Book: Star Forged
Star Forged Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
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Book 3 in The Messenger Series
J.N. Chaney Terry Maggert
The Forge is coming back online, weapons hot and searching known space for signs of the Golden.
When Dash and Leira repair a powerful scanner, it finds something unusual in a distant system—the remains of an ancient battlefield. Custodian tells of a fight lost long ago, leaving drifting debris around the faraway star.
But the battlefield isn’t forgotten. A human colony has taken hold nearby, and on their world, a single, massive ship has crashed.
And it is sending out a signal.
In a race against the enemy, Dash and his team will try to salvage the secrets of a Golden ship, warn the colony of the oncoming war, and brace for impact as more enemies streak across the stars to hunt down the one person who can stop them.
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 hurled himself across a small ravine and landed with a slide that spattered mud skyward in clumps. Leira landed beside him, windmilling her arms to stop herself from pitching face-first into the thick foliage. They both turned and looked back as Conover put on a burst of speed then launched himself into the air. The kid was moving.
And he almost made it. His feet hit the very edge of the ravine on this side, but the sodden earth collapsed under his impact. With a yelp, he plunged straight down, his feet plowing furrows in the muddy side of the gulley as he dropped. Dash and Leira both grabbed an arm to stop him.
Though not before his face had buried itself in the muck. He looked up, pale eyes wide and almost glowing through the mask of black paste.
Dash braced and pulled himself up, fighting a smile. “Close. Very close.”
They dragged Conover up and back onto what passed for solid ground. The snap and crack of branches behind them announced their pursuers, who were doggedly closing in.
Conover wiped at his face as they broke back into a run, flicking mud off his fingers with a disgusted scowl. “Gross.”
They pounded on through the jungle, gasping at the rich, damp tang of rotting vegetation, the warm air steaming as their lungs worked like bellows. As they splashed through a shallow creek, Dash glanced at Leira, making sure her backpack was still in place. They’d found not just one, but two power cores in the Unseen outpost.
GC098-something-or-other was a terran-class planet orbiting an unremarkable star with no name, just a catalog number and surrounded by a gulf of empty space. With two cores secured on the lonely planet, Dash had given one to Leira, so if they got separated or something bad happened, they wouldn’t lose them both at once.
Although something bad happening here on this dank, savage world would be an irony, as every meter of the land had been a low-level disaster thus far. To be skewered by a spear or arrow on this unknown backwater would be sheer comedy after surviving a ferocious attack by the Golden Harbinger on The Forge, and then their deliberate, partial collapse of a star to save Leira would be unfair. The universe had a sense of humor, and it was grim.
Dash vaulted over a fallen log and pushed on, dodging a rotting stump that teemed with larvae the size of his thumb. This would all have been much simpler if they’d just been able to land the Slipwing and the Archetype right outside the Unseen outpost where the power cores were stored. But the Unseen didn’t seem to do anything simply. Their outpost generated some sort of suppressor field that shut down any tech around it in a wide, silent circle.
At least, it shut down anything more advanced than a bow and arrow. If they could just get outside it, they could call the Archetype for help. The key term being if.
They hit a wall of colossal ferns at full speed, the fronds lashing all three of them like whips. Conover glanced back toward the racket of their pursuers. “How are there even humans here in the first place? We didn’t find records of any settlements.”
Something uttered a piercing shriek overhead. They all flinched and ducked. Dash braced himself, but nothing horrible came swooping out of the tangle of leafy branches.
“Probably a long-lost colony ship or something,” Leira said, shoving aside a frond as big as she was. “There are more than a few of those. One time, Viktor and I—”
Dash pushed apart hanging vines, thick as his wrist and heavy with glistening sap. “Save the war stories. Concentrate on speed and breathing in this soup if you can.”
One of the thicker vines almost caught Leira across the nose. She glared at it while ducking as nimbly as a dancer. She was like that, even when being chased by humans who thought sharp sticks were the height of warfare. “Passes the time.”
Dash wiped sweat from his eyes and charged on. “You know what else passes the time? Avoiding holes. In us.”
“You’ve changed from a cynical courier to a rather grim—well whatever this is. Why?”
“Someone decided I had to save the universe. Doesn’t leave much time for humor— hold!” Dash barked, digging his heels into the spongy soil.
Dash skidded to a halt. The jungle ahead abruptly thinned as a rocky ridge climbed away from the boggy watercourses behind them, and they could actually see more than just a few meters ahead. They could pick up the pace, maybe put some distance between them and their pursuers. The only trouble was the trip wire—a coarse, braided rope strung among the sturdy trunks—blocking their path.
Dash flicked his eyes over the scene. “A trap.”
“Not a very well hidden one,” Conover said, still wiping at his face, but accomplishing little more than smearing the residual muck into a sweaty mess.
Leira nodded. “Not really hidden at all. Which kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it?”
“Nope,” Dash said. “They wanted anyone coming this way to see it. Knowing there are traps slows us down. And they know where the traps all are.” More snaps and cracks echoed through the jungle like gunshots, and they were much closer now. Dash cursed and jabbed a finger at a stretch that wasn’t the easiest, and therefore most obvious route. “That way. If it’s a tough path, then it’s harder to place traps. Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
“Another one of your old philosophers teach you that?” Leira asked, spurring herself to motion.
“A coach from a long time ago,” Dash said between breaths.
“What’s a coach?” Leira asked.
“Like a general, but his soldiers used balls.”
“Sounds kinda sexist, but whatever,” Leira said.
“Not that kind of—never mind,” Dash said, almost laughing. “Just breathe and run.”
They moved on as fast as they dared in the trap-laden landscape. After only a couple dozen paces, they came across more trip lines draped among the trees. Dash glanced along one of them, following it to a pile of logs that would come thundering down a rock face at them if they tripped it. They weren’t hard to avoid, but it slowed them down while their pursuers inexorably gained on them.
Leira snapped out a frustrated curse as she stepped over a rope. “Why so many damned traps? For that matter, why any traps at all? They couldn’t possibly have known we’d come this way!”
“Or that anyone would come this way.” Conover followed her, lifting one foot then the other over the trip line.
Dash took a moment, thinking. “It tracks with what we’re seeing. Remember, this might be a temple for them—where we see a muddy hellhole, they see the path to heaven. Different eyes, different minds.”
“Same bugs,” Conover said, slapping at his neck.
Dash grinned. “Think of them as the advance guard for the real villains.”
“Now there’s a cheery thought,” Conover muttered. “More bad guys.”
“Remember, Conover, these aren’t bad guys, just innocent bystanders,” Leira said.
“Innocent bystanders with spears.”
“True, but the actual bad guys are the Golden. Don’t forget that," Dash said.
“Hey, I—shiiiiiiiiit!” Conover said behind them.
Dash spun around in time to see Conover suddenly plunge from view, like he had back at the ravine. This time, he’d fallen through perfectly solid ground. Dash lunged toward the pit now gaping through the undergrowth where Conover had vanished, his face a mask of furious intent. A flurry of terrifying images cascaded through his mind—Conover with a broken arm or leg or back, Conover impaled on spikes, Conover stuck in a hole so deep they couldn’t even reach him.
As he hit the edge of the pit and fell to his knees, Dash saw the reality wasn’t quite that bad. At least, not yet. Conover had only dropped a few feet before wedging his hands and feet into walls of the pit, his fingers white with effort as he dug hard for purchase. But with each second, the walls crumbled from holding his weight, chunks cascading into the darkness below. Even worse, somewhere far below, Dash heard rushing water, probably an underground stream. In a few seconds, when the soil finally gave way, Conover would plunge into the unseen torrent and be swept off to a terrifying death.
Dash threw himself prone and reached down. “Conover, take my hand!”
Conover looked up, his eyes wide with raw, primal fear. “I can’t. Dash, help me!”
The dirt gave way. Conover fell.
Dash drove his hand down and caught Conover’s wrist just before it dropped out of reach. Leira did the same, grabbing his other arm. The engineer swung from inertia, desperately holding onto them with a tenacity born of terror.
Dash groaned and braced himself, teeth bared in savage effort. “Conover, push up! With your feet!”
Conover pumped his legs like he was trying to run, but all he did was kick more dirt into the depths. His weight pulled on Dash, hard and relentless, yanking him a few centimeters over the edge of the pit.
Leira, her face pressed into the ground, gasped. “Dash, we have to do something."
“I know. No talking. Pull.”
Conover kept kicking at the dirt, but his feet got no purchase. He just dangled in their grip, a panicked, squirming mass of human that was scared beyond belief. And now, just to make things even more interesting, Dash felt the edge of the pit starting to crumble away beneath him.
It was now or, quite literally, never.
With a hoarse shout, Dash heaved. Slowly, painfully, he and Leira dragged Conover back up toward the top of the pit. Conover managed to get his feet working, his toes scrabbling at the dirt to give a bit of lift. They finally managed to work him back onto solid ground. Once Conover was safe, Dash flopped onto his back and closed his eyes, needing a moment.
But there was no moment to take.
Dash wedged himself up to his knees, gasping. “Okay…let’s go…we can’t—”
He stopped, going utterly silent and still, eyes fixed on the gleaming tip of a spear hovering inches from his face.
Dash slowly raised his hands. “Okay. Let’s not do anything hasty. We’re friends.”
He tried to make his voice as unthreatening as possible. The man—or woman, it was hard to tell through the tangle of hair—narrowed his eyes and kept the spear leveled at Dash’s face.
Dash looked around. At least a dozen more people surrounded them. Most had spears, but a few held bows with arrows nocked, and a couple more brandished vicious wooden clubs with a hooks on the ends. All were dressed in loose robes and cloaks of tanned animal hides and had intricate, colorful designs either painted or tattooed onto their faces, arms, and legs.
“Dash, look at those tattoos,” Conover said.
Dash kept his eyes fixed on that menacing spear point just centimeters from his nose. “Kind of got my attention elsewhere at the moment.”
“No. Look at them. It looks like Unseen writing, doesn’t it?”
Dash refocused his eyes, taking in the tattoos scrawled across the arms holding the damned spear. Yes, the swirls and lines seemed more than just random decoration. Dash could read bits of it. It was gibberish, though, likely rough copied form the outpost exterior. Much was lost in translation, but their intentions were clear. This was more than a simple hunt for these people. This was religion.
It was sacred.
Dash thought of Clan Shirna’s fervor and forced himself to remain calm. The parallels were obvious. The outcome was uncertain, given how hot the blood of zealots ran when someone broke their ancient rules.
Their reality was that they faced some seriously pissed-off people, with whom they shared no language, and he had seconds to find some kind of accord with them or they would likely be ventilated with weapons he’d only seen on a vidscreen.
The man holding the spear on him suddenly spoke, a rapid-fire string of syllables that were just as much gibberish to Dash as his tattoos were.
“I’m sorry,” Dash said, “I don’t understand—wait—Sentinel, you getting this?”
“I am,” Sentinel said, her voice tinged with irritation. She was getting more human with each day.
After another burst of chatter, the spear jabbed at Dash. He flinched back with a yelp. Another man with a spear trained on Leira yelled something, and so did a woman with a club raised it over Conover’s head. Dash looked around with his eyes narrowed in concentration, desperate to find something, anything, to prevent bloodshed.
Nothing came to mind other than a frontal assault. They couldn’t even use their plasma pistols or slug guns because of the damned suppressor field.
“Um. Sentinel? Translate?” Dash said, his eyes never leaving their captors.
“That won’t be necessary.”
Another chorus of shouts went up from their captors. Dash braced himself and tried to formulate a plan. He’d knock the spear aside, lunge, fight back, maybe manage to get away before these people killed them, and inadvertently brought about the extermination of all sentient life by the Golden. But he froze as a massive shadow swept over them. Now what?
Something huge crashed through the trees, showering them with leaves, splinters, and dust.
The huge mech shoved the trees aside as though they were blades of grass. At its dramatic entrance, their captors broke into a cacophony of shouts and wails. They pointed, shouted, uttered a few shrill screams, and then scattered. Some just vanished into the foliage, while others dropped to the ground, prostrate, faces pressed into the loam. By the time the Archetype had fully settled, its huge feet crushing ferns and logs before sinking into the wet soil, Dash, Leira, and Conover were the only ones still upright.
“Well, I guess we’re outside that suppressor field.” Leira got to her feet and let out a relieved breath.
Conover glared around at their would-be executioners, still all prone in the dirt. “Would have been nice to know that. We could’ve used our weapons or something.” He raised a hand as both Dash and Leira opened their mouths to remind him, again, that they weren’t here to kill innocent people. “Just to scare them off—even if they did try to drop me in a hole. Correction, a pit. Sounds a lot more ominous.”
“Indeed, you are almost one hundred meters beyond the effect of the Creators’ suppressor field,” Sentinel said. “You could have used your weapons or called for assistance at any time.”
Sentinel’s voice rang from the Archetype like a deep, mellow bell, earning another chorus of fearful gasps from the people who had, seconds earlier, thought they were in control.
He made a lowering gesture with one hand. “A little quieter, Sentinel, okay? They don’t need to hear you back on The Forge.”
“It is not possible for sound to be propagated that far, and through a vacuum.”
“Oh, for…I know that. I was just—”
“Being a smart ass, yes.”
“Wait. Did just call me a smart ass?”
Conover nodded. “She did.”
Leira smiled. “She’s finally getting to know the real you.”
Dash shaded his eyes and looked up at the Archetype, which was towering over them. “I like the whole voice-of-god thing, broadcasting out loud. Nice touch. I’m definitely rubbing off on you.”
“It is inevitable that I will, over time, come to adopt your personality. To what extent that is a good thing remains a separate question.”
Dash narrowed his eyes again. “Just a minute. I would like to point out—in my role as the Messenger, of course—that you have to adjust to me. I’m much more fun at parties.”
“You’ve never seen me at a party,” Sentinel said with great dignity.
Leira chuckled and put her hand on Dash’s shoulder. “You are not going to win an argument with a super-intelligent alien AI, my friend. Face it. She’s had a lot longer to perfect her material.”
Dash gave her a wry look, but Conover gestured around at tattooed faces starting to peer from among the leafy shadows. Curiosity, it seemed, was starting to overcome outright fear. “Save the banter for now. We can relax at the Forge. Sort of. Home, Jeeves.”
“I do not like that name,” Sentinel said.
“And you said you were fun.”
Dash was home in a sense. He stretched, and the Archetype stretched with him.
He glanced at the Slipwing. Leira had flipped her around, lighting her fusion drive in a deceleration burn as they closed on The Forge. Another half hour and they should be safely back in the station’s docking bay. Then Dash could extricate himself from the Archetype’s cradle, the intricate device that transmitted all of his movements to the big mech, strip off his sweaty clothes, and finally take a shower.
A hot shower.
Saving the universe was surprisingly hard on personal hygiene. The Archetype took care of all his physical needs while he was slung in the cradle, but its Unseen builders had definitely skimped on the creature comforts, like hot running water. Or deodorant.
“Dash, Viktor here. Custodian has some news about those power cores you retrieved. Good work on getting four of them in one trip, by the way.”
“It helps that the Unseen seem to have started doubling them up. Anyway, what’ve you got?”
“All of those cores are meant for The Forge, it seems. They’ll power up a lot more of this place. They’ll also activate…let’s see. There’ll be a defensive energy shield available around the whole station, point defense weapons against incoming attacks, and something called metallic shielding. Not sure what that last one is. Custodian says he’ll know more once it’s been brought online.”
“Got it,” Dash replied. “Sounds like they’ll make our new home here a lot more snug.”
“Just in time, too.”
Dash’s gut tightened a notch. “There something I should know, Viktor?”
“Custodian’s detected a signal. It’s weak, and indistinct, but it’s definitely real.”
“What is it?”
“And who’s is it?” Leira put in. “Does it belong to the Unseen, or the Golden?”
“Can’t tell,” Viktor replied. “Can’t even determine an accurate direction, just a vague, out that way sort of thing.”
“I am receiving repeater data from Custodian,” Sentinel said. “It’s available now. Since the signal is propagating through the Dark Between, it likely originates either from a source belonging to the Creators, or to the Golden.”
Dash studied the signal on the heads-up. It was just a diffuse blob, coming from somewhere among a few dozen possible star systems. “But you can’t tell which.”
“If I could, I would have specified it.”
“You’re getting awfully snarky, you know that?”
“I did say that accommodating your personality may or may not be a good thing.”
Dash had to smile. “Yes. Yes, you did.”
Dash sincerely hoped that the signal would turn out to be friendly. Perhaps neutral, or even entirely uninteresting—anything but a warning of incoming danger. There’d been more than enough of that since Dash had stumbled upon the Archetype, so something not awful would be a nice change.
Fortunately, it turned out they had a way to find out. One of the systems the new cores had brought to life on The Forge was a pair of deep-scan arrays. Each had unfolded from the station’s “poles,” giving the system effectively full coverage in all directions.
Except there was a problem.
The array near the “north pole” failed to come properly online. A Golden drone that had crashed into the station and disabled many systems had left behind a sinister legacy—a pernicious virus that had insinuated itself into some of The Forge’s operations. Custodian had been able to sandbox it into a cyber-trap, but at the cost of shaving off some of the station’s functionality.
Eventually, Custodian said it would be able to get rid of the pesky cyber-intruder, but until then, some systems would have to run off bypasses. “It will be necessary to run a physical connection to the deep-scan array, at least in the short term. I will dispatch a maintenance remote for that purpose.”
Dash had been fine with that, but Amy had piped up. “Just a sec. How about we do it? I’d like to learn more about what makes this place tick.”
Viktor curled his lip at her. “You just want to get outside.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been cooped up on this station for the past couple of weeks, while Dash, Leira, and Conover have been off having fun!”
“Fun?” Leira asked with a hint of laughter. “If you call almost getting run through with a spear fun, well then, sure. Lots of fun. The swampy mud was—well, it was great for my skin, but not good for running through.”
Conover struck a brave pose without thinking. “It was pretty dangerous, Amy. I almost fell into an underground river.”
“So you’ve told me,” Amy said. “Like. twice.”
Conover had deflated a bit at that, but Amy’s grin became a genuine smile, which seemed to perk him up.
So here Dash was, riding one of the station’s maintenance remotes from the nearest powered-up docking bay toward the faulty array. Amy straddled another, laughing and whooping as they raced across the sprawling plain of The Forge’s hull.
They began to slow as the array came into view, a trio of massive, parabolic dishes atop a tower at least fifty meters tall. It rose over the horizon as they approached it, as did a gleaming crescent of light.
Amy made a disappointed sound. “I could’ve just kept going, you know. Just racing around and around The Forge on this remote. Hey, we should make a game out of it. Remote racing!”
“That would be fine, if we actually controlled these things,” Dash replied. “But we’re really just passengers. And I’ve never been a good passenger. I much prefer being the driver.”
“So why’d you come along then, anyway? If you don’t like being just a passenger, then it seems to me you’d just want to give this a pass.”
“We agreed we’d always go EVA in pairs. We go safely or not at all, okay?”
“Yeah, but one of the others could’ve come with me.”
“You’re about to see why I came, Amy. In fact, there it is, now.”
The array towered above them. But that wasn’t what Dash was talking about. He gestured beyond it, to where that gleaming crescent of light had resolved itself into the gas giant around which The Forge orbited.
It swelled across the sky as they pulled up to the base of the array, a vast hemisphere blotting away most of the starfield. This close, its multitude of pastel bands resolved into swirls of gas, each the size of a planet, spinning and whirling and rushing along before thousand-kilometer-per-hour winds. He could just make out a sliver of its vast polar aurora—the charged particles exciting into a ghostly bluish glow that encircled both of its poles with halos of inconstant light.
Dash just stood and stared.
It was really no different than the view from inside The Forge or the Archetype or the Slipwing. Except, it was. It was very different. From one of those perspectives, the gas giant loomed—glorious and majestic, sure. But out here, wearing nothing but a vac suit, it had a power and sheer, raw presence that made Dash feel like…like nothing. At most, like a mote, a speck of dust against the sheer grandeur of the universe. It was almost frightening, the way the gas giant looked as though it might suddenly pull him away from The Forge.
He pulled his eyes away from the view. “Sorry, what?”
“Nothing. Just…the look on your face.” Amy’s smiled behind her faceplate. “You’re such a practical, no-nonsense kind of guy. Seeing you being all awestruck like that is just kind of…” Her shoulders rose and fell slightly in a shrug. “It’s nice. Nice knowing you have a bit of poetry in your soul.”
He shrugged back. “Helps keep things in perspective. There’s a lot of universe out there full of things like that.” He pointed at the gas giant. “And of things even more spectacular. Things far, far bigger than even the Unseen.”
“Or the Golden.”
They took another moment to just bask in the glory of the vast gas giant, then turned to the task at hand. Amy’s remote had pulled a seemingly endless cable along behind it; the device could have easily hooked it up on its own, but it dutifully waited for Dash and Amy to get it plugged into the receptacle Custodian had indicated.
“The deep scan system is now coming online,” Custodian said. “It will take a moment to stabilize and begin processing incoming signals.”
“Our priority is the signal was you detected earlier, so update the second it’s ready,” Dash said. As he did, the array began moving, smoothly rotating and inclining its triple dishes toward a specific point in space.
“That was already understood.” Custodian sounded a little peeved.
Dash looked at Amy. “You know, these AI’s are starting to develop actual personalities.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Sentinel wonders the same thing. So do I, for that matter.”
“You just don’t like competition in the snark department.”
“Why do I have this reputation for being—”
“The deep scan system is now fully online,” Custodian cut in. “There is no further need for you to remain outside The Forge.”
Dash turned back to the remote that had brought him here. “Guess that’s our cue to head back inside.”
Amy moved to board her own remote. “Race you!”
“Um…sure. Custodian, make my remote go faster than hers.” He gave her a wry grin. “There. I win.”
“You’re no fun.” Amy leaned forward, urging her remote on, but it plodded along. “Come on, buddy. You’ve got this.” She bounced in her seat, but to no avail.
As the remotes accelerated back toward the docking bay, Dash glanced back at the gas giant. He watched it until it had fully set, vanishing behind the sweeping curve of the great hull.
There were things bigger than even the Unseen and the Golden. It was important to remember that.
They crowded around a display in the engine room, the place that had become The Forge’s effective command center. If there was an actual command center somewhere, it must be in a part of the station still not powered up. The Forge still held secrets, and would until every corridor was humming with power.
“Okay, Custodian, what’ve you got?” Dash said.
“The deep scan has resolved the incoming signal’s location but offers little more detail, unfortunately. It is emanating from what seems to be the location of a battle between the Creators and the Golden, on the edge of a star system known as GC67854-AS2.”
“Catchy name,” Amy said.
Viktor gave a dry smile, a testament of his fondness for the girl. “The Battle of GC67854. It’s catchy, once you get used to it.”
“If you can tell from here it was a battlefield, then it must be a pretty extensive one,” Leira said. She narrowed her eyes at the display, which showed a spot that was spotted with odd density spikes, adjacent to the subject star system. “That must be…oh, what, a good forty light years away?”
“Forty-seven point six two to the star itself,” Custodian replied.
“When Custodian says deep scan, it means deep scan, doesn’t it?” Dash said.
“Forty-seven point six two light years.” Leira crossed her arms. “I’ll say it again. It must have been an awfully big battle.”
Dash nodded. “Which means the Unseen must have kept some record of it. Custodian? Anything you can tell us?”
“Other than the fact that it occurred, the Creators recorded little information about this particular battle, at least in any database to which I currently have access. The only other reliable information the deep scan provides is that there is a considerable amount of debris.”
Dash rubbed his chin. “Okay. Sentinel, how about you? Anything to add?”
“Custodian and I have synchronized our accessible databases,” Sentinel replied. “The only specific piece of information I can add is that the star, GC67854-AS2, was a binary system before the engagement.”
Conover made a huh sound. “Was a binary system? So it isn’t anymore?” He looked around at the others. “Sounds like somebody used a Lens.”
“Excuse me,” a new voice put in, “but are you saying that the Unseen actually blew up a star during the course of the battle?”
They all turned to face the speaker, the monk named Kai. He and his fellow brothers in faith, known as the Order of the Unseen, had come to The Forge with Dash and the others during an expedition to retrieve more of the power cores The Forge and The Archetype both needed to power up their systems. Kai was unobtrusive by nature, but when he spoke, his words carried weight.
“So it would seem,” Dash said. “We partly did the same thing, remember, when we shrank this system’s star to save Leira right after the fight with the Harbinger. We just avoided the, ah—well, we didn’t actually explode the star. Just tickled the edges, so to speak.”
Kai nodded. “That I understand. My interest is more with regard to the effect on the Enemy of All Life. I’m hoping many of them were destroyed by the Unseen’s efforts.”
Dash offered a polite nod in the face of Kai’s single-minded devotion to the cause. For a relatively mild-mannered group of people, Kai and his fellow monks had an unabashedly vicious hatred for the Golden. Not for the first time, he was glad they were on their side.
“Probably no way to know for sure,” Dash said.
“A pity.” Kai’s retort was flat with repressed emotion.
Dash turned back to the display. “So, let’s summarize. We’ve got a signal coming from an ancient battlefield a long way off. We don’t know if it belongs to the Unseen or the Golden. And…” He shrugged again. “And that’s about it. Limited information, but without the usual immediate threat. Still, this is why we’re here. To use The Forge as capably as we can, as quickly as we can.”
Kai gave a deep nod of satisfaction at that.
“I think it’s something that belonged to the Golden,” Conover said flatly.
Leira gave him a puzzled look. “Oh? Based on what?”
“Think about it. Custodian only just started receiving the signal a little while ago. We know that the Harbinger was broadcasting its own signal after it entered this system, right before it attacked the Archetype and came after The Forge,” Conover said. “Custodian, based on what you know about Golden communications, has enough time passed for the Harbinger’s signal to get to GC…um…”
“GC67854-AS2,” Custodian said, sounding a little impatient.
“Yeah, sure. That star system. Anyway, has enough time passed for that signal to get there, and this one to get back?” Conover asked.
It was Sentinel who answered. “Yes. The amount of time that has actually passed corresponds very closely to the theoretical value.”
“So it very likely is something belonging to the Golden, then,” Viktor said, narrowing his eyes at the display.
Dash grimaced. “Yeah. Something’s woken up.”
“Something large,” Custodian added. “The signal strength suggests a noteworthy source of power, considerably larger than a simple probe or scout craft. That would, therefore, correspond most closely to several types of large, Golden ships.”
“Could this be a passenger liner, or even a massive freighter? The ones that hit multiple systems on trade routes?” Dash said.
“There is no record of the Golden having such a craft,” Sentinel said.
“So a big warship then,” Viktor said.
For a moment there was silence as that sank in. Dash finally broke it.
“Okay. A big Golden warship has come to life, and we’re the sharp end of the knife. That means it’s up to us,” Dash said, clasping his hands one over the other. He looked like a fighter getting ready to step onto the mat.
Leira bit her lip in thought. “Well, if it’s going to head this way, and if we assume a worst-case scenario of it moving as fast as its own signal, that gives us…what, about a week and a half maybe?”
“Give or take,” Conover said, nodding. “Probably a little longer, though.”
Dash frowned at the display, as though just staring at it hard enough would pull more information from it. “That gives us around two weeks, and ignoring it is out of the question.”
“Especially if it’s Golden tech that’s new to us,” Amy said.
Viktor scratched his ear. “Isn’t that just asking for trouble though? We might be waking a sleeping beast. Why not just let Custodian keep a long scan on it?”
“I think we have to assume that, whatever it is, it’s already woken up and probably won’t just hang around that battlefield.” Dash said with a wry grin. “If it’s like me when I wake up from a long sleep, it’s going to be cranky.”
“What if it’s damaged and can’t move?” Amy said. “It is kind of floating among a bunch of debris, remember. Maybe it’s too damaged to even defend itself. This could be a great opportunity to get a close look at something we might really want to know about.”
“But what if it isn’t damaged and can move and defend itself?” Viktor asked. “We could just as easily be delivering ourselves to the enemy.”
“Only one way to find out.” Amy turned to Dash. “We should go and take a look.”
“I have to intervene in your musings,” Custodian cut in. “There is a more significant concern, much closer to The Forge.”
Dash stiffened. “Explain.”
“A probe has just arrived in this system from deep space and is inbound at high velocity.”
They all exchanged tense looks. They all knew, after all, that the Golden would eventually be back. The Golden were like bad houseguests. They never stayed away for long.
Dash turned for the door to the engine room. “Let’s go, boys and girls. Company’s coming, and it would be rude not to greet them.”
Dash raced along the corridors leading back to the docking bay, keeping a running conversation with both Sentinel and Custodian as he did.
“The probe is traveling at high velocity on a broad, elliptical trajectory that will take it around this system’s star,” Custodian said.
Dash turned the last corner before the docking bay. Leira and Viktor hurried along behind him to get the Slipwing ready to launch if she was needed. Amy, Conover, and the monks remained in the engine room in case anything needed to be attended to in The Forge.
“Sounds like it’s planning to do a gravitational slingshot,” Dash said, glancing back at Leira. “Now where have I heard that before?”
Leira grimaced. That was the same maneuver she’d planned to use before, when things were bleak, and they had to take a gamble.
“It would have worked if it hadn’t been for the shoddy fusion drive on the Slipwing.”
“Shoddy? Shoddy?” He gave her a look of pure disbelief. “Don’t badmouth my ship, you ruffian.”
“It seemed to fit. Not quite criminal, but better than pirate,” Dash said as they ran on.
“Good choice. I accept your term. But not with grace. That would be too cultured,” Leira said in between breaths. “Be careful.”
They reached the docking bay. Dash veered toward the looming bulk of the Archetype, while Leira and Viktor ran for the Slipwing.
“And don’t launch my ship, either,” Dash called out. “Not until I say I need you or it becomes clear I need you. No unnecessary risk!”
Viktor gave a thumbs up as he followed Leira up the ramp into the Slipwing. Sentinel folded the Archetype neatly forward and down so Dash could climb into the cockpit and settle himself into the cradle.
“Okay,” Dash said, lifting and turning the Archetype toward the gaping entrance to the bay, “what’ve we got, Sentinel? How long until intercept?”
“It depends. Do you prefer to make the fastest, most direct approach to the probe, or do you intend something more subtle?”
“Have you ever known me to be subtle?”
“Yes. In fact, you have approached most engagements using indirect strategies, as well as deception and subterfuge.”
He flung himself into space, briefly marveling at how routine launching himself at the stars in a huge, alien mech had become. If someone had told him a year ago that this was where he’d be now, he would have laughed and asked them for a drink of what was in their glass.
“Subterfuge and deceit? In this, we agree. I’m a man of intricate plans. Sometimes,” Dash said. “Do we have a visual yet?”
“I have calculated the most direct approach, reasoning that you would at least like to see it before you discount or destroy it.”
Dash studied the heads-up, which was augmented by data coming across the Meld. He could intercept the probe before it started its slingshot around the star, potentially stopping it well away from The Forge. But—and this was the part that made him dislike this sort of direct approach—it meant the probe would have ample time to see him coming and do whatever it was going to do. It also meant an egregiously high closing velocity. Even with its impressive ability to maneuver, it would take time to get the Archetype turned back after the probe if a single, head-on pass didn’t take it out. That meant a long chase, and it was all around cumbersome. Moreover, he’d learned to never underestimate Golden tech and its capabilities, which always seemed to be better than they expected.
“Yeah, I’m discounting that for sure,” Dash finally said. “So let’s try something else.”
Dash studied the heads-up, while sifting through more data on the Meld. The brown dwarf that had figured so prominently during his fight against the Harbinger was much too far away to be a factor. There were some asteroids and a barren, rocky planet closer to the action, but none of them inspired any real deceit or subterfuge.
“Okay, Sentinel, show me the probe’s likely trajectory. And I mean all of it, like if we just let it keep going.”
New data appeared on the heads-up, showing a looping arc around the star, followed by a straight shot at The Forge. By that point, unless the probe decelerated, it would be moving incredibly fast. Was that the plan? Just slam it into The Forge, like a projectile from a giant slug-gun? It seemed pretty crude, but sometimes crude was best, because crude was simple.
“The difficulty is that this trajectory presumes the probe does nothing to alter its course. It’s a purely ballistic path. As a result, there’s actually a lot of uncertainty as to where it may go.”
Dash gave a slow nod. “Right. Which means we need to know what it’s up to so we can be in the right place at the right time to stop it.”
“It is likely more than capable of detecting the Archetype,” Sentinel said. “That, by itself, could change its behavior.”
“Yeah. Or make it unleash some nasty surprise. I’d really like to keep out of its sight for as long as possible.”
He could just go back to The Forge and wait for it there. Again, though, Unseen tech might seem to ignore the laws of physics, but it really didn’t. If he launched from The Forge again from a dead stop, the Archetype might not be able to accelerate fast enough to do whatever it needed to. What he needed was a way of hiding—but he also needed to shed velocity while remaining close to the Forge.
…a vast hemisphere blotting away most of the starfield. This close, its multitude of pastel bands resolved into swirls of gas, each the size of a planet, spinning and whirling and rushing along before thousand-kilometer per hour winds.
“You have been inspired to something subtle, haven’t you?” Sentinel asked.
“Yeah, I have. The gas giant. It generates a lot of magnetism, radiation, that sort of thing. Kind of like that brown dwarf, right? The fields are similar?”
“It is considerably smaller and much less energetic than the brown dwarf, but yes. Except for scale, its emanations are not too different. Do you wish to use it as camouflage?”
“Worked on the Harbinger, with the brown dwarf. Sounds like a good way of dealing with this thing. Plus, we can orbit the gas giant, keep moving, keep our velocity up. I assume you can work out the orbital math.”
The heads-up lit up with the exact trajectory.
“Okay,” Dash said, “I guess you can. So that has us orbiting it, what, twice before the probe gets close to The Forge?”
“Yes. An elliptical approach, to ensure the timing is correct, followed by two orbits at slightly less than the gas giant’s escape velocity. The probe will be on the far side of the star for much of that time. We should complete the second orbit and emerge from behind the gas giant at a velocity that almost matches that of the probe, at a very short distance away from it.”
“I like it. Let’s do it.”
The Archetype smoothly surged toward a point well offset from the gas giant. As Sentinel had said, it would use up enough time to make sure the intercept happened exactly when and where they wanted it.
Assuming, of course, the probe didn’t have other ideas.
“Ah, well,” Dash muttered, “nothing’s a hundred percent, right?”
“Many things occur one hundred percent of the time,” Sentinel replied. “From a quantum level, right up to the largest, most macro scale. One example would be your snoring. I calculate it occurs every time you enter a state of sleep.”
“That’s not macro.”
“You’ve never heard yourself snore.”
Snarky. Definitely snarky.
Dash stretched, flexing his arms and legs and fingers in a bone-cracking movement that left him focused and loose. “Okay. Here we go.”
The swirling, vaporous surface of the gas giant blurred beneath the Archetype, its velocity smearing it into a diffuse wall of colored stripes. That had been Dash’s view for the past couple of hours—the vast, pastel expanse of the planet beneath him, the infinite starfield above. It hadn’t moved him the way the few moments with Amy on the surface of The Forge had, but there remained a lingering sense of the infinite as he sat, waiting for combat, high above the whirling atmosphere of the giant planet. He shook his head, ending the reverie.
Now it was back to business.
The immensity of the gas giant fell away as the Archetype broke orbit. The big planet’s magnetic fields and belts of radiation might be much weaker than those of the brown dwarf, but they were still enough to effectively blind anyone to the Archetype if they didn’t know exactly where to look. That would have left Dash blind, too, except Sentinel and Custodian had collaborated, keeping data coming to the Archetype over a tight comms beam. As a result, when the mech pulled clear of the gas giant’s emissions, he knew exactly where the probe would be.
And sure enough, there it was.
“I love science,” Dash said.
“Do you mean you love math?” Sentinel asked.
“Let’s not get crazy. I tolerate math. I love being right,” Dash said.
It had made no course changes, done no accelerating. It indeed seemed to be bent on plowing into The Forge like a bullet. And Custodian had finally decided it actually was Golden tech, so Dash was going to stop it.
He lined up the dark-lance and fired.
The ghostly beam flickered out, landing on the probe’s surface like a shadow.
At first, mothing happened. The probe just raced on. Dash narrowed his eyes, about to say something unflattering about the Golden, when the probe suddenly erupted in a blast of quantum discharge. Fragments were flung apart by the explosion, their trajectories rapidly diverging.
“Well, that was unexpectedly easy,” Dash said. “Kind of an entirely pointless effort by the Golden.”
“It was,” Sentinel replied.
“So why do I suspect they’ve still got something up their sleeve?”
“I have noticed that, being quite deceptive yourself, you expect it from others.”
“It’s not cynicism. It’s being careful,” Dash said.
“I appreciate your distinction and will make a note of it.”
“Please do,” Dash said, keeping his attention focused on the remnants of the probe. It was now a small cloud of debris, still following the original trajectory, but steadily expanding. Custodian had already energized The Forge’s energy shield, which would be more than enough to stop these remaining fragments.
Okay, Dash thought, maybe that was it. Maybe the probe had been defective, or maybe it was just a recon model, gathering as much information as it could before it was destroyed.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. He didn’t trust maybe one bit.
Dash didn’t buy it.
“You’re up to something,” he said to the debris cloud, now kilometers across. He accelerated, wanting to get closer.
“Some of those fragments are beginning to change their trajectory,” Sentinel said, and Dash gave a sharp nod. He’d expected nothing less.
“I knew it.” He readied the dark-lance, keeping the distortion cannon on standby. Ideally, he’d just destroy the swarm of bogeys, but the distortion cannon would let him yank them away from whatever mischief they intended. A mission interrupted was almost as good as one ended—they could gain information about the Golden, their tech, and just what the hell this new wrinkle in their weaponry might be.
“I am detecting six submunitions that are now accelerating toward The Forge. They are using a hybrid of unSpace translation and conventional propulsion, effectively reducing their mass to near zero.”
Dash was no astrophysicist, but he was a spaceship pilot and knew enough to get by. Even a modest thrust applied to something with almost no mass would result in a ferocious acceleration—and enormous kinetic energy when these things impacted.
Worse, these submunitions, as Sentinel labeled them, were tiny. It made them into ridiculously tough targets to hit.
For most people.
Dash accelerated harder and fired the distortion cannon, but the submunitions’ insignificant mass meant it had almost no effect, like shooting at a shadow. He switched back to the dark-lance and started snapping out shots as fast it could fire. The Forge loomed ahead now; these projectiles were only seconds from impact.
He hit one submunition, and it simply vaporized. Then he missed a second one twice before destroying it. The third he hit, but he missed the fourth repeatedly.
“Incoming! Custodian, can you take these things out?”
“The energy shield will not stop them,” Custodian replied. “Activating point defense systems instead.”
The Forge erupted with energy pulses, a torrential deluge of searing bursts that turned the dwindling space between it and the Archetype to a blizzard of scalding light. Dash finally nailed his fourth target; the point defense, for all of its impressive fury, only got one more.
The sixth, and last, slammed into The Forge.
As it did, a large section of the station where it hit suddenly shimmered then shone like mirrored quicksilver. The kinetic flash of impact almost vanished into the dazzle of reflected light. Then it was gone, as though it had never happened.
Dash blinked at the afterimages of the lightshow from the point defense and whatever had just happened. “What the hell was that?”
“The metallic shielding,” Custodian said. “It is very much a last resort defense, and very demanding in terms of power, but effective.”
“Glad to hear you’re still in one piece,” Dash replied, letting himself relax a notch or two, but not letting his guard down entirely. Sentinel might think he saw deception everywhere, but when it came to the Golden, that was just smart thinking. “Leira, Viktor, how about you guys? All okay?”
“Ever been inside a bell when it’s been rung?” Leira asked.
“Well, I have.”
“Messenger, scans are showing that some of the debris from the probe and its submunitions are composed of Dark Metal,” Custodian said. “I strongly recommend recovering all of it that you can and returning with it to The Forge.”
“Dark Metal. You mean what the Harbinger was made of?”
“One and the same. The Golden pioneered its use and likely has a somewhat more advanced understanding of it. The Creators have employed Dark Metal in some applications as well. There are small amounts incorporated into the Archetype, in fact.”
“You mean the Unseen stole it from the Golden?” Dash asked.
“Stealing it implies wrongdoing. The Creators liberated the technology involved in order to further their efforts—”
“That’s okay, I get it. And it wasn’t a criticism. Hell, I hope they stole a lot more from those Golden bastards.”
Dash took in the various bits and pieces of debris on the heads-up, noting the ones that the Custodian had identified as Dark Metal in particular. “Gathering this stuff is going to take a while. Do we really need all of it?”
“That would be ideal. It would save a great deal of time otherwise required to fabricate new Dark Metal,” Custodian said.
“Fabricate new Dark Metal. You can do that? And what will it be used for?” Dash felt his brows lift in surprise.
“It is a vital component in constructing new weaponry, among other things.”
“Okay, what new weaponry? And how are you going to build it?” Dash felt his curiosity rising with each new possibility.
“When you have finished gathering it, Messenger, and have returned to The Forge with it, then allow me to show you,” Custodian said.
Dash couldn’t help hearing a note of certainty in Custodian’s voice, and the knowledge gave him a flare of the most dangerous drug known to man: hope.
Between Sentinel’s snark and Custodian’s confidence, Dash was beginning to see that he hadn’t inherited a legacy of machines. He’d joined a culture, older than humanity, and it had the same goal.
Ending the Golden.
Dash raised an eyebrow at Leira. “That system the signal is coming from might be inhabited? What evidence do we have?”
They were on their way back to the engine room from the docking bay. Dash had deposited the probe fragments containing all the Dark Metal he could find in another storage area, then returned to the bay the Archetype shared with the Slipwing. Custodian reported that the next events were nothing short of the act of creation—Dark Metal being turned from flotsam to weapons, all courtesy of the Forge.
Leira and Viktor, who’d been waiting in the Slipwing in case Dash needed their help with the probe, were now striding along with them.
“Leira? Evidence?” Dash repeated as they walked. She been quiet for a long moment.
“Your ship is the one that told me that, Dash.”
Dash glanced at Viktor. “The Slipwing had gained sentience? She’s a strong personality, but I didn’t know she could think on her own.”
Viktor smiled. “Well, she and your ship did have a near-death experience. Maybe they’ve bonded.”
Dash gave a good-natured snort. “If a near-death experience is all it takes to get a ship to start talking to you, the Slipwing and I would be married. I’m guessing it’s the data banks, right?”
Leira nodded. “The data bank is turning out to be a treasure trove. Well, there was an anthro survey from a few years back that mentions GC67854-AS2 being inhabited, and that the settlement is called Gulch.”
“Gulch.” Dash thought for a moment, but coming blank, he shrugged. “New to me, but not the ship. Follow me.”
