. As he did, the remainder of the slab crumbled into fragments that spun away.
Nathis’s flagship loomed ahead, backdropped by the swirling cloud-tops of the gas giant.
Particle beam fire converged on the Archetype. The abused shield, which had once more managed to flicker to life, quickly died. But the fire wasn’t as intense as Dash had expected. It took him a moment to realize why. He was now so close to Nathis’s ship that the remainder of the flotilla couldn’t fire without hitting the cruiser. It still left Dash exposed to the big ship’s own weapons, and they pummeled the Archetype, searing away its substance.
Many systems are approaching failure tolerance.
“Yeah, I know.” Dash strained to say it. He felt every hit like a blow against his own body. “Just a few…more seconds…”
Dash used what power remained in the Archetype to adjust his course a fraction. A massive wall of metal rose before him, filling space.
Then the Archetype, mighty fists raised, slammed into it.
Dash felt the impact like a body-blow. Metal crumpled and tore, structural components bent, strained, and snapped, hull plating buckled inward. Massive deceleration drove Dash forward, testing the limits of the cradle’s ability to protect him. For a moment, the world turned grey and faded away.
Then it cleared again. Dash shook his head. The Archetype had come to rest, half-buried in Nathis’s cruiser, just sternward of the bridge.
Dash clambered out of the cradle, making to exit the Archetype. As he did, he snatched up the plasma pistols he’d retrieved from the crashed Clan Shirna ship on his foray outside the galaxy. For an awful moment, he thought the big mech might not be able to open, because it was jammed into the side of a cruiser, after all. But the hatch slid smoothly open, letting Dash step out and onto the deck of Nathis’s ship.
A Shirna appeared, looking stunned, his neck patches a lurid green. He met Dash’s gaze, his eyes widened, and he reached for a pistol hanging on his belt.
Dash shot him.
As the man fell, it struck Dash that he hadn’t been wearing a vac suit. Glancing back, he saw that a repulsor field enveloped the Archetype and the huge gap it had punched into the cruiser’s hull, maintaining atmospheric integrity. It made sense a big ship like this would have such a last-ditch defense. It also meant Dash didn’t need to be vac-suited either, as long as, that is, the repulsor field held.
He decided to keep his helmet on. He also maintained a firm grip on pieces of debris and tangled structural components, because if the field did die, all this atmosphere would rush out fast.
Weaving around a broken conduit that was spitting blue sparks and a searing flame like a cutting torch, Dash entered a corridor. To the right it went…somewhere, didn’t matter. To the left, though, it had to go to the bridge. And if Nathis was anywhere, he’d be there.
Dash walked up to the door. The artificial gravity still worked, too. Also not surprising, on a ship this large. The damage from the Archetype’s impact was extensive, but also localized.
The door slid open, and Dash found himself face-to-face with two Shirna. Both were armed, but neither were ready. One of them shouted something and raised his pistol, but Dash was ready. Wielding a plasma pistol in each hand, he fired both at once, killing both Shirna.
Crouching, he stepped on the bridge.
It was chaos. Although the bridge hadn’t been impacted directly by the Archetype, there’d been enough collateral damage to take most of it out of action. Consoles shone error messages, sparked and sputtered, or just sat there dark and dead. Dash could see at least a half-dozen Shirna scattered about, some injured, some dead. The shock of the Archetype crashing into the ship must have been horrific. Thanks to its super advanced tech in the cradle, Dash had only felt a hard deceleration.
But a few figures were still up. Dash recognized one of them.
Before he could react, a plasma blast smacked into the bulkhead beside him. Dash took cover behind a dead console and returned fire.
No. There was no way he was going to get this far and fail to get Nathis. Leaping out of cover, Dash blazed away with both plasma pistols, dropping all but one of the remaining Shirna—and Nathis, who simply stood, glaring, his neck patches the angriest crimson Dash had ever seen.
“Nathis!” he shouted, his voice echoing out of the vac suit’s amp. “I’m here for you! Why don’t you come and get me?”
In answer, Nathis charged, racing across the bridge at Dash, snapping out shot after shot from his own plasma gun.
Dash ducked back into cover and fiddled with one of the plasma pistols. “Oh shit, he is coming to get me!”
He lunged the other way in time to see the second Shirna trying to flank him. A plasma shot hit the deck in front of Dash, showering his vac suit with sparks and droplets of molten metal. A warning flashed in his heads up-display, alongside a ticking timer:
SUIT INTEGRITY COMPROMISED
SELF-SEALING FUNCTION UNAVAILABLE
Either the Archetype couldn’t fix and recharge his vac suit, or just hadn’t bothered and had put the power to other uses. Dash ignored it, firing his own pistol once, hitting the Shirna, and making him cry out…twice as the man fell.
Dash immediately turned back the other way to find Nathis looming over him. The muzzle of his plasma pistol, aimed at Dash’s face, was a black hole leading to oblivion.
“So,” Nathis snarled, “in the end, the Blasphemer fails, as Blasphemers always have, and always will.”
“You know,” Dash snapped, cutting him off, “you can spare me all this self-righteous, holier-than-thou mumbo-jumbo. I know all about the Golden and your deal with them.”
Dash was immensely satisfied to see a look of surprise, and then shock, wash over Nathis’s face. His neck patches faded from red to purple.
Dash dropped his plasma pistol then reached up and unsnapped the fastener on his helmet, before pulling it off and dropping it with a clunk. If the repulsor field failed now and vented all this atmosphere, it wouldn’t matter, Dash’s suit was no longer sealed against vacuum anyway. By the time he had, Nathis had recovered enough to have his neck patches go red again.
“What you think you know is irrelevant.”
Dash tried keeping a count in his head, but cut Nathis off anyway, saying, “Yeah, I don’t think it is, actually. See, the Golden…they’re not what you think they are. They’re not going to set you up as some sort of governor, or whatever you think it is they’re going to do. If they aren’t stopped, they’ll destroy every living thing in this galactic arm. I might point out that every living thing includes you.”
Nathis gave a dismissive sniff. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. That alien machine has clouded your mind. They—the Unseen—are the dangerous ones. They are the ones bent on extermination.”
“Sounds like something the Golden would say.”
“Enough!” Nathis raised the plasma pistol. “It makes no difference to you in any case, because you are now dead.”
“Actually,” Dash said, suddenly grinning, “we both are.”
Nathis’s eyes widened at his grin, making him hesitate long enough for Dash to throw himself backward—
And for the world to turn white.
The plasma pistol Dash had previously rigged for a timed detonation released its energy in a single, dazzling flash of heat and radiation. Nathis, apparently sensing danger in Dash’s attitude, had dropped at the last second. The console shadowed most of his body from the stellar flash, as it did for Dash; it still caught Dash up his right leg, causing a searing flare of pain, then numbness. The blast hit almost at the same time a shockwave propagated through the air still filling the bridge, slamming Dash against the base of a console and leaving his head ringing.
