Book: The Dark Between
The Dark Between 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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The Dark Between
Book 2 in the Messenger Series
J.N. Chaney Terry Maggert
The Messenger must prepare for war.
With the Archetype damaged, Dash and his crew will need more than a quick fix to prepare for what's coming.
A secret facility known only as the Forge lies in cold sleep, built by the Unseen for the greatest war in history. Dash has no idea what awaits him there, but he hopes to find some kind of advantage in the war that is to come.
Meanwhile, on a distant world, an ancient order of monks protects a long buried secret. They have guarded it for centuries, all in the hope that someday the Messenger might come and relieve them of their task.
Dash has answered that call...and he will not be denied.
The Messenger Universe Key Terms
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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!
The Messenger Universe Key Terms
The Messenger: The chosen pilot of the Archetype.
Archetype: A massive weapon system designed for both space battle, close combat, and planetary defense. Humanoid in shape, the Archetype is controlled by a pilot and the Sentinel, an artificial intelligence designed to work with an organic humanoid nervous systems. The Archetype is equipped with offensive weaponry beyond anything known to current galactic standards, and has the ability to self-repair, travel in unSpace, and link with other weapons systems to fight in a combined arms operation.
Blobs: Amorphous alien race, famed for being traders. They manufacture nothing and are known as difficult employers.
Clan Shirna: A vicious, hierarchical tribe of reptilian beings whose territory is in and around the Globe of Suns and the Pasture. Clan Shirna is wired at the genetic level to defend and protect their territory. Originally under the control of Nathis, they are space-based, with a powerful navy and the collective will to fight to the last soldier if necessary.
Couriers: Independent starship pilots who deliver goods—legal, illegal, and everything in between—to customers. They find their jobs on a centralized posting system (See: Needs Slate) that is galaxy-wide, ranked by danger and pay, and constantly changing. Couriers supply their own craft, unless they’re part of a Shipping Conglom. Couriers are often ex-military or a product of hard worlds.
Fade: A modification to the engine. It is a cutting edge shielding device that rotates through millions of subspace frequencies per second, rendering most scans ineffective. If the Fade is set to insertion, then the ship will translate into unSpace, where it can go faster than light. The Fade is rare, borderline illegal, and highly expensive. It works best on smaller masses, so Courier ships are optimal for installation of the Fade. One drawback is the echo left behind in regular space, an issue that other cloaking systems do not have. By using echoes as pathway markers, it is possible to track and destroy ships using the Fade.
Golden: A transhumanist race of beings who are attempting to scour the galaxy of intelligent life. The Golden were once engaged in warfare with the Unseen. They are said to return every 200,000 years to enact a cycle of galactic genocide, wiping out all technologically advanced civilizations before disappearing back from which they came. They destroyed their creators at some unknown point in the distant past and are remaking themselves with each revolution of their eternal, cyclical war.
Globe of Suns: A star cluster located in the far arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is an astronomical outlier. Dense with stars, it’s a hotbed of Unseen tech, warfare, and Clan Shirna activity. Highly dangerous, both as an obstacle and combat area.
Kingsport: Located in the Dark Between, these are planetoid sized bases made of material that is resistant to detection, light-absorbing, and heavily armored. Oval in shape, the Kingsport is naval base and medical facility in one, intended as a deep space sleep/recovery facility for more than a thousand Unseen. The Kingsports maintain complete silence and do not communicate with other facilities, regardless of how dire the current military situation.
Lens: Unseen tech; a weapon capable of sending stars into premature collapse at considerable distance. The Lens is not unique—the Unseen left many of them behind in the Pasture, indicating that they were willing to destroy stars in their fight with the Golden.
Ribbon: Unseen tech that imparts a visual history of their engineering, left behind as a kind of beacon for spacefaring races.
Sentinel: A machine intelligence designed by the Unseen, the Sentinel is a specific intellect within the Archetype. It meshes with the human nervous system, indicating some anticipation of spaceborne humans on the part of the Unseen. Sentinel is both combat system and advisor, and it has the ability to impart historical data when necessary to the fight at hand.
Shadow Nebula: A massive nebula possibly resulting from simultaneous star explosions. The Shadow Nebula may be a lingering effect from the use of a Lens, but it is unknown at this time.
Unseen: An extinct and ancient race who were among the progenitors of all advanced technology in the Milky Way, and possibly beyond. In appearance, they were slender, canine, and bipedal, with the forward-facing eyes of a predator. Their history is long and murky, but their engineering skills are nothing short of godlike. They commanded gravity, materials, space, and the ability to use all of these sciences in tandem to hold the Golden at bay during the last great war. The Unseen knew about humans, although their plans for humanity have since been lost to time.
unSpace: Neither space nor an alternate reality, this is the mathematically generated location used to span massive distances between points in the galaxy. There are several ways to penetrate unSpace, but only two are known to humans.
Pasture: Unseen tech in the form of an artificial Oort Cloud; a comet field of enormous size and complexity. Held in place by Unseen engineering, the Pasture is a repository for hidden items left by the Unseen. The Pasture remains stable despite having thousands of objects, a feat which is a demonstration of Unseen technical skills. The Lens and Archetype are just two of the items left behind for the next chapter in galactic warfare.
Prelate: In Clan Shirna, the Prelate is both military commander and morale officer, imbued with religious authority over all events concerning defense of their holy territory.
Dash Sawyer loved spending time on Passage. Loved it. The massive space station was pretty much about, by, and for spacefarers; there were no ‘planetsiders’ to speak of, the sorts of people—farmers, settlers, miners, shopkeepers—who knew little about space travel, and cared even less. On Passage, Dash thought, he was amongst his own kind.
Passage thrummed with life. That was it. Not machines—real life, in the faces and voices and sounds around him. He let his shoulders drop for a moment, reveling in the sensations that were so different from inky blackness and ancient metallic killers.
He glanced at his chrono, which was synchronized to the Passage clock. He still had time, so he savored his coffee, instead of gulping it, taking wincing sips in a staccato beat. The reconstituted stuff he could make aboard the Slipwing always came out weak and watery—swill, compared to this delightful concoction. He did wonder where they managed to find something resembling real cream aboard a remote space station—but decided some things were probably better to not know.
In any case, it gave him an excuse to linger on the margin of the promenade lining Merchant’s Row, enjoying not just the coffee, but also the scene splayed beyond the broad, round viewport.
The moment was, Dash reflected, almost perfect. He had a crew, a trusted crew, a ship that hummed with new efficiency, and a seat in the most lethal weapon he’d ever imagined. The Archetype was built to be legendary, and his role as pilot and warrior was becoming more comfortable as the hours and days wore on. He’d even managed something unthinkable—a bit of time to himself, nowhere to be right away, just him and—
“Dash? Where are you?”
He swallowed coffee, sighed, and tapped his comm. “In my happy place, Leira. Why?”
“Because we’ve got a meeting—”
“With maintenance. Yeah, I know. But it’s not for another hour yet.”
“Uh…no, it’s right now. Fourteen hundred Passage time.”
“No, fourteen hundred. You wanted it right after lunch, remember?”
Dash frowned—but it turned into a wince.
“Oh, yeah. You’re right.” He released an annoyed sigh then cleared his mind. It did him no good to deny a schedule of his own making, especially when he knew how important it was.
“See you as soon as you get here…which needs to be, like, right now.”
“Got it.” Dash looked into his mug, said, “The universe is conspiring against my coffee intake,” and gulped down the rest of the brew. With a salute of his empty mug to the stars, he said, “I win.”
“What have you won?” Sentinel asked.
“And this is critical?”
“It is for the good of the galaxy, so yes,” Dash said.
“I’ll take that under advisement.”
He found Leira waiting for him in a surprisingly grubby compartment that seemed to combine attributes of both office and workshop. Parts were scattered about the place, some of which he recognized, while others were entirely cryptic—maybe even just junk. A thin, acrid reek of drive coolant and lubricants fumed the air. Dash wrinkled his nose and stopped amid the clutter, arms crossed. “And I thought I was disorganized.”
Leira shrugged. “You are. But unlike your actual chaos, this seems like a pretty organized disorganization.”
“Hmm. So if I start moving things around…”
Dash flashed Leira a grin. She gave him a wintry smile, waggling her fingers like weapons over the orderly expanse around her. “And don’t touch anything, either,” she added, her tone one of stern warning, but her eyes were crinkled with laughter and he knew it was purely for show. He picked up a small unit—a transducer of some value—and tapped it gently, setting the metal ringing like a soft chime.
“You never let me do anything fun with engineering,” he said. “And by fun I mean general destruction, but you get my meaning.”
“That’s because some of this stuff is worth a lot of credits,” a new and bubbly voice said. “And if you break it, you buy it!”
Dash turned and found himself facing one of the grubbiest people he’d ever seen. She was cute, he thought—although it was tough to tell for sure under the smears of grease and grime. Her coveralls were just as bad, and maybe worse, successive generations of stains rendering their original color to something between grey and…darker grey. It all made her bright, cheery smile stand out that much more.
Leira grinned. “Hey, kid. Dash, this is Amy.”
The newcomer turned her grin to Leira then crossed to her, and the two embraced warmly, despite the grubby coveralls. “Buried in work,” Amy said, “but what else is new.”
Dash smiled, then gave a half bow with some gallantry. “Charmed, I’m sure.”
Leira scowled as she and Amy separated. “Amy, this, ah, gentleman, is Newton Sawyer—”
“Call me Dash.”
“—the owner of the Slipwing, and my…let’s call him a business associate. Dash, this is Amy Anson, my cousin, and probably the best ship mechanic at this end of the sector.”
“Don’t let Viktor hear you say that,” Dash told her.
Amy grinned again. “Viktor taught me a lot of what I know,” she said, wiping a hand on her coveralls and holding it out for Dash to shake. He did, even though the wipe had probably just made her palm even dirtier. Her hand was callused, with a grip like a hydraulic vise, but surprisingly warm. “So, I hear you guys need some work done on your ship.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah, my poor old Slipwing took quite a beating.”
Dash glanced at Leira. “A few fights, almost being crushed by a gas giant…it’s a long story.”
“We’re hoping you can get to work on her right away,” Leira said. “I know you’re busy, but—”
Amy held up a hand. “Never too busy for my favorite cousin. I might need a day or so to get a few things out of the way, but after that, I’m all yours.”
“You know, I hate to bring this up, but what are your rates?” Dash said. “We’re not exactly flush with credits right now.”
Amy grabbed a jacket hanging from a power coupling sitting on the edge of a workbench. It was, if anything, even dirtier than her coveralls. “For my cuz, here, my rate’s whatever you guys can afford. It’s the parts that are going to be the issue.” She pulled the jacket on. “First thing’s first, though. I have to see your ship before I can even start to guess what this is going to cost.”
Dash nodded and gestured toward the door. “Right this way. We’re docked on E-ring.”
“E-ring? Why all the way down there?”
“For…reasons,” Dash said, preferring to leave it at that. E-ring was sometimes called The Barrens, a remote part of Passage far removed from the bustle of Merchant’s Row, where almost all of the wheeling and dealing for cargo and other jobs happened. E-ring did have the advantage of relatively cheap docking fees, but the bigger benefit was the fact it saw little use. You could get away with things at E-ring you simply couldn’t elsewhere on the station. It was cozy, in the way required by people on the cusp of respectability.
And, holy crap were they trying to get away with something now.
As they made their way through the expansive sprawl of Passage, by foot and turbotrain, Amy asked, “So, Leira, we’ve been out of touch for a while. What’s new?”
Leira looked at Dash, then simply said, “It’s complicated. Easier if I just show you.”
“Let’s wait until we get to the Slipwing.”
Amy turned her perpetual grin from one to the other, then shrugged and stretched her booted feet out into the turbotrain aisle. “Fine,” she said, putting her hands behind her head, “be all cryptic like that.” Then she closed her eyes and apparently fell asleep. It was an ability that Dash found more than a little amazing, and he watched her for a second with an approving gaze.
Dash raised his eyebrows at Leira, but she just smiled and shook her head in a way that said, Don’t worry, this is just Amy being Amy.
A few minutes later, the turbotrain slowed, its mechanical voice announcing their arrival at E-ring. Amy came instantly awake and followed Dash and Leira along a desolate corridor leading away from the station, her eyes bright and alert in seconds.
“Wow, you guys are really out here in the boonies,” Amy said. “Together with all this secrecy, it makes me think you guys are into something shady.” Her grin suddenly faded. “Wait. You guys aren’t into something shady, are you? I mean, I don’t necessarily mind, but there’s shady, and then there’s shady.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Leira said as they reached a viewport beside the Slipwing’s assigned dock. “Like I said, it’s just…complicated.”
Leira gestured to the port. “See for yourself.”
Dash watched Amy as she looked out the port. At first, she just seemed puzzled. But then something caught her attention, and she said, “What the hell is that?”
Dash couldn’t see out the port, but he didn’t have to. He knew what Amy saw. Floating alongside the Slipwing, hugging the hull of Passage for concealment was the massive alien mech known as the Archetype.
Dash and Leira put Amy off with a promise to explain everything but convinced her to do a damage assessment of the Slipwing first.
It wasn’t pretty.
Dash and Leira, joined by Viktor and Conover, gathered as Amy emerged from the Slipwing’s engineering bay. She’d been immersed in digging through the ship’s guts, chasing myriad faults, failures, and error messages to their ultimate sources. And there were a lot of sources for them, judging by the long list Dash caught on Amy’s maintenance table as she untangled herself from skeins of optical cable.
Fluid glistened on her face, shimmering pink. Dash recognized it as coolant for the thermoelectric converters that used the incandescent heat of nuclear fusion to generate electrical power. If that was leaking, it meant the Slipwing’s wounds went much deeper than any of them had feared. Dash could feel the credits piling up.
Amy frowned, then stuck out her tongue and touched it to the coolant spattered across her face, following with a grim nod. She brightened as she wiped a sleeve across her mouth, her conclusion apparent. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s going to need to be topped off, too.”
Despite his discomfort over what these repairs were going to cost, Dash couldn’t resist a smile. Amy hadn’t wiped the coolant off, as much as she’d moved it all to one cheek. She really was a mess, but she absolutely didn’t seem to care, and it was incredibly endearing.
Viktor raised bushy eyebrows. “You know that coolant from its taste?”
“Can’t work around the stuff without eventually getting some in your mouth,” Amy said. “But let’s talk about the heavy-duty stuff. This ship’s got problems.”
“As in?” Viktor asked.
“Okay,” she said, “we’ve got distorted hull plates—upper and lower—a couple of bent structural trusses…sheesh, you guys must have been deep in that gas giant’s atmosphere.”
“Crush depth, technically,” Conover said. “I’m surprised we even survived.”
Amy looked up at Conover’s flat, matter-of-fact tone. “Okay, then. Anyway, let’s see, a dozen power couplings need replacing, your comms array is almost completely shot, your fusion containment system has so many extraneous harmonics going on you could sign it up for a gig playing The Retro Room up on Merchant’s Row, you need a complete rebuild on one of your inertial dampers…”
“What absolutely needs to be done? Leira asked.
Amy thumbed the screen, scrolling. “Uh, well, let’s see. Reducing it to the barest bones possible”—she looked up, her grin cheerfully unchanged—“all of it.”
“Suppose we just fixed the things we absolutely need to fix to be able to fly,” Conover said, peering over her shoulder. “Like, we could take that inertial damper completely offline, and just rely on the other three.”
“Sure,” Amy said. “And as long as you don’t lose another, you’re fine. But if you do, then…well, you’d better be belted in really well before you do any hard burns.”
“I think we should listen to Amy,” Viktor said. “If she thinks it needs to be fixed, then it probably needs to be fixed.”
“Bottom line,” Dash said, “how much is this going to cost?”
“Mindful of the fact that I’m your favorite cousin,” Leira added, smiling sweetly.
Amy laughed. “I already said I’d work for whatever you guys can afford. Which, from all these uncomfortable looks I’m seeing, is pretty much nothing.” But her grin faded. “You’re not going to get around the cost of parts, though. We can 3D print pretty much anything that I don’t have in stock, but that’s going to cost. Same with the drone time it’s going to take to do the exterior work. I’m guessing”—she scrolled through the list again—“probably a couple thousand credits, give or take.”
Dash winced and looked at Leira. “And fuel on top of that.”
Conover shook his head. “We have one thousand, one hundred, and four credits. You’re saying we need twice that.” He looked at Dash, Leira, and Viktor. “It would seem we’re stuck until we can come up with more funds.”
“Eh, not necessarily,” Amy said. “If you don’t mind going off the books, I know a guy who has access to the printers and can make what we need. And I have a friend who owes me some drone time. I can probably get you spaceworthy again, if you’re okay committing to an IOU.”
“I’ll do what I can to help,” Viktor said. “That should take some of the burden off you, Amy.”
“I’d certainly like to get more hands-on experience with these systems,” Conover added.
Dash looked at Leira, who shrugged. He turned back to Amy. “Sure, let’s do it. When can you start?”
Her grin returning, Amy clapped her hands together in apparent excitement, then pulled a component out of her tool belt, its outline blurred from melting. “I already have. This is what’s left of your hygiene system controller. I bypassed it for you, so the toilet works properly again.”
Dash had to smile. “Well, that’s definitely a good start. I don’t want a repeat of the toilet backup incident from two years ago.”
“Should I ask?” Leira said, arching a brow.
“It’s better if you don’t,” Dash said, grimacing.
As they left the Slipwing, Dash noticed that she’d been hooked into the station’s power. Amy explained that it would speed up recharging and regenerating her systems, while lessening the burden on her own power generation and saving a bit of fuel while doing it.
“Can you do that?” Dash asked.
Amy’s grin didn’t falter; she just shrugged. “This station makes more power than it knows what to do with. Honestly, I think it should be available to everyone. In any case, I think we can sneak a bit for your ship. Think of it as taking a sip from the community beer keg.”
Dash found himself smiling yet again. He simply could not resist liking this woman.
True to her word, just over a Passage day after Dash had first met Amy, she had thrown herself into repairing the Slipwing. They’d moved her away from the station to give the drones room to work. Dash had eagerly offered to help with that—manipulating the handy little drones looked like fun—but Amy had said, “Uh-uh. They’re on loan, and I’m responsible for them. Sorry. We crash, we buy.”
He pointed at Leira, whose fingers were dancing across a drone controller. “So how come she gets to do it?”
“Because I signed the IOU,” Leira said, without looking away from the controller. “You didn’t want to, remember? That means I get to play.”
“That, plus Leira spent over a year helping me repair ships on Tegan’s World,” Amy said.
“You never told me that, Leira.”
“Oh, Dash, the things I haven’t told you about myself make what I have told you pale into insignificance.”
Leira answered by giving him a coy glance but quickly turned her attention back to her work.
“Okay, that next hull plate is finished and on its way,” Viktor said, stepping into the repair bay with Conover in tow. “It should be here—well, right about now.” He gestured at another drone, a bigger version called a tug, maneuvering a curved slab of composite plating into view and easing it toward the Slipwing. “I think we’ve got the 3D printing down pat now, no small thanks to Conover here. He even improved the process.”
“I just noticed two of the composite layers could be printed at once with a minor tweak to the printer’s controller,” Conover said, waving a dismissive hand. “Saves about an hour for each.”
Amy gave him an appreciative look. “That’s a pretty big deal. Cutting an hour off per plate is a big saving. Good on you.”
Conover opened his mouth but closed it again and turned a little red at Amy’s effusive praise. Dash, despite feeling like a loose component amid all of this engineering competence, found the kid’s discomfort rather charming. He’d been young once and knew that the attention of a woman could bring out the blush in almost anyone.
Viktor stepped closer to Amy, his gaze flicking from her hands—still grubby—tapping at the drone controller, to the drone itself. “You’ve come a long way from the young engineering apprentice I once showed how to properly hold a torque wrench, my dear.”
“Like I said to Dash, I owe a lot of what I know to you, my dear.” She tossed Viktor a look that made him laugh. Watching them, Dash was reminded of a grandfather with a favored grandchild—or what he imagined that would look like, since he’d barely known his own parents, much less his grandparents.
“Oh crap.” Leira tapped at the controller. “Amy, we have a problem.”
“What? Ah. I see it.”
“What is it?” Dash asked.
Leira bit her lip. “The tug hauling that new hull plate isn’t responding to inputs. Amy, can you take control of it?”
“Just a sec,” Amy said, stabbing at the controller. “I just have to—oh, shoot.”
Dash opened his mouth to ask again what was going on, but then closed it and stepped back, knowing a moment when he needed to let the experts do their thing and just stay out of the way. He’d stick to combat, piloting, and general derring-do.
“Maybe try changing to a different control channel,” Viktor offered. “Something might be interfering with this one.”
“I thought of that,” Amy replied, her face uncharacteristically serious, her gaze locked on the controller. “It’s still not responding, though.”
“How about a telemetry channel?” Conover asked. “The drones must transmit data about their own status, right?”
Amy shot him a quick glance. “That’s a brilliant idea. Let’s see if I can do that.”
“Uh, Amy?” Leira said. “That drone is getting awfully close to the Slipwing.”
“I know. Just another second.”
Tense silence fell over the maintenance bay. Dash wondered how much damage this might do to his ship. And how much more it would cost to repair it. And who, exactly, would be paying for it.
“There,” Amy said, banging on the controller. “Now, if I can just reroute it—”
The drone fired its thrusters, slewing away from the Slipwing. But the inertia of the hull plate it carried was too much, slowing the maneuver. The drone banged into the Slipwing’s port quarter and bounced off, spinning slowly back toward the station. One of the drone’s thrusters went offline with a warning buzz from the controller as Amy cursed.
Dash put a hand on her shoulder, his face calm. “It’s fine. She’s already got a few dings, and you’re doing excellent work. Seriously, don’t sweat it. Just bring it home, and we’re good to go.”
Slowly, using the remaining thrusters, she was able to get the rogue drone back under control and bring it to a stop. Using a second drone, she scanned it, shaking her head at the damaged thruster. “I am going to get chewed out for that,” she muttered.
Viktor put a hand on her shoulder. “Accidents happen.”
“They do. But when it happens to a drone working off the books, it tends to get messy.”
The damaged drone now hung motionless a short distance away from the Slipwing—but close to the Archetype, which still snuggled against the station’s hull, out of sight to anyone not specifically examining this remote part of Passage.
“You know what would make it up to me, though?” Amy said, turning to face the others. “Telling me the story of that thing.” She waved a hand at the Archetype, which was mostly in shadow. “I mean, I’ve been pretty patient, but, come on, guys, you can’t expect me to just keep pretending it’s not there.”
Dash gave her a level look, then flicked his eyes toward the crew. No one spoke.
Finally, Dash said the only thing he could think of.
“It’s really not that interesting.” He waved a hand. “It’s rather ordinary, when you get right down to it.”
Dash was impressed he could say it with a straight face.
Amy looked at Dash with a curled lip. “Don’t ever try to become a spy or anything—you couldn’t lie.”
“Hey, I’ve lied my way out of some predicaments that would curl your hair. One time—and I know this will surprise no one, given my obvious charms—I convinced a redhead named Teah, emphasis on the T, that I actually was a spy.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but you’re not pulling it off now.” She gestured at the huge mech. “That’s obviously not nothing. And, anyway, I’ll point out you guys promised to tell me all about it.”
“But we’ve still got work left to do on the Slipwing—”
“No more stalling,” Amy said, plunking the drone controller down with a sound like an exclamation mark. “What’s going on? What is that thing?”
“It’s called the Archetype,” Conover said. Dash shot him a glare but caught a glimpse of a dreamy, smitten look on the kid’s face. Viktor cuffed Conover on the shoulder, but obviously caught the same look and his scowl softened. He looked back at Dash and they exchanged an, oh, yeah, Conover’s got it bad for this girl look. Neither could resist a hint of a smile.
Conover, who looked a little startled, turned to Viktor and said, “What?” He wasn’t dense, though; as realization dawned on him, he abruptly looked somewhere other than Amy, stuck his hands in his pockets, and went on. “Oh, yeah. Like Dash says, it’s, you know, nothing, um . . . special.”
Amy stared at Conover for a few seconds, then turned to Leira. “Cuz? How about you? You going to tell me that giant robot, that Architect thing—”
“Archetype,” Conover said, but quickly glanced away again.
“Fine,” Amy said. “Archetype. Are you going to tell me it’s nothing? I mean, seriously—what are you doing way out here with what’s obviously a damned fine piece of machinery?”
Dash looked out the port. He wasn’t sure why he’d even tried to blow off the Archetype as nothing, beyond a vague sense that the fewer people who knew the truth of it, the better. The massive mech floated just a few meters from the hull of Passage, out of sight of anyone not in certain parts of E-ring, and then only if they were looking for it, and that assumed someone could identify the alien tech from a passing glance in a ship that was moving at some speed. The same was true during their approach to Passage in the first place.
Dash, piloting the Archetype, had kept it perilously close to the Slipwing, all of its emissions—radio, radiation, even heat—minimized and, where possible, completely suppressed. Since traffic control around Passage relied on pings from transponders aboard ships, all the controllers saw on their scanners was the Slipwing electronically announcing herself as it closed to dock. As far as they could tell, no one had actually taken a visual look as they’d approached, so—again, as far as they knew—no one else knew about it.
Other than Amy, of course.
It was a little silly trying to pretend it was nothing special, though. From the vast wings folded upon the back of its multifaceted torso, to its long, slender limbs of enmeshed and articulated prismatic shapes and sleek head tapering to a pointed chin, it was obviously not a human construct. It was a weapon, designed to fight in the latest campaign of an ancient war against an intractable enemy—one who sought to destroy all sentient life, everywhere. Every angle on the Archetype screamed of a lethality born in the stars, and Dash took a moment to admire the raw beauty before turning back to Amy.
He considered how to explain that to a bouncy mechanic who seemed to consider grease and coolant a sort of make-up, and faltered. There was no easy solution other than the truth.
Leira had apparently decided to try, turning to Dash and saying, “Amy’s doing a lot of work for us for free. I think she deserves some explanation.”
Conover nodded. “It’s actually pretty disingenuous to try and claim the Archetype is nothing special, Dash.”
As Conover spoke, his eyes flicked to Amy in a way that again said, I am so into this girl.
Dash finally just sighed and shrugged.
“Fine,” Dash said. “You just have to understand, Amy, that this really cannot go outside the room. I need you to promise that. It’s not just for our security. It’s not even for yours. The reason that thing exists is far beyond your scope of understanding right now, and you’re pretty damned smart.”
Amy looked back out at the Archetype, taking a moment to consider the tone and meaning behind Dash and his warning. “I can see how that thing could make for some awkward explanations. Sure, I promise.” To seal it, she spit in her hand and offered it to Dash. “This is how we seal deals here in the docks.”
Dash didn’t hesitate. He spit in his own hand and shook hers, never taking his eyes away as they pumped hands three times.
Leira looked around at the others, then launched into their backstory, and how Dash had come into possession of the Archetype. She then handed the tale over to him. He picked it up, trying not to embellish it too much, pausing while Viktor and Conover added pertinent details and comments, especially about the advanced technology of the race called the Unseen, the builders of the Archetype. With each passing sentence, Amy’s eyes went rounder, until Dash thought she might keel over from the sheer enormity of the facts. The universe was a big place. In moments, it had gotten a lot bigger for Amy.
And a lot more dangerous.
“So,” Dash said, “it’s basically a weapon. It’s designed to fight this other alien race called the Golden, who want to wipe out all life in the galactic arm, and probably beyond that.”
“And it chose you to be this…Messenger,” Amy said. “Out of everyone in the arm, it picked you.” She grinned and shook her head as she said it.
Dash waggled a finger. “You don’t need to make it sound quite so hard to believe. I’d like to point out that I’ve done pretty damned good with it so far.”
“It might be that it was just random chance,” Viktor said. “Dash just happened to be the one who found it in that comet inside the Pasture.”
Amy’s grin widened. “Sorry, Dash. I wasn’t trying to be an ass about it. It just seems, you know, kind of improbable.”
“Hey, the odds were fifty-fifty it would be Dash,” Leira said.
They all stared at her. Conover blinked and asked, “How could you possibly figure that?”
Amy was the one who answered. “The probability of everything is fifty-fifty. It either
“—happens or it doesn’t,” she finished, in unison with Leira. They both grinned.
“Old, inside joke,” Leira said. “Sorry.”
Amy looked back at Dash. “Seriously, though. The odds of it just happening to be you who crash landed on that particular comet, found your way inside it, and then discovered this Archetype right before you died are—well, they’re not zero, but they’re pretty damned close.”
“And yet,” Dash said, gesturing grandly at the Archetype, “here we are.”
“Yeah. Here we are. That’s what makes me think it wasn’t random chance at all,” Amy said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, maybe you were meant to find it, Dash. You were…I don’t know, guided to it, somehow.”
Dash frowned uncomfortably. This had come up in conversation with Leira, Viktor, and Conover during the journey back here to Passage. Conover had flatly dismissed the idea. Leira and Viktor, though, hadn’t, leaving the possibility open. Dash tended more to Conover’s view, simply because the idea that an ancient, hyper-advanced alien race had somehow chosen him, of all people, as their Messenger—the title apparently bestowed on whoever found and activated the Archetype—was rather unsettling.
“Of course that raises the question, why you, doesn’t it?” Amy went on, pretty much echoing Dash’s thoughts.
“Yeah, it sure does.”
“And then there’s whole war thing. That sounds beyond scary—”
A sharp beep cut Amy off. She looked at her comm, grimaced, and shook her head. “I was afraid of that.”
“What?” Leira asked.
“I have to get the drones back, which means I won’t have time to fix the one that got damaged.” She sighed. “Well, all of this amazing stuff, for lack of a better word, about the Archetype aside, there’s still work to do on your ship. The mysteries of the galaxy will mean nothing if I’m in the brig on theft charges.” She picked up the drone controller. “Let’s get this last hull plate installed before we send the drones back home.”
Dash watched her focus her attention back on the drones, working with Leira to get the hull plate moved into place. He noticed both Viktor and Conover watching Amy, while trying to not be too obvious about it—Viktor, in a fatherly sort of way, obviously deeply impressed with her engineering skills; Conover because he was so clearly smitten with the bright, sunny, and somewhat goofy young girl.
Dash had a different, less charitable take on her. She seemed great, sure, and was even Leira’s cousin—but she was also now a new and, from his perspective, largely unknown addition to the circle who knew about the Archetype, and the mind-boggling implications of everything associated with the big mech.
Dash just hoped they didn’t come to regret that.
“That was irresponsible,” the officious man snapped at Amy, “and just all around unacceptable. Those drones aren’t just free for the taking, first-come-first-served. You have to book them, and pay for them.”
“I know this, sir,” Amy said, her customary breezy grin replaced by a suitably grave look. Dash didn’t buy it, though. There was too much sparkle in her eyes for someone feeling truly chastened. Her lips twitched with suppressed mirth, but she stood at attention, the rest of her body held in a pose of apology.
The Passage Operations Commander, a stiff, humorless man named Jameson, just shook his head. “Do you? Do you really? Because if that was the case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, now would we?” He turned toward the viewport. “I am so tired of you rogue mechanics, pilots—the whole miserable lot of you. I swear I spend at least half my time dealing with petty, stupid bullshit like this.”
Dash glanced nervously across Amy’s workshop, past the glowering Operations Commander, at the viewport beyond him. Someone looking through it wouldn’t be able to see the Archetype from here, unless they peered intently at a particular spot far off along the station’s hull. Still, he preferred that the man just didn’t look at all, and that he stayed away from the repair bay where they’d been working on the Slipwing.
Jameson turned back. “I should just throw you off Passage. But we’re always short of qualified engineers so, instead, I’m hitting you with a fine. Two hundred and fifty credits, plus you either repair the drone you damaged at your own expense or cough up another two-fifty for that. Maybe that will be enough to make you think about it next time, before you do something irresponsible and…and just plain stupid.”
Amy nodded sharply. “I understand, sir.”
The man looked from her to each of the others, scowling at Dash in particular, who recalled getting embroiled in some dust up over docking fees with Jameson a couple of years prior. In a flash, the Ops Commander remembered Dash’s face, and Jameson’s face clouded over in frosty anger. He spun on his heel and stalked away, but not before a final, officious sniff of disdain.
As soon as he was gone, Amy’s grin returned. “Well, isn’t he the grumpy one?”
Leira, though, just shook her head sadly. “I’m so sorry we got you in trouble, Amy.”
“Bah, don’t worry about it. If it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else. Jameson simply has no sense of humor. Anyway, it really just helps me finish making up my mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been wanting to get off this hunk of metal for a while now. I’m tired of fixing the same things over and over. I want to do something new and exciting.”
Dash had to frown. He knew where the conversation was going, and it gave him pause.
So did Conover, whose face lit up. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, if you guys take me with you, and let me have access to that Archetype—you know, start learning what it’s all about—I’ll finish fixing your ship for free. That’s labor, parts, and fuel—all of it without charge.”
Dash took a step forward. “Wait, you mean you could have done all of your repairs for free the whole time?”
“Sure. As long as I left Passage right after completing them. For, ah, safety purposes,” Amy said.
“You’re going to steal what we need, in other words,” Viktor said, his tone caught somewhere between amused and disapproving.
“Which is why I need you guys to take me with you. If you’re willing, of course. So, how about it?”
Dash looked at Leira, trying to catch her eye so they could talk this over, but before he got the chance, everyone began to chime in their enthusiasm for adding Amy.
Leira said, “Why sure, okay.”
Viktor said, “We’d be pleased to have you come along, certainly.”
And Conover said, “Hell yeah!”
That left all of them staring at Conover, who looked down at his feet, stuck his hands back in his pockets, and added, “Because, you know, having another engineer along would be really useful.” His cheeks went crimson as he studied the floor, suddenly fascinated.
But Amy turned to Dash, an expectant, uncertain look on her face. “I didn’t hear a yes or a no from you. The Slipwing is your ship, though. And the Archetype is—well, I guess it counts as yours as well.”
Now they all stared at Dash.
“Sure,” Dash said. “Why not. The more the merrier.”
“Alrighty then!” Amy said, clapping her hands. “This is—well, it’s change, and it’s great, and I’m totally going to make you not regret this adventure. Not that I’m an adventure. I mean we’ll have an adventure. But not because of the ship. No sir, the ship will run like a clock. I just—”
Everyone started talking, but Dash just stared at the viewport. He couldn’t help feeling that things were starting to slip ever more slightly out of his control.
He hated the feeling, but he knew that the universe wasn’t the same. Not since the Archetype. Not since the ancient war. With a wry grin, he reassured Amy she was welcome, thinking that one more engineer could only help them in the fight.
If they lived long enough for her to fix anything. With a final glance, he waved toward the ship. They were in this together now, for better or for worse.
Dash looked at the Slipwing, which filled almost half of the expansive vision given to him by the Archetype. He hugged the mech so close to her as to be almost touching, again trying to present a single echo to the traffic control scanners aboard Passage, now barely visible behind them. It amazed him, frankly, that they had managed to get the Archetype so close it was essentially touching the hull of Passage, and then were able to depart with it again—and no one seemed the wiser.
It represented a big flaw in the situational awareness of the authorities who ran the big station. The smuggler in him filed that away as an interesting fact that could be useful someday. You could give the smuggler a legitimate cause, but it would never stop him from figuring angles. It was in his blood.
Right now, though, he felt mostly frustrated. It was taking a long time to get the Slipwing ready to translate to unSpace. Every minute they spent in the station’s traffic control zone was another minute of opportunity for someone to see through their thin deception. He finally asked, “How’s it going over there, guys? We any closer to actually leaving this system?”
It was Viktor who answered him. “Closer? Yes. Close? Not so much. We’ve got lots of power and fuel, but the translation drive needs to be completely reset. It takes time for it to stabilize.”
He folded his arms, considering their options. “Let’s just translate as soon as we can, okay? Otherwise, I might have to arrange to meet you somewhere.” He didn’t really want to leave the Slipwing behind, but—
“Might I remind you that we still have considerable work to do before you are in a position to use the Archetype to its full potential?” a pleasant voice said.
“I’m well aware of that, believe me.”
Sentinel, the AI that effectively ran the Archetype, had been oddly quiet for a bit, which was unusual given their connection.
“Hey, is something bothering you?” Dash asked.
“I do not understand the question.”
“Bothering you, as in, is there something you don’t like?”
“I know what you mean. I am uncertain how to proceed in this line of questioning, as you are the first human to whom I have been mentally bonded, and your tendencies are not entirely known to me.”
“We’re getting to know each other. Some humans used to call that a honeymoon.”
“This has nothing to do with astronomy or insects, I can assure you,” Sentinel said.
“It was a tradition among humans who—actually, nevermind. Do you think I’m lollygagging?”
“Lollygagging is not a term I know. Is it related to candy?”
“No. The use of time. Like dawdling.”
“Dawdling is a term I know. It is—"
“Wasting time,” Dash said. “In other words, you’re getting impatient, or at least as impatient as a machine presence can be. You have a purpose, and it’s not being fulfilled when the tools—like me—are finally in place.” Which was ironic for a two hundred thousand year old AI. “Look, I know this is urgent. But I need the people aboard my ship to help me do this, so I need my ship to be working properly. That just took some time.”
Thanks to Sentinel and the Meld—the process Dash used to understand Unseen tech and communication—he knew where the next power core for the mech was. The Unseen had, it seemed, scattered the power cores for the Archetype across space, their plan designed to ensure access to energy and fuel at all times, regardless of the Archetype’s location.
The Unseen thought in the long term regarding the coming war. The next core, which would allow the mech to further power itself up and likely add some new capability, was several days away via unSpace, in the direction of the Galactic Core. The remaining cores—assuming he was getting complete information from the Meld and there weren’t some still hidden away somewhere—were scattered across the spiral sweep of the galactic arm beyond it, their pattern undecipherable, if there was a pattern at all.
“Leira,” he said, automatically transmitting to the Slipwing, “we should come up with a course to minimize our travel time from one power core to the next. You know, just like you do courier deliveries in an order that makes sense, so you don’t have to unload cargo to get at other cargo, then load it again.”
“Makes sense to me,” Leira said. “I just need to know where we need to go.”
“Okay, the first system, the closest, is on the charts—it’s called Wisent’s Star, after someone named Wisent, I guess,” Dash said.
“It is a small variant of bison, actually. I believe you might also know them as buffalo,” Sentinel said.
“A star named after a small buffalo? Huh. Guess they were running out of names,” Dash said. “Regardless, we can hit Wisent’s first, then—"
Leira cut in. “Dash?”
“Hang on, I have to think about this. Just give me a second here.”
“I can assist with this process, of course. A loop will most certainly work, if you are willing to venture outside the galactic plane, even beginning with Wisent’s Star,” Sentinel said.
“Sure. All that matters is the cores. As to our route, efficiency has to take a back seat to results,” Dash said.
Thanks to Sentinel, Dash knew where the various power cores were, the information more a part of his mind than something he’d acquired. That was how the Meld worked—one moment, you didn’t know something, and the next, you did. It was seamless, and the connection with Sentinel meant Dash had instant access to data, as well as the ability to ask questions about it.
“Okay, the next one is located around a blue giant, in the—"
“Dash, I get that you know this, because of that Meld-thing you have going on with that AI, Sentinel. But you’re not exactly an astro-cartographer. And we don’t want to be making errors when we translate to a far-off place and find ourselves popping back into real space close to a neutron star or black hole, or in the middle of a really energetic nebula.”
“Correction. I wasn’t, but I am. Sentinel has forgotten more about galactic travel than we can ever know, and I’m a conduit for that data. I’ll offer this—Sentinel, can you upload data to directly to the Slipwing?” Dash said.
“If you are willing to allow a direct data connection, then yes.”
“What do you mean allow?” Dash asked.
“Your ship presumably has safeguards built in to prevent unauthorized remote access of its systems,” Sentinel said.
“Well, yeah. Of course it does.” He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Would that really make a difference, though, if you wanted to connect to it anyway?”
“No, but it is in my protocols to obey your protocols, as you are the Messenger and we share a common goal,” Sentinel said.
“Okay, thanks for asking first. Go ahead, do it. Leira?”
“Here,” Leira answered.
“You should be receiving—”
“Already have. We’re loading it into the nav now.” A moment passed, then Leira went on, “Yeah, Wisent’s Star looks like a good first step. And then we should go in this order…”
Between them, Dash and Leira settled on a succession of power core locations that minimized their distance and travel time. Shortly after that, Amy came on, announcing the Slipwing was ready to translate.
“Alrighty, then,” Dash said. “Wisent, you furry little beast, let’s go see why they named a star after you.”
As soon as they dropped out of unSpace, Dash saw why Wisent’s Star actually had a name, and not just a bland star-chart catalog number like the vast majority of star systems. It was a trinary star system—three stars, including two white dwarf stars and a larger, yellow star not unlike the one around which Old Earth orbited—embraced in a complex gravitational dance.
Stable trinary systems were rare, and ones with habitable planets far more so. Wisent’s Star—or stars, Dash thought—had ten planets, eight of which had such distorted orbits around the three suns that there was no way they could support life. A ninth was a gas giant, but the tenth was a rocky world with a breathable atmosphere and decent surface temperatures, swinging around the triple stars in a circular orbit. Dash knew it was that tenth planet that was their destination.
“I detect no power emissions or other readings that would suggest the presence of advanced technology,” Sentinel said. “If there are intelligent lifeforms, they must be in a pre-industrial state of development.”
“So,” Dash said, “we might run into”—he thought about what a pre-industrial society meant to him—“knights and peasants and savages and the like?”
Conover came on the comm. “A social evolution so closely parallel to that of Old Earth is pretty unlikely, Dash—”
“Yeah, yeah. You know what I mean. There might be relatively primitive people down there. They could still be dangerous. You can die from a crushed skull as easily as a laser wound.”
“There’s also the conventions about cultural contamination,” Conover said. “Technically, we—”
“Again, sure,” Dash cut in. “I mean, I guess there are some people out there that actually adhere to those. But I think our situation kind of trumps that. We need that power core, it’s down there, so we have to go get it. We’ll leave the implications to later generations of anthropologists. For now, we’re going to get that juice, and that’s that.”
“Actually,” Sentinel said, “we are close enough now that the scan resolution is conclusive. There is native flora and fauna, but none of it appears to have any level of technological achievement at all.”
“In other words,” Conover said, “it’s just plants and animals.”
“Correct. And not especially large ones. Gravity is about fifteen percent above standard, so the lifeforms on the surface are probably relatively small.”
“And also probably rather muscular, compared to us,” Dash said. “That means they can still be pretty dangerous.”
“You sound unduly concerned,” Sentinel said.
“Look, teeth and claws might not be a big deal for you, but they can be pretty good at harming my tender flesh. That’s kind of what they’re designed for,” Dash said, this time with mild annoyance.
“Are you saying you are overly wary of creatures barely one quarter your size?” Sentinel asked.
Somebody aboard the Slipwing laughed over the comm. Someone else said, “Ooooh…shots fired.”
Dash glared at an arbitrary spot on the Archetype’s interior, since Sentinel didn’t seem to be in any particular part of the mech. “Yes, I am. Being wary of things is how you stay alive, but I have an additional concern regarding your tone.”
“Is there an issue with my sound quality?” Sentinel asked. “And your personal history seems to be one of rather reckless endeavors that show little tendency toward wariness."
“Yeah, let’s not get into thrashing out history,” Dash said, noting that Sentinel seemed to be edging ever closer to actual sass. “And your sound quality is fine. I’m merely pointing out that you seem to be getting dangerously close to being sarcastic.”
“I have a twelve point five percent variance rate available to me regarding my ability to banter. I have chosen to utilize almost all of it when speaking to you,” Sentinel said. That meant there was more sarcasm available at hand, but at least it had an upper limit.
“So you have some sass in reserve?” Dash said.
“Yes,” Sentinel answered with mechanical dignity.
“I’ll keep that in mind as our friendship blooms. Now, onto the matter at hand—hungry creatures and my delicious flesh. Who else is going with me to my inevitable doom?” Dash asked.
The silence from the Slipwing was thunderous.
Dash shook his head. “And I’m the one being called unduly concerned.”
Dash looked around the group crammed into the Slipwing’s crew hab. “Okay, now that you can’t all pretend we had a bad comm connection, who’s going down there with me? I’d like to have someone covering my back.”
Amy wiped a smear of dirt off her cheek and shrugged. “I’ll go. Be nice to breath some unfiltered air for a change.”
“All due respect, but we’ve still got a long checklist of things that need to be fixed around here,” Viktor said. “I can do it, but it goes a lot faster with two of us.”
Conover gave an eager nod. “I think Amy should stay aboard. She’s an engineer, not a bodyguard.”
“Hey!” Amy snapped, glaring at Conover. “I’ve done my share of the rough-and-tumble stuff. Back on Passage, last time there was a brawl in The Supernova Club, I was the last one still standing, I’ll have you know.”
Conover blinked quickly, opening his mouth, closing it again, then said, “No, I…what I mean is, I think you’re perfectly—”
Viktor put a finger to Conover’s lips, stopping him. “This is one of those times when you just apologize.”
Conover glanced at him, then turned a sheepish look on Amy and said, “I’m sorry.”
Amy held her scowl for a moment, then let it morph back into her ready grin. “No problem. This time.”
Dash kept his grin at bay, but still looked from Viktor to Amy. “Viktor’s right. Your priority should be finishing repairs to the Slipwing.”
“Well, Conover is probably better here, monitoring the ship and the comms,” Leira said. “So I guess that leaves me.” She smiled at Dash. “Trust me to have your back?”
Dash didn’t hesitate, because he did trust her. “Yeah, I do. You don’t spend as long being a courier as you have, if you don’t know your way around trouble.”
“Okay, then,” she said, “sounds like that’s settled. Let’s get down there and find your power core.”
“While avoiding the muscular beasties, of course,” Viktor added.
“I don’t know if we’re going to intentionally avoid them,” Dash said, his lips curling up.
“Why? Now you wanna fight them?” Amy asked, alarmed.
Dash made a slashing gesture with his hand. “Not fight. But if they’re dense and small, who knows, they might be just what we need for dinner.”
“Um, eww,” Amy said.
“Your loss.” Dash shrugged, but he was smiling as they broke apart for the landing.
Dash and Leira wore exosuits as they dismounted from the Archetype and the Slipwing respectively. They landed close together on a broad beach adjacent to a good-sized sea, which was the closest open ground to the power core’s location. He found the slightly higher gravity a bit of a drag on him, but not enough to really be a problem. The air was probably close to breathable, but a little under the lower limit for a safe oxygen content; moreover, it might contain any number of alien vapors, spores, or germs, so they decided the exosuits would stay on.
He joined up with Leira, who was staring at the Archetype towering above the Slipwing. “I haven’t had a chance to see it quite so clearly, and right here, standing in broad daylight like this. That is…” She paused, then shrugged.