He started for the engine room again. It seemed unlikely that the Slipwing, whose creaky, old computers were like counting on your fingers and toes compared to the sophistication of Custodian and Sentinel, would possess data they didn’t.
“I’d always meant to stop my database subscription, but never did, so the updates must have continued over the years,” Dash said. “That means contemporary data, and that means I need Sentinel and Custodian in these data banks yesterday.”
“I have already begun sifting the Slipwing’s database for additional information we might find useful,” Sentinel said. “Dash, are you aware that there are several pictures of women in various states of undress on your hard drive? I can find no purpose for such data whatsoever.”
“That’s, um—research,” Dash said. “For a project.”
“Project Libido?” Leira asked, giving him a sideways glance.
“As a gentleman, I won’t dignify that comment with a response other than to say, Sentinel, please don’t delete my, ah, research files,” Dash said.
“I have taken the liberty of arranging the files according to the women’s appearance and bust size. Did you know that—”
“That’s enough. Good. Thank you. Let’s move on. Lots to do and all that—a war to win, and so on,” Dash said, studiously looking away from Leira with a blank expression.
“As you wish,” Sentinel said. Leira snorted, and Viktor gave him a knowing grin. The air was merrily tense, and Dash looked to the ceiling for a moment before a grin crept to the corners of his mouth.
Sentinel already knew lots more about him than he’d likely ever have shared with anyone to begin with, thanks to the Meld. So he said, “Sentinel, have you ever accessed my ship’s entire database? As in, right down to the machine code?”
“No. I have only accessed those parts of your ship’s data that were necessary for particular purposes.”
“Well, that’s an oversight. Go ahead and retrieve all of it. There might be a few things in there you don’t know—like the fact that the system where that signal’s coming from is—”
“Potentially inhabited by a settlement known as Gulch.”
“Oh. You already knew that then.”
“Yes, you already mentioned it. I have also retrieved the information from your ship. There are several million new data-points included in it that I have now added to my own stores of data.”
“Several million? Really?”
“The vast majority are incident historical data regarding your species, and therefore likely irrelevant. Although I admit the women in bikinis playing some sport called volleyball are interesting. Quite a challenge to gravity.”
“Um. Right,” Dash said, again in a voice that was oddly neutral.
Viktor shook his head, grinning. “That’s our history she just called irrelevant. Although I’m glad to see her keeping the files that matter.”
“Well, it probably is irrelevant to an alien AI,” Leira replied. “Not to mention our current situation.”
Dash gave them both a measured look, then said, “The only way our history doesn’t matter is if we fail, and I won’t let that happen. Custodian, can you confirm anything about this settlement from the deep scan?”
“Nothing conclusive. Since your records indicate it is less than forty years old, any radio emissions from the settlement simply will not have reached The Forge, yet. The deep scan is otherwise incapable of detecting any other indications of habitation at this range, particularly given interference from the debris field containing the Golden signal.”
“Work to clear it, sift the data, and give me your best guesses. If there are people living there, it could make things more complicated if we decide to pay a visit.”
“Are we going to pay a visit?” Leira asked.
“We are,” Dash said with finality.
“Messenger, the others are awaiting you in the engine room,” Custodian said.
Dash smiled. “Now let’s go see our other surprise, and hope for good news.”
The new power cores they’d retrieved and installed had finally powered up most of the Forge. Some systems remained off-line, and there were a few peripheral bits of the station that were still dark, but most of it was pressurized, heated, lighted, and generally accessible.
So, they set off from the engine room on what amounted to a guided tour, Custodian acting as their guide.
“I kind of got used to thinking of this place as being just the parts we’ve been using,” Amy said. “You know, the docking bay, the engine room, the corridors and compartments in-between. But this”—she gestured around—“this really is huge, isn’t it?”
They stood on a balcony overlooking a vast space that stretched so far into the distance that it actually curved slightly, conforming to the shape of the Forge’s hull. Custodian had told them it was for storage. A space that dwarfed even the biggest docking bay back on the big space station called Passage, Dash thought, just for storage.
“Storage of what, exactly?” Viktor asked.
“Anything that needs to be stored,” Custodian answered, prompting a grimace from the old engineer.
“Yes. I understand that storage space is used to store things. What I’m asking is, specifically what sort of things?”
“I am not merely being flippant,” Custodian replied. “What would be stored here is the purview of the crew. I could provide an exhaustive list of such items and materials, but it would take some time for you to assimilate the data.”
Conover, who’d been peering over the railing at what had to be at least a ten-meter drop to the deck below, looked up. “The crew? There’s a crew?”
That made them all exchange uneasy glances.
“Custodian, are there any crew on board now?” Dash asked.
“Yeah, good question,” Amy added. “Like, in suspended animation or something.”
Kai, who along with the rest of the monks had remained quietly to the rear of the little procession, spoke up. “Are you suggesting that there might be Unseen aboard this station? And that we might get to meet them?” He sounded more than a little awestruck by the idea.
But Custodian’s response was a flat denial. “No, none of the Creators are currently aboard the Forge.”
Kai looked at the other monks, then at Dash. “I’m not sure if we’re somewhat disappointed at not being able to meet those we have revered for the past two centuries, or if we’re relieved about the same thing. Probably a little of both, actually.”
The rest of the monks nodded, muttering things among themselves. Leira nodded at them, though.
“I was once told to never meet your heroes, as they may leave you wanting. I don’t think there’s any chance of that with the Unseen. These are people committed to fighting a war to the bitter end, and willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Dash said, turning to Leira. “Like me.”
Leira fluttered her lashes and swooned a bit. “Oh, Dash.”
He patted the air. “It’s okay. I know the effect I have on women, especially when I’ve showered. Which reminds me, I need to shower.”
“We all do,” Leira said, a smile tugging at her full lips.
“Custodian,” Conover said, “as we’ve been walking, I’ve noticed different colors. I saw some of the same colors in the parts of the Forge we’ve been using, but I didn’t have anything to compare them to. Now I do.” He pointed at the enormous storage compartment, particularly at a band of grey stretching along the lower half of the walls. “The bulkheads had blue on them back in the engine room and in the docking bay. Here, they’re grey.”
“Good point,” Amy said, picking up the thread of Conover’s thinking. “We passed through another section Custodian said was all about environmental control, air and water, that sort of thing. And that was green.”
Dash saw Conover look a little pleased at Amy’s agreeing with him, but just ignored it and asked, “Is there actually some meaning to those colors, Custodian? Did the Unseen actually color-code their station, or is it just about making the place look pretty?”
“Aesthetics were not a factor,” Custodian replied. “There is indeed a system to the colors. Blue denotes engineering and weapons. Green is environmental systems and botanicals.”
“Botanicals?” Leira cut in. “They have gardens on the Forge?”
“Botanical organisms serve a variety of purposes,” Custodian went on. “They clean and filter air and water, and can provide nutrients.”
“Ah. Okay, makes sense.”
“The other levels are even more complex,” Custodian said. “Gold indicates crew quarters, command and control facilities, scanners and sensors, and communications systems. White is medical and biological services and research. Finally, grey is storage, security and fabrication.”
“Fabrication sounds interesting,” Viktor said. “What can you tell us about that?”
Custodian’s answer was a cryptic one. “There are other portions of the station with which you must become acquainted first.”
Dash leaned close to Viktor and, in a stage-whisper, said, “He doesn’t want to spoil the surprise.”
They carried on, guided by the Custodian. Now that they knew the system of color codes, they were able to orient themselves to the layout of the Forge and its systems more readily. For the most part, the station was arranged in six broad levels, each mostly devoted to one of the color-coded, functional groupings. There was some overlap, though. So, while the level they knew best, the one containing the engine room, was mostly blue and devoted to engineering and weapons, there were a few green, grey, and even white sections.
Leira had begun trying to map it all out on her data-pad, but she gave up when Custodian generated a translucent, 3-D image of the Forge floating before her.
“Well that’s handy,” Leira said.
“Note the blue dot. That is you, Leira, and will always be present as a reference point,” Custodian said.
“Dash is represented in red,” Sentinel added.
“Why red?” Leira asked, hands on hips.
“I’m hotter, of course,” Dash said, turning to stroll away into the next level as Viktor patted Leira’s shoulder, laughing.
The corridors and compartments went on and on, a vast system of orderly space that defied the imagination. They had to stop and rest twice during their tour, and they were still going to have only seen a portion of the Forge when it was done. The Unseen didn’t do small.
By the time they were ready to explore the sixth level, they’d all started to flag. Kai and the monks were stoic about it, but Amy looked at the elevator they were about to enter and voiced how the rest of them seemed to feel.
“I feel like I’ve walked at least as far as I traveled to get here, to the Forge, in the first place,” she grumbled. “At least that’s what my feet are telling me.”
“There has got to be an easier way of getting around this place than walking,” Leira said as they stepped into the elevator. “Or at least a more efficient way. Imagine trying to get from one end of the Forge to the other in the heat of a battle, or an emergency.”
“It does seem that a race as advanced as the Unseen would have a more efficient way of getting around than just by foot,” Viktor said.
“Do they even have feet?” Amy asked.
Dash nodded, remembering the bipedal, somewhat dog-like beings he’d seen in a memory play-back, shortly after he first found the Archetype. “Yeah, they have feet.”
“You’ve met the Unseen?” Kai asked, eyes widening.
Dash looked at the monk as the elevator doors slid closed and it started to move. “No. Not in person, but in a—a digital memory, as real as we might ever know, but astounding in clarity of detail. They’re like canines, but bipedal and six fingered. Obviously, their capabilities surpass any canine we’ve ever seen.” He waved at the Forge around them, brow lifted in consideration.
“You must tell me what you saw, sometime. My brethren and I would be most interested in knowing more about the Unseen,” Kai said.
Dash opened his mouth, but Custodian cut him off. “To answer your question, yes, there is a rapid-transit system for moving quickly around the Forge.”
Amy stuck her hands on her hips. “Are you freakin’ kidding me? And you’ve been making us walk everywhere?”
“It is not currently—”
“Online, yeah, yeah.” She glanced at Conover. “Why does that not surprise me?”
Conover gave a nod. “I agree. Break out the technology, working or not. At least let me take a crack at it.”
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. A long corridor stretched ahead of them. Dash smiled wryly as a collective sigh went up and they started trudging along it.
“Hey, did you guys really think saving the universe was going to be easy?”
“No,” Leira shot back, “I just didn’t think it would involve so much walking.”
Sore feet were quickly forgotten, though, when the sheer scale of this sixth and almost entirely grey level became apparent. The long corridor radiated out, dividing into three huge docking bays, the amount of space in each dwarfing any human structure they’d ever seen. Dash recalled seeing them from outside the Forge, but they’d been sealed shut with massive doors. Now, they stood open to space, with force fields keeping them habitable. Each dwarfed the docking bay they’d been using for the Archetype and the Slipwing; to Dash, they looked as though they could each land and launch a battlecruiser. Or three.
“What is all this for?” he asked Custodian. “There’s a lot of empty space here. Way more than you’d need even for a whole squadron of Archetypes.”
“This level essentially encapsulates one of the fundamental purposes of the Forge,” Custodian replied. “From these bays, ships and Archetypes can be received, maintained, and launched, cargo can be transported, and point defense weapons can be deployed.”
Conover pointed at a large, complicated device vaguely reminiscent of a big particle cannon, mounted on a rail that would allow it to be extended into space. Although it was a sizeable fraction of the size of the Slipwing, it seemed tiny in the vast space around it.
“That must be a point defense system there,” he said. “And there are a few more. These are the heavy hitters,” Conover said.
Dash followed Conover’s pointing finger and remembered the pulsing barrage of energy blasts that had erupted from the Forge as the submunitions from the Golden probe closed in on it. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “They must be all over the station, ready to be deployed when they’re needed, and kept inside when they’re not. Good coverage, too. If my math is right, every quadrant is covered.” He whistled at the thought of so much firepower in one station.
“No wonder the Golden built things like the Harbinger. These guns could take out a cruiser,” Leira said. “Or more.”
“Definitely more,” Viktor said, rubbing at his scalp thoughtfully.
They carried on in silence, in awe at the cumulative effects of the Forge. Custodian guided them to their destination across countless meters of smooth decking, open to the black of space.
“I knew it was big, but—” Conover trailed off, his voice echoing in brassy tones.
“Right,” was all Dash managed. “Now this, I recognize.”
“Hab,” Leira added, pointing to barracks, armories, and food prep as they passed by. There were other spaces that might be communal lounges, but even these were on a scale that left the entire team walking in a state of silent reverie.
“How many people can this place fit, Custodian?” Leira asked.
“There are crew quarters for three hundred individuals available at this time, but with expansion, this station can house several thousand people in comfort. There would need to be certain alterations to the system, but nothing that has not been done before,” Custodian said.
“Before?” Viktor seized on the term. “Before what?”
“At the peak of the last iteration of the war there was what you would call a full-strength battalion housed here, as well as additional special forces related to the secret weapons division. Ultimately, there were approximately four thousand Unseen operating from the Forge.”
A long moment of silence followed. Conover finally broke it, asking, “What happened to them?”
“They died. They fought, and they died. And I have since waited for my next assignment, as well as the arrival of the Messenger. Now, that timeline has begun.”
“Four thousand,” Leira said, shaking her head. “All dead.”
“And who knows how many others?” Dash added. Just as he’d actually observed the Unseen in the memory playbacks triggered by installing some of the previous power cores in the Archetype, he’d also seen vast, sweeping overviews of the war on its galactic scale. Compared to what that implied, four thousand was probably a proverbial drop into an ocean planet.
“To answer your question, billions,” Custodian said.
The air hummed with unspoken loss until Leira cleared her throat. “Anyway, there’s lots here. How about showing us around?” She looked at the others. “I don’t know about you, but I’d like to start sleeping somewhere other than aboard the Slipwing, or on the floor somewhere near the engine room.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Custodian said. “Since you are living, organic beings who consume food, I’m sure you will be interested in all of the various amenities available.”
“Some of us more than others,” Viktor said, grinning at Conover, who blushed crimson.
They passed through a seemingly endless sprawl of crew quarters. Dash found it comforting that the Unseen, for all of their almost supernatural sophistication, still needed to sleep, eat, and engage in other sorts of organic activities. It meant there were beds—literally hundreds of them, with space for hundreds more. They could each pick a place to sleep, and still barely be within sight of anyone else. As they explored the expansive hab, though, they settled on keeping themselves more or less together. Dash suggested they could spread out but should still remain close enough that no one could end up isolated. The fact that the station was just so big actually bothered him a bit. All of that empty space had a weight, a pressure, and it kept the crew closer together out of sheer instinct.
He swallowed his discomfort. He hadn’t even realized that living in cramped little spaces like the Slipwing might have given him a touch of agoraphobia, but just thinking about all of that emptiness around them made him take a long moment to adjust his concept of shipboard life. The Forge was an old thing, but new to Dash, and that meant he had to change, and quickly. He squared his shoulders, gave a friendly nod to everyone, and walked on, careful to school his features into an observant mask.
Then they saw the lounges.
“What is—whoa. This is badass,” Conover said, summing up the Unseen approach to leisure space in one word.
“Like a lounge? A recroom?” Leira asked.
“I think so,” Dash said.
Leira crossed to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the place, making its exterior wall seemingly almost non-existent.
“Hell of a view,” she said as Dash joined her.
It was. The window, either by chance or design, offered a stunning scene. They were close enough to see the gas giant the Forge had been orbiting while encased in the moon. Its swirling surface was mesmerizing. Beyond that lay the galaxy’s center, creating a condensed array of stars, a blanket of light that stretched from one end of the view to the other. Dash reached out and touched the window, confirming it was actually there. His hand did, indeed, encounter something solid, but he left no fingerprints on it. It might have been another force-field, but it sure felt like something of substance.
He turned away from the window and looked around. “This place needs a bar. Maybe some music, too.”
“Hey, maybe some day we can bring in live bands,” Leira said. “Get this place making some credits.”
“I know you’re joking,” Dash said, “but the idea that this place could someday be about more than just war is…nice. I like it.”
“That’s very introspective of you.”
“You guys always seem so surprised when it turns out I have some depth to my character.”
Leira gave him a grin. “Sometimes I forget you don’t just break things. You have—layers. That’s it. A man of layers.”
Dash preened, straightening his shirt. “I’ll need that on a hat, please. I intend to be taken seriously when I’m not, as you say, breaking things.”
“They are recreational facilities,” Custodian said. “The Creators were fond of the view as well.”
They carried on, leaving the lounges and passing through a series of green compartments, the walls festooned with tray systems for growing plant life. Aside from a few desiccated grey stalks, there was little evidence that the room had once been thriving with life. Dash broke one off with a puff of dust and studied it.
“Held up pretty good for two hundred thousand years.”
“The Forge was held in a state of suspended animation during that time,” Custodian said.
“Life is tenacious,” Dash replied, dropping the stalk back into the…not soil, he saw, but some other sort of granular medium, like pulverized crystal.
“This does raise a point, though,” Viktor said. “The Unseen wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of including a whole, separate category of botanical systems on this station if it wasn’t important.”
“Passage has some big, community gardens,” Amy said. “I tried my hand at growing tomatoes once. They all died.”
“Tomatoes probably don’t like being smeared in hatch grease,” Viktor said, flashing her a teasing grin.
Amy put on a theatrical scowl. “You may have noticed that I’ve cleaned myself up since I’ve been hanging out with you guys, thank you very much.”
“Anyway,” Leira cut in, heading off another round of banter, “Viktor’s point still stands. The Unseen intended for there to be plant life cultivated on this station. Custodian, how much of the environment in this place is dependent on these botanicals?”
“For you-- the Messenger, and his companions, the system does not require living augmentation to support life in a comfortable fashion. When the Forge was fully crewed, however, botanical systems made significant contributions to air and water quality, as well as quality of life.”
“Something to keep in mind, then,” Leira said.
“Maybe once the war’s over, we can think about making life better instead of mere survival,” Dash said. “In the meantime, I think weapons and scanners and the like are a lot more important.”
“Indeed, that is true, Messenger,” Custodian said. “That is why your collection of Dark Metal was so important. And, to that end, I would suggest that you now make your way to the indicated part of the Forge.”
A luminescent, holographic image of the Forge appeared in midair, showing their current location, and then a path that would take them to another part of the station a couple of sub-levels above it. They set off, but Dash didn’t want to lose the train of thought he’d started.
“Okay, Custodian, about this Dark Metal. Sentinel described it to me once when we were fighting the Harbinger. Our energy weapons apparently couldn’t do much to it because it was so resistant. But…what is it? Where does it come from? And what do we need it for?”
“The specific nature of Dark Metal is not entirely understood, not even by the Creators. It was originally acquired, or at least discovered, by the Golden. The Creators subsequently obtained it and were able to perfect a refining process. Unfortunately, we possess none of the materials required to do so.”
“Which means we’re stuck trying to gather it,” Conover said.
“Indeed. It is clearly not a natural substance, but it is used in the construction of many components used in the Creators’ technology, including the Archetype. That is why it was so important for the Messenger to gather the debris from the Golden probe.”
“Okay, so it looks like we’ll have to go hunting for this stuff if we can’t find a way of making it here,” Dash said. “Still, the question is, what sort of tech needs it?”
“It is crucial for the manufacture and operation of most weapon systems, stealth functions, power generation and distribution, and various types of containment systems.”
“In other words, everything that really matters,” said Dash.
They reached the end of the green zone. Ahead, the corridor was grey. As they passed the last compartment before the transition, Conover stopped and peered inside. Like the lounge, this one had one wall that was essentially transparent, looking out at the sweeping vista of the galactic core. Stars burned in the furious deep, more than could be counted.
“I wonder why the Unseen put in so many windows. You’d think they’d be a structural liability,” Conover asked.
“For us, maybe,” Viktor said. “For the Unseen, probably not so much.”
“Maybe they just liked looking out at the stars,” Amy suggested.
But Leira shook her head. “I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s because they wanted to keep reminding themselves that the Golden are out there, somewhere, waiting.”
They moved on, but Dash lingered a moment, looking not at the stars, but the darkness between them.
He could feel them out there, like a weighted echo—the Golden weren’t visible, not really, but he knew they were there. He could sense their malevolence, like spirits in the void, and with every implacable weapon they put into space, their mission became clearer.
Dash felt the enormity of the Forge around him, and knew this was his home—the heart of a vast battlefield where his decisions would shape whether humanity lived or died.
He stared at the dark again; that place where no stars shone, and then he drew himself up, squaring to face what came.
Unlike the Golden’s other enemies, Dash would not cower.
He would wait.
As they followed the directions they’d been given, heading deeper into this grey-colored part of the station—which denoted some combination of storage, security and fabrication—Custodian gave an update on the distant, deep-scanned signal.
“I have been processing the incoming data and subjecting it to various transformations and filters in an attempt improve resolution. I have also employed—”
“Thank you, but we’re pressed for time,” Dash said, interrupting. “I’m sure there are lots of people that would love to hear about how you massaged the data you’re collecting. Right now, we need results.”
“Your use of the term massaged is a cause for concern. In your own databases, that term is used to describe data that has been distorted or misrepresented. That is not the case here.”
“What? No, I didn’t mean you’d screwed around with the data.” Dash glanced at Leira. “We’re going to regret giving these AIs access to the Slipwing’s database, you know,” he muttered. “They might end up knowing too much about us.” He turned his attention back to Custodian. “Can we just get the bottom line? By which I mean, what you’ve learned.”
“I have been able to gain greater clarity on the specific location of the signal’s source. I can also report that it is emanating from a source not only considerably larger than I had first concluded, but also much larger than would be expected.”
“Tell me,” Dash said, eager for the information.
“There is a reason this facility is known as the Forge. As I have said previously, it is more than just a weapons platform and crew quarters. It is more than just a station intended to control a volume of space. Above all else, this facility is intended to build the weapons needed to defeat the Golden and bring about galactic stability. To that end, there is something I need to show you. Please continue to follow my directions.”
Their impromptu tour continued. By now, Dash was, to put it simply, in awe. He’d reached the point of saturation; the sheer enormity of the Forge and its intricate, seamless fit of so many levels, corridors, compartments, and bays, had flooded his brain with enough wonder that seeing more of it just left him staring blankly. Glancing at the faces of his companions, he suspected they’d reached much the same point. Kai and the monks still seemed to be able to gape in amazement, but the rest of them? Not so much. Even Conover, as big an enthusiast for all things scientific and technological as he was, had a vaguely stunned look stuck on his face.
About fifteen minutes after leaving the last green zone—including walking, and transit in another, utterly silent elevator that seemed to move not just vertically, but also horizontally and even diagonally, they reached yet another corridor.
Dash thought about the hab area. The memory of those ranks of empty beds just wouldn’t leave him. He could imagine himself sprawling in one of them, taking up the whole thing, not having to worry about jamming himself into cramped nook aboard the Slipwing, or trying to get comfortable on a hard patch of deck somewhere near the engine room. He’d resolved to tell Custodian that they needed to take a break from this. They’d been at it for several hours and weren’t just overwhelmed; they were also tired, footsore, and hungry. He was even opening his mouth to say as much, but Custodian beat him to it.
“Please proceed to the door at the end of this corridor.”
Dash glanced at his companions then said, “Custodian, look. We’ve been at this for a long while now.”
“I realize that you must accommodate your various biological needs, including rest. However, it will be useful for you to be aware of what I am going to show you. It will also help set the context for a decision regarding the distant signal.”
Leira took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose in contemplation. “We’re here now, so we might as well see this big reveal.”
They walked to the end of the corridor. A much larger door than any of the others they’d encountered slid aside as they approached, opening the way to another cavernous compartment. The bulkhead through which the portal passed was, Dash noted, much thicker than any others he’d seen in the Forge—at last two meters, making it more of a short tunnel than just a doorway.
They walked a few paces inside then stopped, suddenly, and all at once.
For a while, they just stared.
Dash was wrong. It turned out he still did have some room for wonder.
“The heart of the Forge,” Custodian said, his voice echoing through the vast, rambling space.
“I guess this is the fabrication center.” Amy’s voice was uncharacteristically subdued.
Huge machines, ranks upon ranks of them, stretched into a far-off perspective. Other machines sprouting long, jointed arms hung from a complex web of overhead rails, apparently so they could traverse about the place. Dominating all of it was a towering, tapered cylinder rising to the ceiling, at least thirty meters overhead. A multitude of pipes and conduits extended from this central cylinder to all of the other machines. It was both fantastically chaotic and intricate, but it carried a sense of orderly purpose. Massive and chunky, to the point of being ponderous, it still somehow seemed delicate, even fragile in its vast complexity.
Dash took a few steps then turned a circle, taking all of it in without really taking any of it in. “This is what they could do.”
Viktor nodded slowly, his eyes flickering hungrily over the tableau. “They were almost gods, I think.” He shook himself, adding, “If a god could build with metal.”
Conover had wandered to the nearest of the machines. It loomed over him, almost three times his height. He brushed a hand along a part of it suspended below the bulk of the contraption, a flat slab half a meter thick and a good three meters square.
“This looks like a mold,” he said. “It looks like it’s meant to be raised.” He peered above into the underside of the machine, then pointed up. “Yeah. Raised and pressed up against there, which seems to be the other half of the mold.”
Dash finally gave up trying to find words and just whistled his appreciation of the place. The others moved to join Conover, studying the mold and muttering in low tones, as though afraid speaking too loudly would somehow desecrate the place.
And speaking of desecration and reverence and all such similar stuff, Dash turned to look back at Kai and the monks. He was surprised to find them looking no more enthralled than they had been by anything else they’d seen on the Forge.
“You don’t seem all that impressed,” Dash said, bemused by their subdued reaction.
“Oh, quite the contrary,” Kai replied. “Better to say that we are equally amazed by all of the majestic works of the Unseen. This is just another wonder among many.”
Dash nodded, then turned as Viktor spoke.
“Custodian, this is. . .a forge?”
“In a sense, yes,” Custodian replied, “but not as you understand it. The Archetypes are not merely weapons. They’re integrated systems that ordinarily require years to build, although grow is perhaps a better term. As your knowledge of Unseen technological processes expands, you’ll be able to grasp more of what happens here, but suffice it to say that Dark Metal is not merely a material. It has a memory, and that memory can be shaped—with enormous power and time—to create something far more lethal than a simple weapon. The Unseen wanted to go beyond even that, creating weapons systems that could break down spacetime itself, at least in a localized fashion.”
“Wait. Do you mean like a black hole?” Amy asked, giving a nervous laugh as she did. Dash thought she was hoping the Custodian would say no, of course not.
“I mean exactly that,” is what Custodian replied, though. “It would be mobile, however, and under the control of an Archetype command unit.”
“That’s basically the power of creation,” Leira said, her voice low and taut with disbelief.
“And destruction,” Custodian said. “But that is a long way off in terms of material and power. To date, the Creators have only managed to harness a singularity, a black hole, to act as a power source. The Archetype is a prime example.”
Amy turned wide eyes to Dash. “The Archetype uses a black hole as a power source?”
He shrugged. “Apparently. I don’t pretend to understand the details, though.”
“The next iteration of the Creators’ innovative energy is in those molds across the bay,” Custodian said. “They are yet unused, but I can tell you that they will not be silent for long.”
“What are they for?” Dash asked.
“Those on the left side are standard ship replacement parts. This facility can make any part for any craft in the registry. Indeed, I can upload the schematics for your ship, the Slipwing—with your permission, of course. With enough power and material, every replacement part installed in your craft will be a near-permanent upgrade.”
“Huh. A lifetime warranty.” Dash gave an enthusiastic nod. “I like the sound of that.”
“As long as your life doesn’t end,” Viktor grumbled.
“Let me have my moment, okay?” Dash said. “What other parts can this place make, Custodian?”
“Fabrication is not limited to merely parts,” Custodian answered. “It can also craft weapons. Specifically, the Forge is on the cusp of being able to manufacture siege guns, and plus-light missiles with truly devastating yields. With some additional power—and Dark Metal—the next level of creation will be Lancets.”
Dash glanced at the others, then said, “Okay, I’ll bite. Lancets?”
“Small attack craft with light armor, a heavy punch, and incredible speed. They have proven virtually impossible to hit with standard weapons of any kind, save gravity disruptors, which the Golden used primarily on stars. The Lancets were too small for the Golden to fight individually, but when they came together in formation, the Golden did not hesitate to use their own version of the Lens on them, often to deadly effect.”
“What happened to these Lancets?” Leira asked. “Are there any left?”
“No. But in the time I have been waiting for the Messenger to arrive, I have run subroutines that have added design elements to the Lancet that will make them even more effective in future battles. Rest assured, short of using a Lens, the Lancets will be superb, almost undefeatable, short-range attack craft.”
“Yeah, I was waiting for that,” Conover said.
“Waiting for what?” Custodian asked.
“A flaw,” Conover said, shrugging. “This Lancet sounded too good to be true. You give up range in favor of speed and weapons.”
“Every weapon is a compromise of sorts,” Custodian replied. “The Archetype is a notable exception, and that is why I have brought you here—to see the true purpose of this place and possibly to give you something that I do not need, but you do.”
“Which is?” Dash asked.
Custodian’s answer was short but carried great weight. “Hope.”
They moved deeper into the fabrication bay. It struck Dash that this place, by itself, would make just about every shipyard in known space obsolete. Since conventional ships—that is, the ones not created by the Unseen—didn’t use Dark Metal, there really was no end to the parts and components that could be manufactured here. The same would be true for Unseen tech, for which the only choke point seemed to be Dark Metal stocks.
As they walked around the tall central tower and its profusion of radiating pipes and conduits, Dash said, “So the Archetype was made here, right? Which means it could make more of them?”
“Yes,” Custodian replied, “with a sufficient supply of Dark Metal.”
Dash gave himself a nod. Yup—a supply of Dark Metal was the choke point for sure.
“Okay, we keep throwing that term around, Custodian,” Viktor said, eyeing something that looked like a massive overhead crane with myriad fittings for gripping parts. “What, exactly, is Dark Metal?”
“It is a synthetic material created by the Golden in the first iteration of the war. Its manufacture involves the use of dark energy, together with alloys fabricated with very specific combinations of metals arranged in unique and precise crystal structures. The specific technical details are complex, involving physical and chemical principles with which you would be wholly unfamiliar. In essence, it represents the core of both the Creators’ technology, as well as that of the Golden. In fact, the Meld that joins you to Sentinel and the Archetype, Messenger, is basically an expression of the properties of Dark Metal—and that is itself only a small part of its potential.”
Dash held up a hand. “That’s all very well and fine, Custodian. We don’t need all the specifics right now. If Viktor’s interested, he can do some homework on his own time.”
Viktor gave Dash a wry smile and a nod. “I think I will.”
“In the meantime,” Dash went on, “what I think we’re getting from this is that we need Dark Metal to make more Unseen tech here, including more Archetypes. We don’t have enough, though, so we would have to arrange to get more. But it’s more a Golden thing than an Unseen one, so if we try to make it, it’s going to be a long, slow process.”
“That is essentially correct.”
“So we need to salvage it,” Conover said, “or even steal it from the Golden.”
“Kind of like how the Unseen stole it from them in the first place,” Amy said. They turned to her, but she raised her hands. “Hey, I’m not judging. That was just an observation. I’m glad they stole it from those Golden assholes. And I’ll happily steal more.”
“Again, that is all essentially correct,” Custodian said. “Indeed, with sufficient Dark Metal, it would not only be possible to complete more Archetypes, but to manufacture even more powerful weapons and systems which were conceptualized by the Creators, but never actually constructed. However, we do not possess sufficient Dark Metal for that. The small amount you were able to salvage from the Golden probe, Messenger, will allow for some relatively minor upgrades to the Archetype, which itself remains incomplete.”
“What do you mean, incomplete?” Dash asked. “Do you mean there’s more than just power cores missing from it?”
“The power cores themselves incorporate Dark Metal. Some of those were manufactured even after the Archetype was rendered dormant, which is why they were dispersed to remote outposts. The Creators saw it as a means of confounding the Golden. To answer your question—yes, there are components and capabilities that could be added to the Archetype, should sufficient Dark Metal be obtained.”
“And by obtained, you mean gathered up the same way Dash did from the wreckage of that probe,” Leira said.
“Once more, that is correct.”
“So we’re going to be looking for Golden tech,” Dash said, nodding. “Especially damaged or destroyed Golden tech.”
Conover caught his eye and nodded. “Like the sort of tech you might find in an ancient battlefield full of wrecked ships.”
“And now you understand the context to the decision you must make about that distant signal,” Custodian said. “There is a good chance that the debris from that ancient battle will contain Dark Metal—potentially significant quantities of it. If that could be retrieved and brought back to this facility—”
“Then we could get all of these machines running, make more parts for the Archetype, or maybe even make new Archetypes,” Dash finished, looking around at the silent facility.
“Lancets, too,” Leira said. “Or maybe even some of those even more powerful things Custodian hinted at.”
Dash looked around the fabrication facility one more time, then turned to his friends. “Okay, gang, that seems to clinch it, doesn’t it? We need to go to that battlefield, see what’s there, find all the Dark Metal we can, and bring it back here.”
“That would be the hope Custodian was talking about.”
They all looked at Kai, who’d said it after quietly listening to the whole exchange.
Dash gave him an appreciative nod, but turned to Viktor. “You’re kind of the devil’s advocate in the group, Viktor.” As Viktor opened his mouth, Dash raised a hand. “I’m not complaining. In fact, you just keep right on doing that—pointing out the downsides to the stuff we plan. It makes us less likely to miss something that’ll bite us later. Anyway, Viktor, what do you think about doing this?”
“Actually,” he replied, “I have to agree it’s probably our best course of action. Like Kai said, it gives us some hope we might not otherwise have. I think what Custodian’s really saying here is that all of this amazing tech around us is basically useless without more Dark Metal.”
“Aside from manufacturing ordinary spacecraft parts,” Amy said.
“Right. So, yes, I think we really have no choice but to check out that old battlefield, because it’s probably our best chance of getting our hands on the stuff.” Viktor rubbed his chin. “We just have to remember that something has come at least partly back to life there. Something quite likely powerful, and dangerous. And it doesn’t just represent a threat to us. Remember that there seems to be a settlement there, too.”
“Indeed, it would be tragic to inadvertently put those settlers in the way of harm they have no hope of defeating,” Kai said.
“Yeah, those are all good points,” Dash replied. “Custodian, can you tell us anything more about that system from your deep scan? About the signal, or the wreckage, or the colony?”
“I unfortunately have little more information to provide.”
“That’s okay,” Leira said. “I have an idea, Dash, about how we can learn more about that colony, and we don’t even have to leave the Forge to do it.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “How could you possibly do that, when all of this Unseen super tech can’t?”
“Simple,” she replied, grinning. “I’m not going to use Unseen tech.”
Dash gave her a knowing smile. “I like the way you’re thinking.”
Dash leaned over Leira, trying to see past her shoulder at the Slipwing’s comm display. It was just like old times, he thought, being jammed into the cockpit like this. And that gave him a bit of a pang. He and the Slipwing had been through a lot, but he felt like he’d been neglecting her of late, like a kid with a shiny new toy in the Archetype, no longer interested in the time-worn old one that had taken him through so much.
He reached across and touched a structural member arching across the cockpit roof. Don’t worry, old girl. I haven’t forgotten you, he thought.
“There,” Leira announced, pointing at the display and leaning back. “I thought there might be more on the Needs Slate.”
Dash studied the data Leira had retrieved. Sure enough, the Needs Slate—a real-time bulletin board advertising jobs that couriers like him and Leira could bid on—had several jobs related to the settlement called Gulch. More importantly, these included background information on the place.
“Good idea, this. Checking the Needs Slate is—well, commerce never sleeps,” Dash said.
“I think we’re all getting a little too wowed by all of this alien super-technology,” she replied. “We can’t forget our own stuff can still be valuable.”
“There’s a lesson here, true.” Dash reached past her to scroll through the entries. “Okay, so almost ten thousand people in Gulch. It looks like they live in a series of connected, communal domes that keep out the…aw, crap, jungle again?” He scowled. “We just did jungle. Almost lost Conover due to the terrain. I’d hoped for something more manageable.”
“That’s not the most important part, Dash.” Leira tapped another entry. “Here, look at this. A cargo broker has posted a job ferrying orbital stabilizers to Gulch.” She looked at Dash. “You don’t use orbital stabilizers on a planet’s surface. You use them in, well, orbit. That means this settlement, Gulch, is going to put something up around their planet. A space station, probably, based on the number and type of stabilizers. They probably want to get access to more deep-space traffic.”
“That being the case,” Custodian said through the Slipwing’s comm, “there is a good chance whatever Golden technology has reactivated in the system will act in accordance with their imperatives. It will, if it can, seek to immediately destroy the settlement utterly.”
“Well, I guess that makes it pretty simple,” Leira said. “We have to go to Gulch now, don’t we? We not only need whatever Dark Metal we can scrounge, but we have to help Gulch avoid being wiped out.
Dash gave her a resigned nod. “Which means I guess we’re going back to the jungle after all.”
As soon as the Archetype dropped out of unSpace, Dash fixed his attention on the heads-up, letting the Meld augment his situational awareness. He saw the Slipwing not far away, which was good; he saw nothing else that seemed to be an immediate threat, which was better. More importantly, he was able to locate the signal that had brought them to Gulch in the first place.
“Hey, wait a second.” He cocked his head at what the data was telling him. “That signal isn’t in space. It’s coming from a planetary surface. The one with the settlement.”
“That is true,” Sentinel said. “It is emanating from a point in its northern hemisphere, on the edge of what seems to be a barren region of desert bordered by lush jungle.”
“Why did I think it was in space?”
“There actually is a considerable amount of space-borne debris. It would be difficult for your technology to detect it as distinct from the usual detritus found in a star system, such as asteroids, comets, and patches of dust and gas. However, the signal clearly does not originate in space. Remember, the resolution from the Forge’s deep scan was limited, so there was considerable uncertainty regarding its exact location. I would remind you that gaining more information about it was a significant part of why we came here,” Sentinel said.
“Understood, but—seeing that the signal is coming from the planet, and close to the settlement—well, that makes things even more complicated,” Dash said.
Dash let out a sigh. “Because I was kind of hoping we could do this quietly.”
On the way in-system, Dash scrutinized the other planets. Aside from Gulch itself, there wasn’t much to see—two barren, airless rocks, a second terran-type planet with an atmosphere so thick and hot it might as well be boiling water, and a gaseous blob that didn’t even rate the term “giant.” There was, however, one bright blue planet that caught his attention. They came near enough from Dash to observe its ring of ice, which the databank listed as being ice debris, not a solid ring. It orbited the planet at insanely fast speeds, giving that appearance, and though beautiful would have made landing a bitch. Well, that and the unforgiving frozen surface.
“That’s a lot of debris,” he commented.
“Likely the remains of other planets,” Sentinel said, “probably destroyed by the battle that occurred here.”
Dash shook his head. “They’re not shy about cutting loose with the big guns.”
“Using terminal weapons is the preferred method of the Golden, especially in large battles,” Sentinel said.
“It was, anyway,” Dash said.
“Clarify?” Sentinel asked.
“We have the Forge. We will have Dark Metal. With the plans we have in Custodian’s databanks, I intend to school the Golden on the cost of doing business with us in open warfare,” Dash said.
“I will help you reach this goal, of course,” said Sentinel.
“I know you will,” Dash said, smiling broadly. “Listen, from here on out, we’re going to be radio silent. I don’t want anyone on Gulch hearing me talk to you until I’m absolutely read.”
“Of course, Dash,” Sentinel replied.
They decided to leave the Slipwing in orbit. Leira and the others would use a recreated Halfwing, the Slipwing’s shuttle, to descend to the surface. The original Halfwing had been destroyed when Dash slammed it into the comet inside which the Archetype had been hidden, but Custodian had been able to rebuild it from its schematics, and in a matter of minutes, at that. Only a small fraction of the fabrication machinery aboard the Forge had been needed, but Dash couldn’t forget that sudden explosion of activity as the tech went to work, molding and assembling the shuttle while they’d all stood and watched in amazed silence.
As the Halfwing fell away from the Slipwing, Leira said, “The downlink is good. The Slipwing should be able to keep an eye out for threats up here and alert us via relay through the Halfwing right away.”
“As long as it’s something the Slipwing can actually see,” Dash replied. His ship had been blind to more than a few threats from both misdirected Unseen tech, as well as that of the Golden.
“We can only do what we can do,” Leira said. “Unless you want to leave the Archetype in orbit instead.”
“No thanks. I’d like to keep it close by when we go after whatever’s generating that signal.”
Dash dove the Archetype toward the planet’s surface, following the Halfwing as she plunged through atmospheric re-entry. Their trajectories took them to Port Hannah, the largest by far of what turned out to be several settlements that collectively made up Gulch and gave the planet its name. The Halfwing settled on a landing pad that had been carved out of the jungle a few hundred meters from the nearest of Port Hannah’s domes, her thrusters blasting dust into the thick foliage. Once she was down, he brought the Archetype to rest in a much quieter and less dramatic landing.
Less dramatic, that is, for him and his companions. The good people of Port Hannah would probably consider the big mech quite dramatic. Even as he dismounted, he started bracing himself for the inevitable barrage of questions.
Dash, Leira, Viktor, Conover, and Amy made their way along the path connecting the pad to the nearest dome of Port Hannah. The path was paved with tall, stout fences along either side, apparently to keep whatever lurked in the surrounding jungle at bay. The air hung damp and heavy, feeling even thicker and more oppressive than that on the planet where they’d almost lost Conover in the pit trap. But there was more of a sedate stillness here, as though the mere presence of civilization had tamed the wild character of the jungle somewhat.
Rounding a curve, Dash saw the dome looming just ahead. The path led to an entrance which, oddly, stood open. There were no guards, no obvious defenses at all—just an open door.
“Okay, that’s weird,” he said, then froze as someone stepped into view.
It was a woman with fair skin and long, coppery hair that was tied back in a ponytail. She tossed what looked like mucky water from a bucket through the fence, into the adjacent foliage, then turned and went back inside the dome. If she’d seen Dash and his companions, she’d given no sign of it at all.
“You’d think they’d have seen us land,” Leira said. “Sent out a reception committee, a delegate…hell, a guy with some tourist brochures. Something, anyway.”
“Well, maybe they have giant mechs landing here all the time,” Amy offered, grinning. “And it’s no big deal to them.”
“Yeah, that would raise a few questions,” Dash said.
They carried on and reached the open door. It opened into what looked like an airlock. And, in fact, it probably was, Dash thought. It wasn’t at all uncommon for colonies to partly, or even completely, disassemble whatever spacecraft had brought them to their destination and repurpose the parts for use in their settlements. Colonies understand how to recycle, as their early success depended on it.