For a while, Dash just lay there. Grey fuzz rolled in from the edges of his vision, similar to the effect of the hard deceleration when the Archetype had crashed into the cruiser, but more sustained. His last lucid thought was a desperate hope that Nathis was just as bad off, if not worse, because Dash was definitely about to pass out.
He blinked. His ears rang…his head swam…lightning bolts of pain arced up and down his leg. He levered himself up to his elbows and saw that his vac suit was scorched black along his leg, from hip to foot. Its insulation seemed to have been just enough to prevent his leg from actually being incinerated, so that was something at least.
How long had he been out?
Dash looked around, blinking, trying to force away the greyness that kept trying to crawl back in and wipe away his tenuous consciousness. The bridge, already badly damaged, was now a shambles, the fusion blast having smashed and burned consoles and scorched bulkheads.
Dash heard movement and turned toward it.
Nathis was dragging himself upright. The whole left side of his body looked blistered and, in places, charred; the left side of his face was a crimson ruin. But he turned, facing Dash, a cosmic level of hatred burning in his one good eye.
His mouth worked. What it said was, “You…die…now.”
He flung himself at Dash.
Dash tried to throw himself aside, but Nathis landed partly on top of him, pinning him. He tried to lever himself free, but his arms felt like wet Thalarian spice-noodles. Nathis raised a fist, wobbled, then swung it down at Dash’s face, apparently intent on simply beating him to death.
Dash put everything he could summon into one, desperate heave. He threw Nathis aside and back, sending him crashing into the bridge’s outer bulkhead, right beneath a vision port.
Clambering to his feet, Dash looked wildly around for the plasma pistol he’d dropped. It was nowhere to be seen. He now realized some of the grey fuzz obscuring his vision was actually smoke, from whatever the plasma blast had incinerated. A heavy stink of hot metal and burning hung in the air. He turned back to Nathis, just in time for the big—because he was big—Shirna to lunge at him, awkwardly, but still driving Dash back against a console, slamming the air from his lungs.
Okay, this wasn’t going to work. Even as injured has he was, Nathis was still much bigger and stronger than Dash, who had himself suffered more than a few bruising pummelings of various sorts over the past…hours? Days? He couldn’t even remember anymore. He had to end this fight fast.
Dash slammed a free fist against the burned side of Nathis’s face. He loosed a howl of pain and, grossly, charred flesh pulled away, stuck to Dash’s hand. He grimaced, but ignored it, and struck again. Nathis recoiled back, giving Dash a chance to get upright again and suck breath into his lungs.
Until Nathis’s own fist caught him in the chest. The impact drove him back against the console again; fortunately, his trusty vac suit was thick enough to dissipate much of the blow. Without it, Dash knew Nathis’s punch would have broken ribs. He slid sideways, toward Nathis’s burned side, kicking out as he did. Pain flashed up his own leg, but his foot caught Nathis’s knee, buckling it. Nathis howled and staggered back.
If Dash was going to win this fight, it had to be now.
He closed in, crowding into Nathis, grabbing him and flinging himself one way, forcing Nathis the other. As he did, he grabbed the big reptilian arm and twisted it behind him, then kept twisting it, putting what remained of his strength into the effort, bending it until it snapped.
Nathis screamed and flailed back with his free arm. It caught Dash with a heavy slap against his face that staggered him. Lifting his foot and planting his boot on the edge of the console, Dash drove himself into Nathis, meaning to slam him against the nearby bulkhead and, hopefully, end the fight. Nathis crashed into the viewport instead.
With a loud crack, the viewport partly shattered. Nathis screamed again, but it was sucked away by the sudden rush of air through the fractured crystal. The fusion explosion must have weakened it, Dash thought, and now it held Nathis tightly, his head wedged through the jagged hole, air howling around it, the pressure not only holding him in place but starting to push him through it.
Dash stumbled back, wind roaring around him, vapor condensing to mist as the pressure dropped. It wasn’t an explosive decompression—Nathis’s head and shoulders were preventing that—but the atmosphere would keep venting. Fortunately, there was enough that it should take several minutes, giving Dash time to get out of here.
Nathis wasn’t so fortunate. Exposed to the hard, cold vacuum of space, Dash saw ice forming on Nathis’s head and face as moisture in the venting air froze against his skin. Worse, the air pressure kept pushing Nathis further and further through the shattered port, like a cork slowly being expelled from a shaken bottle of something carbonated. Now his head and shoulders had been forced through, protruding into space.
Dash turned away. He really didn’t need to—or want to—watch this.
He saw his helmet sitting a few meters away. He grabbed it and snapped it back into place. Even compromised, his suit might give him another minute or two of breathable air. That should be enough to get back to the Archetype.
Another ship has arrived in this system.
Dash sucked in a breath of thinning air. “Who is it?”
It is another Clan Shirna vessel.
Dash imagined another corvette or frigate—probably a straggler, late to the fight. It was unlikely Clan Shirna even had a much larger ship in its roster; behemoths like this cruiser were exceedingly rare. “Great,” he said, heading for the exit. “Well, one thing at a time—”
No, this vessel poses a considerably greater threat.
But Dash knew why.
This new ship was vast. It made the massive cruiser he stood aboard look like a corvette by comparison. Dash didn’t even realize ships that large existed.
And it was headed straight toward the gas giant.
Dash took a deep breath—it took him a moment, the atmosphere now passing from thin to tenuous—then let it out.
“Okay, you know what? That is just totally not fair.”
But life wasn’t fair, was it? Standing here in the steadily vanishing atmosphere of Nathis’s ship and feeling bitter about it wasn’t going to change the fact that Clan Shirna suddenly had a decisive advantage over him. Even if he could get the Archetype as powered up as it could be, it wouldn’t be sufficient to take on this monstrous battlecruiser. Which was too bad, because that battlecruiser also gave them a tremendous advantage over…anyone else, really. And if they had more than one of them…
“Are you—or, should I say, is the Archetype ready to fly? Like, can you get free of this ship?”
“Yes, Dash, it should be possible to break free with relative ease. While you have been away, the Archetype has been regenerating its systems. It is still far from battle-ready, however.”
Dash started for the door leading from the bridge, the one he’d used to enter. “Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to be fighting that thing. I think we’re just going to be running.”
Dash stopped just short of the door as a thought slammed into him like one of Nathis’s fists. “Oh, shit. Wait. Where’s the Slipwing? Have you seen it leave the gas giant’s atmosphere?”
“No. There is no indication that it has done so. However, it is difficult to determine anything with certainty, given the Archetype’s present status,” Sentinel said.
You mean half-buried in a ship, with only its ass and legs hanging out. Dash didn’t say it, but—despite the horrific situation—he still couldn’t resist a smirk at the image. But that faded as fast as it appeared. “So Leira and the others—they’re still down there? Inside that planet’s atmosphere?”
“In the absence of any conclusive data, that is a definite possibility.”
Dash took a step for the door. “Yeah, worst case scenario, I know. But we have to assume—”
He stopped again. This time, because something had caught his eye. A device on Nathis’s wrist was flashing.