“I know. Took me a while to find words that really fit, too.”
She let her gaze linger on the Archetype a moment longer, then turned toward the wall of lush foliage confronting them. “So, where to? Do you have a map?”
“Don’t need one,” Dash said, pointing at his head inside his helmet. “Got the location up here. It’s”—he paused, turned, then pointed at a spot in the greenery—“ that way. Probably, well, I’d say a ten-minute walk, but that bush looks pretty thick.”
They set off, pushing their way into the red and green foliage. It wasn’t as dense as it had appeared, the thicker brush along the beach giving way to more open forest. The trees were squat and broad, their trunks looking hard and solid, all products of the higher gravity, while the undergrowth beneath them was mostly low bush, little more than knee-height. It gave them a decent view for at least a hundred meters in any direction, which meant they should be able to see anything coming at them well before it arrived.
They saw nothing more imposing than small, flying creatures that flitted about, apparently this planet’s version of insects. None of them showed any interest in, or even awareness of, these strange interlopers into their world, though they gave clicks of alarm whenever one of their own kind came too close.
“Cannibals, maybe,” Dash said.
“Lovely. Bet family dinners are awkward,” Leira said, batting at one of the insects as they pushed through a thicket with leaves the color of blood.
Dash kept his hand near the plasma pistol slung at his waist anyway. The weapon was a souvenir, of sorts, from his confrontation with Nathis of Clan Shirna. It packed a powerful wallop in a small, portable weapon, so Dash had decided to keep it as his favored sidearm.
“Well,” Leira said as they crossed a shallow ravine, “there are some of your scary alien lifeforms.”
Dash drew the pistol and crouched. “Where?”
Leira chuckled. “Over there. Beside that tree, about ten meters away?”
Dash peered at the spot she’d indicated. Sure enough, he saw something move—then the shape resolved into something living, and it wasn’t a plant.
He relaxed and lowered the pistol. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have quite reached his knees, and was covered with light brown fur. It resembled a large rat, but with a heavier, sturdier build, and big, dark eyes that reminded him of puppies and kittens. It watched them with apparent curiosity for a moment, then turned and scampered off, moving surprisingly fast for a creature on a relatively high gravity planet.
“Well, that was an anti-climactic,” Dash said, holstering the pistol again.
“Are you complaining?”
“No, not at all. I’ve just come to expect the worst from alien planets. You know, fangs, tentacles, things like that. Usually all on the same creature.”
They resumed their way. Soon, a large structure came into view through the trees. Its architecture was much like that he’d seen associated with the power cores he’d previously found; he assumed it was a standard building pattern used by the Unseen. This one looked as empty and desolate as the rest—maybe even more so, given how much it contrasted with the rampant life surrounding it. Crimson vines climbed the walls, the leaves hanging limp in the heavy gravity. Even the stems looked tired.
“Hard to believe that’s two hundred thousand years or so old,” Leira said. “You’d think it would have been completely buried by now.”
“Eh, depends on the local geology, I imagine. Plus, it might be able to keep itself unburied, like some self-correcting mechanism. And for that matter, maybe we’re just looking at the very top of some huge building, and most of it is below us. Like the top layer of a very tall cake.”
“A cake? Are you hungry?”
“Kind of. But that’s not important. The other cores were always accessible, no matter how old the site,” Dash said.
“Really? Is that what you encountered before?”
He shrugged. “No idea. I got in, got the core, got out. There could’ve been a whole city under my feet for all I knew. I tended to have more important things on my mind than exploring.” He recalled his racing back to the Archetype from the Unseen complex hosting the last core, while Clan Shirna’s flotilla of attack ships raced in for the kill. Even just the memory of that desperate run back to the Archetype, across the barren, airless asteroid—expecting to be suddenly vaporized with particle beam blasts with each frantic step—made Dash’s heart beat a little faster.
“Seems pretty quiet around here,” Leira said.
“Yeah. It does, doesn’t it?”
“You sound like…what? You don’t want it to be quiet like this?”
He started forward, aiming himself at a gaping entryway into the structure. “I like it quiet like this just fine. I just hope it’s not a calm before the storm sort of deal, you know?”
Inside, the place loomed as empty and quiet as it appeared from the outside. The architecture looked like what he’d seen before, which was good—it meant this must be the right place. It was good to have what he knew from Sentinel confirmed.
The only signs of life were what appeared to be nests constructed in various corners by…something. Dash couldn’t tell what, but they weren’t especially large, or full of bones picked clean, or anything else that seemed particularly menacing. And none of them seemed to be occupied, which meant their inhabitants had hidden themselves at their approach, or this was the nesting off-season. Either way, Dash took comfort in the fact that nothing in the place seemed to be immediately threatening.
Except that was, itself, a cause for concern. Nature was never really on vacation, no matter what season it was. As they walked along corridors and through chambers, all empty and quiet, Dash steadily slowed his pace and spent more time looking around, along branching side passages, and even behind them.
“You okay, Dash?” Leira finally asked.
“Yeah. I’m just…”
She stopped. “What?”
“When was the last time anything we did was this easy? I mean, since I rescued you and Viktor from Clan Shirna that first time, we’ve been flying through pretty much a shit storm of one awful thing after another.”
“So enjoy it.”
“I can’t. It just doesn’t seem right.”
Leira turned in a circle. “I don’t see anything to be concerned about.” She raised a gloved hand before he could speak. “Don’t worry, I’m not just blowing your worries off, Dash. I think we’ve just had a run of bad luck, combined with the fact we’ve been putting ourselves deliberately in harm’s way. This is an ancient place, on a remote planet that’s entirely untouched wilderness where the apex predators are the size of a sandwich. Or a small, dense, high-gravity cake, to put it in a perspective you might like. I’m thinking that, this time, there probably really is no actual threat.”
Dash sighed. “You may be right. It’s just that old habits die hard—especially when they’ve been keeping you alive and in one piece.”
Leira chuckled. “Believe me, I get it. We don’t have to let our guard down, but we don’t have to get paranoid, either.” She moved so she could look directly into his face. “Sometimes an empty and quiet ancient alien complex is just an empty and quiet ancient alien complex.”
Dash paused, peering at the landscape with deepening curiosity. “Sentinel, something about this foliage doesn’t add up.”
“Are you referring to the color, or the structure?” Sentinel asked.
“Maybe both.” Dash ran a hand along a thick, fibrous leaf. “Even this leaf is almost a centimeter thick. It’s got some weight to it.”
“That may be due to the gravity. It would take considerable energy to bring nutrients to any height. Does the color of the vegetation fade as you look up?”
“Huh. It does,” Dash said.
“Then gravity is at work. Life is tenacious, but gravity is hard to overcome,” Sentinel said.
“Not too tenacious, I hope. Even when it’s vaguely adorable,” Dash said.
Finally, they reached a chamber that contained a metallic pedestal about two meters tall. Upon it, somehow balanced on its tip, was a rod-like device Dash recognized as one of the Archetype’s power cores.
“Okay, that’s it,” he said. “Let’s—”
“Dash, do you hear that?”
“What…” He trailed off, though, as a steady hum tickled his ears. He tried fiddling with his external audio, trying to localize it, but its low frequency made it impossible. It seemed to come from all around them.
“Okay,” he said, “that’s something different.”
They listened for a moment, but the hum didn’t seem to change.
“It must be coming from this place,” Leira said. “Some sort of system, machine, or whatever.”
Dash finally just nodded. “I suppose, yeah.” He looked at the core. “Anyway, let’s do what we came here to do, then get the hell out. The quiet was bad enough, but this hum…I can kind of feel it in my teeth.”
They crossed the room to the pedestal. With each step, Dash expected something to happen—some sort of trap to trigger, weapons to start firing, or some ancient, automated guardian to come to life, appear, and attack them. But there was nothing.
They stopped and studied the pedestal, and the core upon it. Aside from the fact that the core, a slender rod, stood oddly balanced on one end, there was nothing else remarkable about any of it.
“What now?” Leira asked.
Dash opened his mouth to speak, but on impulse, just reached out and grabbed the core, pulled it off of the pedestal, and that was it.
Leira said, “Oh. Okay, I was going to suggest using a scanner, doing a bit of analysis, but I guess just going ahead and grabbing it works, too.”
Dash hefted the core and turned back toward the entrance. “Whatever works, right? Anyway, we got it, so let’s get out of here.”
They started back the way they’d come. As they did, Leira slowed for a moment and looked around. Dash turned to her. “What? You hear something? See something?”
“No, nothing like that. It’s just that…” Dash saw her shaking her head inside her helmet. “This place seems awfully big and complex to just be a glorified bracket to hold that thing.” She pointed at the core in Dash’s hand, then gestured around them. “There must be more to it than that.”
Dash paused, pushed up his lower lip in thought, then said, “Huh. It occurred to me as well. A bit excessive.” He hadn’t found anything but rock and ice in the comet containing the first power core, but he’d used the Archetype to dig straight to it and hadn’t poked around. And the desolate complex holding the second power core had, like this place, been far, far larger than it needed to be, just to play host to a rod less than a meter long. It was all alien tech with alien motivation, but he could still extrapolate when purpose and function didn’t add up.
“The Unseen don’t build for the short term, that much we know,” Dash said. “With that in mind, this entire facility doesn’t surprise me, even if we can’t fully understand it. But our mission is complete, and we got what we came for. It’s time to go back and let the Unseen mysteries solve themselves as we add to our data and/or experiences with things from the deep past.”
“We did get the power core, though, didn’t we?” Leira asked as they started walking again. “And without anything terrible happening. See, I told you we were in for some good luck for a change.”
“You never actually said we were in for good luck—and, I’d like to point out, we’re still way inside an ancient alien base and have a long way to go to get back. Let’s revisit this once we’re safely snug inside the Slipwing and the Archetype, okay?”
“You worry too much.”
“That’s just that natural wariness of mine that’s served me so well. I pay myself to worry,” Dash said, eyes scanning around them. He missed nothing, letting his gaze slide from wall to wall and back again.
They exited the power core chamber, starting back along the corridor leading away from it. They reached a bend and turned, only for both to stop abruptly at a low chittering sound. Another of the furry creatures they’d seen from a distance squatted on the floor just a couple of meters away. This close, Dash could see it resembled a large guinea pig, more than a rat, but with a heavier build, probably a result of evolving in the higher gravity of this planet. This close, its enormous, black eyes seemed even more like those of a puppy or kitten, or any number of other incredibly cute critters Dash could think of.
Leira obviously thought so, too, saying, “Aww. Kind of adorable.” She reached a hand toward it, but Dash put his hand on hers.
“I wouldn’t,” Dash said, firmly. “It’s an alien creature. With teeth, and despite its size, muscles. You don’t just pet new life-forms, even if they are rather adorable.”
“Right, sorry,” she said, pulling her hand back and twisting her lips to one side. “Heh. I’ve just been in space too long. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen other living things that aren’t…well, you.”
“Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment, given the critter’s overall, ah, cuteness. Never wanted to be cute. Ruggedly handsome, yes. Cute, well, not since school.”
“You are,” Leira said.
“Ruggedly handsome. And you’ve got a lot better teeth.” She pulled her lips back and made a face like a rodent, then grinned.
“Glad to hear it,” he said, but his gaze returned to the creature, who seemed to edge forward, muscles bunching under its pelt. They eased around the creature, which watched them, but didn’t otherwise move. Once clear of it, they pushed on, only to encounter two more of the furry aliens a few meters up a side passage. And then two more in a large chamber, one squatting atop a raised platform. Each time, the creatures just silently watched them pass by, unmoving.
“Okay, this is turning from cute into a gauntlet. Let’s move it,” Dash said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty much around to your way of thinking now,” Leira replied.
They picked up their pace, rounding another corner, only to find a half dozen of the creatures scattered along the corridor ahead of them. Several more moved into place behind Dash and Leira, and with that, neatly created a moving trap. The creatures advanced a little slower than Dash and Leira could walk, but with what seemed like deliberate purpose.
Like they were herding the visitors toward something.
“And now I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Dash said, loosening the plasma pistol on his waist. “Let’s really hurry.”
As they threaded their way among the creatures, one suddenly opened its mouth, revealing matching rows of sharp, serrated teeth. It uttered a keening growl that was quickly picked up by the creatures around it. The growl spread, emanating from the darkness around them—including ahead. When it made Dash’s teeth start vibrating, he knew what it was; the odd hum they’d heard, that they’d taken to be some ancient tech doing whatever it did, had been these things, doing whatever it was they did, which probably involved all of those teeth.
“Dammit to hell,” Dash mumbled, drawing his plasma pistol. Leira did likewise, their guns out and ready in a flash. The time for calm was past. “Sentinel, any input on these creatures?”
“No record of them, but based on your input and their behavior, they’re intelligent pack hunters with ultrasonic communications. Speed is your ally, Messenger.” Sentinel paused after delivering the bad news.
“Come on,” Dash said, gripping the rod in one hand, the pistol in the other. “Let’s move!”
Leira said nothing, she just fell in alongside Dash as he started to run.
It was like running in a bad dream, but populated with animals from a pet store in hell. The higher gravity dragged at them, making Dash feel as though he was running through syrup, the ground and air pulling at his burning lungs with each passing second. They dodged around the buzzing, growling Fangrats—Dash immediately called them—none of which had actually made an aggressive move toward them. Maybe, he thought, despite their wicked teeth, all they really did was emit this menacing growl. In fact, maybe they were happy, the sound something like the purr of a contented cat.
As they rounded another corner, though, that idea puffed away like smoke in a strong wind, as one of the Fangrats decided to bite. It snapped at Dash’s leg as he passed it, the teeth scraping across the tough, supposedly rip-proof layered composite fabric of the exosuit. Dash barely felt it, which was good. The exosuit, though, now sported a series of furrowed gouges, which was bad. Behind him, the Fangrat clicked its teeth together in anger, unsure why Dash tasted like something other than dinner.
Bad news,” he said. “They can bite through our suits!” He kicked out at another creature that lunged at him, sending it tumbling backward. Another took its place, teeth bared and muscled chest expanded, stubby arms questing toward them.
“Okay, know what?” Leira said in between gulps of air. “I take it back. This doesn’t look like good luck at all.”
Dash said, “I agree,” and even that was an effort. The air was a pool, washing over them with punishing density now that their adrenaline was kicking into high gear.
That was all he managed, though, before just concentrating on running, his breath passing through labored into something ragged. Running in an exosuit didn’t allow for much nimble quickness to begin with, and now that extra fifteen percent gravity was really starting to grind away at their speed and endurance.
He kicked another Fangrat aside. Then another. But more appeared, spilling out of side corridors and, most alarmingly, from ahead. More jaws snapped at them, more ragged gouges appeared on their exosuits, and the teeth-rattling chorus of growls got louder and more insistent, rising into a tide of sound that threatened to overload their suit speakers.
They reached another chamber, one Dash recognized as the last before the final corridor leading out. It seemed full, wall-to-wall Fangrats, all of which immediately began converging on them, a heaving swarm of fur, kitten-cute eyes, and glistening, jagged teeth.
“We aren’t going to make it through that,” Leira said, pulling her plasma pistol. “We’re going to have to—”
A dazzling flash and a tremendous crack cut her off. Dash was already well down the road she’d just started to travel, the plasma pistol in his hand recycling back to full charge. Dozens of Fangrats were now smoldering mounds of charred fur. Still, dozens more boiled into the room from the other exits, but even as they did, Dash stomped and kicked and whirled, turning every part of himself into a weapon that punished the relentless tide of fang and fur.
Leira fired. Dash fired again. After a half dozen blasts of incandescent plasma the way was open—more or less. Another pair of blasts bought them some time from the swarm now closing behind them. Even so, by the time they reached the far side of the chamber, their boots squelching and crackling through the carnage, the legs of their exosuits were crisscrossed with scrapes and furrows, and both had pressure-loss warnings glowing in their heads-up displays.
The mic channel between them was a constant roar of heavy breathing and wailing Fangrats, punctuated by Leira’s occasional shriek as they continued to punch through the remaining beasts.
Dash fired again, clearing a path down the corridor ahead of them. “We’re going to…run out of…of charges before we run out of these bastards!” he gasped. “And we’ve still…got all that…forest to get through.”
Leira panted back a simple, “Yeah,” then raised her plasma pistol and fired again, as the corridor had started to fill with gnashing beasts. Dash and Leira took off again, accelerating as best they could in the higher gravity. Now Dash’s breath burned in his lungs like a fire in the sky; he wondered if his exosuit had finally failed and he was sucking alien air—and who knew what else—into his lungs.
They reached the exit and tumbled outside, arms flailing and guns still out.
Fangrats swarmed out of the trees, the pervasive humming growl now seeming to make the air itself vibrate with their song of hungry rage.
Dash stopped, gaping and gasping. Leira skidded to a halt beside him.
Fangrats were everywhere, and closing in. There was no way they’d even make it to the nearest trees, much less the ten minutes it had taken to get through them from where they’d landed.
Dash shook his head. Really? This was how he was going to die? Eaten by a swarm of alien furballs?
Leira said, “Oh, look.”
Dash glanced at her. An odd choice for her last words.
A shadow swept over them. An instant later, the Archetype landed with a tremendous impact, shaking the ground and crushing dozens of aliens under its titanic feet.
“I suggest you lie prone,” Sentinel said.
Neither of them needed to be told twice. Both flung themselves to the ground as the nearest Fangrats, only a few meters away, closed in, teeth gnashing, then vanishing in a staccato series of dazzling energy blasts. The rapid-fire burst swept around the clearing outside the complex door, then pulsed overhead, detonating behind them. The discharges flung dirt, bits of rock, and smoking fragments of Fangrats through the air, the debris clattering against their helmets and pattering down on their damaged exosuits. The string of blasts went on and on, and Dash could only cringe inside his suit and pray that the Archetype’s aim didn’t falter.
And then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped.
Dash levered himself up into a sudden silence that seemed even deeper, now that the damned hum of the Fangrats had stopped. A fugitive gleam of the energy weapon still glowed in his eyes, the afterimage descending like a curtain of floating red stars. Then his vision cleared, and a slow smile crossed his face.
Because, he saw, there were no more Fangrats. As in none alive, save a few fleeing back into the forest, but the rest were just greasy humps of smoldering ash, heaped in a wide circle around him and Leira. For at least twenty meters in every direction, the ground had been seared down to bare dirt, trees charred and splintered, foliage blackened and still flickering with fitful flames. Smoke fumed the air grey. The only place not seared by the Archetype’s fire was a circle of ground only a little larger than Dash and Leira’s prone forms. Dash noticed, though, that if any of the shots had hit the Unseen complex, they’d left no trace.
Leira touched the toe of her boot to the nearest blast scar on the ground. It had been maybe half a meter from her head. “Okay. That was terrifying. But also impressive.”
“I am sensing a great many more of those creatures in the surrounding forest. They seem to be staying at bay, for now. Nonetheless, I would suggest a hasty retreat." Sentinel said.
“Way ahead of you,” Dash said, ash puffing up from his boots as he started toward the tree line. He’d considered just boarding the Archetype right here, but he wasn’t sure if Leira would be able to get aboard.
A few times, during the walk back to the beach, Dash caught flickers of movement and glimpses of fur, but nothing came any closer to them.
“About those things,” he said to Sentinel, “remember what I said about teeth and claws and my tender flesh?”
“I do,” was all the AI said, but if it felt at all chastened, it sure didn’t come through when it spoke.
Dash just shook his head and plodded on, trying to ignore the suit integrity warning glowing on his heads-up.
As they pushed through the undergrowth, Leira said, “Fangrats?”
“You called those things Fangrats. A bit on the nose, don’t you think?”
Dash shrugged. “Cute-things-with-big-teeth-that-want-to-eat-us just didn’t seem to roll off the tongue, you know?” Saying it took the wind out of Dash, though, so they made the rest of the journey in silence, filled only by the ever-more labored sounds of breathing.
As they stepped onto the beach, Dash’s suit-pressure alarm shrieked, the damaged fabric finally failing. They stumbled aboard the Slipwing, practically holding their breath, then gasping in great, whooping lungsful of air once their helmets had popped off. It struck Dash that, without the Archetype’s intervention, even if they had managed to fight their way through the Fangrats, they still likely would have suffocated during the panicked flight through the forest as their suits gave out.
Not that it mattered, he thought, peeling off the rest of his ravaged exosuit. Dead is, after all, dead. Not dead was all that really counted.
Dash stepped around the cradle in the Archetype, his usual place aboard the big mech, and peered at the bulkhead behind it. It struck him that for what was now the many hours he’d been here, he’d never really taken the time to examine what he’d come to call the Archetype’s cockpit.
The bulkheads were mostly blank metal of some sort, but there were things that might have been power conduits, components, and maybe even pipes for hydraulic or other fluids—although he doubted the ancient machine actually used anything resembling hydraulics. But there was also a socket for the power core he and Leira had just managed to retrieve. There were other gaps and spaces that might have been receptacles for other cores, but Sentinel told him nothing about those.
All in good time, he guessed.
“Here goes nothing.” He slipped the core into place. It seated with a metallic thunk and was immediately engulfed in a faint, greenish-blue glow.
“The new core is now fully integrated into the Archetype’s systems,” Sentinel said.
“I see that. Does it yield an upgrade?” Dash asked.
An overall increased power flow for the mech, he knew—about five percent. The Archetype’s shield had also become slightly more durable and would regenerate a little faster. Dash also realized he now knew the Unseen language. Just like that, he could understand its written form. It was as though he’d been fluent in it all his life.
And that was it—a moment of wild clarity, seamlessly installed in his mind as if it had been his since childhood.
“I have come to recognize that tone in your voice. You are concerned about something.”
“Uh, well, not sure I’m concerned, but…” He scratched the back of his neck. “Is that all this new core does?”
“It is fully integrated into the Archetype’s systems, yes.”
“Well that’s actually pretty…let’s call it underwhelming. I mean…” He shook his head. “Leira and I almost died getting this thing. Eaten by those Fangrats, or choking on that alien atmosphere out there—for that matter, incinerated while you were shooting up those chittering bastards."
“The chances of that were quite low." Sentinel said.
“Yeah, I know. Just hardly seems worth all the effort and risk.” He could easily imagine what Leira’s reaction was going to be to almost dying with him, just to get this—
There was a whole, expansive bank of knowledge available to him that hadn’t been previously, fluttering into his consciousness at a sedate pace.
“Okay, what’s that all about?” There’s like a whole pile of information just sort of there, that wasn’t there before.”
That information was kept in a separate repository. It is only available to the Messenger when this more advanced state of enhancement of the Archetype was achieved. It is also rendered in the native language of the Creators, meaning that even if it had been previously available, you would not have been able to understand it.
Dash could feel the new data flowing through Sentinel into his awareness; he could access and examine it at his leisure. Before he did, though, he said, “I won’t bother asking why this stuff wasn’t made accessible to me before this, because I know the answer—I wasn’t ready for it, I had to prove I was serious about doing all this, or some variation on that theme, and that’s okay. I accept that. But I do have a question. Is this it? Or is there more crucial information locked away that I don’t know about yet?”
“Would knowing the answer to that question provide you with whatever satisfaction you may think you would derive from it? Or would it simply leave you more frustrated?”
Dash opened his mouth then closed it again. It was a good question, a be careful what you wish for sort of thing.
“However, I can put your mind at ease, after a fashion. Until this new power core was installed, I had no knowledge of this information store. That was, presumably, by the Creators’ design. If there are other such stores that have not been made accessible, I likewise have no knowledge of them, either. We are, it would seem, learning together.”
“Probably for this very reason,” Dash said, dismissing his nibbling frustration over the way the Unseen were doling things out to him a bit at a time with a shrug. If Sentinel didn’t know, then it didn’t matter anyway, did it?
He turned and clambered into the cradle, a little awkwardly in the repaired exosuit he’d needed to walk across from the Slipwing to the Archetype. “Okay then,” he said. “Let’s see if this was all worth it after all.”
Dash thought about the new information store, which opened it to him, then began considering what it contained.
It was a story of war.
But it was war on a scale that was breathtaking. More than breathtaking. Absolutely epic. Cosmic in scope. It was far beyond what any of the ancient, planet-bound storytellers who had tried to envision what the universe sprawling around them would be like had even begun to contemplate.
Dash couldn’t even begin to grasp it.
Dash saw campaigns that spanned not just thousands of light-years and star systems, but were also spread across millennia. The Unseen and the Golden had been warring not only for the past two hundred thousand years, but for uncounted ages before that. This latest clash, two thousand centuries ago, had only been the most recent, and perhaps not even the largest. The vast spans of time between the great campaigns were a sort of “cold war,” when the two powers retreated from one another and maintained a hostile, but vigilant peace. Eventually, though, it would flare up again, and then the stars would begin to die, along with the two races locked in a battle to the very end.
Dash remembered, as though the memories were his own, a battle that had sprawled across the galaxy, vast fleets tearing at one another and even the space-time around them, blasting planets to dust in the titanic fire of weaponized stars. The battle had gone on for decades, only ending in a colossal stalemate when the orgy of celestial violence had begun to weaken the fabric of reality itself, threatening to plunge the entire galaxy—and perhaps much more than that—into literal, unbound chaos.
Things like the separation of events in time and space, and even the fundamental idea of cause and effect, had begun to break down. The past two hundred thousand years had given creation time to heal itself, slowly regenerating back to “full power” like the Archetype’s shield. Still, Dash knew where the wreckage of that vast conflict was, dust clouds and debris fields and entire nebula the collateral damage of the bitter—and apparently endless—war. A conflict for nothing less than the heart of life and the universe itself.
Dash let his mind roam across these memories that were both brand new, and yet felt like things he’d always known. He found it stunning, amazing, and terrifying all at once. And yet, he still didn’t understand it. The new data contained a lot of information about the ancient war between the Unseen and the Golden, but data was just that—facts, times, and places, a recounting of events. It was all, in the end, superficial, not offering any insight into the combatants, their motives, or who they were.
“Why?” he asked.
“I will need more context to offer any sort of useful reply,” Sentinel said.
“Why were they fighting? Why are they still fighting? What’s the point of it all?”
“I believe this has already been answered for you. The Golden wish to destroy all sentient life.”
“Yeah, I get that. But why? And why are the Unseen trying to stop them? What’s in it for them?”
“Ah. I’m afraid this is an area in which I have little understanding myself. I can only address the facts as they are.”
Dash frowned, thinking of tough interactions he’d had with people he’d encountered, whether shady clients, business opponents, competing couriers, or any number of others. One thing that was common to all of them was that he’d had at least some understanding of what drove them to behave the way they did. Even if he hated it, if it stood to do serious harm, he got it, more or less. This was just stuff happening—vast, galactic-scale stuff, but stuff nonetheless.
He finally shrugged. “Well, hopefully there’s more information locked away inside you that will offer some sort of explanation for what’s behind all of”—he thought about the whole cosmic sweep of events about which he now knew—“this.”
Dash figured that was it, but there was one more thing. It was a specific bit of new knowledge that stood out from the rest, because it wasn’t just things that had happened. This was something real. It was a place.
“Hey, what’s the Forge?” he asked Sentinel.
Dash made his way back to the Slipwing so he could discuss things face-to-face with the others. Once more, they’d crowded into the ship’s crew hab, and had brought Sentinel into the conversation over the comm.
“I still can’t believe that that’s a two hundred thousand year old AI we’re talking to,” Amy said. “I mean, that’s pretty epic!”
“I find it hard to believe, too,” Viktor said. “It’s hard to imagine that whatever substrate systems that AI runs on could last anywhere near that long.”
“Nothing we could produce would,” Conover offered.
Dash thought about the vast, celestial conflict that had raged between the Unseen and the Golden and said, “Trust me, it’s true—and it’s not even the most amazing thing the Unseen have done, not by a long shot. Which brings us to the matter at hand. Sentinel, tell everyone what you told me about the Forge.”
“The Forge is the place where most of the Archetype was built. It is a self-contained design, fabrication, and manufacturing facility. Among other things.”
Amy’s eyes went wide. “A super-advanced alien factory? The place where that Archetype thing was made? Oh, we need to go there, we so need to go there!”
“It would be interesting, I guess. I mean, it is Unseen,” Conover replied, nodding along.
Dash exchanged a look with Leira and Viktor. Conover, they all knew, would probably be enthusiastic about helping Amy wash her dirty socks.
“Well,” Dash said, “if we listen to Sentinel, you may just get your wish, Amy.”
“Your AI thinks we should go there?” Leira asked, narrowing her eyes. “Why? I thought gathering up these power cores was the priority, so you could get that Archetype fully powered up.”
“Unless this Forge has the ability to finish powering the Archetype up all on its own,” Viktor offered. “Perhaps this is meant to be the next step for you, Dash.”
“But why would the Unseen bother scattering all those other power cores around?” Leira asked. “That would have been pretty much a waste of time, right?”
Viktor shrugged. “They’re aliens. They do alien things?”
“Sentinel, do you know if we can speed up fully powering the Archetype by going to the Forge?” Dash said.
“I do not. The Forge is another level of technology, even for me.”
“That’s—another level? You mean more complicated than the Archetype?”
“It is, by definition. The Archetype is a beginning, not the end,” Sentinel said.
Dash thought for a moment, chewing on the implications. “Go on. I’m listening.”
“I suggest that because the Forge is not merely a remote outpost containing a single power core,” Sentinel said. “I acknowledge that it will be necessary to continue traveling to those, in order to finish powering up the Archetype. However, while I do not know what resources may be available at the Forge, it is a central, facility of the Creators. It stands to reason that much could be learned there, and perhaps assets obtained that will greatly assist the Messenger in the upcoming conflict.”
Amy said, “Upcoming conflict,” then crossed her arms, as though she was suddenly cold. “Have to admit, I’d find those two words pretty scary even if we weren’t talking about some apocalyptic, star-blowing-up cosmic battle between ancient alien races.”
Leira gave her a sympathetic look. “Second thoughts? We stopped once for fuel on the way here, and we’ll probably have to again on our way back into more inhabited space. We can drop you off—”
“No! Geez, cuz, just because the idea of a galactic super-war makes me nervous doesn’t mean I want to bail. I mean, put that aside, and this is all pretty awesome!” She turned to Dash. “I think you should do what Sentinel says and go to this Forge place. If that’s where they made your Archetype, just imagine what must be there.” Her eyes went a little dreamy as she pondered the possibilities of an alien factory.
Conover gave her a somewhat dreamy look too, but Dash knew it wasn’t just about finding advanced alien tech. He shook himself away from looking at Amy and turned to Dash. “I agree. It makes sense that there would likely be valuable information, if nothing else, at the place where the Archetype was built.”
Conover’s attraction to Amy aside, Dash knew that he was sincere. Before he could respond to either of them, though, Viktor leaned into the conversation.
“Far be it from me to pass up a chance to visit an Unseen fabrication facility, Dash,” he said. “But this might just be a distraction from the more important task of getting the rest of those power cores. Remember, we’re assuming we’re on some sort of clock here—except we have no idea how much time is left on it before things get really critical, by which I mean the Golden showing up.”
“And even if they don’t, we already know that they’ve co-opted Clan Shirna into working as their agents,” Leira said. “There might be others. The Archetype was barely enough to deal with Nathis and his minions. Next time, it might not be enough, without being fully powered.”
“Then why did the Unseen make sure to include the location of the Forge in that latest data dump they provided Dash?” Conover asked. “They must have known that by doing that, they’d immediately attract attention to it.”
But Leira shook her head. “I don’t like it. Look how close we came to dying just retrieving this last core, Dash. And that was for a single one of the things, here in this—what did Sentinel call it? A remote outpost?” She shook her head again. “And the core before that? The way you described it, that asteroid was pretty damned well defended. And yet, another remote outpost.”
"The Forge isn’t a remote outpost, though,” Viktor said, picking up Leira’s line of argument. “It’s obviously an important facility. That means it’s likely to be much more heavily defended.”
“Why would their defenses try to stop the Archetype, though?” Amy asked. “They’re on the same side, right?”
“So were the defenses on that asteroid, and they attacked Dash and the Archetype. As for here, on this planet, we assumed that Dash’s Fangrats were just native wildlife, but we don’t know that for sure. For all we know, they could have been another genetically-engineered defense.”
“Maybe penetrating the defenses is part of what Dash and the Archetype need to do,” Viktor said. “He knows he has to go and retrieve these cores, so it stands to reason that he would at least have a chance of doing just that. As for this Forge, though—you didn’t learn anything that said you actually should be going there, did you, Dash?”
Dash shook his head. “Nope. I just know that the Forge exists, and, well, at least some of what it’s all about.”
“I vote we go to the Forge,” Amy said. Conover immediately nodded agreement.
Leira and Viktor, though, just frowned and shook their heads.
Dash leaned back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Okay, so if we’re doing this democratically, it’s two votes for the Forge and two votes against.”
“Does Sentinel get a vote?” Amy asked.
“I do not believe it would be appropriate, unless I see a fatal flaw in your reasoning at some point,” Sentinel immediately replied. “My role is to support the choices made by the Messenger after I give him all the facts I can. This was always my mission, and it continues even as the Messenger grows into his purpose. I only suggest that it could be useful to explore the Forge, as there is much to see, and even more to use. However, I will defer to the Messenger’s decision.”
“Sounds like an abstention to me,” Dash said. “Okay, guess it comes down to me, huh?”
The air around them hummed with expectant energy, but Dash only let it linger for a second.
“You said it’s two to two,” Viktor replied. “You have the deciding vote.”
“Not to mention, you’re the Messenger,” Conover added. “The Archetype goes where you do, and that’s pretty much where we go, too.”
Dash rubbed his eyes. “I get that we need to gather those power cores. Each one gives the Archetype a little more power, a little more upgrade, and sometimes teaches us a little more about what’s going on.” He looked around at the others. “Got to be honest, though. I’m getting a little impatient, here. We don’t have any idea how pressing the threat is. Are the Golden going to show up tomorrow, or years from now? It isn’t known, and that’s really starting to eat at me.”
As he was speaking, Dash realized he really hadn’t even made up his own mind. The others had made good arguments for both going to the Forge, and not going there and just tracking down the cores. But by the time he stopped talking, he knew the decision was set.
“I want information, now. As much of it as we can get. That’s way more likely to happen at this Forge, and not in the next long-abandoned, critter-or-whatever infested outpost on some shithole planet or dinky little asteroid. So that’s my vote. We’re going to the Forge to see what’s what.”
Amy grinned with the satisfaction of a kid going to a candy store, and Conover nodded as he warmed to the idea. Leira and Viktor, however, both just looked doubtful.
“I know you guys aren’t entirely sold on this, but I hope you’ll commit to it,” Dash said to them.
“Of course,” Viktor said. “Hardly the first time I’ve thrown myself headlong into something I think is unwise.”
The way he said it made Dash think there were some stories there that he wanted to hear. Leira, though, just shrugged and said, “What else are we going to do?”
As they filed off to get ready to depart, Dash couldn’t help having second thoughts. Not that it mattered, though, because when it came to galaxy-spanning alien wars, how could you not have second thoughts?
The Archetype, in formation with the Slipwing, dropped back into real space at the margin of the star system known only as TC6573-896. Unlike Wisent’s Star, this particular star system had never attracted any particular attention from astro-cartographers, or anyone else interested enough to actually bother submitting a name for it for the charts. The star itself had no companion stars; it was just a lone, middling-sized bluish star that seemed entirely unremarkable.
Six planetary bodies swung around it, as did a pair of asteroid belts, one conforming to the orbital plane, the other oriented at a high angle to it. Now that was unusual, speaking to the break-up of some long-gone planet that was, itself, not orbiting like its fellows. Dash wondered if this was a natural phenomenon, or if it hinted at some enigmatic purpose of the Unseen.
In any case, TC6573-896 would now and hereafter be known as the Forge—at least to Dash.
“I see six planet-sized bodies,” Leira said over the comm, “and another—oh, roughly a hundred or so planetesimals, and a crap-ton of smaller stuff. Do you know where we have to go, Dash, or do we just start poking around?”
Dash considered the star system. As he did, he realized that they wanted to go to a moon orbiting the fourth planet, itself a gas giant. He said so, then launched himself toward it, the Slipwing lighting her fusion drive to stay in formation.
“Dash,” Viktor asked, “do you know—as in, you know, know, because of the Sentinel—anything else about this system?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty low key. Meh, is the word that comes to mind,” Amy put in. “I can think of half a dozen systems not too different than this one I’ve been to. It’s hard to even remember which was which.”
“That’s probably the point,” Conover offered. “If you have an important, even a crucial facility like this seems to be, you probably wouldn’t want it to stand out. It’s so ordinary as to be forgettable.”
“Good point,” Amy said. Dash could only imagine Conover’s smile at that.
“I know nothin’,” Dash said. “Or nothing more. Just that that moon is our destination.”
“I’m not scanning anything really significant about it,” Leira replied. “No evidence of structures, power signatures, even any returns suggesting refined metals or anything like that.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t mean much,” Dash replied. “Whatever’s there could be, I don’t know, cloaked somehow.”
“I am detecting nothing of significance, either,” Sentinel added. That made Dash frown. If the Archetype couldn’t detect other Unseen tech, then might it not even be there? They could, after all, be in the wrong place despite how important the Forge sounded, but after so much time and loss of data, a mistake wasn’t just possible—it was likely. After two hundred thousand years, a few corruptions and glitches were to be expected, no matter how godlike the engineering.
Except…no. Dash knew there was something important about that moon. It tickled at an awareness in his senses that went beyond a hunch.
They raced starward, on a course that would take them directly to the moon in question. The gas giant was now a looming, multicolored disk, their destination a tiny pinpoint of light near it.
Dash said, “Hey, guys? Let’s try not to dive down into that planet this time, okay? I don’t want to have to go through that again.”
“Way ahead of you, Dash,” Leira said. He could hear the tension in her voice, though, as the moon loomed closer, filling the sky with its mass.
Now the moon showed a disk, without any magnification required. It was just a moon. Spherical, rocky, with a surface mottled by some sort of sporadic volcanic activity. It had virtually no atmosphere, and only about a fifth of standard gravity. And that was it. Painfully dull and dead, the body hung before them, mute in the heavens.
They decelerated, braking to enter a high, wide orbit over the gas giant, one that would keep them close to the moon as it swung around its parent planet.
“Well, here we are,” Leira said. “Now what?”
Dash curled his lip. “Not really sure. I know this is the right place.”
“Yeah. Except there’s nothing here.”
“Can you detect anything at all?” Dash asked Sentinel.
“I am engaging an active scan, to determine—”
Silence. Huh. That was unlike Sentinel, to not finish a thought. Dash opened his mouth to ask if everything was okay, but Sentinel resumed speaking.
“The moon is starting to undergo change,” she said.
Dash peered at the image. He didn’t see anything—and then he did.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“The moon is starting to break apart,” Sentinel replied.
Sure enough, fragments spalled away from the central zone, while far larger chunks of rock began to separate. Something else was being revealed—something massive and apparently mechanical, more of which became visible as the moon continued its self-destruction.
Dash just stared. “Guys, that ain’t a moon.”
Fragments of rock ranging from small to massive slowly drifted apart, the occasional soundless clash adding bright spalls of debris to the expanding cloud. It was, Dash thought, like watching a slow-motion explosion. The casual destruction of an entire moon should have stunned him, but knowing what he’d come to know about the Unseen, it probably wouldn’t even make the top ten list of their most stunning achievements. What truly caught his attention was the thing that had been enclosed in the rocky shell, which came more fully into view with each passing moment. It was clearly an artificial construct, the surface smooth, orderly, and polished.
“A space station,” Dash said as he slowed the Archetype, giving the rocky debris time to disperse. “It’s a damned space station of some sort.”
“Almost as big as Passage,” Leira said, the awe in her voice evident even across the comm. “Or bigger,” she amended with an intake of breath.
“And hidden inside a moon,” Viktor added. “That’s quite the way to keep something secret.”
“Yeah,” Dash said. “It’s—well, it’s more or less what I expect from the Unseen. They don’t do small things.”
Now fully revealed, the station loomed against the backdrop of the gas giant, a massive cylinder more than a kilometer long, and almost as wide. Much of it seemed metallic, although some of it was clearly more crystalline, and some parts were…something else, but Dash couldn’t readily tell what, exactly, as the reflected light caromed around inside shadowed channels all over the structure. Unlike Passage, though, which bristled with docking piers, comms and sensor arrays, and miscellaneous other protrusions, this one seemed to be entirely smooth, with no protuberances at all except for a communications dish that lay nearly flat, down, and to their right.
“Sentinel, what are you getting from this? Is this in your database?” Dash asked.
“Currently, little information is available beyond what visual examination provides. There are a few instances of increased thermal response from various parts of the station, but no other emissions that I can detect.”
“So…is this the Forge?”
“It is likely, but there is no way to know for certain from the available information.”
“Wait, are you saying there might be something even bigger hidden away in this system?” Dash’s attention roved around the other planets, even the gas giant filling most of his view. Was there something concealed inside them? It sure didn’t seem out of the question, not for a race that could weaponize stars.
“I am explicitly not saying that,” Sentinel said. “I am simply saying it is an unfounded assumption to automatically—”
Then there was silence. Dash frowned at Sentinel’s sudden hesitation. “Sentinel?”
“Not all of the objects separating from the station are debris from the former moon. Some are artificial.”
“Pieces of the station, maybe? Parts that came off, maybe?”
“No. They are accelerating. They are missiles.”
“Dammit. Please tell me they’re aimed at something else.”
“They are tracking the Archetype and the Slipwing. And their speed is accelerating.”
Leira came on the comm, the awe in her voice shifting to alarm. “Dash? Do you see that? That station has fired something at us!”
“Yeah, I do.” He scowled at the incoming data. “You’d think by now the Unseen machines would call us friend.” His frown deepened at the telemetry of the missiles. “Guess not.”
For a tense moment, no one spoke as Sentinel continued to stream data while the incoming warheads picked up even more speed, their paths now clearly locked on the Slipwing first, and Archetype second.
“Leira, I’ll try to deal with them,” Dash said. “You just keep the Slipwing out here, evading, and shoot the particle cannons at anything that gets past me—which will be nothing, I hope.”
Dash flung himself forward, tracking the incoming missiles. They were Unseen tech, which meant the Archetype could probably match them. As for the Slipwing, though—no way. He thought back to his battles with Clan Shirna, when they’d faced the Archetype. It had been decidedly one-sided.
The Archetype surged toward the missiles. “I count twelve of them,” Dash said. “No, wait, make that lucky thirteen.”
“We only count six,” Viktor said, apparently taking the comm and letting Leira concentrate on piloting the Slipwing. “We don’t see any others on the scans.”
Some sort of stealth effect? Or was the Archetype being fed false echoes?
“I do not believe those returns are false,” Sentinel said. “Your ship simply lacks the sensor capability to track some of the inbound missiles.”
“That’s great. They can’t dodge what they can’t see. Means we better not miss any.”
The leading missiles raced into range of the Archetype’s dark-lance. Dash looked at one—actually, glared at one, because he was getting awfully sick of this ‘friendly’ fire—selected it as a target, and fired by thought, using the system integration to control his weapons. The flickering beam of light-that-wasn’t flashed out and touched the missile, blowing it to fragments.
The remaining missiles immediately started jinking, accelerating madly in a swirl of maneuvers so abrupt they would have shredded those carried by the Slipwing—if they’d even been remotely capable of such violent turns in the first place. Taken as a whole, the missiles resembled a school of fish diving wildly to avoid a predator, which was more or less what was happening. Dash was their destructor, but the missiles didn’t know it yet.
He waited for the dark-lance to recharge, which took some time, and switched to the distortion cannon. It generated momentary gravity wells, deep ones, that could rip things apart if they were close enough, and still deflect their trajectories even if they weren’t. But the dark-lance had already recuperated, the system giving a low thrum as its power came back to lethal levels. It must be another effect of that new power core, Dash thought, so that was something, anyway. More power was good. A faster dark-lance cycle was even better.
He fired the dark-lance again—and again, the lethal beam flashing missiles to tumbling wreckage at the slightest contact. Ten were left and closing fast. Worse, the missiles were adapting, spreading apart, varying their speeds and evading hard, capable of pulling insane g’s as they were unmanned and powered by Unseen technology. He fired the dark-lance, earning one hit. There were nine incoming now, and then Dash fired the distortion cannon, the sudden gravity flux slamming two of the missiles into a collision and yanking all the rest toward the anomaly. Unfortunately, it also tugged the Archetype forward like a cranky beast of burden, eating away the time he had to stop the damned things.
He fired another dark-lance bolt, but it missed, the target nimbly dodging aside, almost as though anticipating his shot. It probably had some sort of AI controlling it, analyzing his attacks, getting inside his freaking mind.
Dammit to hell. What if the missiles could tap into the Meld and get inside his mind?
He flushed the doubt and just let impulse guide him. With his mind in a state of diamond focus, he fired the distortion cannon again, once more dragging everything toward the resulting anomaly, at the same time reaching out with both of the Archetype’s massive hands.
“Eat that.” He slammed one fist closed on a missile as it streaked in, then swatted another like a bug, smacking it off course to explode harmlessly. The missile in his fist detonated and he yelped, the bizarre phantom pain that came with damage to the Archetype flashing a shockwave through his body. The fist had contained most of the blast, but at the cost of turning that hand to wreckage. It would regenerate—he hoped—but not quickly, and that left him with limited combat ability in a bad situation.
Two more missiles raced in, too close and fast to do anything but curl the Archetype into a ball and take the hits. He reeled under the blasts, which ripped away at the big mech’s very substance. He vaguely knew the remaining three missiles had streaked by, heading for the Slipwing, so he couldn’t just wallow here. He had to keep moving, and he had had to fight smart.
“Damage is moderate,” Sentinel said, her voice its usual placid matter-of-factness. “However, the distortion cannon and dark-lance are off-line.”
Dash uncurled himself, gasping at injuries he both had, but actually hadn’t, suffered. “Shit. Okay. Missiles?”
“Viktor, how many incoming are you tracking?”
“One. Leira is—”
The Slipwing slewed hard to one side, the particle cannons spewing shots. One of the missiles staggered under the fire, and Dash knew it was shielded.
“Missiles are protected. These aren’t fire and forgets, dammit,” Dash said.
“There is mild shielding that can be ablated,” Sentinel said. “The missiles can withstand one glancing hit. A direct strike will destroy them.”
“Then let’s make everything count,” Dash said, and someone was listening. Whoever was shooting persisted, expertly swinging the shots to follow the target, which finally exploded. A mist of glowing plasma haloed outward from the blast.
Dash made to launch a missile from the Archetype. He’d only be able to take out one of the remaining two, leaving one to streak toward them with lethal designs.
“We’re going to—” Dash started to say, then paused. Wait. The expanding cloud of plasma from the missile destroyed by the Slipwing gave Dash an idea.