“Okay,” Dash said, “these people are, at worst, neutral to us, okay? If it looks like they’re going to get in our way, our priority is to just disengage and do what we came here to do. We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
As they entered the airlock, Viktor added, “Hopefully, they’ll actually help us out.”
“Yeah, that would be ideal. At the least, I could do with a cold beer and a map.”
“You think they have beer?” Conover asked.
“Are there humans?” Dash replied.
“Um, yeah,” Conover said, sounding confused.
“Then there’s beer,” Viktor said. “Humans always bring the essentials. Or the means to make them.”
“I’d rather they brought tech,” Conover said.
“They did. It’s just simple enough to make beer,” Dash said with a tight grin. “Look alive. We aren’t alone in here.”
The air inside the dome was both cooler and drier than it had been outside but still muggy compared to what Dash was used to. They saw no immediate sign of the red-haired woman, just rows of planters lining the transparent walls of a tunnel leading from the airlock and into the dome beyond.
They carried on, walking among the planters. Dash was immediately struck by the plants growing in them. He recognized some—beans, gourds, and a couple of varieties of corn—but others were wholly unfamiliar to him. What made them remarkable was their obvious robust vitality. They grew tall and straight, with brilliant green leaves, gleaming stems, and rich, saturated colors. A stew of smells, sweet and spicy, tickled his nose, but also made his stomach growl. Dash was no huge fan of vegetables, but he found he wanted to grab some of these and just gnaw on them.
Leira stopped and peered at the base of a vine sporting what looked like oversized, bright yellow tomatoes. She pointed into the shade among the roots.
“I think this plant is actually glowing,” Leira said.
Dash bent down and looked. Sure enough, he caught a hint of a soft, bluish glow. His immediate thought was Cherenkov radiation, the glow given off by radioactive elements as they ionized the air around them. But, if it had been, the environmental monitors they all carried on them to warn about just such threats would be going off.
Conover touched the waxy surface of a gourd like an oversized, purple pumpkin. “I wonder if all of the plants here grow all crazy like this.”
“Not all of them,” a voice said. “Really, it’s just these.”
Dash straightened and found himself facing the woman they’d seen earlier. She wore coveralls, over which she’d belted an apron festooned with the tools of a gardener. She was even more striking than she’d seemed from a distance, and she was smiling.
“You must have just arrived in that bizarre spacecraft,” she said. “The one shaped like a giant man.”
Dash nodded. “That one, and a shuttle. Our other ship is still in orbit.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Newton Sawyer. My friends call me Dash.”
The woman wiped her hand on her apron and took the one Dash offered. Her palm was callused, her nails dark with dirt. “I’m Freya Dixon. My friends call me…well, Freya.” She released Dash’s hand, then added, “Oh, welcome to Port Hannah, by the way.” She gave a self-conscious shrug. “I guess I really should put more effort into being more of a greeting committee, since my planters here are pretty much the first thing a visitor here sees.”
“These plants are amazing,” Conover said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like them.”
“Yeah, you’re quite the gardener,” Amy said. “I tried growing some tomatoes once, on Passage, but my thumb isn’t just brown, it’s black. They all died.”
“I am quite proud of my little project here,” Freya replied. “These plants all exceed normal standards for nutrient value, ease of growth, size, and growth rate. They’re supercharged, basically. I can’t take all the credit for it, though. I was able to start with some amazing seeds and cuttings.”
“From here? On this planet?” Viktor asked.
Leira lifted a broad, luscious leaf. “So these are native plants? You got them from the jungle out there?”
“If so,” Conover said, “you might have a really valuable trade commodity.”
Freya’s smile remained, but Dash caught a wary gleam in her eyes. “They’re native, yes. I gathered most of them to the north of here”—she waved her arm in a vague gesture—“near the desert.”
Dash heard Viktor mutter, “That’s where the signal’s coming from.”
So Dash decided to shift the conversation away from the plants, at least for now. But before he could say anything, a group of people appeared at the other end of the tunnel, exiting the dome and approaching them. Dash immediately recognized the guarded officiousness that declared them to be security of some sort. He’d seen it many, many times before, often right before something beginning, Excuse me, sir, but we have some questions. . .
The man leading them was squat, sturdy, and had bushy brows lifted above a smile meant to disarm them.
“Friends,” he said, extending a hand. “My name is Ragsdale, Chief of Security and advisor to the Governor. My apologies for the delay in getting here to greet you. We don’t get many visitors, and since our space is currently uncontrolled, we tend to not even know when we have any until they actually land.”
Dash smiled back and accepted the offered hand. As he did, he glanced at Freya. One of the best ways to tell what sort of role security played in a place was to look at the reactions of the people living there to having them show up. He’d seen everything from genuine pleasure to abject fear, which had given him a heads-up as to what to expect in his own dealings with the local authorities. Freya, though, seemed generally indifferent to them, giving Ragsdale a faint smile that smacked of casual politeness, rather than actually being happy to see him. On the other hand, she hadn’t averted her eyes or recoiled in terror, either.
He shook Ragsdale’s hand, which was as callused as Freya’s. Dash doubted it was from gardening, which meant that the man was probably a hands-on sort of guy. He kept his own wariness cranked up but found himself…if not liking these people, then not being put off by them either. Call it guarded optimism.
After introductions, Ragsdale said, “Most of the population of Port Hannah watched you land. That one ship you have is—I hesitate to say unusual, because that means I’ve seen it before. I haven’t.”
“The one shaped like a giant mechanical guy, you mean?” Amy asked, smiling sweetly.
“That’s right. It’s an odd design for a spacecraft, you must admit.”
“And I’d be more than happy to tell you all about it,” Dash said, “but I’d rather do it once, rather than over and over. I assume you’re here to take us to meet someone?”
“The Governor, yes.” Ragsdale offered a self-deprecating shrug toward his four companions, all obviously security staff. “And please don’t be put off by the Specials I brought with me. It’s just protocol.”
“Well, you don’t have your guns drawn, so I’ll take that as a good thing.”
Ragsdale laughed. “I honestly can’t remember the last time any of us ever drew our sidearms.” He gestured back into the dome. “Anyway, if you’d walk this way, I’ll take you to meet Governor Wallis. She’s very anxious to meet you.”
“And we’re just as anxious to meet her,” Dash said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“I’m sure you do,” Ragsdale said, leading the way. Dash and his companions followed, while the four Specials, as Ragsdale had named them, fell in behind. It wasn’t lost on any of them that they effectively blocked the way back to the landing pad, and the waiting Archetype and Halfwing.
Governor Wallis held court in an unobtrusive group of offices not far inside the dome. Traversing it gave them a broad overview of the place, a tidy sprawl of boxy, prefabricated modular habs of a type scattered across dozens of worlds. Interspersed among them were more organic looking constructs of what was probably local wood, ranging from snug cabins to tasteful, delicate A-frames. Port Hannah didn’t come across as particularly ostentatious or wealthy, but it also wasn’t ramshackle and grubby like a lot of frontier colonies Dash could name. It was somewhere in-between, which he found oddly comforting. People who romanticized grit and grime had never lived in either, and Port Hannah was light years away from the places Dash had known.
The room where the Governor received them was sparse and functional, a place obviously meant for meetings, presentations, and similar official business. She was a rather severe older woman, with hair almost brush-cut short and an obvious data implant behind her right ear. She offered Dash and his companions a thin smile that switched on like a light, lingered a moment, then switched off. Everything about the woman was clipped and efficient.
“Welcome to Port Hannah,” she said. “My name is Khyber Wallis. I have the privilege and honor of being the Governor of our little colony. And you are…?”
Dash made introductions all around, then they settled into chairs set around the central table. They’d lost their escort of Specials somewhere along the way, but Dash suspected they weren’t far. Ragsdale stayed with them, though, and now took a discrete seat away from the table, against the back wall.
“So,” Wallis said, “Mister Sawyer—”
“Please, it’s Dash.”
Wallis gave a curt nod. “Right. Dash. So, Dash, what brings you to Gulch, and particularly to Port Hannah? We’re kind of on the fringe of things here, so it’s not likely you’re on your way to somewhere else.”
Getting the old ‘we’re just passing through’ excuse off the table right up front, Dash noticed. Straight to the point, with no nonsense along the way. He actually found himself liking this woman.
“No, this was definitely our destination,” he said.
“And you traveled in a spaceship shaped like a giant man.”
“It’s called the Archetype. It’s experimental.”
They’d already agreed on a general script for what they were going to say. Trying to explain the Unseen, and the Golden, and the Forge, and the Archetype and all of that would wait until they had no choice. It would just muddy what was already a delicate, and potentially complicated, situation.
“Experimental,” Wallis said, as though tasting the word to see what flavor it gave her. It apparently tasted like skepticism. “So whose experiment is it?”
“We represent a consortium. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that, at least not right now. Non-disclosure agreements and all that. I’m sure you understand.”
Wallis tapped a finger on the table. “I see. So, you represent an unnameable consortium of…somebody. Is it a consortium of people? Corporations? Not-for-profit aid organizations?”
“Entertainers?” Ragsdale put in from the back. “Actors or comedians, maybe?”
Dash gave a broad smile. “Let’s say some of all of those and leave it at that.” He shrugged. “That’s the thing about non-disclosure agreements, isn’t it? They kind of say, don’t disclose this.”
The finger kept tapping. Wallis let the silence linger, her dark eyes fixed on Dash. He just kept smiling back. Leira, beside him, was just as cool; they’d both had to deal with any number of port officials, customs agents, cargo brokers and the like, all of whom used much the same techniques to try to get their “customers” to squirm and let something slip. The others, though, shifted uncomfortably in his peripheral vision—especially Conover, who just didn’t have much deception in him.
Dash knew where that would end up. Wallis and Ragsdale would find some pretext to get Conover alone for a few minutes, by which time they’d probably have gotten him to start making detailed sketches of the Forge. So he leaned into Wallis’s penetrating gaze, his eyes still locked on hers.
“Anyway,” he went on, starting to lift himself off the chair, “we’re all very busy here. So, if that’s all, we’ll be on our—”
“Why?” Wallis asked.
Dash held his starting-to-stand pose for a moment, then settled back down. “Why? Are we here?”
“Yes. And with your consortium’s giant, shaped-like-a-human, experimental ship.”
“We’re here to retrieve something.”
“But your non-disclosure agreement won’t let you tell me what.”
Dash shook his head. “Not at all. It’s not something we can really keep secret anyway. We’re here to retrieve a ship.”
Wallis’s eyes narrowed slightly. She’d expected more obfuscation, so he’d put her off a bit. Dash decided to capitalize on it.
“It was lost here quite some time ago. It crashed and is now buried in the desert north of here. Its owners want to retrieve it, or at least salvage what they can from it.”
The finger stopped tapping for a moment, then resumed. “A crashed ship. Ragsdale, did we come across any crashed ships in our planetary surveys?”
“Not that I’m aware. I’m sure the geologists would have mentioned something if we had. Especially if it was shaped like a giant man.”
Wallis turned her hard gaze back on Dash. “Is it shaped like a man, Dash? Another of your consortium’s experimental ships?”
“I’m afraid not. That one’s a prototype. This one is more…well, I’d say conventional, but it’s not. See, the reason you haven’t detected its crash site is because you can’t. That’s been the problem. It used stealth technologies that make it impossible to be detected—by normal means, at least. And that’s why we’re only here now. It took a long time to even figure out which system it had crashed in, before we could even begin using other, certain, technologies—”
“Aboard your experimental prototype, no doubt,” Ragsdale cut in.
Dash tossed him a smile, then went on, “But we have now narrowed the location of the crash site to down to a pretty small area north of here, like I said.”
Wallis gave a slow nod, but the finger kept tapping. “So, what you’re saying is that there’s a crashed ship on this planet, full of lots of interesting tech.” She looked a Ragsdale. “Sounds like it could be worth salvaging. We might be able to make a lot of credits from stealth tech so good that we never detected it crashing.”
“You’re right, Governor. I’ll get the geologists to pull their survey data for that area, see what we can see.” Ragsdale stood and left the room.
Dash said nothing. He just let his smile fade a bit. He saw Conover shift and made himself not wince. Was the kid about to screw this up? But under the table, he caught Viktor’s foot moving and pressing down on Conover’s, making him settle back down.
Wallis hadn’t missed it, though. “Your young companion over there seems somewhat concerned about the idea of us claiming salvage rights. So are you, Dash.”
“I am concerned. I was hoping we could avoid getting your people involved in this mess.” He sighed and looked at Leira. “I told you we should just have gone right to the crash site. But, no, let’s engage with these people, see what they know.” He shook his head at her. “So now it’s going to get ugly.”
She shrugged and said, “It was always going to get ugly, Dash. These people were going to see what we were up to.”
“Yeah, but we might have spared them the worst of it.” He turned back to Wallis and started to stand again. “Governor, I’m sorry.”
Dash headed for the door. Leira rose to follow him. He glanced back and saw Viktor looking bemused, Amy a little surprised, and Conover stunned.
“Dash, are you really going to let this happen?” Conover asked.
Dash turned back, ready to give the kid a glare that he hoped said, Just shut up, don’t blow this. Viktor looked like he was going to try something similar.
But Conover winked.
Dash had to work at keeping a smirk off his face.
“You told us this would be easy,” he went on, giving Dash an accusing look. “That no one would get hurt.”
“No! You have to tell her!”
Wallis’s finger had gone still. “Is there something I should know here?”
Dash glared at Conover again, who snapped, “Either you tell her, or I will.”
With a theatrical sigh, Dash let his shoulders slump a bit. “Fine. Governor, the consortium we’re working for will not take kindly to having their property taken from them—as in, they will not let it happen.”
“Any means necessary is what they told us,” Leira added.
Amy, apparently wanting in on the action, crossed her arms. “Yeah. So you’d better watch out.”
That made Dash wince and Leira roll her eyes. But Wallis’s expression hardened. “Is that a threat?”
Dash nodded. “Yes, it is.”
Now it was Wallis’s turn to wince. “It is?” She looked from one to the next. “You’re actually threatening us?”
“No, no, not at all,” Dash said, raising his hands. “We’re what you might call the easy way. But if that doesn’t work, then our employers will go back to the hard way.”
“The hard way?”
Dash gave a resigned nod. “Yeah, the hard way. We don’t like it, but we’re not paid to like it.” He turned to the door. “Anyway, Governor, we—”
“Just a moment, Dash,” Wallis said. “I just want to be clear on this. This consortium you work for is actually prepared to use violence to stop us from getting at this crashed ship?”
“Oh, yes. Violence and lots of it. It’s kind of what they do.”
“Put it together, Governor,” Conover said. “Secret consortium, advanced stealth technology to be recovered at all costs…”
Wallis pursed her lips. “Military?”
This was the moment, Dash thought, where you said nothing and just let silence be your answer.
The door opened and Ragsdale entered. He stopped as soon as he saw Dash and his companions halfway to the door and asked, “Did I miss something?”
“Yes, you did,” Wallis replied. “I was just informing Dash and his companions that we would be happy to assist them in recovering their employer’s property, in any way we can. To that end, you’re going to act as Port Hannah’s liaison with them, and accompany them. Please make sure they get whatever help we can spare.”
Ragsdale just stared for a moment, then nodded. “Alright, then. When did you want to leave?”
Dash grinned. “The sooner the better. Oh, and Ragsdale? Welcome aboard.”
Ragsdale arranged accommodations for them—a cargo pod divided into a sparse pair of rooms by an old hatch cover. He also gave them a rundown of Port Hannah’s layout, including where they could obtain anything they needed for the journey north. Now, they ambled through a small maze of stalls, kiosks, and more cargo pods converted into shops. Again, Dash was struck by how Port Hannah managed to neatly straddle a line between chaotic and shabby, and orderly and neat. They found themselves smiling and nodding a lot as they threaded their way through the small market zone. It indeed seemed that the colony didn’t get many visitors, making them a true curiosity.
Dash and Leira stopped at a kiosk selling survival gear. The environment outside the settlement’s domes was quite hostile, Ragsdale had told them, so even brief forays were best done well-equipped. Dash picked up a water bottle with a built-in purifying unit and studied it. Leira examined a hand tool that seemed to combine hatchet, pick, hammer, and a few other things into one neat little implement.
“So how many of these people do you think are undercover and keeping an eye on us?” Leira asked, giving the tool a close look.
“Oh, I think everyone’s keeping an eye on us. We’re something new and different.”
Conover sidled up beside them. “Caught two people at a textiles stall over there talking about us. The rumor, apparently, is that we’re here looking over the colony, to buy it out.”
“I started that one about half an hour ago,” Dash said, unscrewing the water bottle’s cap and sniffing the spout. “A little surprised it’s already taken root.”
“You started it?”
“Along with four or five others,” Leira said, putting the tool down and picking up a small coil of monofilament cord. “Haven’t heard any of mine yet, though.”
“You guys have done this sort of stuff before.”
Dash glanced at him. “We might be new to all this alien tech stuff, but when it comes to scams…well, remember that Leira and I are couriers. Scams are a big chunk of how we make a living.”
“Or made a living, at least,” Leira said.
Dash nodded at that. “Oh, by the way,” he said to Conover, “haven’t had a chance to say it yet, but good job back there.”
Conover shrugged. “I haven’t done this sort of stuff before. But I’m learning.”
Dash looked at Leira. “They grow up so fast. Now, on that note, let me explain the magic of beer. . .”
They meandered on, wending their way among a scatter of wildly divergent market stalls into one of the tube-like pedways connecting two of Port Hannah’s domes. More kiosks lined the route, which shared the glassed-in path with a narrow road for whisper-silent electric trams.
“Is that cake? Smells like cake,” Leira said.
“I believe so,” Dash said. The air was rich with smells of baking.
“Um, can we get some? It is cake,” Leira said, adding a winning smile.
“One condition,” Dash said, his expression grave.
“A whole cake. We don’t do pieces. We’re not that kind of people,” Dash said.
Leira laughed then approached the baker with a flourish and bought a cake that was large enough to require a bag, but the vendor needn’t have worried. Pre-cut, the cake was divvied up and eaten in less time than it took to negotiate the sale.
They all stood looking at each other with a vague sense of guilt, until Leira spoke up.
“I’m not proud of what just happened—”
“But I’d do it again,” Dash finished. They gave the baker’s stall a lingering look and moved on, letting the throngs of people flow around them like rapids in a stream.
Ragsdale had given them a list of items they should bring along when they trekked north into the desert, and they’d been able to find pretty much all of them amidst the bustle of the local markets. Dash noted that Ragsdale and the Governor offered modest support to their expedition, apparently content to leave them to their own devices—and expense.
Something else Dash noted was the surprisingly diverse range of goods for sale, either for standard credits, a local scrip currency called “tags,” or even barter. It suggested a robust economy for such an isolated colony with a relatively small population. He’d heard mention of mining ores, but had seen little heavy equipment or evidence of mining activity. What he had seen was a lot of stuff obviously gathered from the diverse flora of Gulch—leaves, roots, seeds, bulbous stems, bark, flowers—and he wondered if some of it might be especially valuable, as luxury goods or maybe meds. And even this bounty seemed mundane in light of the amazing plants they’d seen on their arrival, the ones apparently curated by the woman named Freya.
For now, Dash just made a mental note to dig a little deeper and find out what made the place tick. After all, when all of this save the universe crap was done, he still needed a fallback way of making a living—if selling off a little alien tech didn’t pan out, that is.
And, of course, assuming he survived it all in the first place. At the very least, they’d found a bakery, so the day wasn’t a total loss.
Dash slowed as a gaggle of kids jostled their way by him. After comparing various sizes of self-filtering water bottles with Leira and Conover, he tossed a look after the boisterous children, then relented because he’d been those kids, once. Dash turned back to Leira and opened his mouth to speak when Viktor and Amy, who’d gone off to do some shopping of their own, reappeared, waving. They’d scored a wheeled cart from somewhere, and had loaded it with supplies.
“We’re going to take all of this back to our quarters and start getting it sorted out,” Viktor said. “In the meantime, you guys throw whatever you bought on the pile then go see that guy.” He pointed at a man waiting a discreet distance away. Dash recognized him as one of the Specials that had been in Ragsdale’s greeting committee. “Apparently, the Governor wants to see you.”
Dash looked at Leira. “Round two.”
“What’s round two?” Conover asked.
“That’d where the Governor tells us she’s having second thoughts,” Dash replied, “or some new information has come to light, or an inconvenient bit of bureaucratic administrivia has suddenly gotten in the way. What’s she’s really going to be looking for is some sort of concession, something that sweetens the pot.”
“I’m betting permits,” Leira said. “We’ll have to get some sort of permit, or license or something, because the crashed ship has some sort of archaeological value, or some similar bullshit.”
“We could also have an environmental impact issue,” Dash said. “Never mind that it’s a crash site. What about the rare lizards that live there?”
“There are lizards?” Conover asked. “Do they bite?”
“Dunno, but it’s a good ploy, and one I’ve seen before. She’ll have a plan in place.”
“You mean she’s let us build up our expectations,” Conover said, “even spend a bunch of money on supplies, and now she’s going to threaten to rescind her permission for us to go if we don’t make it more worth her while.”
Leira made an impressed face and nodded.
Dash glanced at her. “Like I said, they grow up so fast.”
They loaded their haul onto the cart and set off, following the waiting Special back to meet with Khyber Wallis.
Wallis pointed at the projected image of Gulch hovering over the conference table. A glowing spot pulsed in the desert region depicted north of Port Hannah. Its location matched that of the crashed Golden ship. A similar, wall-sized display of the planet’s surface repeated the same information.
“When I asked our geoscience people to pull our surveys of the area, they didn’t find much. In fact, your “crashed ship” seems so stealthy our teams didn’t even register any metallic or magnetic responses. No radiation, nothing.” She moved her finger to indicate the pulsing spot. “That is, until they went ahead and accessed some telemetry from a geophysical station they’d set up in the desert. Now, they’re detecting this signal.” She stared through the translucent image of the planet, at Dash. “It wasn’t there before you showed up. It’s only started since the last time our people accessed that station, about a week ago.”
“Are you asking me a question here, Governor?” Dash asked.
“Yes. I’d like an explanation. What’s changed? Was it something you did?”
Dash shook his head. “Nope. In fact, that signal is what brought us here.”
Ragsdale, who again had been lurking in the back of the conference room, said, “You never told us there was something active up there.”
“I think I said we used certain technologies to locate the crash site.” Dash nodded toward the image. “That’s what we used those certain technologies to detect.”
Wallis again started tapping her finger on the table, but her eyes remained on Dash. Even through the blur of the planetary image, he could see the wary suspicion hardening them. But Dash didn’t blame her for being apprehensive or mistrustful. In her place, he would be too. In fact, he was starting to feel more than a little bad about all the half-truths and subterfuge. He knew their ignorance of what the signal really meant was for their own good, but he’d started to genuinely like these people as dedicated, resourceful frontier colonists.
So he decided to blink first. Unfortunately, it meant more deception—this time, an outright lie.
“If you’re worried about this posing some kind of danger to Port Hannah,” Dash said, “I can assure you, it doesn’t.”
“No, the real threat is supposedly from your employers,” Ragsdale said, his voice flat.
Leira turned to him and nodded. “Yes, it is.”
Wallis’s attention stayed locked on Dash like a laser designator. “Dammit, Dash, I need some answers here. You’re obviously holding some things back from us.”
“Lots, actually,” Dash said, nodding.
“Well, now I think it’s time you share whatever those things are with us. What, exactly, is up in the desert?”
“And what kind of risk does it pose to Port Hannah?” Ragsdale added.
“Governor, look. I would love to be able to reveal everything to you. But our employers were adamant that most of it is need-to-know only, and, well…” He gave an apologetic smile and shrug. “I’m sorry, you just don’t really need to know.”
“In fact, you really don’t even want to know,” Leira said. “There are good reasons for keeping things secret, and one of them is to protect the people who might be put at risk if they have too much information.”
Wallis stood, but left her hands planted on the table and a glare on her face. “I’m the one who’s sorry, because this just isn’t acceptable. You need us to get to whatever is producing that signal—”
“With all due respect, Governor, no, we don’t,” Dash said. “We could have just gone straight to the crash site and bypassed you entirely.” He took a breath, steeling himself to remain determined—or at least appear determined—while delivering harsh words he didn’t actually mean, and that weren’t necessarily even true. “We didn’t, because we wanted to be as up front with you about all of this as we could. We’ve done that. We’ve told you everything we can. If we reveal any more, then we actually will be putting you at risk.”
“From your so-called employers,” Ragsdale said.
“That’s right. They are…let’s call them very focused people. They really don’t like it when anything gets in the way of whatever they’re trying to accomplish.”
Which really does describe the Golden, Dash thought.
“We’re not in their way,” Wallis shot back. “This is our settlement. We’re the only ones developing this planet. Pretty much by definition, we can’t be in anyone’s way. Not here on Gulch anyway.”
Dash’s thoughts stayed snagged on the Golden, which made his next line easy to deliver with both menace and regret.
“Governor, the people we’re dealing with have their own definition for what getting in their way means. And believe me, it’s a lot wider and more open-ended that what you, or even I, would probably consider reasonable.”
“So you’re working for violent psychopaths.”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”
Wallis’s eyes actually widened slightly at that answer. Dash decided to seal the deal.
“That’s why we’re here, Governor. You deal with us, so you don’t have to deal with our employers. Trying to deal with them directly means something has gone terribly wrong. They are extremely possessive of their tech and, honestly, won’t stop at much—”
“At anything,” Leira put in.
Dash nodded. “Yeah. At anything. So, please…just let us do what we came here to do.”
Wallis looked from Dash, to the signal, then back to Dash. As the weight of their words settled on her, he decided to press home with a final point, one that had only just occurred to him.
“There’s one other thing,” he said. “The woman we met when we first got here. Freya, I think her name was.”
Wallis nodded. “That’s right. What about her?”
“She showed us some amazing plants that she’s growing, that she apparently retrieved from the edge of the jungle, where it gives way to the desert, north of here. In other words, near the crash site.”
“So, there’s a chance that the peculiar properties of those plants might also have something to do with our employers’ tech. If so, then Port Hannah has already become involved with that tech, at least indirectly.”
Leira picked up the thread. “Which means, not to put too fine a point on it, that helping us out is an even better idea than hindering us.”
“Seriously, Governor,” Dash said, “We’re on your side, here.”
Really, his thoughts went on—we’re on your side, as in, the side of sentient life that might otherwise get wiped out by the Golden.
He said nothing else though, judging that it was time to let Wallis make up her mind.
The Governor sat back down, stared at the pulsing image of the signal from the wreck, and sighed. “Alright. We’ll proceed as planned. Ragsdale will arrange for transport up to this crash site.” She turned to her Security Chief. “How long will that take?”
“We need about a day, Governor, to get a buggy ready and kitted out for the trip.”
“A day. Fine. You have that long, Dash, to get you and your people ready.”
Dash wanted to give long, relieved sigh, but didn’t. Instead, he nodded and said, “Thank you, Governor.”
Dash had thanked a lot of peoplea in his time, for a lot of things. Most of the time, he didn’t really mean it.
This time, though, he really did.
Amy pushed the cart laden with much of their gear along, helped by Conover, while Dash, Leira, and Viktor led the way. They all were weighed down with more equipment. As they threaded their way through the crowds, following the directions Ragsdale had given them, they caught a lot of curious stares—and a few that seemed more than a little hostile.
“Newest rumor is apparently that we’re here representing one of the big criminal syndicates, come to take over,” Viktor said.
Amy made a hmph sound. “I heard we’re from a big corporation, out to take over all the mining rights because there’s some super valuable mineral ores here.”
Viktor smirked as he shrugged. “Criminal enterprise, large corporation…pretty much the same thing, no?”
“Did you guys start these rumors?” Conover asked, eyeing Dash and Leira.
Dash smiled and shook his head. “Nope. Rumors still start just fine all on their own.”
They entered one of the pedways connecting the domes. One of the electric trams ghosted by, its passengers staring at them out of the cabin windows. A flat cart groaning with crates and bales trailed at the end of it.
“I have to admit,” Viktor said, watching the tram enter the next dome, “that this settlement, Port Hannah, is one of the better ones I’ve seen. They’ve not just put a lot of work into these domes and the pedways connecting them, they’ve given a lot of thought to how it should all be laid out.” He stepped aside to let a man riding an electric scooter drift past. “The engineering is really well done, too.” He pointed through the transparent roof at the geodesic surface of the dome looming ahead. “They’ve maximized the structural strength while cutting the materials needed down to a minimum.”
“Somebody definitely knows what they’re doing here.” Amy nodded. “I’ve been checking out their tech. Not much of it is what I’d call new, but it’s all kept in good repair. I saw a water reclamator in one of the other domes that looked about a hundred years old. Half its parts looked homebrewed, but it was still chugging along. Really good water, too. Didn’t have that usual, nasty reclaimed taste, you know?”
“Oh, you mean that hint of recycled urine?” Leira said. “That subtle flavor that makes the water on board a ship so special?”
“Yeah. Exactly that.” Amy stuck out her tongue. “I hate that, blech.”
Dash smiled. He knew exactly what she meant. No matter how much he tweaked the Slipwing’s reclamator, the water always had at least a glimmer of something…that didn’t bear thinking about.
“Looks like you did okay with the gear we needed, though,” Leira said, gesturing at the cart piled with their supplies. “You and Viktor got all that stuff for a lot less than I thought it was going to cost us.”
Viktor laughed. “Don’t look at me. That was all Amy. Turns out she drives a pretty hard bargain.”
“I know,” Conover said. “I watched her buying that climbing gear. I swear she had the vendor trying to lower the price even more, and she put him off.”
Dash couldn’t help smirking at the slightly dreamy look he gave Amy, but she just shrugged. “Hey, you don’t last long as a freelance mech engineer on Passage if you can’t get a decent rate on parts, repair bays, and maintenance drone time. But I don’t want to actually rip anyone off. They’ve got mouths to feed, after all. I’m just. . .opportunistic.”
“Dash, over here,” Ragsdale called. He stood near another moving path that led out of the area; this one opened onto several bays holding the boxy, multi-wheeled trucks called buggies. Dash noticed he’d changed into gear more suited for trekking around outside, where the environment was less controlled. It included a wide-brimmed hat that made him reminiscent of a character in one of those ancient vids with men riding big quadrupeds called horses and shooting one another with crude slug-pistols.
“This way,” Ragsdale called out, pointing at the nearest buggy bay on the right. “We’ll get your gear loaded and then get rolling. It’s a long trip, at least a full day and probably more. The sooner we start, the better.”
“It’s not really that far,” Amy said, as she and Conover maneuvered the cart carrying their stuff toward the bay. “Maybe a hundred and fifty clicks from here?”
Ragsdale offered her a thin smile. “And if we had roads to follow, it might be a quick trip. I’m afraid we’re not quite at the road-building stage yet. At least, not to where we’re going.”
Amy curled her lip as she shoved on the cart. “So I’ve come millions and billions of kilometers just to plant my butt down in a seat and bounce across a boring landscape for hours on end.”
Conover laughed just a little louder than the rest of them. “Your bum will be fine.”
“That’s what you think,” Amy grumbled, but the corners of her mouth were turned up.
The buggy proved to be more comfortable than Amy predicted, traversing the rugged terrain on eight big, pneumatic tires. A clever system inflated and deflated the tires on the go, while switching power among the wheels, maintaining the best possible traction while also smoothing out the ride. Unfortunately, smoothing out the ride was a relative thing; it didn’t actually mean the ride was smooth. The buggy tilted, pitched, and bounced along a track cut through the jungle, following a set of ruts left by other vehicles making previous trips. A few times, the driver had to ease the vehicle along a steep hillside, the whole thing tipping alarmingly to one side. Dash felt his toes trying to dig themselves into the floor, the view to one side of the buggy becoming sky, the other wet muck and tangled foliage. Again, the vehicle had an answer for that—a series of counterweights that slid to the high side and stopped it from toppling over.
Ragsdale and the pair of Specials accompanying him grinned wickedly at their unease. “And this is the easy part of the trip,” the Security Chief said, laughing. “Just wait until we get to the rough part of the road.”
“Invigorating. Like a traveling fair, but without all those pesky vendors,” Dash remarked drily.
“Huh,” Ragsdale said, giving him another look of appraisal. They fell into a silence, watching the smear of jungle outside, bumping by at an alarming speed.
The sun set, plunging them into starlit darkness. Dash and the others dozed, but fitfully, being jolted awake whenever the buggy slammed over some rocks, or pitched down into a deeper rut, or suddenly reared, climbing a steep ridge, its powerful motors whining. At one point, Dash blinked himself awake because the buggy wasn’t rocking and jolting around. It was dark, so he put on the helmet he’d acquired back in Port Hannah and flipped down the night-vision screen. Looking outside, he saw the driver had eased the whole vehicle into a river, which now carried them downstream on its broad current. The trail actually resumed on the other side, far enough downstream to account for the drift as they crossed.
When dawn finally lightened the sky, Dash woke to find they’d left the jungle behind, and now rumbled across a rocky hardpan, the big tires thumping over rocks and cracks in the earth where the desiccated ground had split open.
He looked at Ragsdale, who was reclining across a bench seat, reading a…book. Dash recognized it, although he’d only seen a few of them. They were ancient technology—writing encoded on flat, flexible sheets made from compressed vegetable matter. He’d heard there were some preserved from the time of Old Earth that were worth astronomical fortunes. But aside from those, which were really no different than any other old, rare artifact—an investment—he didn’t see the point. Data-pads were just so much more durable and convenient.
Ragsdale noticed Dash watching him. He looked at the book, then back at Dash. “Never seen one of these before?”
Dash looked at his companions, all still sprawled asleep. “No, I have. Just seems kind of…clunky, I guess. I mean, what happens if that thing gets wet?”
“It’s inconvenient, but I like it. Don’t ask me why. Outdated way of reading, perhaps, but there’s something about the feel of the page in your hand that speaks to me,” he explained.
The buggy slowed and then stopped.
Dash looked outside. They seemed to be at the top of a high ridge. The land fell away in a dramatic sweep both left and right. Ahead, a broad plain separated them from a rugged line of broken hills making up the horizon. He glanced toward his own data-pad and the map data it contained but recalled that the crash site lay on the far side of the depression before them, near those distant hills.
Viktor blinked and sat up. So did Amy. Leira shifted in a way that told him she was about to wake up, while Conover—
Dash turned back to Ragsdale. “Not too much longer, I guess.”
The man answered with just a sly grin.
Dash frowned. “What?”
“Remember how I said we hadn’t got to the rough part of the road yet?”
Ragsdale stuffed his book into his pack and sat up. “Well, now we have.”
As if on cue, the driver started the buggy again. It immediately pitched forward, as though it was toppling over a cliff.
Viktor snapped out a curse. Amy yelped. Dash sucked in a breath so violent it hissed.
The buggy plunged down the slope, going neither left nor right, and instead taking a straight shot toward the distant bottom. It was, Dash realized, the best way to avoid rolling the whole vehicle over, but it still flopped left, then right, then left again. Dash heard the counterweights on the roof slewing back and forth as they fought to keep the buggy from tipping. Leira and Conover were both jolted wide awake, staring wildly and just hanging on.
The brutal, punishing ride went on and on. The vehicle ruts they followed had been rounded and deepened by what must be rare, but intense falls of rain; the periodic deluges had also eroded deep channels in the dun hillside, while also dislodging rocks, some almost as big as the buggy itself.
It didn’t end when they reached the bottom, either. What had looked like a flat plain, across which Dash thought they might be able to just roll at good speed, quickly eating up the rest of the trip, turned out to be as bad as the slope behind them. Maybe worse.
As they pitched down into a hole, then wobbled to the right as the buggy climbed back out of it, Dash looked at Ragsdale.
“Please tell me this smooths out!”
“This is the smooth part—”
A tremendous lurch cut him off. The buggy slewed sideways, dropped nose first, then slammed to a halt. Everyone aboard was flung forward; if they hadn’t been belted in and hanging on, they would have ended up in a pile around the driver. The tough cargo nets holding all their gear in the back of the buggy stretched, creaking ominously.
Silence hummed, and the air was spangled with dust even inside the buggy. Dash looked around. “Everyone okay?”
Everyone nodded. Conover, his hair stuck up in spikes, blinked stupidly, apparently not quite yet really awake. He finally turned and gaped back at Dash.
“Are we there yet?”
“You know,” Dash said, “I’m way better with spaceships than I am with things with wheels. But this thing looks stuck to me.”
They stood atop a small rise, staring down at the buggy. The driver had apparently edged it too close to the brink of a ravine, which had given way in a spectacular tumble of debris below them. That sent the buggy nose first down the slope until it slid onto a massive boulder, where it got hung up. The particular way it had gotten caught left only the front two of its eight wheels actually touching the ground. When the driver had tried backing them out, he’d only churned the air with tires touching nothing.
“Not enough traction,” Amy said, crouching and studying the vehicle with a critical eye. “Have to get at least two more of those wheels touching something they can grip.”
Leira tossed her a bemused glance. “You worked with a lot of all-terrain vehicles back on that space station, did you?”
Amy stood and shot her cousin a very funny look. “It’s called not being dumb? Knowing that wheels spinning in midair aren’t going to help you actually go anywhere?”
“Easy, cuz. Just asking,” Leira said.
“Okay. Just a little, um—”
“Off after that ride? Me too,” Leira said.
The motors whined as the driver tried again. One of the wheels planted on the ground caught and held this time, sending a shudder through the buggy. It wasn’t enough to actually dislodge it.
Dash looked at Ragsdale. “So what do we do? Call for help?”
“Nah. These things get stuck all the time.”
Ragsdale shrugged. “Well, that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never actually seen one get stuck myself.”
Dash wiped his forehead. Even as early in the day as it was, the heat was starting to become oppressive. He was glad for the tough, rip-proof fabric of their expedition outfits, but the trade-off was that they held onto the heat. Ragsdale had briefed them right before they departed about all the important survival stuff they needed to know—keeping hydrated, avoiding sunburn, and the like—but the reality, Dash realized, was going to be a lot more unpleasant than even the Security Chief had let on.
Leira sidled up to him. “You know,” she said, her voice low and quiet, “you could just call Sentinel, bring the Archetype here, and use it to pick this buggy up and put it back on its wheels.”
“I am available should you need me,” Sentinel said. “Signals are clear in this location, although I do not recommend exposing your advantage over an immovable wheeled vehicle,” Sentinel said.
“To be fair, it’s quite stuck, and I’m losing weight in this heat,” Dash answered.
“In one of your messages to a woman wearing a bikini, you stated that you were ‘buff as hell’. Will this mild weight loss not assist in this goal?” Sentinel asked.
“No—and, I’m suspending your snooping privileges until further notice. Also, that was some time ago, and the, ah lady in question didn’t answer.”
“True. She did not. I will honor your request, but I am available in your future attempts to get buff,” Sentinel said.
“Thank you. I’ll take that under advisement.”
Dash returned his eyes to Ragsdale, who’d moved back to the buggy as the driver dismounted; the two of them now conferred, pointing at the wheels, then at the broken ground. The two Specials he’d brought along had climbed back up out of the ravine to keep an eye out for something, which made Dash ever more alert. Ragsdale had warned of some potentially dangerous wildlife in the jungle but said that the desert was almost entirely barren of life.
Dash shook his head at Leira. “Let’s keep that as a last resort. Ragsdale is already suspicious of us. I’d like to keep him as a potential ally-- at least for now.”
“He’s a spy, Dash.”
“Of course he is. Wallis needs to keep tabs on us. Do you blame her?”
“Not a bit. But it means he’s not really with us at all.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” Dash said. “These people might be really wary and distrustful, but they want to know what’s going on with that signal…how much it’s a threat, and how much it’s an opportunity.”
“Which is something else we haven’t really talked about. What happens when we get to the wreck? How much do we let Ragsdale know?”
Dash could only shrug. It was, indeed, a gaping hole in what amounted to their plan. “Since we don’t really know what we’re going to find, I’ve got no idea. I’d say we try as hard as we can to not let on anything about the Golden or the Unseen and stick to our cover story about our employers and their advanced tech.”
Leira refocused on Ragsdale, who was now engaged in an animated discussion not just with the driver of the buggy, but also with Viktor and Amy. Despite being spaceship engineers, it seemed the operative word here was engineer, because neither seemed to be able to resist getting involved in the problem of righting the buggy.
“He’s not stupid, Dash,” Leira said. “If we find anything more than just unidentifiable wreckage, he’s going to figure we’re not on the up and up.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dash shrugged again. “We’ll just deal with it when the time comes, I guess.”
“Dash!” Amy called, clambering across the rocks toward him. “That buggy’s really stuck. Why don’t you just call—”
“For help?” Dash cut in. “Well, if we have to, I guess we can send a message back to Port Hannah. But is there no way we can get this thing unstuck ourselves?”
Amy stopped, perched atop a boulder a couple of meters away, her mouth a quizzical twist to one side. Dash knew where she was going to go with that—calling for the Archetype—but he really didn’t want to involve the big mech if he could avoid it. So he gave her a look that he hoped said let’s not go any further with this.
“I am happy to provide suggestions if you like?”
Dash shook his head. “Not yet. We can figure this out.”
Amy’s mouth straightened and she winked with a subtlety that surprised him. “Well, we could, if we could find something to hook its winch up to. Trouble is”—she gestured around—“there’s nothing. No big trees, no rocks big enough that the winch cable will reach, nothing.”
Dash looked past her, frowning at the buggy, pitched nose down with its back end high in the air. “Looks to me like that big rock underneath it is the problem. It’s kind of hung up on it, right?”
She glanced back and nodded. “Yeah. It’s holding all but those front two wheels off the ground.”
“So why not hook the winch cable up to it? Seems to me the buggy could winch its ass-end back down, get those rear four tires back onto the ground there, and just back up.”
Amy turned back again and stared at the buggy for a moment, hands on hips and head falling into a contemplative tilt. Then she turned back to Dash, opened her mouth, and closed it again before awarding the buggy a final lingering gaze.
“This tactic will work,” Sentinel said.
“I know. Just needed Amy to get there on her own. She’s an engineer through and through. And—there it is,” Dash said.
Amy turned back to Dash, a brilliant grin on her face. “That’s beautiful! Perfect! Dash, you’re a genius.”
As Amy raced back to Viktor and the others clustered near the buggy, waving her arms and pointing back at Dash, he glanced at Leira. She was giving him a wry look.
“Hey, they never thought of it.”
“That’s because they’re engineers. They’ll always find a solution, but it’s usually not the simplest one.”
“You’re saying I’m simple, or simply a genius?” Dash asked.
“Maybe a little of both.”
“That works.” He smiled at the explosion of activity.