It could be anything. It could be a reminder to take some sort of med, or take something out of the oven. But it hadn’t been flashing a second ago. Dash was sure of that.
On instinct, Dash turned and crossed back to Nathis’s corpse. It had been shoved almost halfway out of the broken port by air pressure, but now sat jammed in place, partly because of this arm, still stuck inside and pressed against the port. The body blocked all but a few small gaps now, too, meaning that while air was still venting, it was more of a middling leak than a catastrophic loss of atmosphere.
Dash looked at the device on Nathis’s wrist. He recognized it, or thought he did. It was a personal comm, or something much like it. It indicated an incoming message.
He couldn’t read the glowing script. But, again presumably thanks to his connection with the Archetype, that didn’t matter. He just knew what it said. It was an incoming message from someone or something called the Prelate—or, at least, that was the closest word his brain could provide for the term.
“A high-ranking religious authority,” Sentinel said, anticipating my next question.
“Oh, okay. Thanks.” So this must be Nathis’s boss.
Dash had assumed Nathis was the one in charge of Clan Shirna. It had never even occurred to him that Nathis might himself be an underling, with higher authorities to whom he reported. It made sense, though, that the guy with the far bigger ship would also have a higher rank.
Again, on impulse, Dash tapped the receive icon on Nathis’s comm.
“—again, Brother Nathis, what is your status? We are scanning significant damage to the forward portion of your ship. Advise of your status at once.”
Once more, Dash didn’t actually understand the language; all that he heard was a sonorous jumble of syllables and sounds. And yet, he understood it.
He glanced around at the smashed and seared remains of the bridge. The ship didn’t seem to be out of control, so either it was being operated by automated systems, or crew in other parts of the vessel were still controlling it. In fact, given a ship this large, it was pretty unlikely the only crew were the ones he’d encountered here, on and near the bridge. Which meant, of course, said surviving crew could arrive at any minute, intent on reclaiming the bridge of their ship. Dash suspected the only reason they hadn’t already was the damage done by impact of the Archetype—smashed, torn, and twisted structural components simply blocking the way forward from the rest of the ship.
So he had. . .unknown time against a lethal enemy, who might come boiling through space with vengeance on their minds. He had a punctured viewport at risk of causing catastrophic decompression, leaving Dash with a rapidly deflating suit and no options other than a horrible death. That assumed he wasn’t blown into space along with it, to tumble among the stars for eternity as a frozen corpse.
Or would something else disastrous happen, like the hull buckling, or the fusion drive breaching, or even a failure of the translation drive’s anti-deuterium containment?
“You know, there are a whole lot of ways I could die here,” Dash said to the air. The air did not answer, but Sentinel did.
“Which is why I strongly recommend that you evacuate now,” Sentinel said. “Return to the Archetype and make your escape before this ship suffers a critical failure, or the Clan Shirna battlecruiser enters firing range.”
“I doubt that the Prelate over there, whoever he is, would fire on one of his own ships,”
“Religious zealots such as those of Clan Shirna are not known for their thoughtful restraint.”
“Ah, yeah, good point.” The AI was right. He had no reason to stick around here. Not only was he needlessly endangering himself, but he also needed to do something about the Slipwing, if she hadn’t managed to get free of the gas giant.
So why was he still lingering here, staring at the comm on Nathis’s wrist?
Because I’m on the verge of realizing something important, something I might be able to use to make this whole situation way less shitty.
Dash bit his lip. If whatever it was didn’t stop flying around inside his brain like a skittish bird and just land already, and soon, he’d have to jump ship, literally. A solution stalked him from the edge of awareness, like a forgotten memory fighting to resurface in a lifetime of images and experience.
A tremor shuddered through the deck under Dash’s feet. He didn’t feel any acceleration, although the dampers might be preventing it. If anything, it felt like the impact of a high-density weapon.
“What’s going on, Sentinel?”
“It appears to be a structural instability in the forward part of this ship’s hull.”
“A structural…? Shit. You mean it’s starting to come apart.”
“In the most essential sense, yes.”
Dash lifted his eyes in disgust, then exhaled slowly. The bird fluttered as much as ever, so he turned toward the exit.
He looked back at Nathis.
He has a Lens. The Ribbon had showed them that.
Where was it?
And just like that, the bird landed.
Dash hurried back to Nathis’s corpse. He’d probably kept the Lens on him. Dash hoped, anyway. If he’d locked it away in some secure part of the ship, then so much for that. But if he had it on him, or it was at least nearby, then Dash had a chance to retrieve it. Which he had to, because he could not leave Clan Shirna in possession of one of the damned things. Besides, it might give Dash the edge he needed.
He dug through anything even resembling a pocket or pouch on Nathis’s sleek, leathery uniform, but found nothing. Shit. Well, so much for that.
Of course, half of Nathis had been pulled through the smashed port and now hung in space like a grotesque decoration affixed to the side of the ship.
“Okay,” Dash muttered, “this is going to suck.”
He grabbed Nathis’s legs and pulled. He might as well have been trying to pull apart a bulkhead, though. The air pressure against the body was probably hundreds of kilograms, far more than Dash could ever move on his own. Dash strained one more time, and another shudder vibrated the deck, ending a long, low groan of some structural component protesting under loads it had never been intended to bear.
“I recommend haste,” Sentinel said. “The Archetype is likely to survive the failure of this ship’s structural integrity, but you—"
“Are a squishy meat-bag. Yeah, I know.”
Dash stopped to gasp in some of the thinned air. This wasn’t going to work. Maybe he could remount the Archetype, move around to this port, and grab Nathis’s body with it.
Except the comm on the body’s wrist was still blinking, demanding attention. Once that battlecruiser saw the Archetype come to life and start moving around, he’d have much bigger problems than retrieving the Lens from Nathis’s body—if it was on him in the first place. Although, knowing what he did about Nathis, it was unlikely he’d leave it anywhere anyone else could grab it. Moreover, if he’d needed to evacuate in a hurry, he’d want to have it close at hand.
Dash saw a pocket on Nathis’s chest. He didn’t know, of course, if it held the Lens, but if Dash had had to put credits on it, that was the pocket he’d bet on. It was within easy reach, too. Except, of course, the remains of the view port prevented it. It might as well be on the other side of the gas giant.
“Dash, the Clan Shirna battlecruiser is under high acceleration, its trajectory in-system.”
“Yeah, the Prelate, or whatever he is, has run out of patience, I guess.” Dash scowled at the viewport. All that stood between him and where he was sure Nathis’s Lens was, was a few centimeters of transparent composite. He turned his scowl onto the wrist-comm. No doubt the impatience came from a lack of a response from Nathis. Maybe he could buy a little time to do something.
Dash tapped the comm, reopening the channel.
“—assume that you have been compromised. The device must not fall into the wrong hands. If you are receiving this, you will do everything in your power to protect it until our arrival.”
Dash cracked open his faceplate, wincing as his ears popped from a pressure drop—just enough to tell him that the atmosphere was still venting. But it also told him that his suit was retaining some pressure, so that was good.