“Viktor, Leira…whoever’s on the controls, start evasive maneuvers.” He fired a missile as he spoke, hoping it could accelerate fast enough to catch up to its target. Fortunately, the Archetype’s missiles had the edge in velocity, and it rapidly closed. “Watch the scanner closely. I’m going to try to give you a target, but you’ll need to be ready.”
“Roger-dodger, boss!” Amy called back, sounding just as cheerful in the middle of a life-or-death battle as she had wiping hatch grease off her hands.
Dash’s missile chased its target, which streaked toward the Slipwing. In a savage series of turns, the Slipwing swung hard and random as Leira fought to keep evading the bright missiles closing at murderous speed. Dash gritted his teeth, desperate for this to work, because he had nothing else.
His missile overtook its target and exploded. Both warheads went off, quickly filling a huge volume of space around them with a tenuous cloud of superheated plasma. The sole remaining missile raced on, seconds away from impacting the Slipwing.
“Got it!” Amy shouted while opening up with the particle cannons. She couldn’t see the missile itself, but what she could see was the tunnel it drilled through the plasma cloud in its wake. Particle beam shots slammed into the missile, blasting it to pieces only a few kilometers away from the Slipwing. Its warhead didn’t detonate, which was good, because such a powerful explosion that close to the ship might not have torched the Slipwing into dust, but it would have left a helluva bruise.
Dash spun back toward the Forge, frantically hoping there was no second wave of missiles inbound. If there was, then they were screwed for sure.
But there wasn’t. Dash finally let out his breath, his heart slowing just enough to let him—well, long enough to start hurting—and said, “Everyone in one piece over there?”
Amy called back, “I’m great. That was awesome. How’d you come up with that idea, Dash? Because, see, there was this one time I—”
“Before we start swapping war stories,” Leira cut in, “we should probably figure out our next move, don’t you think?”
“Well, I took a beating and could use some downtime to regenerate,” Dash said.
“You took a beating?” Viktor said. “Don’t you mean the Archetype took a beating?”
“Uh…yeah. That’s what I meant. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember the difference, you know?” He ended on a chuckle, intending it as a joke, but Viktor’s reply was somber.
“That might be something you want to think about, Dash.” Viktor said. “We have to consider the possibility that your, ah—wounds—might accumulate. In your mind, and possibly in your body. This is new territory for all of us, and the Unseen can’t have had a perfect understanding of how you and the Archetype will react to combat. And combat damage, for that matter, especially when you’re linked through the Meld.”
He opened his mouth to answer but paused because Viktor was right. “The only way I’ll find out is to fight.”
“Or not get hit,” Viktor remarked.
“Correct.” Dash felt the hint of a smile. “As to our next move, that’s simple. I think we should go…well, there.”
He gestured with the Archetype’s undamaged hand toward the massive space station he still assumed was the Forge. The debris from the moon no longer obscured it, so it now hung over the swirling, pastel stripes of the gas giant’s turbulent atmosphere, a forbidding, enigmatic presence.
“Okay,” Leira said. “And if we get shot at again?”
“The closer we get, the less time we have to react,” Conover added.
“Good point,” Dash said. “So you guys stay out here and let me go first. I…the Archetype—well, we’re way better equipped to take care of threats because of our collective reaction time. All my best is made even better with the Unseen boost to all my abilities.”
Leira said, “Roger,” and Dash launched himself toward the big station. Dash crossed the void with his eyes open and senses on high alert.
Space was dangerous. But Unseen technology could be fatal, even in a weapon of their own making.
It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when Dash reached the huge station without further mishap. Sentinel reported that the station had scanned them as they approached but offered no further hostile action.
“Maybe it recognizes us,” Dash said. “I mean, if this is the Forge, and the Archetype was built here…well, the prodigal child finally returns, right?” He resisted the urge to add, Hey mom, I’m home!
“Actually,” Sentinel said, “you appear to be right.”
“It feels right, too.”
“Yes. I am able to establish a secure link to the station,” Sentinel said.
As soon as Sentinel finished speaking, a flood of new knowing washed through the Meld between them.
“Okay, so this is the Forge,” Dash said.
“And it’s in some sort of low-power mode? What the hell is up with the Unseen and everything of theirs being powered down?”
“It would appear that the Forge was placed into a power-saving mode when it was first encased in the moon.”
“Two hundred thousand years ago?” Speaking the words aloud made Dash cognizant of just how alien the Unseen were, along with the lingering question of why their tech was asleep.
“Approximately correct. This was done sometime after the Archetype was constructed, and after the Golden had withdrawn from the galaxy. The Forge has remained in a stand-by status ever since, awaiting a pre-determined trigger before activating again.”
Dash nodded. “Us showing up with the Archetype was that trigger, I guess. I also get that shucking off the moon used up a lot of whatever power it had available, so it’s in an even lower power mode now. But why the attack?”
“It would appear that the remaining power is reserved for certain vital functions aboard the Forge. Accordingly, while it could track us as we approached, it lacked the scan resolution to identify us. That triggered a fail-safe system, which initiated the attack.”
“But the only reason the thing activated in the first place was because of us, which means it must have been able to recognize us.”
“I have no further information. The Forge can malfunction in ways the Archetype cannot.”
Dash winced at that. A malfunction? In Unseen tech? Just the idea made his stomach knot up. You really didn’t want things that could make stars explode glitching out. There would be holes in the galaxy if that happened more than once.
“Okay, so we need to get aboard to learn much more. I see there’s a docking bay, I think. And it’s powered up.”
“It is easy enough to accommodate both the Archetype and the Slipwing,” Sentinel said.
“Almost like it was made ready for us. Leira, you can come on in. We’ve found a place to land.”
“If you say so.”
As he aimed the Archetype for the docking bay yawning ahead, Dash could only hope there were no more malfunctions.
“Dash?” Leira asked.
“If I get shot by a groggy missile, do me a favor,” Leira said.
“Sure. Name it.”
“Teach the Archetype to duck.”
He laughed, and then the laugh died as the Forge filled his vision. “It’s first on my list of new tricks to learn. Promise.”
Dash watched as Leira brought the Slipwing through a force field covering the entrance to the docking bay. The distortion rippled slightly but didn’t hinder the ship’s passage. A silent tractor beam grabbed the Slipwing and guided it aboard, before it brought the ship to a slow stop and gently lowered it to the sweeping expanse of deck. He’d landed the Archetype without the benefit of the tractor, but the station apparently didn’t trust what it no doubt considered dangerously primitive technology. For that matter, neither did Dash, and he was as good a pilot as he knew. This was way beyond landing his ship on some trader station pulling a half g.
The ramp hatch dropped from the bottom of the Slipwing and Leira stepped down, followed by the others. All four gazed around with wide, bright eyes. The enormity of their situation echoed around them like a symphony made of wonder.
Amy said, “This is amazing.”
Viktor nodded. “I agree. It is. Very much so.”
The docking bay was enormous, a cavernous space that could have held another pair of Slipwing-sized ships, with room to spare. It was otherwise featureless—except, of course, for the huge expanse of space looming just beyond the invisible force field. The Unseen hadn’t hung any posters for the crew. It was all business, with the walls themselves being seamless except where access ports broke up the smooth surfaces.
Leira gazed back at the starfield making up one wall of the huge bay. “That much space, and no doors—it kind of freaks me out.”
The rest of them nodded. Passage, and stations like it, used huge, rolling doors to close off its hangars, emptying them of air to let ships dock, then pressurizing them afterward. There were force fields, but they were reserved for emergencies, being nowhere near reliable enough to use continuously, the way this one was. It was, Dash thought, like standing on the edge of a steep drop and feeling that weird pull—the one that inexplicably drew you toward the brink even when you knew you shouldn’t get any closer. He finally turned away, noting the others had done the same thing. It was an effort to shake off the call of the stars, and they all did it in their own way.
“Well,” Viktor finally said, “here we are.”
“Breathing two hundred thousand year old air.” Amy took a deep breath. “Not that it smells that old.”
It didn’t. In fact, the air smelled of essentially nothing. Again, aboard Passage, a hangar like this would reek of ozone, coolants, lubricants, hot metal components, and a thousand other things. This air, though, smelled of nothing at all.
“Actually, two hundred thousand year old air isn’t that special,” Conover said. “Technically, the air on any planet is...going to be…”
He trailed off, realizing that Viktor, Dash, and Leira were all giving him What the hell are you doing correcting her? looks.
Amy, though, just seemed to ignore his little lecture and pointed across the bay. “Look, there’s a doorway. We should go and check this place out.” The note of excitement in her voice was contagious, despite the awe they were all feeling.
Dash looked at Leira and Viktor, who just shrugged. He and Leira carried the ex-Clan Shirna plasma pistols, while the others had armed themselves with conventional slug pistols. They’d also decided to wear exosuits, but with the helmets off and slung, ready to put on in haste if they suddenly found themselves somewhere airless. So they were, indeed, as ready as they’d ever be to check this place out.
So Dash shrugged back, and then, without a pause, he led the way.
They reached the doorway, a squared arch that opened into a dark corridor. Dash switched on his suit lamp, but as soon as he stepped through the arch, lights flared to life, illuminating the passageway to a t-shaped junction maybe ten meters away.
“Well, that’s handy,” he said, continuing forward. He stopped at the junction, which revealed a corridor to the right, and another to the left, both dark. The boots of the others tapped softly on the floor, which seemed to be made of something hard, but slightly rubbery. Whatever it was, it absorbed sound and gave them some degree of support. It would have to, given that the Forge was big enough to make walking into a daily sport.
“I don’t think we should split up,” Viktor said, “but as long as we stay in line of sight of each other, we should be good to wander apart—but not too far. Understood?”
Amy nodded. “It sure would speed things up. How about I go that way,” she said, pointing to the left, “along with—”
“I’ll go with you,” Conover said.
Amy grinned at him. “Sure. Conover and I will go that way. The rest of you guys go the other?”
“Sure,” Dash said, a hand resting on the grip of his holstered pistol. “But my command for distance stands until we know this place inside and out. We’re in deep waters here, and I want us alert and close. That’s the way it’s going to be. You’re all too valuable. Got it?”
Everyone nodded. Dash led Leira and Viktor to the right, while Amy and Conover went left. The corridor immediately lit up as Dash started following it, revealing another intersecting cross corridor, then another doorway further along, and another T-junction beyond that.
“Uh, guys?” Amy called back. “The lights don’t seem to work in this direction.”
Amy and Conover had stopped at the limit of the existing light, the passage beyond them still plunged into darkness. Their suit lamps revealed more featureless corridor, the walls sapping light with each passing meter.
“Hold up. I’ve got to pick the path.” Dash gestured in the direction they’d been heading.
Leira hesitated. “You mean you don’t know, or can’t tell using Sentinel?”
“Sentinel is new here as well, but the lights are a resource I intend to use. We follow the lights.”
Amy and Conover came back and fell in behind them, and they resumed their way along the right-hand corridor until they reached an intersection, inky black and ominous. Dash just kept going until he reached the end, at the T-junction, and stopped again.
“Look,” Conover said, pointing the way they’d come. “Did the lights in that first corridor—the one we took out of the docking bay—go out?”
Dash peered back. Sure enough, the passage in question, the first one they’d followed, had gone dark.
“Well, maybe the lights only turn on when someone is actually using that corridor,” Dash said.
“So that corridor Amy and I tried is underpowered?” Conover said. “Seems like a systemic issue if it’s something as basic as lights.”
“Could be,” Dash said, then stood, head tilted, as he looked into the darkness where they’d come from. “Huh.”
“Huh?” Amy asked.
“Yeah… follow me.” Dash stepped back the way they had come, and the lights flared into life. “I thought so.” He flicked a glance back to the section of corridor where he’d been standing second earlier. It was now pitch dark.
Viktor said, “We can keep experimenting, but I think we’re going to find that the lights only come on for Dash.”
“So this place seems to recognize you,” Amy said.
He just shrugged, but Leira said, “He is the Messenger.”
Amy crossed her arms. “What, and we’re all just used hatch lube?”
Leira gave her a sly look. “Jealous, cuz?”
“Yeah, a little. Who wouldn’t be, having all”—she turned a circle, gesturing around as she did—“of this to play with?”
Dash scratched the back of his neck. “You know, it sounds like a lot of fun—until you’re stuck on board a spaceship that’s falling apart, your suit’s leaking air, and, oh yeah, a bunch of religious nutjobs are lining up for the chance to blow you away. Other than that, my new career has a lot of benefits. No dental plan, but the year is young.”
“You’ve got good teeth, so don’t sweat it. Also, we were about to be crushed in the atmosphere of a gas giant,” Leira said. “Let’s not forget that part.”
“Yeah, yeah. That too, if you consider being pulped by howling winds and pressure to be a bad thing.” Dash grinned.
Leira turned her grin into an exaggerated scowl, making Dash smile even wider. But it faded as he looked back along the corridor. “Regardless, I’m the light switch, or battery, or whatever. I guess you guys are kind of stuck with me, unless you want to go exploring with your suit lamps.”
Amy put on a mock thoughtful face. “Hmm. Follow you, the chosen one, through your new and awesome space station as it lights up around you, or go bumbling around in the dark with flashlights?” She put a finger on her chin. “Think I’m with you, sir.”
“Sir?” Dash acted surprised. “How did that taste?”
Amy laughed. “Not bad. Let’s go see the loot?”
Sure enough, the Forge seemed to respond to Dash’s presence as a kind of key. Not only did the lights activate in response to him entering a place, but doors would slide silently open at his approach, while remaining stubbornly closed for everyone else. Occasionally, some other system would appear to activate as well, panels illuminating as Dash entered a room, but whatever those systems did remained a mystery. They might very well have something to do with him being the Messenger, but Dash had visions of inadvertently rousing some sort of nasty security system—or just breaking something important due to inexperience with the exotic technology.
They spent the better part of an hour exploring, following passages, entering compartments, threading their way among cryptic machines and devices of unknown purpose. Amy, Conover, and Viktor tried to puzzle out what some of these might be, and how they operated, providing a running narrative of suppositions and what-ifs. With all the experience and technical minds in their group, the ideas were far from mere fancy. Engineering was a universal science, and Conover battled Amy for who got the most excited with every twist and turn of their path. Viktor, ever the veteran, took a more measured approach.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Dash told Conover with a smile, but the kid was too juiced to slow down. After a collective shrug, they moved on, the enormity of the Unseen pressing all around them with each passing step.
Leira, meanwhile, took a suggestion from Dash and maintained a map of their progress on her vacsuit’s computer. Periodically, she uploaded her progress to the rest of them, so everyone had a copy. It quickly became clear how good an idea this was, because without it, they probably would have ended up…well, maybe not hopelessly lost, but lost enough to spend a lot of time bumbling around, trying to find their relative location in a facility that boggled the mind. The Unseen didn’t just build. They built for effect, and they did so without any seeming cares regarding the laws of physics.
Eventually, they reached a door that wouldn’t open, even for Dash.
“Let me guess,” Dash said to the door, “you won’t open up until I find something, or fight something, or solve a puzzle or some such bullshit, will you?”
The door remained implacably quiet and closed.
“Apologies, Messenger, but I cannot discern a way to open it,” said Sentinel.
“Fine, be like that,” Dash said. “I left my keys back home anyway.” They turned away, back toward a corridor they hadn’t yet explored.
“I don’t think keys would matter. Not here,” Amy said.
“I know.” Dash tapped a metallic surface, earning a low thump that was almost musical. “They’re well beyond simple keys. I think they’re beyond locks, at least as we know them.”
“I locked myself in a bathroom once,” Conover said.
Dash looked down, and everyone else found a reason to look away, their laughter barely contained.
“I kinda wish I hadn’t said that,” Conover finished, his face turning crimson.
Viktor saved him. “Been there many times myself, kid.”
“Really?” Conover asked him with interest.
“No, but I couldn’t leave you hanging. We’re a team,” Viktor said, and then he did laugh, a low rumble that let Conover take steps with some shred of his dignity.
“Teamwork is critical to emotional development in young humans. It’s science,” Sentinel said.
“It—hey!” Conover said among the laughter ringing out from the crew.
“Was that all of your allotted sass, or just some?” Dash asked Sentinel.
“I would prefer not to say at this time,” Sentinel said.
“Understood. Young man, follow me,” Dash said to Conover. “And the adults as well.”
“Even the AI. Man,” Conover mumbled, and they all fought to contain their mirth, moving as one into the next section of charmless corridor.
By the end of the second hour, they’d found more doors that wouldn’t budge. Based on Leira’s map, the sealed doors seemed to block off a portion of the Forge around the docking bay—the only part of the station they could currently access.
“That may be the only part of this place that’s powered up,” Conover said. “The rest of the Forge might not have life support running.”
Amy nodded. “Good point, yeah. Sentinel did say this place was stuck in some sort of low-power mode, right?”
Conover’s mood lifted when Amy agreed with him. Leira smirked at the little display, then said, “This means we’ve explored…oh, something like a whole two percent of this place. If it all somehow gets fully powered up, and we can access the rest, it’s still going to take us ages to check it all out as a single group—and that’s if we can get the lights and doors to work without constantly having you nearby.”
“Not to mention that there are certain activities that you probably don’t want to have to be present for, Dash,” Viktor added.
Conover gave him a puzzled frown. “Like what?”
Amy leaned close to him. “He means using the toilet,” she said in a stage whisper.
“Oh.” Conover blinked at that. “Do you think this place even has toilets?”
The question actually intrigued Dash, but he added it to the list of things to deal with later. “For now, we don’t really have much choice. You guys are stuck with me. As for checking out the rest of this place, let’s worry about that when the time comes. And let’s hope the bathrooms don’t have locks.”
“Hah,” Conover said, but when Amy grinned at him, he tried to be calm. And failed, the hint of a grin creeping into his features.
“So,” Leira said, pointing at the map, “if we’re taking this rough cube I’ve mapped out as the part of the Forge we currently can access, then this blank bit right here is the only part of it we haven’t visited.”
“So let’s go check it out then head back to the docking bay,” Dash said. “All that talk about using the toilet—not to mention being free of the suit for a moment.”
“Yeah, me too,” Viktor said, and the rest of them gave quick nods. The vacsuits were designed to accommodate their bodily functions, but they didn’t do it comfortably, or well. Even the most hardened spacefarer considered it a last resort sort of thing.
As they approached the last door in the powered-up section they hadn’t yet explored, it struck Dash as different. It was taller, wider, and more substantial than other doors they’d encountered. Even if it had just been made of known alloys and composites, it likely would have withstood a serious blast. Made by the Unseen, it might as well have been indestructible. Whatever lay behind it must be important. Or dangerous. Maybe both.
Dash had expected to walk up to it and just be forced to just stop, their way again blocked. But the door slid smoothly aside, opening onto a darkened compartment with a susurrating whoosh that let air flow out fast enough to feel on their suits. Again, this one was obviously different than the others they’d entered. Myriad lights glowed in the gloom, not bright enough to fully illuminate the space, but enough to outline an area much larger than any other they’d encountered, except for the docking bay itself.
Dash stepped through the doorway, and the room filled with brilliant light.
“This place would easily fit the Slipwing, with some room to spare,” Dash said.
But his gaze only roamed briefly, before settling on something dominating the middle of the big compartment. A massive cylinder rose at least five meters tall, its glassy surface alive with a multitude of flickering lights. Around it squatted an array of smaller cylinders, cubes, and what were either pipes or conduits, some of which were also lit, and all of which meant absolutely nothing to him. The sense of complexity and importance was unmistakable. The design was utterly alien.
For a while, they all just stood and stared.
Amy finally broke the silence. “I don’t know what any of this is, but it’s awesome!”
Viktor nodded. “It’s obviously something—well, it’s a hub, it’s in the center of the station, and it’s incredibly complicated.”
“For all we know, it’s a sculpture.” Leira smiled. “Or a bathroom.”
Conover said nothing and simply walked a short distance away, eyeing the massive device dominating the center of the chamber. Around the huge object, other machines and bits of cryptic gear filled much of the space around it. “Whatever it is, it seems to be active all of the time, and not just when Dash is here.”
“Maybe it switched on right before the door opened,” Amy said.
“Maybe,” Viktor said. “But that would still be different than anything we’ve encountered yet. And I can’t help feeling different also means critical.” He looked at Dash. “If the Unseen wanted you to come here, there must have been a reason for it.” He gestured at the thing dominating the room. “This could very well be it, or it might be something that points you in the right direction, at least.”
“The man speaks wisely,” Dash said. “So, here I go, once again exposing myself to yet another alien something, albeit a beautifully designed flosnagar.”
Amy giggled. “Exposing yourself to a flosnagar. Hey, what’s a flosnagar?”
“That, my dear, is the device you see before you,” Dash said with some dignity. “Although I just made it up.” Taking a breath, he approached the cylindrical thing looming over the room.
Nothing. He stopped within arm’s reach of it, reached out, and touched the nearest part of it, one of the cubes.
“Alrighty then,” Dash said.
And then the world changed.
That became information.
That became knowledge, that, in turn, became experience.
A flood of knowing crashed through Dash like a breaking wave, a torrential deluge of understanding far greater than anything he’d been through before. His Meld with the Sentinel, or with the Unseen outposts, seemed barely a trickle compared to this. It submerged him like a riptide, threatening to wash away his consciousness, his very identity, and sweep it off into oblivion. An instant before he stopped being Dash entirely though, the torrent slowed, giving him a chance to grab onto his idea of self like a tether and just desperately hang onto it, his psyche clutching at straws in order to maintain some connection with the world that he thought of as real.
“Your mental processes are surprisingly fragile,” a resonant voice said. “I have adjusted the data stream to compensate.”
Dash found himself standing nowhere, surrounded by absolutely nothing. It wasn’t even emptiness, because even that would have been something. This was somehow actually nothing.
The experience of it—the very idea of it—should have twisted his mind so much it would never again unwind. But, as his sense of self reasserted itself, he realized that he had been here before. Every time he traveled aboard the Archetype, through unSpace, he’d been immersed in this uttermost nothing. This was unSpace, and he was somehow in it, having translated in some cryptic way from real space. Without the solid presence of the Archetype to enclose him, it left him fully exposed to it, a wrenching and terrifying existence in a void so far from human experience, it should have reduced him to a gibbering, empty-minded ruin.
But it didn’t. Instead, he was here, and so was that voice.
“You are the Messenger.”
“I apparently am.”
“You are a far more unimpressive life-form than I had anticipated.”
“Thank you. No offense taken.”
“It is of no consequence. The mere fact that you are here means you are adequate.”
“I’m guessing that’s as close as you’re ever come to a compliment. Speaking of which, you are?”
“I am Custodian. I oversee the Forge on behalf of the Creators.”
“Custodian. Okay. Say, do you happen to know Sentinel?”
“The intelligence that oversees the Archetype, yes.”
“I joined the data stream when you did,” Sentinel said, startling Dash. “I am always with you, even in the presence of Custodian. It is my duty to you, Messenger, and I shall see it through.”
“So now I get to contend with not just one, but two super-intelligent alien AIs. I have mixed feelings about this, given your level of complexity. And borderline sarcasm.”
“You are the Messenger,” Custodian replied. “Your implication that Sentinel and I somehow stand in opposition to you is erroneous. There would be no point to such behavior, given the objectives of the Creators.”
“Yeah, well, if you were me, you might look at things a little differently.” Dash thought about looking around, but there was no around to look at. “So why am I here? For that matter, how am I here? Is this really unSpace?”
“To the extent that your limited senses are able to perceive it, yes, at least in part. You are actually in the Dark Between, which is how you are able to maintain a semblance of physical existence.”
“The Dark Between. That’s the place that’s somehow between real space and unSpace, right? It’s kind of neither, but also both at once?”
“That is essentially correct. The world the Unseen have left behind is far more complex than what you once knew, although the Unseen linger on as data, and memory, and a guiding direction intended to rid your people of the Golden. There is no middle ground to be found between life and the Golden. There is only victory or utter defeat, and my Creators have left behind a legacy that is far more than what you would consider ghosts in the darkness. The Unseen were peerless in creating sharp objects designed to kill the Golden, and your purpose will be fulfilled here in the Dark Between—and beyond. As for how you came to be here, you are the Messenger. The Creators put in place the means of you coming here.”
“When you installed that last power core in the Archetype, it gave you the ability to be recognized by Custodian as the Messenger,” Sentinel said. “That is why you are able to access the Forge and have been incorporated into its data stream. It also gave you the ability to perceive, and have limited access to, the Dark Between.”
“Great. So does that mean I can finally get some questions answered?”
“That depends on the question,” Custodian said.
“Well, sure. I’m assuming you wouldn’t be able to answer what the entire purpose of this is? Beyond the simple defense of life, or something else grand like that?”
“I am not aware of any objectively correct answer to that question.”
Actually, Dash was kind of glad Custodian couldn’t give an answer to that one, because he was by no means sure he would have been happy with whatever it was. As he walked the halls of the Forge, it became apparent that the galaxy wasn’t just in a state of ancient war—the entirety of the war was tilted against humanity, and he was, in his core, an optimist.
“Fine,” he said. “So let’s try this. What’s this Forge all about? Why does it exist? I was pretty much pushed to come here—”
“You were made aware of the existence of the Forge,” Sentinel said. “But your choice to come here was yours. That fact is crucial, given the context of the Creators’ intentions.”
“Okay, sure. In any case, here I am. Now what?”
"The Forge exists because of the Archetype,” Custodian said. “The Creators built the Forge in order to allow them to construct the Archetype and then provide for its ongoing needs.”
“So this place—all of this enormous station—exists only as the place where the Archetype was built, and then to act like a sort of repair facility to keep it going? That seems like overkill.”
“The Creators’ intent was to develop a number of constructs such as the Archetype, all of which would be operated from this place.”
“Ahh. So where are these other Archetypes?” Dash wondered if that was where this was headed—if there might be four more of them, one intended for each of the others that had accompanied him, and that they’d all been meant to come here. It would be nice, he thought, to start sharing the job of Messenger. Besides, he could imagine Amy just losing her shit over the chance to pilot an Archetype of her very own.
“Only one Archetype was ever constructed.”
That brought Dash’s flight of fancy to a crashing halt. “Only one? Why?”
“I do not possess that information,” Custodian said. “The Creators never saw fit to provide it to me.”
“You don’t know.”
“I believe that is what I just said.”
“You will find,” Sentinel said dryly, “that the Messenger has an almost obsessive need to simplify concepts to an extreme degree.”
“To what end? The ability of the data stream to communicate complex concepts is essentially unlimited.”
“Uh, guys? Much as I’d love to stand around here and listen to you discuss how simple I am, I have a few more questions. If it isn’t too much trouble, that is. It may surprise you that the Messenger is, in fact, capable of nuanced thought. So let’s get on the same page and begin planning how to save the galaxy, shall we?”
Silence followed. Dash took it to mean the two AIs were waiting for him to go on. “So this Forge exists to support the Archetype. What does that mean, exactly? And I’m going to need details within a context of military applications.” He pointed toward where the Archetype was located with some emphasis. “That is a weapon like no other, and this place is more than just a floating barracks for service techs.”
“The Forge is capable of performing any necessary repairs that the Archetype may require,” Custodian replied. “Because the original intent was to provide for several such constructs, there are, practically speaking, limitless quantities of raw materials available, from which any necessary components may be fabricated.”
“That’s fantastic. It actually took a bit of a beating on the way here, in fact, from missiles that I assume you must have launched at us. Let’s make a note not to do that in the future, shall we?”
“The low-power state of the Forge inhibits efficient operation of its systems. The attack on you was triggered by an automatic failsafe, because of an inability to conclusively identify the Archetype as genuine.”
“Understood,” Dash said. “It’s ancient history now. But it means you can fix it.”
“Oh—wait. Can you fabricate power cores, too? It would save chasing all over the galactic arm trying to gather them up.”
“No. The fabrication of power cores is not within the current capabilities of the Forge.”
“Okay, I can see where that’s going. Once I’ve found them all, you’ll probably be able to make replacements. But until then, nothing.”
“I cannot say if that is true.”
“Okay, so there are some systemic limitations, but even so, this is far beyond anything humans have ever seen before. Can you fix my ship, too?”
“What purpose would that serve? It is an inefficient use of resources.”
“Again, you will find that the Messenger is closely bonded with his vessel, as well as the other life-forms aboard it,” Sentinel supplied. “He will incur great risk to protect both. It is not surprising, therefore, that he seeks to ensure that it, and they, can also be maintained.”
“To reiterate, it is inefficient, and a poor use of resources,” Custodian said. “But it is possible, yes, albeit to the point of being trivial.”
“You could have just said yes and kept the peace between us.”
“The bigger issue is the power state of the Forge,” Custodian said. “Shedding the protective shell of the moon depleted much of the remaining reserves. What is left is sufficient for only minimal function.”
“That’s why most of the place is dark,” Dash said. “It’s all shut down to conserve power.”
“That is correct.”
“Okay. So how do we power it back up?”
“Fully powering the Forge requires installation of power cores.”
“Oh, of course.” Dash let a breath trickle out through his nose as he stared upward. “You can’t make cores, and I understand that, but prior to this conversation moving forward, along with our war effort, let’s clarify a couple points.”
“I am listening, Messenger.”
Dash felt a wintry smile cross his features. “I’m glad you chose that term. From this point on, I don’t want to try out for the team.”
“What does that mean?” Custodian asked.
“It means I’m the Messenger, and a proven pilot. It means my ship is a valuable shooting platform that we need, regardless of your disdain for the technology that keeps her running. It means—and this is the critical part—that I don’t want to waste another second passing some test designed to see if I’m worthy of being the Messenger. That’s already a known fact, and we don’t have the time to waste.”
“Any tests designed to—” Custodian began, but Dash spoke over the voice without hesitation.
“Irrelevant. I understand the wisdom of the Unseen, or at least I’m getting a feel for it, but sending me to find power cores as some kind of skill test isn’t just wasteful, it’s dangerous. From a tactical standpoint, it’s risky. From a strategic standpoint, it’s stupid, and I won’t allow us to go down that path. Does that make sense?”
“Perfectly, and I assure you, there are no tests in your future other than the rigors of battle,” Custodian said.
“Good. Now explain why we’re in semi-darkness, if you will.”
“In the case of the Forge, there is a practical reason the power cores are not installed. The ones used here degrade over time. Accordingly, they are kept in stasis fields that preserve them. The cores that you immediately need will be found aboard the Forge.”
“Oh. Well, that’s something, at least.”
Dash stared, formulating his next question, but before he had a chance, another wave of change slammed his awareness into oblivion, and the world he knew came apart at the seams.
“Dash? Dash, can you hear me? Dash!”
“Is he even breathing?”
The voices seemed to emanate from a dazzling glare of light. A bright light. I’ve heard of this, Dash thought. Going into a bright light. That was what dying was like, apparently.
Dash panicked, thrashing, trying to turn aside from the light. Something pressed down on him.
“Dash! It’s okay!”
He blinked up at a fuzzy shape. “Leira?”
She nodded. “You’re awake, Dash. Just take it easy.”
“Guess he was breathing after all,” Amy said.
Dash blinked and looked around. The others crowded around him—no, above him.
Oh. He was lying down.
“Help me…get back up,” he croaked.
They maneuvered him to his feet. They were still in the chamber that contained Custodian. That’s what the massive cylinder, and the other devices surrounding it, were. It was Custodian, or a part of it at least.
“What happened?” Conover asked.
Dash groaned. He felt like he’d been dragged behind a ship doing a full-power fusion burn. “First, you guys tell me what happened here. What did you see? Did you hear Custodian?”
The others exchanged blank looks. Viktor said, “Custodian? What’s that?”
“You walked up to that thing,” Amy said, waving a hand toward the looming cylinder with a look of suspicion, “and then you just sort of fell down. You were out cold.”
“For how long?”
“Maybe thirty seconds,” Conover said.
Thirty seconds. Dash’s conversation with Custodian and Sentinel had seemed to last a lot longer than that. And now as soon as he thought about it, it all came flooding back to him, like a breeze rolling back thick fog.
He recounted what had happened in a toneless report, pausing occasionally to add clarity or sensation.
“You were in unSpace?” Viktor asked, his bushy eyebrows lifting. “As in, you were there bodily, without a ship?”
“As far as I understand it…sort of?”
Amy whistled. “Holy crap, what was that like?”
Dash looked at her. “You ever been to the beach?”
“Have I ever?” She shrugged. “Sure. Once, on Sagan’s Landing.”
“Well, it was nothing like that.”
The first of the Forge’s power cores proved remarkably easy to retrieve, being in the same room as Custodian. Dash walked a few meters, touched one of the cryptic polyhedral constructs scattered around the chamber, and it vanished as though it had never existed. What remained was a squat, hexagonal rod of dark crystal, with bronze-toned cylinders a few centimeters long emerging from either end. Before he could reach for it, though, a deep voice resonated through the room.
“Do not attempt to touch it until you have deactivated its stasis enclosure.”
Amy yelped when Custodian spoke; the others looked around, instinctively trying to find the speaker.
“I assume that’s Guardian, I think you called it?” Leira said.
“Custodian. Everybody, meet Custodian. Custodian, this is everybody.” He looked back at the power core. Nothing about it even hinted it was enclosed in a stasis field, but now that he thought about grabbing it, he knew he shouldn’t. His senses sang with a primal warning, loud and clear. Instead, he needed to touch a sequence of colored panels on another of the devices nearby, this one a slender tetrahedron.
“Just out of curiosity,” he asked Custodian, “what would have happened if I’d just scooped the thing up?”
“In a manner similar to what happens on the event horizon of a black hole, in your frame of reference, your hand would seem to move ever more slowly, until it appeared to stop. It would then take an infinitely long time to reach the core.”
“Oh, wow,” Amy said, her eyes wide. “And in your hand’s frame of reference, nothing would change—but you’d go slower and slower, until you were stuck, I guess, reaching for the core for the rest of eternity.” Her eyes shone as she worked through the implications. “That is so cool!”
Conover nodded, his eyes on Amy. “Yes. It is cool.” He turned to Dash. “Probably not very good for you, though.”
“So, what then?” Dash went on, speaking to Custodian. “I’m just stuck like that forever, reaching into eternity?”
“The effects of such an anomaly are difficult to predict, because they depend on the specific space-time conditions local to the anomaly when it forms,” Custodian replied. “The most likely outcome would be a severe spatial distortion.”
“That sounds bad,” Dash said, entering the last of the sequence. “Maybe you should put up a warning sign or something. The idea of warping space with a touch is disconcerting, to say the least. We haven’t even hung curtains yet.”
“Curtains?” Custodian asked.
Dash waved a hand. “Decorative fabric to add a homey touch. We won’t need them here, although at some point, I wouldn’t mind a bar.”
“Or a pool,” Amy said.
“There are bars of various metals, as well as pools of liquids designed for—” Custodian said, but Dash laughed and cut him off.
“You teach me about containment systems, and I’ll teach you how to live,” Dash said. “Safely, of course.”
“This power core was locked away inside a container probably only you could open, Dash,” Leira said. “On board a self-aware alien space station, that was itself locked away inside a moon. I think it was probably pretty safe.”
“Don’t underestimate what someone can manage when they think vast wealth is on the line.”
“Someone like you, you mean,” Leira said.
“And you. Don’t tell me this place doesn’t make your eyes water a bit at the thought of its value.”
Leira shrugged. “You got me there.” Then she smiled, knowing Dash was right. The Forge was mindboggling on so many levels, each passing moment making them think of another angle that the Unseen technology presented.
Dash turned to the core. Nothing had seemed to change.
“How do I know that stasis field is really gone?” he asked Custodian.
“You have successfully deactivated it.”
He looked at the others. “You know, maybe you guys should go back to the Slipwing, take her away from here while I—”
Amy snapped, “Oh, stop being a weenie,” and reached for the core.
Dash though he could feel the adrenaline squirting into his bloodstream, like the spray from a broken hydraulic line. He started to move, to open his mouth, but Amy just grabbed the core and hefted it. Seeing everyone gaping at her, she just grinned and said, “What? Custodian said the stasis field was switched off.” She offered the core to Dash. “You’ve come a little too far along this road, Dash, to suddenly stop trusting these aliens, don’t you think?”
Taking the core, he nodded toward Amy’s suit. “What’s that stain?”
She looked down. “Candy, why?”
“Did you drop it?”
“And you loved candy, right?” Dash said, holding the core with ease.
“Well, yeah, but I was—”
Dash grinned. “Then maybe I’m not worried about the Unseen. Maybe I’m worried about your grip.”
Amy looked sheepish, then embarrassed. “Oh.”
Viktor gave Amy a fond smile and said, “For a young engineer who forever seems to need a good scrubbing, you are very wise, Amy.”
Conover nodded. “You are. Very wise.”
“But at some point, you need to understand that Dash is something we aren’t, and act accordingly,” Viktor continued.
“Which is?” Amy asked.
Dash turned on his heel, taking the power core to its receptacle. “The Messenger, of course.” He inserted the core with an ease that surprised even him, and he grinned broadly. “And a handyman.”
As soon as he installed the core, many more of the otherwise lifeless devices clustered around Custodian flashed to life. That was, it turned out, the only core and receptacle in Custodian’s chamber. The other receptacles were in the engine room, in a part of the Forge that had been powered down and, until now, inaccessible, at least without a vacsuit. Thanks to the new core, Custodian was able to restore life support to that section, along with two other sections containing further cores.
The Guardian explained that the remaining cores were scattered around the rest of the Forge; the stasis fields containing them required a minimum separation, because the Unseen had a penchant for adding extra steps to everything. Even something as mundane as turning off a shield.
Custodian was now also able to keep life support, including lights, operating when Dash wasn’t in the immediate vicinity. Some compartments, however, remained closed to Leira and the others. Still, it made exploring the station easier, since Dash no longer needed to try and be everywhere at once.
“Where do we start?” Leira asked.
Dash knew before she’d finished speaking. “Engine room.”
The engine room, it turned out, was a truly vast space located only a short distance from Custodian’s compartment. It contained a multitude more of the mysterious, polyhedral things that were coming to embody Unseen tech for Dash. A few of these were huge, including a massive octahedron that seemed composed of something frozen halfway in a transition from metal to crystal, but that also had a rather unsettling organic look to it. It was the eight power core receptacles that snagged his attention, though.
“Eight? I only know where to find two more! Where are the rest?”
“In currently inaccessible portions of the Forge,” Custodian replied.
“Let me guess—those two will let you power up some of those parts, so we can get a couple more, and then power up more parts of the thing.”
In other words, another puzzle, albeit one with a definite ending. The upside of the search was power on a scale that made Viktor and Conover giddy. Amy was nearly overwhelmed by it all, and Conover was still overwhelmed by Amy.
Conover and Amy in tow, Dash headed for the first of the accessible cores. Leira and Viktor had returned to the Slipwing to take a break, eat, and begin a diagnostic on what the ship might need for full fighting readiness. As they made their way along the empty corridors, Viktor’s voice came over the comm.
“You’ll be glad to know, Dash, that the Archetype seems to be almost fully repaired now, based on looking at it from the outside.”
Dash thought about the damage done by the exploding missile to the Archetype’s hand. Based on past experience, he’d expected it to take much longer than this, and said as much to Sentinel.
"The Forge is equipped to facilitate rapid repairs on the Archetype. Remember, that is essentially the reason this station was created in the first place.”
“Good point. And good to know.” He looked at Amy and Conover. “Sounds like we might be calling the Forge home, at least for a while.”
Amy grinned. “Sounds good to me.” Her enthusiastic answer was just short of a shout.
Conover just gave her the same attentive look he did whenever she spoke. Dash made a mental note to have a quiet chat with the kid. Conover obviously had no experience with women, which made him think about his own experiences with women—and there were a lot of them, the vast majority of which were complicated, even in the best circumstances. For now, in an ancient relic on the brink of galactic war, a crush took on levels of complexity Dash couldn’t imagine, but he couldn’t let it dilute their effectiveness as a team.
Yeah, maybe he should have Viktor speak to the kid instead, but if it came down to it, he could step in. Puppy love or not, Conover was a critical part of their team, and watching him drool through his days was going to cause problems sooner rather than later.
After what felt like hours of trudging along corridors and through compartments crammed with yet more of the enigmatic Unseen tech, they retrieved the two cores and returned with them to the engine room. As he put the second one into place with a satisfying thunk, more of the engine room flared to life. Dash stepped back and looked around. One of the devices that hunkered nearby, a cube about as square as Dash was tall, suddenly vanished, revealing receptacles for two more power cores.
Dash rubbed a hand through his hair. “This sucks a bit.”
Amy giggled, but Dash decided to just ignore it for now. Instead, he said to Custodian, “I know this is called the engine room, but are any of these things actually, you know, engines? Can the Forge actually move under its own power?”
“When fully powered up,” Custodian said, "The Forge is, indeed, capable of limited—”
Then there was silence. Dash tensed. When Sentinel went abruptly silent, it inevitably meant something was up—and so far, it had never been a good something.
“An object has just translated from unSpace and entered this star system. Now there are several such objects,” Custodian said in its resonant male voice.
Dash cursed. “How many? And what are they?”
“There are twenty-four objects, inbound at high acceleration.”
“We need to get back to the docking bay,” Conover said.
Dash felt a flash of irritation, then pushed it aside. When he looked at Leira, she tilted her head in question.
“Fight now. Rest later,” Dash said.
Leira shook her head. “Not for you. You’re the Messenger, and I don’t think you get days off.”
They’d started back to the docking bay at a quick walk, which became a jog, and then a run as Custodian reported the insane velocity the two-dozen inbound whatevers had achieved, and in a stunningly short period of time. That sort of acceleration would have ripped the Slipwing apart, which meant these things had to be advanced alien tech—and since neither Sentinel nor Custodian could readily identify it, it meant it probably wasn’t Unseen tech. As he sprinted into the docking bay, he wheezed out, “You sure…it’s just…like when we entered the…the system? You couldn’t…properly ID us…either.”
“The power cores you have installed have restored close to full sensor capability,” Custodian replied. “These objects, to the extent of the information I have available, do not correspond with anything of the Creators’ design.”
Dash stopped near the Archetype, catching his breath, glad they had ditched the cumbersome vacsuits once it was clear Custodian wouldn’t let them wander into places without working life support. Leaning on his knees and gasping, he said, “Okay, so either it’s something…the Unseen made, and didn’t tell you about, or…”
“Or they belong to the Golden,” Viktor said, ushering Amy and Conover aboard the Slipwing, which Leira was already powering up.
Conover stopped on the Slipwing’s ramp and called back, “It could also be a third alien race, one we haven’t encountered yet.”
Dash straightened. “I’d prefer it wasn’t that, but we should be ready for anything.”
Viktor hurried Conover aboard the Slipwing and closed the ramp. Dash, in turn, clambered aboard the Archetype. As he settled into the cradle, he said to Sentinel, “We ready? Did everything get fixed?”
“All of the Archetype’s systems are optimal—”
Then there was silence again.
Dash gave an inward groan. “Now what?”
A searing blast of energy struck the force field across the entrance to the docking bay, leaving it scintillating with flickering discharges. Faint tremors ran through the Forge from what were probably incoming shots.
Dash turned and flung himself from the bay, toward the starfield beyond it. “Holy hell, they’re already in shooting range?”
“So it would appear,” Sentinel said.
The last flares of discharging energy held by the force field washed over the Archetype as it raced out of the Forge. The Slipwing lifted, spun around, and zoomed out after him.
As soon as he was clear of the bay, Dash could make out details of their attackers.
He laughed. “Seriously? These things are tiny…like, what? A meter long?”
“Dash, do you remember the Fangrats?” Leira said.
“Ah. Yeah, good point.”
The little ships—drones, actually, of a type close to something already held in the Archetype’s database of Golden tech—zoomed around the Forge like a swarm of angry gnats. Dash picked out two, which were racing through a high-G turn to come back for another pass at the Forge, and loosed missiles at them, targeting a third with the dark-lance. One of the missiles locked, but the other drone managed to emit some sort of modulated energy pulse that deflected the other. The dark-lance puffed its target into metallic dust.
Dash saw the Slipwing open up with her particle cannons. The beams slammed into a drone, a solid hit that should have shredded it. But the Slipwing might as well have been shining a flashlight at the drone, since it just seemed to ignore the incoming fire. He heard someone—either Amy or Leira—curse.
“Leira,” Dash said, wrenching the Archetype through severe-G turns of it own as he tried to chase down the drones, “much as I love my Slipwing, I don’t think she’s cut out for this fight.”
“I agree, but I doubt we can outrun these things.”
He watched a drone snap through a nearly ninety-degree turn, shedding almost no velocity as it did. “I doubt it, too. Your best bet is to get back aboard the Forge.”
A drone hit the Slipwing squarely with another of those ferocious blasts of energy. Dash’s heart slammed to a stop—then started again as he saw his ship race away from the explosion, a glowing wake of vaporized ablative armor trailing behind her.
Dash gaped. “Holy shit, are you guys okay?”
“Shaken up,” Viktor replied, coming on the comm. “Leira somehow managed to anticipate that, so most of it missed.”
“That’s because she’s a damned good pilot.”
“I’ll remember you said that,” Leira said. “Okay, we’re almost back aboard the Forge. Dash?”
“Go get ‘em.”
Jackknifing like a diver, Dash snapped the Archetype through a fast turn, pulsing out shots from the dark-lance as he did. He pulverized two more drones that almost managed to dodge his shots—almost. As he did, another drone caught him squarely with an energy blast. Then another. Dash actually cried out at the injuries, but doggedly kept the Archetype zooming around the Forge—sometimes only a few meters above its surface—and focused on destroying the miserable little drones, one by one.
At one point, three came tearing in at him in tight formation; somehow, they were able to combine their individual shots into a single, colossal discharge. He leapt aside, but the fringe of the blast still vaporized a large chunk of the Archetype’s left foot, sending a phantom pain that didn’t feel imaginary at all. Dash yelped, flipped onto his back, and fired the distortion cannon, causing all three drones to crash together, a single tangle of wreckage that plummeted toward the gas giant, streaming debris that began to spin wildly as it descended at meteoric speed.
Time passed, a blur of thrusting hard, spinning, somersaulting, and dodging—snapping out shots and loosing missiles until they were spent. Dash jerked hard against the bounds of physics, picking off one drone with a shot to its underside, then streaking through the debris field like an avenging angel to hammer two more drones with his metallic fists. He seized the closest and used it as a missile, clashing the broken drone against a working model that was trying to evade him at a range of less than fifty meters.
The drone he threw hammered its partner, sending fragments of bright metal whirling away as Dash closed the gap, seized the damaged drone, and crushed it like a bug, earning a flash of bright light as the shell imploded.
By the time the last of the drones had been reduced to whirling fragments, Dash felt he’d been fighting for hours nonstop, so he slumped in the Archetype’s cradle. His body ached, as though he’d just spent a day driving it through a hard regimen of calisthenics. It wasn’t until there were no more targets that he realized the Forge hadn’t fired a shot. Anger flaring nova-hot, he focused it on Custodian.