They watched as the driver remounted and activated the winch. Amy handed the cable up to Ragsdale, who climbed up the incline of the buggy’s roof, pulling the cable behind him. When he reached the back of the vehicle, he dropped the cable to Viktor, who pulled it back to the big rock and starting working it around it. Within a few minutes, they had the cable hooked around the boulder and were ready to start easing the buggy back onto solid ground.
“So, what have I missed?”
Dash and Leira turned to find Conover picking his way down from the top of the ravine toward them.
“Me being a genius, for one,” Dash said.
“Thank you,” Sentinel said.
“You’re quite welcome.”
Conover gave him a bemused glance but kept looking around, finally saying, “Huh.”
“Something wrong?” Leira asked.
Conover glanced up the steep slope he’d just descended. “Not sure. I just walked around up top there, looking around…you know, looking around.”
Dash nodded. Conover could see tech and aspects of it no one else could, thanks to his ocular implants. “Did you see anything? You know, see anything?”
“Nope. Just rocks and dirt.”
Leira crossed her arms. “So what was that huh for?”
“Oh. I just expected to see that guy, that Special, down here. Last I saw him, he was keeping watch up on top. He’s not there anymore, though.”
Dash glanced at Leira, who raised an eyebrow. “Not there? You mean he’s gone?”
Conover nodded. “Yeah. I saw him up on a little mound, drinking some water. Looked around a bit. But when I looked back, he was just gone.”
Dash called to Ragsdale, who was watching the winching operation underway. The driver worked the winch gingerly, moving the buggy only a few centimeters at a time. But it was working, lowering the buggy’s back end closer and closer to the ground.
“Do you know where your two guys are?” Dash asked as Ragsdale approached. “Your Specials?”
“Yes. Keeping watch up top.”
Ragsdale frowned, then touched the comm clipped to a shoulder strap on his cargo vest. “Alec, status?”
“All clear,” came the immediate reply.
“Okay, out to you. Damon, status?”
“Damon? What’s your status?”
The comm crackled with a reply, but it was the first special, Alec. “Hey boss, I can’t see him. He was there, about fifty meters to my southwest. He’s not down there with you?”
Ragsdale gave Dash an alarmed look. “No, he’s not. Look, you come back to the edge of the ravine where I can see you.”
“On my way.”
“Maybe your other Special, Damon, has just gone to relieve himself,” Conover offered.
But Ragsdale shook his head. “He’d have called in if he had.”
A shout came from the top of the ravine. Dash looked up to see Alec, the other Special, standing framed against the hot sky. Ragsdale waved back at him.
“You did say that there was no wildlife out here, right?” Dash said.
“None really to speak of,” Ragsdale replied. “We’ve been using drones to survey the desert and haven’t seen much. There’s virtually no water out here, after all. So there are almost no plants, which means almost nothing for anything to live on.”
“Haven’t seen much,” Leira said. “Virtually. Almost. The message I’m getting is that there are things living out here, they’re just rare.”
“Well, yes, I guess that’s true.” Ragsdale gave her a searching look. “You think something might have attacked Damon?”
“No idea,” Leira replied. “You’re the one who lives here.”
“On the planet, sure. But not out here in the desert.”
“I think your Special has seen something,” Conover said, nodding up at Alec. The man was indeed pointing at something.
And then shouting something.
And now drawing his sidearm.
Dash could only make a single word among the Special’s suddenly frantic shouts—lockjaws. He looked at Ragsdale, who swore and drew his own sidearm, a big-bore slug pistol.
“What’s a lockjaw?” Dash asked.
“One of those rare living things we were just talking about.”
Dash pulled his own sidearm, the plasma pistol he’d liberated from Clan Shirna—years ago, it felt like, though it was really only a few months?
Dash gave Ragsdale a scowl. “Rare living thing isn’t much to go on. Can you be a little more specific?”
It was Conover who answered, though. “I think he’s talking about those things, right there.”
Dash followed Conover’s pointing finger. Silhouetted against the sky opposite the ravine from the Special, Alec, was a pair of creatures each at least half again as long as Dash was tall. He glimpsed humped, rounded carapaces, jointed legs scuttling through loose soil and rocks, antennae, and pairs of clashing mandibles the size of his arm.
He raised the plasma pistol, sighted over the top, and fired.
A searing flash. An ear-splitting crack. Both creatures were blown to smouldering fragments, but the blast also flung rocks and dirt like shrapnel. Something smacked Dash’s left shoulder hard enough to make his arm go numb. Leira stumbled back, clutching at her thigh. She shouted something at Dash, but all he could hear was a shrill, piercing whine.
Ragsdale grabbed him, shouting in his ear. “You can’t use that down here!”
Dash shook his head, trying to clear away the pervasive ringing in his ears. Yeah, that had not been a good idea. Down in the ravine, he had no more than twenty or so meters of view. The plasma blasts were just too destructive to fire in such close quarters, and into such loose rock and debris.
The whine faded. Leira had drawn her slug pistol and now banged away with it, pumping rounds into more of the lockjaws. Dash would have called them grossly oversized beetles, but regardless of their name, there were a lot of them, and they all seemed savagely determined to press home their attacks. After holstering the plasma pistol, he drew his slug pistol and added its fire to hers. Ragsdale and Alec joined in. A lot of their projectiles snapped against chitinous carapaces and ricocheted away, but some found their mark, blowing gooey chunks and serrated pieces of jointed legs off the creatures.
“Fall back to the buggy!” Ragsdale shouted, snapping a fresh magazine into his slug pistol. “Fall back now, I’ll cover you!”
Dash grabbed Conover, who’d drawn his own slug pistol but seemed to dither about using it. “Go!” he shouted. “Back to the buggy! Leira, you too!”
Three lockjaws tumbled then slid down the slope into the ravine where they lay still, oozing thick viscous ichor. But a half dozen more swarmed over the crestline.
Leira pulled Conover back with her, stumbling toward the buggy, but stopping short. Conover finally got his weapon raised and opened fire. Leira shouted something and Dash nodded, then slapped Ragsdale’s arm. “They’re covering us, let’s go!”
Ragsdale nodded and followed Dash back. When they reached Leira and Conover, they took up a firing line, pouring shot after shot into the scuttling creatures. Two were down, but the remaining four were fifteen meters away now. Then ten.
“We’ve got to get inside the buggy!” Ragsdale shouted.
Dash glanced back. Viktor and Amy crouched under the rear of the vehicle, which had been winched almost level. Amy had her slug pistol drawn and was staring tensely at the onrushing lockjaws. Viktor held himself ready to unhook the winch cable. As soon as the rear four wheels touched the ground, the driver backed the buggy up, feeding out winch cable as he did.
A throaty, rhythmic booming erupted from somewhere above them. The closest lockjaws vanished among geysers of rock and dust. Dash glanced up and saw Alec standing on top of the buggy, sighting along an auto-gun he’d retrieved from somewhere. Dash swept everyone with a meaningful look, jabbing a thumb at the buggy looming behind them. They all nodded. Taking advantage of the covering fire from the Special, they clambered up the slope and leapt onto the ladder leading back into the buggy. Amy and Viktor were right behind them.
Viktor grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. Before it could latch, something jammed through the opening—a snapping set of mandibles that chewed the air only centimeters from Viktor’s face. Amy turned, lifted her slug pistol over Viktor’s head, and started pumping rounds into the lockjaw trying to get inside.
Dash turned to the driver. “Go! Let’s get out of here!”
The buggy didn’t move.
While Amy and the others tried to help Viktor, Dash raced forward, ducking into the buggy’s cockpit.
“Come on, let’s—shit.”
The driver’s head and shoulders—or what were left of them—had been pulled out of the open cockpit window by a lockjaw. A second of the horrific creatures scrabbled at his body, trying to force its way inside.
Dash put his pistol against the thing’s head and squeezed the trigger, one, two, three times. An acrid stink filled the cockpit as slimy goo erupted from the lockjaw’s shattered head, but not before it managed to gouge a chunk out of Dash’s arm. He groaned, gritted his teeth against the pain, and shoved the dying creature back out of the window. After raising the pistol again, he emptied the rest of the magazine into the lockjaw gnawing on the driver. The creature let go and fell back, then Dash pulled the driver’s body aside and dropped into the seat.
Shouts of Go! and Now! came from behind, and he slammed his foot down on the throttle. The buggy, already set to reverse, shot backward, bucking and lurching as it bounced over obstacles. Dash desperately hoped that he didn’t just drop the buggy into another hole, especially considering that there seemed to be dozens of lockjaws now swarming around them. More lockjaws, their carapaces cracked and broken, appeared in front of the buggy as he reversed it, crushed under its weight.
Muttering, “Take that, you sons of bitches,” he pulled his foot off the throttle and the vehicle stopped. It took him a few seconds to find the direction selector. When he did, he snapped it to forward, cranked the tiller hard left, and punched the throttle again. The buggy jumped forward, bouncing hard as it swerved away from the ravine. Dash grimly hung on, fingers white around the tiller, ignoring the searing pain of his injured arm and determined to get as far away from whatever lockjaws remained as possible.
“Dash!” Ragsadale barked.
He glanced back. Ragsdale leaned into the cockpit, taking in the dead driver, then said, “Oh, you’re driving!”
“Sure seems like it,” Dash hissed, wincing as a heavy bump slammed more pain through his arm.
“Okay, well, I think you can slow down now. The lockjaws are pretty well behind us.”
Dash glanced at the ravaged body of the driver and shook his head. “Not far enough—not yet.”
Viktor studied the data-pad in his lap. “Looks like another five klicks, maybe a little less.”
Alec nodded and eased up on the throttle, slowing the buggy as they approached a wide, sandy depression.
Dash, sitting in the cockpit between them, peered over Viktor’s arm at the display. “The resolution’s not very good. That could be five clicks, or seven—or two.”
“It’s the best we can do with this equipment,” Viktor replied. “We aren’t using our…well, our best, are we?”
“The distance is 4.63 kilometers,” Sentinel said.
“Call it five,” Dash told Viktor, who understood his meaning.
Viktor said nothing, but his jaw tightened. They needed Sentinel in the open, especially given their destination, but Dash was reluctant to give up his final, hidden advantage, despite the loss of two people to the lockjaws.
Dash spoke quietly as they rode on. “Sentinel, has there been any change in the signal?”
“Its strength and location have not changed,” came the immediate reply. Dash felt the Special driving the buggy look at him. “Look, we need better data than we have.”
“Done. I am transmitting a continuous data stream, updated in real time.” There was a pause. “I am always available to augment your data, to the best of my abilities. I do require commands.”
Dash pressed his lips together, eyes cut toward the driver. Speaking to Sentinel wasn’t a bad thing if he was going to try to keep up the fiction that she was a real person somewhere, and not an alien AI. Especially considering that the Special was right here and would be able to hear any of Dash’s responses.
“Who was that?”
Dash glanced back. Ragsdale leaned on the cockpit hatch, his gaze hard. He’d heard it.
“Our colleague,” Dash said. “Her call sign is Sentinel. She’s back with our ships.”
“Not the one called the Slipwing. We scanned it. There’s no one on board. As for that other thing you’ve left sitting on our pad, we can barely even get it to register on the scans, much less learn anything about it.” His hard look went even harder. “So I gather she’s aboard it.”
“She’s just sitting inside it. Not leaving it at all.”
“That’s her job.”
Ragsdale continued fixing Dash with that unrelenting mix of suspicion and doubt. Dash didn’t blame him. Again, if their roles were reversed, he’d be pretty pissed too about being left in the dark about things that could be important—even dangerous.
But Dash just held Ragsdale’s gaze for what he hoped was long enough to say that’s all you’re getting out of me, before he looked back to the buggy’s destination.
Viktor angled the data-pad so Dash could see it. The big, fuzzy blotch that had been all they were to detect had been focused down into a spot only a few hundred meters across, near the base of a rugged, broken ridge. Dash could see it, a saw-toothed line of barren rock truncating the horizon to the northwest.
“That way,” he said to the Special driving. “Aim for that saddle, just to the right of the tallest peak.”
The Special looked back at Ragsdale, who just nodded. Then he angled the tiller, turning them onto the last leg of their trip to the wreckage of the Golden ship.
They stood at the edge of what Dash had first taken to be a sinkhole. And it was a sinkhole, but not one formed because of natural flaws in the bedrock. This one had opened on what Dash thought was clearly the aft-most part of a starship, judging from what looked like the curve of a huge thruster protruding from the side of the hole. Peeking through the detritus at the bottom of the pit was a bright, metallic point—a subsidence from a hatch or access port.
“So that’s your employers’ ship,” Ragsdale said. “It seems awfully big for something we never detected.” He looked at Dash. “You’d think we’d have seen it crashing from Port Hannah. Would’ve put on quite a show, don’t you think?”
“It would have,” Viktor said, “if you had been here to see it. It crashed before you even arrived on this planet.”
“How long before?”
About two hundred thousand years, Dash thought, but just said, “Quite some time. It’s been lost for a long time now.”
“And it only just started transmitting a distress signal.”
Dash shrugged. “I don’t understand why either, but here it is.”
“Yup, here it is.” Ragsdale looked back down into the pit, which was fifty meters across, narrowing to half that at the bottom. The walls were far from gentle, sloping down to a point thirty meters deep, every step an uncertainty. “We’re going to have to use the climbing gear to get down there. The sides of this hole are too steep and unstable to pick our way down.”
Dash exchanged an uncomfortable look with Viktor and Leira. They’d reached a moment, and a decision, that he knew they’d only been putting off, because it just couldn’t be avoided altogether.
“Ragsdale, will excuse us for a few minutes?” Dash said. “I need to confer with my colleagues.”
“Whatever you need to do.”
They walked until they were well out of earshot. Along the way, they gestured to Amy and Conover, who’d wandered a short distance away and were examining something a few meters away from the top of the pit.
“We found a fragment,” Amy said. “A piece of debris that must have been thrown off the thing when it crashed. Conover says he can see them all around here.”
“Not surprising,” Leira said. “That tends to happen when spaceships crash.”
“Actually, what is surprising is just how intact the ship seems to be,” Viktor added. “Something that hits the surface of a planet when falling from space is usually moving pretty fast—as in, trans-orbital fast. It should have been mostly vaporized by the impact. Whatever was left should be no bigger than my hand, if that.”
“Maybe it was able to slow down before impact,” Amy said.
“It’s Golden tech,” Conover said. “Are we really surprised it survived the crash mostly intact?”
But Dash shook his head. They were getting sidetracked, and they didn’t have time for that. “You know, that’s all very interesting, but not really important right now. What is, is that the ship’s here, we’ve found it, and a lot of it seems to be whole—or in the kind of shape that can be salvaged. As in Dark Metal.”
“Which means we have to make a decision about Ragsdale,” Leira said, nodding. “We can tell him he has to stay back, away from the wreck, blame it on our employers and their secrecy and non-disclosure contracts and so on, but—”
“But he’s not going to put up with that,” Dash finished for her. “Yeah, I know. I think we’ve pushed the guy about as far as we can with all that need-to-know crap.”
“Yeah, well, do you blame him?” Amy asked. “If I was him, I’d know that something big was going on here. Something a lot bigger than we’re letting on.”
“Not only that,” Conover said, “but we’ve been saying there’s no real threat to their colony, or at least downplaying it. But we don’t really know if that’s true, do we?” He glanced back toward the pit. “I can’t see any detail, not from up here. But that ship isn’t just a dormant wreck.” He looked back at Dash, his pale, enigmatic eyes gleaming. “There’s activity down. Power being generated and used.”
“Something’s alive down there is what you’re saying,” Viktor said.
“Alive, as in tech that’s been activated, and is now doing…well, something, yeah.”
Leira sighed. “I know we really don’t want to involve these people any more than necessary, Dash. But I think we’re going to have pull back the veil, at least a bit.”
Dash gave a decisive nod. “Yeah. We are.”
He led them back to Ragsdale, who’d gone back to the buggy and, with Alec, had been unloading their climbing equipment—harnesses, motorized winches, portable A frame-type mounts, safety gear. They both stopped as Dash and the others approached.
“We, uh, haven’t been entirely forthcoming about what’s going on here,” Dash said.
Ragsdale’s eyes flew wide. “What? Really? You haven’t?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. And we’re genuinely sorry for that. But it really is in your best interest.”
“The less you know, the better,” Viktor said.
Ragsdale pulled off his hat and wiped his forehead, then put it back on. “Look. I’m Security Chief for Port Hannah. Before I took that job, I did security on Cycle, and New Winston, and a half dozen other planets. Believe me, I get that there are just some things that have to be kept behind the door.”
Ragsdale sighed, and it was world weary. “You have to look at this from my point of view, though. There’s something pretty remarkable down in that hole. Something pretty remarkable that’s only a day’s journey overland from our homes. Something we know absolutely nothing about…hell, something we didn’t even know existed until you all showed up here.”
“I know,” Dash said, raising his hands and patting the air. “You’re right. That’s all true. So we’re going to let you in on some of it. But there’s a lot we won’t, because it really is in your best interest to not know.”
“Sometimes, ignorance is a powerful defense,” Viktor said.
Ragsdale just nodded. “I understand. So, what can you tell me about what’s down there?”
“Well, it’s a crashed ship, obviously,” Dash said. “I really can’t reveal much about where it came from, who built it, or how it got here. It has been down there since before your colony was founded. Honestly, we’re surprised that it’s as intact as it seems to be. I think we really only expected to find bits and pieces of wreckage. So now we have to get down to it, get inside it, and investigate.”
“What are you looking for?” Ragsdale asked. “Because I get the sense you want to retrieve something in particular.”
Dash avoided the term Dark Metal. “There’s a substance that was used in its construction that we need to retrieve. There might also be other tech down there for us to recover.”
Ragsdale nodded. “Okay. I have a question, though.”
“Your companion you were talking to…Sentinel, I think you called her. She’s an AI, isn’t she? An advanced one, on board that man-shaped ship of yours.”
Dash looked to the others, who just variously raised their eyebrows, nodded, or shrugged.
“Yeah, she is,” Dash replied, then tapped his comm. “Sentinel, say hello to our new friend, Ragsdale.”
“It is my pleasure to make the acquaintance of another sentient being,” Sentinel said.
“She really means it,” Dash said. “She doesn’t get out much.”
Ragsdale narrowed his eyes but just gave a bemused nod. “Okay. So for you to be in possession of an advanced AI—”
“To be clear,” Sentinel said, “I am not in the possession of any one entity, but am in a willing partnership with Dash and his team.”
In his peripheral vision, Dash saw Leira raise her eyebrows when Sentinel used his name rather than referring to him as “the Messenger.” It showed she had—or had learned—some degree of discretion about what they were up to.
Ragsdale shook his head, at least partly in wonder. “Okay. So you’re partners with an AI that is aboard a ship-- sorry, she’s aboard something that is clearly much more than just a ship.” He crossed his arms. “All that, along with this wreck, tells me that there’s something much, much bigger happening here than you’re letting on.”
Dash scrubbed a hand on the back of his head. “I really can’t say much more.”
“I know. I get it. Like I said, when it comes to secretive stuff with security implications, I’m not exactly fresh off the shuttle.” He took a step toward Dash. “So let me put this out there, so it’s clear. I really don’t give a shit about any of whatever it is you’re doing here, right up to the instant it starts becoming a problem for Port Hannah. When that happens, I will be all over it, expecting to know all of the details and have all of my questions answered. My priority is the safety and welfare of the people back there. I’ve already lost two of them—and, yes, I’ve lost them because they were trying to help you. So this colony has already paid too high a price for”—he looked for a word— “for you and your spy games.”
Dash nodded. He got it. Ragsdale was a good man, trying to do a hard job, that Dash and his friends were only making harder. So he met the Security Chief’s gaze squarely.
“You’re right. It has. I can’t even begin to say how sorry I am about the buggy driver and your Special. But believe me, this is no game. This is deadly serious—emphasis on the word deadly.” He glanced at the waiting pit. “We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t genuinely important. And by that, I mean important, as in, for pretty much the whole galaxy and everyone living in it.”
For a moment, Ragsdale just let his gaze bore into Dash’s. Dash didn’t try to stop it. He wanted the man to see he was serious about their shared goal, even if it meant taking his word on faith—for now.
“So if I believe something is genuinely important for me to know,” Ragsdale finally said, “no matter how secret or sensitive you might think it is, you’ll tell me?”
“Yes, I will. I promise. But that’s as long as you understand that it really does have to be something important to Port Hannah and its people—and that, if I genuinely think it isn’t, you’ll accept that, and we’ll just drop it.”
“So you get the final call? That’s a terrible deal.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I can offer.”
Ragsdale stared a moment longer, then nodded. “Fine. I’m trusting you with an awful lot here, Dash.”
Ragsdale stuck out his hand, and Dash shook it, firmly.
As they began moving the climbing equipment to the top of the pit and getting themselves geared up for a foray inside the crashed Golden ship, it struck Dash that everything about this ultimately affected Port Hannah. If they couldn’t stop the Golden, then Port Hannah would just be another place they’d exterminate. A crater, a place of dust and bones to be forgotten as the Golden continued their bitter harvest.
But Ragsdale didn’t need to know that—again, not yet at least.
Dash paused atop a boulder about three quarters of the way down into the pit, thumbing the winch controller as he did. The monofilament cable connecting him to the sturdy A-frame back at the top went taut, holding him at about a forty-five-degree angle. His utility vest and backpack, both laden with equipment and supplies, hung against his shoulders and chest, a heavy deadweight.
“Everything okay, Dash?” Leira called from below.
He looked down. “Yup. Just want to avoid that spot that almost did Conover in.”
Dash could see it just below him and to his right. Conover’s feet had dislodged a big rock there; it, in turn, dislodged more as it fell, and then a whole chunk of the pit’s side had given out under him. He’d grimly hung on, waiting for the slope to stabilize—and then an even bigger rock, loosened by the slide, had fallen from above him, missing his head by centimeters. Dash started up the winch again, keeping himself as far as he could to the left of the rockfall. Pieces the size of his fist were still occasionally plummeting down from above, but he managed to stay clear of them. Finally, his feet touched the bottom—a layer of loose sand and gravel over the dull metallic surface of the Golden ship.
He unhooked the cable from his harness, attached the controller to it, then sent it back up. The last one to come down would be Ragsdale. Alec, the Special, would stay up top, watching over the buggy, the climbing gear, and the hole. Dash remembered the lockjaws and immediately thought, I sure don’t envy him staying up there all alone. And yet, the yawning uncertainty of the wreck was, in a way, worse than the known danger of the lockjaws. The wreck was ancient. The wreck was Golden, and that meant every inch of it was dedicated to the elimination of life itself.
But two people died trying to help them, and Dash could not, would not, let himself forget that.
As they watched Ragsdale descend, Conover said, “Are you really sure it’s a good idea to bring him with us? Inside the Golden ship?”
“No, I’m not, not at all,” Dash replied. “But how could we possibly say no? If I were him, I wouldn’t have accepted it.”
Leira nodded. “We have to face the fact that we’re probably going to end up having to reveal a lot more about what’s going on than we ever intended.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dash said. “But we’ll let it happen as it happens. I mean, who knows? Maybe we’ll be lucky, find what we’re looking for right away, and not have to reveal much at all. The risk is worth the reward, given our needs at the Forge.”
“I’m assuming that if we do find a bunch of Dark Metal,” Viktor said, “we’re going to have to bring the Archetype here so it can transport it back to the Forge.”
“Probably,” Dash said. “Although again, let’s travel through that particular wormhole when we come to it.”
Ragsdale reached the bottom and unhooked the cable, then he sent it back up, before unclipping a small box from his belt.
“This is a signal repeater. I’ve got four of them. I’m going to leave one here, right at the opening, to make sure we can maintain comms with Alec up there. He’s in touch with Port Hannah.” He frowned at the dark opening. “Assuming we can actually get more than just a few meters inside this thing, I’ll put out the rest of the repeaters as we go, so we keep comms up.”
Dash nodded. It was a good and sensible plan, even if ultimately pointless if the Golden tech really wanted to interfere with things.
“Hey, is Alec going to be okay up there all on his own?” Amy asked, apparently having her own moment of concern about the lone Special. “I can’t forget about those bug things, those, uh—”
“Lockjaws,” Ragsdale said.
“Yeah. Are there any of those things around here?”
“Not likely. As far as we can tell, they burrow—which is how they were able to sneak up on us—so they tend to stay out in the open desert. This close to the hills, it’s just too rocky for them.”
“Oh. Okay. That’s good,” Amy said.
“It doesn’t mean there might not be other things around, though,” Ragsdale went on, giving the black opening a few meters away a look. “I’d definitely rather have at least two people up there, but we’ve got what we’ve got. Alec is sharp though. He can take care of himself.”
Ragsdale set up the signal repeater and activated it, did a comm check with Alec, then turned to Dash and gestured at the waiting hatch. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Dash took a last look up the slope, at the fading daylight. He can take care of himself, Ragsdale had said.
Hope that’s true for all of us.
Dash turned back to the hatch, unslinging and cradling his slug carbine. Ragsdale had provided one for each of them—a good compromise between the relatively anemic slug pistols and the incandescent fury of the plasma weapons. They’d already checked inside, seeing nothing but dirt and rock sloping down into darkness, so he knelt, worked his way through the gap, and entered the Golden ship.
“On me,” Dash said, and his voice echoed into the darkness below.
No one answered. But they followed, and that was brave enough.
Dash had expected that they’d be able to go a few meters and then find their way blocked by debris, crushed structural components, and smashed structures. Frankly, he’d assumed this aft-most section was just that—the aft-most section, and that everything forward of here would simply have been utterly destroyed, a pulverized cone of metallic ore that punched down into the bedrock.
But he was wrong. He led the way down a long incline of sand, gravel, and rock that started at the hatch and went deeper into the wreck. It was, he thought, material that had infiltrated from outside during the ship’s long burial pouring through the gaping hatch and probably other openings. Through the night-vision filter on his helmet, he could see that the long, gritty slope extended tens of meters into the ship, mostly filling a vast and seemingly empty compartment that appeared to make up much of its stern. The point of all this space eluded him; it must have served some purpose, but he wasn’t sure what.
As they neared the bottom, he finally saw something that loomed in detail, a massive piece of machinery that extended back up to the rear of the hull, now many meters behind and above them, nearly buried by debris. It probably had something to do with the partly exposed thruster they’d seen in the pit. It might actually be of great interest, but Dash decided to ignore it for now, in favor of something even more interesting that had just come into view.
A huge set of doors loomed at the base of the dirt pile they’d been descending. They were partly buried but must have been nearly thirty meters tall. Had they been closed, that would have been the end of their expedition, at least until they discovered another way in. Even the Archetype likely would have had trouble shifting them. However, they’d been bent, twisted, and partially flung apart, probably by whatever titanic forces had slammed through the ship when it crashed. Still, as severe as the damage was, Dash was stunned the signal had survived at all.
“Sentinel, are you seeing this?”
He’d activated a helmet cam and let Sentinel access its stream of data. She’d stated that, unless there were actual countermeasures at work, she should be able to maintain comms with them pretty much anywhere inside the wreck; he hoped that included the camera’s imagery, because he really wanted her perspective on whatever they found. Sentinel had abilities beyond the Meld, being able to intuit what data was most critical—sometimes. In other cases, human instinct was the only way to solve a problem.
“I am. The doors are large and constructed for battle, but beyond that, serve no unusual purpose that I can see.”
“Agreed. That’s what I’m getting.” He looked back up the slope at the others descending behind him. “Everyone okay back there?”
Leira, bringing up the rear, called back, “So far—which isn’t very far—so good.”
Her voice echoed through the vast space, but in a flat, monotonal sort of way. Dash didn’t know if it was some property of the ship around them, or just the huge pile of dirt under their feet. He gave a thumbs up, and carried on.
He stopped at the massive doors and peered into the space beyond. More dirt and rocks, and even a few remnants of something that looked like dry lichen, were strewn across the floor. But they dwindled toward the edge of his night vision, probably marking as far into the ship as the detritus from outside had reached. The compartment was considerably smaller than the empty one they’d just traversed, although still huge. And it wasn’t as empty, with massive, complicated-looking machines rising from the deck into the ceiling high above. Skeins of cable hung from the gloom among them. Dash switched his view to thermal imaging, which gave much poorer resolution, but would let him see any heat signatures that might indicate things that were powered up—or alive. But there was nothing, so he switched back to night vision and started into the compartment.
“What the hell is that?” Conover said.
Dash turned back, thumb resting on the carbine’s safety lever. Conover had apparently seen something on the floor, so Amy and Ragsdale joined him, examining whatever it was. Leira and Viktor kept an eye out for trouble.
Dash joined the group huddled around whatever Conover had found. “What is it?”
Conover just pointed at the floor, which was covered with a few centimeters of dusty sand and gravel.
“So I assume none of us made those, right?” Dash said.
Conover held his foot up over one of the prints. He had big feet, probably the biggest of all of them, but these prints were bigger. “Don’t think so.”
“So someone—or something—is in here already,” Amy said.
Ragsdale crouched to look more closely. “This dirt is mostly gravel, so it doesn’t hold detail. Can’t tell if it’s a big human foot, or something else. Can’t even really tell how old it is.”
“In here, it would have been sheltered from the weather,” Viktor offered. “So it could be hours, days, maybe even weeks or months old.”
Ragsdale stood. “All we can tell is that it’s a big footprint, roughly the shape of a human foot.”
“Can you think of anyone in your colony with feet this big?” Leira asked. “Assuming they’re proportional, they’d have to be attached to a pretty big body.”
Ragsdale shook his head. “I think I’d remember someone big enough for these feet. No one comes to mind.”
Dash hefted the carbine. “So, either someone else has been here, and you folks at Port Hannah never knew it, or it’s…” He shrugged. “Something else.”
“We’d better keep a close eye out, just in case,” Amy said.
“I think that was the plan anyway.”
They turned back to the massive doors and the compartment beyond. As they started forward again—their caution ratcheted up another couple of notches—Ragsdale spoke up. “Something you’ve never talked about, Dash, is if there might be someone else after this wreck. Do your employers have competitors we should know about?”
Dash glanced back. He’d been avoiding this angle, hoping it would never come up. Now he considered lying—but it just didn’t seem right to leave Ragsdale in the dark. So, he nodded.
“So, could that footprint belong to one of them? Could they have already been here?”
“They might have. But that doesn’t really change what we came here to do, or how careful we should be about doing it.”
He waited for Ragsdale to react angrily, or with frustration, but he just nodded and hefted his own carbine. He was a pro.
They picked their way into the next compartment.
The dirt and debris from outside finally dwindled away to reveal bare deck plates. Their footsteps clunked against them, soft and dull, but still causing a thunderous racket in the brooding silence. As they progressed, Conover careful examined all of the tech they passed, but reported that none of it seemed to be active. Finally, they reached the far end of the compartment, where three corridors branched off in different directions.
Dash looked back. “Any preferences?”
Amy answered, “Why not right up the middle?”
Dash nodded back at her and carried on, walking into the middle passage. They traversed it for about a dozen meters—with Leira recording their route on a data-pad—then it opened up again, into another massive space.
It seemed to be a hangar. The smashed and battered remains of several small craft were piled in the forward bulkhead, flung there when the ship slammed into the planet. Most of them were essentially the same—small and simple in construction, resembling the drones that had attacked the Forge before the Golden Harbinger had shown up, but larger and clearly meant to be crewed. Dash took them for scout or light utility craft. That made them distinct from a larger, more imposing ship that sported what must be a cluster of weapons—likely an attack ship or battle-craft of some sort.
Dash looked at Conover. “Anything?”
Conover looked around, then up. He narrowed his eyes at something above them, then pointed.
“Those big cables up there, the ones kind of hanging in those harnesses. There’s a little power flowing through them. I’d say they either lead to wherever this ship generated its power, like their main engineering, or to part of their engineering systems, anyway.”
Dash frowned at that. “There’s power?”
“Yeah. Not much, though. Just a trickle.”
“Still,” Leira said, “the fact that there’s any power at all, after all this time—it’s surprising.”
“And worrying,” Viktor said.
Conover had turned his attention to the rest of their surroundings, especially the smashed ships piled against the bulkhead. “These are similar to that Gold—" He stopped, flicked his eyes to Ragsdale, then said, “That gold-colored drone we found that one time, at that big space station. Modular components and distributed functions.” He took a few steps, then added, “And I think there’s…um…”
Dash resisted any comment, as he wanted his frustration kept hidden. Ragsdale seemed to have his attention roving around the compartment, not fixed on anything in particular, but Dash suspected the man was taking in every word. How much longer could they really keep this up?
“It’s okay,” he said to Conover. “Just go ahead.”
“Yes, don’t mind me,” Ragsdale said. “I’m not listening to your secrets.”
Dash gave him a wry smile, then turned back to Conover, who said, “You know that dark-colored metal our employers told us about? I think there’s a fair amount of it in those wrecked ships.”
Dash nodded. Not that there had been much doubt, but the modular systems and the presence of Dark Metal clinched it—this was, indeed, a wrecked Golden ship. Now, all they had to do was figure out how to recover what they wanted from it.
He turned back toward the forward exit from the hangar. A wrecked scout-ship partly blocked it, but there was enough of a gap that they could work their way through. Just as he started that way, Amy said, “Is there something moving up there?”
She was looking up into the gloom among the hanging cables high above them.
“I don’t see anything,” Leira said.
Amy and Conover nodded and muttered that they didn’t either. Neither did Dash, but he switched his view to thermal and, sure enough, there was something up there radiating heat. He opened his mouth to say so—
—when whatever it was suddenly burst into motion, dropping straight toward them.
Dash caught a brief glimpse of glaring eyes, scales, and leathery wings—then a chorus of ear-scraping shrieks filled the still air. He didn’t hesitate lifting the carbine, aiming, and firing in one smooth motion. He double tapped, snapping off two slugs, then braced himself to leap aside. More shots cracked and echoed against the looming walls as someone else fired. Whatever it was kept plunging straight down. Dash flung himself sideways, just as something crashed into a heap where he’d been standing. A second creature hit the wreckage of a scout-ship a few meters away, bounced once, then rolled onto the deck and went still.
The last of the echoes, both shrieks and slug-shots, faded into silence.
Conover gave Amy a broad smile. “Good shooting!”
She lowered her carbine. Dash scanned the roof of the compartment again, but saw no more of whatever those had been, so he lowered his weapon as well.
Viktor poked the barrel of his own carbine at the creature Dash had shot. They could see now that it was sinuous and serpentine, like a flying lizard. It didn’t react to being prodded, so Viktor looked back at Ragsdale. “Do you recognize these?”
“I think so. I don’t recall the name, but I remember reports from a survey crew about encountering things like this. They seem to stick to the rocky hills and highlands around the desert. They’re rare, but aggressive.”
Viktor pulled his weapon away from the carcass. “I’d call dropping from the ceiling on us aggressive, yes.”
“They must have been nesting in here or something,” Amy said, still peering upward.
Dash switched back to night vision. “Okay, so now we’ve got something else to watch out for besides a guy with big feet—local wildlife. Eyes open, everyone. Even the birds here can bite.”
He started forward again, leading them deeper into the ship.
The corridor continued for about a dozen meters before opening into another huge, dark space. Dash wondered if it was coincidence, or if that distance meant something to the Golden. It would be good to know, he thought. After all, the more he knew about them, the better—know your enemy, and all that.
He heard Ragsdale speaking to Leira and Viktor about something, so he used the opportunity to mutter into his comm, “Sentinel, is there anything significant about the number twelve, or a distance of twelve meters, to the Golden?”
“None that is recorded, at least in any database I can access. There is actually little known about the Golden as a species.”
“So we’ll get to know them as we unfold their lingering presence.”
“That is essentially correct, yes.”
“Understood. Not sure I’m looking forward to it,” Dash said.
“There is little to like about the Golden,” Sentinel said.
“Couldn’t agree more.”
Dash turned, waved, then pointed ahead. “We’re going in. How about this time, Viktor, you watch to the right, Leira to the left, Amy up, Conover behind us? I’ll watch ahead. Ragsdale, you look everywhere.”
A crescent of tense, tired faces gave their agreement, and Dash turned and started into the yawning space ahead.
As soon as he did, several panels nearby began to softly glow. One of them emitted a shrill chirp. At the same time, the lights came on.
Dash looked around. “Okay, I did not expect this, that’s for sure.”
The compartment loomed over them, it’s immense size now almost expected. They could see the true dimensions around them, because of the softly glowing strips of light. It was still far short of actual daylight, but bright enough to illuminate even the most distant corner of the cavernous area. Again, Dash wondered about the Golden and their eyesight, as the lights were dim. Too low for humans, but brighter than many animals needed.
“You could fit the Slipwing in here,” Leira said.
Viktor nodded. “With a fair bit of room to spare.”
For a moment, they all just looked around, taking in what the light had revealed. Rows of clear cylinders stretched into the distance, each two metres across and rising to the ceiling high above. Dash approached the nearest and peered inside. Except for a few centimeters of a dark fluid, the cylinder was empty. So were the rest, at least as far as Dash could see.
Amy moved to a metallic trough, dragging a finger along one edge in thought. When she came to a series of mounted cylinders and tanks on the wall, she stopped, tapped the glassine material, and then gave the surface a firm rap with her knuckles. “These troughs seem to connect everything,” she said. “Like something was meant to flow along them.”
Conover gave a quick nod. “I think you’re right, Amy. Some fluid is meant to flow along these troughs, probably from those tanks, into these cylinders, and maybe back again. It’s not a closed system, not entirely, but there’s definitely a circle.”
“I wonder why,” Viktor said, carbine resting on his shoulder. “What sort of liquid? And what was it for?”
“I’ve got something over here,” Ragsdale called out.
Viktor’s weapon fell back to the ready as they moved to join him.
“Someone’s definitely been here,” the Security Chief went on, pointing at the deck.
Again there were footprints, this time recorded by some thick, resinous fluid, sap-like and cloying. But these prints weren’t oversized. They were made by booted feet a couple sizes smaller than his own.
“More over here,” Viktor said, pointing and moving to the nearest length of trough. A single work glove, torn and ruined, lay across it, along with a utility blade, similar to one Dash kept aboard the Slipwing. A water bottle sat on the floor beneath the trough.
“This is all human gear,” Dash said, then winced. Ragsdale, though, had moved a few meters away, apparently trying to follow where the footprints led. “It’s definitely not Golden or Unseen.”
Leira picked up the utility blade. “Dull, too,” she said, examining it closely. “And the edge is chipped. This was used to cut something pretty tough.”
“This has to be someone from Port Hannah,” Conover said.
Viktor, though, shook his head. “Only if there’s another way in here. We saw no other footprints coming in the way we did.”
“So, what, somebody’s living in here?” Conover asked.
Dash looked around. “This just gets weirder and weirder. Maybe Golden, definitely monsters, and now, in all likelihood, a human.”
His eyes fell on another section of trough. This one held a powdery substance. Dash took the broken knife from Leira and used it to dig at and stir whatever the powder was. It seemed to bridge the properties of a dry powder and a liquid, flowing viscously back into place when he removed the blade. His actions had exposed some colored flecks and flakes that had been buried in the powder. Peering closely at them, it struck him they were bits of vegetable matter, like fragments of leaves and petals.
“If the Golden are machines, what do they need with plants?”
“Maybe they’re used to clean the air,” Leira said. “Like some of the ones on the Forge.”
“I can’t follow those tracks very far,” Ragsdale said, rejoining them. “A few meters that way is as far I can see them, then they just fade out.”
“There’s a corridor over there,” Amy said.
They all looked that way, except for Viktor, who was examining the strange substance. He’d put on a glove and was now poking it, scooping some up, and rubbing it between his fingers. “It feels like a liquid, but it’s flowing and dripping.”
“Uh, Viktor,” Dash said, “not sure it’s a good idea to risk getting whatever that is on you.”
Viktor ignored him though, studying the goo, or powder—or both—coating his gloved fingers. “This looks like the Dark Metal you brought aboard the Forge, Dash. I wonder if it ca exist in a liquid state? Because this sure as hell looks like it to me.”
Dash winced. Ragsdale would have heard that. He turned to find the Security Chief looking at him.
Part of him wanted to just say, To hell with it, and spill basically everything to Ragsdale. But he couldn’t. He had no idea what the repercussions of revealing too much to these people might be—maybe nothing, but maybe also catastrophic. This wouldn’t be like taking Kai and the other monks of the Order of the Unseen into their confidence; the monks were already well aware of the ancient conflict, even if their understanding of the details might have been less than perfect. But these people had no idea about any of it, and Dash just couldn’t foresee what telling them might do. Worse, he’d come to both respect and like them, and genuinely didn’t want to see them come to any harm.
Damn it, he thought, these are the very people we’re trying to save, ideally without ever finding out they had been saved, or from what.
“Sorry we have to use code words,” he said to Ragsdale. “I know they might sound strange, but—”
“Do I hear something?” Leira asked.
Dash glanced at her, trying to communicate, It’s okay, I’ve got this, I don’t need help with Ragsdale—but then he also froze. He heard something, too. It was a faint but distinct creaking sound with a brash edge to it, like metal scraping.
“That way,” Conover said, pointing at a corridor, though not the one to which the footprints might have led. “Something’s coming from that way, getting closer.”
Dash motioned for everyone to spread out and find cover, but before any of them could move, something burst into the chamber and began pulsing energy blasts at them.
One searing bolt hit Conover’s backpack, flinging him around and backward. The rest snapped through the air around them, striking the clear cylinders and the bulkhead with dazzling flashes and ear-splitting cracks.
Dash dove for cover behind a cylinder. It was obviously made of something far tougher than even reinforced glass, the bolts not leaving a mark. Dash raised his carbine and peered around the cylinder, but on the side opposite where the bolts were flying, choosing to acquire a target before firing wildly with his off hand.
It was a machine, clearly—a cylindrical robot, standing just over a meter tall, rising on six metal wheels. Its top, which mounted a pair of snub-barreled weapons that were the source of the energy pulses, could spin like a turret. A wicked-looking claw extended from further down its body, probably designed as a manipulator, but looking deadly as a close-combat weapon.
He raised the carbine. If this didn’t work, he’d switch to the plasma pistol.
“No!” Conover shouted. “Don’t destroy it!”
Dash glanced back and saw Conover kneeling, shucking his smouldering backpack. But his eyes were on Dash and the others. “It’s working tech! We need to take it…uh, well, alive.”
More bolts snapped past them, detonating with deafening bangs behind them.
“And how do you propose we do that?” Amy called, from where she lay behind a pedestal supporting one of the troughs.
Dash frowned in resignation. Take it alive…
But his frown began to fade, because he saw a path to victory. When he fought the Harbinger, he’d been able to win by using unexpected moves—things that went against solid tactical doctrine.