“Can you make it so I reply in their language?”
“If you wish.”
Dash took a breath—a deep one, because it was the only way he took in much air at all—then unmuted this end of the channel.
“This is Nathis,” he said, trying to make his voice as close to the menacing growl he remembered as possible. Remarkably, though, his mouth and throat said something entirely different, shaping his voice into sounds and rhythms that were entirely alien to him. “I am here. I’m okay. Not compromised. I have things under control.”
A long paused followed, and Dash frowned.
Then he heard, “What is the status of that machine embedded in your hull?”
“Oh, that? Well, I’m proud to say that Clan Shirna is now the proud owners of a…” He was about to say Archetype, but Nathis probably wouldn’t know it by that name. “I’m calling it a titan, for now.”
“The one who had been piloting it…the human you named Sawyer, also called Dash…what is his status? The Prelate is anxious to interrogate him.”
Dash winced. Yeah, well, I’m not anxious for that at all, myself. “He is dead. I killed him.”
“The Prelate will not be pleased. He wants to know what Sawyer knew, and to whom he may have communicated it.”
“Oh. Well, um, sorry, but it was him or me, you know?”
Which is true, Dash thought, looking at Nathis’s freeze-dried corpse hanging halfway into space. Maybe not in the way I’m implying, but it is perfectly true.
“The Prelate will be informed. We will be in weapons range in just over ten minutes. We will be able to rendezvous with you in perhaps three times that. Maintain your current trajectory.”
“Oh, uh, sure.” A heavy tremor shook the ship, ending on another of the low, menacing groans, followed by the high-pitched squeal of something metallic ripping apart. “Look, we’ve taken a lot of damage here, I’ll get back to you.”
Dash shut down the channel.
He had ten minutes, or whatever the Clan Shirna equivalent of ten minutes was, and no matter what unit of time he was dealing with, it wasn’t much.
Better think fast, Dash. Between the Prelate and his ridiculously large ship rushing toward him, this one venting atmosphere and starting to fall apart--and he couldn’t forget the Slipwing, still likely in trouble in the gas giant’s depths somewhere.
Dash looked at the viewport. He could think of only one way to get at the Lens.
“Yeah,” he said, snapping his faceplate back into place, “this is going to truly suck.”
Dash checked the vac suit’s tether one last time. A flexible cable, it unspooled from an enclosed drum on the suit’s belly, wire-thin but exceedingly strong. It was intended to help anchor someone moving or working outside a ship, in zero-g, when they didn’t want to have to stay focused on not inadvertently sending themselves drifting off into space. Now, it was—Dash desperately hoped—going to prevent both him and Nathis from doing exactly that.
He looked back to where he’d looped it around Nathis’s waist. It was tight enough that there was no way the body should be able to escape its grip. So, as long as nothing went catastrophically wrong.
“Yeah, Dash, you just keep telling yourself that,” he muttered, grabbing the plasma pistol he’d retrieved from another body on the bridge. As he did, the ship groaned again, deep in her components; this time, Dash was sure he felt the whole bridge shift slightly. At the same time, a loud clatter rose from the compartment behind the bridge, the one into which he’d crashed the Archetype.
“The Clan Shirna crew is finally breaking through the damaged portion of their ship. They appear to be intent on reclaiming the bridge,” Sentinel said.
Dash checked the plasma pistol. It was set to its lowest possible yield. “Of course they are.”
“It may be a futile effort, of course, because this ship’s structural integrity is now on the brink of failure.”
He raised the pistol. “Of course it is, Sentinel.”
“And the battlecruiser is now within weapons range, and will arrive in less than ten minutes time.”
Dash aimed at the viewport, at a point above and to the right of Nathis’s head. “Of course it will.”
“All of which is to say—”
“That the whole situation is going to shit, I know,” Dash said, interrupting Sentinel. “And I’m about to make it even worse.”
A change in the blinking icon on Nathis’s communicator caught his attention. Once more on impulse, Dash tapped the channel open.
“You are not Nathis,” the voice—an oddly rich, and even somewhat soothing baritone—said. “You are Sawyer, the one called Dash.”
Dash considered ignoring it, or even trying to deny it and keep pretending to be Nathis anyway. But he didn’t. Instead, he popped his face plate and said, “Yeah, you got me. What’s up? This the Prelate? You offering to surrender?”
“I assume you killed Nathis.”
“And I assume you’re trying to buy time. So, let’s say goodbye now, so we can all—”
“I do not care about Nathis, or you, or your ship or companions. I only wish to have the Lens.”
Not the Archetype, too? But Dash didn’t say that. Maybe the Prelate just hadn’t noticed it yet. Although, how do you miss a giant mechanical ass and legs hanging out of the side of your underling’s ship?
“I will guarantee you safe passage off of Nathis’s ship,” the Prelate said, “in return for you handing over the Lens.”
“You know, I might be tempted by that if whoever was talking on here before you didn’t let that whole the Prelate wants to interrogate you thing slip out.”
“You have no hope of escape otherwise.”
Dash was about to snap something back, but was cut off by a sharp explosion from the compartment behind the bridge. A moment later, a figure appeared in the entrance, clad in a vac suit and holding a plasma pistol. An almost constant tremor shook the ship now, probably caused by the Shirna attempting to take back the bridge.
Idiots. Dash fired his own plasma pistol at the viewport.
Even on its lowest yield, the pistol pulsed out a dazzling flash and an earsplitting blast. The viewport shattered, the remnant fragment immediately blown into space by the explosive rush of atmosphere. Dash was yanked off his feet, sucked out of the gaping port, then slammed to a hard stop as the tether snapped taut. He crashed into Nathis’s body, also held by the tether. The Shirna who had just arrived weren’t quite so prepared, the rush of venting atmosphere whipping two of them past Dash and into space. A third grabbed Dash, catching his leg and twisting it painfully upward. Dash aimed the plasma pistol into the faceplate of the man’s helmet and, as his eyes flew wide at the sight of the muzzle filling his face, pulled the trigger. After another flash, but almost silent this time, the Shirna’s head simply vanished. The remaining atmosphere roared out of the empty port as rushing mist, then died away.
Then there was utter silence.
Except, that is, for the low-pressure alert in Dash’s suit. He had about two minutes of breathable air left.
Holding his breath, Dash reached for the pocket on Nathis’s suit, upon which he’d pegged his hopes. If it was empty, or just contained a package of sweets or something, then this was all a big and potentially lethal waste of time.
He got the pocket open, reached in, and extracted…a Lens.
“Hey,” Dash whispered, “something went right!”
A minute and three quarters of air.
Dash thought back to what Conover had told him about the Lens and how it seemed to work. Dash gritted his teeth and tapped at the Lens in a particular way.
No…wait. A faint, bluish light glimmered in the heart of the alien crystal.
And then, in that strange way it just happened, Dash knew. He knew what he had to do with the Lens.