“A little help would have been pretty damned nice, since you’re supposed to exist to support the Messenger, right?”
Custodian’s bland reply didn’t improve his mood. "The Forge lacks sufficient power to activate its weapon systems.”
Dash opened his mouth to fire back a curse-laden reply. But what was the point? Custodian would just keep replying with the maddingly infinite patience of a machine. “Then we remedy that before another flock of those little bastards can find us.”
He let the Archetype drift through the force field and prepared to land in the docking bay beyond it. At the last instant, Sentinel briefly took control, reorienting and rotating the mech to land on its hands and knees instead.
“The damage to the Archetype’s left foot currently precludes a standing posture,” Sentinel said. Dash wasn’t inclined to argue. He just wanted to get out of this cradle, out of these sweaty clothes, into a shower, and then into his bunk.
“Dash?” Conover’s voice hummed with anxious tension.
He looked at the Slipwing. “I see you guys made it back in one piece. And it looks like I have too, so you don’t have to worry,” Dash said.
“No, it’s not that. How many of those drones did you kill?” Conover asked.
“Twenty-three,” Sentinel said. “Damned fine shooting, as your people are fond of saying.”
“There were twenty-four,” Leira said.
“Damn. One got away.” Dash sounded tired, and more than a little frustrated.
“No,” Leira said, “it didn’t. We can see it right now. It’s stuck onto the back of the Archetype. You just brought it aboard the Forge.”
He cursed viciously under his breath, then tensed, about to try to reach behind the Archetype’s back, but caught himself. “Okay, I’m going to leave the Forge again to attack from the exterior.” He made to push backward, shoving the mech back out into space, but damage to its thrusters precluded that, earning another curse. Dash swallowed hard. He’d have to do this the hard way—the really hard way, because the Archetype couldn’t stand up. Slowly, he lifted his arm, and lowered it, then the other, then one knee, ponderously rotating the mech back toward the docking bay’s opening on its hands and knees.
He did it slowly, too, creeping around in a wide circle, each motion absent any kind of the elegance he’d come to associate with the Archetype. Not that it would likely make any difference. It wasn’t like some skittish critter clung to the Archetype, and he didn’t want to startle it. A single one of those energy blasts, in this confined space of the docking bay, would vaporize everything and everyone inside it. For that matter, he was surprised it hadn’t already happened.
“Look,” Dash said, heart banging against his ribs, “you guys don’t have time to get back aboard the Slipwing. Just get into the Forge, as far as you can, and—”
“That will not be necessary,” Custodian said.
“Why not? You have some alien trick up your sleeve?” He turned the Archetype faster now but was still only about halfway through rotating himself back toward the bay’s opening. “Please tell me you have an alien trick. Not up your sleeve, since you don’t have arms, but in reserve, let’s say.”
“The drone has been neutralized,” Custodian replied. "The Forge’s internal security effects are sufficiently powerful to suppress its functions.”
Dash stopped. “You mean you were able to turn it off?”
“Essentially. I am now employing a series of virtual attacks against it, to gain access to its systems.”
Dash waited. “Guys? Conover? Is anything happening out there?”
Amy answered. “Nope. That thing’s just sitting on your back. Hasn’t turned us all to clouds of glowing mist, though.”
“Yet,” Viktor replied.
Dash looked at the others clustered near the Slipwing, watching the silent drama play out. “Viktor’s got a point. This could still go really wrong, really fast. Maybe you guys should go take cover.”
“Custodian has breached the drone’s security system,” Sentinel announced. “I have assumed full control of it.”
Dash blinked sweat from his eyes. “Really? Then shut it down!”
Dash let out a long, slow breath. “Okay, know what? I’m going for something to eat, a shower, and a few hours of sleep. If the Golden show up for another round, just tell them they’re going to have to wait.”
“So that’s what Golden tech looks like,” Viktor said.
They’d gathered around the dormant drone, which the Guardian had transported, by means of tractor fields, to another, smaller docking bay. Dash still worried that it might somehow manage to reactivate itself; after all, if this was Golden tech, then it was every bit as advanced as that of the Unseen. But the Guardian insisted that the sheer power of the Forge’s security systems—at least compared to those of the drone—were more than enough to prevent it from coming back to life.
“I wonder what the point was then, if it was never going to be able to do anything once it got aboard,” Leira said. “Other than handing us an intact drone, that is.”
Amy knelt beside the little device, peering at the smooth, carapace-like curves. “I was thinking that maybe it was to try and spy on us, but we noticed it right away.” She looked back at the others. “Can’t imagine these Golden, whoever they are, would be that careless?”
Viktor crossed his arms. “My bet would be on something a lot more straightforward, like trying to blow the hell out of the Forge from the inside. Lot bigger boom if you’re on this side of the force fields.”
Dash nodded. “I’m with Viktor. I don’t think this was intended to be anything subtle or clever, like spying.” He turned his attention to Sentinel and Custodian. “What do you guys think? A clumsy stab at spying on us, or a sneak attack?”
“There is insufficient information to know for certain,” Sentinel said. “And with the drone completely powered down, I cannot determine anything further from it.”
“Any answer would be purely speculative,” Custodian added. “However, the balance of probability suggests it was intended as an attack.”
“So if we do want to learn more,” Leira said, “we need to power it back up—at least partially.”
Dash shook his head. “Yeah, no. I don’t think we’ll be doing that. I’m quite happy just keeping it as a trophy, unless I have some solid assurance it can’t rearm itself as a killing blow.”
“This is a pretty good opportunity to learn about the Golden, though,” Leira said, negotiating.
“I get that, but the risk is just too great without more information, and I’m not going to crack that thing open without—what are you doing?” Dash said.
Amy reached out and touched a finger to it. Dash tensed—but nothing happened.
“What if we take it off the Forge to somewhere else? Examine it there?”
“Then it probably will come back to life,” Dash said, more than a little bemused that he, of all people, suddenly seemed to be the voice of cautious reason. “The security systems here wouldn’t be able to keep it suppressed, or whatever.”
“But doesn’t your Sentinel have control of it?”
“Sure, for now.”
“We don’t have to take if off the Forge to study it,” said Conover. “And we don’t have to power it up, either.”
They all stared at him.
Conover shrugged. “I’ve been looking at it.” He pointed at his eyes. “You know—looking at it.”
That made Dash’s brow furrow. Conover had implants in his eyes that let him look at tech and discern a great deal about its inner workings. It worked exceptionally well with mundane tech, like the Slipwing’s systems. But when he’d tried it on Unseen tech, on the star-destroying device known simply as the Lens, it hadn’t gone nearly so smoothly.
“The last time you used that on alien tech, it took you offline,” Viktor said, beating Dash to a voicing an objection. “You really shouldn’t be doing it now—at least, not without talking to the rest of us about it first.”
“Especially,” Dash added, “since this tech belongs to the Golden, and they’re unquestionably the bad guys.”
Conover peered around at the disapproving looks and drooped a bit. “Well, I’ve been experimenting with ways of examining this stuff more…well, carefully, so that isn’t as likely to happen. Dammit, I—I’m trying. I’m at the limits of my ability, but I’m being as safe as I can.”
Amy shrugged. “Eh, you seem fine, so whatever you’re doing must be working. Anyway, now that you’ve done it, what can you tell us?”
Her cheerful reply helped Conover’s mood. “Well, right about there, um—” He pointed to a spot on the drone. “There’s what I think is a data module. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t do any processing on its own, so it’s dumb. We should be able to remove it and access whatever data it’s holding. It’s a basic drive.”
Amy grinned and gave a thumbs up. “See, that’s great. Exactly what we need.”
“Okay, that is great,” Dash said. “How about you and Amy work together to get that module out and make it so we can read what’s on it.”
Conover gave a sharp nod and knelt beside Amy, then launched into a discussion about how best to access the alien tech.
Dash motioned for Leira and Viktor to join him. “You do realize what the attack by those drones means.”
Leira gave a grim nod. “The Golden know about the Forge, and now also know about the Archetype.”
“And us,” Viktor said, scratching his chin. “At least, that’s what we should assume.”
“Yeah. Never underestimate the bad guys.” Dash rubbed his eyes. Despite the few hours of sleep he’d managed, a lingering fatigue dragged at him. “Anyway, we know what all of that means.”
“The Golden will be back,” Leira said.
“Yeah,” Dash said. “They will.”
Accessing the drone’s data module proved both easier and more difficult than they’d anticipated. Easier, because it turned out to be relatively simple, with the help of Conover’s particular insight, to work out how to disassemble the thing. More difficult, because once they had, and got Sentinel to access the module, it turned out that it wasn’t as ‘dumb’ as Conover had thought.
Golden technology seemed to distribute data storage and processing throughout their hardware, so damage couldn’t compromise any particular function. It was a principle that the designers of tech like the Slipwing had tried to incorporate, to make things more redundant and durable, but the Golden managed it to an extent that, again, contemporary engineers could only dream of.
As Sentinel reported her slow progress, it struck Dash that he wasn’t even really that amazed or awed anymore. He’d been exposed to so much unbelievably sophisticated tech lately that it was all just starting to blur together, one massive discovery after another making him realize that the universe was getting bigger, not smaller.
Finally, Sentinel managed to bypass the systems that had been trying to keep her out. Now, they all stood in a remote compartment, on the very fringe of the part of the Forge that had been powered up. “It was a good decision to remove this module from the drone and put physical distance between the two,” she said. “The module persisted in its attempts to communicate with, and activate, other drone systems as I accessed it. Fortunately, Custodian was able to block those attempts from reaching the drone itself.”
“Wait, you mean it was trying to talk to the drone remotely?” Dash said. “Even after we moved the module halfway across the Forge to prevent that very thing?”
Viktor frowned at the module. “Like you said, Dash, don’t underestimate the bad guys.”
“No shit. Okay, Sentinel, what can you tell us? And stick to the stuff that we need to know right away. Interesting technical details and historical info and the like can wait.”
“There is a great deal of information, all of which may be of use. For instance, the reason the drone latched onto the Archetype to come aboard the Forge was so that it could self-destruct once inside. The resulting explosion would likely have done serious harm to the Forge.”
“Not to mention us,” Leira muttered.
“A blunt-force attack, like I thought,” Dash added.
“But Custodian was able to suppress all of its functions once it came aboard,” Conover said. “The Golden must have known that.”
“It was a last throw,” Dash said.
Conover gave him a puzzled look. “A last throw?”
“Yeah. If you ever decide to take up gambling, kid, you’ll eventually find yourself on the edge of losing everything you bet. That last throw of the dice really is the last one—you know, your last chance to pull out a win or blow it all.”
“In other words, it was desperation.”
“Sure,” Amy said. “There was nothing to lose. All the other drones were destroyed, so this was a final shot at getting in a solid hit. I’ll bet the tech aboard this drone isn’t even all that new.”
“It is not,” Sentinel said. “The technology employed by the drone was quite well known to the Creators.”
“Probably all they had that could get here right away.” Dash then shifted his attention back to Sentinel. “Which takes us to the other big question—how long until the next Golden attack. Any ideas about that?”
“It is certain these drones transmitted status updates throughout their approach to the Forge, and during the battle. Based on that, and analyzing past patterns of Golden deployments, I would estimate they will be here, in force, in no more than four days, and more likely three.”
There was stunned silence.
Dash finally broke it. “Three days?” He looked around at the others and shook his head. “Unless we come up with a plan, we’re not going to get to hang those curtains.”
Leira glared at the data module. “Three days? That’s nowhere near enough time to get ready for any serious attack!”
“Nonetheless, that is the most realistic timeline,” Sentinel said. “I would also add that your ship, the Slipwing, is dramatically outmatched by even one of these drones, so it should not be considered a significant factor in the upcoming confrontation.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you,” Amy muttered.
“This is great,” Dash snapped, his stomach clenched into a hard knot. “But I need good news. Actually, I need data and opportunities. You get me those, and we’ll do the rest.”
“I recognize that first phrase as sarcasm, as none of this would constitute good news at all,” Sentinel replied. “I have become much more adept at recognizing it.”
Dash turned to the others. “Three days. It’ll probably take us that long just to get one more power core for the Archetype. We can forget about the rest of them. And those drones almost kicked my ass.” He shifted his attention to Custodian. “Can the Forge do anything to help fend off another attack?”
“In its current state of activation, very little.”
“Can it move? Can we take it out of this system? You said it has some ability to move around.”
“Again, in its current state, no.”
“So all we’ve got is the Archetype,” Conover said. “And the Slipwing, but she’s not going to be of much use, it seems.”
“Just as a target,” Leira replied. “And not even that for very long, once the shooting starts.”
Amy had lost her habitual grin. “In other words, like Dash said, more or less, we’re screwed.”
“Not necessarily,” Viktor said. “We do have another option. We could take the Archetype and the Slipwing and just leave.”
Conover looked at him, stunned. Amy actually gasped. They both launched into objections at once, but Dash gave a sharp whistle, bringing the sudden debate to a halt.
“Let’s put a pin in that, okay?” To Custodian, he said, “So that’s it? There’s nothing the Forge can do? It’s basically just a big, fat target?”
Leira crossed her arms. “Seems like the Unseen really dropped the ball on this one. You’d think they’d have made sure this place could at least defend itself before doing its big reveal.”
“It is possible for the Forge to defend itself,” Custodian said.
Dash blinked. “What? How?”
“With a level two power core, of course.”
“You say that like I know what you mean.”
Custodian said nothing.
“Sentinel,” Dash went on in an exasperated voice, “tell me, what’s a level two power core?”
“I do not have that information. I am only aware of the power cores intended for use by the Archetype.”
“Fine,” Amy said. “Custodian, what’s a level two power core, and how do they work?”
“I am only able to communicate that information to the Messenger.”
Conover nodded. “Makes sense. You don’t want to compromise your internal security for just anybody.”
Dash winced as Leira nudged him. He got her meaning.
“Ask what? Oh.” Back to Custodian, Dash said, “What she said, then. What’s a level two power core, how do they work, and where can we find them?”
“And can we do it in less than three days,” Leira added.
“In terms of power generation, a level two core approximates that produced by ten level one cores. The three of those that you have installed in the engine room are sufficient to power life support and basic functions for the entirety of the Forge.”
“And there’s what, eight slots for cores down there, total? So the other five would be equal to just half of one of these level twos?” He whistled. “So, if we find a level two, can we install it in one of those slots?” Dash imagined how much power filling all of the remaining slots with level twos would produce.
“No. There are two additional slots in the engine room for level two cores. The five open level one receptacles will not accept level two cores.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember those other two opening up. Alright, so what you’re saying is one level two core would let you defend the Forge.”
“Yes. It would enable the use of a cloaking system, as well as some weapons, all of which are currently disabled.”
“Have I mentioned how tired I am of this whole we find Unseen tech, but it doesn’t work until you jump through these hoops thing?”
Unsurprisingly, Custodian said nothing.
“Where do we find a level two power core?” Viktor asked.
Dash said, “Let me check. Sentinel?”
“I am unable to distinguish any power cores in the data I have available that are distinct from any others.”
Dash balled his fists and started pacing in frustration before stopping, breathing deeply, and letting his eyes close. “We could do something useful, and maybe get the Forge ready to face an attack, but to do that we need something we can’t find, and we’ve only got three days anyway.”
“There is a level two power core available,” Custodian said, “and it is close enough that it is at least theoretically possible to retrieve it, and then return here, within three days.”
Dash took a slow breath, then let it out. “And how long were you going to keep that bit of information to yourself?”
“Until this moment, when I actually had an opportunity to say it.”
Amy actually snickered and said, “Machine sass. That hurts.”
Dash shot her a look, then shifted his focus back to Custodian. “You know, I am also getting really tired of alien super-AI with attitude,” he snapped. “It reminds of some hidebound, bureaucratic docking masters I’ve known.”
“Dash,” Leira said, stepping in front of him. “Every second you rant is another one shaved off our three days.”
He took another breath, trying to calm his sudden surge of anger. “You’re right.” He held up his hands. “You’re right. But we will address this conversation loop at some point.” To Custodian, he said, “Okay. Where, exactly, is this level two core?”
As soon as he’d asked the question, he knew the answer—a star system about ten hours away from the Forge at their best possible speed, on a planet called Shylock. He related this to the others, then said, “So, there we go. If we leave now, we can…” He trailed off as Leira held up her hand. “What?”
“Dash, we’ve only just started to understand this place, this Forge. We don’t know what capabilities it might have. And the Unseen haven’t exactly been very forthcoming about their tech.”
“Sure, but we know what capabilities it doesn’t have, like being able to defend itself. Custodian just said so.”
“Custodian also only just told you about that, and the whole level two core thing, because you asked. It’s an AI, remember. It’s programmed to do what it does. We could spend a full day of the three we have left trying to get that core on Shylock and maybe succeeding. Or we could spend that day instead learning more about what we already have right here.”
“And that assumes it only takes us a day to get that level two core,” Conover said.
“Sure, or we could spend another day here, learn nothing, and then only have two left to get that core,” Dash said. “And, like the kid here says, we might find two days aren’t enough time.”
“I’m still not convinced that’s such a bad thing,” Viktor said. “I still think our best bet might be to just not even be here when the Golden arrive.”
Amy shook her head, even stomped a foot. “No. We can’t just give this place up. The tech here…we’ve only just started to understand it. If this was an ocean we wanted to explore, we’ve looked at the surface, but not even yet dipped a toe in it.”
“We should still go get that level two core,” Conover said. “That way we know the Forge will be able to take care of itself.”
Amy nodded at that, too. “Sure. What we can’t do is just give it up.”
Conover gave an emphatic nod. “Amy’s right. We can’t just abandon the Forge.”
“Oh, please,” Viktor said. “Conover, if Amy said we should all jump naked out of an airlock, you’d think it was the greatest idea ever.”
Conover just gaped back at Viktor. “I…wait. What? What do you mean?”
Despite the tension fuming the air like smoke, Conover’s sputtering babble almost made Dash laugh. Leira rolled her eyes. Amy just looked at her feet, but Dash could see her smiling.
“Anyway, Amy was right the first time,” Leira said. “We need to focus our time here.”
“I can’t agree,” Viktor snapped, his voice suddenly hard as ablative armor. “We have no way of knowing we can accomplish anything here before the enemy’s at the gates. If we’re going to go chasing after power cores, let’s get the Archetype fully powered up. It’s obviously the weapon the Unseen intended to fight the Golden. This is just the factory where it was made.”
Amy’s head snapped back up and she shook it, fast and emphatically. “No! We don’t know that. We can’t—"
Dash had been flicking his attention from one to the next as the debate flashed among them, but he finally held up a hand of authority, his face like a thundercloud. "A moment. It's up to me to link to the Archetype and put this plan in motion." He turned away in the buzzing silence.
“Okay,” he finally said. “What if we do both? I go off to get this level two core thing and take someone with me, and the rest of you stay here to figure stuff about this place out.”
“That won’t work,” Viktor said, shaking his head gravely. “Like it or not, this all revolves around you. You’re the Messenger. Only you can search for the core. But only you can unlock whatever this station is all about.”
“It’s true,” Amy said. “You’re pretty damned good, Dash, but even you can’t be in two places at once.”
To Custodian, Dash said, “Can I give someone else my access—whatever access the Messenger has, anyway—to the Forge? Let them do what I’d do here, if I was here.”
“The Creators did not allow for that possibility. Only you are designated as the Messenger. There is no mechanism to change that.”
“Dammit,” Dash muttered.
“We need to make a decision, Dash,” Conover said. “Time is passing.”
Leira said, “No. You need to decide, Dash. Viktor and Amy are right. In the end, this comes down to what you want to do.”
Dash put his hands behind his head, fingers laced together, and leaned back while tumbling the possibilities in his mind, one over the other. “I wasn’t sure of the job description, but now that it’s here, the decision is mine.” He sighed, but it was half-hearted. “I was perfectly happy being a courier, forever chasing shitty jobs to make a few credits.”
That made Leira raise an eyebrow. “Really?”
Dash heaved a sigh and let his arms drop back to his sides. “No, not really. But there must be some kind of happy medium between down-and-out-space-pilot and savior-of-the universe, right?”
The others offered sympathetic shrugs and nods, but stayed silent, waiting for Dash’s decision.
He finally said, “You’ve all made really good points. Which kind of sucks, because this would be a lot easier if you didn’t all make so much damned sense and there was only one decision that would work.” He looked at Viktor. “I get what you’re saying. I really do. But I don’t think the Unseen did all this to bring us here, to the Forge, for us to just abandon it to the Golden. And I don’t think the Forge is just a factory. Together, the Archetype and the Forge are a lot stronger than each is alone. As a unit, they’re magnified. They have unlimited possibilities in combat and other areas we can’t even conceive. That’s one issue.”
Now he turned to Leira. “I get what you’re saying, too. But now that we know about this level two power core setup, we can’t just ignore it, stay here, and hope we manage to suss out stuff about the Forge that might help us fight the Golden. We know this super-core will power this place up so it can actually go on the offensive, and not lay inert like a punching bag hanging from a ship’s girder. This Forge is a weapon because everything can be a weapon when applied properly.”
He looked around at all of them. “So, let’s go get that level two core, bring it back here, and be ready to take on the Golden when they show up. And let’s do it now. This instant. We’ve spent enough time arguing about this.”
Leira nodded her agreement. So did Amy and Conover, although his face still shone an embarrassed red.
Viktor, though, shook his head. “I think it’s a mistake, Dash. I think we’re making what feels like your ‘last throw’ by doing this.”
“Maybe. But sometimes you do win that last throw. And sometimes you win it big.”
“I’ve never been a gambling man,” Viktor replied. “The whole idea of a last throw frankly terrifies me.” He sighed. “But, if that’s the plan, then let’s make it work.”
Later, as Leira powered up the Slipwing and Dash settled himself into the Archetype’s cradle, he couldn’t help chewing on Viktor’s last, grim words—that this was what amounted to a last throw.
Dash hoped not, because every time he’d made one of those, he’d inevitably lost it all.
The moment they dropped out of unSpace, both the Archetype and the Slipwing were awash in radio transmissions from the planet called Shylock. It spoke to a busy, bustling society, but Dash knew little about it. He’d heard of Shylock, in that he’d seen it mentioned on the Needs Slate, the jobs board couriers and their clients used to hook up and negotiate contracts. The planet’s only claim to fame, as far as he knew, was that tech hunters sometimes flocked here to chase rumors of Unseen gadgets. It was all just rumor, innuendo, and, ultimately, conspiracy theories that drove the tech hunters, of course. But that never stopped anyone with big dreams and little sense, so Shylock had been picked over, again and again—and probably would be for a long time yet.
As he zoomed sunward in the Archetype, having left the Forge in order to retrieve a power core, to spool up more of the ancient station’s systems so it could protect itself from an attack by an entirely different alien race, Dash thought, If those tech hunters only knew…
Ironically, though, they’d been right. There was a level two power core on Shylock, close to a city called Featherport. That core, by itself, would have made some tech hunter pretty much a superstar across the entire arm. Mega rich, at that. Meanwhile, Dash had been surrounded by enough tech to buy and sell the entire galaxy twice over.
And it hadn’t earned him anything other than a responsibility bigger than the world itself.
Still, the burning question was—if there was a power core down there, and the place had been shaken upside down by the tech hunters, how had they not managed to find it?
“Dash,” Leira said, cutting off his aggravating reverie, “I’m leery of how close we are to Clan Shirna space here. We need to keep a watch out for them.”
“I hear you. We kicked their asses pretty good when they were trying to get that Lens, but I doubt they’re completely out of the picture.”
A good bit of caution, he thought, as Shylock grew from a distant point of light to a distinct disk framed against the glow of the distant Shadow Nebula. From Shylock, they were looking at the nebula from almost edge-on, which meant everything to what was currently its left was Clan Shirna space. The Pasture—the vast, artificial comet-field where he’d stumbled on the Archetype—was actually only a few star systems away. The proximity of Clan Shirna, who were really just duped minions of the Golden, threw yet another worry on the ever-growing pile that Dash had to consider as part of his situational awareness.
“Given its current level of technology,” Sentinel said, “the planet ahead has a limited ability to discern details about incoming traffic, as they employ only simple radar. I have neutralized the Archetype’s returns. However, as was the case at Passage, I cannot prevent the Archetype from being seen by visual examination.”
“Got it,” Dash said, as he coordinated with Leira to edge the Archetype close against the Slipwing until they were almost touching. It should be enough to simply make the Slipwing look, at a distance, like a ship kludged together from various hulls. That, plus their chosen approach path to the planet, should be enough to prevent the Archetype from being detected, at least by a casual observer. In any case, it was the best they could do.
Dash listened as Leira explained to Shylock’s traffic control that her unusual inbound trajectory was due to a fault in the helm control, and that she might have to put down briefly in a remote landing spot to do a quick repair. She would then bring the Slipwing to Featherport, a city on the largest continent’s eastern coast. He braced himself for a suspicious objection from the controller, but the bored voice simply acknowledged her, and that was it. Apparently, the good people of Shylock were used to ships putting down in the wilderness, and probably assumed she was yet another of a multitude of hopeful tech hunters.
In a way, they were right.
Since Sentinel could bring the Archetype to Dash if needed, they left the mech in a flat, rocky highland among the foothills of a rugged mountain range on the far western edge of the main continent. Rough peaks soared among valleys carved from ancient rains, the alluvial fans of gray debris spread out over ground marked by huge boulders, their edges still bright and sharp.
“Lotta rockfalls here. This is hard country,” Dash remarked, eying one rock that was the size of the Slipwing, which he boarded for the remainder of the trip to Featherport. The traffic controllers seemed as uninterested in the Slipwing having fixed her fictional helm issue as they’d been in the problem in the first place. That was fine, as far as Dash was concerned. Boring was good. No one paid any attention to boring.
Featherport sprawled along the coast, a bustling city hazed with smog. The spaceport occupied a plateau overlooking the city; as they debarked the Slipwing, they just made out all but the northernmost part of the place.
Leira looked at Dash. “This is a big planet, and we’ve got about a day and a half to explore it. Please tell me you have some idea where we should start looking for this core.”
Another ship, a squat freighter, dropped out of the clouds and descended toward the spaceport with a roar of thrusters. Dash waited for the commotion to subside, then said, “Yeah, I do.” He pointed at the part of the city obscured by a massive outcropping of crystalline rock thrust out from the plateau. “It’s right down there.”
Leira blinked. “Really? It’s right here?”
“It’s somewhere in the north end of the city. The closer I get to it, the better I seem to feel it’s location.”
Amy grinned. “That’s amazing! Did you know that before we got here? Is that why we came right here?”
Dash shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”
“That’s weird,” Amy said, shaking her head. “Really amazing, but weird.”
“Weird is pretty much my motto these days,” Dash replied. “Anyway, we’re not here for the nightlife—which actually kind of sucks, because I could use a night on the town right about now. Let’s head down there, find this core, and get back to the war. As much as I relish the idea of bad beer and a surly bartender, I don’t think the Golden will wait for me to finish my pint.”
“After you, boss,” Conover said with a grin. “No beer. Just juice.”
“Power, you mean,” Dash said. Conover was a bit young for anything stronger than juice, but as to alien tech, he was old enough to hold his own.
By previous agreement, they left Amy and Viktor with the Slipwing to watch over her and do some repairs she actually needed. Dash, Leira, and Conover, meantime, caught a shuttle from the spaceport, down into the city.
They rode the shuttle in silence, that was finally broken by Conover, who said, “I’m not in love with her or anything, you know. She’s just a really interesting person.”
Dash looked at him, momentarily confused by the kid suddenly bringing up something that wasn’t about power cores or ancient alien wars. “What?”
Conover’s face had flushed again. “Amy. Viktor made it sound like I’m in love with her, back on the Forge. I’m really not.”
Dash looked at Leira, sitting opposite them in one of the shuttle’s passenger bays. She smiled, but just shrugged.
“First of all,” Dash said, “yeah, I think you are in love with her.” He held up a hand to stop Conover’s protest. “Or you think you are. Or wonder if you are. Anyway, second of all—that’s okay.”
“It’s not like that, Dash.” Conover’s protest was swift, but weak.
“Conover, Amy’s a great girl,” Leira said. “I know I’m really fond of her. It’s no surprise you’re attracted to her. Like Dash said, it’s fine.”
“Yeah, but Viktor made a big deal out of it.”
“Was just lashing out a bit,” Dash said. “That’s no surprise, either.” He gestured around at the shuttle’s other riders, scattered among the passenger bays. “These people are all blissfully unaware of what’s going with the Unseen and the Golden, the Archetype, the Forge—all of it. They don’t know there’s a whole alien race out there anxious to exterminate every one of them.”
“I kind of wish I was blissfully unaware of it, too,” Leira said.
Dash nodded at that. “Yeah, me too. Anyway, we’re involved in some galactic, superweapon-grade bullshit here, Conover. I think we can forgive Viktor a bit of lashing out.” He put a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “And Leira’s right. Amy’s pretty awesome. Honestly, I think you’ve got pretty damned good taste.”
The flush in Conover’s face had faded, replaced by a grateful look. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Now, how about putting all that aside and focusing instead on, you know, helping us win this war.”
Conover nodded and settled back, just staring out the shuttle’s window and watching the cityscape now blurring past. “I am sixteen, you know. Almost seventeen, and a year older on most worlds. My home had longer years.”
“I know, and that’s why I wish you could think about Amy first, and war second,” Dash said with real regret.
“This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d find an Unseen power core,” Leira said.
Dash had to nod as they looked around this most northern district of Featherport, where Dash was sure the core was stashed. It was probably the oldest part of the city, the buildings looking tired and worn, although still reasonably tidy. A lot of them seemed empty, though, a symptom of the shift of Featherport’s affluence to the newer districts farther south.
They started walking from the intersection where the taxi had dropped them off. All Dash knew was that they were close. The trouble was, he couldn’t tell exactly how close, or in what direction. It seemed that Dash would need to just walk about, trying to get a general sense of where he wanted to go. It made for a tiring and frustrating afternoon, as the three of them trudged along streets, turned along cross-streets, and even traversed back alleys and narrow laneways, their feet dusty with alien soil by the time they’d covered the first few blocks.
Fortunately, the district’s largely deserted character held up, meaning they did most of their walking along quiet avenues, among silent buildings. Most seemed to be dwellings, often grouped in clusters of four in a single structure, but few were actually occupied. Dash wondered why the area hadn’t fallen into more evident disrepair. Somebody, it seemed, thought it worth putting enough work into the place to stop it turning into a slum, and there was a quiet air of purpose among the people they did see, which was at odds with everything Dash expected from a place with so many empty buildings.
They saw only occasional pedestrians, and just a few vehicles gliding past with the electric hum of repulsors, their plastic skirts keeping the worst of the dust at bay. None of them seemed at all interested in Dash and his two companions. In fact, the only person who did seem curious about them was a scrawny boy, maybe twelve years old, with tousled brown hair, shabby clothes, and bare feet. As soon as they caught his eye, though, he turned and hurried away, vanishing around the corner of a desolate shop with empty windows and part of a faded sign that proclaimed something about SERVICES.
“You’d think that after dealing with the Unseen and the Golden and all the associated, galaxy-shaking stuff, that I wouldn’t be creeped out by some random kid.” Dash loosened the flap on the satchel that he, like the others, had slung over his shoulder. Besides a water bottle, a hand lamp, and a few other odds and ends, each packed a small pistol and a couple of reloads.
Fortunately, the regs around carrying weapons turned out to be pretty lax on Shylock. Still, they’d left the plasma pistols behind, because a gun that could blow away entire buildings might just be pushing the tolerance of the planet’s authorities. There was such a thing as overkill, even on a world where the law was meant to be bent now and then.
Conover gave him a curious look. “It was just a kid, though.”
“And the comet where I found the Archetype was just a comet, right up until it wasn’t.” Dash shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t take anything at face value anymore.”
They moved on, continuing their ambling way through the warren of streets and alleys. Dash was aware of the power core as a sort of distant call, the direction of which was impossible to discern. Sometimes it seemed nearer, and sometimes farther away, but it stubbornly refused to resolve into anything really definitive other than a hum that tickled at the periphery of his senses.
After another hour of trudging about, Dash held up a hand. “We stop here for a minute.”
“What are you hearing?” Leira asked.
“Everything, and nothing definitive. That’s not going to work for us from this point on.”
They’d reached a small square, around which several buildings with oddly elaborate facades loomed, the stonework covered in a patina of dirt that lent an air of dignity to the place. An equally fancy fountain graced the middle of the square, but dirt and dead leaves had taken the place of bubbling water. This was, Dash had worked out, probably the place where the sensation of being near the core was the strongest. He could see nothing, though, to suggest where a power core might be. He doubted it was inside one of the buildings, because how could it possibly have not been found by some tech hunter by now? It could be inside the fountain, maybe—but they’d have to chip or blast away the dun-colored stone it was built from, and that would be tough to do.
“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” Conover said, while sitting on the edge of the fountain and pulling off a boot to massage a sore foot. “Maybe, instead of just wandering around and hoping you find it through your knowing about it, maybe we should use some logic.”
Leira, who’d sat beside him, asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, maybe we should be trying to figure out where the Unseen would have put the core. Let’s face it”—he gestured around with his free hand—“it’s not like any of this was here two hundred thousand years ago.”
“Unless the Unseen have agents working for them today, the way the Golden have Clan Shirna,” Leira replied.
“I think the kid’s onto something,” Dash said. “It probably isn’t going to be just sitting around. In fact—” He pointed at something he’d just spotted, an arched doorway on the side of a nearby building that seemed to lead to stairs going down. “You know what? It probably won’t be on the surface of this place at all.”
Conover stuffed his foot back into his boot and they crossed the square to the doorway. A filigreed metal gate that was rusty and grimed with accumulated dirt, blocked it. It was locked, but Conover pulled out a cleaning rod for the pistols and began to work it into the tumblers with surprising delicacy. His tongue stuck out as he squinted, moving the rod back and forth until they all heard a distinct click. The lock opened without further resistance.
Dash grinned at him. “Little bit of criminal enterprise in your past, kid?”
Conover stared blankly back. “No. It’s just a simple mechanism, involving a moving cam and a stationary—”
“It’s okay,” Dash said, holding up a hand and grimacing. Humor seemed lost on Conover, especially when it came to engineering. “You got it open, and that’s what matters.”
They switched on their hand lamps, cutting through the darkness to reveal a winding set of cracked, uneven stone steps, each surface streaked with years of moisture, grime, and mold. They led down into a dank, brick-lined room that their lights revealed to be empty of anything but a damp, must smell and some junk—old cargo crates and a grubby tarp—piled in one corner. Whatever this place had been used for, it was now apparently used little, if at all.
Dash, though, ignored the room, instead concentrating on the core. It was definitely closer, and the hum he’d been hearing rose to a chorus. His senses began to warble with the presence of Unseen energy, making him pause for a second in an effort to triangulate.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice echoing off the damp stone. “It’s down here somewhere, under the ground. I knew it.”
“That could be a problem,” Leira replied. “Everything up above us is either paved or buildings.” She shone the lamp around. “And this is still all recent construction, at least compared to when the Unseen would have been here. So maybe there are some ancient ruins or something even deeper under this city? Sort of goes to the question of how long people have been here, and how much have they built?”
Dash shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? Even if we can just pass ourselves off as another party of tech hunters, if we have to start digging, it’s going to take us way too long. Time isn’t on our side, but we have an advantage the hunters don’t. We have me.”
“In any case,” Conover said, “you’d think that, given how many tech hunters have pored over this planet, anything that could be got at easily would have been found by now. I saw the piles of tailings all over the place. Those hunters aren’t playing around—they’ve scoured this place above ground and below.”
They sat in silence as they chewed over the situation. Dash felt an echo of uncertainty. Sure, there was a power core here, but it didn’t matter if they couldn’t get to it. He reached out, letting his senses play across the landscape, but beyond a wildly echoing hum, he found nothing definitive. The core’s signal was nowhere and everywhere, all at once.
“I’m pushing too hard,” Dash said. “Can’t get a fix, and if I can’t then I think we’re out of luck.” He ground the words out, trying to fight the sense of waste—wasted time, wasted effort, and leaving the Forge when it was the one sure thing they had to work with, other than the Archetype and his ship.
In other words, they’d taken the last throw and, true to Dash’s luck, they’d lost.
“Well, this hasn’t worked out,” Dash said. “I guess all we can do is head back."
“Guys?” Conover said sharply. “We’re not alone.”
Conover had turned his lamp back to the stairs where it now illuminated a small figure who stood in a wary, almost crouched posture, a hand raised to shield his eyes against their light.
The boy shuffled forward a couple of steps, bare feet scraping softly across the rocky floor. “Are you guys looking for something?”
Dash scowled, but it was Conover who spoke up. “What we’re doing here is really none of your business."
“Conover, let’s just take a minute here to talk to one of the locals.” Leira walked forward, stopping a few paces away from the boy and kneeling.
“We’re not really looking for something. We’re looking for a way to go down, deeper under the earth. Because we’re explorers. Do you know if there’s a place like that around here? A way we could go that goes even deeper than this place here?”
Dash was surprised when the boy immediately nodded and pointed back in the general direction of the stairs. “Sure. There’s a door. It’s supposed to go way down into the earth. That’s what I heard, anyhow.”
Leira glanced at Dash then turned back to the boy. “Can you show us where it is?”
“The monks won’t let you inside.”
“What monks?” Dash asked. “And why won’t they let us inside?”
The boy shrugged. “They don’t let anyone inside. They say it’s forbidden.”
He said forbidden in a way that somehow made it seem mystical. Conover, though, just sniffed.
“Monks. Really? What monks would—” Conover stopped when Leira held up her hand.
“That’s okay,” she said. “We’ll talk to the monks. All we’re asking you to do is take us there.”
The boy nodded then held out his hand, palm up.
Dash smiled. “And they say there’s no universal language.” He pulled out one of the credit chips he’d brought along for just such an occasion and tossed it to the boy, who snapped his fingers closed around it. Nodding, the boy turned for the stairs with a decisive air that had been missing seconds earlier. Money had that curious effect. It could make you taller—or a lack of it could make you feel small.
Dash looked at the others and offered a final shrug, then they all set off, following the boy. In seconds the hum of the power core began to sing in his blood, and he smiled into the gloom.
“I think he’s taking us out of the city,” Conover said.
Dash frowned at their surroundings, the buildings becoming fewer and smaller, separated by empty lots and stands of trees, some of the underbrush thick enough to qualify as a jungle. They’d already been walking for nearly half an hour, making him wonder if there was more to this—if the boy was just trying to scam them, or if something even more sinister might be afoot. Maybe the boy, and the supposed ‘door’ were just bait for some gang, a way of luring people out into some remote place to jump them, rob them—or worse. He’d only even told them about this door in response to Leira’s question about a way to go down, deeper into the earth. A quick, clever kid, he might have just told them whatever he thought they wanted to hear to lead them out here.
Hadn’t he even said, I don’t take anything at face value anymore? And yet, here they were. Some bets were riskier than others, and sometimes you had no choice about putting your money down.
Trees and thick undergrowth now lined both sides of the road. Buildings, mostly lapsed into ruin, stood further back, just visible among the leafy bushes and dangling branches. Aside from the scrape of their own feet on the cracked pavement, all Dash could hear was a fitful wind that rattled and hissed through the foliage. He reached for the flap covering his satchel to ready the slugger; at the same time, he opened his mouth to raise a warning—
“Over there,” the boy suddenly said, stopping and pointing. “See?”
Dash peered along the line of the boy’s grimy finger. Another of the dilapidated buildings stood in a clearing, partly enclosed in an old security fence. A weather-beaten cargo pod hunkered nearby, capping off a scene of such decay that Dash was amazed anything was standing at all.
“I see an old building and some junk,” Conover said. “That’s it.”
Dash glanced at Leira. The wary look in her eyes told him she’d already had the same, alarming thoughts he had. He gave her a slight nod and pulled open the flap of his satchel.
“No,” the boy said, “past all that. Over there!”
Dash sniffed. Totally a set up. Any second now, the trap would—
“Oh, I see it,” Conover said.
Dash narrowed his eyes. What?
Oh. Partly blocked by the cargo pod he could just see another, smaller building. Sure enough, it looked different—more like a bunker, with a sturdy-looking door set into what must be a pretty damned thick duracrete wall. The sides were scarred by time, streaked with jungle molds as a bright green ivy tried valiantly to pull the tough building down, like a swimmer who refused to go under.
Dash glanced at Leira, who shrugged, then he started that way, pushing into the scrub and bushes. Leira and Conover followed, but the boy didn’t move.
“There’s usually somebody there,” the kid said. “Anyway…” Then he turned and, without another word, scampered off back the way they’d come. Wraith-like, he made no sound past ten meters, leaving them alone with the rustling growth and bullying wind.
Dash frowned at his retreating back. None of this ruled out an ambush, or something similar, so he thought to hell with it and pulled out the slugger. Leira did the same. Conover looked from one to the other, his eyes going wide, and said, “Wait, are you guys expecting trouble?”
Dash gave him a level, patient look. Conover was incredibly smart—but also sometimes incredibly, naively dumb. “Where have you been since we took you off Penumbra, kid? Trouble has pretty much become what we do these days.”
They shoved their way through the greenery and emerged into the clearing. Dash saw another cargo pod alongside the ramshackle building, just beyond a length of security fence. Most of the fence had long ago given up and slumped off its posts, giving them easy access to a decrepit yard surrounding the husk of an ancient warehouse. A thin, oily reek, like old hydraulic fluid, fumed the air. Leira smiled as she took it in.
“Why do I suspect Amy would feel right at home here?” Dash asked.
“Because it’s her natural habitat,” Leira said with a tight smile.
Dash headed for the bunker and stopped in front of the door. It could have been any of thousands of secure storage facilities squatting on planets around the galactic arm—but it wasn’t. He pointed at a faint line of symbols across the bottom of the door, almost obscured by dust and grime. “That’s Unseen writing. It says Within here, we wait.”
“You’re certain?” Leira asked. It was less challenge than amazement.
“I am.” He looked at the others. “This would seem to be the right place.” He pointed the slugger forward at a low angle, ready to fire if needed. The heft of it in his hands was scant comfort, given the presence of Unseen writing and a growing sense that there was more to this place than met the eye. Hell, he knew it wasn’t a cluster of gearhead monks living in a shack. It was far more than that, and only going forward would reveal what they needed.
Conover squatted and brushed at the dirt. The symbols were engraved into the metal of the door, a tough alloy that must have needed a lot of work with a grinding tool—because they clearly had been carven into the door sometime after it had been installed.
Which made no sense. Whoever was carving things rendered in the Unseen language into mundane doors had the time and will to do a job that had no obvious purpose, and to Dash that smelled of religion.
“The boy mentioned something about monks, didn’t he?” Leira asked.
“We should find out who these monks are and see what they know,” Leira replied.
Dash gave a terse node, then turned to the others. “All very well, but we don’t have time to go hunting around for monks. All we have to go on is this door. And I suspect, even though it looks like just an ordinary door, it’s not. Maybe Unseen tech can make itself resemble more…uh, primitive tech, I guess, around it, and the other outposts we’ve found didn’t have to bother because they stood all by themselves.” He looked at Conover. “Anyway, kid, since you seem to have figured out how to look at Unseen stuff without going comatose, how about you use your fancy eyes and see what they can tell you?”
“Not much point.”
Dash frowned. “Really? Because this is our only lead.”
He stopped as Leira tapped him on the shoulder, then pointed behind him. Dash turned.
The door stood open.
Dash led the way, slugger in one hand, lamp in the other. A dank corridor went a short distance, angled right, then descended down a ramp. It opened into a small, square room, which in turn opened into another corridor. This second corridor was definitely of Unseen origin. Dash could tell even without the benefit of Sentinel, but he reached out, regardless, hoping their link would work. Before he could ask the question, Sentinel spoke. “The Meld transcends real space and extends through the Darkness Between. The Creators contrived this to facilitate communications among their far-flung outposts. It is, therefore, right next door, as you might say.”
“So distance isn’t a factor?”
“Not a significant one, no.”
Dash could only shake his head. Real-time communications through UnSpace were possible, but only over limited distances. If the Unseen could do it across their galactic arm-spanning outposts, then he could do it, too, and that would be an invaluable tool down the road when war returned.
“Back to this place. Thoughts?” Dash asked. “It’s old, but not Unseen years old, in my opinion.”
“I have no record of a permanent facility here, other than the core’s presence. Do you see human levels of technology?” Sentinel asked.
“Duracrete and—yeah, well built, but purely human,” Dash said.
“You may find some crossover between our technology. Proceed with care, Messenger. When ancient ideas are put to new use, things can go badly,” Sentinel said.
“Did you just make that up? Sounds like old advice.”
“Any advice I give is old. I’m old. Not in your sense, but you should still listen to your elders. Like me,” Sentinel said.
“I accept your advice. My eyes are open,” Dash said.
“Thank you,” came the reply, and Dash swore Sentinel sounded the slightest bit smug.
As they moved forward, Dash ran a finger over the construction. The walls had that strange appearance that bridged metal and ceramic, a surface like no other—unless you considered Golden tech as well.
“Well,” he said, his voice somehow both flat and muffled, but also ringing with a hollow echo, “this looks promising.” Water dripped in a staccato beat, plinking around them in sharp echoes.
“Are we closer to the core?” Leira asked
Dash nodded. “Much. I’m still having trouble telling just what direction, though. It’s—it’s here. Close.”
The corridor wound on, sometimes easing through a gentle bend, other times turning an abrupt right, but steadily descending. Leira had produced a data-pad and, just as she had in the Forge, used it to map out their path. They reached the start of a slow, graceful curve in the passage, then Conover stopped and looked from side to side. Dash saw nothing but blank walls.
“What? What is it, kid?”
“I see other corridors. And chambers. Lots of them, all around this one. They seem to go on pretty much as far as I can see.”
“This must be a whole underground complex,” Leira said.
Conover nodded. “How did all those tech hunters miss this?” He gestured at the right-hand wall. “That way, the tunnels and rooms must go right under the city. And we’re still not more than…what, maybe thirty or so meters underground?”
“I suspect that if Unseen tech doesn’t want to be found, then it won’t be,” Dash said.
“If that’s true,” Leira replied, “then it must have wanted us to find it. Or you to find it, anyway, being the Messenger and all.”
Dash could only agree in silence before they resumed their way. But his spirits sank. Finding this place was a victory—of some sort—but if it was as big and complicated as Conover said, then finding the core might be nowhere as easy. All he knew was that it was tantalizingly near. He still couldn’t tell what direction, though. It might take them days to search what was rapidly becoming a huge maze—and they didn’t have days. They barely had hours.
The concept of monks lingered in Dash’s thoughts—and then the tunnel abruptly ended.
Dash shone the light around, but saw no openings, no door, not even anything to indicate it was possible to go any further. He looked back at the others. “Did we miss a side tunnel, or another door or something?”