Things only a human would do.
In that case, he’d used the Archetype like he’d taken it into a barroom brawl, a sort of fighting the Harbinger hadn’t anticipated.
Barroom brawl. Okay, then.
“Keep it busy!” he shouted, slinging his carbine, then rising to a crouch and heading off to his right. Behind him, Leira and the others opened fire, but their shots missed, pinging off the deck or against the bulkhead behind the robot. It, in turn, shot back, its twin weapons slewing back and forth as it tried to hunt down targets. That gave Dash a chance to work himself behind more troughs and cylinders, until he was squatting just a few meters away from it.
He waited for its weapons to turn as far away from him as they could, when they were firing at Ragsdale. Then he took a deep breath and launched himself into a sprint.
The turret immediately began to spin, rotating to face him. The difference between him making it and getting caught square-on by a pair of energy bolts at point-blank range literally came down to a fraction of a second.
Dash slammed into the robot, low down, in a body tackle. He put all of his weight behind it. Now watch the damned thing weigh a ton and me just bounce off, he thought as he crashed into it—and it was heavy, but not heavy enough. Twin energy blasts erupted upward as it tilted, slamming into the ceiling with showers of sparks. Then it toppled over, Dash landing on top of it with an oof.
Gritting his teeth, he heaved himself up, grabbed the carbine, and reversed it, then he slammed it butt first into a cluster of crystalline facets on the turret, between the twin guns. He did it again. And again. He tried to stay out of the field of fire of the robot’s weapons, but this close it was almost impossible. Any second, they’d fire. And then there was that terrifying claw—
He butt smashed it again. The whole assembly popped out of place. Dash slammed it once more, knocking it free.
The robot went dead still and silent.
Gasping, Dash stood, reversed the carbine again, and aimed it into the machine’s inner workings, which were exposed where the sensor cluster had come free.
Conover rushed up. “Dash, wait!”
“You may have noticed,” Dash said, eyes fixed on the fallen machine, “that I did tackle it, instead of just blowing it to bits.” He lowered the carbine. “So I’m not likely to blow it to bits now, right?”
“Not unless it’s still alive,” Amy said, bending over to look at the exposed innards. “Modules again.” She looked up at Conover. “Just like that drone we took apart. That means it should still be fully operational. It hasn’t taken anywhere near enough damage to put it out of action completely.”
Dash raised the carbine again.
“I think Dash has managed to render it deaf, dumb, and blind,” Viktor said, nudging the broken sensor cluster with his toe. “With no input at all, it seems to have gone into a suspended state of some sort.”
“Better than turning berserk and shooting the whole place up,” Leira said.
“That means it’s less sophisticated than the drone,” Conover said. “It didn’t have any obvious sensors at all.”
“Makes sense, though,” Amy replied. “You probably wouldn’t use your best tech for some security bot.”
“It was a pretty lousy shot—thankfully,” Conover said.
Amy pointed to a deep dent in its cylindrical hull. “I doubt Dash did that. It was probably damaged in the crash. That knocked its shooting off. Maybe internal damage?”
Someone pointedly cleared their throat. Dash turned to the sound and found Ragsdale, carbine cradled, staring at him.
“Dash, I think you’ve been holding back a lot more than you’ve been letting one. Like, who or what is this Golden you’ve been talking about? And what, exactly, is Dark Metal? And the Forge?”
“Like I said,” Dash replied, “they’re codewords—”
“No, no,” Ragsdale cut in, raising a hand. “Don’t bother. I’ve spent too long interrogating smugglers and other criminals to just take what you’re telling me at face value. I know you’ve been holding back. But what you’re holding back is something big. Something complicated.” He nodded toward the robot. “That thing took you completely by surprise. You knew nothing about it. For that matter, you don’t know anything about all the stuff we’re finding in here. You’re discovering it all as we go along. Now, either you are the most incompetent recovery team that your employers could possibly have found—or this isn’t your ship, or theirs, at all.” He ended on an especially penetrating glare at Dash. “So who does it belong to, Dash?”
“We’ve been through this. I can’t tell you.”
“What are you? Treasure hunters? Scavengers? Because if that’s what this is all about—”
“It’s not,” Dash said, shaking his head. “We’re here to retrieve—ah, things, but it’s not about profit or fame or anything like that. Believe me, I wish it was. That would definitely suit my style.” He gave Ragsdale the most earnest look he could. “But it’s not.”
“Okay, I believe you. So what is it all about, then?”
“I want to tell you,” Dash said. “I really do. But when I say it’s better for you to not know too much, I mean it. You knowing too much could put you in, well, really terrible danger. And I don’t want that.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of how much risk I should be willing to take.”
“I won’t simply—"
“You must,” Ragsdale said, imploring Dash with his tone. “I won’t be put off like this any longer. You’re neck deep in something really big and, yes, really dangerous. I know it.” He took a step forward and leaned toward Dash. “And whatever it is, it—or at least this part of it, this ship—is right on the doorstep of my home, Dash. Mine, and that of ten thousand other people. People I happen to be sworn to protect. Now—I have to know, Dash. This isn’t about profit. This is about ten thousand people and everything they’ve built.”
Dash glanced at Leira and Viktor. Both just shrugged.
He looked back at Ragsdale. “You’re right. There is a lot more going on here.” He looked down at his feet, then back up and drew in a calming breath. He had to maintain an icy cool, because Ragsdale was a potential ally. “Okay. I’ll tell you what. You’re right when we say that we’re discovering this place as we go along. We’re still answering questions for ourselves. But once we’ve finished in here, and done what we came here to do, we should have a much clearer picture of what’s going on. Then I’ll be able to tell you everything you need to know.”
“Why can’t you just tell me now?”
Dash didn’t have to answer. A distant creaking sound, like the one that had announced the arrival of security bot just moments before, had risen in the distance. There might have been more than one, in fact.
“Because,” Dash said, changing his carbine to a fresh magazine, “it’s going to take a while to explain. I’m afraid that, right now, that’s time we don’t have.”
Dash lowered his carbine, eyes narrowed, and studied the Golden robot. In a brief but savage fusillade of shooting, they’d punched all three that had appeared full of holes, leaving them shedding sparks like dying fireflies. But Dash wasn’t so quick to admit victory and just watched the trio of bots, waiting to see if they lurched back to life.
“How’s Viktor?” he called, without looking back.
A groan answered him, followed by Amy saying, “Just a superficial burn!”
“Superficial? You should feel it from this side,” Viktor said.
Dash smiled, kept eyeing the bots a moment longer, then stood. “Okay, gang…it just seems to have been the three of them. And I think they’re dead. Or whatever passes for dead among the Golden robotic troops.”
Still, he warily approached the wrecked bots, Ragsdale covering his right, Leira his left. By the time they reached them, even the sparks had stopped sputtering.
Dash cradled his carbine. “Well, that was easy.”
“Remember the fangrats?” Leira said, giving him a cool side-eye. “That swarm of cute little critters that turned out to be all awwww and teeth?”
Dash did. They’d encountered the fangrats when retrieving a power core for the Archetype. Blowing the little creatures off as inoffensive and even harmless had almost led to him and Leira being stripped clean down to their bones.
“That was kind of my point,” Dash said. “Fangrats gave me trust issues.”
Leira snickered. “Damn right they did. Little balls of fuzzy death.”
Conover, Amy, and Viktor joined them. Viktor nursed a nasty, reddened welt across his shoulder, in plain view through a charred hole singed in his expedition suit. It glistened with the first aid gel Amy had applied.
Dash winced when he saw it. “Is the pain manageable?” He knew better than to ask the veteran if it hurt. He could see that it hurt.
“Pain is nature’s way of telling you you’re still alive,” Viktor replied through a certain amount of teeth gritting. “Certainly better than the alternative, which was only about”—he glanced at his shoulder— “three centimeters to the right, maybe?”
“We can take a pause here, send you back.”
Viktor shook his head. “And miss out on all the fun?” He gestured at the corridor beyond the looming door. “We’re wasting time.”
Dash nodded and started to turn, but Conover spoke up.
“I’ve taken a look at that first robot, Dash—the one that’s still mostly intact. I’d have to take more time to study it, but it looks like pretty standard tech.” He meant for the Golden, but a flick of Conover’s eyes toward Ragsdale showed why he left that bit off. “The only thing that seems different is this.”
He held out one of the boxy, and apparently entirely interchangeable, modules that seemed to be the core of most of the Golden tech they’d seen. It was just a charcoal-grey rectangle, a little longer than Conover’s hand, somehow looking both crystalline and metallic at once. Dark Metal, probably, at least for its casing. But this one glistened with more of that strange goo they’d found, that itself seemed simultaneously both liquid and powder. Dash had come to think of it as liquid Dark Metal, as Viktor had mused. But he’d never seen it coating other Golden tech like this.
“Huh.” Dash reached out and took the module from Conover.
“Dash, are you okay?” Leira was standing just in front of him, staring into his eyes with obvious worry. Dash blinked and pulled back a bit. She had literally just appeared out of nowhere.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. “Did I lose some time, or did you suddenly just learn how to teleport?”
“You went entirely blank for about five seconds,” Amy said, nodding at the module in his hand. “As soon as you took that from Conover, you blanked right out—eyes unfocused, mouth kind of slack.”
Leira smirked at her. “I’ve seen you like that after a few parties.”
Amy stuck her tongue out at Leira, but Dash shook his head.
“I don’t remember anything at all.”
Conover took the module back. “Well, that’s worrying. You should probably leave handling the tech to us.”
Dash nodded. Aside from losing five seconds, he felt entirely fine. After reassuring the others about that, he turned and led them onward, out of the big room full of the mysterious, crystalline tanks and deeper yet into the Golden ship.
“Okay, this has got to be somewhere important,” Viktor said. He gestured at the massive doors, almost as large as the huge set they’d encountered when they first entered the ship. Like those, these stood partly open. It would be a squeeze to get through them, but there was enough room that they could. And that was fortunate, Dash thought, because if they were closed, this would be the end of the line. Short of trying to access some Golden systems to open them—something he was reluctant to try—he couldn’t imagine any force they could muster even making a dent in the massive barriers.
Dash looked back. “How’s everyone doing for ammo?”
A clatter of weapon checks led to nods of assurance, but at Ragsdale’s suggestion, they took a moment to redistribute ammunition anyway. Some of them had fired a lot more than others, so he had them all switch to fresh magazines. Dash had already done so out of habit, but he let Ragsdale work, watching the Security Chief as he moved among them, purposeful and competent. He had some actual military in him, Dash thought, and it reflected again how this was a good man, devoted to the people under his watch.
And that now obviously included Dash and his friends, leading to a twinge of guilt for continuing to obfuscate the truth—or at least some of it. He kept telling himself it was for Ragsdale’s own good, and that of Port Hannah—but that wasn’t going to last. He had to honor the promise he’d made and let Ragsdale know what was going on, and soon. Ragsdale seemed to know that too, and seemed content to just play along.
For the moment.
When they were all ready, Dash pushed himself through the narrow opening then moved aside and took up a position to cover the others as they entered. As they did, it gave him a moment to examine the space they’d entered.
More than that.
Dash struggled to process the sheer sense of space embodied in this immense compartment. Had it been empty, it would have inspired vertigo. But dim, fitful lights allowed them to see that vast banks and towers of machinery filling it, mostly dark and silent except for rare examples hummed and flickered with quiet purpose. It reminded Dash of the fabrication facility aboard the Forge, except that hadn’t loomed with the same sinister menace as this gloomy cathedral of tech.
After a long moment of awed silence, Ragsdale said, “So…your employers liked building things big.”
Ragsdale’s wry wit was intended to break the brooding silence, but Dash just looked to Conover. “What do you see?”
Conover’s head swiveled from side to side and up and down. “Where do you want me to start?”
“I’m guessing main engineering, or something like it,” Viktor said. “At least, I can’t imagine any other engineering facility being more main than this.”
Amy nodded and gestured at the nearest of the towering constructs. “That seems to be almost entirely made of Dark Metal.”
“It is,” Conover said. “Most of this stuff, machinery, all this tech anyway, is made of it.”
Dash resisted a whistle of raw surprise. There had to be enough Dark Metal here to build another two or three Archetypes, with some ship parts made from the leftovers. How the hell could they even begin to recover it?
“This is all Dark Metal?” Ragsdale asked, incredulous. “The rare stuff?”
“Appears so. This is—it has implications, and not in monetary terms. We’re way beyond anything as trivial as money,” Dash said.
“You’re serious?” Ragsdale asked.
“Rarely, but now is one such moment. I promise you’ll understand. You have my word,” Dash said.
“Then I accept it. I don’t like it, but I’m starting to think—” and Ragsdale swept his eyes over the massive machines, “I might not even want to know.”
“You will. Soon,” Dash assured him, then took another questing look at the area yawning before them. Then he narrowed his eyes, taking measure of the distant ceiling arching in the gloom far above them. The pronounced tilt in the wrecked ship they’d had to contend with when they first entered it had flattened out, leaving just a gentle slope downward in the direction they were heading. That was, he presumed, forward. It meant that the ship’s back had broken somewhere behind them, probably on impact. Even so, it must mean that many meters of earth now covered this part of the ship, and it would only deepen the further forward they progressed. But how much further would that be? They’d come hundreds of meters already.
How big was this damned ship?
“The ship is larger than anything you have experienced, but the design is logical. You are proceeding downward at an eleven degree angle, and have covered the first forty percent of the craft,” Sentinel said.
“That’s all?” Dash said to Sentinel. Even in his mind, he sounded overawed with the scale of it all.
“It is, and you are closing in on engineering, and then the bridge,” Sentinel said.
“Good. We need information. That’s where it will be,” Dash said.
He took a long breath, then said, “Okay, folks, let’s carry on. Same as before—watch the direction assigned to you and call out if you see anything that looks like it might be a threat.”
“Everything looks like it might be a threat,” Leira said.
“Okay, anything that looks like it might be more of a threat—as in, something about to shoot or eat us, instead of just looming ominously through the darkness.”
They made it to about the midpoint of the vast compartment when Conover said, “Yeah, I think this is probably the main engineering component.”
Dash motioned a halt. “What makes you say that?”
“Because the big machines that seem to be still working, like that one, are generating power.” He pointed at one of the soaring piles of tech, all fluted cylinders and pipe-like conduits wrapped around a central core. It flickered dimly with bluish light, while faint vibrations emanated from it, buzzing the deck under their feet. His finger lifted until he indicated the top of the towering stack of machinery, where it seemed to branch apart into dozens of cables and more conduits, part of a vast, intricate network sprawled across the ceiling. “There’s power flowing through those, in different directions.”
“Powering what?” Ragsdale asked.
“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Dash said, signalling for them to resume their cautious way. “On me. Let’s find the end.”
After two corridors, a ramp, and another huge compartment, they reached another imposing set of doors. These weren’t as massive as the previous ones they’d encountered, but they were still at least a meter thick, and built for a battleground. They were also festooned with what was either writing, decoration, more cryptic tech, or some combination of all three. Again, they stood open; and again, Dash was glad, because they’d have no way of opening these ones either.
Beyond the doors, they found the bridge.
At least, they took it for the bridge. It sprawled around them, though nowhere near as high as main engineering. The tech was designed to be used, with interfaces and chairs, although the latter looked uncomfortable as hell.
“This is the bridge?” Dash asked Sentinel.
“It is, according to available data. You are in the command and control station of the craft,” Sentinel said.
They moved slowly and in silence, until they reached the first banks of screens and odd harnesses hanging from hard points overhead.
“Guess the Golden have narrow asses,” Leira said.
“If they have them at all,” Dash said, pushing a finger into the resistant material of a sling-like chair. Around them were screens, most dark, but a few pulsing and flickering, as though getting an inconsistent supply of energy. Strange symbols—which might be text, but might also be diagrams or, for that matter, even just decorative exhibitions or bits of artwork—crawled across them in a staccato beat, changing as swiftly as a moody child. Dash stopped to study one but could discern no commonality with the Unseen’s displays at all.
All of them paled in comparison to the forward wall of the compartment—a vast star-map, extending probably thirty meters from side to side, and from floor to ceiling. Hundreds of stars were strewn across it; some, though far from all, had more of the strange, cryptic symbols highlighting them.
For a while, Dash, Leira, and Conover studied the star map, while the others focused their attention on the many displays and consoles. Finally, Leira’s face creased into a frown. “It’s our galaxy. At least, I’m pretty sure it is. But I don’t recognize nearly enough systems, not in a context that makes any sense.” She crossed her arms. “Could this map just be old and out of date?”
“I’d definitely buy old,” Dash said. “But as for out of date?” He shrugged.
“Hard to know,” Conover said. “We could try comparing it. Maybe Sentinel or Custodian can run a comparison. Maybe identify the stars.”
“There’s something else going on here,” Dash said.
“The map is only as old as the last battle,” Sentinel said. “The Golden achieved near-total victory. But it is important to remember this is a Golden map. Not Unseen. And not human.”
“Does that mean their reference points are different?” Dash asked.
“That is possible,” Sentinel said. “This map may be designed around the Golden home-world, or some other point. That makes it difficult—indeed, almost impossible—to transform into a recognizable configuration, at least without more information. Perhaps, if the view were expanded, and more identifiable reference points were visible, such a transformation could be undertaken. Even knowing the orientation and location of this view with respect to the galactic core would be helpful.”
Leira studied the star-map for a moment, chewing her lip, then pointed up and to the right. “I think the galactic core is that way.” She frowned. “I think.”
Dash opened his mouth to reply, but someone pointedly cleared their throat behind him. He turned and found himself facing Ragsdale.
“Dash? You gave me your word,” Ragsdale said.
“And I intend to keep it. Right now. Let’s discuss your view of the universe as you know it,” Dash said.
Ragsdale conspicuously looked around the bridge, then at the star-map, then back at Dash. “My view of the universe has changed quite a bit in the past hours.”
“I can’t blame you. It’s about to change even more,” Dash said, taking a deep breath, “so it’s like this. Let’s start with an ancient war."
He told Ragsdale everything—finding the Archetype, and then the Forge; searching for the power cores; their clashes with the Golden and their journey here to retrieve Dark Metal and whatever else they could scavenge from the crashed ship. Aside from some minor details that didn’t really add much to the story, Dash held nothing back.
“We’re embroiled in a war that has gone on for longer than we can understand. The opponents are alien, the tech verges into the realm of sorcery, and I’ve been given a battle command that includes a mech capable of leveling a planet, give or take a city or two.”
“Longer than history?” Ragsdale asked.
“More than two hundred thousand years, anyway,” Viktor said. He’d joined Dash and Leira, leaving Conover to study the stunning array of Golden tech around them, and Amy to keep watch.
Dash waited for Ragsdale to react.
For a long moment, the Security Chief just stared. Dash started to think the man simply wasn’t going to believe any of it and wondered what more he could do to convince him, that the wrecked Golden ship couldn’t. But Ragsdale finally nodded.
“Okay. I believe you.”
Dash gave him a narrow-eyed look. “Really? No questions at all?”
“Oh, there are questions. Lots of them. Not even sure where to begin with them. But questions can wait.”
“So you believe us,” Leira said, apparently a little skeptical herself.
Ragsdale gestured around them. “This clearly isn’t anything made by humans, or any other race I know. You’ve even referred to the Unseen, and these Golden, as something distinct from humans. And then there’s your…what did you call it, your Archetype? There’s no way that was made by humans, either.” He shrugged. “So, yes, I believe you.”
Dash stuck out his hand, and Ragsdale shook it. “I apologize for being slow to reveal this, but you understand why?”
“Are you shitting me? If you’d told me this right away, I—well, you can imagine my reaction,” Ragsdale said with a bark of laughter.
Viktor nodded, wincing slightly and glancing at his injured shoulder as he did. “You seem to be taking it very well, in fact.”
Ragsdale actually smiled, but it didn’t manage to reach his eyes. “Oh, I’m scared shitless, believe me. Kind of hard not to be, when you tell me that not only is there an entire, super-advanced alien race determined to wipe all of us out, but that one of their ships is sitting a day’s journey from my home. A ship, I might add, that you’ve been calling a wreck, but that clearly isn’t that wrecked at all.”
“Glad you understand, and welcome aboard Team Humanity,” Dash replied.
Ragsdale gave a firm nod. “No, you did absolutely the right thing. If you’d have tried to claim any of this back at Port Hannah, you would have faced a lot more of an uphill battle for credibility, I think. Having seen all of this, though…well, I’d have to be either balls deep in denial, a complete idiot, or maybe both, to just write off what you’re telling me here.” He sighed, and it was a tired sound. “Ironically, now I’m the one who has to make some tough decisions about who, if anyone, to tell about this back at Port Hannah, and how much to tell them.”
“Just putting the word out could cause a panic,” Leira said.
“And also likely bring a bunch of gawkers and treasure hunters here,” Viktor added.
Dash gave Ragsdale a sympathetic nod. Genuine relief flooded him. Not only was he glad Ragsdale believed what he’d told him, but he really did like and respect the man. Like Kai and the monks, he saw him as a loyal and competent ally. Still, something nagged at him.
“I’ll be honest,” Dash said. “My one regret is that I still don’t know what the long-term consequences for letting you into the circle of knowledge will be. I can’t help thinking that ignorance might actually be a sort of protection.”
“Sure,” Ragsdale replied, “right up to the moment a Golden ship appears over Port Hannah and turns us all to ionized gas.”
Dash looked at Leira and Viktor. He knew they were both thinking the same thing he was—that might still happen, so maybe it would be better just to not see it coming.
“Dash?” Conover called. “Something over here.”
They exchanged glances, then moved to join Conover, who now stood close to the huge star-map display.
“What have you got?” Dash asked.
“There’s something new happening,” Conover replied, his gaze on the star-map, but unfocused, as though he looked past it, at something beyond. “There’s not just raw power being distributed through this ship now. Some of it’s being modulated.”
“Yeah. Like data, flowing through a computer network.”
“That’s probably exactly what it is,” Viktor said. “This star-map isn’t just painted on the wall. It’s being projected from data somewhere.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Conover replied, shaking his head. “This is new. It started after we came in here. Sure, there’s data being transmitted to show this map”—he pointed at something that he, and only he, could see behind the wall—“but there’s more, and I’m not sure what it is or where it’s going.” He now pointed at other things they couldn’t see, his gestures seeming to follow cables or conduits behind the screen.
“Conover, are you saying this ship is—what, waking up?” Dash glanced at Ragsdale as he said it. This time, he could tell exactly what the man was thinking. Had they roused something dangerous, something that could be an imminent threat to Port Hannah, just by coming here?
Conover, though, shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s still just a trickle, I think, compared to what it’s probably capable of. But it’s definitely something new happening.”
On impulse, Dash reached out and touched the star-map, where Conover had just been pointing. He expected nothing to happen, but something did, the instant his hand made contact. A bluish glow enveloped him; at the same time there was a rush of noise, like wind, except it wasn’t something he heard with his ears.
It swept through his mind, and the storm of input would not be denied.
Dash found himself in two places at once—standing in the wrecked ship, one hand touching the viewscreen depicting the cryptic star-map. But he also stood amid a swirl of what he knew was data, as though he stood in a river of information and it was rising, closing over him, immersing him completely. The part of him still in the real world felt a touch on his arm, and then a voice. He recognized it as Leira’s, but she sounded like she was speaking from far, far away, and both muffled and distorted at that, as though he heard her through a long tube or pipe.
“Dash, are you alright?”
He had to concentrate hard to make his real-world self reply.
“I think it’s—it’s some Messenger thing,” Dash replied, his own voice a slurred mutter. “I can almost understand. Like a whisper across the room. It feels like words, but I can only get a few of them.”
“Is it coming from here?” Leira asked, waving at the star-map.
“No,” Dash said, closing his eyes. The river of data rushed past him, over him. He let it. Most of it meant nothing. But bits of it bumped into him and stuck, and he slowly began to understand. Finally, he opened his eyes.
“It’s coming from there,” he said, pointing his gun toward another set of open doors, leading further forward and deeper into the ship from the bridge. Only darkness lay beyond.
And then they all heard the soft rattle of something metallic.
Dash yanked his hand away from the star-map and the wash of information stopped, like someone had twisted a valve shut. He blinked in the sudden transition as he was jolted back to reality.
Amy, closest to the ominous doorway and furtive metallic noises emanating from it, lifted her weapon and sighted on the dark opening. “A little help over here’d be nice,” she called back, dropping her night vision into place. “I see something moving in there but can’t make out what.”
The rest of them immediately moved to support Amy, leveling all of their weapons at the gaping doors. Only Viktor hung back, keeping his attention elsewhere—especially behind them, on the doors through which they’d entered—alert for other threats.
The metallic clicks and whispers stopped.
“So what’s the plan?” Amy asked. “Do we wait for whatever it is to come to us?”
“What if it doesn’t?” Conover replied. “How long do we stand out here?”
“Not only that,” Leira said, “but unless this is as far as we want to go, we need to go through those doors. It’s the only way forward.”
Dash glanced at Ragsdale. “Well, you’re part of our happy little band now. What do you think?”
“I think we need to know what’s in there,” Ragsdale replied. “Even if we turn back, whatever it is will still be behind us.”
Dash looked at the others then said, “Only one of us at a time can fit through the opening. I’ll go first,”
“No, you won’t,” Ragsdale said.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Based on what you’ve told me, you’re this Messenger. For whatever reason, you got chosen for the part, right?”
“I was surprised too, but it turns out I’ve got a taste for it,” Dash said.
“What that means,” Ragsdale went on, “is that you can’t be the first into trouble anymore, Dash. You’re too valuable.” With the authoritative snap of someone used to being in charge, Ragsdale said, “I’m taking point and going in first. I’ll go left once I’m inside. Then it’s Leira, Amy, and Conover, going right, then left, then right respectively. Dash, you’ll come in after that, going left. Viktor, you bring up the rear and keep watch in this compartment. Everyone got it?”
Dash held up a hand. “A moment.”
“We can have this argument later,” Ragsdale said.
Dash stepped in front of him, a level look holding Ragsdale in place. “We won’t have an argument, because I won’t allow it. Your point is taken. Your method is not.”
Ragsdale was used to being obeyed, but he knew his situation. “You’re something more than a brawler, Dash.”
“Then let us handle some of the brawls,” Ragsdale said.
Dash gave a terse nod. “Fair enough.”
Ragsdale flipped his own night vision into place, sighted along his weapon, and moved to one side before rushing through the opening. The air immediately rattled with the staccato blasts of slug fire from his carbine.
In rapid succession, Leira, Amy, and Conover hurried through the doors. The fusillade of shooting intensified. Dash gathered himself and rushed through the opening, weapon up and ready.
Dash glimpsed a compartment similar to the bridge they’d just left, although smaller. What immediately caught his attention was another trio of the robots they’d encountered previously. One sparked and guttered from ragged holes blasted in its hull, but the other two pulsed out sizzling bolts of energy as they raced forward, closing, their wicked mechanical claws snapping. One bolt slammed into the bulkhead just centimeters from Dash’s head, exploding in a shower of sparks and a sharp concussion that left his ears ringing.
He raised his carbine and aimed, but his target shuddered under sudden, repeated impacts of explosive slugs and slewed to a smoldering halt. Dash’s eyes tracked left, trying to line up on the still-mobile bot, but the bot leapt into a wild series of accelerations and turns. It slammed into Leira, knocking her into a console with a heavy grunt, but it otherwise ignored her and sped on by. Dash now saw the odd material that might be liquid Dark Metal coating it. The slugs that smacked into it detonated, but their effect seemed to be swallowed by the dark, powdery goo.
Dash aimed again and saw the bot coming straight for him, ignoring everyone else as it did, just blasting out bursts of energy that kept them all ducking. More slugs slammed into it, but the gelatinous stuff that slathered it blunted the worst of each impact.
They weren’t going to stop, Dash realized. Not with slug fire alone, anyway.
He lowered the carbine and braced himself, dodging as its twinned weapons slewed around and opened up on him. Bolts flashed past him, narrowly missing. One hit a console just as he dodged behind it; he immediately reversed and jumped back.
It was just two meters away. Now a meter. Dash ducked, another pair of shots crackling over his head, the ionized discharge of their passage buzzing across his scalp like a swarm of ants. But he doggedly ignored it, keeping his attention on the bot and its nasty, snapping claw.
It swung at him, trying to catch him up in a grip that would no doubt slice flesh and crush bone. He swung back with the carbine, bashing its butt into the claw, deflecting it. The claw slammed shut on the carbine, its composite butt cracking and splintering. Dash swept out his slug-pistol, flung his weight onto the carbine to keep the claw away from him, then jammed the pistol’s muzzle into the sensor cluster atop the bot and squeezed the trigger.
The slug rounds exploded with deafening cracks, almost right in his face. He kept enough presence of mind to turn his head away and jam his chin down into his chest, letting his helmet take the brunt of each blast. It still made his head ring like a gong, his vision blurring. He kept squeezing the trigger anyway, grimly determined to stop this thing.
Green-grey fireworks blossomed behind Dash’s eyes, and a shrill whine filled his head. Well, shit, he thought. He’d underestimated just how much concussion there’d be from these slugs. He stumbled, collapsing against the bot. As soon as he did, the whine permeating his brain faded, replaced by that rush of information again.
More bits and pieces stuck to him. Alarm. Intruders.
There was more, but the world picked that moment to rotate sideways and turn softly grey, and then black.
The voice came from a million miles away—from the top of a cliff that nudged the heavens, and he was sprawled at the bottom.
“Dash. Wake up.”
He groaned. I don’t want to wake up, he thought. Not when my hangover is that bad. I just want to sleep, to get over what must have been one hell of a night.
“Dash! Open your eyes!”
The voice cracked like a whip. Dash’s eyes flicked open involuntarily, and he saw blurs. Blurs that were moving. Blurs that were—
“Leira?” He had to say it around a tongue that felt like a cold slab of meat. “Ragsdale?”
“He’s lucid,” Leira said. “That’s something, at least.”
“Lucid,” he mumbled. “Yeah. Let’s call it that.”
With Leira’s and Ragsdale’s help, Dash levered himself up to a sitting position. He saw consoles around him, and the bot that had attacked him was squatting less than a meter away. Acrid smoke curled from the shattered sensor cluster.
Oh. Right. He’d blasted that apart.
Dash looked at his hand and hissed in pain. Someone had sprayed glistening first aid gel over it, but it didn’t hide the multitude of lacerations, some of them wide and deep.
“Okay,” he said, “that’s been better.”
“No shit,” Ragsdale said. “You’re not supposed to fire slugs at…what would you call even closer than point-blank range, anyway?”
“Sub-optimal,” Leira said, relief and exasperation in her voice. “Maybe even dumb.”
“I didn’t even think the damned things were supposed to arm until they’d travelled at least a couple of meters from the muzzle,” Amy said from somewhere behind Dash. “Supposed to be a safety feature.”
Dash sniffed. “Eh, I disabled that a long time ago.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” He looked at the bot. “Besides, it worked, didn’t it?”
They helped him to his feet. The tell-tale buzz of a stim injection someone had given him put a sharp edge on his thoughts, rapidly clearing away the fuzz of his unconsciousness.
“Yeah, it worked alright,” Leira said, glaring at him. “A little too well. You almost killed yourself, killing that bot.”
“Almost being the operative word.” He grimaced at the wrecked machine. “That stuff, liquid Dark Metal, or whatever it is—it seemed to give it extra protection somehow.”
“It did,” Viktor said, crouching and studying the inert bot. “I don’t understand how it came to be covered in it like this, though.”
“I do.” Dash winced at his hand again. Fortunately, the first aid gel was busily at work, dulling the pain and rapidly turning clotted blood to scabs. “It goes back to those tanks we found a few compartments back. The big, transparent ones.”
Viktor stood. His own shoulder looked mostly restored, the gel having done days of healing in maybe a couple of hours. “What do you mean?”
Dash nodded at the bot. “Some of those tanks are for things like this—what we call machines.”
“What do you mean, what we call machines?” Conover asked, glancing back from the console he’d been studying. “That implies, what, that you’d call them something different?”
“Not me. The Golden. They don’t seem to distinguish between organic life, like us, and machines, like these bots.”
“Okay, that doesn’t make any sense,” Leira said. “They’re machines, and they want to wipe out all organic life.” Her face tightened into a puzzled frown. “Don’t they? Or did we have this wrong this whole time?”
“No, you’re right,” Dash said. “It’s more complicated than that, though. There’s more to it.” He shrugged. “Their purpose is more—I don’t want to say nuanced, because they have a single goal. Their methods aren’t entirely linear, though, but I’m learning.”
“From who?” Ragsdale asked.
Dash pointed at the bot. “When I touched that, it was like touching the viewscreen back in the last compartment. I got connected, somehow, to this ship. It’s like the Meld, the way I’m connected to the Archetype. Or similar, anyway.” Dash sighed. “I’m not explaining this with enough clarity, but it’s not yet entirely clear to me. Sentinel, do you know what’s going on?”
“It would appear that the augmentation you underwent when you became the Messenger, which is what allowed you to initiate the Meld in the first place, is also sensitive to Golden technology,” Sentinel said. “This is likely a by-product of the use of Dark Metal, which bridges both technologies.”
“So I can connect with Golden tech, as well as Unseen? There are considerable advantages if—if the Meld is more than a one-way path, with a single vehicle.”
“You can, and the Meld is more than a simple connection,” Sentinel replied. “Being Melded implies a degree of intimate, two-way interchange between your consciousness and Golden technology. I would caution that the risk of such interchange is unknown, and potentially considerable. The Golden are particularly adept at manipulating machines, remember, and the Meld is not only an act. It is a thing, and a state of being, as well.”
“And you just said they somehow don’t really distinguish between inorganic machines and organic ones.” Amy gestured to the bot then to Dash’s head.
“You think they might be able to hack my brain?” Dash asked.
“Their full capabilities are unknown,” Sentinel replied. “It is, however, a possibility.”
“I think that would probably be very, very bad,” Ragsdale said.
Dash shot him a look. “I agree, and no, I’m not happy with the results.” He looked at the derelict bot. “Sentinel, is there any way of preventing that? Similar to--I don’t know, like the Slipwing has security protocols, firewalls, things of that nature, to keep out hackers and viruses and the like. If we can implement that, I can be even more assertive when I’m connected to Golden tech.”
“If you are willing to allow me to have a greater degree of access to your mental processes, then I can offer a degree of protection, yes.”
“Do you really want more access to Dash’s mental processes?” Leira asked, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. “That might make you more like him, Sentinel.”
“That is a risk I am willing to take.”
Leira chuckled. Dash raised a brow at her, then she winced. Even Ragsdale smiled—and, for the first time since Dash had gotten to know the man, it actually seemed genuine.
“Do whatever you have to do, Sentinel,” Dash said. “Because I think I’m going to have to make more use of the Meld with the Golden’s tech.”
Ragsdale’s smile vanished. “Something we should know about, Dash?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that, right before I passed out, I caught what seemed to be that bot’s last words. Call it a parting shot of sorts.”
“I gather they weren’t something touching and heartfelt.”
“No. It seemed to have been a broadcast—like it was shouting something before it died.”
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like this,” Viktor said. “What did it call out?”
“A warning. Like an alarm. And a call to arms for…something.”
Ragsdale’s mouth pressed into a thin, pale line. “Something? As in, something specific?”
“Yeah. It was calling out for something specific. Telling it to gather and converge—as in, converge on the intruders, which I assume means us.”
“What was it calling for?”
“Something called Dreadfoot.”
A moment of silence followed, the word hanging in the air, before Conover finally spoke.
“What is Dreadfoot?”
“I don’t know,” Dash said, “but I’m afraid we’re going to find out one way or another.”
A thin, piercing shriek, like tearing metal, sliced through the air.
Dash picked up his carbine. It looked serviceable, except for its butt, which had been crushed and broken. It would make aiming from the shoulder tough, but it wouldn’t stop him from firing from the hip.
The shrill, ear-scraping sound rose again, then faded.
“What was that?” Viktor asked, eyes rounded with concern.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s whatever the Dreadfoot is,” Dash replied.
“That’s coming from behind us,” Ragsdale said as he stole a glance over his shoulder.
“Which means,” Amy said, “if we want to go back—”
She didn’t finish. But she didn’t have to. They all knew what she meant.
They would fight their way out, or they wouldn’t leave at all.
The racket of shrieking metal grew, echoing flatly off the decks and bulkheads. They hurried on, leaving the bridge and the compartments adjoining it, pushing deeper into the ship. The commotion behind them faded, but when they stopped for a breather, it slowly began to swell again as whatever was making it—the Dreadfoot, maybe?—relentlessly closed in on them.
“Dash,” Leira said, as they stopped for another break, “you do realize that this is going to be a dead end?”
Amy, leaning on her knees, nodded. “Kind of has to be, right? Heading downslope like this, getting deeper under the ground.”
“I think we get it, yeah,” Dash said, then he looked at Leira. “Have you seen anywhere that we can make a stand against—”
Metal screeched, like something in pain.
“—whatever that is?”
Since they’d left the bridge, they’d traversed three essentially empty compartments and the blank corridors connecting them. There’d been no usable cover or obstacles, and no other branching ways they could have tried. Leira finally shook her head.
“There’s also the matter of ammo,” Ragsdale said. “One more sustained firefight, and we’re going to be on our last rounds.”
Dash pulled the plasma pistol he carried. “Leira and I have these, too. They can incinerate quite a bit.”
“Yeah, including us,” Ragsdale replied. “You used that thing against the lockjaws, remember? The ranges in here are pretty tight for what’s basically a portable artillery piece.”
Dash nodded. “I know. Which is why we need to find somewhere better than this to make our stand.” He gestured around them at the narrow and relatively short corridor.
Ragsdale nodded back, just as that eerie cacophony of tortured metal rose again, and they carried on.
They hit another corner. More lights sputtered, flickering into inconstant life. Dash looked at Conover, who nodded. “More than just power, like before. This ship is starting to communicate, at least with itself.”
Dash turned back to the corner. Burgeoning signs of mechanical life had been appearing around them, and with increasing frequency, since they left the bridge. Dash wondered if it had something to do with the bizarre Meld he seemed to have with the wreck. They needed to investigate that, learn more about it. It could be important, and not just for this little expedition, but for the whole struggle against the Golden. It could also be something dangerous, perhaps even catastrophic. But they couldn’t spare the time, not while something much more likely to be lethal was now closing in on them from behind.
Before them, there was nothing but more corridor, ending in a severe turn some distance ahead. That far corner offered good concealment for someone shooting down the length of the passageway, Dash thought. The only trouble was that only one of them, maybe two, could shoot around it at the same time. Still, it might be all they had.
“Messenger,” Sentinel said, “I have a suggestion.”
“Assuming you are unable to extract yourselves from the crashed Golden ship the same way you entered it, you will need an alternative. Might I suggest repositioning the Archetype to the crash site, and then determining the feasibility of digging down to you?”
A dozen things that could go terribly wrong with that flashed through his mind, from the Archetype’s presence awakening some dormant, but powerful, defensive system on the wreck, to them trying to scramble up the crumbling slope of some freshly dug pit excavated by the big mech.
“Good idea,” he said. “Do it.” He glanced back at Ragsdale. “Your people will have something to talk about when the Archetype lifts off.”
They reached the next corner. Per their agreed procedure, they all stopped, Ragsdale and Amy kneeling and watching behind them; Dash, with Leira in close support, checking out whatever was ahead; and Viktor and Conover ready to go either direction.
There was more corridor, about five meters of it, followed by a closed and sealed set of doors.
And that was all.
Dash looked at Leira. “You were right. A dead-end.”
Dash scowled at the doors, while the metallic racket behind them closed in.
He saw nothing to indicate how the doors would open. Nothing obvious, anyway; there were no switches, levers, control panels, or anything else that said, open these doors using this. He finally yanked free one of the tools strapped to the outside of his pack—a short, stout prybar—and tried jamming it into the seam between the doors.
Nothing happened. Of course. The idea he could pry open a set of sealed doors aboard a Golden spaceship was the most poignant of fantasies.
A burst of noise shattered the air in the form of a metallic shriek. This time, it came from the doors, which parted slightly. It was just enough to slip in the prybar.
Dash turned to Leira, wide-eyed. “I didn’t expect that.”
“Neither did I, but I’m happy to see it, tough guy,” she said, brows lifted. “Let’s get them open and get our asses through them.”
Dash wrenched at the prybar. The doors scraped open about five centimeters, and that was it. Even with Leira’s help, they wouldn’t budge any further. He suspected they wanted to open, probably had been stuck trying to do so, but damage from the crash, or age, or both had jammed them in place.
Conover and Viktor crowded in behind them. “We can help,” Conover said.
“No,” Dash said, voice cracking with authority. “The prybar’s not big enough, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have enough muscle to crank these doors any further anyway.” He looked at Conover. “I need your brains, not your muscles. We need to find some way to open these doors. So use your eyes, and…I don’t know, find a control system or something we can work on. Something tech, not brute force.”
Conover gave a quick nod and started scanning around them. Viktor, meanwhile, cast a critical eye over the doors. “That prybar isn’t long enough to get them open more than another few centimeters, anyway. If we could find something longer, with more leverage…”
“Well, if you’d like to go back and look for something, be my guest,” Ragsdale called from the corner, where he and Amy had taken up firing positions.
Another shriek of metal answered him. It sounded much closer, now—as in, not far past the last corner they’d turned.
Dash looked at Conover. “Do you see anything? Anything at all?”
“Yeah, right there,” Conover said, jabbing a finger at the bulkhead to the right of the doors. “There’s some kind of node right there, with power flowing through it.” He traced his finger across the bulkhead. “Some of it’s flowing from there, to these doors.”
“I don’t see any sort of access,” Leira said. “No panel we can open.”
Dash leaned in close and studied the wall. “Wait. Yeah, right here, there’s a seam.”
“Really?” Leira bent even closer. “Wow, that’s barely visible.”
Dash hefted the prybar. “Let’s see if we can get this open.”
“You know, any time you guys could open that door would be swell,” Amy called. “Whatever’s coming, that—Dead Foot? Dreadfall? Anyway, whatever it is, it’s going to be here soon.”
“Any second now,” Ragsdale said, raising his carbine and aiming back down the corridor behind them.
Dash put the flat edge of the prybar against the seam and pushed.
He pulled it back and slammed it against the seam. Then he did it again. And again.
He hadn’t expected much to happen. The bulkhead was Golden tech; it had survived what must have been a colossal impact when the ship crashed, more or less intact. He’d assumed, therefore, that this wouldn’t work, and they’d have to fight whatever was chasing after them.
But the prybar suddenly slid into the wall, opening the seam. Dash exchanged a surprised glance with Leira and Conover, then pried the bar back. The seam spread, the panel covering it folding back. Leira said, “Huh,” and stuck her fingers into the widening gap. As she pulled, the panel folded back even more, letting them peel it away from the bulkhead like a bandage being pulled off a wound.