He started tapping at it. The movement made him and Nathis, who was still tethered to him, wobble about with tiny accelerations. By the time he was done, he had a minute and twenty-ish seconds of air.
Dash shoved the Lens back into Nathis’s pocket, opened the channel on his wrist-comm so it was transmitting, then pulled himself around Nathis, unlooping the tether around his waist. It brought him momentarily face-to-face with the Shirna, whose face was locked in a frozen rictus of what seemed to be both rage and agony.
Okay, that’s going to be haunting a few of my dreams later.
He got the final loop of tether off Nathis. Without hesitating, he shoved the body away from the open viewport as hard as he could. Nathis sailed off, drifting away in the wake of the other Shirna, who seemingly didn’t have suit thrusters, or just couldn’t use them to get themselves under control. The push sent Dash the other way, back toward the port. When he reached it, he had one minute of air left.
He grabbed the rim of port and pulled himself inside. The artificial gravity reasserted itself, pulling him to the floor. He reached down and punched the emergency release on the tether, releasing it from his suit. Then he clambered to his feet and rushed to the exit. He still had the plasma pistol and kept it ready in case any other Shirna tried to block him.
“Given what you have done, you now have very little time to return to the Archetype and get clear of this region of space,” Sentinel said.
“I would suggest making all possible haste—”
“I said I know! Nagging isn’t going to make it go any faster!”
Now that he had weight on his leg and was trying to move fast, Dash realized just how injured he was. The burn on his leg sent searing pain shooting from his foot to his hip with each step, so he limped on his other leg, which he’d somehow managed to twist at his knee, and now his left shoulder burned with a deep ache, yet another wound he hadn’t even realized he’d suffered.
He reached the exit from the bridge. Forty seconds of air left. But he stopped and peered around the hatch-frame. It would truly suck to get this far, only to bumble in front of some Clan Shirna guy with a readied plasma pistol. But there was no one in sight. Just the ruined compartment—much more ruined than he remembered it—and the head and shoulders of the Archetype, still smashed through the hull. Dash wasn’t sure if the emergency containment field was still operating, but it didn’t matter anyway, because the atmosphere had found a way through the shattered viewport. Besides, all that mattered was getting back aboard the Archetype, which Dash was going to do, even if he had to hobble to it.
He was still about ten paces away when the overburdened structural components of Nathis’s ship finally gave way. With a wrenching groan that Dash felt through the deck under his feet, the bow section of the ship tore free, tumbling in one direction, while the rest of the ship spun another…
And Dash sailed off in a third.
Dash said, “Wha…?” confused as to why the compartment suddenly dropped from under his feet, apparently leaving him just hanging there, watching as a vast expanse of hull-plating suddenly sprawled ahead of him, framed against the titanic, stripped wall of the gas giant. Then his brain caught up and he gasped.
As the stricken ship rotated away from him, Dash saw a protruding structural piece, a beam, sweeping past him. Instinct made him grab for it; he caught it and was immediate yanked into motion after it. Fortunately, the relative velocities of the beam and him weren’t too different. The shock of sudden acceleration slammed through his arms and shoulders, but he managed to hang on, and suddenly everything changed—the expansive remnant of Nathis’s ship wasn’t moving, but everything else was. The gas giant slid across the distant stern, and the starfield rotated, while behind him, the shattered bow pulled slowly away, trailing sparks and debris.
Less than twenty seconds of air.
Dash heaved himself along the girder, wincing and groaning at every ache and pain. As he did, he sucked in air, and blew it out, deliberately hyperventilating. He reached the twisted edge of the nearest hull plate, then pulled himself around it, back into the smashed remains of the compartment containing the Archetype, though now along what had been its ceiling.
Dash kept sucking air in, blowing it out, trying to pull as much oxygen into his bloodstream as he could. For a panicked instant, he couldn’t see the Archetype. Oh, fuck, was it ejected during the breakup of the ship? He opened his mouth to call out to it, but then realized he’d become disoriented and was looking in the wrong direction. There it was, about twenty or so meters away.
He considered launching himself straight at it, but some dangling debris blocked his way. Grimly, he pulled himself along the ceiling of the compartment, reaching the obstruction just as his air ran out. Pain flared in his ears as the vac suit, unable to generate pressure, failed and Dash was exposed to a vacuum.
He tried holding his final breath, but it shoved hard at the back of his throat, while his chest expanded painfully. He gave up and blew it out, emptying his lungs. He now only had the oxygen in his bloodstream to keep him going, which, if he remembered his vacuum emergency drills, gave him not much consciousness.
He aimed himself at the Archetype. As he did, his vision blurred; the moisture on his eyeballs was starting to boil off into the vacuum. Dash had to do this, and do it now.
Gritting his teeth, the only sound penetrating the preternatural silence the pounding throb of his own heart, Dash launched himself at the Archetype.
The next few seconds were the longest of Dash’s life. He felt a growing urge to breathe, but there wasn’t anything to pull into his lungs. His eyes tingled painfully, his vision clearing as the last of the fluid boiled away. His body felt like it was swelling, the gases in it expanding in the absence of any pressure pushing them back. In another few seconds, he’d likely start experiencing the searing pain of the bends, embolisms degassing from his blood and threatening to stop his heart.
He was dying. Literally dying.
His brain started to fog up. Dash focused as hard as he could, realizing he only had seconds of consciousness left. The Archetype’s open hatchway swelled in his vision; he scrabbled at the edge of it as he passed by, trying to pull himself in, but he had no strength left in his arms. He only succeeded in deflecting himself…in some direction, he wasn’t even sure which. Hopefully inside the Archetype, because if he’d just managed to bounce off of it…he was…was…
Was nothing. Nothing left. Just an airless dark, going on forever.
Dash blinked. He saw a dark roof above him. Oh. So this was heaven, or whatever the religious types called the place you went after you died, anyway? Or was it the opposite place? He hadn’t exactly lived a very clean or pure life. Hell, he hadn’t exactly lived a pure moment, let alone a life.
Dash gasped, as searing needles of pain lanced into his body. For a panicked instant, he thought maybe this was hell, and this was going to be eternity now.
No. No, wait again.
He turned his head. He saw a device, a complex construct of arms and cables, and it was familiar, somehow.
Oh. It was the cradle. Inside the Archetype.
And he was breathing, pulling air into his lungs, gasping it back out. He fumbled with his faceplate, popping it open, being rewarded with a blast of air like the reverse of a sudden decompression, along with pain in his head so blindingly keen it yanked a sharp groan, almost a shriek, out of him.
He levered himself up, so he was sitting.
“You have very little time to get away from this region of space,” Sentinel said.
“You…ah, fuuuuuck…do it. Can you? Fly…fuck meee, that hurts…fly away?”
“Don’t…care. Just…shit…just go!”
The Archetype shuddered and rumbled. Dash stabbed at the helmet release on his vac suit but missed. It took him two more tries. He finally yanked the helmet off and tossed it away with a clatter. For a while, he just lay on the floor, breathed, and tried to sort out which pains seemed to be the worst.