Leira held up the data tablet. “No. This tunnel has done a lot of turning and winding, but we’ve followed a single path, with no other branches.”
Dash shone the light around again, then shook his head. “Well, I’m stumped. Even if there’s something down here meant specifically for the Messenger, I sure as hell don’t see it.”
“There is another chamber right behind here,” Conover said, pointing at the blank wall against which the tunnel ended. “And more beyond that.” He touched the wall. “I’m not sure if it would work, but maybe we could get Amy or Viktor to bring one of those plasma pistols, or some explosives or something, and we could try blasting through.”
Dash was pretty sure nothing they had would break through a wall made of Unseen construction, but he had nothing better to suggest. “Might as well give it a try.”
“That won’t be necessary,” a new voice said, making Conover yelp and all of them spin around. Dash and Leira raised their sluggers, fingers touching the triggers.
Their light illuminated a man—middle-aged, somewhat pale, with striking blue eyes and thinning, reddish hair. He wore dark robes, the color of which Dash couldn’t quite make out, carried a staff, and had a small pendant hanging around his neck. An air of patient authority clung to him like a second skin, and he was very still.
“I know why you have come, Messenger,” the man said. “Allow me to guide you to that which you seek.”
The man had said it to Conover.
Dash lowered the slugger, but not all the way. “Actually,” he said, “he’s not the Messenger. I am.”
“Oh? My apologies!” A genuinely shocked and embarrassed look flashed on the man’s face, making him look both younger are far more human. “What a mistake.”
Dash shrugged. “It’s not that big a deal.”
“Apparently, you do not have the look of the Messenger about you,” Sentinel suddenly said.
Dash gave the man a look as he considered Sentinel’s words. “Can they hear you as well?”
“If you wish. I would caution against too many people in our loop, as we may need channel security later,” Sentinel said.
“Understood. Just us, then.”
He blinked and looked at Leira. His whole exchange with Sentinel had happened non-verbally, and in the course of just a few seconds, but from her perspective, he’d apparently gone silent and still. “Sorry. Sentinel is rather chatty.”
Leira’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth, but he raised a hand and said, “We can talk about that later. Right now, let’s address other things.” He turned back to the newcomer. “Who exactly are you?”
“My name is Kai,” the man said. “I could tell you much more, but I believe it would make more sense to take you to the thing you’re seeking and offer more explanation there.” He stepped toward them and they tensed, but he smiled and pointed at the blank wall terminating the corridor. “I must open the way.”
They stepped warily aside. As Kai passed him, Dash noticed that the pendant around his neck was a small device of some sort. Before he could ask about, though, Kai began to speak, touching the wall as he did. Dash’s eyebrows raised when he realized Kai was speaking in the tongue of the Unseen—albeit awkwardly, with clumsy grammar and wooden pronunciation. His words were also nonsense, strung together for rhythm and pitch rather than meaning, but that didn’t seem to matter as the musical babble flowed from him in an even baritone.
A rectangle, glowing a soft purple, appeared on the wall, outlining a door that swung silently open. Kai gestured them through, then followed and spoke again, causing the door to swing closed behind them and disappear.
As Kai moved past them to take the lead, Dash gave the others a confident smile, waving them forward. He’d made his decision about Kai, and the facility, and the value of the core. Simply stated, it was a done deal, and if Kai turned out to be duplicitous in any way, Dash would be the hammer that set him right. They were at the nexus of war, technology, and religion, and a lot of what he was going to see wouldn’t make sense to him. Yet. For now, he knew the goal was closer at hand, and he moved with a confidence that he hoped would infect the others, there underground in the damp and dark.
“We have been waiting for you, Messenger,” Kai said, glancing back as he led them along the passage. “For a very long time.”
“Define a very long time,” Dash replied.
“Almost two hundred years.”
“Wait—you’re two hundred years old?”
Kai laughed. “No, I’m forty-two. Our order is two centuries old, though.”
“Your order?” Leira asked. “So you must be the monks the boy told us about.”
“We’re known to the people of Featherport as monks, yes. They believe we are simply a hermetic order, devoted to worshipping the ancient technology of the Unseen. There have been a number of such groups across Shylock, and they believe us to just be another of them.” He glanced back again, this time with a grin. “And they believe we’re deluded, possibly dangerous, or maybe not unlike harmless idiots who chant and pray to gods from an earlier time, although our gods are made of metal and not songs. What they do not realize is that, when it comes to the Unseen Order, they’re wrong. It’s useful, though, to let them go on believing we’re just a gathering of like-minded crackpots, so we make no effort to convince them otherwise. To disabuse them of that notion would open us to even more intense scrutiny from the pirates who come to dig among the stones.”
“Okay,” Conover said, “assuming what you’re saying is true, and you really are able to somehow work with Unseen tech—”
“I think it’s pretty obvious that that part’s true,” Leira cut in, gesturing around them.
“Well, yeah,” Conover said. “So how did this all come about? What happened two hundred years ago that made you into a religious order, or whatever?”
“Kind of wondering that myself,” Dash said.
“Helping the Messenger is why we exist.” He turned along a side passage. Leira kept careful eye on her data-pad, making sure it was keeping an accurate map as they walked. “Two hundred years ago, a tech hunter named Bayard discovered this place. He kept it to himself, thinking to exploit whatever it contained. He did retrieve and sell a few minor artifacts, but when he discovered the Orb, he was awakened to a new and much more expansive reality. He became the founder of our Order and used his newfound wealth to establish it, while taking measures to protect the Orb and the great catacombs that contain it.”
“He must be the one who set up that bunker and blast door up above,” Conover said.
Kai nodded. “Truly, and at first, Bayard, and those he carefully selected to join his cause, knew there was a purpose to all of this but didn’t understand what it was. Over time, successive generations of the Order have slowly been able to translate some of the language of the Unseen, and piece together at least some of what that great purpose is.”
Kai stopped and looked at Dash. “The Order of the Unseen exists to help the Messenger, a being chosen by the Unseen to use the Orb, to defeat the Enemy of All Life.”
There was a moment of silence as that sank in, then Leira asked, “Okay, how did you know the Messenger was here? You were obviously expecting us. Does the boy who showed us how to get here work for you? Is he part of your Order?”
“No. I have no idea who that boy might have been, other than one of the many street urchins that wanders around Featherport.” He looked at Dash again. “It was the Orb that told us the Messenger was here. It began to glow several hours ago, which I suspect probably corresponds to the time you arrived in the Shylock system.”
Dash nodded. “Pretty much.”
Kai turned and resumed walking. “Our studies of the Unseen and their works have revealed a great deal about the coming war against the Enemy of All Life, and some things about the role of the Messenger in it. However, we have many gaps, and there are numerous things we don’t understand. I am hoping you can give us insight.”
“How many of you are there?” Dash asked.
“Ten, including myself.”
“But you haven’t been living down here, right? You must have homes up top somewhere.”
Kai shook his head. “No. We avoid contact with others as much as possible. The less interaction we have with those not of our Order, the less likely we are to inadvertently trigger interest in us and our works that could prove troublesome.”
“You do live down here?”
“Indeed. Most of us were born in these catacombs and have lived our lives in them.”
“So you’ve been waiting, year after year, for two centuries, just for me to come and pick up this so-called Orb?”
“Oh, man, am I ever sorry to hear that.” Dash ran a finger along the wall, then gave Kai a level look.
“Please, don’t be. We consider it a sacred honor. Moreover, our purpose is about to be fulfilled, at least as far as we understand it. I consider myself very fortunate, actually.”
Dash said, “Huh,” but that was all, because there was nothing else to say in the face of such dedication to something he was only beginning to grasp. Frankly, he considered the whole thing insane—but also very humbling, knowing that people could be this devoted to a cause that was entirely abstract and might very well not even resolve itself in their lifetime, or their children’s, or their children’s, or ever.
They carried on. Dash knew the power core was close now. Kai led them around another turn, along a corridor that led a short distance to a small, round room, the ceiling several meters above. He waited for all of them to enter, then turned and touched a spot on the wall. It flashed briefly, bluish-purple around his fingers, and a door whispered closed.
Dash looked around at the round, featureless room, then he turned back to Kai. “So now what?”
Before Kai could answer, the whole room trembled slightly. Dash’s stomach fluttered as he felt a sudden acceleration.
Leira said, “Are we moving?” and Kai nodded.
“This elevator will take us down to the core of the complex.” Kai’s serene expression never altered. This wasn’t his first ride, and he seemed at ease in the silent, speeding chamber.
Conover, who’d been peering around the room, apparently trying to discern more about it, turned to Kai in surprise. “The core? You mean there’s more to this place, even deeper than this?”
Kai nodded. “This complex is vast. Our Order has been here almost two centuries, and there are still large sections of it that have yet to be explored.” He looked at Dash. “Some sections are also sealed off with doors we haven’t been able to open. There are hints that some of these, at least, may be accessible to the Messenger.”
“Yeah, well, tours are going to have to wait. We came here for a really specific reason and need to get back to…” Dash paused, not sure how much he should reveal to these apparently self-proclaimed monks of the Unseen. “To where we came from.”
Kai, though, simply nodded. “To wage war against the Enemy of All Life, yes, of course.”
Another flutter in his gut announced the end of the elevator’s journey. Conover looked around and just shook his head. “Amazing. This place is huge. We must have dropped three hundred meters, and there were chambers and corridors around us almost the whole way down.”
Kai touched the wall again, and the door slid open. Beyond it, a short corridor led to another round chamber. This one was far larger and more ornate, if the concept of ornate applied to the Unseen. For all Dash knew, the sprawl of intricate filigree covering the walls—dark, bronze-colored panels shot through with a maze of fine, bright silver inlays—could have been purely functional in some esoteric way.
Dash’s attention was immediately caught by the other people in the room—nine of them, all dressed in plain robes similar to Kai’s. They sat cross-legged on thin cushions that were a little tattered and threadbare, a stark and primitive contrast to the rest of the place. The only other entrance to the chamber seemed to be a large, ominous door opposite them, seemingly made of the same, quicksilver-bright material as the inlays on the walls.
Kai gestured to Dash, then turned to his fellow monks. “I am beyond honored to present to you, the Messenger.”
Almost as one, they all—Kai included—bowed deeply. Dash wondered if they’d been practicing that bow for two hundred years. But he raised a hand and shook his head.
“It’s my pleasure and purpose to be here, and I ask you to share your history with me. I am the Messenger, and all that entails. That does not mean I understand every aspect of my purpose, but I do know the goal—to eliminate the Golden completely. To stabilize the galaxy, and let life grow unabated. To that end, I welcome your help, with the understanding that I am only a man. An ordinary man who has been placed in an extraordinary time and place—"
He broke off when he realized the monks were exchanging glances and smiling.
“What? Did I say something funny?”
Kai shook his head. “No. Our apologies. It’s just that the Unseen emphasized that the Messenger would be humble, considering himself unworthy of the title. We long ago concluded that, if and when the Messenger arrived, they would be much as you present yourself.” He gave decidedly not-very-reverential grin. “We aren’t disappointed.”
“Still,” another of the monks said, “you are the Messenger, and your arrival is as foretold by the Unseen. So, yes, this is quite a significant moment for us, regardless of your perception of the event.”
“That said, our reverence is truly reserved for the Unseen,” another monk said. “We are well aware that you are essentially a vessel for their purposes.”
Dash said, “That’s a bit reductive, but I can live with it given the spectacular nature of my ride. I’m more than a courier or stick jockey, and I’m certainly not a deity. As to being a vessel for their purpose, well—I’d never really considered that part of destiny, but I welcome it. Some people are called to things they have no taste for.” Dash felt his features grow hard. “Fighting the Golden is something I look forward to, despite not thinking of every possible ending.”
Leira gave him a coy look. “Thought about what, oh mighty Messenger?”
“I prefer Lord Messenger, if you please,” Dash said gravely.
“As you wish.” Leira bowed from the waist, then stuck out her tongue.
“Now then,” Kai said, looking at Dash and Leira with mild bewilderment, “you have made it clear that your business here is urgent.”
He moved to the silver door. As he did, the other monks stood and assembled around him, but left a way open for Dash and the others to follow. As he passed by the cushions, Dash said, “Please tell me you guys haven’t spent the past two hundred years just sitting down here in this room waiting for the Messenger to show up.”
“No, of course not,” Kai said. “We have done many things to prepare for your arrival, such as translate the language of the Unseen. That, by itself, has taken up much of our time.” He touched another of the otherwise featureless spots on the wall. “As I told you, the Orb heralded your arrival, as those writings foretold. So, we assembled to await you.”
“What if I’d never managed to find this place?”
“Of course you would find it,” Kai said. “How could it be otherwise?” he said, stately with his facts.
The silver door didn’t slide open; it rippled briefly, like water, then simply vanished. The chamber beyond was much smaller than the one in which they now stood but every bit as ornate. In the center of it was a slender pedestal, again of that same, dull bronze color inlaid with a tracery of silver-white. And upon it sat a glowing ball.
“The Orb,” Kai said, gesturing.
“It’s actually a power core,” Dash said, stepping between and entering the smaller room.
“Actually,” Conover said, “it’s two power cores.”
Sure enough, a second, smaller pedestal held what Dash immediately recognized as a level one core. “Well, that’s handy.” He turned his attention to the other one, which was clearly the level two core they sought. It was bigger and more bulbous, and it glowed with a soft, reddish light. At a half-meter in diameter, the core was ringed in segments with each end being rounded. The entire unit bridged a look of machine and organism, being oddly fluid. It was elegant, it the way that Dash was coming to expect from ancient tech.
“For two hundred years,” Kai said, “we called this the Orb. Were we wrong?”
He turned a questioning look to Dash, who gave him a reassuring smile. “Orb, power core, it’s all good. Religion and science are close friends here, Kai, and your people have been on the front lines protecting the tools we need to wage war.”
“In any case, it has been in this place, untouched, since Bayard first discovered it. Our Order later determined that it would announce the arrival of the Messenger by beginning to glow,” Kai said.
Despite his earlier dismissal of the reverent nature surrounding the power core, Dash did have to appreciate how that moment must have been for these people. For two hundred years, they, and their ancestors, had been waking up every day and checking the core, and—nothing. Then, today, which had probably started for them like any other, it suddenly began to glow. For them, it must have been a truly transcendental moment, far more than a simple pulse of light heralding something they treated as an article of faith. He’s felt the same way when Sentinel spoke to him, and that memory made him proceed with a more diplomatic tone.
Time was passing, so he had to hurry this along, regardless of the staggering implication here among the monks. He nodded to Kai and the other monks. “Well, thanks are in order. Not only for your care, but your diligence. You have my gratitude, Kai, as do all of your people from today stretching back into history.” He gave a bow that looked rusty, but sincere.
Kai returned it, his eyes alight with inner purpose.
“Dash?” a new voice called. “Leira? Are you guys there?”
It was Amy on the comm. Dash exchanged a surprised look with the others. There should be no way for the comm to work so clearly this deep under the ground. It must have been yet another remarkable thing they could credit to the Unseen.
“Yeah, we’re here,” he said. “Go ahead, Amy.”
“I hope you guys are ready to come back to the ship, because you should do that right away.”
“Because a ship just landed here at the port, and I think it belongs to those Clan Shirna guys you’ve been talking about.”
Dash frowned, straightened with purpose, and addressed Leira and Conover. “Remember what I said at the outpost full of Fangrats? That it just seemed too easy?”
“I gather that this isn’t welcome news, these Clan Shirna,” Kai said.
“No, it’s not,” Leira replied. “They’re actually kind of like you guys, except they’re working for the other side.”
Kai’s face hardened. “They are agents of the Enemy of All Life?”
Dash nodded. “You could say that. They’re also our cue that it’s time to leave.” He reached for the core then paused, wondering if it might be protected by a stasis field, like the one used to protect the cores on the Forge.
“Sentinel? Is this going to roast me to ashes? Just curious,” Dash said.
“You may secure the item by hand,” Came the instant answer.
Dash grabbed the core.
A collective gasp rippled through the monks. Kai said, “Our apologies, but that’s the first time any hand has touched the Orb.”
“Understood,” Dash said. “I know this is a pretty big deal for you guys. And I wish I could let you savor the moment, but we really need to get going. With all the care and respect due your station, if we linger, I put you at risk as well. I’m not going to do that.” He looked Kai in the eyes. “I’m genuinely sorry if this isn’t the epic moment you thought it would be, but war is work. This is a tool, albeit one with meaning, but now it’s time to fight.”
Kai shrugged. “What matters is confronting and defeating the Enemy of All Life. That’s the true purpose of all of this.”
Dash nodded and grabbed the level one core as well. Strangely, it seemed to have more heft, more weight to it, than the level two, which seemed almost insubstantial in his hand. He handed the level one to Conover, who nodded and tucked it into his satchel. Dash put the level two into his. The cores hung out of both bags, too big to be fully or easily concealed.
“Best we’re going to do, I guess,” Dash said.
“Amy,” Leira said, “status update.”
“There are a half-dozen of those Clan Shirna guys here at the spaceport, keeping a lookout, I guess. A half-dozen more rode a little lev-shuttle out of their ship and headed into the city.”
Viktor came on. “I’ve been keeping an eye on them. They’re definitely armed—they have plasma pistols like the ones you acquired from them, Dash. Oh, and no uniforms. They’re all wearing regular civ gear.”
“Why don’t we just stay down here?” Conover asked. “Wait for them to just give up and go away?”
“They obviously know we’re here,” Leira replied. “And they also obviously know we’ve come into the city. Even if they haven’t realized the Slipwing is sitting right there, we have to assume they eventually will—and then Amy and Viktor will be in trouble.”
“Besides, we’re on a clock, remember?” Dash said. “What happens if they decide to stick around and just wait us out?” He turned to Kai. “We need to get back to the spaceport, and quietly. I don’t need a stand-up fight in the street with Clan Shirna, at least not now, if we can help it. We don’t know the city, though. Can you help us out?”
“Of course,” Kai said. “We exist to defeat the Enemy of All Life. That certainly includes their minions.”
“Well, I’d love to have your help actually dealing with these Clan Shirna assholes, but—no offence—you don’t seem like the fighting types.”
In answer, Kai stepped away, then flung his staff into a blur of moves, in front, to the side, even behind and overhead. He ended with a blow that stopped centimeters from the face of one of the other monks, who didn’t flinch a millimeter. Had it connected, it would have caved in the man’s skull.
Dash blinked. “I did not expect that.”
Kai shrugged. “The martial arts are an excellent way of strengthening not just the body, but also the mind and the spirit. And making a few side bets along the way for fun and profit. We’re monks, but we’re still men.” He finished with a wink.
“Besides which, you’ve probably had the time to get pretty good at them, it seems,” Leira said.
Kai nodded, then he and the other monks of the Order of the Unseen led them out of the chamber to start the journey back to the surface of Shylock.
Dash peered around the corner of a building. The street seemed clear of anything resembling Clan Shirna, but he once again let Kai and two of the other monks lead the way. Clad in their dark robes, and each carrying a staff, they somehow both looked frighteningly conspicuous trudging up the mostly empty street—but also like they belonged. Hopefully, Clan Shirna was unaware of the Order of the Unseen and would just ignore the monks as more oddities of Featherport.
Kai and the monks reached the next intersection and stopped. Dash, followed by Conover and the remaining four monks, also now all sporting staves, rounded the corner and hurried up the street. Leira, her slug-pistol held under jacket, brought up the rear.
Dash sidled up behind Kai. “How much further?”
“Perhaps another half hour of walking until we reach the edge of the city and can start for the spaceport. We could have taken a faster and more direct route, but you made it clear that you would rather avoid confrontation with these vile creatures that would see the Enemy of All Life.”
“You know, to save time, how about just call them the bad guys.”
Kai smiled. “Apologies. We’ve had ample time to speak our minds over the years, so using it has become a bit of a habit.
“Not a problem. Anyway, half an hour. And then we need to take a shuttle from there.” He frowned. “That’s going to be the really dangerous part, us jammed into one shuttle.”
“Dangerous for us, and for anyone else aboard it,” Conover said. “I doubt that the Clan Shirna will care much about collateral damage.”
“There’s no need to take a shuttle,” Kai said, pointing up at the high ridge upon the top of which the spaceport perched. “The only reason a shuttle is used at all is because the road to the port must go through several long switchbacks as it climbs the ridge. We know a path that will let us climb directly to it, and in little more time than the shuttle would take.”
“It is quite steep, though,” another monk said, “and rather taxing to walk.”
Dash shrugged. “I’ll take a tough climb over sitting in a shuttle waiting to be shot at, thanks.”
They set off again, Kai and two monks once more leading.
One block at a time, Dash thought. It was aggravating and slow as thick mud, but if they could avoid being seen, then their progress was steady. That plan fell apart in an instant, when one of the monks looked back and made their prearranged “bad guys” signal, a thumbs-down.
“Well, there goes the quiet exit,” Dash said, drawing his slug-pistol from his satchel. Conover did the same, but it trembled in his hand, while his face went pale and his eyes widened. The kid, it struck Dash, had never actually been in a face-to-face combat before.
Dash gave him what he hoped was a reassuring look. “Stay behind me, Conover, okay? Just try to keep yourself under cover and shoot any Clan Shirna guys you get a clear bead on. Aim, point, boom. Got it?”
He licked his lips and nodded quickly. “Got it.”
They started up the street, walking fast, slug-pistols held out of view, trying their best to look casual—although Dash knew that people carrying an array of weapons looked anything but casual.
At a corner, Kai said, “One of the creatures you described to us is standing at the next intersection. It is obviously keeping watch.”
“Can we just avoid him?” Leira asked. “Work around another way?”
Dash muttered, “We need to make good time,” and Kai nodded in agreement.
“Not easily. This next intersection is where several main streets converge. It’s a choke point.” The monk’s lip curled. “They are cunning, like devious animals, aren’t they?”
Dash couldn’t help noticing the hard gleam of genuine hatred in Kai’s eyes when he talked about Clan Shirna. Apparently, these monks really did practice what they preached when it came to the Enemy of All Life. It made him glad they were on his side.
“So, we either need to slip by this guy somehow or take him out.” Dash looked down at the slug-pistol. He could reliably hit a man-sized target at twenty-five meters, meaning he’d have to get close.
“Leave that to us,” Kai said.
He nodded to another of the monks, who simply nodded back and started down the street. Dash knelt and peered around the corner, watching him slowly ambling away, leaning on his staff as he walked, as though he needed it for support.
Dash tensed as the Clan Shirna agent turned and saw the monk approaching him. He gritted his teeth, certain there’d be the dazzling flash of a plasma discharge.
But the agent just watched the monk approach, apparently unconcerned—even uninterested.
The monk limped up to the agent, and Dash wasn’t quite sure what happened next. One instant, the monk shambled along like a bent, old man; the next, he was a blur of movement as the staff struck home with a vicious crack, then the Clan Shirna agent was toppling over, a ribbon of spittle and blood flying from his face. The monk caught him and swiftly pulled him into an alley. A moment later, he emerged, casually strolled up to the intersection and looked around, then turned back and gave them a thumbs-up.
“You know,” Dash said, “you can say that martial arts is good for your soul and all that, but that was amazing. Nothing like a little well-practiced violence to lift my spirits.”
Conover, who hadn’t been able to see around the corner, asked, “What happened?”
“One less Clan Shirna guy to worry about, that’s what happened,” Dash said. Conover looked vastly relieved, but Dash held up a warning finger. “Before you get all relaxed, we still have a long trek back to the ship.”
Conover’s face tightened again, but he nodded and said, “Right. Got it.”
Once more, they set off, one block closer to getting away.
The climb up the ridge proved laborious, but not for the monks. Their faces were relentlessly upbeat despite the afternoon heat, but Dash and Leira were soon gasping with exertion as they trudged up the steep path. Conover struggled in a way that verged into danger. Twice, they had to stop to let him catch his breath.
“The atmosphere is a little thinner than standard,” Leira said to him as he slumped on a boulder.
Conover winced as he shifted on the rock. “Not that. Out of…shape.”
She shrugged. “It happens when you live on a spaceship. Drink some water.”
He shook his head. “Out.”
She dug into her satchel then pulled out her own water bottle and sloshed it around. “I have some left,” she said, offering it to him.
“No.” He shook his head. “That’s yours.”
“You need it way more than I do.”
Dash frowned at the little tableau. “Guys? Hate to hurry you along, but we don’t really have time for this.”
Conover took the water, muttered, “Thanks,” drank it, and levered himself to his feet.
“We’ll be at the top shortly,” Kai said. “Five more minutes, perhaps ten.”
Dash nodded, activating his comm. “Ten minutes out, Amy.”
“Got it,” she replied. “Everything’s powered up. Just gotta hit the thrusters and we’ll be flying.”
They resumed the climb. The path had its own switchbacks, but it mostly went straight up the ridge. It gave them a terrific view of Featherport sprawled along the coast behind them, but it also left Dash feeling exposed to discovery by any enemy with a drone, field glasses, or even decent eyesight. “How about our friends up there, Amy? What are they up to?”
“We’ve got two still outside their ship. Three or four more just wandering nearby. And I know there’s at least one more still aboard.”
“Okay. As soon as you see us, hit those thrusters. I wanna be lifting off while the ramp’s still closing.”
They finally reached a flat spot just below the crest of the ridge. Another short climb and they’d be at the top and on the edge of the spaceport. They wouldn’t be too far from the Slipwing, but Dash wished they could have ended up closer.
He turned to Kai. “Thank you for your diligence. I know that’s not enough, but—I’m in awe of your commitment. I’ll use this core to fight the enemy until I can’t fight any more. You have my word.”
“You’re not aboard your ship just yet.”
Kai turned away and started up the last bit of the trail. Dash opened his mouth to protest, but with a half-dozen Clan Shirna goons lurking around the spaceport, he realized they might need still need the monks’ help.
They reached the top and paused. A security fence surrounded the spaceport, with a trail stretching both directions, paralleling both it and the crestline. Dash cursed; they’d still have to walk a long distance one way or the other to enter—and he could see the Slipwing maybe a hundred meters away. But Kai just nodded to two of the monks, who stepped up to the fence and simply pulled a section away from a post, opening a gap.
“We’ve had reason to surreptitiously access this place in the past,” he said, shrugging.
“There’s a story in that, isn’t there?”
Kai smiled. “Isn’t there always?”
Once through the fence, they moved behind a blast shield and peered at the Slipwing. They faced a straight, one-hundred-meter shot across thruster-scorched duracrete. He could see the Clan Shirna ship sitting another hundred meters or so to the left of the Slipwing. They’d have some cover part of the way from a bulky corporate freighter and some cargo pods piled near it, but they still faced a good two-thirds of the distance in the open. Heat shimmered over the surface, warping distance and vision into a scene that was even less inviting than at a distance.
“Amy, we’re here,” he said, then went on, describing their location. He wanted to make sure she and Viktor knew the direction they’d be coming from in case they needed some help.
“Yup,” she shot back. “I can see where you’re talking about. Viktor’s down by the ramp with one of those cool plasma pistols.”
“Got it.” Dash looked at the others, pausing on Conover. “You ready?”
The kid’s eyes were wide and white against the sweaty grime smeared across his face, but he gave a quick nod. “Yeah. Mostly got my breath back.”
There were nods all around.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Dash said. “Fast walk; it’ll draw less attention. We won’t run unless we have to.”
They started for the Slipwing.
The monks spread out into a loose fan, with Dash, Leira, and Conover in the middle. In the fading light, they had a faint hope anyone looking at them might think they were just a group of robed monks walking across a spaceport, from a direction that wasn’t an official entrance or the terminal building.
Yeah, not likely, Dash thought, grimly gripping his slug pistol. The only way they’d pull that off was if no one bothered looking at them in the first place.
“Maybe we should have waited for dark,” Leira said.
Dash curled a lip. “It would cost us at least another hour.”
“More like two,” Kai said.
“Meantime, the rest of those Clan Shirna guys down in the city might be back here by then—and then we’d be outnumbered, on top of everything else.”
They walked on, their feet thumping and scraping against the blast-scarred spaceport pad.
“I see you,” Amy said.
Dash replied, “Yup. So far, so good.” They’d reached the looming bulk of the freighter and deviated off the straight path slightly, nudging themselves a little further into its shadow. It would have been nice to get right under it to benefit from the cover of its ponderous landing gear, but Dash didn’t want to enter its security zone, triggering an alarm inside and bringing some confused and wary corporate ship’s crew into the mix.
“Okay,” he said as they stepped out of the freighter’s shadow and back into the glare of the lowering sun. Forty meters left. “Kai, you guys can stay here. Any closer, and you’ll catch some blast from us as we lift, and we really don’t want to have to wait.”
“We’re coming with you,” the monk said.
“You’re what?” Despite the urgency, Dash stopped. “No, you’re not.”
“It’s the reason we exist.”
“But you’ve done your duty—I’m telling you this not just as me, but as the Messenger. You’ve fulfilled your promise, Kai, beyond anyone’s possible expectation. Go, and live,” Dash said.
“No, Messenger, we can’t. Our Order wasn’t merely formed to guard the Orb until your arrival. We exist to oppose the Enemy of All Life at every turn—and to assist the Messenger in doing the same.”
“Look, you can’t just—”
“If I may intervene,” Sentinel said, her voice ringing in Dash’s head, “taking these monks with you is actually a wise course of action. They are familiar with the Creators, their language, and their technology, and could prove useful in assisting you to activate the Forge and oppose the Golden.”
Kai leaned into Dash’s sudden silence, his face determined. “Standing against the Enemy is what we have been preparing to do for all of our lives. Do not deny us this.”
Dash sighed. Both Kai and Sentinel were probably right.
“Uh, Dash?” Conover said. “That guy over there, near the Slipwing, he’s looking at us.”
Dash turned, looked, and groaned. The figure standing near his ship reminded him of Nathis, the supposed religious fanatic—although it turned out, really just a stooge of the Golden—who led Clan Shirna’s relentless pursuit of him and the others. The reptilian jerk had been desperate to get his scaly hands on the Lens, the Unseen device Leira and Viktor had found that had the power to blow up stars. The guy looking at them now had the same reptilian build and appearance, right down to the patches on his neck that would change color with his mood.
Well, they were about to turn very, very red—the color Nathis’s had gone when he was pissed off.
“We probably should have had this conversation a while ago,” Dash said to Kai. “Anyway, you need to get your people somewhere safe. We’ll take it from here.”
Kai gave a sharp jerk of his head. “We’re wasting time,” he snapped, then motioned for the other monks to follow him. And they did, all of them—heading straight for the Slipwing.
Dash weighed his options as a courier, and then, as the Messenger, an angle that was coming to dominate his thought process.
“They come with us,” Dash said, simply.
And then all hell broke loose.
In true Clan Shirna fashion, it wasn’t subtle. A plasma shot pulsed overhead, exploding against a cargo pod. Dash wasn’t sure if it was meant as a warning shot, or just a miss, but he didn’t take time to try to figure it out. He shouted, “Move!” and started running for the Slipwing. As he did, he raised his slug pistol, intending to send some shots downrange at the Clan Shirna thug they’d seen—but Kai and his monks blocked the line of fire.
Dash raced on, feet pounding the duracrete. The thug lifted his plasma pistol and snapped off a shot, incinerating a monk in a flash of incandescent discharge. Dash cursed, but Kai was on the man before his pistol could recycle. After a flurry of blows, the thug dropped like a sack of rocks, blood spraying in an arc as Kai’s staff swung.
The Clan Shirna goon who’d fired the first shot was lining up another, right until his head exploded in gory fragments. Dash glanced back and saw Conover, slug pistol still raised, staring in surprised horror at what he’d done.
“Good aim. Now shake it off and let’s go!”
Conover turned, hesitated, then then broke into a run. Leira snapped shots in the opposite direction, her rounds sparking off the freighter’s landing gear, where two more Clan Shirna had taken cover. Alarms sounded from inside the freighter, and Dash saw a woman appear in an open hatch, but immediately duck back inside as gunfire crackled. He made to join Leira in doing a run-and-shoot, keeping the two lurking under the freighter suppressed, but someone leapt out from behind another cargo pod, right into Dash’s path.
Clan Shirna, Dash saw, so he lashed out with the slug pistol, aiming to pistol-whip his foe across the face.
The man dodged back then kicked out, getting a solid blow on the thick muscles of Dash’s leg. Dash spun and almost fell, but windmilled one arm to recover, while punching with the slug pistol. He caught the man in the chest, making him grunt and recoil. He followed up with a kick to the man’s stomach, before finally getting the pistol-whip he wanted and smashing his opponent’s nose into bloody ruin. Then he gave one more chop, with the pistol butt on his head. The man dropped and went still.
Dash raced on. Conover and Leira were ahead of him now, doing the smart thing and passing Dash while he fought, keeping an eye out for other bad guys. Ahead of them, the monks had reached the Slipwing—just as one more Clan Shirna agent appeared around a coolant truck parked near the ship.
Dash braced himself. The monks had bunched up, so a plasma shot would turn most of them to glowing ash. One of the monks leapt, though—actually leapt, like some predatory animal on its prey. He managed to deflect the plasma blast up, so it flared into the sky, but the shot vaporized his forearms and head. The Clan Shirna agent stumbled back, shocked by the flash right in front of his face. Two more monks immediately closed in, unleashing a deluge of blows from their staves. Dash caught dazzling, neon-blue flashes as they connected; some of their weapons were electrified. It seemed like overkill, considering the way the blows alone so obviously turned the man’s bones to splinters, but he appreciated the lethality of their art even more.
Then there was another plasma blast, but this one detonated near the Clan Shirna ship. Dash saw Viktor on the ramp, weapon raised, ready to take another shot when it had recycled. That gave a man taking cover under the ship a chance to raise his own weapon and aim it straight back at Viktor.
Dash stopped, raised his slug pistol, and snapped off the longest shot he’d ever tried—at least fifty meters. It actually took a noticeable instant for the round to travel that far. Dash knew that because of the brief delay before the back of the man’s head spattered across the ship’s engine fairing.
“Okay,” Dash said to himself, breaking back into a run, “that was a damned fine shot, if I do say so myself.”
Viktor stared, wide-eyed, as Kai and the remaining seven monks pounded up the ramp into the Slipwing. Leira and Conover followed. A sole Clan Shirna agent stepped out of their ship and snapped off a plasma shot that slammed into the Slipwing, forcing Dash to dodge glowing, white-hot droplets of melted ablative armor. It looked spectacular, but the armor was meant to take far worse hits from far more powerful weapons, so Dash ignored it, jumped onto the ramp, and shouted, “Amy, go!”
A rising whine filled the air as the thrusters came to life. Dash followed Viktor up the ramp as the roar of mounting thrust rose behind him, heated air and dust swirling into the ship as the ramp closed. With a thump, it seated and sealed, and the Slipwing lifted.
“Shylock traffic control is ordering us to stay put, Dash,” Amy said. “Something about the magistrates being on their way.”
Dash looked around at the crowd suddenly jammed into the Slipwing’s cabin. “Anybody here plan to come back to Shylock any time soon?”
“We might need to get back into that Unseen complex,” Conover said. From the tremble in his voice, Dash could tell he was still recovering from the adrenaline-pumped shock of having just killed a man. He favored the kid with a look he hoped was reassuring.
“We’ll deal with that if and when we have to. In the meantime, I suspect all that Unseen stuff down there will be pretty much fine on its own.”
“It did look after itself for hundreds of millennia,” Kai said.
“Amy, tell traffic control you’ve got a bad comm circuit, and that you can’t make out what they’re saying. Then hand the ship over to Leira. You’re a terrific engineer, but—”
“She’s the hotshot pilot in the family. Roger that!”
Shylock traffic control pestered them as they sped away from the planet, demanding they return to answer for their role in the fracas at Featherport. Dash eventually just set the comm to ignore them, enjoying the blissful silence that fell with the touch of a key.
“That’s better,” he said, and everyone grinned in agreement.
While his act was a gross violation of spaceflight regs, it seemed monumentally unimportant given what might be waiting when they returned to the Forge. Galactic war had a way of making officious idiots seem a lot less important.
The bigger concern was more Clan Shirna ships waiting for them in orbit, or in the space near Shylock. Dash fully expected a fight once they broke atmosphere—but there was nothing, just a bit of routine traffic. The Clan Shirna gang that they’d confronted on Shylock must have gotten wind of them somehow—probably by paying off some traffic controller to alert them if the Slipwing happened to show up—but they likewise must have been the only ship near enough to respond. It meant they now had to worry about Clan Shirna pretty much everywhere they went—at least anywhere inhabited. Again, though, it just seemed not that big an issue, compared to the threat of the Golden themselves, who intended to end all life, not just theirs.
Now, as the Slipwing prepared to translate to unSpace and hurry back to the Forge, Dash sought out Kai. He found him crammed into the crew hab, along with the other monks. The ship hadn’t been designed to accommodate this many people, and Dash had found it uncomfortably crowded with just him, Leira, Viktor, and Conover aboard. Adding Amy made it even more congested, and now, with eight more people jammed into her confined interior, it actually hit Dash with flickers of claustrophobia, but he steeled himself with a deep breath.
He stopped and leaned against a conduit. “Kai, I just…I’m sorry. About your people back there. I never got to know them, but they helped us get out of there alive.”
Kai nodded. “They were good men, and we will certainly miss them. But they were fortunate. They died having fulfilled their purpose of seeing that the Messenger was united with the Orb. Many more of our Order have died in the past, having only their faith that the Messenger would some day arrive to sustain them.”
Dash nodded back, impressed by Kai’s attitude regarding the sudden, awful deaths of people he must have known all his life. In his travels through the galactic arm, Dash had brushed up against many different religious beliefs, but had never given any of them much credence. If anything, he’d generally considered most of them silly at best, destructive at worst, and potential tools of manipulation and control in any case. But the simple, absolute certainty in Kai’s words made him wonder if there might something more to it all—something that he’d been missing.
“Damn,” he said. “I know you said you expected me to be kind of ordinary, but I wish I wasn’t this ordinary. I feel like I’m letting you down. I am the Messenger, but I’m still growing. Learning. I’m trying to be more than an Archetype pilot, and it’s a learning curve we don’t have time for. I swear I’ll make it, though, even if all of this feels rather random at times.”
That brought puzzled and inquisitive looks from the monks. “Oh, right,” Dash went on. “You don’t know what the Archetype is. Well, you’ll see it soon enough, but the quick version of the story begins with a comet.”
He went on to describe how he’d crashed onto one of the many icy little bodies making up the Pasture, the vast comet field that had been constructed by the Unseen. And how, on the brink of death, he’d stumbled onto the Archetype, which had allowed him to survive and escape what had seemed like a certain, lonely end.
“So it was really just a freak chance that I found the Archetype at all,” he finished, and there was an expectant air between him and the monks, as if the story was only beginning. In a sense, it was.
The monks exchanged looks, then all turned back to Dash with indulgent smiles. “You don’t really believe it was just chance, do you?” Kai asked.
Dash sighed. “I know, you’re going to say it was meant to be, or fated to happen, because I was chosen, or something like that. I mean—I was a courier, and a good one, if you don’t count the last few runs, but I never saw myself as a cog in anything larger than my own fate.” He finally shrugged. “Like I said, I’m really just some guy who is trying to fill a space that’s meant for me, but not the man I once was.”
Kai answered by touching Dash on the shoulder. “We all believe the things we believe. However, Dash, you need to leave yourself open to the possibility that there are greater truths out there that remain true regardless of whether we believe them or not. Your own fate, as you put it, is something larger than one man’s purpose. Your belief is, not to be cruel, irrelevant at this point, although your acceptance of Messenger status is a good start. The Enemy is vast, Dash. Bigger and more relentless than the tides of the stars themselves, and they fight here, in the dark, and in all the places we would seek solace from them. So when you say you accept being the Messenger, and that you are ready to fight, I am glad—but it’s not enough.”
“What’s next, then?” Dash asked.
“I am sorry to say, but you will see. And that’s something I would wish on no one, not even the Messenger.”
The Slipwing started to smell.
Her air processor had never been designed to handle thirteen people, so the various odors they gave off began to accumulate. It wasn’t too foul—yet—but Dash was glad the Forge was only a few hours away. Everyone on board was accumulating varying degrees of ripeness, with Conover living up to the old adage that teenaged boys have an aroma unto themselves.
He found Amy and Viktor in the cockpit with Leira and mentioned it to them. Amy immediately nodded and said, “I know, right? It’s starting to smell like an old sock in here.”
“Can we do anything about it?”
“Open the windows,” Leira said.
“Hah.” Dash mimed lifting a window. “Not sure we want to feel absolute zero, or anything close to it. Plus, the whole hard vacuum thing.”
Amy pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe we could do something with the filters.”
“Or if we could separate the chemicals that smell with some sort of discriminator,” Viktor said, “and then bleed them off.”
“Yeah, but to where?” Amy replied.
“Before you guys wander off into techie world, have you had a chance to look at those cores?” Dash said.
Viktor nodded. “The level one looks pretty straightforward. Between our scans and Conover’s eyes, it seems pretty much the same as the other level one cores you already installed in the Archetype. That level two, though, is something else.” He glanced at Amy, and she nodded.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s really different. There are things going on inside it at the quantum level that we don’t even begin to understand. If we could replicate it, we’d be—”
“Wealthy, like legendarily wealthy,” Dash said, nodding. “Yeah. And if we could replicate these cores, instead of having to go find them, it would make everything way easier. But I’m assuming we can’t replicate them, can we?”
They both shook their heads. “Wouldn’t even know how to begin fabricating the parts,” Viktor said. “Hell, I don’t even know what the parts are.”
“Okay. Well, we’ve got time, so it can’t hurt to maybe check with Kai, see what he and his people might know about it. They’ve been studying Unseen stuff all their lives. Who knows, maybe they’ll be able to tell us something useful.”
Amy stayed with Leira in case she needed help, while Viktor followed Dash back into the hab.
Kai and the other monks were jammed around the hab’s sole, central table, eating. Kai looked up from his synthesized stew when Dash asked what the monk knew about the core and said, “Not a great deal. I have contemplated it every day, for as long as I can remember, so I could probably draw it with perfect detail. But I’m afraid I have no other, specific insights to offer.”
“In the writings of the Unseen we have deciphered there are references to the Orb, but they are given in contexts we never came to fully understand,” another monk, whose name Dash was pretty sure was Tyle, said. “For instance, one passage refers to the Orb as ‘the heart of the furnace.’” He and Kai both shrugged. “We were never able to figure out what that meant.”
Dash looked at Viktor, who said, “Furnace as in Forge?”
“Yeah,” Dash replied, nodding, then turning back to the monks. “I think you guys actually know more than you think you do. You might even know stuff that’s crucial, and you’ve done so without setting foot in the facility. Once we get back to the Forge, we’ll need to get Viktor and Amy to pick your brains.”
“We’d be happy to do that now,” Kai said, but Dash shook his head.
“Don’t know about you, but we’ve been running for a couple of days now on almost no sleep. I think everyone needs to take advantage of this downtime to get some rest, so we’re not a bunch of bleary-eyed sacks when we get back to the Forge. I’d really hate to be dragging my ass behind me when I have to go fight the Golden.”
At the mention of the xenophobic aliens, the monks’ faces turned collectively hard. “We understand,” Kai said. “We’ll also use the time to rest, and for contemplation and meditation, so we’re ready to be at your side when battle is joined.”
Dash wasn’t sure what eight guys with staves might be able to do to the Golden, no matter how kick-ass their martial skills might be. But it didn’t matter. Their unshakable devotion and absolute, unwavering courage gave him a rush of warm gratitude. Leira and the others were great, but the resolute monks were a real morale boost.
Later, as Dash tried to find a place to get some rest of his own—almost every available sleeping-spot in the Slipwing already containing a warm body—he found Kai sitting cross-legged outside the engineering bay. He stopped, then started to slowly back away, not wanting to disturb the monk as he sat in what seemed like a deep trance. But Kai immediately opened his eyes and looked up.
“Sorry, Kai. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“The Messenger cannot be a disturbance,” he said. “You may think of yourself as just some guy, but you have to appreciate that I have lived my entire life preparing to serve and assist you.”
Dash cleared his throat. “I’ll have to adjust to my status as a demigod. I was told there would be robes.”
“I’m sure there are,” Kai said, then gave a conspiratorial smile. “We’ll work on something purple, if it pleases my lord.” He laughed, and Dash joined him. “If it makes you feel better, we’re actually all really glad the Messenger turned out to be someone so down-to-earth. I think it might have been hard for us to get used to some awesome figure of divine power.”
Dash chuckled, but something caught his eye. Because of the way Kai sat, Dash could again see the odd little device he wore around his neck. “Hey, what is that? That pendant. It looks like tech, but I can’t make it out.”
Kai looked down. “Oh, my. Some loyal servant of the Messenger I’ve turned out to be.” He pulled the thong holding the device from around his neck. “We believe this is a data module that was removed from a larger Unseen device—perhaps a computer—located in a chamber not far from the Orb. My father passed it to me, as did his father before him.” He offered it to Dash. “We have used it as a badge of office for the head of our Order, but based on the little we have been able to determine about it, we believe it is meant to be given to the Messenger.” He looked thoughtful. “I’d honestly forgotten about it in our fray.”
Dash accepted the module. “Chaos has a way of erasing details.” He tucked it into his pocket, then yawned. “Anyway, I have to find a place to sleep. Busy day coming up—you know, saving the universe, trying on robes—”
“In rich purple, of course.”
“—in rich purple. Sleep well, friend,” Dash said.
They both smiled, but both knew they did it out of habit. There was little to smile about as they streaked through the darkness to an ancient enemy.
But at least they would not face it alone.
As the Slipwing dropped back into real space near the Forge, Dash braced himself. A full three days had elapsed since they’d left. Actually, a little more, and he fully expected to find a swarm of Golden drones and ships surrounding the station, with a desperate rush and fight just to get aboard and into the Archetype.
But the Forge hung majestically against the restless, swirling backdrop of the gas giant, and that was it. Silent, implacable, and solid, there was the Forge, waiting faithfully for their return.
He eased out a breath with relief. “Well, looks like all hell hasn’t broken loose quite yet.”
Viktor, studying the scanner, nodded. “I’m sensing nothing except the Forge itself. Mind you, we couldn’t detect some of the Forge’s missiles, remember. We should assume the Golden are able to stealth things up the same way.”
“Good point,” Dash said. “Custodian?”
“I am here.” Because he’d said the name out loud, the smooth, baritone voice of Custodian emerged from the comm, rather that inside Dash’s head through the Meld.
“Any sign of the Golden yet?”
“None. Your ship is the first to have arrived in the system since you left.”
“That’s good,” Leira said, tapping in a slight adjustment to their course, “but I can’t help thinking about those Fangrats again.” She glanced at Dash. “It’s just too damned quiet.”
“So that is the Forge you have mentioned?” Kai said, craning his neck, trying to see around Amy and Conover, both of whom were jammed into the back of the cockpit. “It is—magnificent, I’m afraid, falls far short of what I want to say, but it’s all I can think of.”