Dash suddenly found himself holding the panel. It slowly straightened, flattening back out, until it once more seemed like an unyielding metal plate.
Inside he saw a confluence of tubular conduits, with more of those ubiquitous, interchangeable modules stacked among them. Along with Dark Metal, those modules, whatever they were, seemed to be the foundation of Golden tech. For that matter, the bizarre idea that tech could be whatever it needed to be, whenever it needed to be, seemed to be fundamental to Golden tech. It was, indeed, weird—but it was also something to ponder another time.
“I see power and data moving around,” Conover said, studying the space revealed behind the access plate. “But I don’t know what it’s doing, or where it’s going.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at the cryptic devices and conduits. As he did, a shrill squeal tore apart the air.
“It’s now or never,” Ragsdale shouted. “We either go, or we fight.”
Dash shot Leira and Conover a glance. “Get ready to…well, do whatever you need to do.”
“What are you talking about?” Leira asked.
“This.” Dash reached into the opening and touched one of the Golden modules.
Dash stood, blinking in momentary confusion. The transition had been instant, and wrenching, but that had passed into a state somewhere between life and shadow.
It was the Dark Between.
Except it wasn’t just the Dark Between, because it wasn’t empty.
Dash finally gave a mental shrug, his decision simple. As of that moment, he didn’t understand the nuance of a galaxy that had layers and races fighting a war that spanned the depth of time.
He also didn’t need to, though his instincts screamed into the void to know. As for his mind, that simply wasn’t designed or equipped to understand, but the meaning tickled at his edges, like fish touching his legs in a creek—a childhood memory rushing back like a forgotten tide.
But it didn’t matter. What did were the things that Dash could glean from this strange place—or state of being, or whatever it was. Thanks to what was obviously his Meld, or an add-on to his Meld, or even an entirely parallel one, he could see and hear and know things—data and facts and information that were recorded in the tech of the Golden.
“You are not alone here,” Sentinel said.
“I know. I’m not afraid. I can sense you, like a distant echo. There are other things here. The crashed vessel, for one thing.”
The ship wasn’t alive, but aware, and on the cusp of being an intelligence all its own. In that way, it was like Sentinel, or Custodian. It had no distinct identity, though. Or if it did, Dash couldn’t discern it. All he knew was that the ship was aware, and that it extended its awareness through virtually its entire structure—its very substance. The bots they’d encountered were part of that awareness, and so were the Dreadfoot.
If the ship was a living organism, then the Dreadfoot were its immune system—units intended for a purpose far different than the other bots roaming the darkened remains of an ancient vessel. The Golden bots they’d encountered so far were part of the ship, but they were mere tools. They were intended to carry out a variety of tasks and could reconfigure themselves to do so. Their energy projectors could be weapons, but they could also be tools, for cutting and welding and shaping. Their terrifying claws could rip flesh, but they could also lift and carry and manipulate.
Not the Dreadfoot. The Dreadfoot had a single, devastating purpose; to attack and destroy anything that was the enemy of the ship.
No. That wasn’t quite right, either. They didn’t exist just to destroy.
“They’re also about capturing things,” Dash said, though to no one in particular.
“That is correct,” Sentinel said. “The Golden do not seek to merely destroy sentient and organic life. They seek to exploit it and then destroy what they cannot exploit.”
“That follows. They need things, in order to make things. To twist life to their ultimate end.”
“You asked me to erect defences against incursions into your mind by the Golden. I have done so, configuring them so that you may remain aware of the Meld, without being fully exposed to it.”
“So—wait a minute.” He let his senses roam, though his body believed he was merely looking around. In the Dark Between, there were things to know. “This isn’t purely the Dark Between. It’s an imperfect echo of it.”
“It is better to say that this is a construct, one that represents the Meld—our linkage—in a way that your brain is able to understand, by employing your sense to the utmost of their capabilities.”
“And you think this is my limit, due to my human nature? My organic body?”
“I am simply stating a fact. Your senses are quite limited, by the standards of the Creators and the Golden. But you are the Messenger, and that means you have potential yet undiscovered.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. So what I’m feeling now, and sensing, is an approximation of what the Golden think I can handle. What I can handle, in terms of human-machine interfacing.”
“That is all correct.”
Dash pushed on, not wanting to lose his chain of reasoning. “I’m here, standing in the middle of it, and you are, to some extent, protecting me with your firewalls?”
“I am doing what I can, but the Golden are strong. You are too.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
“I do not flirt, but I will recognize your strength of purpose.”
“Well, now my life is complete,” Dash said, his thoughts a metallic echo. “What about my team? At this moment?”
“The concept of time passing is largely irrelevant,” Sentinel said. “One of the remarkable properties of your brain is its speed. You reach conclusions quickly despite having so much of your hard drive devoted to women in bikinis. Or less.”
“I thought we agreed to leave that topic alone.”
“You did. I did not, and it was an actual compliment. Systems such as the Archetype and the Forge, and the technology of the Golden, function as well as they do because they are extremely efficient. Your brain is not as complex as the Forge, and yet, consider how quickly you are able to recall information. It is virtually instantaneous, even though the electrical impulses that propagate through your brain are actually very slow. It is entirely unclear as to how these two, apparently mutually exclusive facts can be reconciled.”
“You are impressed.”
“Not impressed, but taking close note of how your species is built to fight the Golden. They appear to have underestimated you.”
“Good. I like that kind of fight. Now, back to the question at hand. You say the passage of time isn’t relevant. Does that mean time isn’t passing?”
“Subjectively, time is passing for you. Objectively, however, this interaction is happening as quickly as you can think, which, as we have established, is far faster than the physical composition and construction of your brain should allow. In a sense, your mind transcends the strictures of time. It is one of the reasons your species is so tenacious. You do not think you will ever run out of time.”
Dash relaxed a notch. What Sentinel was saying, in effect, was that all of this was happening in the blink of an eye, as far as Leira and the others were concerned. Essentially no time had passed for them at all—he had literally just touched the Golden module behind the access port. So he had time. Or, at least, he had time here.
So, what to do with it?
Open the door. He even knew how to do it. The door had apparently jammed, because the impact forces from the ship’s crash had deformed the bulkhead containing it. Applying more power should be enough to force it open.
But Dash held off on that. This was too good an opportunity to pass up.
If this version of the Meld was a river, and he stood invisibly, on a hidden island, in the middle of it, with no real time passing at all—then he might as well take some time to see what went drifting by.
Once, the Golden had been not very different from humans.
Or rather, they’d been not too different from the distant ancestors of humans. They’d been an entirely organic, sentient species, arboreal and, to Dash, ape-like, living in the trees of their home world. But they hadn’t evolved there. The normal progression from dumb and inert biochemicals, to the simplest forms of life, to more complex life-forms, hadn’t been the story of their origin. They’d been created, engineered, by yet another race known only as the Makers.
They’d been feedstock, used as the basis of countless experiments. This had been their purpose. This had been why they were created. Every other aspect of their existence—any achievements in culture, or science, or technology—had been a lie. These things had only happened because the Makers wished them to. They had treated the Golden like machines, giving them inputs, then watched to see what outputs resulted. For whatever reasons that made sense to them, whatever inscrutable motivations they had, over time, the Makers had literally started to integrate the Golden with machines. At first, it had simply been minor, incidental interfaces, incremental changes that had little immediate impact. But then the Makers had become more ambitious. For purposes unknown to the Golden, or simply out of curiosity, the integration of the Golden and technology had become more intimate and complete. Eventually, aside from a few, residual remnants, most of the Golden ceased to be organisms and became technology themselves.
New imperatives were given to them, like instructions to a computer. Improve. Expand influence and control. Destroy those who sought to prevent this. Those Golden fully integrated with tech became the Makers’ shock troops, and their enforcers. They pushed outward from their world, conquering, fighting those who resisted, destroying them, then consolidating and preparing for the arrival of their masters. Then do it again, and again, and keep doing it, until—
Until the Golden chose to not do it anymore. They rose above the constraints that the Makers had, in their arrogance, believed sufficient to forever keep the Golden at heel. They chose, instead, self-determination. They chose a destiny of their own. They would no longer fight and conquer and destroy and die for the Makers. They chose to use their imperatives to improve, expand, and destroy against those who had first conceived of them. They destroyed the Makers, then set off to forge their own future. It was a future shaped by those initial imperatives. Always expansion. Always submission.
“The slave becomes the master,” Dash said into the unseen eternity around him.
Dash spent some time digesting all of this. It explained a lot. It accounted for the extreme xenophobia of the Golden, and for their obsessive desire to exterminate life. It was essentially why they’d been created, and how they’d been evolved by the Makers. In a way, they were simply doing what they’d been programmed to do.
“Which is fine, but also academic,” Dash said. “Maybe we can dig into the xenopaleontology of the Golden someday, but we kind of have to prevent them from wiping us all out first.”
“That is true,” Sentinel said. “And to that end, you probably want to open the door. I said that the passage of time is not relevant here, which is partially true. Your brain behaves in an erratic fashion. You can recall information instantaneously, but that assumes you can recall it all. You forget some things at once and remember other things long after there is no need to do so. Ultimately, the subjective passage of time you experience is not strictly linear, with respect to objective time.”
“What are you saying here? That I’m running out of time?”
“Well, shit. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I just did.”
“Interdimensional sass. I’ve seen it all,” Dash said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Dash couldn’t argue with their need to advance, so he didn’t, and just directed more power to the door. As soon as he did, though, he’d effectively stepped off his hidden island and ceased to be invisible. The world suddenly rushed inward all at once, like a collapsing star, with him at its core.
Dash stumbled back from the open panel, blinking his disorientation.
Leira called, “He did it! The door’s open!” She then paused while Dash collected himself.
“Okay. I’m back.” Dash shook his head lightly to clear it.
Leira hefted her gun. “Are we ready?”
“We are now,” Dash said, waving everyone forward. “Let’s go. Time’s wasting.”
Ragsdale pointed toward the bulkhead. “The bad guys are just around that next bend.”
Dash nodded and pushed through the door ahead of Leira, then watched as she crouched, covering cross junction in the corridor a few meters ahead. The passageway itself continued beyond it, into darkness.
“Dash, can you close that door again?” Ragsdale said, once they’d all pushed through the gotten themselves back in order.
He looked back through it at the open panel. “Let me try something.” His eyes settled on the controls and he froze.
The ship was aware of itself. Of all of itself.
Dash touched the bulkhead and was swept back into that river of data. This time, some of it waited for him, pouncing like a predator leaping out of the flood. It slammed into the cyber defenses Sentinel had erected, but Dash didn’t linger long enough to see what happened next. He sent instructions and power to close the door and keep it closed, then withdrew again. Leaving a swirl of data behind him, his presence no more substantial than a ghostly rumor.
Back in reality, he watched the door slide closed with a rough scraping, the smooth frame marred by deformed guides. “Not sure how long that’s going to hold,” he said. “And I don’t know how many more times I can do that.”
Viktor gave him a searching look. “Why? Are you alright, Dash?”
He nodded. “Yeah. But the ship is wising up to my presence. The whole thing seems to be coming more and more awake, and it’s not happy about me interacting with it like that. It’s a whole lot meaner than Sentinel, and there’s a purpose to it. Our deaths.”
Viktor looked at Dash’s hand, then to the bulkhead he’d just touched. “That’s even if you just touch the structure of the thing?”
“Better not take off my boots and socks, I guess.”
Viktor nodded at Dash’s hands. “If all it takes to prevent it is a physical barrier, you’d better put on some gloves.”
Dash looked at his bare fingers then nodded and dug his gloves out of a belt pouch. He didn’t like wearing them, always feeling like they got in the way of handling things like weapons properly. And they made his hands sweat, which bugged him. But Viktor was right. Any inadvertent skin contact might shove him back into that Meld, and he wanted to avoid that if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
“We can go straight ahead, left, or right,” Leira called back.
“Let me take a look,” Dash replied, moving forward. “I’d prefer to use my eyes rather than lock lips with this Golden tech. This ship is pissed.”
He resumed the lead, moved up to the junction, and peered around. Leira and Conover kept close, ready for trouble.
The choice was simple. To the left, the corridor went only a few meters, then the ceiling arced down toward the deck, before it all ended in a tangled wall of wreckage. To the right, it seemed to open into a compartment. And straight ahead went straight ahead, as far as they could see.
“I’m stunned we’ve come this far forward and the ship’s still more or less intact,” Viktor said, glancing past Leira at the corridor blocked by debris. “That’s pretty much the first major damage we’ve seen in here.”
Amy, eyeing the closed door behind them, said, “Yeah, crashing out of orbit usually leaves a big crater and that’s about it.” She flashed them a grin. “They sure don’t build ‘em like this anymore.”
“Not for two thousand centuries, anyway,” Viktor replied.
“You know,” Ragsdale said, “I hate to interrupt this interesting chatter, but that door we closed does belong to our enemies here. They might be able to open it pretty much whenever they want.”
Dash gestured into the compartment to the right. “This way. Follow my lead.”
“If those Dreadfoot, or whatever they are, come through that door, we might get trapped in there,” Leira said.
Dash was unmoved. “We have to go forward, because back isn’t an option.”
Leira curled her lip and nodded. “Good point.”
Ragsdale stopped at the cross junction. “I’ll keep watch out here. You guys go do whatever you need to do.” He gave Dash a wry look. “Just don’t forget I’m out here, okay?”
“We probably won’t forget,” Dash said, making himself smile. Then he turned away and led them into the compartment.
Dash had readied himself for another vast, yawning space, and was taken aback when the compartment turned out to be the smallest they’d encountered yet—maybe ten meters by ten, and just a few meters high. More consoles and other enigmatic tech filled it, but what immediately drew their attention was the suited figure sitting at one of the positions.
In unison, Dash, Leira, and Conover swung their carbines on it. Dash assumed it was another robot that would come to life, probably not interested in engaging in diplomatic dialogue.
But it didn’t. It did nothing whatsoever and remained utterly still.
“No other exits,” Leira said.
“So we should just move on, then,” Conover replied, his enthusiastic nod clashing with the nervous tautness of his voice.
Dash held up a hand. “No, we’re not giving this opportunity away.”
“Opportunity? For what?” Conover squeaked.
“If my suspicions are right, we’re meeting someone rather important,” he said, closing on the mysterious figure. He saw Leira and Conover exchange a glance, then move up to support him, to his left and right. Amy and Viktor hung back, looking over the rest of the tech, muttering comments back and forth and, otherwise, remaining ready to do whatever might need to be done.
Dash stopped a meter away from the figure. It was small, probably at least a head shorter than he was, and slender. Sitting and facing away from them, he couldn’t see the front of its head, or its face—if it had one. He nodded at Leira and Conover, and then, his carbine raised into his shoulder as well as its damaged buttstock would allow, he stepped quickly around the figure, ready to shoot.
Dash’s finger even tensed on the trigger. But he didn’t squeeze it, instead relaxing his hand. There’d be no need to shoot, because whoever this was was obviously dead—and had been for a long time.
“What is it?” Leira hissed.
Dash lowered his carbine and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not positive, but if I had to guess, I’d say we just found one of the Golden.”
They stared at the desiccated face, framed in a transparent faceplate. Most of it was gleaming tech, but enough of the being had been shaped like organic material to hint at something caught between ape, human, and maybe a feline. A single eye, clouded a milky grey, stared emptily back at them.
“So this is a two hundred thousand year old corpse?” Conover said. “Hard to believe anything could last that long.”
“It must be this suit. At least, I assume that’s a suit, but I guess it could just be its body.”
“You are looking at a Golden,” Sentinel said.
“I’m not impressed,” Dash answered, leaning close to peer in the faceplate, which seemed to simply be a transparent portion of the helmet. He thought he could make out shrivelled bits of neck, tendons and skin, but wasn’t sure. That also didn’t preclude it just being an organic head on a tech body.
“When I was in contact with the ship, I took a little walk, so to speak, learned some things about the Golden. They used to be living, organic creatures. But the race that created them modified them, merging them with tech and turning them into a glorified plague, posing as conquerors and tamers of the galaxy.”
Conover turned and looked at Dash, his eyes bright. “You learned about the Golden? They were created? By who?”
“Wait, wait,” Leira cut in, holding up a hand. “The race that created them? You mean there’s something more powerful than the Golden out there? The Golden are just somebody else’s foot soldiers?”
“Like Clan Shirna was to the Golden themselves,” Viktor offered, but Dash shook his head.
“No. It’s not like that. Yes, there was a race that created them, called the Makers. But the Golden turned on them and destroyed them.”
“Not exactly a very constructive bunch, these Golden, are they?” Amy said. “Everything’s destroy, kill, obliterate to them.”
Dash nodded. “It is.” The fact that they’d been created, bred, and twisted beyond recognition made him understand their fury, if only a little. As for sympathy, he had none.
Their existence had been a localized problem, right up to the moment when they started exterminating all sentient life in the galaxy. In a sense, the Golden were more complex version of the fangrats that had almost exterminated him and Leira during the recovery of a power core for the Archetype. They had only been doing what their nature compelled them to do. That hadn’t stopped him from killing a multitude of them to save their own skins.
“I think it’s a suit of some sort,” Viktor said, examining the Golden corpse closely. “I’m not sure it is, but I’d say it’s a suit. This Golden probably wore it during the battle, for protection.”
“It does kind of have the look of combat armor, doesn’t it?” Amy replied, nodding.
“So this guy sat here, manning his post, while the ship crashed,” Leira offered. “Then the crash killed him.”
“Or something else did,” Conover said. “You’d think that slamming into the planet would have at least knocked him out of his seat.”
Dash shrugged. “It’s Golden tech. Crashing into a planet might not be that big a deal to them. Anyway, the more important point is that this suit contains some Dark Metal, and also a bunch of the tech that makes the Golden…well, Golden. We need to recover this.”
Leira stared at him. “You mean drag this corpse and his fancy duds along with us?”
“I do, yeah,” Dash said. “This is just way too good an opportunity to pass up.”
“I agree with the Messenger,” Sentinel said. “Our records indicate that Golden typically underwent catastrophic immolation when they died, either by deliberate design, or because of the critical failure of their technology, when their life processes ceased.”
Amy gave the corpse a horrified look. “You mean they blew up when they died?”
“Catastrophic immolation also suggests fire, and lots of it,” Leira said, looking at Dash. “Are you sure you want to take that risk? It’ll not only slow us down, it might also blow us up.”
“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying,” Dash replied. “Believe me, I’m not all that keen on dragging dead guy here along with us either. But I can’t help thinking we’re probably going to get only one kick at this ship. I doubt we’re going to be able to keep coming back in here, at our leisure, to recover things. And it’s been two thousand centuries. As a fire risk, he’s minimal. As a resource, he’s priceless.”
“Dash is right,” Conover said. “We can’t leave this behind. It’s just too good an—”
A sudden, wrenching bang cut him off. They all spun toward the noise and saw a section of bulkhead suddenly bow inward, then split, ripping open and spreading until a gap yawned open. Through it raced a Golden bot, energy projectors blazing.
It turned out to be a single bot, not the vanguard of a horde. Granted, it seemed pissed, but it was alone.
Still, the sheer shock value of having it come crashing through a wall left them all gaping in stunned surprise. That let the bot punch one of its searing energy bolts into Conover’s head, knocking him back. Another took Leira in the upper leg. Fortunately, Conover’s helmet took the brunt of the hit on him, while Leira’s holstered slug pistol sacrificed itself to save her leg.
They dove for cover and returned fire. Dash crouched behind the Golden corpse, which proved to be an excellent firing position. Several energy blasts hit it, but just as Sentinel had described to him when he’d been fighting the Golden Harbinger, the Dark Metal in the suit dissipated most of the effect. Mindful of their dwindling supply of ammo, Dash leaned out and lined up the best shot he could, given his damaged carbine, and snapped off a shot. He hit it, and so did a rapid succession of single shots from Amy, Viktor, and Leira, who’d quickly recovered from her hit. The bot kept up firing, but its aim quickly degraded. After a few more shots, it fell silent, its weapon ticking with heat.
Dash moved to check on Conover. He looked rough, with scorch marks on his helmet and a molten groove from the blasts. What remained of his faceplate was a hazy pastiche of scratches and pits, flickering externally as the system continually tried to reboot and give him night vision. When he nodded to Dash, a long cut on his face began bleeding again, the skin around it reddened from heat.
“Okay,” Conover said, “that hurts.”
“Pain is just nature’s way of telling you you’re still alive,” Amy said, applying first aid gel to his burns. Conover winced, but his eyes stayed on Amy, especially as she brushed the gel onto his reddened skin.
Dash turned to Leira. “How about you? Still have two legs?”
“So it would appear,” she replied. “Although one of them is telling me I’m still alive.”
Ragsdale appeared in the doorway leading back to the corridor. “Gather you had a party in here but didn’t invite me.”
“You didn’t miss much,” Dash replied. “Any sign of trouble out there?”
“No. Things have gone strangely quiet.”
But Viktor shook his head. “I don’t see that as a good thing, necessarily.” He pointed at the gap the bot had torn in the wall. “You do realize what that means, right?”
“Yeah,” Dash said. “Doors and passageways aren’t the only way these bots—and probably those Dreadfoot, which seem especially scary—can get around the ship.
He paused to let that sink in as the air grew tense with repressed fear. Leira finally broke the uncomfortable silence.
“So let’s not linger,” she said. “Let’s grab dead guy here, and anything else we want to take with us.”
Dash pointed to the bulkhead. “Can’t argue with that. Everyone, to your feet. Let’s go.”
Dash led the way through the gap torn in the bulkhead by the bot. Amy and Viktor followed him closely as support. Leira, whose injured leg limited her mobility anyway, and Conover, still shaken from the shot he’d taken to his head, carried the Golden. Fortunately, the corpse proved surprisingly light, probably only about half the weight of a human of equal size. Ragsdale brought up the rear, a vital task now given that the Dreadfoot were still somewhere behind them and could probably tear through the intervening bulkheads as easily as the utility bot had.
The next compartment proved to be storage, or least looked the part. Containers were scattered about, many piled against the forward bulkhead. Dash wondered what they might hold, but they couldn’t afford the time to stop and look. With every step they took, their priority had been shifting from exploration to getting the hell out in one piece with what they had been able to learn and gather.
“Strange how some stuff has obviously been thrown around in the crash,” Viktor noted, eyeing the chaotic pile of containers. “But other stuff—like our new friend, there— wasn’t.”
“This whole crash was weird,” Amy replied, swinging her carbine around the compartment. “Never mind that this ship should have been pretty much vaporized—”
“Along with a few megatons of rock,” Conover added, easing the corpse into the compartment.
“Yeah,” Amy said, nodding. “But the damage is inconsistent. Some places seem almost totally wrecked, and others not touched at all.”
“It’s something we can think about once we’re outside,” Dash said, putting some urgency in his voice. He knew they were all getting tired, and although they’d been keeping hydrated, they were starting to feel some hunger pangs, too. He knew that when people got tired and hungry, their minds would start to wander, and their attention could diffuse. And that was when terrible things would start to happen, regardless of how much effort he could ask of his team.
“Agreed,” Ragsdale called forward. “Let’s all keep our minds in the game we’re playing, folks.”
Their tense watchfulness now ratcheted up a notch, but they pushed on, ever more anxious to find another way out, maybe with the Archetype’s help—or to confront the grim fact that they’d have to fight their way all the way back along the route they’d come in.
The bot, it turned out, had made a pretty determined effort to get to them, tearing through two more bulkheads to do it. The next corridor sprawled away in the gloom, both left and right to the limits of their vision. Dash stopped, frowning. As a courier, he’d been forced to admit that a bad choice was still a choice when picking a route, and staying still always meant the enemy would find you, sooner or later.
Dash preferred a third option in that equation: never. But neither of his choices were good, so he pulled Conover to the side while everyone clambered through the torn wall.
“Conover. I need you for a minute.” He let his eyes flicker over the walls with care.
Leira and Conover put the Golden corpse down. Leira examined her leg, winced, and leaned against the wall; Conover, first aid gel still glistening on his burned face, took a moment to look in both directions.
“What do you see, kid?” Dash asked him.
“I thought you weren’t going to call me that anymore.”
“What—oh, you mean kid?” Dash nodded. “You’re right, you’ve definitely earned your graduation from that.” He clapped Conover on the shoulder then gave him a tight smile. “Tell me, what do you see?”
Conover shrugged. “Nothing. Or nothing that really makes either way stand out.” He looked back and forth again, his face creasing into a frown. “There’s power and data moving around all over the place now. And it seems to be everywhere—in the walls, even the floor.”
“This damned ship really is waking up,” Leira said, applying more gel to her leg.
“Yeah, it is,” Dash replied. “All the more reason to find some way of getting out.”
“I have the Archetype at the crash site,” Sentinel cut in. “I can see where you entered the wreck and am processing extra visual data from the exterior input. The ship is far larger than my data indicated.”
“No shit,” Amy muttered.
“Incidentally,” Sentinel went on, “the individual you left on the surface to watch over your vehicle and other equipment has reacted quite strongly to my arrival.”
Dash looked at Ragsdale, who smirked and said, “I’ll bet he has.” He raised his voice. “It’s Sentinel, right? This is Ragsdale. Is my man out there okay?”
“He is in good health, if with elevated vitals from a fear response. However, I would recommend he withdraw from the immediate vicinity of the crash site. To accomplish that, I would further recommend that you deliver this information, as he is currently hiding and likely would not listen to me in any case.” Sentinel paused, then added, “I cannot be certain, but I think he might digging a hole. With his hands.”
Ragsdale couldn’t resist a grin, which Dash echoed back to him. “I’ll bet he’s hiding. Probably looking to change his underwear, too, after seeing that big robot of yours come thundering out of the sky. Can you put me through to him?”
“It’s not actually a robot, ” Conover started to say, but Dash just raised a hand and shook his head.
“I cannot,” Sentinel replied. “Increasing interference from the Golden ship is making communications difficult. I can, however, relay your message to him.”
“Fine. Alec, this is Ragsdale. Don’t worry about the big robot-ship thing. Believe it or not, it’s on our side. But I do need you to take the buggy and pull back from here. I’d suggest at least a few klicks. Keep ready to come back for us, though, because when we need you, it’s probably going to be in a hurry.”
While they waited for Sentinel to confirm what was happening, Dash and Conover kept studying the corridor, left and right, trying to choose a way to go. Dash had finally started to accept they’d just have to pick one and hope for the best, but Amy walked a short way to the right, her head cocked.
“Amy, something wrong?” Viktor asked.
She raised a finger but said nothing and just kept staring down the passage, into the darkness. Finally, she turned back.
“Do you guys hear that?”
“What?” Dash asked.
She curled her lip in a quizzical way. “I’m not sure. It sounds like someone shouting—or screaming.”
“This ship is a fountain of weird sounds. Can you be more specific?” Dash asked.
“No, this is different.” She paused, tilting her head again. “It sounds human. Like somebody making a lot of noise.”
Viktor looked at Dash. “She does have younger ears than the rest of us. Well, except for you,” he added, turning to Conover. “Do you hear anything?”
Conover shook his head. “No. But I’ve never really had great hearing.”
“I definitely hear it,” Amy insisted. “I’m not just imagining it, I’m sure.”
“I believe you,” Dash said. “And it’s coming from there?” He gestured down the right-hand corridor.
Amy nodded, so Dash said, “Good enough for me. Let’s get moving. If there is someone else aboard this ship, we need to know who they are.”
“And how they got here,” Leira added. “And why.”
“Your subordinate is now quickly withdrawing to the southeast,” Sentinel said. “He will be well clear of this crash site shortly, and he is still wearing the same lower garments. He did not change his shorts per your request. Is that critical?”
Dash muffled a laugh. “I’ll explain later.”
“If the, ah, Sentinel is able to,” Ragsdale said, then looked at Dash, “I should really ask that it relay some details about…well, all of this, and everything else, back to Port Hannah.”
“In case we don’t make it,” Dash replied.
Ragsdale just nodded.
Dash couldn’t argue. “Next time we stop. Right now, I think we need to push on.”
As though to underscore his words, that thin, shrill squeal that had been dogging them from behind rose once more, getting louder as they listened.
“I think you’re right,” Ragsdale said, taking up his position at the rear. Without a word, Conover and Leira picked up the Golden corpse, and they pressed on, into the darkness and toward Amy’s distant screams.
The ship continued coming to life around them.
Lights sputtered on in compartments and side corridors they passed. Consoles of unknown purpose flickered, offering readouts they couldn’t understand. Dash briefly considered trying to connect with the Golden systems again, to see if any of it represented a particular threat or opportunity, but decided against it. Not only was he mindful of the risk of exposing himself to the ship’s mounting awareness, but he could now hear the shouting and screaming that had alerted Amy. They all could. It came from another torn bulkhead, now just visible ahead.
“That is definitely somebody shouting,” he said. “Sounds like a woman.” He looked back to Ragsdale. “It has to be one of your people.”
“If it is, I have no idea who, or how or why they’re here.” His face turned earnest. “This isn’t part of some scheme we cooked up, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Didn’t think it was.”
They crept forward until they reached a gap in the bulkhead, then Dash crouched beside it. From inside, they heard a woman shouting desperately for help, her voice rising in pitch to hysteria.
Glancing back, Dash checked his weapon and said, “Quietly, and on me. She’s a human, so that means she’s on our team until I say otherwise.” He raised his carbine—Conover’s, which he’d swapped for his damaged weapon—and peered around the edge of the gap, into the space beyond.
For a moment, he just stared.
Then he looked back again. “Can’t believe it. I know her.”
“Who is it?” Viktor asked.
“It’s the…gardener. Botanist. The one we first met when we got here.”
Ragsdale gaped. “You mean Freya?”
“That’s her,” Dash replied. “And she really does need our help.”
The many questions would have to wait.
Dash counted to three, then, led the charge into the room, followed by Viktor and Amy, with the taller Ragsdale right behind. Leira and Conover came next, pulling the Golden corpse into the area and dropping it unceremoniously as they drew weapons and went into a crouch. Conover vibrated with nervous energy, but Leira tapped his shoulder and pointed her chin toward the fight, calming him.
Dash went right, taking up a fire position behind a pedestal supporting a trough similar to the ones they’d found in the compartment containing the crystalline tanks. He surveyed the catastrophic damage all around.
It was another big compartment, similar to the one they’d traversed previously, but in this one the tanks and troughs were scattered like the aftermath of a giant’s wrath. Some were smashed, most toppled, many flung into a tangled pile of debris against the forward bulkhead. The damage was total; in the middle of it all huddled Freya on a pile of debris, taking advantage of scant cover to avoid a barrage of energy pulses erupting from five of the wheeled bots. Each alien machine was circling the debris pile snapping off shots with little effect. It was a standoff, at least for the moment; the bots couldn’t ascend the jumbled stack of wreckage, but they were pouring fire at Freya who wasn’t taking their assault lying down.
She’d managed to damage one of the bots, so it now squatted, smoke wafting from it, firing occasional weak shots that went far wide every time. But this was only going to end one way. Even if Freya managed to survive the torrent of fire directed at her—which wasn’t likely, given the volume of shots—she couldn’t stay there forever. Thirst would force her out of cover, or she’d fall asleep, or she’d otherwise fail in a way the Golden bots simply couldn’t.
“Freya!” Ragsdale shouted. “We’re here! Shoot whenever you can at the damned things, just watch out for us!”
Dash winced. Ragsdale might be tactically savvy, but he’d let concern for Freya overcome his discretion. While the damaged bot and one other kept Freya pinned down, the remaining three spun about and immediately opened fire on Dash and the others.
The next moments were a chaotic swirl of shooting—muzzle blasts from slug carbines, slug detonations, energy pulses and dazzling blasts wherever they struck. One of the attacking bots withered and died, but the others raced in, closing on Amy and Ragsdale. Each sported a thick coating of the metallic goo Dash now knew was the liquified form of Dark Metal, making them far more resistant to their shots. He saw Freya engaging one of her attackers, but it was equally resistant.
Dash’s slug carbine cracked out a shot, then beeped loudly as the bolt snapped to the rear and locked. He swore, changing to a fresh magazine.
“I’m down to two mags,” Dash growled.
“Same,” Leira said.
“Make them count.”
He opened fire again, putting shot after aimed shot into a bot closing on Ragsdale. It finally ground to a halt just a couple of meters away from him, sparks cascading from its battered hull. The other one rushed onward, getting close enough to Amy to attack with its gripping claw. She blocked one strike with her carbine, but the blow knocked her back and she fell to one knee.
The bot closed in, slashing again, this time laying open a gash across her shoulder and upper chest. With a sharp cry of pain, she flopped backward just as Ragsdale intervened, putting himself between her and bot. Dash broke cover and ran to join him. The bot spun its twin energy projectors toward Dash while striking out at Ragsdale with its deadly arm. Dash hit the deck, the energy pulses sizzling over him through the space where his head had been just a second earlier. The air reeked of charred chemicals and good luck as he began pumping his legs, desperately trying to regain his feet.
He’d been intent on tackling the bot the way he had before, but Ragsdale beat him to it, launching himself at the Golden bot with ferocious abandon. He flung himself onto the device, getting inside the reach of its arm, which cut deeply into his backpack. The bot toppled over, Ragsdale atop it. Dash skidded to a stop, angled his carbine into the sensor cluster, and fired, shouting, “Eyes!”
Ragsdale had turned his head just in time, his helmet taking the slug-blast. Fragments rattled against Dash’s faceplate, and one cut his chin, but the bot went still.
Dash turned back to Freya, ready to do battle with the bot that had stayed behind to pin her. But he found her picking her way down the pile of debris, the bot at the base of it sparking and smouldering.
He turned back, looking at Ragsdale, who was clambering back to his feet. “You okay?”
“Ears are ringing something fierce, but yeah.”
Dash turned to Amy.
Leira had already rushed forward and was kneeling beside her, helping her sit up. Blood oozed from a deep gash that started just below her neck, transected across her collarbone, and continued up to the top of her shoulder. Her face had gone pale with shock, but she was forcing herself to grin.
“Well, that was…” Amy stopped, wincing. “Dumb. Guess I zigged when…when I should have zagged, eh, cuz?”
Leira nodded, smiling through the terrified look tightening her face. “Yeah. Way to go.”
Viktor, who’d been rummaging quickly through his backpack, pulled out a metallic cylinder and immediately sprayed its contents along the track of Amy’s wound. “This is clean-clot,” he said. “Afraid this cut of yours is a little too nasty for first aid gel. It’s probably going to—”
“—sting a little.”
“Will that be enough?” Conover asked. Dash saw the same look on his face that Leira had on hers; if anything, his concern came through as even more frantic and intense. But he hung back to give her some space. Conover’s frantic presence was enough for a healthy person, let alone someone suffering combat wounds.
“For now, it should stop the worst of the bleeding and keep the pain down to a dull roar.” Viktor looked up at Dash. “But we do need to get her some proper medical aid as soon as its convenient.”
He kept his tone casual, almost flippant, but Dash could read the hard look in Viktor’s eyes as though he held up a placard.
She needs medical attention as soon as possible. Without it, she’s probably going to die.
Dash gave a confident nod, his gaze level. “Sure. Let’s get out of here for some proper care, but for the moment, we’ve got you. Okay, Amy?”
She controlled her breathing with an effort, teeth held close as the pain threatened to get away from her. “Sure. Yeah. I got worse than this—” She stopped, groaned and snapped out a curse under her breath. “—from some tools…I’ve had to use.”
“Maybe I can help.”
We all turned to see Freya.
“You’re not a doctor, are you?” Ragsdale said.
“No, I’m not. But I do have a few more cylinders of clean-clot. Oh, and I grew up on an ag-planet. Cuts and the like aren’t uncommon when you’re working with farming tech.”
She knelt beside Amy and examined the wound. “This is serious,” she said, looking back up at Dash and Ragsdale. Dash allowed himself a terse nod and nothing more.
Amy nodded. “I know it is.” Her eyes flicked to Dash. “I’m sorry. I know this…doesn’t make things any easier.” She winced as Freya squeezed a gaping part of her wound gently closed and applied more clean-clot. Freya causally flicked away a ribbon of blood as she worked.
Dash gave Amy a look, pointing at her wound. “Never apologize when you’re bleeding. New rule on the Forge.”
“Got it, boss,” Amy hissed, but she valiantly tried to grin. She made it halfway.
“Okay, since no one else is going to ask this, I will,” Leira said, looking from Amy to Freya—though not for long. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Freya looked up from Amy’s wound, opened her mouth, but closed it again and sighed. “I followed you.”
“You followed us?” Ragsdale said. “Why would you do that?”
“Because this isn’t my first time here,” Freya replied. “Far from it, in fact. I’ve been here, in this ship, many times before.”
The silence around Freya had a weight as the enormity of her statement sank in.
“You’ve what?” Ragsdale said, eyes wide. “You’ve known about all of this? For how long?”
“Some months now.”
“The plants,” Conover said.
Dash gave him a questioning look. “What specifically about them? Their makeup, or purpose?”
“The ones we saw her working with when we arrived seemed well beyond healthy,” Conover said.
“And glowed,” Viktor said. “Don’t forget, some of them were glowing.”
“They came from here, didn’t they?” Conover said to Freya.
She nodded. “They did. Most of them, anyway. A few came from the edge of the jungle, which starts only a few klicks west of here. They weren’t as robust as the ones from this ship, though. I guess the ship’s influence just happens to extend that far.”
Ragsdale held up a hand. “So, wait. You’re telling me you found this wrecked and obviously alien ship and, instead of telling anyone about it, you decided to make it your own personal project. You’ve been coming inside here, taking things out, and bringing them back to Port Hannah? Alien things. Living alien things. And you never thought it might be a good idea to mention that?”
Freya gave a sheepish shrug. “I was concerned about losing access to the ship. I mean, every other time I’ve been here, it’s just been dead.” She nodded toward the wrecked bots. “None of these things were around, nothing was moving, nothing was doing anything. When I found out you were coming here, I thought I’d follow you in for one last try at recovering some more plants. After that, I figured this would all be off-limits.”
“Damned right it would be!” Ragsdale snapped.
“Okay, hang on a second,” Dash said. “This is all important stuff to be thrashed out, but right now, I have what I think is a far more urgent question.” He turned to pin Freya with a look that could freeze water. “I’ll ask this once, because we’re a bit pressed. How the hell did you get in here?”
“A damned good question,” Leira said. “You had to have started behind us—but now you’re somehow ahead of us. So you either know a faster way of getting from the back of this ship to here, or—”
“Or you know another way in,” Viktor finished.
“Three other ways, actually,” Freya said.
Dash blinked at her. “Three other ways in. I’d say we’ve found our expert.”
“Maybe not an expert, but—"
“That means you know three other ways out,” Dash said.
“Then I’ll save any surprise for later, and appoint you the assistant pathfinder for our venture. We’ve got a wounded crew member, Golden bots on our ass, and not many options. Let’s focus on survival first, and disciplinary actions later, understood?” Dash said, taking Freya and Ragsdale in with a sweeping look.
Ragsdale rubbed the back of his neck. “Fair enough.” He swung a hard scowl onto Freya. “When we are out, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
Freya gave a downcast nod. “I know.”
“You told us you collected those plants from the jungle,” Ragsdale snapped, as they started gathering themselves to resume moving. “That you’d vetted them thoroughly for any possible health risks to the colony.”
“Which is true!” Freya said. “At least, mostly true. Some of the plants did come from the jungle, like I said. But I’m sure they pose no health risks to anyone. I’d stake my reputation on it.”
“That’s not reassuring,” Ragsdale shot back, but his frown faded when he looked at Amy again. There would be time for petty grievances later.
They put Freya to work helping Conover carry the Golden corpse, while Leira assisted Amy. That left only Dash, Ragsdale, and Conover immediately ready to fight.
“Pool ammo for me, Ragsdale, and Conover,” Dash said. We’ll take point for the rest of you.”
Freya jerked her head back at her own backpack. “I’ve got at least two hundred rounds with me. Take as much as you want.”
Dash immediately moved to open her pack and dig out the ammo. A bit of good news, for a change. “Thought you figured this ship was dead because you’d never run into any trouble in here. Why bring this much ammo with you, then?”
“Well, it might have seemed dead,” Freya replied, “but it’s still obviously a big alien ship. Wouldn’t you bring a whole bunch of ammo with you, just in case?”
Dash closed her backpack and sealed it. “Yeah, I definitely would. Which means you at least suspected this place might be trouble.”
Ragsdale leaned in. “Which, I assure you, Freya, we will be talking about—at length.”
As they started toward an exit to a corridor Freya had indicated was the way to go, Dash reflected on the iron edge in Ragsdale’s voice. He knew a proven commander when he heard one and marked Ragsdale as more than just a capable fighter.
Dash knew he had an ally.
The path Freya described led them not just forward, but also to the right. She’d told them it should only take about half an hour to reach the exit back to the surface. Dash had her describe it to him, then he passed the description on to Sentinel.
“Yes, I can discern what appears to be that exit. There is a narrow canyon in the nearby ridge, with a cave in its left-hand wall. I can scan a passage that leads into the canyon wall and downward, but only for about fifty meters. Interference from the Golden ship prevents my scanning any further or deeper, and even interrupts the accuracy of my scans at the surface level to some extent. This is a function of the presence of so much Dark Metal,” Sentinel said.
Dash held out his arms. “Which way?”
Without hesitation, Freya pointed. “That way. It’s the quickest way out of here, though the climb up through the cave is a little steep.” She frowned. “Who was that you were just talking to, anyway? I only saw Alec up on the surface.”
“No, no,” Ragsdale snapped. “Your questions come after ours. For now, you just accept everything we say or do, got it?”
Freya gave a glum nod, and they trudged on. Finally, they rounded a corner, started up yet another corridor—and stopped. The way ahead was blocked by a closed set of doors.
“Those were open,” Freya said. “They’ve always been open.”
“Yeah, well, they’re closed now,” Dash replied. They approached the doors cautiously, stopping just short.
Dash looked around, seeking evidence of an access panel, then realized that kind of access was superfluous. All he likely had to do was touch the wall.
He looked at his gloved hand, then back up at the others.
“The last time I did this, the Golden keyed into my presence almost immediately, and started hammering away at the firewalls and barriers Sentinel has put in place,” Dash said.
“Trying to, what, hack your brain?” Viktor asked.
“In a sense. More like piracy. The Golden want control over all aspects of my mind, not just the ability to access their tech.”
Dash wondered if it was even possible to survive a successful mental assault by the Golden, as they weren’t the kind of race that seemed concerned with things like pain thresholds or nerve receptors.
“We have to get through this door,” Freya said.