Then he sensed movement around him. He saw the ruins of Nathis’s ship, the bow spinning toward the gas giant, the midships and stern tumbling in the opposite direction. Both would soon be pulled into the massive planet and incinerated. But he also saw the massive battlecruiser sliding into view, flanked by a pair of corvettes and a single frigate, all that remained of Nathis’s flotilla. But everything was rotating, making Dash instantly queasy.
Shit. He turned and dragged himself toward the cradle. He had to get control of the Archetype and go looking for…a ship. His ship. Shit. What is its name again?
“It’s a ship, I think? My ship?” Dash asked the air, his words uncertain.
“The Slipwing,” Sentinel said. “Also, I have launched the Archetype on an unpowered trajectory, with a severe spin. This is intended to make it appear as though the Archetype was simply thrown clear of Nathis’s ship and is now just drifting away.”
Dash reached the cradle, clawed at it, then dragged himself into it. It immediately embraced him, enclosing him. The searing blasts of pain abruptly subsided, and the desperate need to breathe faded. Dash took a couple deep breaths, simply enjoying the sudden absence of utter agony.
“Okay,” he said, “that whole thing I just did? The fusion explosions, and ships falling apart with me aboard them, and vacuum stuff? I never need to do that again.”
He took a moment to just sink back.
But something plucked at him. There was something important. Something he needed to do. Something about…
Like another explosive decompression, it all came rushing back to him. He looked around and realized he was still only a few kilometers away from the Clan Shirna ships.
“Oh. Sonofabitch.” The enormity of his position came rushing back like a returning tide, and Dash felt his adrenaline spike all over again.
Dash turned and launched himself away from them, driving the Archetype as fast as he could. It ceased tumbling and smoothly accelerated away from the gas giant and the flotilla of ships. They hadn’t come after him because they’d probably assumed the Archetype was derelict, something they could retrieve at their leisure.
They had no idea how wrong they were.
“Are we far enough yet, Sentinel?”
The Archetype had regenerated a lot of its power while it had been embedded in the side of Nathis’s ship, but its reserves were still far below optimum. It didn’t matter. Despite the cost in power, he flung himself into unSpace, raced through it for a count of three, then translated back. He emerged back into real space millions of kilometers from the Clan Shirna ships. The gas giant was now just a disc he could cover with his thumb.
Hopefully, this would be far enough.
“Okay—” he started to say, but was cut off by a sudden…change…in the space he’d just left.
The Lens was, in essence, similar to the Archetype’s distortion cannon, but orders of magnitude more powerful. It could generate a massive gravity well inside a star, causing its outer layers of superhot plasma to collapse, falling against the star’s core in a colossal implosion. This was essentially what happened naturally in a supernova; the compressed plasma would fuse into a host of much heavier elements, then rebound in a titanic explosion.
Which is what happened back near the gas giant. Dash had set Nathis’s Lens to generate a huge gravitational distortion, which is what he now stared at, awestruck. He couldn’t see the Clan Shirna ships, of course, but he didn’t have to. Instead, he saw an abrupt surge of gas yanked out of the giant planet, as though something had reached down, scooped up a vast handful of its atmosphere, and pulled it into space. Which, in fact, it had.
And then, as suddenly as it happened, it was over. The enormous plume of gas went still, protruding hundreds of thousands of kilometers from the huge planet’s flank.
Dash let out a breath. It was…unlikely probably didn’t even begin to cut it…that anything had survived that. Everything for tens of thousands of kilometers around Nathis’s drifting body had almost certainly been utterly pulverized.
Hopefully, that didn’t include the Slipwing.
With an excruciating mix of hope and dread, Dash started back in-system, back toward the epicenter of that massive blast of gravity.
Nothing remained of the Clan Shirna ships except fragments. Most were about the size of Dash’s fist, and few were larger than a cargo pod. It was a wrenching sight, even if they had been vicious, xenophobic assholes; the aftermath of the blast, the way the ships had been so thoroughly pulverized, left Dash gaping.
It hadn’t just been the ships, either. Mixed among the cloud of debris was what amounted to gravel—the remains of at least one of the gas giant’s moons. And then there was the vast cloud of gas that had been ripped out of the great planet, wisps of which shot through the debris field like reaching fingers. They had already begun to smear, though, as the gas giant’s own, formidable gravity exerted itself. Eventually, all of this, the wreckage of ships and moons alike, would be pulled into the huge planet and vaporized in its atmosphere. It would be a meteor shower that would probably go on for decades.
“There was no need to allow the Lens to destroy itself,” Sentinel said. “You could have used it remotely, instead of setting a trap the way you did. It is intended to be used at a safe distance from a star, after all.”
“Yeah, well, if they didn’t detect it on Nathis’s body and try to recover it, they would have come after us. Think we could actually get far enough away from them to use it if they were chasing us at full speed?”
“Quite possibly not.”
“There you go.”
Dash frowned at the debris cloud. Was some of that shredded metal the Slipwing? What if she had been pulled out of the planet along with the gas plume? Had he just destroyed his own ship and killed everyone aboard her?
With a sinking feeling, he turned his attention to the planet. But it was vast, and would take a long time to search—far longer than he could hope the Slipwing would survive, even if she hadn’t been destroyed by the Lens.
“It may be possible to detect their emissions, if they remain intact,” Sentinel said.
“By circumnavigating the planet, while conducting a broad-spectrum scan, it may be possible to separate your ship’s emanations from those of the planet.”
With a flicker of hope, Dash turned and raced toward the gas giant. “Okay, then. Let’s do this.”
It’s better than doing nothing.
He fell to within a few thousand kilometers of the uppermost clouds, then turned and started a fast orbit. He accelerated, meaning the Archetype wanted to actually break orbit and take off into space, but kept applying power, keeping her in an almost perfectly circular trajectory around the planet. It burned extravagant amounts of power, but there was no point saving energy if he couldn’t find the Slipwing in the first place.
So far, there was nothing. Just the natural emissions from the gas giant, a wash of radio noise, and electromagnetic clamor. “Could they have actually already broken free, Sentinel? Maybe from the far side of this planet, so they could escape the Clan Shirna ships in its shadow?”
“Possible, but unlikely. They would have been detected eventually, if only from their exhaust trail. I can find no such indication they have escaped.”
Dash said nothing, just nodded grimly and carried on, searching.
The vast planet scrolled quickly beneath the Archetype. Under other circumstances, Dash would have been utterly enthralled with the experience. It was as though he sped over an enormous plain of striped and banded clouds, and huge storms themselves larger than most planets. But still, there was nothing.
No. Wait. Something poked out of the background noise of the gas giant—a tiny spike of emissions that were different.
“It could simply be an anomaly within the planet,” Sentinel said.
“Yeah, like the Slipwing, maybe? It would count as an anomaly, right?”
“It would, yes.”
“Okay, then. The source of it seems to be…which way? Ahead of us, and to the left—there it is.” Dash adjusted his course, aiming directly toward it. The Archetype’s power reserves were once more falling into critically-low territory, but there was no choice. If it was the Slipwing, she might only be moments away from destruction. He had to do this now.