“Agreed,” Dash replied. “Behold the Forge, in all its alien glory.”
“It looks as big as a planet.”
“Actually, a moon. That’s how the Unseen kept it hidden, in fact. Inside a moon.”
“How did they do this?”
Dash shook his head. “Sorry, no time to tell all our war stories, Kai. That’ll have to wait. Right now, we have to start thinking about—”
But the Custodian interrupted Dash, in turn. “The situation has changed. Another object has entered real space and is now accelerating toward the Forge at alien velocities.”
Dash glanced at Viktor, who nodded. “We’re not getting very good resolution, but there’s something inbound.” He gave Dash a worried look. “Something big.”
Dash shifted his attention back to the Custodian. “Any idea what it is?”
It was Sentinel who answered. “It is called the Harbinger. The Creators became aware of its existence but had never actually encountered it by the time the last conflict ended.”
“Is this the Enemy?” Kai asked.
Dash nodded. “Yeah, it is.”
“Can we see it?” Conover asked. “See some data on it, so we can maybe start developing a strategy to deal with it?”
The scanner lit up with a data-stream from the Forge.
For a long moment there was silence, as everyone just stared. Amy finally broke it.
“Okay. That’s really something.”
A bit of an understatement, Dash thought, but he understood. The Harbinger challenged their senses in the same way the Forge did.
The image showed a mech—smaller than the Archetype, more slender and delicate-looking, but still radiating a sense of power and menace. As they watched, it abruptly twisted and shimmered, then faded from view.
“What happened to it?” Leira asked.
“It appears to be able to distort space around it,” Sentinel said. “Likely by translating partly into the Dark Between.”
Dash squeezed the edge of the scanner console. “Shit. Can we still track it?”
“I am able to maintain a general sense of its location, based on the gravitational distortion it leaves in real space.”
“Kind of like your Fade,” Viktor said, referring to the Slipwing’s ability to do something similar, but nowhere near as efficiently.
Dash nodded, then asked, “Okay, so how long do we have until it reaches the Forge?”
“I would estimate between one and two hours,” Custodian replied.
Leira looked up from the helm controls, her expression tight. “It’s going to take us at least that long to reach the Forge.”
Dash looked at the nav, his mind racing. Leira was right. Unlike the tech of Unseen and the Golden, the Slipwing couldn’t readily dodge the simple facts of physics. They could accelerate as much as they wanted, but they had to decelerate just as much to be able to get aboard the Forge and not just go racing past it. And they had to do it with enough time to get the power cores installed, and the Archetype launched, before the Harbinger arrived.
Worse, the Slipwing only had so much fuel to burn as she sped up, then slowed down again, which meant Leira’s estimate was the best possible time they could make. What they needed was a way to rev the Slipwing up to a much higher speed, then figure out some way to slow her back down again, with the fuel they had.
While the others frantically shot suggestions back and forth, Dash pored over the system chart depicted on the nav. If only there was a way to slow down without burning fuel.
He pushed in beside Leira. “I have an idea.” Leaning past her, he tapped away at the nav, devising a new course for the Slipwing. When Leira saw it, she turned and gave him a horrified stare.
“Are you insane?”
“Maybe,” Dash said. “But maybe insane is all that’s going to work.”
“I can’t believe that we’re going to do this again,” Conover said.
There were a few nods, but tense silence enveloped the cockpit. The gas giant now filled the field of view, the misty veil of its upper atmosphere a blur beneath the Slipwing. Dash had finally cut the fusion drive, and now the ship plunged toward the first wisps of cloud at a speed that almost made his eyes water. He touched the helm controls, gently nudging them through minute course adjustments, some of which came from the nav as it refined its calculations—and some of which just came from Dash’s gut.
“We should be contacting the atmosphere in about thirty seconds,” Leira said from the co-pilot’s station. She’d handed the Slipwing back over to Dash at his insistence, because this insanity was his idea, so it was his to make work.
“Just to be clear, you have actually done this before, right?” Amy said.
“I’ve done aerobraking before, sure,” Dash said. “Never quite this fast, though.” He studiously avoided Amy’s gaze.
The concept was simple. The easy way to get to the Forge was to burn hard, accelerating as much as possible until they were halfway, then flip around and burn just as hard to slow back down. But they didn’t have the time for the easy way. So, instead, Dash would burn the drive even harder, and for longer, getting the ship up to a ferocious speed. He’d then ease her into the upper reaches of the gas giant’s atmosphere and let friction with the tenuous gases bleed away her velocity, until she matched the orbital characteristics of the Forge.
It was the difference between reaching the Forge before the Golden Harbinger got within what Sentinel estimated was its probable threat range, or having to actually run the terrifying gauntlet of the far superior alien mech while just trying to get aboard the station. As a bonus, it would only expend about half of the Slipwing’s remaining fuel.
But there was always a price. All that kinetic energy had to go somewhere. So even though the ship would only brush through the atmosphere’s uppermost fringe, the friction would still turn the Slipwing into a howling inferno as the drag slowed her down. Her shields, which would take the brunt of the searing heat, would be her only protection from being incinerated.
Hopefully, it would be enough.
“Ten seconds,” Leira said. As soon as she did, a tremor rattled the ship. Dash glanced at her and she shrugged. “Or thereabouts. It’s hard to predict when—”
Another tremor, more violent, cut her off.
And then the panoramic expanse of the gas giant vanished, lost behind a brightening curtain of glowing plasma.
“We’re in,” Viktor called from the station behind Dash. “The hull temperature’s already six hundred Celsius, and it’s going up fast.”
“You really don’t want to exceed fourteen hundred or so, Dash,” Amy said.
“It’s going to be just fine,” Dash said, his eyes locked on the helm. “But I hear you. No more than sixteen hundred.”
“Fourteen hundred! I said fourteen hundred!”
“Yes, Amy, I know.” Dash gave the ship’s trajectory a nudge with a thruster. “Just a little levity to break the tension.”
“It didn’t work,” Conover said, his voice tight, as a heavy shudder pummeled the ship.
“Atmospheric density varies some,” Leira said. “In fact, there’s another thick patch coming.”
The Slipwing rocked and trembled. “Sorry,” Leira said. “We’re still moving so fast we’re right on top of these things. Hang on!”
Dash instinctively glanced up, even though the forward view showed nothing but a fierce, scintillating glow. The Slipwing lurched hard, her parts groaning under the stress.
“Twelve hundred degrees, Dash,” Viktor called out. A continuous rush and rumble now vibrated the ship, the hypersonic roar of her searing passage through the atmosphere. Dash could only imagine what they looked like from the outside—a hot ball of flame trailing incandescent plasma and bright fragments of ablative armor. But he forced his concentration back on the helm. Even an instant of distraction now could be fatal.
“Fourteen hundred, Dash!” Viktor shouted over the now thunderous roar. “If our speed doesn’t start coming down we’re going to have issues.”
Dash nodded. “I know.”
He felt Leira looking at him. She was about to say something, some warning or other. He glanced at her. “I said I know.”
“Fifteen hundred, Dash!”
Amy’s voice was almost lost in the shuddering racket. “Dash, we can’t do this much longer. You’re going to have to kick us back into space!”
“Just a few seconds longer.”
There was a heavy bang, and the ship wrenched to the right. Dash countered, thrusting her back to the left.
“Dash,” Viktor called. “Almost sixteen hundred!”
Dash shouted, “Everyone hang on!”
He slammed his fingers down onto the thrusters, flipping the Slipwing end over end. For an instant, the full breadth of her hull took the colossal blast of her own passage. The inertial dampers fought to counter the huge surge in deceleration, but they were still smashed down into their seats. Something else went bang. A smell of burning insulation filled the cockpit. There was a shout of agony, and one of primal fear, then a bellow of challenging anger.
And then the Slipwing had reversed, speeding backward along her trajectory. Dash lit the fusion drive, adding its power to the atmospheric drag. He watched the instruments, gritted his teeth, and prayed—actually prayed—that his ship would hold together just a few seconds longer.
He flipped the ship over again. This time, the result was far less dramatic. The fusion drive lifted her out of the atmosphere. The fierce glow flickered—fading, dying, revealing stars.
Dash killed the drive.
Silence returned as the Slipwing glided back into vacuum. Just ahead, the Forge loomed, motionless against the stars.
“Okay,” Viktor said, sounding as though he’d just done wind sprints. “The hull’s starting to cool down.”
Leira looked at Dash. “We’ve almost exactly matched the orbital track and velocity of the Forge. We should be aboard in ten minutes or so.” She shook her head. “That was amazing, Dash. Ridiculous, insane, beyond stupid, even, but pretty amazing.”
Amy nodded, her face split by the biggest grin yet. “Not just amazing, that was awesome!”
Dash leaned back and let Leira take over. He felt like he’d just done wind sprints, too.
“Do you want the damage and systems outages alphabetically, or going bow to stern?” Viktor asked. “It’s a long list, either way.”
“At least ship-becomes-flaming-wreckage isn’t on it,” Leira said. “Though not for want of trying.”
Dash levered himself out of the seat. “Yeah, well, compared to what’s coming, I can’t help thinking that was the easy part.” His voice trailed off as he looked at Conover. The kid sat rigid, his face utterly blank. Dash frowned, wondering if something had happened involving his eyes, that he’d seen something that blasted him into a near coma—the way the Lens had when he first tried to examine it.
“Conover?” He grabbed the boy’s shoulder. “Conover! Can you hear me?”
The kid slowly turned his head and blinked.
“Sorry, I just need a minute,” he said. “My life hasn’t quite stopped passing before my eyes yet.”
Dash winced as he raced down the Slipwing’s ramp. She still radiated a searing heat; a few spots on her scorched and pitted armor still glowed cherry red. There hadn’t been time to let her cool down fully, though. They literally only had minutes before the Harbinger might start shooting at them.
“Okay, I’m going to install the level one core in the Archetype,” Dash called out. “He looked back at the rest of them hurrying down the ramp and into the Forge’s docking bay. “You guys get that level two installed here. See if Kai and the rest of the monks can help.”
“Dash, why not install the level two in the Archetype instead?” Leira said. “Power it up enough that it can defend the station?”
Dash slowed. That might not be a bad idea.
“If you do that,” Sentinel said, “then the level two core will attune itself to the Archetype. It will no longer be possible to install it in the Forge.”
Dash stopped. “Well, damn. Okay.” He looked back at Leira. “Good idea, but Sentinel says we shouldn’t do that. I’m going to trust her on this. You guys just get that level two installed as fast as you can.”
He meant to say more but saw Kai and the monks standing, motionless, mouths agape. A few were taking in the Forge. Most, though, stared in awe at the looming bulk of the Archetype.
Kai shook his head. “I have no words.”
“Yeah, I know, all of this is blowing your minds. But we really need to stay focused, guys. Feel free to gape and wonder and all that when we’re all done not dying. Being alive adds to the enjoyment. Trust me.”
Kai looked at Dash and nodded quickly. “Yes. Of course. We’ll help your friends here, any way we can.”
As Viktor gathered the rest of them to get the level two core installed, Dash turned and hurried on to the Archetype. There was another empty power-core slot behind the cradle in its cockpit; he shoved the level one core into it, nodding with satisfaction as its energy surged through the mech. He turned, clambered into the cradle, and readied the Archetype to launch.
“How long until that Harbinger is in range?”
“Five minutes,” Sentinel replied. “With a margin of error.”
“Of how much?”
“Great.” He eased the Archetype forward, pushing it out through the docking bay’s force field and into open space. “Let me ask you this—and be honest now. Is the Archetype really up to this fight?”
“Yes,” Sentinel said.
“As in, we can win this?”
“I estimate a fifty percent probability.”
“Fifty—hang on, that’s not really being up to it, is it?”
“It is better than less than fifty percent.”
Dash tilted his head to one side, feeling the bones of his neck crack in a satisfying cascade. “You got me there.”
“The new power core does improve the odds greatly. It has also activated a new weapon system.”
“It has?” Dash eagerly turned his attention to it, hoping it was something truly powerful and deadly.
It was a sword.
“What the hell? A sword? A freakin’ sword?”
“Yes. A sword,” Sentinel said.
“Is that some sort of Unseen joke?”
“Although I doubt that humor was the intent, I have no insight into the Creators’ motivations. I can only report that you now have access to a sword, and it is rather sharp, in the sense that it can cut everything except the fabric of space.”
Dash whistled. “Okay, that’s sharp. But all I know about swords is that they’re glorified knives, and—wait, this one has to be charged? It’s a powered sword?”
“So it’s pretty much useless without juice. I don’t like weapon limitations.”
“That would depend on the circumstances. Admittedly, though, its use does seem situational,” Sentinel said.
“Also, we are not alone.”
Dash flicked his attention back to the Archetype’s heads-up display. He could see the rough fix of the still-hidden Harbinger and expected to see another threat—maybe more of those nasty little Golden drones. Instead, he saw the Slipwing racing up behind him.
“Leira? Is that you?”
“What the hell? I told you guys to get that core installed in the Forge!”
“I think between Viktor, Amy, Conover, and our monk friends, they’ve got that covered. I figured I could be more useful out here.”
“The Archetype’s barely up to this fight, Leira. The Slipwing isn’t at all.”
“I can still be a distraction.”
“There’s being a distraction, and then there’s what amounts to suicide. This is crazy."
“Says the guy who just pulled some of the most insane maneuvers in the history of spaceflight.”
He opened his mouth to keep protesting, to convince her to just return to the relative safety of the Forge—but didn’t. It would actually be nice to have some help. And if anyone could offer it, without becoming a burden instead, it was Leira.
“Fine,” he said. “Just don’t break my ship, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” Leira replied, “but no promises.”
“Guess that’ll have to do.”
Conover simply couldn’t get the memory of shooting the Clan Shirna agent—literally blowing his head off—out of his mind. It stuck there, like an image burned into an ancient cathode ray display, an outline of violence that simply wouldn’t fade. Even in the midst of the frantic urgency surrounding the Harbinger’s approach, Conover’s mind was overcome by the drumbeat of his own disgust. Murderer.
How did they do it? People like Dash and Leira. Or did they? Did they have images like that permanently burned into their minds, too?
“Conover, we have to get this core installed,” Amy said. “Let’s go!”
He blinked and turned, momentarily confused. Oh—he’d been just standing there, staring at the exit to the docking bay, where first Dash and the Archetype, and then Leira and the Slipwing, had just raced off to do battle.
He shook himself out the morose reverie, his vision clearing. “Yeah. Right. I’m coming.”
Viktor and the monks were already halfway across the bay. Conover joined Amy, hurrying along after them in loping strides.
“It sticks with you, doesn’t it?” Amy said, as they rushed out of the bay and into the warren of corridors leading deeper into the Forge.
“What happened back there, at Shylock. When you shot that Clan Shirna guy.”
Conover looked at her. “How did you know?”
“I recognize the look,” she said. “I saw it in the mirror for quite a while after the first time I killed someone.”
“Oh.” After a few paces, Conover asked, “How many people have you, you know, killed?”
“Just the one. That first was also my last.”
“Long story. I’ll tell it another time. Let’s just say it was her or me, though.”
“Oh.” After another few paces, he asked, “How did you get past it?”
“What makes you think I did?”
“You always seem so happy.”
“I am happy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t enjoy doing what I had to do. But that’s the thing, it had to be done.” She shrugged as they hurried along. “I just made it part of who I am, I guess. I just have to hope that the rest of me makes up for it.”
“Well, I think it does,” Conover said, then stopped himself from wincing. He had a knack for saying clunky things around her. It was like a second gift.
But she just gave him a warm smile. “Thanks. I think the same about you.”
“Sure,” she said, her smile becoming a grin. “I like Dash—I mean, who couldn’t like Dash, right? But I prefer the quieter, more cerebral types.”
“Is that what I am?”
“You sure as hell ain’t Dash.”
They hurried on, almost jogging now. Conover’s breath started to labor—he really was in bad shape, something he was going to have change—but Amy’s words kept him moving forward. Interest in a woman could have that effect on nearly anyone, even a young engineer.
His mood flagged when they got to the engine room and found themselves confronting a set of sealed doors and Custodian.
“What do you mean we can’t have access?” Viktor asked.
“Only the Messenger is allowed access to the engine room,” Custodian replied.
“The Messenger,” Conover said, still catching his breath, “is off fighting…the Golden.”
“Yeah, he’s kind of busy, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Amy said.
“I am aware of the Messenger’s disposition.”
The monks stood nearby, watching them argue with a disembodied voice in bemused wonder. “Who is that?” Kai asked.
“It’s Custodian,” Conover replied. “It’s kind of like you, actually. Just like you and your Order watched over the core—the Orb—and the rest of the Unseen complex on Shylock, it has overseen this place.”
“And right now, it’s being a pain in the ass,” Amy said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Viktor snapped, hefting the level two core and brandishing it toward the sealed doors to the engine room. “We need to install this so you can protect this place—and, I might add, yourself as well.”
“The Creators only allowed for entry by the Messenger.”
“You keep calling this Custodian it,” Kai said. “I gather that means it’s a machine?”
“It is,” Conover said. “And a very stubborn one.”
“A very stubborn one that makes no damned sense,” Viktor said. “Obviously, if Dash—the Messenger—is off fighting the Golden, he can’t also be here to install this core.”
“I agree,” Kai said. “However, if it really is a machine, then it was presumably programmed to conform to certain behaviors. I doubt that arguing with it is going to be very fruitful.”
“You would think that an artificial intelligence developed by Unseen would have the emphasis on the intelligence part.” Amy balled her fists. “This one sure doesn’t seem to. It’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe that’s the key,” Conover said. “Maybe we can figure out some logical argument it can’t refute.”
“Or, you could just try contacting the Messenger and getting him to give his permission,” kai said. “Just a thought, anyway.”
Conover looked at the monk. What he said was true. And much simpler.
It was the downside of his eye implants, he thought, and not for the first time. Being able to see so much complexity, especially when it came to tech, sometimes made it hard to see the simple answers, even when they were right there.
Conover touched his comm. “Dash? Are you there?”
Nothing. Amy shook her head. “Your personal comm won’t have the power to reach him. You have to relay through something, and the Slipwing is gone.”
“I know. I just assumed Custodian would do it.”
“Relaying messages to the Messenger is not within my scope.” Custodian replied.
“No!” Conover snapped before exhaling with an effort. “I mean, you can’t have it both ways. You say you won’t give us access to anything without the Messenger. But when we try to contact him, you won’t do that, either.” Conover glared at the doors—since there was nowhere else to glare. “But that makes no sense. The Forge was intended to fight the Golden. You’ve said so yourself. The Messenger is now off fighting the Golden. Logically, the Forge should support him as he does. But it can’t, at least not without this level two core installed. So installing this level two core conforms to the basic purpose of the Forge. That means the Messenger would want it done. So, you either let us get in there and install this stupid core, or you let us talk to the Messenger so he can tell you to do that. Any other course of action is illogical nonsense. And do you believe your Creators were illogical and nonsensical? Because if they were, remember, they made you.”
Viktor, Kai, and the monks all nodded and looked impressed. Amy gave Conover a broad grin and clapped him on the shoulder. “Speaking of logical arguments that can’t be refuted. Well done, son.”
Conover smiled—but the doors weren’t open yet.
Custodian finally spoke. “Your argument is compelling. Perhaps strict adherence to protocols is potentially counterproductive.”
Amy put her hands on her hips and scowled. “No shit!”
A new voice sounded. It was Dash.
“What’s up, guys? Custodian says you want to talk to me. You have that core installed yet?”
“No,” Viktor said. “Custodian is being difficult.”
“It says only the Messenger has access to the engine room,” Conover said. “Or, for that matter, pretty much the rest of the Forge—”
Dash interrupted with a voice that was eerily calm. “Give them access,” Dash said. “Give it to all of them—access to everything. That includes the whole damned Forge. I’m only going to issue this order once. Is that clear?”
“Understood,” Custodian said. “Full access is now available.”
The doors to the engine room slid silently open.
As they hurried in, Amy said, “That was way harder than it needed to be.”
“Okay, guys,” Dash said, “get that core installed, like half an hour ago. We’re almost—”
Conover stopped. “Dash?”
“Can’t talk,” he snapped back.
There was silence again.
Conover tried again, but this time there was no answer.
“Custodian,” Conover said, “what’s going on? What happened to Dash.”
“The Messenger has engaged the Harbinger in battle.”
There was a moment of quiet as Conover exchanged a grim look with Viktor and Amy. As he did, the image of that Clan Shirna agent’s head erupting into a shower of gore came rushing in again.
He shook his head. If any of the things they’d done to get here, to this moment, were going to mean anything, they had to get the core installed.
“Viktor, let’s do this,” he said, pointing at the three separate receptacles the Guardian had previously said were intended for level two cores.
Viktor nodded then lifted the core and plugged it into the first receptacle. With his implants, Conover waited to see the massive surge of power that should result, energizing the Forge’s systems.
But nothing happened.
“Is it working? Amy asked.
Viktor shrugged. “I don’t know. It should be.”
“It’s not,” Conover said. “Custodian, what’s wrong? Why isn’t the core powering up?”
“I cannot provide that information.”
Now Conover’s fists balled themselves. “The Messenger just told you to give us full access.”
“I am not withholding the information from you. I cannot provide it because I do not have it.”
“You mean you don’t know?” Amy said.
“I do not.”
She looked from Viktor to Conover. “Any ideas?”
“As far as I know, all Dash ever did was plug them in, and they worked on their own from there,” Viktor said.
“Maybe the Messenger has to be the one to actually install it,” Conover said. A pall of bleak despair started to fall on him.
“Then we’re screwed,” Amy said, finishing his thought.
They turned to Kai, who, along with the other monks, had been staring around at the engine room, practically gaping in wonder. He was pointing at the one of the many polyhedral shapes, apparently different types of devices, scattered throughout the place. A series of symbols flickered and flitted across the surface of this particular one, a glassy tetrahedron. “This is saying something about a reset sequence, I believe.”
“A restart sequence, actually,” one of the other monks said, peering over Kai’s shoulder.
Kai nodded. “Wiles here was always better with the Unseen translations than I was.”
“That’s right,” Conover said. “The monks can read the Unseen language.” He turned to Kai, desperate hope shoving aside the gnawing sense of failure, at least for the moment. “Can you figure out what we need to do to get this core working?”
“We can try,” Kai said. “It will take a few moments, though.”
Conover thought about Dash, who was now locked in battle with an alien mech, the outcome of which might very well determine the fate of all sentient life. “It’s not like we have any choice. Do it!”
The monks scattered, examining and immediately discussing what the various displays around the engine room were saying. For the time being, it left Viktor, Amy, and Conover with nothing to do.
Dash narrowed his eyes at the Archetype’s display. The Harbinger remained a fuzzy splotch—as Sentinel explained, it was really an area of varying probability regarding the Golden mech’s actual location, based on the minuscule gravitational distortion it left in real space. Leira couldn’t detect it at all, which meant it might be similar to the Slipwing’s Fade system, but—not surprisingly—far more sophisticated. The only way to make the Fade leave a footprint that small in real space would be to continuously extend colossal amounts of energy, far more than any known tech could produce. But this wasn’t any known tech. It underscored the fact that, when it came to the Golden, even the most kick-ass Unseen tech was, at best, on par.
“So it seems to me that we should be pretty well inside what you think the maximum range of that thing’s weapons are, right?” Dash said.
“That is correct,” Sentinel replied.
“But it’s not shooting at us. Any idea why?”
“I do not know the enemy’s motives. Perhaps the Harbinger remains in its current state in order to get closer to the Forge, that being its priority target.”
“Could be, I suppose. But that’s risky. It could find itself facing us and the Forge, assuming Viktor and the others get that core installed in time.”
“Again, I do not know.”
Dash frowned at the abrupt silence. He hated it when these AIs did that, and he braced himself for something terrible.
But Sentinel said, “The Harbinger is transmitting a data stream. It is omnidirectional, suggesting it is either meant for a receiver whose location isn’t certain, or for multiple receivers in different locations.”
“That means we can receive it, right?”
“So maybe it wants to talk. Leira, are you getting any of this?”
“Actually, I am,” she said. “Or at least I’m intercepting a transmission from that thing, but the comm can’t resolve it into anything but static.”
“Sentinel, how about you? Can you get anything meaningful out of it?”
In answer, a cacophony of squeals, chirps, hisses, growls, and a slurry of other noises slammed into Dash’s ears. He winced, listened for a few seconds, then called for Sentinel to shut it off.
“Sentinel, what the hell was that?”
“That is the Harbinger’s data stream.”
“Holy crap. Is it malfunctioning or something?
“No. That is the language of the Golden.”
“Really. Sounds more like a computer in its death throes. What’s it saying?”
“I do not have the means of translating their language. Or, at least, that capability has not yet been unlocked.”
“Great. So maybe it’s trying to talk to us and we can’t understand it.”
“Now wouldn’t that suck?” Leira said. “Here this thing has come to offer peace, call off the war, but we can’t translate it, so the war goes on anyway.”
Dash paused, thinking. “Is that possible?” He felt a dim flicker of hope. “Could the Golden be willing to negotiate?”
“Based on historical records regarding the Golden,” Sentinel replied, “the probability of that, while not actually zero, is extremely close to it.”
“You could have just said no.”
“That would not be true, though. I cannot say the probability actually is zero—”
“Fine, I get it. So what other reason could it have for transmitting a bunch of…whatever it’s saying to anyone listening?”
“Dash, maybe it’s sending a signal out to other Golden forces,” Leira said. “If there’s a bunch of them, in different places, then it would make it omnidirectional, right?”
That glimmer of hope dimmed. “Yeah.” He picked up the bleak thread of Leira’s reasoning. “And those forces might include Clan Shirna, and any other agents they might have around the arm.”
“So anyone we meet after this could be an enemy—”
An incoming transmission from the Forge cut Leira off. Custodian was saying that Viktor and the others wanted to speak to Dash.
“What’s up, guys?” he asked. “Custodian says you want to talk to me. You have that core installed yet?”
“No,” Viktor replied. “Custodian is being difficult.”
As they thrashed that out, and Dash ordered Custodian to of course give full access to the others—seriously, sometimes these super-intelligent AIs could be idiots—he kept a wary eye on the Harbinger. That was why, when it abruptly popped back into real space, it didn’t take him completely by surprise.
Conover said, “Dash?”
“Can’t talk,” he snapped back.
Everything turned a searing, incandescent white.
The blast of raw energy that engulfed the Archetype would have mostly vaporized the Slipwing. As it was, it ripped away the Archetype’s shielding, searing the armor with its residual effect. Dash shook his head and blinked hard, trying to clear away the purple splotches that filled his vision.
“Where is it?”
“Closing quickly,” Sentinel said. “Its energy output is diminished, however. Firing that weapon apparently depleted them.”
“For how long?”
“Dash,” Leira called out, “are you okay? That looked like a bloody supernova going off!”
“Shaken up, but still in one piece. Leira, look—I appreciate your trying to help, but this really isn’t your fight—”
“Sorry, what was that? Must be bad comms.”
“Dash, let me do my thing. You stay alive!”
Dash loosed a pair of missiles at the Harbinger, having them swing wide and converge from two different directions. At the same time, he readied the dark-lance. “Leira, if you get caught by even one hit like that—”
“Then I won’t let that happen, right?” He saw the Slipwing peel away, giving the Harbinger a wide berth. “I see what you’re doing with those missiles. You’re trying to give it too many targets. I’m going to stay at a distance and just poke a it. Any distraction can only help, right?”
Dash wanted to argue and force her to withdraw, but he instinctively knew they needed the extra targets to clog the Harbinger’s defenses. Instead, he resolved to have a quiet word about the command chain—either before or after hugging her, he wasn’t sure which—and just said, “Fine. Just stay as far back as you can.”
He fired the dark-lance.
The ghostly beam flashed out, striking the Harbinger. Dash had seen this beam rip Clan Shirna ships apart at the quantum level; it had even proven deadly against the Golden drones that had attacked the Forge. When it slammed into the Harbinger, though, it just spalled a few glowing fragments from it.
“That was disappointing,” Dash growled.
Still, the hit seemed to shake the Harbinger momentarily, letting his two missiles track dangerously close. Only at the last instant did quick, brief pulses of energy, some sort of point-defense system, flash out and destroy them.
“Firing missiles now, Dash,” Leira said.
Two projectiles zoomed away from the Slipwing. Leira fired the particle cannons, too, but at extreme range, against the Harbinger, she might as well have been spitting at it.
Recovering, the Harbinger resumed racing in, closing on the Archetype. It swatted away one of Leira’s missiles with its point-defense, but contemptuously ignored the other, just letting it detonate against its back. Dash couldn’t discern any effect from it at all.
It didn’t matter. They would continue to pummel the alien with everything in their arsenal. He fired the dark-lance again, and again, as the Harbinger closed. Two more hits—minimal damage. Still it closed. Dash frowned. “What the hell is it up to?”
“Unknown,” Sentinel said. “It seems determined to engage in a close battle.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
Dash fired the dark-lance again—two more missiles, one of which managed to bypass its point defense and detonate against it, blasting a chunk out of one its legs in a glowing spray of liquified metal. Another pair of the Slipwing’s missiles likewise exploded against it, but it shrugged off the blasts and doggedly just kept coming.
The Harbinger closed the remaining distance. Dash blasted it twice more with the dark-lance, and then it was on him.
Time to dance.
He’d actually expected this to be relatively easy. The Archetype was much larger and bulkier than the slender Harbinger, and Dash knew from many barroom brawls that big and bulky usually overcame small and quick—especially if the big guy landed the first shot. Maybe the Golden mech was on a suicide run, like the drone that had managed to sneak aboard the Forge. If it blew up, basically right on top of the Archetype, the damage might be catastrophic.
Oh. Bells rang in his head as the pieces fell in place.
Dash flung himself backward at the thought, desperately trying to keep his distance from the Harbinger. Unfortunately, this was where small and fast trumped big and bulky. The Harbinger closed right, grappling the Archetype. Dash kick and punched, getting in a solid hit that slammed into the Golden mech’s shoulder, spinning it through a half-turn. A metallic shock crashed through Dash’s arm, as the bizarre stuff of the two mechs collided. But Dash wasn’t about to relent.
For a while, Dash just floated, adrift in an ocean of light. He saw nothing else, heard nothing, felt nothing. Dimly, he wondered if he’d somehow been shoved back into the Dark Between. But, no. This wasn’t like that at all. Things were resolving around him, slowly coming back into focus.
He was still aboard the Archetype, hanging limp in the cradle. Now he did hear something—someone shouting, urgently, even frantically. He tried to make out the words, but they were just gibberish, a string of nonsense. Terse, tense nonsense—but nonsense, nonetheless.
More of his surroundings resolved. For some reason, the starfield wasn’t right. It was a whirl of smeared streaks, instead of discrete points of light. Something big and bright flashed across his field of view, and then something even bigger and brighter. Right. It was the gas giant around which the Forge orbited, and the star it orbited in turn.
Reality came crashing back. Dash groaned, fighting to concentrate. “What…happened?”
“The Harbinger activated a weapon in its torso,” Sentinel said. She sounded muffled and distant. “It fired it, an especially powerful plasma discharge, at effectively point-blank range.”
“That’s its…big gun. Chest-cannon of some sort.”
“So it would appear.”
Dash looked at the starfield. Clearly, the Archetype was spinning out of control. He slowed its rotation, bringing it back into a steady orientation.
Or tried to, but nothing happened. The stars just kept spinning.
“What’s wrong? How come I can’t get this thing back under control?”
“Altitude controls are offline.”
Nothing in the Meld told him that. In fact, nothing in the Meld told him much of anything about the Archetype, so it must be screwed up, too.
“How much damage did we take?”
“A great deal. I have prioritized life-support and situational awareness. Most other systems are offline.”
“Propulsion? Can we get back to the Forge, get some repairs done?”
“Propulsion is offline.”
Okay. This was bad. Very bad. The Archetype had been entirely gimped. Dash wasn’t even sure where the Harbinger was. It might be lining up another shot, which would probably be all it needed.
Fifty-fifty chance, huh? Well, if he and Sentinel couldn’t get the Archetype working again, and do it pretty much now, then this would just be another last throw that Dash had lost.
“Dash! Damnit, Dash, answer me!”
“I’m here, Leira. More or less, anyway.”
After a moment, Leira said, “Dash…damn it, do not get yourself killed on me.”
“Trying not to. Anyway, I’m okay. Just out of the fight for a bit, ‘til we get this thing fixed. I’m alive, just banged up. Gimme a sec.”
“Okay. Okay. Well, as soon as you can, please.”
“That…thing. The Harbinger. I hit it with all the missiles I could to try to get it off your back. Looks like I succeeded. It’s after me now, closing fast.” Dash could hear the fear tightening her voice, but she fought to keep her tone as flat and analytical as she could. “So, yeah, if you get a chance, a little help would be nice.”
Dash closed his eyes.
He thought things had been bad before.
Now, they were much, much worse.
“I hate to rush you, Kai,” Conover said, “but the sooner we can figure out what else we need to do—”
“I understand,” the monk said, poring over a display. “We’re doing this as fast as we are able.” He glanced up. “I would hate to mistranslate something and inadvertently blow this place up. That would be awkward, not to mention embarrassing. We’ve a scholarly reputation to protect.” He managed a tight grin despite the tension.
“Yeah, that’s not likely,” Amy said in her engineering-nerd voice. “People think it’s way too easy to make complex systems go boom. Who would even design a system that temperamental?”
“Nonetheless, I think that we must balance speed and accuracy, yes?” Kai said, putting his attention back on the display.
Conover nodded and looked around the engine room at the rest of the monks. They had spread themselves out, examining the various displays and puzzling out the information each was portraying. They’d quickly been able to eliminate about half of them as being either obviously incidental, or entirely irrelevant. That left them with the other half to scrutinize and try to more fully translate.
“Custodian,” Conover said, “you still have no idea why that core won’t power up?”
“I do not. I can register its placement in the receptacle intended for it, but I am otherwise sensing no response from it.”
Conover looked at the core. Viktor had tried removing it and reseating it, and even trying it in the other two receptacles, in case the first one they’d tried was defective. None of his efforts had changed things, though. The core remained dark and inert, its surface cool and lifeless as a rocky moon. Conover had even tried looking at it, to see if he could suss out something they were missing.
The fantastic, mind-bending complexity of it and the systems around it had leapt into stark clarity—fortunately, he’d figured out how to not let that knock him comatose, like it had the first time he tried it, with the Lens—but it revealed nothing useful to him. Any one of a multitude of components may have failed or myriad parameters might be off, but with nothing to use as a baseline reference, he had no way of knowing which, if any, had gone wrong.
As for the core itself, it offered up nothing more telling, aside from a vague sense that it incorporated power on some scale he couldn’t even begin to comprehend. It was like looking at a distant star, he thought. It might look like a tiny point of light, but in reality it was a colossal, ongoing nuclear fusion explosion.
“Maybe the core itself is defective,” he said, looking at Conover.
“I was just thinking that. But if it is, I can’t tell.”
“Well, hopefully our friends here can,” Viktor said, standing. He nodded toward the monks.
“Then Dash better be able to win this fight on his own,” Conover replied. He was unable to keep a despairing note out of his voice, which he hated. Even in the worst, most difficult moments, the rest of them seemed to be nothing but calm and professional.
“Uh, guys?” Amy said, stepping close to him and Viktor. “I was just thinking. If Dash doesn’t win this fight, and we can’t get the Forge powered up…” She took a breath. “What then? We’ve got no ship to get away from here.”
Viktor shrugged. “I think the answer to that is pretty evident.”
“Wow, fatalistic much?” Conover said, sounding very much like a teenager. Which he was, but just then, his sour tone hung in the air, unwelcome.
Viktor shrugged again. “The facts are the facts. We chose to come back here instead of going to find more cores so Dash could power up the Archetype.”
“Which you thought was a mistake,” Conover said.
“I did,” Viktor replied. “I was afraid we were trying to do too much at once, which meant risking doing none of it well enough to make it matter. But this is what we settled on. So now we have to try to make this work, don’t we?”
Conover nodded, but the worry tightening his gut ratcheted up another notch. When he’d left Penumbra aboard the Slipwing, ostensibly just a passenger, even a tourist—really, though, just as a way of getting him out of his aunt’s hair—he’d only known the Unseen as a vague legend. Finding out they were not only real, but still existed had been stunning, but also amazing. Seeing their tech up close had been even more amazing and profoundly exciting. But then they’d found themselves in the crosshairs of Clan Shirna, then they’d learned about the Golden, who wanted to kill everyone, everywhere, and they’d almost died in the crushing terror of a massive gas giant. Now, Conover faced death again—and, on top of it all, he’d killed a man.
It wasn’t exciting and amazing any more. It was just relentless frustration and the very real possibility of dying in space.
“Here,” Kai called out, pointing at a display. Another monk pored over the flickering symbols, tapping something into a data-pad as he did. “We might have the answer, or at least part of it.”
Grabbing onto the lifeline of hope Kai had just thrown, Conover and the others hurried over to the display, even though it wasn’t any more comprehensible to them now than it ever had been.
“What have you got?” Conover asked.
“This seems to be giving the status of various systems aboard the station,” Kai said. He pointed at a line of symbols. “This is the interesting one.”
The symbols looked no different than the rest to Conover, but he nodded anyway. “Why? What makes it so interesting?”
“And please don’t say it’s because something has gone terribly wrong and there’s no way to fix it,” Amy added.
“It seems that, even though the Orb is actually installed here, the systems it is intended to power are located elsewhere.”
Viktor frowned. “We probably could have just assumed that.”
“Yeah, I hate to be the negative one, but that’s not really very interesting at all,” Amy said.
But Conover raised a hand. “I don’t think Kai brought this to our attention just to tell us that.” He looked at the monk. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Of course not. Whatever these systems are—”
“Weapons, apparently,” Viktor said.
“And some sort of cloaking field,” Conover added.
Kai nodded. “Right. Those systems are apparently in some sort of…” He paused, looking at the other monk and indicating several particular symbols. “Does that say alternate, or does it say storage? I still have trouble telling these characters apart when they’re modified by a subordinate clause.”
“Can we just focus on what it’s saying, please?” Amy said. “And more to the point, what we can we do about it?”
“I think it means standby, or backup,” the other monk said.
Conover nodded. “Either makes sense. So those systems are in standby mode. The question is, how do we make them active?”
“Does it say anything about that?” Viktor asked.
“In a way it does,” Kai replied. “It seems that the problem is some sort of interruption between them and the Orb that is preventing power from flowing from one to the other.”
Conover frowned. “Interruption? What sort of interruption?”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t know. That may be explained here somewhere in here.” Kai gestured at the various displays around them. “Unfortunately, translating it all will take time.”
“Even then, there’s still a great deal of it we can’t translate,” the other monk said.
“If Dash were here, he could probably solve this in no time,” Amy said.
“Unfortunately, he isn’t here,” Viktor replied. “So we’re stuck doing this on our own.”
“Custodian,” Conover said, “is there anything more you can tell us about this?”
“I have little information to offer. If there is an interruption in the power distribution system of the Forge, I am unaware of it.”
“Well, shit,” Amy said, leaning on the edge of the console and bowing her head.
Okay, Conover thought, that just wasn’t right. He’d become used to Amy’s infectious good humor, so seeing her apparently giving in to despair galvanized him. Yes, they might be facing imminent death. There was no way he’d let Amy face it without that goofy, captivating grin on her face, though.
So Conover crossed his arms and said, “Wait a second. You say you’re unaware of any interruption in power distribution. Does that mean there isn’t one?”
“To the extent of my ability to detect one,” Custodian replied, “there is not.”
Conover stared at a point on the floor as he chewed on Custodian’s words. These AIs, he’d come to realize, tended to be very literal. What they said was exactly what they meant.
“To the extent of your ability to detect a power interruption,” he said. “Does that mean there may be interruptions, and you just can’t detect them?”
“If I can’t detect them, then that would certainly follow.”
“But aren’t you aware of any damage that occurs to this station?” Viktor asked, starting to pick up Conover’s line of thinking. “Isn’t that basically your purpose?”
“It is one of my purposes, yes. To answer the question, though, I would generally be aware of any damage to the Forge, as well what repairs would be necessary.”
“So, under what sort of circumstances would you not be able to detect something happening on the Forge?”
“If such events or information were concealed from me.”
“That’s it?” Conover asked. “That’s the only way? Or could there be damage so severe that you actually end up unaware of it?”
“That is highly unlikely. The Creators ensured sufficient redundancies in the Forge’s essential functions that, short of effectively complete destruction of it, there is almost no possibility of my being unaware of such damage to it.”
“Unless it was being deliberately concealed from you,” Conover said, speaking as much to himself as to Custodian.
“As I said.”
Amy gave Conover a keen look. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m not sure. It just seems strange that there could be a fault somewhere but Custodian somehow doesn’t know about it.”
“This station is astounding in its sophistication,” Kai said, “but it is also profoundly old. Perhaps it is simply a malfunction. We found several systems in the Unseen complex back on Shylock that seemed similarly defective.”
“Or else you just weren’t able to activate them,” Conover replied. “Or maybe you weren’t even meant to. Also, the Forge was pretty clearly meant to be a base of operations for the Archetype. The Unseen must have known it would be a huge target for the Golden and made sure it was as durable as they could make it.”
“Conover, you obviously think you’re onto something here,” Viktor said. “What do you think is going on?”
“Custodian, is there any way to do an actual, physical inspection of the Forge? To try to visualize damage to it?”
“There are maintenance remotes that are used to assist in repairs beyond the capabilities of local systems.”
“It could take us hours, maybe even days, to inspect this entire station,” Viktor said.
But Conover shook his head. “If there’s damage, it most likely came from the attack by those Golden drones. That means it’s most likely to be damage to the exterior. It shouldn’t take long to find it, if it’s there.”
Viktor looked at Amy and Kai.
“I got nothing,” Amy said.
Kai shrugged. “This is far outside my area of expertise. It would seem a reasonable course of action, though.”
Viktor nodded. “Yeah, I’ve certainly got nothing better to suggest.”
“Custodian, can you send out these repair remotes to examine the outside of the Forge?” Conover said. “And send any data they collect to us here?”
He braced himself, ready for Custodian to say, Only the Messenger is authorized to do that, or something equally aggravating that they’d have to waste more time arguing about. But it just said, “Underway.”
A nearby display lit up with a schematic rendition of the Forge, which began rotating, at the same time showing incrementally more of the station’s exterior surface as the remotes scanned it. Their progress seemed agonizingly slow, though; Conover pressed his lips together, thinking, this is going to take way too long.
But after only a few moments, the image zoomed in and was replaced with what must be actual imagery from a remote. Sure enough, it had found a breach, a hole punched through the hull of the Forge. It wasn’t very large, just a few meters across.
“What the hell could have done that?” Amy asked.
“And why isn’t Custodian able to see it, and get it fixed?” Viktor added.
Conover was pretty sure he knew why, but he wanted to make absolutely sure. “Custodian, can you get a better image of what’s inside that breach?”
The view closed in until they could see through the hole and into the damaged compartment beyond it. The resolution was astounding; it seemed to Conover he could reach into the display and touch the broken structural members. But it was what sat squarely in the middle of the image that yanked hold of their attention.
It was another of the Golden drones.
Slowly, the Archetype came back to life.
One system at a time, things came back online. It happened far faster than any conventional, mundane repair Dash could imagine, as the Archetype fixed itself. Even so, it still seemed to Dash to be happening with agonizing slowness.
“Come on,” he muttered, waiting for the maneuver systems to regenerate in particular. If he couldn’t move, he couldn’t influence the battle. And Leira desperately needed him.
The Harbinger fired.
Dash watched in horror as its projectile—possibly a missile from the way it moved, but it glowed with a fierce, greenish glare as it flew—closed on the Slipwing. At the last possible instant, Leira dodged it, slamming the ship through a turning roll that pointed her fusion exhaust at the projectile. It detonated with a dazzling green flash, but the Slipwing weathered it. Leira had been clever; the ablative armor might have taken the blast, but at the cost of some of the ship’s scant protection, as the armor was designed to literally boil away. But the stern of the Slipwing was, like all ships with fusion drive, hardened against the ferocious heat and radiation of its own exhaust, so it shrugged off the blast without costing the armor.
But her maneuver had a downside. She’d put herself broadside-on to the Harbinger now, instead of running straight ahead of it. The Golden mech immediately fired again, and this time the projectile closed with terrifying speed.
Dash ground his teeth in desperate frustration. Leira flung the Slipwing through a wrenching series of maneuvers, but the projectile raced ever closer.
Then came another searing green flash that caused heavy damage to the Slipwing’s shields. Still, Dash’s stubborn little ship zoomed on, as Leira fought to open the range between her and the Harbinger. If nothing else, every kilometer of separation gave her a fraction more time to react.
But it wouldn’t be enough. Dash knew it, and so did Leira.
“Dash, I’m about out of tricks here,” she said, her transmission crackling slightly through the residual ionization of the near hit. “Anything you can offer, I’d be grateful.”
She sounded entirely calm, just the stoic, professional Leira he’d come to know. But he could hear the anxious fear underlying it.
“The Harbinger now has a hard track on the Slipwing,” Sentinel said. “The next projectile will be a hit, regardless of her efforts to avoid it.”
“The next hit will destroy her,” Dash said, his voice flat.
He wanted to rage and punch and smash, and not just the damned Golden and their Harbinger. He wanted to lash out at the Unseen, too, for dragging him and his friends into the middle of their war but still making him play this ridiculous game of finding the bits and pieces that would even make standing against the Golden possible.
“The maneuver system is online,” Sentinel said.
Dash didn’t hesitate. He flung himself at the now-distant Harbinger.
“Weapon systems remain offline,” Sentinel warned, but Dash shook his head.
“Don’t care. And the Harbinger won’t know that. I’m going to get it off Leira’s back.”
He wasn’t sure if Sentinel had been inclined to argue, but—maybe because of the tone of his voice—she didn’t even try.
For a long, frozen moment, they all just stared at the drone that was lodged inside the Forge.
Kai finally spoke. “I gather that, whatever that is, it’s something you’re not happy to see.”
“Yeah, you might say that,” Amy said, then gave a brief explanation of what the drones were, and their battle against them to protect the Forge.
As she did, Conover looked at Viktor. “We were attacked by twenty-four of those things. We destroyed twenty-three, and one came aboard latched onto the Archetype. Where did this one come from?”
Viktor shrugged. “It was either one that managed to slip through undetected, or we only assumed twenty-three had been destroyed, and it’s one of those. In any case, does it matter?” He pointed. “Wherever it came from, and however it got there, there it is.”
“So,” Kai said, “that is another of the Enemy’s foul works, embedded in this station like a parasite.”