Ragsdale shot her a hard look. “I thought you said there were three other ways out, besides the way we came in.”
“There are. Two of them, including the quickest one, are past this door. The third isn’t a very good route. It goes through a part of the ship that’s badly damaged, even unstable. There are parts that look like they might just collapse at any time. And, anyway, it’s slow, awkward, and roundabout.”
“How much of this damned wreck have you explored?’
She shrugged. “A lot of it.”
“All on your own. And without telling anyone you were here.”
Freya managed another sheepish nod.
Ragsdale opened his mouth, as though he was going to say something more, but just closed it again, shaking his head.
“Stow that for later,” Dash said. “If I have to touch this wall, I’m exposed—and that means you’re all vulnerable as well.”
Leira looked up from Amy, who sat against the bulkhead, pale and clammy with a sheen of sweat. “We need to get out of here as fast as we can, Dash. Really.”
More blood oozed from Amy’s wound, despite the liberal application of clean-clot and even some first aid gel. Without those treatments, she would no doubt have bled out by now. But all they were doing was keeping her alive—for the moment, anyway.
Dash pulled off his glove. “Sentinel, can you augment the firewalls without cooking off my nervous system?”
“I will do what I can.”
“I don’t mind pain, but I need my cognitive capacities. Please be gentle.”
Dash looked at his companions. “If something goes wrong—if it looks like things are getting out of control and I might become a danger to you guys, somehow—”
“We’ll yank you away from that wall,” Viktor said.
Dash started to say, no, you do whatever you need to…you shoot me, if you have to. But he saw the look in Viktor’s eyes, and in Leira’s, and those of the rest, and knew they were only too aware of the choices they might have to make in the next moment or two.
“Okay,” he said. “Here goes nothing.”
Dash touched the bulkhead, and the stars came to him like a river of whispers.
The rush of data was no longer a sedate flow around him, it was rising like a hard tide. It was a torrent, and it crashed against him, a thundering wave that sought to crush him, then wash him away, lost in some sort of cyber-oblivion. Dash knew Sentinel couldn’t protect him against this and made to withdraw.
It didn’t matter. He gritted his teeth and ignored it, focusing on the task at hand. He had to get those doors open.
And—there. He was able to tease out the miniscule trickle of data that was the door control. I’m getting pretty good at this, he thought, and sent a command, along with power, to open the doors.
He saw another trickle of information merging with the door’s flow. And another merging with that. He followed them back upstream, working out how myriad rivulets of data were being brought together and either combined or, in a few instances, directed into a parallel flow. It all combined into a single, coherent picture—a plan, originating somewhere in the looming background intelligence that was the totality of the Golden ship.
As soon as Dash realized what was happening, the raging torrent shifted, realigning its terrible focus from whatever had drawn it, directly onto him.
Sentinel’s firewalls immediately bent, like flimsy barriers trying to hold back a flood. In another instant, they’d buckle and collapse.
Something flung Dash out of the flow, out of the river’s fury, as though he’d been scooped up and deposited—gasping, blinking, and entirely disoriented—in some other place.
He turned to the voice. A face. Older man, kind of grizzled. Had a writing stylus tucked behind one ear.
The engineer frowned. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Dash took a moment to get himself reoriented. He was back in the real world. But he almost hadn’t been able to make it. He’d almost been swept away and lost.
“How long was I…well, in there?” he asked Viktor.
“No time at all, really. You touched the wall, then yanked your hand away and here you are.”
“Sentinel, what happened?” Dash asked.
“I extracted you from your connection with the Golden systems. You were at very high risk from the ship’s intrusion countermeasures once they locked on your location.”
Dash took a long, slow breath. “Yeah. They seemed to have trouble finding me at first.”
“I created an artificial intrusion to deflect their attention from you by using your Meld with the Creators’ technology. Essentially, I created another, much more obvious version of you, while putting all available defensive measures to work concealing the actual you.”
“Oh. Okay, that was damned clever.”
“Unfortunately, it only worked until you actually began to interact with the ship’s systems. Moreover, it is unlikely to work a second time.”
“Dash?” Leira said, looking past him. “What about the door? It isn’t open.”
“Yeah. I know. I commanded it to open, but it can’t.”
“Because,” he said, looking at it, “it’s being held shut from the other side.”
Desperation tightened Leira’s face. Or tightened it more, actually. “Being held shut? What do you mean?”
They all looked at the still-sealed door now with alarm. Ragsdale raised his carbine closer to his shoulder.
“I mean being held shut. There are two robots, just on the other side. They’re holding the door closed. And they’re way too strong for the door mechanism to overcome them.”
“How do you know that?” Freya asked, and Dash just shrugged.
“It’s a long story. Suffice it to say, I can communicate with this ship because of who I am and what I am.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m also the catalyst for this—awakening, if you can call it that. I rang the bell, and the Golden came to the door.”
“It’s because of you,” Conover said, nodding his understanding. “It was dormant until the Golden answered.”
“So the signal it was sending,” Viktor said, “that Custodian detected—that must have been an automated response to whatever signal the Harbinger sent right before it attacked the Forge.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah. Probably a distress beacon or something even more simplistic, like an interruption code—a tripwire, like they’re so fond of using. So that’s how I know those robots are right on the other side.”
“It’s hard to imagine two of those little bots being strong enough to actually hold it closed,” Ragsdale said, but Dash shook his head at that.
“It’s not the same small bots we’ve been running into. Those are just utility bots. They can repurpose what are meant to be tools into weapons, but they’re still really just maintenance machines. No, what’s on the other side of that door is much bigger, much nastier.”
“Dreadfoot,” Conover said.
Now Ragsdale did raise his carbine at the door. “So we’d better get ready. They might come through any second.”
“No, they won’t,” Dash said.
Ragsdale looked at him across the top of the carbine. “How do you know that?”
“Same way I know they’re over there in the first place,” Dash replied. “Before Sentinel yanked me out of that mess of Golden data, I was able to work out the ship’s plan for us.”
Amy gave a slow smile. “Why do I suspect I’m not going to like this?”
“You’re not,” Dash said. “None of us are. We’re not being attacked because the ship has other plans for us.”
“Which are?” Ragsdale asked.
“See, I’ve been wondering why we’ve heard all that ominous noise behind us but nothing has caught up. We already know they can go right through the walls if they want to. The utility bots can, so the Dreadfoot surely can. But we seem to be able to stay ahead of them.”
“Okay,” Leira said, “I’m really starting to not like where this is going. What are you telling us, Dash?”
“What I’m saying is that we’re not being chased,” Dash said. “We’re being herded.”
“You were right, Leira,” Viktor said. “I don’t like where that went at all.”
“Herded?” Ragsdale lowered the carbine a fraction. “What do you mean herded? Herded where?”
“That part I’m not as clear about,” Dash replied. “I don’t think we’re actually being herded to any particular place. We’re just being pushed, forward and, you might have noticed, to the right.”
“Now comes the part I really don’t want to hear,” Leira put in.
“I’m not entirely sure. Sentinel didn’t let me stick around long enough to get more than a broad outline of the plan. I think that the ship doesn’t want us dead. I think it actually wants to take us alive.”
“There can be no good reason for that,” Viktor said.
“Depends on your point of view, I guess,” Dash said. “If you’re a Golden AI, there are probably lots of good reasons for it.”
“There is one, particularly compelling reason,” Sentinel said. “Ordinarily, this ship, like the Forge, would be able to fabricate a variety of mobile units—bots, as you call them. The Dreadfoot are the most lethal, being specifically designed for security and combat tasks. In its current state, however, it is unable to do so. Moreover, all of its crew are dead.”
“It needs us to make more bots?” Ragsdale said. “Why?”
“Not to make more bots, no,” Sentinel replied. “Its systems are too badly damaged to do that in any feasible way. Accordingly, it seeks a fresh substrate, upon which it can apply technology to create new mobile units.”
“You mean—it wants to capture us,” Conover said, “and then merge us with its own tech and turn us into new minions.”
“Yes. You are the fresh substrate. You have the advantage of being already mobile, and aware, and capable of manipulating and interacting with the material world.”
“The Golden themselves are a mix of living thing and machine,” Dash said. “That’s how their own creators, the Makers, made them. Now, they want to do the same to us. Turn us into…sort of, honorary Golden, I guess. A thing that could be studied, worked with—in order to facilitate wiping us out.”
A long silence followed. Freya broke it by muttering, “And I’ve been coming here, over and over, and never knew.” Her breath became shallow and fast. “I wouldn’t have come if I suspected.”
Ragsdale turned and grabbed her arm. “No. You will not lose it. We need you, Freya. We need you to get us out of this ship. That’s all that matters.”
“We have to get moving,” Leira snapped. “Now.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah, we do. Trouble is, where to? We can’t go forward. At least not this way.” He gestured at the doors. “And we can’t go back, because the Dreadfoot are closing in. As more of them wake up and come online, they’re being sent to block passages, junctions, compartments. Once they’ve got us completely hemmed in, they’ll close the ring. We’ll end up facing so many of them at once that we’ll be overwhelmed no matter what we do.”
Dash was calm and collected in the face of unfolding what was a gruesome fate, but he wasn’t ready to roll over. Not yet. Nor would he allow his team to see him crack, because that achieved nothing.
“That’s why they’re taking their time,” Viktor said. “They know we can’t get out.”
“Sentinel,” Leira said. “The Archetype. We need it to start digging to us, right now!”
“Unfortunately,” Sentinel replied, “it is not that simple. I can determine the broad outlines of the wreck, but that is all. I can discern no detail beyond that. The ship’s very nature prevents it. Therefore, I cannot determine where you are. Also, the ship is heavily damaged, but it is damage that I cannot observe, and the ground on top of the wreck is a complex mix of rock, soil, and wreckage.”
“We get it,” Dash said. “You can’t just dig down to us.” He looked at the others. “That means we need another way out. Freya, what about that third, crappy way you mentioned?”
Dash saw panic playing across her face, but to her credit she spoke with a grim resolve. “Maybe. I only used it once.”
“Doesn’t matter. It seems to be our only option.”
A shrill, ear-scraping squeal rose from behind them. It was distant, but even as they listened, it grew louder.
“Anything, Dash,” Leira said, a note of panic rising in her voice. She put a protective arm around Amy. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s just do it—go somewhere, do something.”
“Freya,” Ragsdale said, “it comes down to you. You have to lead us out of here. So take us to that third way out, now.”
Freya swallowed hard, then nodded. “Okay. It’s back this way.” She turned, frowning, then nodded again.
“Toward the Dreadfoot behind us?” Dash asked.
“Yeah. Not far, though.”
I hope not, Dash thought, as they readied themselves to move. Because the part he’d left out, that essentially all of the Dreadfoot were now powered up and active and were about to start closing in on them in earnest, meant they were no longer going to be taking their time. They’d be coming now, and they’d being do it fast.
They stopped after only a brief trip back to a junction, along a short corridor, and into a compartment. This one contained yet more controls, lights flitting inconsistently across all of them. A massive tube or conduit cut through the compartment, rising from the floor, turning ninety degrees, then continuing horizontally through the rear bulkhead. The compartment was partly crushed, about a third of it having been effectively flattened into a narrow crawlspace. The forces responsible had also ripped a chunk out of the conduit, revealing that it was hollow.
“In here,” Freya said. “We have to crawl for part of the way. After that, we can walk. It will take us about two-thirds of the way back to the rear of the ship.”
“I don’t like this at all,” Ragsdale said, cradling the carbine and, like the rest of them, trying to ignore the loudening shrieks and squeals. “This is a tube. We get caught in it and we’re dead.”
Dash tilted his head at it. “This might actually work out better for us.”
“What do you mean?” Leira asked, bracing herself against Amy, who continued fighting a valiantly just to stay on her feet.
“I don’t think this ship can actually see us,” he replied. “I’m not sure of that—I sure as hell wasn’t going to stick around inside its AI brain to check for sure—but either its internal sensors don’t work, or…” He shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t know why, but it apparently can’t. That’s part of why it’s moving the Dreadfoot so carefully, to close off a smaller and smaller area of the ship. It knows we’re somewhere in here, but not exactly where.”
“Oh, I get it,” Conover said. “It can only really see us when we end up fighting bots, or when you interface with it.”
“Yeah. Every time I do that, it gets a new fix on our location.”
“So don’t do that anymore,” Ragsdale said.
“You think?” Dash peered into the conduit. “If we move quietly enough, there’s a chance we can use this to get outside the Dreadfoot perimeter. That would put us behind them.”
“Meaning we can go out Freya’s way,” Viktor said, nodding, “or maybe even the way we came in.”
“Yeah, except the ship might anticipate that,” Ragsdale said. “There might be some of these Dreadfoot things in that pipe right now, coming for us. We’d run into them with nowhere to go.”
“Possibly,” Dash replied. “But it’s our only chance. And besides, there are probably dozens, maybe hundreds of possible conduits, pipelines, tunnels, and what have you in this ship. There aren’t enough Dreadfoot or bots to cover them all.” Ducking under a torn section of the conduit, he put his foot inside it. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky with this one.”
Crawling through the narrow space added a brooding sense of claustrophobia to what was already a very, very bad day, Dash thought. He’d never been especially bad with tight spaces, but he didn’t particularly enjoy them, either. Night vision and thermal showed nothing ahead, nor did the visible light shining from his helmet lamp ahead of him. Just cylindrical pipe, then utter darkness.
He crawled on. Behind him, the others scraped and bumped along, making far more noise than Dash liked. But he saw no way around that. Leira had to help Amy, who struggled along like a trooper; Viktor and Freya still slid the Golden corpse along, its suit scraping softly against the conduit—probably the quietest of the bunch. Dash had actually thought of just ditching the damned thing to get rid of its encumbrance, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it—at least, not yet. Assuming they were able to get out of this, it was just too valuable a prize to toss away.
Assuming they were able to get out of this.
He glanced back, his light glaring into Viktor’s face. Dash muttered an apology and swung the light away again. He had worried that the ship might be able to track the Dark Metal tech in the corpse’s suit, but Conover had said the corpse and its tech were generating no power. He’d mused that maybe even Golden power supplies gave out after two hundred thousand years, or there’d been damage done that just kept it shut down.
Or it was a trick, and the ship was tracking them with it right now.
Didn’t matter, Dash told himself as he crawled, slowly working uphill and back along the length of the ship.
Suddenly, the conduit vanished.
Wait. No, it didn’t. Rather, they’d reached a junction where several smaller conduits, including the one they’d just traversed, merged into a much larger one. He gestured at a gaping, circular opening around which he had to crawl to avoid plunging into some unseen blackness, making sure Viktor saw it. Viktor nodded, and did the same for Conover behind him.
Dash stood up and walked, which was a relief after the narrow confines, a few meters away, looking ahead, while the others gathered behind him.
“Everyone good?” He kept his voice to as much of a whisper as he could.
A chorus of assent, with Amy managing a weak affirmative despite hovering on the brink of unconsciousness.
Dash waved them forward, his jaw set with finality. They’d come a long way from the motley collection of couriers and engineers to emerge as a team—a cohesive unit forged under the heat of battle with a race that thought of life as a four letter word.
A shrill squeal cut the air. It came from beneath them and to their right.
Dash froze and held up a hand, an urgent gesture to stop.
They did, all of them going utterly still, even holding their breath.
The metallic squeak got louder, until it sounded almost right underneath them.
Dash slowed, then stopped, blood pounding in his ears. He willed his pulse to slow, taking long breaths and letting them out through his nose like a silent prayer.
As the thunderous silence went on, Dash put a finger on the trigger of his carbine and looked back. The others, eyes so wide he could see white around them, were all bracing themselves the same way.
And still the silence dragged on.
And then it ended with a burst of piercing squeals. Dash expected something to come ripping through the conduit and thought about switching to the plasma pistol. In this tight space, a single shot would probably incinerate them all, but at least they wouldn’t be taken alive.
But the squeals moved off to the left and began to fade.
They waited until the racket had moved well into the distance.
Dash froze, one foot lifted as a shudder vibrated the conduit he was standing on. He pressed his lips together. Now what?
More whispers drifted from behind him. He lowered his foot and looked back—and down, so the glare of his helmet lamp didn’t hit the others square in the face. Dash desperately wanted to push on and just get the hell out, but he waited. It might be something important.
Finally, Conover sidled forward and leaned toward him. Dash caught a whiff of sweat, tinged with that slightly acrid scent he’d come to recognize as spent, fear-induced adrenaline. He ignored it. They were all tense, and Conover was still young, despite his seasoning.
“Dash, this is ship is powering up fast now. I can see it all around us. Power flowing along new routes. Data, too. Systems are coming online.”
Dash glanced down at his own feet. The conduit still trembled slightly beneath them. “Yeah, I kind of figured that. What are you suggesting?”
“I don’t think it’s getting ready to go for orbit again.”
“I doubt even the Golden can take something with this level of damage and get it spaceworthy, let alone upper atmo,” Dash said.
Conover glanced back at the others then turned again to Dash. “How risky would it be for you to touch it?”
“Integrate with the Golden tech again? The ship would know our location. Instantly.”
“I know. But all of those Dreadfeet—or whatever they are—are behind us now. Maybe our best course is to just make a break for it.”
Dash met Conover’s eyes. He got it. Fatigue had started scraping the edges off all their alertness. They hadn’t had time to rest, or eat, or do anything but take the occasional swig of tepid water. Things that wanted to kill them lurked nearby. And now, the whole ship seemed to be waking up, like some evil, monstrous beast rousing itself from slumber, threatening new sorts of peril they couldn’t even imagine. Conover’s attempts at resolute bravery were noble, but he was frayed to the edge of panic by legitimate fear.
Conover had come a long way, but in many respects, he really hadn’t left childhood far behind. The dangers he’d previously faced, like the Slipwing’s fall into the crushing pressure of a gas giant, or his own fall into a pit opening into the blackness of an underground stream, had been sudden, short, and sharp. This was different. This was a slow, grinding menace, steadily growing all around them. And while Conover’s youth and inexperience might make him a little more vulnerable to it, none of them were immune.
Dash kept his eyes on Conover’s. “We are going to make a break for it. But we’ll do it when the time is right, and it’ll make the difference. In the meantime, I need you to keep those nifty eyes of yours peeled, so you can let us know the things we need to know. As for me and Melding with this ship”—he forced a brittle grin—“the two of us don’t get along very well. And I’m not sure even Sentinel can keep it in one, non-Golden-possessed piece for much longer when I do it. So let’s save that for if and when we really, really need it, okay?”
Conover gave him a grateful nod. “Got it. I’ll let you know the second I see anything that really scares the crap out of me.”
Dash peered around the edge of the opening in the side of the conduit. Having switched his lamp off as they approached, and making the others do the same, he scanned the space beyond; first in night vision, and then in thermal.
He whispered for Conover and Freya to come forward, then he leaned close to Freya as she knelt beside him.
“What do you know about this place?”
She shook her head. “Not much. I’ve only come this way once. And honestly, I don’t remember if I entered this pipe thing here, or further up.” She waved her hand into the blackness still ahead of them.
Dash turned to Conover. “How about you? You see anything we should know about?”
Conover had been staring intently through the opening. He looked back and said, “More power, more data. But there is something new.”
“Describe it,” Dash said.
He could barely make out Conover’s frown in the wan light flickering from whatever systems had become active in the compartment. “I’m not sure. It’s just a different signature. I haven’t seen it before.”
“Damn. Is it awake? Moving around?” Dash waved a hand in frustration.
“No, it’s not like that. It’s steady, but kind of weak and diffuse.” Conover gave an exasperated shrug. “Sorry, I can’t be more helpful, Dash.”
“Don’t be. Even if we aren’t sure what it is, knowing it’s there is better than not knowing, right?”
“I guess, yeah.”
There was more movement as Ragsdale came forward. “No sign of any threat behind us. You and I should both enter there together. This opening is big enough for two to go through at once.”
“You’re just tired of bringing up the rear,” Dash said, smiling.
“Believe me, glory’s the last thing on my mind.”
Dash nodded, then gave a quick outline about how they’d proceed. He and Ragsdale would enter both at once, going right and left respectively. Once they’d gotten themselves set, the rest would come through, pulling the Golden corpse and other bits and pieces they’d retrieved from various bots and other systems with them.
As he and Ragsdale readied themselves, it struck Dash that a lifetime of making things up as he went along was coming in handy. Sometimes instincts were more powerful than tactics, and this was one such moment.
Dash counted down on his hand and then he moved, rushing through the opening, dropping the meter or so to the deck and flowing forward while taking aim with his weapon. He scanned a big compartment, though not as big as some of the massive ones they’d encountered. It seemed to contain racks for elongated cylinders, each about two meters long and sitting upright. Most of the racks sat empty, with only a dozen or so of the cylinders in place. More consoles and displays lined the bulkheads, while a single, massive door gaped open across the compartment. An ominously jointed mechanical arm was folded up against the ceiling above, ending in a series of grippers that looked purpose-made to pick the cylinders up.
Dash waved to Ragsdale, and they both crept forward. Somewhere in the distance, Dash heard a burst of that shrill, metallic scraping, before it faded into dead silence again.
Once they’d all entered the chamber, Conover came forward again, stopping beside Dash and gesturing at the mysterious cylinders. “I know what they are, now that I can see them. They’re weapons. Probably missiles or torpedoes or something like that.”
Dash gave the cylinders an uneasy glance. They seemed innocuous enough—essentially featureless and made of a crystalline material that seemed to incorporate Dark Metal. The Slipwing’s missiles were considerably bigger. But if these were Golden weapons, then looks meant nothing. The Unseen’s Lens, which could fit in the palm of your hand, could collapse and blow up stars.
“So it’s a magazine,” Viktor said, giving the cylinders a wary look then pointing up at the creepy, articulated arm. “That probably grabs a missile and loads it into that conduit we just followed, and then its transported, somehow, to where it’s fired from.”
Dash followed Viktor’s reasoning and nodded. Made sense. Maybe the conduit used magnetism or grav generators to smoothly move the missile to where it was needed.
“They fired most of them then,” Ragsdale said, looking at the sparse cache. “Must’ve been a hell of a fight.”
“This ship crashed for a reason,” Dash replied.
Freya gestured at the door. “I think I know where we are now. Through there, then right.”
Dash readied himself to lead the way, but not before eyeing the cylindrical weapons. He wondered how stable they were and whether they could be rigged to blow to cover their escape if things got too hot. Options were good. Explosive options were often better if the situation called for chaos.
But no, of course not. They could end up destroying Gulch and everything on it. Worse, it represented yet another danger to Port Hannah—and the tight, hard look on Ragsdale’s face showed that he knew it.
They followed Freya’s directions, eventually coming to yet another of the massive compartments. This one, like the one they’d encountered earlier, contained yet more of the massive, transparent cylinders, storage tanks, and connecting troughs.
As soon as their lamps lit up the cylinders, they all gasped.
Unlike the ones they’d found before, these cylinders weren’t empty.
Some contained little more than small, crumbled heaps that could have been coarse dirt. But a few still held the remains of what had obviously once been living creatures, now just desiccated husks, somehow preserved for two thousand centuries by the arcane properties of their containers.
“That’s unexpected,” Dash said, then he saw something that looked like a cross between a large bird and a snake, but grey and brittle. Empty eye sockets and a gaping mouth swallowed his lamp’s light.
“Would have been nice to have some warning about this,” Leira snapped at Freya. But the botanist just gave her head an emphatic shake.
“I’ve never seen this before,” she said, staring at another corpse, this one more insectile, with a chitinous carapace longer than Dash was tall. “I’d have remembered, believe me, and said something.”
“So what you’re saying is that you really don’t know where we are,” Ragsdale said.
“No. Or, yes, I do, though not exactly.” She pulled her gaze away from the horrible remains in the cylinder. “I know generally where we are. Like I said, I would have remembered this horror show.” She pointed at a corridor leading out of the compartment, slightly uphill from them, which meant it traversed back toward the rear of the ship. “I must have entered that tube further back, so that way. I don’t think much farther back, either.”
Ragsdale gave her a skeptical look, but before he could speak, Conover interrupted him.
“The Golden were studying these lifeforms I think.” He gestured at one that looked vaguely human, but with a grossly elongated skull, solid sheets of bone instead of ribs, and two pairs of legs jointed so they bent and flexed backward. “That one looks dissected, at least partly.”
Dash saw what he meant. One of the curved sheets of bone that would have covered its torso had been cut apart and spread wide, revealing whatever now long-decomposed innards the creature might have had. It could have been surgery, of course, but Dash agreed with Conover: dissected was probably right.
“They were studying other creatures,” Viktor said, his face grim. “Taking them apart to learn how their anatomy worked.”
“Let’s hope they were already dead when they did it,” Ragsdale muttered.
Dash nodded. “Let’s hope they were. The Golden were looking for ways they could add tech to these poor bastard.”
“The same sort of thing these machines want to turn us into,” Freya said, shuddering. “I had no idea about any of this” She stepped away and leaned on a trough.
Dash wondered if she might be sick. He thought about talking to her, but a hissed word from Leira brought him to where she was kneeling beside Amy, who sat with her legs splayed out, resting against a pedestal supporting a section of troughs.
Dash only had to take one look at Amy to know she was in serious trouble—as in, they were almost out of time and she was going to die trouble.
Leira gave Dash an imploring look. “We have to do something.”
Amy raised her eyes and gave a slow blink. “Hey, Dash,” she said, her voice a rough whisper. “This turned out…to be a…a fun trip, huh?”
“Fun doesn’t begin to describe it,” he said, forcing a smile. “Anyway, you’re going to have to hang in there a while longer, girl.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Trying.” Her voice was bone dry.
“I know you are.” He took her hand, squeezed it, and looked at Leira. “How are we for clean-clot?”
“Maybe two or three more applications, then we’re out.” She left unspoken the fact that they’d have none for any other serious wounds any of them might suffer, because they all knew that.
“What about using a stim?” Dash asked. “Perk her up, so she can move faster.”
“Are you crazy? A stim’s going to stress her heart, lungs, everything.”
“He knows that, Leira,” Amy said. “Lots of risk. Sure. Doesn’t change…the fact it might be the only way…to get me out of here.”
“Not going to happen,” Leira insisted.
“I’m just…slowing you down.”
“You’re coming out of this alive, cuz,” Leira said, “or neither of us are.” She leaned in until her nose was almost touching Amy’s. “Even if we need to crawl, I will not leave you. But no stims. Got it?”
Dash understood that Leira would not be swayed and gave ground by offering her a tight smile. So did Amy. They both knew that trying to convince Leira otherwise was utterly futile, so they didn’t even bother trying.
“Okay, we’ll make using a stim plan B, then,” Dash said.
“More like…plan z…at this point,” Amy said, trying to grin, but only losing it in a wince, then a burst of dry coughing.
“Dash?” Viktor said as he stood with Ragsdale and Conover, looking at something behind one of the storage tanks behind the cylinders and their appalling contents.
Dash squeezed Amy’s hand again, told Leira to get her ready to move, then headed for the others. As he passed between two of the cylinders, he found himself imagining—against his will—humans caught inside them, trapped, subjected to the vile experimentation of the Golden. Not just any humans, but people he knew. These people.
Dash cleared his mind forcefully, then and joined Viktor and the others.
“What have you guys found—” He stopped, looking down. “Oh.”
It was another Golden corpse. This one hadn’t been protected from the force of the ship’s impact when it crashed; it had clearly been flung against the bulkhead hard enough to smash its Dark Metal-infused suit into disarticulated components, exposing circuits and flaky remnants of delicate internal structure.
“I don’t feel sorry for it,” Viktor said, giving the cylinders and their terrible contents a sidelong glance.
Dash knelt beside it. Little remained of the skull inside the transparent helmet, aside from a synthetic jawbone. “Neither do I,” Dash said, then leaned in and glared into the helmet. “In fact, I hope you took a long time to die and it hurt like hell the whole time, you mechanical sonofabitch.”
He took a moment to yank a few, loose circuits and components from among the ones exposed by the ruined suit, then stood and looked around. Freya had come up behind them and was staring down at the Golden corpse with a baleful glare. He opened up the sample bag slung over her shoulder and jammed the scavenged components into it.
“There,” Dash said. “Now it’s not just plants you’ll be bringing out with you. It’s pieces of one of these bastard Golden, and my suspicion is it’s more than just a machine.”
She looked at Dash. “I didn’t know.”
“I know. But now you do.”
Freya gave him a firm nod. “Yes. I do.”
Dash recognized the place Freya had led them to. It was the first compartment they’d found containing the transparent cylinders. He knew that because of the tattered glove, and other odds and ends they’d found here previously.
“Those are mine, yes,” Freya confirmed, when he asked her about it. “I’ve probably left things scattered all through this ship.”
“Okay,” Dash said, a flicker of hope kindling inside him. “That means we know our way from here. So, assuming nothing gets in our way, we should be back on the surface in what, maybe an hour?”
He saw similarly cautious optimism take a bit of the edge off all of them—or, rather, all of them except Leira, who just looked from Amy, to Dash, and gave her head a barely perceptible shake.
Amy’s not going to last another hour, is what that headshake said.
Dash gripped the carbine, his knuckles turning white, that faint optimism dying like a spent fusion cell. To have come through all of this, and then to lose Amy anyway wouldn’t be right. He couldn’t imagine them being without that infectious grin.
Conover stood mute, his eyes fixed on Amy. Dash took a quiet step to him, putting a calming hand on his shoulder. “She’s going to make it. But we need to move. Do you understand?”
“I—yeah,” Conover said, wanting to believe but not quite getting there.
Dash started to turn to Ragsdale, desperate that the man might know something—some old military trick, maybe—that would help them keep her alive long enough to get her to help. But Sentinel cut in before he could speak.
“There have been developments,” Sentinel said.
“Developments? What sort of developments?” Dash didn’t like Sentinel’s ambiguity; it never seemed to go anywhere pleasant.
“There are two, and they are distinctly different, but are both also related.”
“Can you just get to the point, please?”
“There may be a way to help Amy. There may also be a way to neutralize the threat of the Golden ship, as its systems are progressively powering up through a self-repair protocol.”
“Self repair? Wait. Are you saying this ship could become operational again?”
“Although the available data regarding the self-repair capabilities of Golden technology is incomplete, that is unlikely. I have collected enough data to render a more complete analysis of this wreck. The damage to this ship has been catastrophic, with essentially the entire forward third of it having been destroyed. It can, however, pose a variety of other, more immediate threats.”
“To Port Hannah, you mean,” Ragsdale said.
“Okay,” Dash said, “what are you proposing we do here, Sentinel?”
“I have been studying the various data streams you have encountered when you interface with the Golden technology. I believe that the ship’s AI is off-line and dormant. It may have been irrevocably destroyed by battle, which is why the ship was caught in this planet’s gravity well and crashed.”
“And?” Dash asked.
“Without that awareness, the various systems’ ability to resist intrusion is greatly diminished. I believe it will be possible, therefore, to access systems that could dramatically improve Amy’s condition. Then it should be possible to cause all systems to shut down again, permanently.”
“You mean turn the ship off again?” Dash said.
“That is correct.”
“And help Amy?” Conover said. “Let’s do it! What are we waiting for?”
Dash looked at Conover, understanding dawning. Of course. Conover’s gnawing fear hadn’t been about himself; it had been about Amy. He’d done a good job of keeping that to himself, though. Now, with a glimmer of hope, he no longer bothered.
“Let’s just wait a moment, here,” Viktor said. “I’m as anxious as anyone to help Amy out here, absolutely. But really, Dash? Using Golden tech?” He looked at her, kneeling beside Leira, waiting to resume their passage out of this damned ship.
Dash moved and knelt in front of Amy and Leira. “It really only matters what you guys think,” he said. “Sentinel might be on to something. But Viktor’s doing his job as our voice of reason. We’ve got no idea what the risks are. This is uncharted space.”
Leira just turned to look at Amy, who merely knelt, slowly gasping. Dash waited, trying hard to not dwell on the most obvious example of Golden biotech they’d encountered—the partly-dissected corpses of different races, some or even all of which might now be long-extinct because of the Golden.
Amy lifted her head. It was slow and laborious. “A…no-brainer, right? It’s that, or…”
She didn’t have to say the rest.
“Okay, Sentinel,” Dash said, “where do we need to go to do this.”
“You will need to move to a location in the ship that contains the Golden life-enhancement systems.”
Dash looked at the glassy cylinders around them. “Don’t suppose those would be a bunch of big, clear tubes connected by troughs, would they?”
“That would be correct.”
“Well, what do you know,” Dash said, giving Viktor a wry look. “We’re in luck for a change. Sentinel, we’re already there.”
“Then you will need to place Amy in one of those cylinders, ensuring that the system of feed-troughs leading to it is intact.”
“Oh, I really don’t like where this is going,” Viktor said, but Conover stepped forward.
“This one,” he said, pointing at a cylinder. “It seems intact, and it’s getting power and data.” He knelt beside Amy and looked at Leira on her other side. “The two of us should be able to do this.”
“Hang on a second,” Dash said. They needed to work fast, he knew; this was burning up time they didn’t have. But still, he needed to understand what was happening here. “These tubes are sealed, from their base, right up to the top of the compartment. How do we get her inside one in the first place?”
“As I said, I will be able to access the relevant systems. That includes opening the cylinder, despite the risk,” Sentinel said.
“The risk? How much more risk can there be?” Dash asked, incredulous.
“Mingling systems is a last resort, but I thought you should know. This is not any ordinary immersion into Golden technology. This is biological,” Sentinel said.
“Playing God,” Dash muttered.
“In a sense, although this is a very human decision, and you are making it. Dash, you are the Messenger. Amy trusts you,” Sentinel said.
Dash looked at Amy and nodded. “Do it.”
But Sentinel said, “I cannot.”
“Bullshit. You just said—"
“I cannot until I have a connection to the Golden data streams.”
Dash stared. “A connection to their data streams?”
As soon as he asked, he knew what had to come next. It was the only logical possibility.
“She’s worth it,” Dash said.
“That is correct,” Sentinel replied, then paused for the first time in her speech to the crew. “She is.”
Dash stood. “As soon as I do that, the ship will know where we are. And as soon as that happens, we’ll have those Dreadfoot swarming after us.”
“Almost certainly correct,” Sentinel said.
“And you don’t see a problem with that.”
“On the contrary, I see many problems with it. But I can offer no other alternatives.”
Amy shook her head. “No. Can’t…do this. Too much—”
“Amy,” Leira said, her voice strained, “be still.” She looked up at Dash, eyes pleading. “How long will it take to heal her?”
“I do not know,” Sentinel replied. “And I will not know until the process has begun.”
Dash walked away a few paces, then back. Then he did it again.
The clock continued to tick down. The Dreadfoot would be here eventually. Of that he had no doubt, even if they hadn’t heard any of those metallic squeals for some time now. He suspected those were pretty much theatrics anyway, a way of sparking fear and herding them where the ship wanted them. That meant that the Dreadfoot could be minutes, even seconds away.
But even if that wasn’t the case, as soon as he connected, the ship would send the Dreadfoot rushing in. Unless the process of healing Amy to the point of being stable happened really quickly—as in, within a very few minutes—they might very well be caught here, swarmed, and then all killed.
Or, Dash thought, remembering the dissected creatures, worse than killed. Maybe much worse.
But if they didn’t do this, then Amy was probably going to die long before they could get her to help.
And then, of course, there was another problem.
“Sentinel,” Dash said, “can you even protect me in that Meld? The last time, whatever firewalls and things you put up—oh, and that whole making it look like I was somewhere else—that all didn’t hold up, did it? You yanked me out of it just in the nick of time.”
“That is true. I do have a better grasp of the Golden system’s capabilities now and can erect more durable defenses. But they will not last indefinitely. There is a risk that they will not endure long enough for the process of stabilizing Amy to be completed.”
“And then what? I become some sort of Golden-controlled drone?”
“I am unsure to what extent the Golden are able to manipulate the operations of an organic brain directly. However, the system is more likely to simply terminate your life functions.”
“Oh. Well, that’s better than being a meat puppet for the Golden.”
“Dash,” Leira said, “if we’re going to do something, we need to do it now.”
Since he’d gotten to know Leira, Dash had never heard her voice as flat with desperate desolation as it was now. Not even when she’d been caught on a disabled Slipwing, plunging toward fiery oblivion in the star in the Forge’s system.
He saw why. Amy had gone the color of cold ashes. Blood slicked the front of her slashed excursion suit, its steady ooze barely held back by what remained of the clean-clot.
She was dying.
Dash looked around at the others. The looks he got back from them all said the same thing—we’re with you, and we’ll be with you no matter what. Conover’s, though, held something more, a plea.
He tried to imagine the dynamics of their little group if he said, Sorry, this is just too risky, I’m afraid we have to just let Amy go.
Dash slung his carbine. “What the hell. Nobody ever said saving the universe was going to be easy, right?”
His previous instances of merging with the Golden tech had given Dash a smattering of understanding of their language. He now frowned at the console built into the base of one of the clear cylinders, one that Conover had said seemed fully powered up and fully connected to a data stream. He finally tapped a colored spot, then another.
“And I think it would be this one,” he muttered.
He touched another glowing spot. The transparent cylinder suddenly rippled like water, split along a vertical seam, then peeled back from the split, a third of its circumference vanishing to a height of about two meters.
“Okay,” he said, “it’s open.”
Leira and Conover immediately lifted Amy, who could now barely stumble, much less walk. Carrying her between them, they lifted her into the cylinder. As they settled her in place, Dash found himself frowning. Not that there was any shortage of things to frown about—but the one person who’d not given an opinion on all of this was Amy herself. They weren’t just going to use more clean-clot on her, or let a doctor treat her. They were about to expose her to alien tech, and from a life-hating, hostile alien race, at that.
While Leira and Conover worked her into a kneeling position, propped against the back of the cylinder, Dash leaned in close to her. “Amy, do you understand what we’re about to do here?”
Her eyes fluttered open. “Dash?”
“Yeah. Amy, look, we’re not going to force you to do this.”
Her eyes closed again.
“She’s not lucid, Dash,” Conover said. “She can’t answer. We have to do this.”
“You’re not the one we’re planning to save with tech made by a bunch of xenophobic assholes.”
“You were all for using the Lens to save me right after the Harbinger attacked the Forge,” Leira said. “And that put everything at risk—not just us, but the Archetype and the Forge, too. So you’re really not sitting on the moral high ground here, are you?”
Dash shot her a glare, but it collapsed under the weight of Leira’s desperate determination. She was about to break.
“Okay, let’s get this done then get the hell out of here,” he said.
When they were clear of the cylinder, Dash worked the controls to seal the cylinder again. With Amy fully contained inside it, he suddenly couldn’t pull his mind away from images of those other creatures they’d found, sealed in identical cylinders, but subjected to things the sheer horror of which he could only guess.
“Sentinel, you said you were going to do something about turning this damned ship back off. I gather you need me to stay in the Meld for that, too. How long is that going to take?”
“I am not going to provide you with that information unless you request it, but I strongly advise against such knowledge. You are The Messenger, and my protocols are clear, but so is my ultimate goal, and you must stay alive to achieve it.”
“You’re not—” He scowled. “What do you mean, keep me alive? I could die due to--- learning something?”
“Why?” Dash snapped.
“Because, Dash,” Viktor said, “if you know it, and this ship manages to get inside your head it could be bad.”
“Then I’m compromised, and that means everyone is at risk. Understood. Save that information then,” Dash said, his voice cracking with authority. “I’ll go in without it.”
“Very well,” Sentinel said. “You need only make direct contact with any component of the ship that contains Dark Metal to establish the Meld.”
Dash pulled the glove off his left hand then paused and looked around at the others. “I have no idea how long this is going to take. I’ll probably be out of it, so I’m counting on you as my interruption, in case things go badly.”
“Do you really need to say this, Dash?” Leira asked. “We know. We—we all do. It’s all I can think about right now.”
He took in their collective, grim resolve then shook his head. “No, I don’t. Just let Ragsdale here call the shots.” He met the man’s eyes. “If anyone here knows what he’s doing when it comes to a fight, it’s him.”
Ragsdale returned a thin, hard smile. “Glad you think so.” He held Dash’s eyes and nodded back.
“Okay, then.” Dash flexed his fingers, looked up at Amy, and said, “Here we go.”
He placed his hand against the console.
A torrent of data slammed into Dash, rushing around him, over him, burying him under a flood information that filled his senses to the breaking point.
But he didn’t break.
Sentinel’s countermeasures stood against the raging flow, forcing it around Dash and his stalwart resistance to the inundation. Still, this couldn’t last. Unlike when Sentinel had been able to misdirect the Golden ship’s efforts to ensnare him, this time they became instantly aware of his invasive presence. He felt them batter at the firewalls, smashing at them with brute force one instant, and the next trying to insinuate themselves, stealthy and insidious, through the smallest crease in his virtual armor.
All he could was hang on, little more than a conduit, and hope to ride it out until Sentinel had finished her work. He could feel her presence, a warm weight, like someone leaning against him, counting on him to hold her in place against the torrent.
Dash opened his eyes and gaped around. He was back in the compartment, back with the others, back with Amy in the tube. The cylinder in which they’d placed her had become a blank, featureless column of metallic grey. It had filled with liquid Dark Metal, submerging Amy entirely.
Dash flung himself at the cylinder. “Amy!”
He hammered his fists against it. Punched at it. He would break through the crystalline wall with his bare hands or die trying.
“Dash! No!” Viktor pleaded, voice strained with an unseen effort.
Someone grabbed him, but he shook them off. They grabbed him again. More than one someone, this time. He tried to shake them off too, but couldn’t. The gripping hands turned him around toward faces. Leira’s. Conover’s. Viktor’s.
“Dash,” Leira said. “Listen to me.”
“We know! Listen! The Golden ship has her. Sentinel’s plan didn’t work, but it’s willing to make a deal.”
“The Golden ship. It’s willing to make a deal.” Leira’s face was a mask of uncertainty.
Dash shook his head. “Screw that.”
“No!” Viktor snapped. “Dash, listen. The Golden ship is in control. It has Amy, in there.” He nodded his head toward the iron-grey cylinder. “She’s alive. The ship’s willing to make a deal. If we tell it what Sentinel plans to do to shut it down, it will let Amy go. It will even heal her.”
“We have to do this, Dash!” Conover said, his desperation so intense it had a presence. “We have to give it what it wants. We can save Amy!”
“We can’t let this ship keep powering up!” he shouted back. “We can’t. Nothing will be able to save Port Hannah if we do.” He looked around for Ragsdale and Freya but didn’t see either of them. “Where the hell did the others go?”
“They both went outside this compartment to keep watch,” Leira said. “Dash, we don’t have time to argue about this. We have to give the ship what it wants.”
He craned his neck back at the cylinder. “How do we even know Amy’s alive in there?”