Fixing himself on the source of the anomaly, Dash dove into the gas giant’s atmosphere.
Tenuous wisps of cloud shot past the Archetype, slowly coalescing into more continuous streaks of cloud. Winds began to buffet the Archetype. As the atmosphere thickened, gas began to pile up ahead of him, heating up from the friction of his passage. A regular ship would have had to align itself carefully, finding that sweet spot between too shallow a reentry angle, which could bounce you off the atmosphere, and too steep, which could overwhelm your ship’s ability to shed heat. The Archetype seemed to simply work around all of that, letting Dash maneuver, and even slow, at will. He reduced the speed of his plunge into the gas-giant’s depths, letting the shockwave accumulating ahead of him dissipate. At the same time, he steepened his descent, plunging directly toward the emissions radiating from what he was now convinced must be the Slipwing.
“Can you open a comm channel to them?”
“Your ship’s ability to communicate under these conditions is limited, as a result of its relatively primitive technology,” Sentinel said.
“Primitive, huh? Aren’t you the judgmental one.”
“Insofar as I am making a judgment, yes, I am.”
Dash shook his head. “Never mind, Sentinel. Just keep trying. I want to let them know I’m coming for them.”
The clouds had continued thickening; now the Archetype plowed through featureless pink-grey, a deep gloom that stripped away all sense of movement. Every few seconds, a flurry of ice crystals hissed against the big mech’s hull. A few moments, then the clouds abruptly ended and Dash emerged into the clear. Hundreds of kilometers of it—a vast, empty gulf yawning above the next layer of clouds far below. Colossal flashes of lightning erupted from them, forks of searing blue-white up to a thousand kilometers long leaping from cloud to cloud. The density of the gas continued ramping up, transmitting blasts of thunder that vibrated the Archetype’s hull.
The pressure increased. Now it exceeded standard air pressure and kept rising. Dash grimly plunged downward, steepening his descent even more. The distant cloud-tops below loomed close.
“Can you raise them on the comm yet, Sentinel?”
“One of their emissions seems to be a modulated radio-frequency transmission. It is far from coherent.”
“Let me hear it.”
There was a hiss of static, then a faint glimmer of something else…a voice? Then came more static, followed by a loud, squealing crash as more lightning detonated beneath the Archetype.
Dash angled his plunge even more severely. The clouds beneath raced past, partly due to his speed, but partly because they were moving, being whipped by winds that abruptly slammed into the Archetype, buffeting it about. Lightning forked out of a cloud, stabbing up into some point now above Dash.
“Sentinel, is that lightning strong enough to hurt this thing?”
“Unlikely. The Archetype is designed to withstand much greater inputs of energy.”
That was good, but what about the Slipwing? It was his ship, but he wasn’t sure. Sure, garden-variety lightning of the type generated by a thunderstorm on nearly any Terrestrial-class planet wasn’t much of a threat, but these bolts were enormous. It was just another reason to not fly into a gas giant, something he’d never really imagined putting the Slipwing through. At worst, she could skim the edge of the atmosphere, scooping up hydrogen for fusion fuel, but he’d only done that once and the fusion drive had to be overhauled afterward.
The pressure mounted. Dash punched into the cloud layer beneath, and was hit by a barrage of wind gusts that shoved the Archetype up and down, side to side. But the faint radio emission was becoming clearer.
It was all he could make out. But he recognized Leira’s voice right away.
“Leira! It’s Dash! I’m coming for you!”
There was a garbled word …followed by another, then another ear-splitting crash of discharge. Dash had no idea if she’d heard him. He drove the Archetype ahead and down even faster. Now he could feel the pressure pushing against the Archetype, transmitted through its hull, then its connection to him. He shot through the clouds and emerged, again, into a clear zone. Waxy hydrocarbon snow whipped around him, while the atmosphere—now a toxic stew of methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide—bore down on him oppressively. Still, he raced on…almost there…
“Leira! Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me! Hang on, I’m coming for you!”
“What…” There was another crash of lightning-static. “…pressure…much time…!”
“I know! I’m almost there!”
“Between your maneuvers after disengaging from Nathis’s ship, the return journey to this gas giant, and your subsequent dive into its atmosphere, the Archetype’s power reserves are reaching a point of concern,” Sentinel said.
“What does that mean?”
“The Archetype has sufficient power to extract itself from this planet’s atmosphere. It is not clear if it can do so while attempting to bring your ship with it.”
“Can we…I don’t know, just bring them aboard the Archetype?”
“The Archetype is only designed to provide for the needs of the Messenger,” Sentinel said. “More fundamentally, there is no way to transfer those aboard your ship to the Archetype. Exposure to the atmosphere at this depth would be instantly lethal to members of your species.”
Dash shrugged. “That’s okay, I didn’t want to lose my ship anyway.”
The pressure built. Dash’s stomach fluttered at the thought of the Slipwing being exposed to these conditions. She was a tough ship, but this was an even tougher environment.
“Dash, can you hear me?”
“Yes…” Then came a crash of lightning-static. “…are you?”
“Almost there. Hang on.”
“Almost here…how?” Leira asked.
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t think…” CRASH. “…survive…we’re almost at crush depth…” CRASH. “…engines out, something happened, it was like the whole planet shook.”
Yeah, that would be me, sorry about that. Dash only thought it though.
“Just hang on. I’ll be there.”
Dash saw the Slipwing racing along ahead of him, carried by a thousand kilometer-per-hour gale between towering walls of cloud. He angled toward it.
“What…” Leira’s voice said, the stunned surprise evident even through the hiss of static. “…that you?”
“Yeah, this is me. Hang on.”
Dash coasted up to the Slipwing, slowing himself relative to her, then came to a stop.
The gas pressure shoved hard against the Archetype. The Slipwing’s hull must be popping, creaking, and groaning, clearly about to fail. It must have been terrifying to be aboard her. And now he saw why she was relying solely on radio comms. She was missing her full comms array, along with some other bits and pieces Dash just took for granted. But she was still intact—for the moment, anyway.
“Your ship’s hull integrity is now within the uncertainty envelope of pressure differential,” Sentinel said.
“You mean she could go poof at any second.”
“Poof implies an explosion. This would be an implosion.”
“Just give me every bit of power you can.”
Dash moved until he was almost touching the Slipwing. Reaching out, he caught it in the Archetype’s enormous hands, then rotated until he looked upward, away from the vast and stupendously hostile depths beneath him.
Dash lifted both himself and the Slipwing back toward space.
The Archetype shuddered, trying to rotate around the sudden off-axis thrust. He found he had to go slowly, worried that he might damage or even destroy the Slipwing if he tried to shove her through the atmosphere, still far denser than water, too quickly. It just prolonged the agonizing uncertainty, the anxiety that disaster was an instant away.
The Archetype faltered, her power reserves almost exhausted.