“I suspect that’s exactly what it is,” Conover said. “Somehow, it managed to punch through the hull in one piece without us or the Forge detecting it. Now it’s sitting there, interfering with the station’s systems.”
“I’ll bet that’s what the real point of the one that came aboard on the Archetype was,” Amy said. “It was a distraction, to keep us from seeing this one.”
“That is likely correct,” Custodian put in, surprising them. “Given the current, low-power state of the Forge, security resources were almost fully engaged in dealing with the drone attached to the Archetype. That would have given this one the opportunity it needed to infiltrate the station and interdict its operations.”
“And it’s managed to keep itself concealed ever since,” Viktor replied, nodding.
“Can you deal with it now?” Conover asked Custodian. “Can you suppress it, or whatever, the way you did the last one?”
“I cannot. The security systems still do not register even the existence of this drone, much less its present location.”
“But we can see it! It’s right there!”
“I do not dispute that. But if the security systems remain wholly unaware of it, they cannot take countermeasures to deal with it.”
“This is such bullshit,” said Amy, slamming her fist into the opposite palm. “Dash could be getting his ass kicked out there, and here we can’t even help.”
But Conover grabbed her shoulder. “Amy, we need to stay focused here.”
She blinked back at him, then gave a quick nod as her anger subsided to a mild simmer. “Yeah. You’re right. We do. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Conover turned back to the image. Strangely, now that there was an actual, tangible problem to deal with, his earlier fear and anxiety had—not vanished, exactly, but they’d retreated to some distant place, letting the analytical part of him come to the fore. “So, we’re going to have to go and take care of that drone ourselves.”
“It is located in a part of the Forge that is unpowered,” Custodian said. “There is no life support in any of the surrounding compartments. Moreover, interior doors are not operable, presumably because the drone has overridden those systems.”
There was another moment of glum silence, but Conover refused to give up now.
“Alright,” he said, “we’ve got vac suits. And there’s a big hole in the hull, with the drone right inside it.” He looked at the others. “If we can’t get at it from the inside, then we’ll get at it from the outside, instead. Either way, it’s outta here, and we’ve got to be the ones to do it. Dash needs it, we need it, and the Forge needs it.”
Viktor slapped him on the back, smiling at the boy who was growing with each moment. “Sounds good. Once more into the breach and all that.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a quote,” Conover said.
“It is. It’s also true. Let’s go,” Viktor said, and his smile fled like the night at dawn.
“I’m on my way, Leira!” Dash called out. “Just keep your ass in one piece for a few more minutes, okay?”
“That’s the plan, yeah.” She paused. “Wait. It’s breaking off.” Relief flooded her voice, but only for an instant. “Dash, it’s heading straight back for you.”
“Yeah, well, that was the plan, too.” He scanned the weapon systems. All were still offline—except, that is, for the stupid, useless sword. He turned his attention back to the Slipwing. “Leira, look, you’ve done all you can out here. You need to head back to the Forge.”
“Dash, I’m not going to leave you.”
“It’s not just about me, Leira. Yes, you’ll be safer back there. But if I can’t stop this Harbinger thing, and the Forge turns out to not be able to stop it either, then Conover, Amy, and the others are going to need a ride out of here. The Slipwing is all we’ve got.”
“Plus, someone is going to need to sound the alarm about the Golden coming. Maybe everything that every planet across the arm can throw together won’t be enough. If everyone is also looking for more help from the Unseen, it still might give everyone a fighting chance. But if we all die here, without getting any word out—well, then it really is all over, isn’t it?”
Finally, Leira said, “When did you start making so much sense?”
“Probably about the time I found out I’m supposed to somehow save the universe. That has a way of making you see sense really fast, and to be honest, I like the way it feels on me.”
“I think I’d like the old, live-for-the-moment Dash more.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he’ll be back someday—but not today.”
He saw the Slipwing start a long, arcing trajectory that would take her well away from the scene of battle and back towards the Forge. “Kick that thing’s ass, Dash,” Leira said, “and then come on home.”
“I’ll say it again. That’s the plan.”
Except, as he watched the Harbinger racing back toward him, Dash realized that it was a plan without teeth. Without weapons, this was going to be a very short fight.
Conover finished snapping his vac-suit’s gloves in place, but kept his helmet slung on its harness. They’d brought the vac-suits along mainly because it seemed pointless to leave them aboard the Slipwing when they might be needed here. The fact that they only had four of them—one for him, Viktor, and Amy, plus one spare—and none for the rest for the monks remained unspoken among all of them. If it had bothered Kai and his followers, though, they gave no sign of it. Conover actually suspected it really didn’t faze them, and that their faith was sufficient to keep them going. He wondered how that was possible, but likewise marveled that it apparently was.
“Hey, Custodian,” Amy said, cinching her own glove in place. “Is our ride ready?”
“There are two maintenance remotes awaiting you in the docking bay.”
“This is the part where I start complaining about all the things that could go wrong with this so-called plan,” Viktor said, following along behind them.
Amy glanced back at him. “Well, you’d better hurry up. We’re almost at the docking bay.”
But Viktor shook his head. “Not much point, really, is there? It’s not like we have any other choice.”
“Not to mention that the fate of all sentient life might depend on this working,” she replied. Her grin had returned, which buoyed Conover’s spirits way more than it should. It seemed that, like him, if she could see even just a glimmer of possibility and a hint of something resembling a plan, she could cope—or at least not just slump into a heap of complete, abject surrender.
They strode into the docking bay. Sure enough, a pair of spheres about two meters across hovered near the big opening into space.
Conover didn’t break stride, and just kept going, aiming himself toward the remotes. As he did, he pulled his helmet off the suit’s harness. The plan was simple, which was good, because simple plans were always best. They would ride the remotes to the breach, then deal with the Golden drone when they got there.
And that was it. They didn’t have the time or information to come up with anything more detailed. It all relied on them coming up with a way of deactivating, or otherwise neutralizing, the Golden drone, and doing it on the spot. They’d be relying on Conover’s special vision and Amy’s technical know-how.
And about a gas-giant’s worth of luck.
Once they had their helmets in place, Viktor helped them do their final checks. He’d stripped the other two vac-suits of their tool packs, and anything else even remotely useful, and had already stashed those in their various suit pockets and harness hard-points.
He stepped back as their suits pressurized. “I should be coming with you.”
“We need you here, Viktor,” Amy said. “Kai and his people might be able to read those displays, but you have the technical knowledge to at least try and make sense of it. Once we get that drone taken care of, we have to get that core working.”
Viktor opened his mouth, but just closed it again and gave a solemn nod. “I expect you both to come back in one piece.”
Conover grabbed onto one of the remotes, then unspooled a length of tether and clipped it to a ring that it had apparently extruded from its surface for that very purpose. Amy did the same.
“One piece would be nice, yeah,” he said, then the remote smoothly began to move, aiming itself at the sprawling expanse of stars beyond the massive opening.
As Conover clung to the remote, his last sight of Viktor was him standing there, alone, a tiny figure in the huge docking bay. He raised a hand in a wave, then vanished as the remotes turned and began racing across the surface of the Forge, heading for the hull-breach and the Golden drone lurking inside it.
“Sentinel,” Dash said, “do we have any way of attacking the Harbinger? Can I spit at it? Something?”
“The sword is functional.”
“Great. Spitting at it, then.” He and the Harbinger were closing and would be in weapons-range in seconds. But none of the Archetype’s weapons were functioning yet. The big mech might be tough, but if it was only taking hits and not dishing them out, this battle could only go one way.
And still nothing from the Forge.
“Viktor? Amy? Conover? What’s going on back there?”
“Dash!” It was Viktor. “Am I ever glad to hear from you.”
“What you’re hearing might just be my last words. What’s happening with the Forge? Because I could really use some support out here.”
“I know. We’re working on it.”
“Plug in the damned core? How hard can that be?”
In reply, Viktor rattled off a brief description of the interference by the crashed Golden drone. “…so Conover and Amy have gone to deactivate it. Once they do, Custodian says all of those systems should come online.”
Dash just stared bleakly at the approaching Harbinger. “That’s unfortunate.”
“We’re doing our best.”
“I know you are, Viktor. Stay the course. I trust you to get it done.”
“Of course we will.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep trying to hold the fort out here while you—”
There was a sudden, dazzling flash. Something had just exploded, the blast slamming into…the Harbinger.
What the hell? Had somebody else joined the battle? Did Dash have a sudden, new ally?
Dash saw them, so small and unobtrusive they were lost amid the miscellaneous bits of debris you normally found in any star system. They were missiles. From the Slipwing. He could only see them now that he was looking for them.
“I see that bastard found one of the little presents I left for him,” Leira said, unable to keep at least a little smug satisfaction out of her voice.
“What did you do?” Dash asked. “Turn some of your missiles into mines?”
“All of them, actually. They’re all programmed to detonate if something big enough gets inside their blast radius.”
“Um, afraid so, yeah. They’re not smart enough to really tell the difference.”
Dash slowed the Archetype and slewed right to avoid a missile lurking among some rocky debris just ahead.
“Then I’ll proceed accordingly. Good thinking, Leira.”
“I didn’t want to risk that Harbinger thing eavesdropping. I knew it was a risk, but desperate times and all that, right?”
Dash smiled. “I don’t think they’ll do much damage to the Harbinger, but…yeah, it seems to have slowed down and gotten a little more cautious. Next time we’re out drinking, I’m buying.”
“I’ll remember that. Now, if I can just get as creative with the drive aboard this poor, old girl of yours.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I’m having trouble keeping the fusion containment stable. Looks like that last blast did more damage than I thought.” After a pause, she said, “I wish Viktor or Amy were here. This engineering stuff isn’t my strong suit. Kind of why I hooked up with Viktor in the first place.”
“Do your best,” Dash said, frowning at saying the same thing he’d just said to Viktor. It was a dumb thing to say, actually; what, they weren’t going to do their best, unless he told them to? “Just try not to blow my ship up, especially since you’re on it. Understand?”
“I’d prefer not blowing up the ship, yeah.” She paused. “And me with it.”
Dash turned his focus back on the Harbinger. Leira’s cunning had bought him a little more time, but it wouldn’t matter if Sentinel couldn’t get weapons up and start dealing damage.
He was sure she was trying, too, but in the meantime, it meant he had one path forward—brute strength and raw anger, both of which could go a long way in a brawl.
Dash let the anger rise.
“Your vitals are rising,” Sentinel said, implacable as ever.
Dash smiled, but there was no warmth in it. “Good.”
Once, back on Penumbra, his aunt had persuaded Conover to take a job with a prospector, acting as an assistant on his forays into the planet’s outback as he hunted for valuable mineral deposits. The man had travelled around in a battered old skimmer—basically, a ramshackle platform jammed atop some obviously scavenged grav repulsors, with a small pilot’s cabin built on top. Crammed in beside the man, tasting the reek of fresh sweat, stale booze, and an acrid strain of tobacco grown on a planet that obviously hated all other planets, Conover had experienced some of the terror he faced now.
The prospector—whose name had been Jake or Jack or Joe, it didn’t matter—had raced the skimmer along just centimeters over the Penumbrian hardpan, swooping over crestlines, dodging crags and boulders, dropping into and zooming along dry river gulches. He still remembered the labored whine of the repulsors; Jake’s or Joe’s or whoever’s jarring laughter as he slammed the ramshackle thing through tight turns, climbs, and dives; the way his own heart pounded against his ribs.
Riding the Forge’s maintenance remote was just like that, minus the wild laughter, but with the added fun of doing it in near total darkness, utter silence, and surrounded by hard vacuum. There was still a stink of sweat, though—Conover’s own, which reeked of pungent fear.
Amy didn’t mind their proximity.
She whooped again as the two remotes whipped around yet another towering protrusion from the Forge’s hull. If he risked glancing up from his own gloved hands cramped around some protuberances on the remote, he saw nothing but blackness—featureless and absolute beneath them, and extending out to a curved horizon, where the Forge ended and the starfield began. That actually made it worse than the terror of traveling with Jake or John back on Penumbra, too—he couldn’t see anything in the remote’s flight path, so he only knew they were dodging something when that curved, black horizon would suddenly tilt or spin. Whatever tech the remote used for propulsion seemed to dampen almost all of the extreme g’s, but a hint still leaked through, nudging Conover’s guts through small, but distinct wobbles.
That was something else he’d only done once, and certainly never wanted to do again—throw up in a vacsuit.
The horizon, and the stars beyond it, spun and whirled again. Conover swallowed, hard, as his stomach clenched in protest. How much longer?
They were slowing down. A tall, slender tower extending from the Forge’s hull slid past, but nowhere near as fast as previous ones.
Amy said, “Aww, that was fun.”
Conover didn’t trust himself to speak. He still had stomach contents to keep where they belonged.
A sudden, dazzling flare of light washed over them. Conover’s faceplate darkened in response, stepping down the glare. He winced at the panicked idea it might be an explosion—that the Harbinger had gotten past Dash, and now attacked the Forge, and here they were right out in the open. But the glare just went on and on, getting progressively brighter. It was the system’s star, Conover realized. They’d just witnessed dawn on the surface of the Forge.
“Wow,” Amy whispered, and her tone was anything but that of an engineer. There was open wonder in the sound. “It’s beautiful.”
It was. The sunrise illuminated the vast expanse that was the Forge, revealing it as an enormous plain of smooth hull, with that weird, metallic-crystalline-organic hybrid look common to a lot of Unseen tech Conover had seen. It was punctuated by dozens, maybe hundreds of tower-like structures, similar to the one they’d just passed, as well as a multitude of those polyhedral shapes the Unseen seemed to like so much. It all must have some purpose, he thought, but he couldn’t even begin to figure out what it might be.
“And there’s our hole,” Amy said. “Just ahead.”
Conover could see it, a jarring imperfection in the otherwise pristine sprawl of the station’s surface. A third maintenance remote hung in space not far away, keeping watch over it.
“Viktor,” Conover started, but it came out as a rough croak. He had to stop, swallow, and lick his lips.
“Conover, are you okay?” Amy asked, apparently caught by the obvious hitch in his voice.
“Yeah. Yeah. Fine.” He swallowed again. Fortunately, his uneasy stomach seemed to be settling back into place. “Viktor, has anything changed since we left the docking bay?”
“Nothing obvious. The drone’s just sitting inside there, doing nothing.”
“Oh, I’d say it’s doing lots,” Amy said, as their own remotes smoothly slid to a stop.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Just that too much silence makes me nervous.”
She stepped off the remote, onto the surface of the Forge. She kept her tether attached to her ride, but said, “Huh,” flexed her knees, then jumped. She rose a foot into the air, then immediately dropped back. “So we got gravity. Hey, Custodian, thanks for that. It’ll make life easier.”
“Standard gravity for your physiology has been applied to the exterior portion of the Forge where you are located. It did necessitate powering down other systems, but it seemed a logical assistance to you.”
Conover clambered off the remote. Sure enough, he could have been standing on nearly any roughly 1-g planet.
“I would caution that the reliability of the gravitation is not certain, however, in close proximity to the Golden drone,” Custodian said. “Its effect on the Forge’s systems is unknown.”
“Got it,” Conover said, some of his confidence returning. He didn’t have to be a helpless passenger anymore, terrified he was about to be splattered against some Unseen tower, or cube, or whatever. “Amy, maybe we should keep our tethers hooked up to these remotes, just in case.”
She’d been reaching for hers, to unclip it, but stopped and withdrew her hand. “Good point. Hate to have that thing win by just booting us off into space. Let’s just make sure we don’t get them tangled, okay?”
Together, they walked toward the breach, sidling the last few steps.
“Let’s just hope this thing doesn’t decide to just blow itself up, instead of letting itself be deactivated,” Amy said.
“I hate to say it, but that might not be the worst outcome,” Conover replied. "The Forge could probably fix the damage then and get things properly powered up.”
“Not a bad outcome for who? Not us, for sure!”
“I think I mentioned that I hated to say it.”
They stopped on the edge of the breach and peered inside.
Barely two meters away, the Golden drone sat, silent and menacing.
Conover looked at Amy. “Ready?”
“Does it matter if I say no?”
He made himself smile. She smiled back.
Conover stepped over the edge of the breach and started inside.
“The Harbinger has resumed closing at speed,” Sentinel said. “I estimate thirty seconds until it is in weapons range.”
“Good. I’m ready to get my hands on that bastard,” Dash said.
His mind had been racing for what felt like hours, desperately trying to cook up some sort of plan. Everything had come up a maddening blank, though. Without weapons, the Archetype was just a big, lumbering target, albeit tougher than hell. And there was nothing in space around him he could use to his advantage. They fought in what amounted to a vast, empty arena with only the stars to watch their struggle come to an inevitable, violent conclusion.
Space. Nothing else. It definitely favored the Harbinger.
Fine. He needed to not be here then. He needed to be somewhere else, that at least put them on something like an equal footing.
“Sentinel, can we translate?” he said, mind still ripping along at light speed.
“UnSpace translation is available. Do you intend to flee?”
“Flee? No. Or…well, sort of, but not quite.” Dash looked at the Archetype’s nav display, doggedly ignoring the fact that the Harbinger would start shooting at him in about ten seconds. “Can we translate just a short distance? Like, just inside this system?”
“A complete translation into unSpace is not possible this deep into the system’s gravity well. We would have to gain distance from the star. However, translation through the Dark Between is just barely possible this far from the star, although with some risk.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at one of the planets, another gas giant orbiting in a long ellipse inclined off the plane of the rest of the system’s bodies by at least thirty degrees. It was otherwise unremarkable, although some astronomer would probably be intrigued by its peculiar behavior. It was probably a wandering, rogue body that had been gravitationally captured—temporarily at least—by this system’s star. More to point, though, it was large and energetic enough to be considered a brown dwarf, a wannabe-star that was almost heavy and dense enough to ignite the nuclear fusion that powered actual stars, but fell just short. It therefore remained a massive ball of gas, but one that still emitted a lot of heat and radiation.
There were seconds now until the Harbinger was in firing range. Some risk seemed far better than the alternative.
“There!” Dash said, the distant brown dwarf fixed in his mind and, therefore, also in the Meld. “Let’s go there, now!”
“Translation to the Darkness Between is available,” Sentinel said. Dash immediately flung himself at his objective—
—and the universe winked out—
—then winked back into being. The brown dwarf suddenly loomed, a colossal presence blotting out most of the starfield. The Archetype was immediately awash in radiation pouring from the almost-star.
He looked back at the place he’d been a moment before. A few seconds passed, then he saw a distant, but distinct flash, the tell-tale signature of the Harbinger’s big chest-cannon. Based on the time it took the flash to get here, he must have translated away at almost the same instant it fired.
“Missed me, you Golden son-of-a-bitch,” Dash said. “Let’s see what it does next. If we can’t slug it out, we’ll move like a ghost until we can.”
“I feel compelled to point out that by translating to this remote part of the system, the Harbinger may now approach the Forge unhindered,” Sentinel said.
“It might. But it won’t.”
After a pause, Sentinel said, “I do not understand how you justify your apparent certainty.”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
There was a longer pause before Sentinel said, “I believe you are trying to make a point. What it is, however, eludes me.”
Despite the horrific tension and uncertainty, Dash laughed. “Good. If I can outsmart you, then maybe I can outsmart the Harbinger.”
This time, there was just silence.
“Don’t concern yourself,” Dash went on. “I can accept that I have some limits with the details of your tech, and even the Golden. I accept that it all works, but really, I don’t understand it. Even on the Slipwing most of the time, I know if I push this button, that thing will happen. And if it doesn’t…well, sometimes I can fix it, and if I can’t, I find someone who can.”
“I am still failing to discern your point.”
“My thing,” Dash said, “is people. I’m pretty good at knowing how they think…what makes them tick upstairs. And, with all due respect to you, super-advanced alien AI that you are, when it comes right down to it, you think much the same way we frail, feeble humans do. That means the Golden and their Harbinger probably will, too, and that means that I was built for this fight.”
“So your apparent certainty regarding the Harbinger’s anticipated behavior is based on what you would do in its position?”
“Bingo. And if I was the Harbinger, I wouldn’t want to go after the Forge while the Archetype was still out here somewhere, maybe ready for battle again, and about to pounce at any moment. I could end up caught between the Archetype and the Forge, and that is not where I’d want to be. That flying crate is hardwired to survive, I bet, and that means it sees us as what we really are— the only true threat to its existence.”
“But repairs to the Archetype’s weapons are not yet complete. Therefore, you are not in a position to—pounce, as you said.”
“Yeah, but the Harbinger doesn’t know that.”
“You believe the Harbinger will focus on destroying the Archetype first, rather than trying to deal with it and the Forge simultaneously. I would point out that the same reasoning gives it justification for dealing with the Forge first.”
“Maybe. That’s a risk. But this is where gut instinct comes into it, and this is what separates us, at least in this regard, friend. I respect your vast skills, but in this case, it’s best if you respect mine.”
“That is not a rational approach to problem solving.”
“Damn right it’s not. But, just like I’m not a tech guy, rational has never been the sole province of humanity, and if anything, I’m just a guy.” Dash paused, then managed a smile. “A guy who’s the Messenger and an Archetype jock, but still a guy.”
“Your gut instinct notwithstanding, it makes considerably more sense for the Harbinger to attack the Forge. It is presumably communicating with the drone currently inhibiting the station’s functions, which means it knows that the Forge is vulnerable.”
“You know, this is a good opportunity for us to get on the same page. We’re going to win this fight, Sentinel. Believe it.”
“I have just detected a spatial displacement nearby,” Sentinel said.
Dash nodded, realizing it through the Meld even as Sentinel said it. The doubt that had begun gnawing at him gave way to his own moment of quiet assurance. He’d been right.
“It’s the Harbinger, isn’t it? It came after us, didn’t it?”
“So it would appear.”
“Gut instinct, I’m telling you. Sure, humans die a lot sooner and lose our teeth and hair, but we pull through when it counts.”
“Your teeth are excellent, and you do not have any hair loss that I can detect.”
“Thank you. I floss daily, but that’s not important right now. Let’s meet this bastard now and chat about my grooming later,” Dash said, opening his senses again to the Meld.
The weapons were still offline, the situation still dire, but Dash allowed himself a brief smile of satisfaction. If he really could get inside the minds of these godlike AIs, then maybe he could actually believe his own words of just a moment ago—that he really could be good at something, amid all this galaxy-shaking alien bullshit.
Something other than flossing, anyway. At least flossing and fighting started with the same letter.
He’d find out soon enough.
Conover inched his way closer to the drone. It, in turn, did nothing.
“Be careful,” Amy said, stepping through the breach behind him, realigning herself to the interior gravity as she did. “Up” inside the Forge was ninety degrees to what it was on the exterior, so they had to endure a momentary burst of disorientation as they passed through the transition. It did nothing for Conover’s already touchy stomach; he had to take another moment to swallow hard and wait for the flutters to fade.
“Okay,” Amy said. “Here we are. Here it is. What next? We just start taking it apart?”
Her matter-of-fact tone suggested she might, indeed, be fine with just starting to take the drone apart. But Conover, shoving aside the last wobbles in his gut, shook his head.
Which Amy couldn’t see inside his helmet, of course, so he said, “Just give me a minute to look this thing over.”
Conover looked at the alien drone, the quantum lenses in his eyes doing a deep scan in seconds. When he used his enhanced sight, few tech secrets could elude him, and he focused on nothing but the item before him.
The world collapsed, everything that wasn’t the tech he was studying vanishing into a peripheral fog. When he’d first tried this on alien tech—the Unseen device called the Lens—the fantastic intricacy of it had yanked his awareness along such twisting, branching pathways, and down holes of such deep complexity that he’d actually become lost, unable to extract himself from the artifact’s bizarre technological landscape. Like the image of the man he’d shot, it had burrowed into his mind, wraithlike and unwelcome, and it could not be casually withdrawn. All Unseen tech still threatened to do the same thing to him; he was ready for it now, though, which made it easier to deal with.
Forewarned was forearmed against the masters in their galactic war and the tools they left behind.
Golden tech, like this drone, was different. Unseen tech seemed to somehow extend into parts of reality he couldn’t properly envision, much less really understand—he suspected it was a manifestation of the Dark Between, as Dash called it. Golden tech was far more rooted in normal space, but was also fantastically more complex within it, having an almost fractal structure that never seemed to end no matter how deeply he looked at it. Both races’ tech made looking at something like the Slipwing seem like studying a kid’s toy. Both left him unsettled and feeling small.
Both were lethal beyond belief.
This drone seemed at least similar to the other one they possessed, but Conover had no idea if it was actually the same—certainly not in every detail, anyway. Moreover, the Golden tech seemed to be changing as he studied it, adapting to the pressure of his gaze like a shy animal on an unspoiled world. Things that might be circuit pathways writhed like things alive—and, who knew, maybe they were—as though the drone kept revising and adjusting its ongoing functions. That meant it could probably repurpose parts of itself to take over functions that were compromised elsewhere, which was going to make deactivating it a lot harder.
“Conover? Are you okay? What’s going on?”
Amy’s voice sounded muffled, distorted, and distant, as though she spoke to him through a long pipe. Conover blinked and pulled his awareness back out of the strange landscape of the drone’s tech.
“Yeah. I’m okay. It’s a lot to see.”
“Good. You had me worried. You were just kneeling there, staring at it.”
He blinked again, clearing the lingering fuzz from his mind. “It’s complicated.” He turned and looked at her. “Actually, complicated barely begins to describe it.” He gave the device a grudging smile.
“Did you learn anything?”
“Kind of.” He looked back at the drone. “It’s not like that last drone. That one was mostly inert when I looked at it, probably because Custodian had mostly shut it down. This one’s fully active.”
“Meaning we can’t just remove a component from this one to disable it they way we did with the other. We could probably take this one almost completely apart, and it would still be able to keep it doing whatever it’s doing.”
“Damn things. Worse than ship’s bugs. What do you suggest?”
“Custodian, is there no way for you to use your security field, or whatever it is, to at least partly shut this drone down?” Conover said.
“I am still entirely blind to the drone’s presence, so I cannot.”
“But, you know its here,” Amy said. “You can see it with your own maintenance remotes.”
“True. However, I am unable to target the security functions upon it, because the systems that would do so are offline.”
“It’s like trying to shoot at a target in a closed room, I guess,” Conover said. “You might know the target’s in there, but if the door’s closed, you can’t aim at it.” The shooting analogy had just come to him, but it made him think yet again of that man’s head bursting in his gunsight.
“A crude parallel, but a reasonable one,” Custodian replied.
“So what if you just shut everything down in this area?” Amy asked. “Just make it some sort of, you know, blanket effect?”
“There is no guarantee such an indiscriminate approach will have the desired effect.”
“Still worth a try.”
“Custodian, if you do that, what will happen to us?” Conover said. “Our vacsuits, comms, and the like?”
“Since I am actually unable to resolve any specific targets in the portion of the Forge where you now are, your own technology will also be suppressed, particularly given its relatively primitive nature.”
Amy sniffed. “Rub it in, why don’t you.”
“I am merely stating a fact.”
“Whatever. Anyway, the bottom line is that you might be able to shut this thing down, at least partly, but you can’t be sure. But you’ll shut us down, too.”
“I assume that our primitive tech doesn’t include, you know, us as in, our hearts, brains, lungs and stuff, right?” Amy said.
“No,” Custodian replied. “I can exempt your biological functions and any technology that may be interfaced directly with them.”
“Not that any of us have artificial hearts or the like,” she said, then gave Conover a sharp glance. “You don’t, do you?”
“Just my eyes. And it would be good if they kept working, yeah.” He took a deep breath. “So let’s try it.”
But Amy frowned. “Hang on. We’ll lose our suit functions—air recycling, heat, even comms. Things will get pretty ugly for us, pretty fast.”
“I know. But we need to know if Custodian can do it. If it works, and it can turn this drone off, then that might be all we need to do, at least for now.”
“Well, we should pull back, then.”
“No time. This is already taking way too long.”
After a pause, Amy said, “Okay, fine. What are we waiting for, then?”
“Custodian, go ahead,” Conover said. “Shut everything down here for—let’s say thirty seconds. We’ll see if that neutralizes this thing.”
Their suit lamps winked out. At the same time, the constant whisper and faint whine of the various systems in Conover’s vacsuit stopped, plunging him into utter silence, broken only by the sound of his own breathing and the rhythmic rush of blood in his ears.
“Come on,” Dash said, watching the display depicting the Harbinger—or, at least, what he had to assume was the Harbinger. Thanks to the constant tsunami of x-rays and other emissions from the brown dwarf, even the Archetype’s formidable scanner tech couldn’t resolve much more than a kilometer or so away.
“Come on!” he said again. “Do something. Don’t just sit there!”
“What do you expect the Harbinger to do?” Sentinel asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s not in an offensive mode. That concerns me.”
“What does your gut instinct tell you?”
“Do you really care? Does this mean you might think there’s something to it?”
“I cannot rule it out,” Sentinel said. “You may have some ability based in properties of which even you are unaware. Available data does record instances of apparently telepathic life-forms, although your species, humans, are not particularly noted for it.”
“You think I might be psychic?” Dash tried to flex his mind but was rewarded with a pulsing in his ears, and nothing more.
“I am not taking any particular position on the matter. I am simply stating that I cannot rule out your gut instinct as having some validity—particularly since it does seem to be able to predict events—after a fashion, anyway.”
“Glad to see you’re open to the possibility.” Dash would never have expected this generally dispassionate AI to actually give his gut instinct any credence. But that was something to wonder about another time—if there ever even was another time, that is.
Dash went on, “I’ve got nothing, this time. I guess the Harbinger could just be waiting for us to make the next move. But you’d think it would know time’s on our side, and it must know where we are.”
“It likely does not.”
“But, we can see it. Can it see us?”
“The Archetype can register the gravitational anomaly created by the Harbinger in real space. We, however, are between it and the brown dwarf, whose vastly greater gravitational signature would mask that of the Archetype. And all other scanners are currently ineffective because of the brown dwarf’s emissions.”
“So it’s blind to us?”
Dash pushed up his lower lip and said, “Huh,” impressed. This had worked out better than he’d hoped.
A sudden, searing flash of energy enveloped the Archetype.
Dash flung himself aside, but they’d already taken the hit. “Shit! I thought you said it couldn’t see us!”
“The brown dwarf emits little visible light, so by scrutinizing the area long enough, it presumably saw us, or at least our outline. For weapons of this complexity, that is often enough.”
Dash braced himself for more bad news through the Meld, but strangely, the attack had done only superficial damage. It was, he realized, because of all the radiation from the brown dwarf. It dispersed the effect of the Harbinger’s normally lethal chest cannon.
The missiles it had just launched wouldn’t be affected the same way, though.
“Incoming,” Dash snapped, slamming the Archetype into a rapid series of evasive moves. But it wouldn’t be enough. At least one, and likely two of the missiles were going to impact.
“The distortion cannon is back online.”
Dash didn’t hesitate. He fired it, pulling three of the missiles into its momentary gravity well, and deflecting the other two. One exploded nearby, but again, the damage was only minor.
“I need the dark-lance,” he said, “or at least missiles of my own. We need ranged weapons that can’t be dispersed by the brown dwarf.”
“The dark lance is online. Missiles will be shortly.”
A pair of the surviving missiles still had a lock and accelerated hard, trying to reacquire the Archetype. Again, Dash didn’t think about it, he just snapped out dark-lance shots from the proverbial hip, ripping the missiles into quantum debris. His technique verged into muscle memory, as each passing moment in combat led him to feel like an extension of the Archetype, rather than a mere pilot.
He followed up with a shot at the Harbinger, aiming, like it had, basically by eye and as much magnification he could get. He scored a hit before the Harbinger could evade and was satisfied to see debris erupt from the enemy mech. Still, it seemed like such a weak hit for such a powerful weapon. The Harbinger was a mirror of him, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“I believe I have an answer for that,” Sentinel said, apparently responding to Dash’s thought. “Much of the Harbinger seems to be constructed of dark metal.”
The Meld provided Dash with a flood of information he didn’t really understand. He saw that Harbinger had backed off, presumably to try a new strategy, now that the Archetype had functioning weapons again. “Pretend I don’t know what dark metal is,” he said. “Which, incidentally, I don’t.”
“Dark metal is a super-dense alloy developed by the Golden. The Creators theorized that it was created using the power of dark energy. In addition to being inordinately strong, and yet light for that strength, it also tends to deflect energy.”
“So that’s why the dark-lance doesn’t do much to it. Make a note to inform me of the efficiency of all our weapons. After, of course, this brawl.”
“Duly noted, and you are correct. The quantum effects of the dark-lance are greatly diminished by the properties of dark metal.”
Dash scowled. That also meant missiles, which did most of their damage by radiant energy blasts, would also have limited effect. The distortion cannon would still work fine, but this dark metal was probably strong enough to resist being yanked apart by its gravitational pull. The best he’d be able to do was tug the Harbinger around a bit.
“Meantime, that thing’s damned chest cannon hurts me just fine,” Dash said.
As though his words had triggered it, the Harbinger loosed another bolt of super-hot plasma. Dash dodged, so only the fringe of the blast caught him. Again, it did little damage.
So, a stalemate. He couldn’t do much to the Harbinger, but, as long as he stayed near the brown dwarf, it couldn’t do much to him, either.
“It’s going to either attack the Forge, or go after Leira,” he said.
“To draw you away from the brown dwarf.”
“Exactly. And what do you know. There it goes.”
The Harbinger had abruptly turned and raced away, heading back in-system.
Dash took a deep, resigned breath. “Well, I guess just sitting around here isn’t going to do much good, is it?”
He launched himself after the Harbinger.
“Leira,” Dash said, “what’s your status?” He expected her to say, I’m almost back at the Forge—and was then going to warn her that the Harbinger was inbound. But there was no response at all.
“Leira? Can you hear me? What’s going—”
“I’m here,” she said, her voice tight and a little breathless. “I was just back in the engineering bay.”
“Still having some instability in your fusion containment?”
“Not anymore, because I’ve shut it down entirely.”
“You’ve what?” Dash shook his head. She couldn’t shut down fusion containment, at least not without shutting down the drive as well.
“Leira, have you shut down the drive?”
“I had to. I was going to lose containment if I didn’t. Maybe Viktor or Amy could do something about it, but it’s beyond me, Dash. And going poof in a fusion explosion wasn’t high on my list of things to do.” She tried to sound casual, even flippant about it, but Dash could hear the tension in her voice.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s…not good, but at least it means you’re probably safe from the Harbinger. Let’s face it, your threat profile has dropped significantly. That’s a good thing, given what’s happening out here.”
“Not that I ever was much of a threat.” She paused. “I’m not as safe you might think, Dash. See, I was inspired by your nifty aerobraking stunt around that gas giant, and all the time it saved. I thought I’d do a gravitational slingshot around the system’s star, kind of the same way. I’d have to burn a lot of fuel to match the Forge’s orbit after, but it would have saved me a pretty good chunk of time getting back there.”
Dash’s stomach tightened. “What are you telling me, Leira?”
“I needed to do one more burn, to correct my trajectory for a proper orbital insertion around the star. But I couldn’t. So, in about an hour, the star’s gravity is going to pull me further and further toward it, close enough to be nothing but slag. If I try to do anything about it by lighting up the drive, though, I’ll blow up the ship. Either way, Dash, I’m afraid the Slipwing and I are going to go poof anyway.”
Fortunately, Conover’s eyes did still work, being interfaced directly with his biological functions. He could therefore see the dramatic fall-off in the drone’s internal activity. It remained operating at a much lower energy level—but it was by no means entirely dead. Some portions of it were either somehow shielded from the station’s security effects or could just power through them.
The seconds ticked past. Conover focused on the drone, trying to commit as much of what he could see happening with its tech to memory. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, then the side of his nose. He breathed as little as he could, trying to not foul the few minutes of usable air left inside his suit. In the space between heartbeats, something clicked.
The power switched abruptly back on. His suit systems resumed their pervasive hum and whine. Compared to the absolute silence, they sounded like a fusion drive being lit.
“Viktor,” Amy said, “did that work? Did that power core come online while things here were shut down?”
“No, Amy. I’m afraid not.”
“Shit.” She turned back to Conover again. “Well, looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
But Conover ignored her. Instead, he watched as the drone came back fully back to life, its systems repowering, energy flowing through it in silent malignance.
“Custodian, power everything down again,” he snapped. “And leave it powered down! Do it now!”
Dash just stared at the situation for a moment. Finally, he said, “Leira, are you sure? You can’t get containment stabilized at all?”
“Like I said, if I had Viktor or Amy here, maybe they could so something. But I’m no engineer. I’ve tried all the things I know how to do. And yes, before you ask, I’ve queried the computer. If there’s any way of fixing containment, it involves some trick or fancy, offbeat idea that I just don’t know.”
“What about thrusters? They should give you enough of a nudge.”
“Maybe if I was further from the star and had more time, but—no. I’ve run the numbers. It won’t be enough.”
“Dash, come on. You know as well as I do, I’m way too deep in this system’s gravity well. There’s no way the Slipwing has enough power to translate into unSpace from here.”
Dash went back to staring. She was right, of course. Even the Fade wouldn’t help her. Sure, it would push her partly into unSpace, but enough of her and the Slipwing would remain in real space that they’d both be vaporized by the star anyway.
“Leira, wait a second. Sentinel, we translated here, to this brown dwarf, through the Darkness Between. Can we do the same thing to get the Slipwing and help Leira out?”
“No. She is much too deep into the star’s gravity well. As I said, it was barely possible with respect to the brown dwarf.”
“The Unseen seem to be able to pretty much ignore the laws of physics, except when we really need them to. That’s unacceptable,” Dash growled.
“The Creators are no more capable of ignoring the basic physical properties of the universe than you are. Their technology might create that impression, but that is not the case.”
“Disregard. I’ll think it through. My instinct better work overtime.”
Dash faced a stark choice. He could race after Leira, which would leave the Forge undefended. Or he could chase the Harbinger and try to save the Forge, but if that—and recovering from the inevitable damage—took more than about fifteen minutes, he wouldn’t have time to reach Leira before she and the Slipwing became a cloud of glowing atoms.
If only the Forge could defend itself.
“Viktor, any progress?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “I know that’s not the news you want, but Amy and Conover are working on it.”
Dash felt like punching something, but he sucked in a calming breath. Losing his temper achieved nothing. “Any idea how long?”
“Sorry, no idea.”
It was Leira or the Forge.
Simple logic said the Forge, of course. Losing it before the war against the Golden had really even begun would be a devastating blow. Maybe even a fatal one. That meant trying to save Leira instead quite possibly meant dooming all sentient life in the galactic arm to extinction by the Golden.
But it also meant that Leira would die.
“Leira,” Dash said to no one. “I’m sorry.”
Amy stared at Conover in confusion. He could tell that much, at least, in the wan dregs of sunlight that spilled into the breach from outside, now that their suit lamps were dark. He saw her lips move, then she shook her head in frustration. Reaching up, she grabbed Conover’s helmet and pulled him toward her.
What the hell? Did she suddenly want to hug him?
There was a clunk as her helmet touched his.
“Conover, what’s going on?”
Oh. Right. Their suit comms didn’t work, but sound could conduct directly through their helmets if they were touching. She sounded far off, her voice a muffled buzz, but he could understand her.
“The drone,” he said. “As soon as it started powering up, it also started reconfiguring itself. A bunch of signals were sent to its drive.”
“Why? Was it going to try to leave here or something?”
“I doubt that. But if you wanted to make a ship—because it’s just really a small, autonomous ship—blow up, how would you do it?”
“Aw, hell. Right. By making the drive overload or fail in some way.”
“Yeah. So if Custodian drops this security field, the drone probably explodes, instead of letting itself be deactivated. We don’t know how much damage it would do, or how long it might take the Forge to recover from it.”
“But even with the security field on, it’s still able to stop that power core from working.”
“It seems so, yeah.”
“So we’re screwed?”
Conover looked at the drone. “Not necessarily. We can try to get inside it and deactivate it manually, which is kind of what we came here to do in the first place.”
“Well, we’ve only got a few minutes of air inside these suits, so we’d better get to it, then.”
They moved apart and knelt beside the drone, one to each side, leaning forward so their helmets touched.
“This thing might still blow up,” Conover said, as Amy extracted tools from her suit pouches and harness.
“Conover, save your breath. Every word uses a little more air. Just business from now on.”
“Oh. Yeah, you’re right.”
Amy went to work on the drone. Fortunately, she’d already disassembled the one that had infiltrated the Forge earlier, so she knew how to get at the guts of the thing, at least.
Once inside it, he’d have to guide her with what he could see, to try to finally deactivate it.
And they had to do it all in the next few minutes, because after that, they’d be dead, asphyxiated by the residue of their own biological functions.
Dash raced on, his trajectory noncommittal. A little adjustment one way, and he could chase after Leira. A little the other, and he’d be on the Harbinger’s tail. He had about another five minutes before he had to make a choice and go with it.
But there really wasn’t any choice at all, was there?
Dash tried swallowing that hurtful lump his throat away, but it wouldn’t go. He finally just whispered, “Sorry, Leira,” his voice thick with emotion as he changed his course to run down the Harbinger.
And when he finally caught it, he was going to kill it. Even if he had to punch it into scrap, he was going to kill this damned Harbinger. And then he’d go on to find the rest of the Golden, and he’d kill all of them, too. For humanity. For Leira.
There were people Dash didn’t like. There were people he avoided. People he would never, ever trust. People who owed him, and people he owed.
Despite all of that, he’d never hated anyone before. He hadn’t even hated Clan Shirna, or Nathis. They’d been a massive pain in the ass, yes, and he had no regrets about what he’d done to them, how many of them he’d killed. They’d made their choices. He certainly could have hated them, had every reason to, but he hadn’t. They were just greedy, ambitious bastards. He knew lots of those. Even in nonhumans, they still had very human traits, like ruthless greed.
Now, though, he did hate someone.
He hated the Golden. Hated them. All he knew was that they wanted to destroy everyone and everything, so they had to be destroyed first.
The Unseen weren’t too far behind, either, though his feelings were filled with uncertainty. They might be the only thing that could stand against the Golden, offering the only way of stopping, and eventually destroying them, sure. But they’d sucked Dash into this whole mess, this war, and sucked Leira, Viktor, and the rest of them in along with him. They’d never asked him; finding the Archetype might have saved his life, but Sentinel had never explained the ramifications of accepting the Meld and becoming the damned Messenger.
And then, just to make sure an already stupidly difficult task was even harder, they’d held back information, pieced out the tech he needed to even have a chance in what amounted to a damned scavenger hunt and, as a result, plunged him and his friends into terrible situations they’d barely been able to survive—and they’d done it over and over again.
And because of it—because they always seemed to fall just short of giving Dash and the others enough information or capability to really succeed—it was going to cost Leira her life.
Ahead of him, the Harbinger raced toward the Forge. It, too, had apparently given up on Leira as a lost cause. It had obviously decided to destroy the Forge while it was still vulnerable.
Dash was not going to let that happen. If they were going to lose Leira, then the Harbinger would pay the price for it.
He only hoped the Golden had given it the ability to feel pain.
Conover pointed at one of the numerous, nondescript black modules filling the interior of the drone, then made a pulling motion with his hand. Amy attacked the module with a tool, eventually working it free. It popped out and she put it aside.
“Anything?” she asked, her voice thin and distant through their helmets.
She waited while he scanned the guts of the drone. The trouble was that it seemed to be able to keep whatever function was stopping the power core down in the engine room alive, despite all their efforts. Its oddly generalized tech seemed to allow it to shift things around in response to whatever they tried, keeping its effects distributed among different parts of itself as fast as they tried to deactivate it. It might have actually learned from the other drone they’d disassembled, studying how they approached it, and then developing ways to counter that. Or it might have something to do with the Forge’s security field, and the fact it wasn’t able to target the drone specifically, so they couldn’t isolate its functions into a few components and just remove them.
He considered grabbing a hammer and just trying to smash things to render it inoperable but suspected no force they could apply could possibly damage it. The Slipwing’s weapons had barely affected them, after all, and even the Archetype had had to work at destroying them.
He followed the flow of power, then pointed at another module. Amy went to work on it. That was the other problem—each module took about five or ten seconds to work free, and their time was running out.
Conover coughed. The air he was breathing in had become warm, moist, and stale. They’d been at this for nearly two minutes now; even without talking, and minimizing their movements, his exhaled carbon dioxide was nearing a critical concentration. Another two minutes, maybe three, and what he’d be breathing would no longer be life-sustaining. He’d start suffering from anoxia, his mental faculties would quickly decline into apathetic confusion, and he’d soon pass out. Not long after that, he’d die, and Amy would die with him. Humanity would likely follow soon after, be it in months, or years, or however long it took the Golden to spread their lethality through the galaxy.
He blinked, wincing as his eye suddenly stung. His suit heat might be dead and, if he wasn’t going to run out of air first, freezing to death was an eventual certainty. In the short term, though, it was excess body heat that was the problem, making him slick with sweat. It rolled down his face, threatening to blind him. But it was the way his mind had completely wandered off task that really alarmed him. Grimly, he made himself scan the drone, forcing himself to concentrate on the ebb and flow of energy through its components.
He pointed at another module, one whose removal offered some promise of blocking the drone’s functions, and made that tugging motion again. Amy, though, just let the tool rest by her side.
“This isn’t working, Conover. I’m starting to lose my concentration. We can do another two or three modules, I think, and that’s it.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“For what?” Conover asked.
“For not being able to solve this. I’d convinced myself that I could fix any problem. I got cocky. But this is just beyond me.”
“Don’t talk so much. Air, remember?”
“Does it really matter?”
Conover was going to say, Of course it matters, but it really didn’t, did it? So, instead, he just said, “Probably not.”
“Anyway, I don’t really want to spend my last few minutes being all gloomy and quiet,” Amy said. “That’s just not me.”
“That’s for sure.”
He didn’t know what else to say. But Amy just chuckled.
“So you think I talk too much. Truth comes out, eh?”
“No! I think you talk just enough.”
There was silence again.
This time, Conover was the one to break it. “I’m sorry, actually, Amy. I’m sorry we got you into this.”
“All of this. The Unseen, the Golden…where we are right now. If it wasn’t for us, you’d still be safe back at Passage.”
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t have missed any of this! To see all this amazing tech—the Archetype, and the Forge, even these stupid damned drones and that Harbinger thing—that’s stuff I could only dream about!”
“But nothing. This has been amazing. Don’t get me wrong—I’m definitely not anxious to keel over here, dead. But if you’d said to me, you can spend the rest of your life, years and years of it, fixing leaky hatches and broken power couplings on Passage, or you can spend a few weeks instead seeing all of this awesome, utterly mind-blowing stuff—” She chuckled again. “Yeah, that’s not even a question that needs to be asked.”
Conover blinked, then blinked again. It took some effort now to assemble his thoughts into anything coherent.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess I’m glad for that, anyway.”
“Besides, then I never would have gotten to know you.”
Once more, Conover blinked. Had she just really said that?