Dash gritted his teeth. Absolute vacuum and crushing pressure, all within…what? An hour? Now that would be something to put on his resume on the Needs Slate, if he wanted to advertise himself as a walking bad luck charm.
“It is uncertain if sufficient power remains to return both the Archetype and your ship to a safe depth.”
“So do something about it, Sentinel!”
“It is possible to extract power directly from the singularity source aboard the Archetype, but in the absence of additional power cores, there is a significant chance of serious damage.”
“Wait, you’ve had access to more power all along? Why, you son-of-a—”
“You have shown a clear penchant for assuming inordinate risk. This is not something I would normally condone, as it falls outside the normal operating parameters of the Archetype.”
“So you’re willing to chance it?”
For the first time, Dash heard the AI falter. “I…do not recommend this course of action.”
“But you’ll do it?”
“If that is your wish, Dash.”
“Okay, so…yeah, do it!”
Power surged through the Archetype, tapped from the unimaginable radiation of the singularity, the kugelblitz buried deep inside her great hull. Dash could also feel the power tearing at the Archetype’s systems, not properly channeled or constrained, shredding her conduits. More than a moment of this, he knew, and the Archetype might be irreparably damaged. The AI was right. This was a terrible course of action. Absolutely, ridiculously risky.
Just the sort of thing I would do, Dash thought.
“I really have rubbed off on you, haven’t I?” he asked the Sentinel.
The AI didn’t answer. But the power suddenly coursing through the Archetype lifted both it and the Slipwing at ever increasing speed…now they soared through the cloud layer above…and now they erupted from it, trailing a plume of vapor, and raced ever higher.
“I must terminate—”
“What you’re doing, yeah, I know,” Dash said. “That’s fine, if we can make it the rest of the way to orbit on what we have left.”
“It would appear that that is possible.”
Despite his aching weariness, his jabs and flashes of pain, and the pounding agony of his burned leg, Dash chuckled.
“Just don’t want to admit I’m right, do you?”
The AI didn’t answer. That just made Dash chuckle even more.
Dash settled into the Slipwing’s pilot seat with a groan. Despite the slick comfort of the Archetype’s cradle, the familiar contour of the seat against him was, somehow, even more comfortable.
“You look like shit,” Leira said, smiling.
“Yeah, well, you try some exposure to hard vacuum and see what it does to your complexion.”
He did look like shit. Aside from his severely burned leg, Dash was covered with bruises, his skin was spider-webbed with crimson streaks of vacuum-induced hemorrhaging, and both of his eyes were severely bloodshot. Leira leaned in and hugged him anyway. It made Dash wince and yelp.
“Easy, woman,” he said and she pulled back, still smiling.
“Sorry,” she replied. Then she her head and added, “Actually, no, I’m not. It’s so good to see you again, Dash.”
From behind him, crowded into their accustomed places, Viktor and Conover both nodded like the creepy bobbleheads Dash had seen some pilots stick atop their consoles. “You showing up when you did…that was a miracle, Dash,” Viktor said. “A true miracle. We were—well, let’s just say that’s the first time in my life I’ve truly tried to find peace with my imminent demise. And I’ve been through some serious shit.”
“So that—what did you call it?” Conover asked. “The Archetype?”
“Yeah,” Dash said, bemused that the kid had managed to look concerned for him, but had then gone right to the technology.
“So that’s actually Unseen tech? And somehow you’ve bonded with it?”
Dash glanced out the viewport. The Archetype loomed alongside the Slipwing, both in a high orbit over the gas giant. He’d already given them the thumbnail version of everything that had happened from the time he’d left them aboard the Halfwing. As he had, he’d found himself shaking his head at his own story. Almost dying, finding the mech, leaving the galaxy, almost dying again, coming back to confront Nathis, and almost dying yet again.
“Holy shit,” he’d said, interrupting his own tale, “I almost died a whole bunch of times.”
Now, he looked at Conover and nodded. “Yeah. I’m the Messenger, it seems.”
“Because you stumbled across that Archetype? That makes it sound like it was somehow—I don’t know, fated to happen.”
Leira, still smiling, shrugged. “Maybe it was.”
But Conover scowled. “There are no mystical, guiding powers affecting the universe.”
“That’s right,” Leira replied. “Dash just happened to crash-land on the one comet in the Pasture containing this thing, in a way that gave him access to it, so he could reach it right before he died.”
Even Viktor had given a huh look. “What were the odds of that even happening?”
Conover crossed his arms. “One hundred percent, because it did happen. No matter how unlikely, it was just coincidence.”
The kid tried to sound absolutely certain but didn’t quite manage it.
Leira turned back to Dash. “So, what happens now?”
“Well,” Dash said, “the Archetype is repairing itself. That’s going to take some time, though, so we’ll be here a while, I guess. And I’m going to do the same thing—take some time to rest and heal up because, Leira, not only do I look like shit, I feel like it, too.”
“Yes,” Viktor said, “but what then?”
Dash shrugged. “Clan Shirna has had its ass kicked pretty bad. I don’t know how much of a threat they’re going to be. But they’re not the real threat anyway.”
“That would be those Golden, you called them,” Leira said.
“Yeah. But before we can do anything about that, that Archetype needs to be fully powered up. The Unseen—okay, I’m glad they seem to be…well, kind of on our side, or at least not on the let’s exterminate all life in the galaxy side, but they made getting the Archetype there a true pain-in-the-ass ordeal.” He touched the console in front of him. “My poor old ship here needs some tender loving care, too.”
“So, ultimately, we have to go find these power cores you mentioned,” Viktor said.
Dash looked at him, noting he’d said, we. “You guys really sure you want to be involved in this? If what’s happened so far is any indication, this may not be good for your health at all.”
All three of them nodded. Leira said, “If you were us, Dash, would you bail out now?”
It struck Dash that, before all of this happened, if someone had told them he was going to risk his life again and again to save the galaxy from a war between two hyper-advanced alien races, he would have said, you’re fucking crazy.
But this wasn’t then. So he just shook his head.
“Okay,” Conover said, “that brings us back to the same question. Once we’re ready to leave here, what then?”
Somehow finding the energy for his own smile, Dash pulled out his comm and thumbed up an image of the Archetype, the Ribbon, and the Lens.
“This is just the beginning of what the Unseen have stashed out there,” Dash said, his eyes fixated on the screen.
“And? Leira asked with a curve of her lips.
Dash smiled back. “So, let’s go get what they left us.”
DASH, LEIRA, VIKTOR, and CONOVER will return in THE DARK BETWEEN, coming October, 2019.
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About the Authors
J. N. Chaney has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.
He migrates often but was last seen in Avon Park, Florida. Any sightings should be reported, as they are rare.
Terry Maggert is left-handed, likes dragons, coffee, waffles, running, and giraffes; order unimportant. He’s also half of author Daniel Pierce, and half of the humor team at Cledus du Drizzle.
With thirty-one titles, he has something to thrill, entertain, or make you cringe in horror. Guaranteed.
Note: He doesn’t sleep. But you sort of guessed that already.