“I’m glad I got to know you, too, Amy.”
Conover wondered how Dash was doing. And Leira. And what Viktor and the monks were up to.
“I am a little scared, though,” Amy finally said.
Conover let impulse guide him and put his gloved hand on her arm. “Yeah. I am, too.”
“Maybe this drone just exploding would have been better. Quicker, you know?”
Conover nodded, though she couldn’t see it, of course. Except she could. He hadn’t even remembered lifting his head, so now it was their faceplates that touched. He looked straight into Amy’s eyes, just a few inches and an eternity of hard vacuum away.
“I’m okay with it being like this,” he said. “You know, these last few minutes.”
She blinked, slowly, but smiled. “Maybe you’re right.” She nodded. “Yeah, you are.”
He smiled back but wasn’t even sure why. What was he smiling about, anyway? Wasn’t this really, really bad?
He wasn’t sure anymore. Wasn’t sure of anything, except that he was suddenly so tired and needed to sleep.
Amy’s eyes fluttered closed.
So Conover closed his, too.
The Harbinger was slightly faster than the Archetype. Dash needed to slow it down.
I can do that, he thought.
He fired the distortion cannon, its pulse of gravity yanking on the Harbinger, slowing it slightly, while also pulling the Archetype slightly ahead. He did it again.
Each time, the gap between the two mechs diminished. The Harbinger abruptly stopped and spun about, apparently deciding that Dash would, eventually, overtake it with enough shots.
“Yeah,” Dash said. “Time to end this, one way or the other.”
He raced in toward the Harbinger. It, in turn, flung itself toward him, their massed weaponry streaking through space at speeds no human could tolerate. Except for Dash.
He fired the dark-lance, snapping out shots as fast as the weapon could recycle. At the same time, he unleashed a salvo of missiles. Another. The Harbinger staggered under the dark-lance hits, but kept coming at him. As it did, the missiles raced in. Its point defense system took out a few, but it finally had to loose a blast from its chest cannon to counter the rest. Dash already knew it took some time for that big weapon to recuperate, so he poured on the speed. Seeing three of the missiles strike it and detonate, he smiled grimly. None of this, he knew, was really doing much damage to the Golden mech, but it was keeping the thing occupied.
Trailing bits of glowing debris, the Harbinger recovered from the missile blasts and resumed charging at Dash.
“Yeah. Bring it on, you bastard. Let’s do this up close and personal.”
Thirty seconds to what would be a collision, if one of them didn’t pull away.
Dash didn’t waver.
Sentinel said, “Collision alert."
“No shit!” Dash said, and pushed the Archetype even harder. His mech was bigger, heavier; hopefully, slamming into the enemy mech at their combined speeds would do enough damage to it to put it out of action, even if it killed him.
But the Harbinger suddenly shimmered—and then vanished.
Dash raced through the empty volume of space where the other mech had been only seconds before.
He started to spin around, frustrated fury boiling through him, desperate to find it so he could kill it. But there was no sign of the Harbinger. It was gone.
Conover opened his eyes. He saw…a ceiling. It was sheet plastilene, scavenged from some old cargo pods. His aunt had told him that if he wanted a place to sleep, he’d have to install a new roof on the shed out behind her shop. So he had, and he’d done a decent job—at least, a half-assed decent one. He was no engineer, though he wanted to fancy himself as being one, someday.
He looked around. The clutter of the shed loomed around him, hemming him into a cramped, little space near the back.
He was in bed. At his aunt’s. Oh. So he was still on Penumbra.
That meant everything that had happened—everything about Dash, and Leira, and Viktor, the Slipwing; everything about the Unseen and the Golden, the Archetype and the Forge—
It had all just been a dream?
And Amy? She’d just been part of the dream, too?
“Duh, no,” Amy said, grinning her goofy grin at him. “None of that was a dream, dummy. It was all real.”
She knelt beside his bed—in a vacsuit. Weird. He could see her grin clearly through the faceplate, even though the light suddenly seemed far too dim for his aunt’s shed on Penumbra.
“But I’m here, still in bed,” he said. “I just woke up.” He gestured around. “I’m still here at my aunt’s place.”
“No, you’re not. You’re still kneeling beside that drone in the Forge. Oh, and you’re also dying.”
He frowned. That seemed to make sense. “But how could I be here, if I’m there?”
“Because this is all just a hallucination, of course. The neurons in your brain are firing like crazy, because they’re all starting to die. Soon, you’ll see a tunnel, and a bright light, and then that’s it.” She shook her head. “And that’s how much of a rational, analytical guy you are, you know. You can’t even die from anoxia without explaining it to yourself first.”
Conover opened his mouth to say—something, he wasn’t sure what, but it would be some sort of protest, only the whole world shuddered suddenly.
“What was that?”
Amy shrugged. “Beats me. I’m just a figment, remember? I only know what you know.”
Another shudder came, more forceful.
Conover gave Amy a puzzled frown. “Okay, I have to admit, I never expected dying to be quite so weird.”
He stopped as a dazzling light suddenly filled the world. It washed away the bed, the shed, even Amy. It also provoked a searing pain that erupted behind his eyes, threatening to blow his head apart.
“Conover? Can you hear me?”
The light faded a bit, and now he could see a face. It wasn’t Amy, though.
“Conover!” the voice said. “Just breathe. In. Out. Just like that.”
Through the blasts of pain detonating inside his head, Conover realized he recognized that face. It was—
The monk nodded behind a helmet faceplate. “You recognize me—that’s good. Look, just keep breathing while I check on Amy. In and out. Nice and slow.”
Conover wedged himself up from where he’d been sprawled. He was far from his aunt’s shed on Penumbra. He was still in the breached compartment on the Forge, still beside the now partly disassembled Golden drone. And Amy was also here, also pulling herself upright, back to her knees.
“I’m hallucinating again,” Conover said.
But Kai turned to him and smiled. “Perhaps. I don’t know if you’re hallucinating or not. But I do think I got to you two just in time.”
Dash spun in a fast circle, desperately trying to find any sign of the Harbinger. Gravity, he thought. It has a gravity signature. Find that, find the Harbinger.
Something slammed against the Archetype from behind.
“Unless he finds me,” Dash said. He didn’t think. He’d been jumped in seedy bars and grungy backstreets often enough to have it down to reflex—just grab-lean-pull-flip the guy attacking you over your shoulder. This was fighting dirty. Dash was made to fight dirty.
A colossal blast of energy erupted somewhere behind and above Dash. As he finished the move, he realized it was a shot from the Harbinger’s chest-cannon, one that would have hit him from behind at point-blank range. Instead, the colossal energy discharge just vented into empty space as he flung the Golden mech, and its weapon, around.
He followed through, swinging the Harbinger around and down until it was in front of him. Just letting his instincts keep flowing, he followed up with a punch to the side of its head and a knee into its back, both blows connecting with metallic gongs that reverberated through his senses. The enemy mech doubled backward, while his blow slammed a massive dent into the side of its head.
Which was when conscious thought took over from sheer instinct again, and Dash thought bar fight.
Okay, that, he knew. He spun the Harbinger around. It responded fast, lashing out, slamming a fist into his shoulder that rattled the Archetype deep in its components. At the same time, it tried to pull back, breaking contact. Dash thought, oh, no you don’t and clinched it back closed, slamming his own fist into its head, over and over—just like he had in that grubby taproom on Gamora, when that bounty hunter had tried to take him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dash had pounded the man’s head until he dropped, giving him a chance to flee to the Slipwing and get himself away. He’d never been back to Gamora since, but the thrill of the fight lived on in the moment with each colossal punch he delivered.
“Yeah, no time for nostalgia,” he muttered, hitting the Harbinger again with a thunderous blow. Again. Its dark metal seemed far more vulnerable to his hits than it did to shooting. Bit by bit, it twisted and crumpled under the repeated hammer blows from the Archetype’s fists.
And despite its nimble quickness and the AI controlling it, the Harbinger lagged, its counter blows uncoordinated and slow compared to his. It might be tech so sophisticated Dash might not even be able to begin understanding how it worked, but it had never been in a bar fight on Gamora.
Even better. A grim, humorless smile on his lips, Dash swung again. And again.
He pulled back a massive fist, then let it fly, and his smile deepened as it landed.
“Kai?” Conover asked, wincing at the throbbing pain his own voice provoked in his head. “Are you actually here?”
“Well, we all only view the universe from our own, limited perspective, so who’s to say if anyone is really here.”
“Kai,” Amy said. “Just quiet a second, okay? I’m waiting for my head to stop exploding. Also, ease up on the theology.”
“Philosophy, perhaps,” Kai said.
“Whatever. Leave off on the complicated stuff. Still feeling the aftereffects of anoxia,” Conover said. “Too much carbon dioxide, not enough oxygen. Causes headaches.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” Amy said with black humor.
As Conover’s brain sparked back to life, it lit up with questions—and urgency. “Kai, how did you get here? And how are we breathing again?”
“And talking?” Amy asked. “Our suits are still dead.”
“Viktor knew your suits would be rendered inoperable by the Forge’s security field, which means you’d quickly run out of air. He worked with Custodian to come up with a solution.” Kai pointed at small devices, of obviously Unseen make, that had been plugged into the auxiliary ports on their suits. “Custodian was able to make these. They will apparently give us about thirty minutes of breathable air. They also allow us to talk.”
Conover shook his head. The knives being driven into his brain had started to slowly withdraw, the blinding pain subsiding. “Why are you here, though? Why didn’t Viktor bring them?”
“He wanted to, but I persuaded him that he was far more likely to be needed in the engine room, I believe it’s called? We of the Order may be able to read the Unseen’s writings, but we know nothing about engineering.”
“Have you ever even worn a spacesuit before?” Amy asked.
“Actually, I haven’t. I must admit that it is rather nerve-wracking, but also quite exciting. The journey here on a maintenance remote was most exhilarating.”
Conover shook his head again. “You took a terrible risk, Kai. This isn’t something you just do.”
“I know. But it’s a risk I was glad to endure. After all, it gives me yet another opportunity to oppose the foul works of the Enemy. Speaking of which, ah—” He pointed at the drone. “I assume that is the thing that most immediately concerns us. Viktor was adamant that we disable it as soon as possible. Dash continues to battle the…Harbinger, correct? But the outcome remains far from certain.”
“Okay then,” Conover said. “Let’s get back to it.” He picked up a tool and handed it to Kai. “Since you’re here, you can help.”
Kai flashed a wicked smile. “Participate directly in the defeat of the Enemy? Just tell me what to do.”
Dash struck over and over at the Harbinger, leaving crumpled dents in its hull. He didn’t think about it, didn’t plan his moves—he just acted, driven by raw gut instinct, and using moves honed over more barroom brawls and street scuffles than he could easily count. At first, his unpredictability and apparently uncoordinated shoves, kicks, slap, punches, and body checks dominated the fight; the Harbinger’s AI just couldn’t keep up. But it was beyond smart, could take in vast amounts of information, and soon began to fight back, harder and harder.
Dash realized he was essentially teaching the damned thing how to brawl, and the worst part was, it learned quickly.
After a heavy blow to its chest, he shoved himself back, opening some space. He’d damaged its deadly chest-cannon, but not for long. He had to find a way to end this, quickly and decisively.
Which meant he had to find a way to keep fighting his battle, and not the Harbinger’s. It clearly outclassed the Archetype in a duel at range, and that’s where they were headed. Not only was damage to his own mech starting to pile up but Dash himself was starting to flag. He wouldn’t be able to stay in this close battle much longer.
He needed a breather.
“Sentinel, we’re going back to that brown dwarf now!” he said, gasping from the exertion of flinging himself through one brawling move after another in the Archetype’s cradle.
Without waiting for an answer, he spun around, launched himself, and was abruptly back to the x-ray saturated space surrounding the brown dwarf, its glowing, swirling surface looming over him.
“Do you once more expect the Harbinger to follow you here?”
“Honestly, no. I just need a minute to take a few breaths and think.”
“Then it will proceed toward the Forge, meaning you have accomplished essentially nothing.”
“Except buying some more time,” Dash snapped back. “Which I hope Viktor and the others are putting to good use. That mech is also beaten up pretty badly, so it’s probably limited in terms of movement.”
He broke off as the Harbinger winked into existence and immediately threw itself at him.
“Or maybe not.” Dash lifted his fists to greet the enemy.
Conover forced himself to ignore the dregs of his anoxia hangover and concentrated instead on the flow of power through the drone. It kept shifting, adapting itself to everything they tried. With Kai’s help, they’d now managed to gut the thing pretty thoroughly, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The damned thing’s functionality seemed as robust as it had ever been.
He cursed in frustration. “This just isn’t working.” He sighed. “Maybe we should just let it blow itself up.”
“Why would it bother, though?” Amy asked. “Whether it’s fully powered up or not, it seems to be totally on top of things here. It really doesn’t have to do anything at all, right?”
Conover gave a bitter nod. Amy was right. Everything they’d done, including almost dying, had been a complete waste of time.
“The Enemy is insidious and deceptive indeed,” Kai said.
Conover started to lean back, away from the drone. He wasn’t actually giving up.
He looked back at the drone.
Whether it’s fully powered up or not, Amy had just said, it seems to be on top of the situation. It really doesn’t have to do anything, right?
And Kai—The Enemy is insidious and deceptive indeed.
Hard on the heels of that came another memory.
It was a good decision, he remembered Sentinel saying regarding the first drone, to remove this module from the drone and put physical distance between the two. The module persisted in its attempts to communicate with, and activate, other drone systems as I accessed it. Fortunately, Custodian was able to block those attempts from reaching the drone itself.
They’d been extracting modules from the drone, and just tossing them aside. Meanwhile, Conover’s attention had been fixed on the drone itself, and the modules still in place inside it. His eyes, when he used them to study tech, effectively had no peripheral vision.
He turned and looked at the modules they’d discarded, scattered a meter or more away from the drone.
Every one of them was still active, powered up, sending and receiving data.
What had his own thought been, when they’d been stuck outside the engine room, facing the sealed doors and an obstinate Custodian? Being able to see so much complexity, especially when it came to tech, sometimes made it hard to see the simple answers, even when they were right there.
“Well then. I’m an idiot,” Conover said in disgust.
“What?” Amy asked. “What are you talking about?”
“These modules,” he said, gesturing at the discarded ones. “They’re all still working. The reason it seems like we’ve been wasting our time, is because we have. All of these modules are still connected to the drone.” He looked at the others. “As far as this drone’s concerned, we haven’t done anything to it at all.”
“Oh,” Kai replied. “That’s unfortunate. So what do we do about that?”
“All of these modules we’ve pulled out…we have to get rid of them! Get them as far away from here as we possibly can.”
Amy met Conover’s eyes. “Are you sure? We really can’t afford to waste any more time, here.”
“Yes. I’m sure.”
“Good enough for me,” she said, nodding. “Let’s gather these things up. They’ve got a date with deep space. Or maybe a nuclear furnace.”
“Same difference. They’ll find the star sooner or later,” Kai said with confidence.
Conover stared at him. “Thought you didn’t know much about space?”
Kai smiled. “I’m learning.”
Dash really didn’t grasp why the Harbinger had come after him. It should have just pressed its attack home on the Forge, unless Custodian had the weapon systems online, in which case killing him was the only option the Harbinger had.
That was all the thinking he had time for, before the Harbinger had closed on him in a metallic smear of light.
It tried to capitalize on its speed, agility, and smaller size to get inside his blocks and blows, their limbs engaged in a furious dance of crushing impacts and spraying metal. Dash gasped as he used a blinding jab to stop the Harbinger’s forward motion, then he followed it up with a savage knee to the chest cannon, warping the vent like crinkled paper.
The Harbinger struck back, but Dash was ready, seizing the arm and twisting while they tumbled through the black of space, hammering each other like the galaxy hung in the balance.
After a brief pause, he sucked in air—and the idea bloomed in his mind, small, then full, and then a flash of brilliance that made everything clear.
The Harbinger had figured out that he, Dash, was both the Archetype’s strength—and its weakness. He might bring impulse and instinct to the fight, but he also brought an all too frail human body. The Golden mech had assumed he’d left their battle and come back here, to the brown dwarf, for a breather. But it wasn’t going to let him have one. It could never fatigue, so it was going to press him relentlessly, until he was exhausted, and then finish him off.
The Harbinger vanished.
Dash turned, just as something slammed into his head, snapping it forward. The Harbinger had reappeared behind him, striking out even as it shifted fully back into real space, before he could make a move on it.
Dash just went with instinct again, flinging himself back through the Dark Between, back toward the Forge.
He had one, final hope—that Viktor and his friends had gotten the Forge working and could help him win this fight.
Otherwise, the fight was over. He just hadn’t admitted it yet.
Conover clambered out of the breach, back onto the surface of the Forge. As he did, his suit systems came back to life with a welcome hum. He hurried to the nearest remote, lugging the tool bags into which they’d stuffed the extracted modules. Conover had been grimly satisfied to see the drone itself and its remaining modules light up with a frenzy of activity as they had. It told him they were onto something here, and the drone didn’t like it.
He hurried to the nearest maintenance remote, hung the tool bags from the various protuberances extending from it, then said, “Custodian. Send this remote away from the Forge, as far and as fast as you can.”
From Conover’s perspective, the remote suddenly and smoothly accelerated straight up, taking the most direct path away from the drone.
Amy and Kai joined him, the three of them standing and watching the remote recede into space. Now it was just a tiny dot, almost lost among the stars.
“Come on,” Conover muttered.
“This has to work,” Amy said.
“Have faith in the Unseen,” Kai put in. “The Enemy cannot prevail against them.”
Conover let out a slow breath. I wish I had that kind of faith.
“I can now discern the Golden drone and have fully deactivated it,” Custodian said.
Conover looked at the others, hope flaring—but he braced himself for something else to go wrong, simply because so much already had.
“The power core,” Viktor suddenly said. “It’s activating.”
“Viktor?” Amy replied, “Does that mean—?”
“Just a second,” he replied. “The monks are trying to figure out what these displays are all saying now.”
The seconds ticked by. Conover clenched his fists.
“Okay,” Viktor said, then paused. “It seems the systems are rebooting, coming out of stand-by mode. Yes. We’re live.”
As if to confirm it, Custodian said, “The cloaking system and selected weapons are now online.”
“As soon you have a target, fire,” Conover said. “Unload on it, understood? Fire everything.”
Kai said, “Praise the Unseen.”
Conover nodded. Praise them, indeed.
Dash fell back into real space. The Harbinger appeared just a few seconds later and raced to close with him, clearly determined to finish the fight. Spalled metal circled them like rings around a planet, evidence of their titanic struggle.
He braced himself. This was going to hurt.
“The Forge has locked weapons onto the Harbinger,” Sentinel said. “It is firing. We should maintain some distance to avoid fatal damage, Messenger.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice!” Dash snapped, abruptly folding himself at the waist, then kicking out brutally with both feet. He connected with the Harbinger, hard, and drove it back. At the same time, he flung himself backward, opening a gap between them. For good measure, he fired the dark-lance, the range almost point-blank. The entire exchange happened too fast for the human eye, as their systems screamed in protest at the murderous pace.
The Harbinger shuddered and reeled, but quickly righted itself and started to close again, arms lifting just a touch slower than before.
Hope it hurts, you bastard, Dash thought. And—surprise.
A barrage of missiles popped out of the Dark Between and slammed into the Harbinger, undetected and undefended. The blasts, which seemed to combine the effects of plasma explosions and dark-lance shots, shoved the Harbinger to one side, and spun it around as metal streamed away in a liquid tumble.
As the blast dissipated, the Harbinger just hung there, slowly rotating, glowing chunks of its dark-metal armor drifting around it, a testament to the Archetype’s unyielding power.
Dash didn’t hesitate. He drove himself toward it, reached it, grabbed it, made to punch it.
No. Not yet.
Instead, Dash extended the sword he’d considered such a stupid, wasteful thing from his hand. As the Harbinger finally started to come back to life, it turned, ready to resume the battle.
Dash drove the sword into the Harbinger’s head, burying it to the hilt. “Naptime, bitch.”
Sentinel had been right. Dark metal was almost impervious to energy weapons. The bludgeoning force of the Archetype’s fists and knees and feet had been a lot more effective. But even they paled in comparison to the lethal effect of the sword.
The dark metal of armor of the Harbinger’s head cracked as the massive blade pushed through it, striking sparks in a glorious shower of metallic debris. Dash wrenched it up to one side; after a moment of straining, the Golden mech’s head ripped free of its torso. Dash flicked the sword, flinging the head free. Despite the damage, the Harbinger still tried to turn, until Dash drove the sword into its torso.
Then withdrew it.
Drove it in again. Again.
Each time, the Harbinger shuddered and convulsed. But he didn’t relent, slamming the sword hilt-deep, over and over.
“Messenger, the Harbinger’s power levels have fallen to zero.”
Dash paused. “You mean it’s dead?”
Dash stared at the inert form of the Harbinger, limp, rotating slowly, just a few meters away.
“Yeah, well, let’s just make good and sure, shall we?”
He slammed the sword home one more time.
“And that was for Leira, you son of a bitch,” he said,
Kai had gasped, pointing as the salvo of missiles raced away from the Forge. A second or two of flight, then they abruptly vanished.
“What happened to them?” the monk asked. “Did the Enemy somehow contrive to stop them?”
“I don’t think so,” Conover said. Sure enough, a distant point in space flared with dazzling flashes of light.
Then Dash said, “It’s dead. The Harbinger is dead.”
Conover nodded at the fading glow, where the Forge’s missiles had detonated.
That’s just how I feel, too, Dash thought, and even his mind’s voice was weary beyond belief.
Dash stared at the Harbinger, which was still hanging motionless, aside from the slow rotation induced by him stabbing it over and over again.
“Sentinel—anything from it at all?”
“No. All active emissions from it have ceased. It is still radiating a small amount of residual heat, but I can discern no emanations of power—nothing at all to indicate it remains active.”
Dash glared at it. The damned thing had proven so implacably tough that he had trouble believing he’d actually killed it.
“Could it just be playing dead?”
“That is possible, but unlikely. The damage you inflicted on it is catastrophic.”
He looked at the sword he’d dismissed as stupid and wasteful. “Good. I hope it felt every one of those catastrophic hits.”
He dismissed the sword; it flowed back into the substance of the Archetype’s arm and vanished. Through the Meld, he knew the Archetype had taken damage that might not be catastrophic, but it still hurt. The mech could eventually self-repair all of it, but the Forge was right there, so there was no need to wait.
Dash tried very hard to not think about Leira.
But how could he not? He couldn’t, after all, let her spend the bit of time she had remaining all alone.
“The Harbinger is dead.”
“I heard you tell Conover and the others.” After a pause, she said, “Good,” with a fierce intensity that almost made Dash smile. He could even picture the exact look on her face when she’d said it.
“I’d ask how you’re doing, but…”
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m sure I will be right up to the moment I turn to glowing vapor.”
“Dash, don’t. I’m at peace with it. I’ve often thought about this. When I died, I decided I wanted it to be in space—and, ideally, doing something important. I always figured that would be fighting off pirates or raiders while…I don’t know, delivering medical supplies to orphans or something like that. But doing my little bit to help save the whole universe is a pretty good alternative.”
“I—” He stopped. He had no idea what more to say. He didn’t have much experience sharing the last few minutes of someone’s life. All he could finally come up with was, “I’m so sorry it worked out this way.”
“You should be.”
That made Dash’s eyes widen a little, but Leira just laughed.
“Kidding,” she said. “I was going to say, yeah, you should be, for not keeping your damned ship properly tuned up, or going with the cheapest fusion containment you could find, or something just as smart-assed. But I don’t really think the top of the line containment system would have done any better after being attacked by, you know, a super-advanced alien robot shooting weapons we don’t even have names for.”
“Still, Leira, I’m so damn sorry.”
“Don’t be. Don’t be sorry, not about any of it. Please. I don’t want my last thoughts to be that you’re going to beat yourself up about how this worked out for the rest of your life.”
“I was going to say for next couple of weeks, but okay.”
She laughed. “Thank you. Humor is way better than making my last moments here into some kind of a deathwatch. Seriously, though—I’ve made my own decisions, all the way along. I really am at peace with this. In fact, my only real regret is that I’m taking your poor, old Slipwing with me. Oh.” She paused. “Hey, you know what? You should take some of the Unseen tech we’ve found, cash it in, and buy yourself a new ship. Something big and shiny, and roomier. Even with just me aboard, she’s pretty cramped. I think I can still smell the monks and everyone else who was jammed into her after Shylock.” She paused again then went on. “I guess you won’t be able to sell off the Lens, though. I’ve still got that thing on me. Probably just as well. You really don’t want to sell just anyone the ability to blow up a star.”
Dash stared at the heads-up.
“I wonder if the Lens might actually make it through this?” Leira continued. “If everything else is going to go poof, but it just sails on.”
“Leira, shut up.”
“Huh? Did I say something?”
“No. Just shut up. I need to talk to Conover.”
Conover unlatched his helmet, yanked it off, and just dropped it. The dry, cool air of the docking bay wafted across his sweaty face; for a moment, he just stood and breathed it, filling his lungs, then doing it again. After the tight confines of the vacsuit, the docking bay felt like a nearly infinitely space, so vast it just seemed to go on and on, above and around him, forever.
He couldn’t keep the heart-rending reality at bay for long, though—especially when Amy’s helmet came off and revealed her tear-streaked face.
“Dash has told you about Leira, I guess?” Viktor asked. He’d met them in the docking bay as they clambered off the maintenance remotes. He seemed…smaller, somehow, Conover thought. Smaller, as though shrunken by the news about Leira’s impending death.
He nodded. “Yes. Dash told us.”
Amy said nothing. She just stripped off her gloves then started on the latches holding her suit closed.
Viktor nodded. That was it.
“I am so sorry about that,” Kai said, placing his own helmet carefully down near his feet. “I didn’t know Leira well, but—”
“Don’t,” Amy snapped.
“You don’t know her well. Not didn’t. She’s not gone. Not yet.” She stopped, shaking her head.
“You’re right,” Kai said. “My apologies.” He seemed to cast about for something else to say, but seemingly decided the best words, right now, were no words at all. He just nodded to them, then withdrew, giving them space.
“I need to talk to her,” Amy said.
Viktor nodded. “I told her you would.”
Amy stared at him for a moment, then at Conover—then her face crumpled, and she started sobbing. “But I don’t know what to say.”
Conover stepped toward her, then stopped. He’d meant to hug her, but wasn’t sure if he should, or if she’d just push him away.
But Viktor had no qualms. He simply gathered Amy in his arms and hugged her close. It left Conover standing an awkward couple of paces away. He felt like Kai must have. He’d certainly come to know Leira much better than the monk had, but nothing like Viktor, who’d been with her for…he wasn’t even sure, but he assumed it had to be at least several years now. And definitely nothing like Amy, who’d apparently done some of her growing up with Leira.
So, Conover just stared for a moment, then started to back away, swimming in uncertainty while bracing for grief.
“Conover!” It was Dash. “You there?”
“I am, yes.”
“How does the Lens work?”
Conover blinked in confusion. The Lens? What?
“I’m not sure what you mean, Dash.”
“How does the Lens work? How does it make a star blow up?”
Viktor pulled back from Amy and turned. Amy wiped her eyes and turned to him, too, but neither of them said anything.
“I’m not really sure how it works, Dash. It’s Unseen tech, way too advanced for us to even begin to understand.”
“No, I get that.” He could feel Dash’s frustration in his pause. He was trying to ask something, but Conover didn’t get what. “What I’m asking is, what does the Lens do to a star to make it explode? You studied the damned thing, even told me some of how it works. That’s how I was able to use the one Nathis had against Clan Shirna. But, when it comes to stars—well, they can only explode in certain ways, right?”
Conover looked at Viktor and Amy. Both just stared back, their expressions caught between sorrow, confusion over Dash’s question that probably wasn’t too different from his own, and—maybe a flicker of hope?
Conover hoped not. It seemed to him that Dash was just losing it.
But Viktor nodded. “Answer him, Conover.”
“Uh, well, as far as I can tell, the Lens basically forces a star to go through the same process that would make it explode naturally, at the end of its life,” Conover said. “The result, though, depends on the mass of the star.”
“Conover, just answer my question, okay? And do it like I have almost no idea how stars work, because I don’t. What makes a star explode?”
“When it starts running out of things like hydrogen, the stuff it normally uses for fusion fuel, it starts burning heavier and heavier elements instead. These release less energy, though. Once it starts fusing things into iron, it’s no longer producing enough energy to overcome the gravitational attraction of its own mass, so it—”
“Collapses in on itself,” Dash said. “That’s what I thought. So the Lens—”
“Seems to somehow reduce the amount of energy the star produces in its core, so it triggers that collapse artificially. I’m not sure how it does that though. There’s probably a clue in how you were able to make the one that Nathis had implode and wipe out his fleet.” Conover shook his head. “Dash, why are you asking me about this?”
“Can the Lens make a star collapse partway?”
“I’m…not sure. Why?”
“Find out. Fast. Talk to Custodian, see if it can help you.”
“Dash, what’s this about?” Viktor said.
“It’s about saving Leira.”
Amy perked up. “What? How? What are you going to do?”
“It’s just an idea. Probably a crazy, stupid unworkable one. But crazy, stupid and unworkable might be all we have to work with. For now, help Conover.”
Amy opened her mouth, but closed it again and nodded. “Got it.”
“We’re on it, Dash,” Viktor said, then looked at Conover. “What do you need?”
Conover blinked again. Things were suddenly happening so fast.
But, if it might save Leira, that didn’t matter.
“I need to talk to Custodian,” he said. “Hopefully, it knows something about that Lens.”
“Okay, seriously, Dash, that’s insane,” Leira said. “There’s no way I’m going to let you do that.”
Dash shrugged. “I’m not asking. I’m telling. This is for you. For all of us. I need you, Leira. We all do.”
As he talked, he checked the Archetype’s systems again. Self-repair was proceeding, but slowly. Still, propulsion was his big concern; he’d had Sentinel prioritize it. Right now, he needed speed more than anything else.
And the shield. He’d probably need that, too.
“Dash, listen to me,” Leira said. “It’s a ridiculous plan. More than ridiculous. The risk is just too much.”
“And you kind of do need my permission. I’m the one holding the Lens, remember?”
“Leira,” he said, and his voice was stern.
“You seriously want to partially collapse this system’s star.”
“No, Leira, listen. Conover, Viktor, and Amy have been talking to Custodian. It has some stuff, at least, about the Lens in its database. They think it’s possible to use it to cause the star to start collapsing, then stop it partway and just hold it there.” He thought about what they had told him. “See, that’ll make its density increase, because the same amount of mass will be stuffed into a smaller space—but that’s the key. Its mass won’t change, so neither will its gravitational effects. You’ll be pulled along exactly the same trajectory you would have if we did nothing at all. When you get to the point where you’d be vaporized in the star’s photosphere, you won’t—because its photosphere won’t be there anymore. It’ll be at least a quarter of a million klicks away. Close, and still pretty hairy, sure, but not enough to make you go poof.”
“You seriously want to start screwing around with a—and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this—a freaking star?”
“Why not? The Unseen did it, using this exact same tech.”
“But what if we can’t make it collapse only partway? What if it just keeps collapsing?”
“Well, then it’ll blow up.”
“And destroy me, you, the Archetype, the Forge, everybody.”
“Conover says Custodian figures at least a ninety percent chance it won’t. Depending on how long we leave it partly-collapsed, it’ll lose a few million years off its lifespan, yes. But since its lifespan is about another six billion years, I don’t think we need to worry too much about that.”
“That’s still a ten percent chance of that star just exploding, Dash. I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept that. Not with what’s at stake. I’m just not that important."
“Yes, Leira, you are,” Dash said. “I need you. I need Viktor and Amy and Conover too, and I need Kai and his monks. But I especially need you. I need you to be the hotshot pilot who I know always has my back. I need you to be there, to tell me those chompers really are dangerous. I need you, because…well, because I need you.”
There was silence, and Dash just let it go on.
Finally, Leira said, “I have to admit, I’m not really keen on dying. But if we’re going to actually do this insanity, you should take the Archetype well out of the system. That way, if the star does blow, you’re safe and can carry on with the fight.”
“Sorry, but Sentinel’s run the numbers. Remember that the star’s gravitation won’t change at all. So, when you reach where the photosphere would have been, your trajectory beyond that will effectively be inside the star—or, at least, inside the star where it is right now. The gravitational pull is going to increase fast from there. Your orbit will spiral inward just as fast. You’ll still eventually hit the photosphere of the shrunken star, it’ll just take longer. But that time is enough for me to get to you, then boost both of us up to a higher orbit that’ll take us clear.”
Leira said, “Okay, I’ve plotted it on the nav. I see what you mean. You’ll have a really narrow window to get in here and lift me out of trouble.”
“Really narrow windows of time seem to be the story of my life lately.”
“What the hell,” Leira finally said. “Let’s give it a try. I have the Lens. Just tell me what to do.”
“Conover, over to you. And Leira?” Dash said.
“Make sure you follow the kid’s instructions exactly. Now is definitely not the time to press the wrong button.”
The stars, Dash thought, were a constant. With lifespans in the hundreds of millions, or even billions of years, they made even the enormous time scales he associated with the Unseen dwindle to almost nothing. That’s why seeing the star at the heart of the Forge’s system suddenly begin to shrink just seemed—wrong didn’t even begin to describe it.
“Holy shit, Dash,” Leira said, her voice softened by sheer awe. “It’s working. The star is actually collapsing. And this little thing in my hand, here, is what’s doing it.”
Dash just nodded.
The surface of the star fell away, all of its titanic mass plunging toward its core. As it did, its spectrum changed, shifting closer to blue, and brightening as it did. It gave Dash a weird moment, where it seemed he was suddenly racing away from the star at some terrific speed, so it receded into the distance behind him. But its light intensified at the same time, a jarring disconnect that left him staring, dumbfounded.
“I just…” Leira said, and that was it.
Dash nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”
The star kept shrinking.
Okay, Dash thought, awe and wonder aside, this could stop at any time now. If it didn’t, and the star collapsed beyond a certain, critical radius, Custodian had said it would just continue collapsing, falling inexorably toward its own center. The power of the Lens would be unable to stop it. Its full mass would finally slam into its core, there’d be a moment of wild, unconstrained nuclear fusion, then it would all rebound in a colossal explosion—a supernova. The resulting blast would vaporize everything in this star system, the Archetype and the Forge included.
Dash thought, well, damn. If Custodian, Conover, and the others were wrong about this, if they’d made an error in the inputs to the Lens that Leira had had to make—or if Leira had made a mistake herself—then they all had maybe thirty seconds left to live.
The star kept collapsing for a few more moments, then it stopped. It stayed shrunken to somewhere between half and two-thirds of its original size, burning a fierce bluish-white, its nuclear furnace a searing globe of light. Custodian had said it should remain like this until they deactivated the Lens—but. That but was a lingering chance it would spontaneously collapse on its own anyway. A small chance, but still uncomfortably more than zero.
Dash hadn’t been wasting time, though. He’d been racing after Leira, rapidly closing on her as she and the Slipwing arced down toward where the star’s surface had been only a moment before. He had about ten minutes, Sentinel calculated, to boost both the Slipwing and the Archetype into a higher orbit and escape the star’s gravity. Any longer, and he might be able to extricate the Archetype, but only if he discarded the dead mass of the Slipwing. Leira would still be locked into an irrevocable spiral with only one possible, very fatal destination.
“Leira, are you burning the thrusters?”
“I am. Not sure how much good it’s doing, though.”
“Every little bit of extra velocity helps.”
Dash closed in. Not long now.
The Slipwing hit the point where she would have been vaporized. “Still here,” Leira said. “That’s a positive, anyway.”
“Just another few minutes, Leira.”
“I can see you coming up behind me. Uh…the hull temperature’s increasing pretty fast. Four hundred degrees now.”
“That’s okay. We knew that was going to happen.”
“Not this fast, though. There’s something else going on here. Something we didn’t consider. Five-hundred-fifty now.”
“Almost there, Leira.”
“Six seventy-five. Dash, I’m heating up too fast. Just break off. This isn’t going to work.”
He drew in a breath and let it out slowly. When he spoke, his voice was level—even calm. “Leira. Believe what I’m telling you. This is working.”
“One minute.” Dash could see the Slipwing now, a bright point of light ahead. “Stop burning the thrusters. That’ll shave a few seconds off our time.”
“Thrusters off. Eight hundred degrees now. The hull’s starting to take damage. Dash, would you just admit this isn’t working and give it up?”
“Leira, stand by. Sentinel, you too.”
“Understood,” Sentinel said.
The Slipwing now loomed ahead. She glowed like a chunk of metal in a furnace, a shimmering cloud of vaporized ablative armor trailing in her wake.
Dash brought the Archetype up behind her, slid underneath her, reached up.
The Archetype’s shield shimmered into existence, enclosing both it and the Slipwing. At the same time, Dash grabbed the underside of his ship as gently as he could, then lifted, boosting both of them away from the shrunken star.
“Holy sh—Dash!” Leira said. “That was one hell of a bump.”
“Hey, I’m just not used to grabbing spaceships with giant mechanical hands.”
They raced on, arcing around the shrunken star, but gaining velocity as they did. As their orbit rose, Dash could feel the sleet of radiation pounding the Archetype’s shield, relentlessly grinding it away. It degraded far faster than Sentinel had calculated—so much so it would almost certainly fail before they’d finished even their single, partial orbit.
“There are unexpected electromagnetic resonances in the region surrounding the shrunken star,” Sentinel said, answering Dash’s unasked question. “The energy they are producing is expressed as a great deal of extra heat.”
Dash opened his mouth to reply, but Conover cut in. “Dash, Custodian says the star is starting to show signs of instability. There are waves, I guess, rippling through it from whatever’s going on in its core. It’s basically ringing like a gong, except a gong made out of, you know, superhot plasma.”
“The point being?”
“If the instability increases, the star might start shedding its outer layers. Or it might resume collapsing.”
“Yeah, it’s bad news, I get it. We just need another few min—”
There was a searing flash. Dash winced, every muscle going taut.
The star had just exploded and that was that.
No. Wait. He and the Slipwing were still here.
“What the hell was that?” he asked Sentinel.
“A large coronal mass ejection. Essentially, a large stellar flare. It exceeds anything previously recorded for this class of star.”
Dash watched as a vast column of blazing gas leapt from the star’s surface and boiled into space. Not much could possibly have survived such a hurricane of incandescent plasma and charged particles. Fortunately, this one spewed off in a direction that wouldn’t imperil the Forge. The Archetype’s and Slipwing’s conjoined orbit would miss it as well. But if there was another one, they might not be so lucky.
“Dash, we can’t leave the star like this any longer,” Leira called out. “You’ve boosted me as much as you can.”
“Not enough,” he snapped, shoving himself and the Slipwing up and away from the star as hard as he could.
“Would you just break off already?”
“Leira, just shut up and enjoy the ride!”
“Could you be any more stubborn!”
“Probably, but I’m too busy being happy. Let’s go.”
“Even though it missed us, that coronal mass ejection event flooded this region of space with additional energy,” Sentinel said. “The shield is now saturated and will—correction, has failed.”
A tsunami of energy crashed into both the Archetype and the Slipwing. Leira shouted something about hull temperature; Sentinel something else about damage. Dash ignored them both and gave one last, massive shove. He checked their trajectory; it would have to be good enough.
“Leira, now! Shut down the Lens!”
Seconds passed, the gale of raw power pouring from the abused star ripping away the substance of both the Archetype and the Slipwing. Dash opened his mouth to shout again—desperately hoping that Leira hadn’t somehow been incapacitated, because if she couldn’t turn off the Lens, the star soon would fly apart—but the incandescent surface suddenly began to bulge back toward them.
The star was expanding again.
Dash braced himself as the searing bright surface raced toward them, consuming the starfield as it did. Now it looked like it was about to engulf them, and he felt a serpent of doubt uncoil in his guts, cold and writhing.
“I hate math,” Dash muttered, but he forced himself to look back at the star.
The expansion and turmoil abruptly stopped, the roiling surface fading from that blinding blue-white back to its accustomed, cooler yellowish glare. It still spat out stellar flares, but these were much smaller and less energetic. And now both the Archetype and the Slipwing were pulling away, on a higher trajectory that would take them back toward the Forge.
Dash just breathed. That’s it—just breathe.
“Hey, Leira. Now, wasn’t that fun?”
“I’ve got words for it, but I’m not sure fun would be one of them. Oh, and the next time I want to do anything but fly straight from point A to point B, just shoot me, okay?”
Dash smiled. “You can count on it.”
Dash clambered slowly out of the cradle and dismounted the Archetype. When his feet touched the deck of the Forge’s docking bay, he just stopped and stood for a while, drinking in the sensation of being somewhere that wasn’t the mech. He heard the others from his vantage point, savoring the sensation of victory even as they began their celebration on the other side of his mech.
Shouts rose from the Slipwing. Leira had just descended her ramp and now stood under her scorched and abraded hull, bracing herself as Amy flung her arms out. Leira had to smile as they embraced, then again as Viktor gave her a much more restrained hug.
“It would seem, Messenger, that we have won the day.”
He turned and found Kai smiling a beatific smile. The rest of the monks were gathered with him, all regarding Dash with a mix of delight and awe.
Dash raised a hand. “Emphasis on we.” He shook his head. “Am I ever glad you convinced me to bring you guys along with us from Shylock.”
He turned back to Amy, Leira, and Viktor, who were chatting and gesticulating away at one another by the Slipwing. A lone figure stood a small distance away.
“Hey, kid!” he said, starting that way. He shook his head, though, when he stopped beside Conover. “You know what? No more of that kid stuff. Today, I think you proved that you’re one of the adults.”
Conover smiled and went a little red, but shrugged. “It’s okay. I don’t mind it, really.”
“You!” a voice called out, making Dash turn.
Leira strode toward him, Viktor and Amy in tow. She stopped a pace away and put her hands on her hips.
“You need to learn when to let something go, you know,” Leira said, her face severe. “You risked everything—literally everything—pulling that stunt to save me.”
Dash made a pfft sound. “Save you? I just didn’t want to lose my ship.”
Amy snorted, while Viktor smiled. Leira held her glare for a moment, then stepped that last pace and put her arms around Dash.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Hey, no big deal. Almost blowing up a star, after fighting an alien mech, to protect a space station built by different aliens? Just another day in the life of the Messenger.”
She smiled, then kissed him.
As she drew back, Dash raised an eyebrow. “I did not expect that.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
He rubbed his lips, smiling. “Don’t think I ever could.”
Movement outside the docking bay caught their attention. The limp, ravaged form of the Harbinger had drifted into view, tractored along by several of the station’s maintenance remotes. It would be taken to another docking bay, where they could start taking it apart to study it.
“They’ll be back,” Viktor said. “We might have defeated the Golden today, but they’ll be back.”
“Of course they will,” Custodian said. “The transmission the Harbinger generated after it arrived in this system was undoubtedly intended to alert the Golden. It was almost certainly a warning about the emergence of the Forge and the Archetype.”
Viktor nodded, watching the Harbinger being towed by. “In other words, a call to arms.”
“Yes. The Golden will now marshal their forces and return in earnest.”
Dash took a breath and braced himself. “So how long do we have until they’re back?”
He was ready for something measured in days, or maybe weeks, at best. But hours wouldn’t have really surprised him, either.
Custodian replied, “Several months. There are likely to be minor incursions until then, and there will likely be covert surveillance—indeed, that is probably already underway—but based on the Creators’ analysis of past Golden attacks, it will likely be several months before they return here in force.”
Dash eased a breath out. “Okay. Months. So, we have some time. The question is, what do we do with it?”
“Study that Harbinger, for one,” Amy said. “I can’t wait for Conover and me to start tearing it apart, figuring out what makes it tick.”
Conover gave her a look that managed to be surprised, wary, and delighted all at once. “You and me?”
“Well, duh. Who better?” She stopped as soon as she said it and looked at Viktor. “Well, except you, of course, Viktor.”
Viktor laughed and put his arm around her shoulder. “No, you’re right, Amy. Conover’s your man. The two of you make a very good team.” He winked at Conover, who turned an even deeper shade of red.
“At least this time we can do our thing without worrying about running out of air,” Amy said.
Viktor grinned, then turned toward the monks who were standing nearby. “It’s just like how I think Kai, his colleagues, and I are something of a team now, too. With their help, I’d like to start trying to make sense of this place. We’ve barely even scratched the surface of what the Forge is all about.”
Kai nodded. “We are honored for such consideration from you, Viktor. We look forward to doing all we can to resist the Enemy Of All Life.”
Dash looked at Leira. “Guess that means you and I can just kick back, put our feet up, and take a break.”
“Yeah, I could use a vacation. What’s the beach situation on that gas giant?”
“Dense and hot. Just right,” Leira said.
“I am afraid that you have little time for leisure, Messenger,” Custodian said. “It is essential that you continue to prepare the Forge for the resumption of the war against the Golden.”
“And I will,” Dash said, wincing as the joke missed. “You know, Custodian, I really have to teach you something about humor. It’s a high form of art among sentient beings.”
“I look forward to such nuance,” Custodian said.
“The pleasure is mine.”
He turned back to Leira, whose smile had been replaced by a determined look. “We need weapons, Dash,” she said. “Better defenses. Ideally, allies, too. More ships would be a force multiplier, and that could be the difference between playing defense or taking the fight to them.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah. That means we might have to start telling anyone who’ll listen about what’s coming. I’ll be the Messenger in more than one way, and it won’t be entirely welcome.”
“Mindful that some of them might very well be Golden agents,” Viktor put in.
“The most effective way to increase our effectiveness against the Golden is for you to gather the remaining power cores for both the Archetype and the Forge,” Custodian said.
“Agreed,” Dash replied with a sigh. “The big scavenger hunt goes on.” He turned to the others. “We can spend time studying the Harbinger and learning about the Forge, sure, but I think our priority has got to be those cores.”
“What will they do, exactly?” Conover asked. “Especially for the Forge? Custodian should be able to at least tell us that.”
“Yeah,” Amy said. “No reason to keep it a secret, right?”
Kai nodded. “Certainly not from the Messenger.”
Dash shrugged. “Okay. Tell me, Custodian, what will more cores do for the Forge, exactly?”
“They will enable more and more powerful offensive and defensive systems. Ultimately, the Forge, when fully powered, will rival the capabilities of the Archetype.” Custodian said it in a way that seemed just slightly condescending, like this should be obvious.
But Dash ignored the AI’s disdain. “Hang on. I thought this place was a factory. A place to build more Archetypes. Are you saying it’s not?”
“The manufacture and maintenance of the Archetype is one of its purposes, yes. That is not its primary one, however.”
“Alright, so what is its primary purpose then?”
“This facility, Messenger, was not made merely to fight the Golden. It was made to defeat them. This station, the Forge, was meant to finally end the war.”
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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.