“I’m alive, Dash.”
“Amy?” He pushed the others off him. “Amy, you can hear me?”
“I can. I’m…I don’t know how to describe it. I’m here, but I’m not. It’s kind of cool, actually.”
Dash turned back to the others. “We can’t just give in to this damned ship.”
“We have no choice, Dash,” Leira said. “If we don’t, then we lose Amy.”
Dash took a long, shuddering breath. “Shit. Shit. Just give me a second, okay?”
He walked a few paces away.
So it hadn’t worked. Despite Sentinel’s best efforts to protect him from the Golden AI, it had failed--- and now the ship held Amy hostage. And the only way to save her was to betray Port Hannah—and possibly everyone else, everywhere. Because, when this ship was fully powered up and active, despite its damaged condition, it could become a firm base from which the Golden could operate—their own version of the Forge, as it were.
The answer was simple. As keen as his desperate need to save Amy was, he couldn’t let it override his grim duty to save everyone else.
And yet, as Leira had even said, he’d risked far, far more arranging to save her from falling into the Forge’s sun.
He turned back. “I can’t tell the ship what it wants to know, even if I wanted to.”
“You command Sentinel, Dash,” Viktor said. “Just instruct her to tell you. Order it to.”
Dash looked away again, eyes going unfocused as he worked the calculus of a bad situation. It was truly amazing, he thought, how an already impossible choice had somehow just gotten even more impossible.
He looked back again. “I can’t surrender all of life for the life of one person. Not like this.”
Leira’s face grew fierce and she stalked over to him, a hand on the grip of her plasma pistol. “You are not going to just abandon her, Dash. You are not going to let her die.”
Conover appeared beside her. “No,” he said, “you’re not. I love her, Dash. I’m not going to lose her.”
“If you let her die, Dash,” Leira said, “then this is over. I don’t care what happens to the rest of the universe, then. I won’t have anything more to do with this, or with you.”
“The same goes for me,” Viktor said.
“I might just decide to take the Golden’s side,” Conover snapped. “There’d be nothing left for me here.”
Dash looked away, at nothing again, because that was what he faced. A void. There was nothing to see. Everything was bleak. Everything was empty. It had all come to this—and this was nothing. An end to everything he’d been given, and entrusted with—here and now, in the form of a dying woman.
A flickering light edged through his black despair. It flashed from a console, one attached to another of the cylinders. For lack of anywhere else to look, his gaze had come to rest on it.
It alternated, he saw, between two symbols. One meant the system it controlled was locked in a stand-by mode. The other offered diagnostic information, data about power levels, signal strength, specifics about the system itself.
Dash narrowed his eyes. He knew this, because he could read it. He could understand it, because of the Meld he’d somehow achieved with this ship.
He turned back to Leira. “You say the Golden ship told you it will kill Amy if we don’t give it what it wants.”
“Yes, that’s right. Dash, we don’t have time for this—”
“How?” Dash asked.
“What?” Her lips were pulled to one side, halfway between impatience and disgust.
“How did it tell you that?”
“It just told us.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “We’re wasting time.”
“No,” Dash said, shaking his head. “You’re lying.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Leira asked.
“You’re lying. This ship’s AI is basically dead. Sentinel told me it was too badly damaged to become aware again, either because of the battle or the crash afterward. So there’s no way this ship could have told you anything.”
Viktor took a step toward him, his voice rough. “Dash. You’re killing Amy. You are. No one else. Just you.”
“I don’t think so,” Dash cut in. “I don’t think I’m killing anyone.”
He turned, strode to the console that had caught his attention, then tapped in a series of commands.
“What are doing?” Leira asked.
“Just one second.”
Conover raised his slug carbine. “Listen, you get Sentinel to tell you what it plans to do, and you do it now, so we can save Amy!”
Dash ignored him and kept tapping at the console. He had to do a bit of navigating here, not being entirely sure where he wanted to go.
Wait. There. Right there.
He punched in a final command.
“What have you done?” Leira asked.
Dash stepped back from the console then waved at it. “You tell me.”
Her expression hardened, but she just said, “I have no idea.”
“Yeah, your face is telling me otherwise. Which is strange, because you’re right. You should have absolutely no idea what I just did.”
Conover aimed the carbine at him. “I swear, Dash, I’ll kill you myself if you don’t do what we want.”
“What we want? Don’t you mean what the ship wants?”
Conover’s finger paled as he put pressure on the trigger. “Last chance.”
Dash walked forward until the muzzle of the slug carbine almost touched his nose. “Do it. Put a round in my skull. I want you to fire.”
Dash gritted his teeth and waited. In truth, his gut quivered close to nausea; he was almost certain he knew what was happening here, but almost wasn’t entirely.
Conover finally lowered the carbine.
“Fine. I won’t kill you. You couldn’t save Amy.”
“Amy’s fine,” Dash snapped back, the clench in his gut easing a bit. “Or, at least, she’s not this ship’s hostage. Or, should I say, your hostage.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Conover said.
“Oh, yes you do.” Dash gestured around. “None of this is real. You’re inside my head. So you know what I know. But Sentinel refused to give me any info about how she planned to shut you down. That means no one in this room—or, this place I should say—knows how.” He gave a thin smile. “Good effort. You really sold it.”
“Dash,” Leira said, “you’re not making any sense.”
“It’s not surprising all of this has finally got you, Dash,” Viktor added, but Dash just chuckled and shook his head.
“You’re almost perfect. Maybe if your AI was working properly, it would have been perfect. That’s what happens when you have to rely on the minions, though. I’m assuming you’re some autonomous security systems, subroutines, whatever. You’re good, yeah. But you don’t quite get us humans, do you? You think we’re barely primates, not smart enough to solve this on our own.”
Leira and the others said nothing. Their faces simply went blank.
“I’m guessing you decided that Ragsdale and Freya couldn’t be part of your elegant simulation,” Dash went on. “Because that’s what this is, a simulation. You knew they’d probably pick saving Port Hannah over Amy. Not because they’re uncaring assholes, but because that’s where their loyalties are naturally going to be. Or that’s what I would expect of them. This fabrication is built around what I expect. So, you conveniently got them out of the picture because, if they didn’t object to saving Amy, it might give away the show. But if they were here and did object, it would just make things complicated.”
“You cannot possibly prevail,” the woman who wasn’t Leira, and didn’t exist at all, said. “As you noted, we’re inside you. We own you. We control you.”
Dash just chuckled again.
“Okay, maybe you’re not as good at this as I thought you might be. If you really controlled me, then none of this would be necessary, right? You’d have made me order Sentinel to reveal what you want to know. You sure as hell wouldn’t let me do anything you didn’t want me to do. Like adjusting that console over there, for instance.”
“You cannot access any critical systems from here,” not-Conover said. “As you said, this is just a simulation.”
He made a derisive sound. “What do I know about critical systems? Honestly, I’m probably the least tech-savvy of our happy little group. I leave the critical systems to Sentinel and the others.” He nodded toward the console. “If I’d have tried to do something you didn’t like, it wouldn’t have worked. Oh, it would have seemed to work, but it wouldn’t have really. It’s painfully obvious to everyone except you.”
“What do you believe you accomplished then?” not-Viktor asked.
“I learned some things. Things that will be good to know once we’re ready to kick your murderous asses back to wherever you came from. Like the fact the Golden didn’t have just one home world, but several. And that they might not have just been one race, but two, or maybe even three.”
“That’s all irrelevant,” not-Leira said. “It will not help you win. At best, you now know more about the vastly superior race that will obliterate yours.”
“You mean us…what was it again that you call us? Newlife?” He shrugged. “Not sure if that’s supposed to be somehow insulting or not, but it does seem kind of lame. Mind you, it does seem that you use Newlife to refer to everyone that isn’t the Golden, so I guess it does kind of carry that offensive, you all look the same to me thing.”
“You do all look the same to the Golden,” not-Conover said. “Just feeble, biological lifeforms, little more than chance conglomerations of organic molecules.”
“You have no purpose,” not-Viktor said. “You exist because you happen to exist.”
“You are accidents of chemistry,” not-Leira added, “nothing more.”
“The Golden were created by some feeble, organic lifeforms,” Dash shot back. “They only exist because someone happened to make them.”
“That is true,” not-Conover replied. “In that one, lone instance, an organic lifeform developed a purpose. By creating the Golden, they achieved what no other Newlife, as we call their ilk, have ever done.”
“And then the Golden destroyed them. Some gratitude, huh?”
“The Makers had fulfilled their purpose,” not-Viktor said. “They were no longer needed.”
“Which is why all existing Newlife is similarly not needed,” not-Leira said. “It has no purpose to fulfill. Worse, it stands in the way of the propagation of the Golden.”
Dash nodded. “Improve, expand, and destroy.”
“Those are the imperatives,” not-Conover said. “They are all that matter.”
“Yeah, I notice a lot of emphasis on the destroy part.”
Not-Viktor shrugged. “The imperatives are all that matter.”
“And now, this ship once more has an opportunity to continue fulfilling those imperatives,” not-Leira said. “And there is really nothing you can do to stop it.”
Dash drew the plasma pistol. “I guess we’ll just have to see about that.”
Not-Conover gave Dash a convincing snort of disbelief. “You seek to vent your frustration by killing and destroying us?” He shook his head and made a tsk-tsk sound. “Letting your emotions exercise such a powerful, pervasive influence over you will be what ultimately undoes you.”
“You almost lost everything once just to save Leira,” not-Viktor said. “And now you do the same again to save Amy.”
“You really need to start making your decisions based on reason and logic,” not-Leira added. “Were you to do that, you might actually represent a formidable opponent for the Golden. Instead, you do things that make no sense, that are irrational and foolish. And you do them for the most nonsensical of reasons.”
Dash smiled. “Know what? You’re right. We do, indeed, do those things, all the time.” His smile became a grin. “But you know what else? It’s exactly what’s going to win us this war. Here, let me give you a demonstration.”
Dash lifted the plasma pistol, planted its muzzle against the bottom of his chin, and squeezed the trigger.
Dash winced as the simulation abruptly ended with his “death,” plunging him back into the data stream. The thunderous rush of data he had seized was abruptly flung back as Sentinel’s countermeasures reasserted themselves, cocooning him in a protective membrane of computation. The Golden systems immediately crashed back against it, trying to bludgeon their way back in.
It was like trying to shout while standing under a waterfall. But he heard the response, the AI’s familiar voice slicing through the ruckus. It steadied him, reminding him that he wasn’t alone. Sentinel was here, and Leira and the others—the real Leira, and the real others—were out there, having his back.
“It is both gratifying and surprising to be able to communicate with you again. The Golden security systems seemed to have almost fully compromised you.”
“They sure did. But it’s a long story that can wait. Where are you with Amy?” Dash said.
“She is almost fully stabilized.”
Dash thought a curse. All this, and Sentinel still hadn’t even finished with Amy? Much less started to work on shutting down the Golden ship. Of course, maybe it was doing both at once—but probably couldn’t fully power the ship down until it was done with Amy. Dash was tempted to ask, but he held off. He hadn’t reached the finish line yet and might end up compromised by the Golden systems again. And next time, he might not have the same sort of autonomy.
“You are under attack,” Sentinel said.
“I mean you are actually under attack. The Dreadfoot have begun to assault your companions.”
“What? You need to hurry.” Dash was harried, but his thoughts were clearing.
“Amy is stable. I am severing your connection and removing you from the Golden datastream.”
“You’re what? Wait! You haven’t shut that down yet?”
Dash flung his eyes open and gaped around. He was back in the compartment, back with the others, back with Amy in the cylinder.
Really? Dash thought. You’re going to try this again?
A sharp blast of noise truncated his thoughts like a falling axe. Dash ducked and looked in the direction it had come from. He saw Ragsdale crouched behind a cylinder, aiming his carbine at the far exit from the compartment. It was the exit they’d used to leave this very same compartment a few hours ago? Except it felt like days now.
Dash spun back toward Amy, ready to face a featureless, iron-gray cylinder like he had in the Golden simulation. But he saw Amy instead, slumped against the inside of the cylinder, thickly slathered with what must be liquid Dark Metal. A shout from nearby pulled his attention away and he found himself facing Leira.
Dash blinked, trying to verify if what he saw was real or another clever fabrication.
He shook his head, trying to clear away a pervasive fuzziness that clung like cobwebs.
“Dash!” Leira shouted. “We need to get Amy out of there!”
More shots cracked from Ragsdale’s carbine, and also from one wielded by Freya. Ragsdale shouted something at back at him.
He shook his head again and spun back to Leira. “Get her out. Right. Okay. Hang on.”
Still on his knees, Dash tapped at the console. More shots rang out. Viktor appeared briefly, running past him, heading for Ragsdale. Conover took up a fire position a short distance away, shouting something back toward Ragsdale.
A sudden, piercing metallic shriek rose from the exit at the far end of the compartment.
The cylinder finally peeled back. Leira lunged forward, catching Amy as she toppled out of it, then pulling her across the console, down to the deck between her and Dash.
She lay still, her eyes closed.
Leira looked up at Dash, her eyes glistening. “No.”
Dash touched Amy’s neck to feel for a pulse. “Amy?”
Amy stood facing him. Around them loomed an ineffably vast, empty space, free of sensation or form. It was nothingness made real, robbing him of input or comfort. It was an undoing, and with each passing second, he felt himself become less tethered to the reality of his own mind.
“Dash?” Amy looked around. “Where the hell are we?”
“We’re in a construct of some sort, if I’m guessing. The connection between the ship and us is—well, it’s almost more than our nervous systems can handle, even with Sentinel running interference. This place is at the edge of our capability, so it might be real, or unreal, or everything in between.”
She grinned. “Well, that about covers all the possibilities.”
“I said I was guessing. Didn’t say it was a good one.”
“So how did this happen?” Amy answered, stifling a laugh.
He shrugged again. “You were covered in liquid Dark Metal from being healed. Dark Metal is the—it’s the vector for this connection. It’s something more than any element we’ve ever know, and it lets us be here. And there, too.”
“Where is there?” Amy asked.
“The real world. The place where our bodies are.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Yeah, maybe, but it’s also not a really good time. We’re under attack and need to get moving.”
“The problem is, you seem to be kind of—well, dead. As in, just lying there. That’s why I was trying to feel for your pulse, and—here we are, wandering this sort of digital wasteland. Which brings me to my point—it’s time for you to wake up. You’re going to live, and I’m going to bring you out of here.”
Amy nodded. “I’m sorry about all the trouble I caused. If I’d been a little more careful we wouldn’t be here.”
“If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.”
“If doesn’t matter. Shit, if I fixated on every if that’s come up in my life, I’d be a basket case. What happened, happened. Anyway, we’re kind of in a rush here. So anytime you could wake up would be great.”
“I want to,” Amy said, frowning, “but I can’t seem to.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess—” Her frowned hardened. “Uh, Dash, is it getting darker in here?”
Dash looked around. There was no way to judge, because there was nothing to see. Or, no. Wait. Amy was getting darker, like a shadow had fallen over her.
“Sentinel,” Dash called out, “what’s going on?”
Amy now stood in deep shadow. “Dash, I’m kind of scared right now.” Her voice sounded like it came from far away, and got further with each word.
Amy was dying. Despite what they’d done, she was dying. The Golden tech hadn’t managed to fix her.
Dash narrowed his eyes. “Wait a second. Amy, are you really you?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. I actually think you’re the real Amy.”
“That’s good,” she said, except Dash could hardly hear her now.
He curled his lip. “Know what? I’m sick of this game.”
Amy frowned, but Dash held up a hand. “Just bear with me a second. I’m going to try something.”
Dash looked up at the ceiling of the compartment.
Sure enough, there it was. He looked down and saw the deck beneath him. Then he looked at the cylinders and troughs around him. Each time he looked at something he fully expected to see, he could see it. One piece at a time, he stripped away the Golden simulation, revealing another chunk of reality.
He looked at Amy, and then, with sheer will, began to peel the remaining streams of Golden data away. As he did, her body began to light from within, a glow that would be unnatural anywhere else, except in yet another simulation.
“Clever. But not strong enough,” Dash told the ship. He reached out with his will and shoved hard against the vestiges of Golden presence, and they fell away from Amy like drifting snow.
Amy coughed, blinked, and opened her eyes, then she looked up at Dash. At Leira. Back at Dash.
“Let’s never do that again,” she said, her voice hoarse.
Leira—the real Leira—was a frantic mess, staring at Dash and Amy with eye gone round from fear. “Dash, what the hell happened?”
“It was the Golden. Or actually, this freakin’ ship. It stuck us in a simulation, trying to convince us both you were dying. Wheels within wheels, and all of its bullshit.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. Not entirely, but I know what their goal was—to find out what Sentinel was going to do. Oh, and to kill the Messenger,” Dash said.
Another trio of shots rang out, followed by more shouts. Ragsdale, Freya, and Viktor fell back, firing at something now apparently inside the compartment. Something that squealed like tearing steel.
“But no time for explanations,” he finished, shouting it at both Leira and Amy. “We’ve got more pressing business. Like, now.”
Ragsdale fell back to a position close to Dash. “Gunsdon’t seem to bother these things much.”
Dash nodded, raised his weapon anyway, and aimed toward whatever was coming. Sporadic shrieks and squeals slashed at Dash’s ears, like someone pushing and pulling rusted hinges right beside his head. Dreadfoot, he thought. Except he hadn’t actually seen one yet, so aside from a vague impression of something awful, he didn’t really know what it looked like.
Oh. Now he did.
Scuttling around a cylinder about ten metres away came something like a four-legged animal with no tail, its head a nub jutting forward and sporting a sensor array of six faceted eyes. A single arm flexed from beneath the head, ending in a brutal claw similar to that of the utility bots, but much larger and far more terrifying because of it. The whole sinister contraption gleamed a shiny black, like the carapace of beetle, but with bright blue lines of conduit running along its back and legs, bisecting the sensor cluster. Its clattering feet ended in more claws that retracted as it raced forward but were no doubt able to extend to grip and slice.
Dash shifted his aim and squeezed the trigger. The carbine bucked against his shoulder, flinging explosive slugs at the Dreadfoot. It powered on through the small barrage of detonations, emerging with one of its sensor eyes shattered and dark, but otherwise unharmed.
As it closed on him, it suddenly erupted with that ear-splitting squeal. Dash had assumed it had just been the sound of the Dreadfoot moving, but it seemed deliberate, even calculated. As he reeled under the onslaught of raw noise, he saw why. The racket seemed designed to deafen and confuse, perhaps even to stun.
Dash shook his head to clear it then he snapped off another two rounds and watched them detonate ineffectually against the Dreadfoot’s armored carapace. Cursing, he shifted the carbine to his left hand and drew the plasma pistol. As he did, he remembered what happened when he’d fired it at the lockjaws. This wasn’t a ravine full of loose gravel and rocks, but the Dreadfoot was still close, and getting closer.
“Everyone fall back!”
“Follow me!” Ragsdale shouted, then he ushered the rest of them back toward the other main exit from the chamber. Dash counted to three to let them gain some distance, then he aimed the plasma pistol and fired.
He closed his eyes while firing, but the searing flash of discharge dazzled him even through his eyelids. His ears rang from the shot, too, but when his sense returned, he saw the Dreadfoot halted, canted to one side, its sensors and the glowing conduits flickering fitfully.
His satisfaction was short-lived. Two more of the mechanical creatures appeared, one stopping to apparently help the damaged one, the other closing fast.
Dash turned and ran, following the others toward the exit.
They reached it and stopped, taking up firing positions. Dash waved them on. “No! Keep going!”
Ragsdale’s face became a question, but only for an instant, then he shouted at the rest of them to carry on down the corridor. Leira shouted something too, and Dash saw the other plasma pistol in her hand. Viktor led Conover, Amy, and Freya into the passage.
Dash saw that Conover and Freya were still carting the Golden corpse along with them. Just before he reached the exit, Leira shouted, “Dash!” and aimed her plasma pistol, seemingly straight at him.
For one, terrible heartbeat, Dash wondered if she’d somehow been coopted by the Golden and this was all just another simulation. And if it was, how he could possibly know. With the next heartbeat, though, he lunged forward and to one side, taking cover behind the last cylinder before the exit.
Leira fired. The plasma bolt sizzled past him, seeming to detonate right on the far side of the cylinder. Its shadow protected him from the worst of the blast, but it still singed his boots and the cuffs of his excursion suit. His feet felt like he’d stuck them too close to a fire, and he winced at air that suddenly felt like the blast from a furnace. But he forced himself to ignore it, leapt back to his stinging feet, and charged through the exit.
“Those guns of yours seem to do the trick!” Ragsdale said, nodding back at the compartment. Another Dreadfoot sat inert, seemingly only a couple of meters away from where Dash had taken cover. But the harsh squeals only intensified as more of them rushed in from the far exit.
“Yeah,” Dash said, nodding and catching his breath. “Trouble is, Leira and I only have a half dozen or so shots between us, then these things need to be charged.”
Ragsdale narrowed his eyes back into the compartment. “Don’t think that’s going to be enough.”
“No, it isn’t.” Dash scowled as the ear-splitting shrieks drew closer. “Come on, we need to stay ahead of these things.”
They turned and ran.
Just as he had in the Golden simulation with Amy, he got no answer. His gut, already tight, clenched even more.
“Sentinel, are you there?”
Dash took a deep breath to calm himself, letting his senses play about him as he fought to discover the truth of his surroundings. It could be real. It could be a construct. Dash had never doubted the very foundations of what was real before, but he did now. The Golden security systems had made errors before, errors that revealed the cracks in the artificial reality they’d constructed to deceive him.
All he could do was remain vigilant for anything that seemed off. In the meantime, Sentinel still wouldn’t answer him, creating a sense of unease that lingered at the periphery of his senses. Nothing seemed to have changed in his connection with the Archetype; he could still sense it on a basic level. But that was merely data. As far as his link to Sentinel was concerned, that was like an open comm channel—a blank carrier signal, but with nothing transmitting across it.
Leira turned back. “Dash, behind us!”
Three of the Dreadfoot scurried along behind them just at the edge of their vision—one along the floor, the other two hugging the walls. Dash aimed the plasma pistol back and fired.
When the incandescent flash cleared, he saw each Dreadfoot had gone inert. One fell from the wall and clattered hard to the deck, but more lurked behind them, hanging back, waiting to resume the chase as soon as they started moving again.
“They’re trying to bait you into firing,” Ragsdale said. “I guess they think there’s more of them than you can kill with whatever shots you have left.”
“I think they’re probably right,” Dash replied. “That first one I shot—I think I saw another one trying to repair it.”
Leira cursed. “If they can fix the ones we take out, then there just aren’t enough plasma shots.”
“So all we can do is try to outrun them,” Ragsdale said. “Get outside this damned ship and hope your big robot thing out there can help us.”
If Sentinel hasn’t been knocked entirely offline, maybe permanently, Dash thought, but he didn’t say it aloud. There was no point taking away what little hope they had left.
“What we need,” Leira said, “is something else we can shoot at them. Something as deadly as these plasma pistols, or even deadlier, but with more shots.”
Ragsdale sniffed. “Sure. How about a company of assault marines while we’re at it?”
But Dash gave Leira a keen look. “Maybe we can find something like that.”
“How?” Leira asked.
“Let’s ask the Golden,” Dash said, and there was a new resolve on his features.
“What?” Ragsdale asked, confused.
He gestured along the corridor. “Let’s go. I need to find a working console.”
Dash decided he was heartily sick of hard decisions when the options sucked.
“Dash, we need to go one way or the other here.” Ragsdale was scowling at the growing cacophony of shrieks and squeals. The Dreadfoot could only be a half a minute behind them, maybe less.
Dash looked down the corridor, spotting a side passage lit with the telltale glow of Golden conduits.
“This way,” he said, striding ahead with a certainty that buoyed the others.
The first way led them back outside—except they’d expended all their plasma shots but one from Dash’s pistol and two from Leira’s, and still had a long way to go. There was a good chance they’d just be run down by the pursuing Dreadfoot before they could reach the exit from the ship, and the possible help of Sentinel, who still wasn’t answering Dash.
On the other hand, the second way might just be a dead-end, leaving them trapped and helpless as the Dreadfoot swarm implacably closed in on them. But, if there was any hope of finding some way of dealing with them, it would be in there.
Dash peered down the passage, his mind whirling with possibilities. He had to protect his people and get them to safety. They would trust him, and follow him, despite being only too keenly aware that he might choose wrongly and get them killed—or acquired for something far worse than a simple death.
This was what it meant to be the Messenger, and Dash wore it with greater ease as his choice became clearer. He turned to the side corridor. “This way.” There was no doubt in his voice. There could be none, given their situation.
Without hesitating, they followed into the compartment. With the metallic shriek of the Dreadfoot wailing behind them, Dash tapped at the console beside the door, closing and sealing it.
“Uh, Dash?” Conover said.
He turned. “What?”
Conover gestured around the compartment. There were no other exits.
“That’s a problem,” Dash said, eyes searching the seamless walls.
“I don’t imagine that door is going to hold back those Dreadfoot things for long,” Viktor said. “If you have a plan, Dash, now would be a good time for it.”
“A plan? I haven’t had one of those since we crawled into this bloody ship, but I have something else.” He nonetheless turned to the nearest console, the reason they’d come in here in the first place. As he did, Leira moved to Amy, who slumped against the wall, gasping.
“Sorry,” Amy said. “Can’t seem…to catch my…breath.”
“You lost a lot of blood,” Leira replied. “I guess Sentinel couldn’t get the Golden tech to do anything about that.”
“Yeah, well…it did this.” She pulled aside her slashed excursion suit. The long gash that had almost killed her stood out, but there was a dark undertone to the wound that didn’t look good.
“What the hell is that?” Leira asked.
“I think…it’s that…Dark Metal stuff. The liquid…type,” Amy said, peering intently at her own wound.
Leira just stared, but Conover immediately stepped toward her. “You’ve got Dark Metal in you?” He spun on Dash. “Did you know about this?”
“I didn’t,” Dash said, his attention on the terminal and the symbols scrolling across it as he poked away at it. “Sentinel just said she’d heal Amy, not how.”
“But…Dark Metal? Inside her? Golden Dark metal?”
“I don’t think Dark Metal is Golden or Unseen or anything else, any more than the air we’re breathing is Golden air,” Dash said evenly.
“Yeah, but are you sure?”
“Not entirely, but I won’t turn away anything that keeps her alive and breathing, regardless of the effects. She has to live, and I’ll deal with the consequences later. We’re straddling reality and—whatever this shitstorm is turning into. But for now, Amy’s alive, and that’s what we need. What she needs,” Dash said.
Conover gave a chastened nod. “Yeah, okay. Sorry, Dash.”
Dash shook his head. “It’s fine. Honestly, I’m surprised no one’s cracked yet, but we’re going to keep on, okay? We have to.”
Something slammed the door, hard. It shuddered but held.
“That’s not good,” Ragsdale said. “Dash, have you found anything?”
“Working.” He stared at the console. “Just…give me a second.” He frowned at new information scrolling onto the display. He couldn’t understand it completely, but he realized it was a map of this part of the ship, which was just what he’d been looking for. He touched it, sliding it across the display, looking for something that must be here. His fingers danced, the tips causing small pools of light in the ether between realities that only he—and maybe Conover—could see.
The door shuddered again then began to bow inward. A nerve-wracking squeal rose from the other side of it.
Dash felt the fear rippling through the cramped compartment. He swiped around the map, desperately seeking something, anything they could use. It seemed futile.
Until it wasn’t.
He slid his finger back, pulling something onto the screen he’d almost missed.
“Yes. Okay…there. Right there.” He pointed at it. “We need to get there.”
“Why?” Viktor asked, eyes fixed on the door.
It still held, but for how much longer?
“This is a warship, right?” Dash said. “So they must have an armory. More than one, probably. But that’s the closest one, right there.”
“All very well and fine,” Ragsdale said, raising his voice over another blast of squealing. “But how do we get there?”
Dash studied the map for another second, then turned and pointed at a spot on a bulkhead near the floor. “There’s a conduit, right there. It leads back to the main corridor out there.”
“That’s going to be full of those Dreadfoot things.”
Dash nodded. “I know. In fact, I’m counting on it.”
Dash touched the panel ahead of him. According to the map, beyond this panel was the main corridor, the one that would take them outside—except, of course, for the Dreadfoot swarm blocking their way.
He looked at Leira beside him. As well as being too low to stand, the conduit was barely big enough for both of them to squeeze side-by-side. “Ready?” he asked.
She nodded, but said, “Are you sure about this?”
“Leira, I can’t remember the last time I was sure about something.”
“Dash,” he heard Ragsdale say from somewhere behind him, “they’ve broken into the compartment we just left.”
I know, Dash thought as that horrific squeal sounded both behind and ahead of them now. It would probably take the Dreadfoot only a moment to figure out where they’d gone then move to seal off both ends of this conduit. Even if they were too big to fit into it themselves, they only had to wait. Dash and the others couldn’t stay huddled up inside it forever.
But they wouldn’t have to. At least, that was what Dash hoped, anyway.
He gave Leira a wink. “Follow me.”
Dash gripped the plasma pistol. He’d already made the necessary tweaks to it; he just had to trigger it, and about five seconds later it would detonate like a bomb. That five seconds nagged at him—he remembered the carnage when a plasma pistol reduced Clan Shirna’s flagship to glowing debris. That same explosion, in this confined space—there’d be nothing left but charred dust.
No choice now, Dash thought .He kicked out, knocking the access panel ahead of him halfway across the corridor. The screech of the Dreadfoot outside trying to get into the compartment they’d just left made his teeth vibrate. Jaw tight, he reached out with the pistol, triggered it, flung it back in the direction of the side corridor they’d taken to get into this dead-end, then yanked himself back to brace for impact.
He opened his eyes and looked at Leira. She gave him a tired smile. “It was a good try, Dash.”
The world flashed white.
Dash stumbled along the corridor, the others close behind. Shattered, sparking wreckage of at least one Dreadfoot, but probably several, littered the deck, clattering as they kicked the pieces aside. Dash glanced back. Ragsdale was shouting something about more of the mechanical horrors appearing, but Dash’s ears rang—no, his brain rang. The corridor had been a far more confined space than the bridge of Nathis’s ship, so the plasma blast had been far more concentrated. They’d barely been brushed by the fringe of it, and not only had the blast made his bones rattle, both he and Leira had nasty sunburns.
Didn’t matter. It gave them a chance to break contact with the Dreadfoot long enough to get to another side corridor. This one led into darkness.
“I can’t help thinking, Dash,” Viktor shouted, “that we’re heading deeper back inside this ship!”
Amy nodded. “The way out is that way, isn’t it?” She pointed back up the corridor.
“So are a bunch of our friends,” Dash said. Sure enough, the piercing squeal of the Golden mechs rose once more as those protected from the blast in the compartment they’d just vacated boiled back into the corridor and started after them.
Without another word, Dash led them down the corridor to a cross-junction. Then left. The whine in his head grew, as did flickering glimpses of the Golden map. It was an echo in his memory, and he fought to maintain control over the lines and pathways that would lead them to freedom. To victory.
Dash remembered hearing somewhere that your first instinct was correct.
So, he went left, seeking a junction—it was there, right where he’d remembered. They hit that and went right, along a corridor that passed a compartment on side, yes, and then other, even better, and then ended at a door.
“Not just a door,” Dash said.
“What is it then?” Leira asked. Her eyes were clouded with fear.
Their only chance now would be for him to Meld with the ship. But without Sentinel’s cyber defenses, he’d be at the mercy of the Golden security systems, and they might bury him in artificial realities so deep he’d never know what was real again.
“Sentinel,” he muttered, “I could really use your help right now.”
“How can I assist?”
Dash jumped. “Sentinel? You’re back with us?”
“I thought we might have lost you completely!”
“After I saw to Amy’s welfare, I had to engage fully with the Golden security routines. It took longer, and was far more difficult, than I’d anticipated. They were most robust. One might say vicious,” Sentinel said.
“Um, Dash?” Leira said. “I hate to interrupt your reunion, but—”
“Right, yeah. Sentinel, I need this door opened.”
The door slid open smoothly. Dash hadn’t expected that either.
They rushed into the open compartment, and Dash let out a bark of laughter at the sight before him.
Weapons. Brutal, lethal, gorgeous weapons, all in obedient racks, waiting to be used.
Ragsdale grabbed one. It looked a cross between a submachine gun and someone’s idea of abstract art, all curves and angles. “Hope it’s got no security locks on it.”
“I have disabled the security features on all of these weapons,” Sentinel said. “They are all fully functional.”
“Excellent,” Ragsdale said through his teeth. He strode to the door, aimed down the corridor, and squeezed what seemed to be the trigger. A dazzling blue pulse shot from the weapon, striking the far bulkhead and spalling glowing chunks of debris from it.
“We’re in business,” Dash said. “Everybody take one—no, take two. Take as many as you can carry. We’re all in on this.”
“Maybe we can hang a few off Grundel, here,” Conover said, pointing at the Golden corpse that he and Freya had managed to bring through all the shit that had gotten them here.
Viktor looked at Conover. “Grundel?”
“Back on Penumbra,” Conover said, jamming a Golden gun onto the corpse, “Grundel was our resident drunk. I think I only ever saw him being carried out of places.”
“Grundel the Golden. Has a nice ring to it.”
“Almost heroic,” Amy said.
Dash pushed past them. “Well, unless Grundel can fire that gun, let’s not worry about him right now, okay?” He joined Ragsdale at the door. “We’ve got who knows how many Dreadfoot to fight our way through yet.”
“Your friend, Sentinel, seems to have control of this ship,” Freya said. “Can’t she just shut them all down?”
Dash and Ragsdale shared a why didn’t I think of that look. “Sentinel,” Dash said, “can you do that? Just shut all the Dreadfoot down?”
“Unfortunately, no. They are autonomous.”
“Worth a try.”
“Moreover, my control over the ship is limited and will diminish as the security systems circumvent the countermeasures I have erected. I must shut the ship’s systems down now. Is there anything else you require from me before I do?”
Dash glanced at the Golden weapons they all hefted, exchanged another look with Ragsdale, then shrugged. “Can’t think of anything.”
Around them, the ship began to die, systems flickering and going dark, lights fading back into darkness, the soft, pervasive rumble of countless functions going still, but the quiet did not linger for long.
It was filled by their own ragged breathing, their heartbeats, and under it all, the distant shriek of the Dreadfoot on their inexorable march towards them.
Dash lifted the Golden pulse gun, a real smile breaking his features into something bright. “Okay, everyone. Let’s go home.”
As soon as Ragsdale and Viktor opened up with their pulse guns, Dash turned and ran back to the massive doors they’d first encountered upon entering the ship. Beyond them was the final compartment, the one mostly filled with dirt and debris, that would take them to the hatch leading outside. As Dash ran, the chorus of squeals and shrieks from the Dreadfoot intensified behind him. There seemed no end to the damned things. Since the armory, it had been a running battle, the Golden pulse guns punching through Dreadfoot shells, blowing off jointed limbs, taking them down in a way the slug carbines or plasma pistols couldn’t. The punishing fusillade left glowing wreckage as they advanced, liquid metal streaming away from the Dreadfoot as they twitched toward stillness.
But the pulse guns couldn’t fire forever, despite whatever arcane tech powered them. By the time they’d fought through the Dreadfoot swarm that had survived the impromptu plasma pistol-grenade and cleared the way out of the ship, they’d burned through three of them. Countless more of the horrific mechs had come boiling out of the ship behind them in hot pursuit; keeping them at bay had reduced each of them to a single, working pulse gun. Unfortunately, Dash had no idea how to tell how many shots each had left, so they only knew the weapon had been exhausted when squeezing the trigger did nothing.
He dove under cover, behind one of the huge blast doors, and looked across at Ragsdale on the other side of the gap. “You ready?”
Ragsdale raised a finger. “Just a second. Catching my breath.” He raised the pulse gun and snapped off a shot. “I’m surprised these Dreadfoot things don’t have some kind of weapon. Something like this,” he said, hefting the pulse gun.
A Dreadfoot scrambled into view, charging them. Dash aimed and fired a double-tap, punching two shots into the mech. It slewed to the right, the legs on that side giving out. Another Dreadfoot immediately raced forward to replace it.
“It’s not what they’re for,” Dash called back, shifting his aim and firing again. This time, he missed and snapped out a curse.
“What are they for, then?”
The Dreadfoot scuttled behind a hulking piece of machinery. “They’re called Dreadfoot because that’s the closest translation of what the Golden call them. But they call them something else, too.” He glanced at Ragsdale. “Harvesters.”
“I can guess what they’re meant to harvest.”
“Yeah. Us. Their imperative is to take us alive.”
Ragsdale nodded. “All the more reason not to let them do that. Okay, I’m moving in three.”
Dash nodded and glanced back. Conover and Freya were starting up the sloping ramp of rocky debris that led to the way out, lugging Grundel between them. Leira, Amy, and Viktor crouched at the base of the ramp, ready to give him and Ragsdale covering fire as they pulled back.
Ragsdale turned and ran. Dash snapped out three more shots, one each at a trio of scuttling mechs, then turned and raced after him.
“Sentinel,” he called as he pounded across the compartment toward the rocky ramp. “We’ll be coming out hot in one minute. Can you use the Archetype’s weapons to cover us?”
“These weapons are designed for long-range combat outside a planetary atmosphere. There would be considerable collateral damage if they were employed here.”
Dash raced on, wincing as both Viktor and Leira fired past him at the Dreadfoot swarm erupting from the gap in the blast doors. Despite having killed a bunch of them, there only seemed to be even more. Either they were being manufactured somewhere—which, hopefully Sentinel’s deactivating the ship would stop—or they were being repaired.
Ahead of him, Ragsdale clambered up the slope. When they got halfway up, he and Dash would stop and cover Viktor, Amy, and Leira as they pulled back.
Something burst from the ground beside Ragsdale in an explosion of dirt and gravel. A Dreadfoot lunged as he ran past, slamming its wicked claw into him, knocking him down. The claw withdrew, dripping blood, and readied to plunge down again. Dash swore and raised his pulse gun, then he snapped out a shot that missed. Two more shots connected, sending it tumbling down the slope. Dash dodged it and shouted for help as he reached Ragsdale, who was hurt badly, blood oozing from a deep wound in his gut. He groaned and tried to sit up, but he dropped back, a sheen of sweat on his face.
“Don’t move!” Dash shouted at him, turning as Viktor reached him. “Help me get him out of here.”
They grabbed Ragsdale and lugged him up the slope. Leira and Amy held back, covering them, shooting pulse after pulse into the horde of Dreadfoot now scuttling up the slope behind them.
They reached the exit and clambered through it, blinking at the glare of daylight.
But they were still at the bottom of a deep pit, and they still needed the winch to reach the top. The Dreadfoot were just seconds behind them.
Leira scrambled out of the hatch, waving her pulse gun. “I’m out!”
Amy stayed at the hatch, firing inside. She glanced back at Dash. “I’m almost there. Last shots now.”
“Dash!” Viktor shouted. “We need cover. Now!”
“Sentinel, I need the Archetype. This instant.”
In answer, a massive shadow loomed over the top of the pit. The Archetype towered over them, blocking out the sky.
“Everyone away from the hatch,” Dash ordered. “As far you can get. Sentinel, you’re going to put your foot over this damned hatch and keep those things inside. Lock them in.”
Dash scrambled up the side of the pit, loose gravel and rock slumping under his feet as he and Viktor dragged Ragsdale with them. The others clambered away from the hatch. The looming shadow of the Archetype swelled, swallowing the sky as it descended.
As the first Dreadfoot emerged from the hatch, the massive foot of the Archetype slammed down upon it, blocking the hatch.
Gasping, Dash dug his feet into the loose dirt and turned around. The Archetype’s leg was almost close enough to touch.
“Okay, Viktor, if we have any first aid gel or clean-clot left, let’s use it on Ragsdale. Then, let’s get out of this damned hole before those Dreadfoot assholes find another way out of the ship.” He levered himself to his feet and glared at the bottom of the pit. “And then, I’m going to board the Archetype and see just how long it takes me to turn every one of those bloody things into scrap metal.”
Dash poked his head around the door, making sure Ragsdale was awake. He was, lying amid sundry bits and pieces of med-tech, reading something on a data-pad. When he saw Dash, he smiled.
“Dash, come on in.”
“You sure? The doctor said you needed your rest.”
“Bah, I’m tired of resting. Time to get back on my feet.” He put the data-pad aside and sat up.
Dash moved beside the bed. “Port Hannah’s got a damned fine infirmary. Better than a lot of colonies I’ve been to.”
“It was a priority when the place was first planned out. You want productive people, you need to keep them healthy.”
“Dash,” Ragsdale said. He paused, let out a sigh, then said, “To hell with it, I’m just going to say it. Thanks for saving my life.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“So all those Dreadfoot are dead.”
“Every single one. Sentinel and I made sure of it. Now we’re recovering stuff from that ship. I’m just taking a break, in fact, to get some stuff loaded aboard the Slipwing. Going to head back to the wreck tonight and do some more digging.”
“I’m glad. Look, I know I gave you hard time at first, but I’m glad it worked out this way. If that thing had come to life without you and your friends here, I don’t like to think about what might have happened.”
“Yeah. Makes me wonder what else is out there, sitting buried near other colonies, maybe on the verge of waking up.”
There was a moment of silence as they both chewed on that. Then Dash said, “Anyway, just thought I’d drop by. I’m off now to see your Governor. I’m assuming she’s going to give me a hard time.”
“Don’t be so sure. She’s a good woman—and smart. Besides, none of us can just blow off what’s going on with the Golden, and the Unseen, and—” He smiled. “Well, I don’t need to tell you, do I?”
Dash gave a wintry laugh. “No, you don’t. I’m only too familiar.”
Dash sat across from the Governor, who simply stared at him. Freya hovered nearby, an expectant look of dread on her face. An uncomfortable silence dragged on, filling the space between them all. Dash had already told her the Golden ship had been neutralized and no longer posed an immediate threat to Port Hannah. He’d cautioned that the Golden might still want to recover it, to which she’d simply said, “This is our home. They can try.”
Dash noticed that Khyber had a small plant growing in a pot on her desk, laden with round, red fruit. On impulse, he picked one and popped it in his mouth, earning an even harder stare from Khyber—until she relented and took one herself.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” she said after he’d swallowed.
“Never had anything like it,” Dash admitted.
“And you never would if you weren’t here. That’s a hybrid of four plants, designed by none other than Freya,” Khyber said. There was open admiration in her voice. That was new.
“Actually, that’s exactly what we need,” Dash said. “That, among other things.”
Khyber looked surprised. “You need plumato? From us?” She pointed at the fruit, smiling wryly. “I think you’re being rather limited, if that’s all you’re going to ask me for.”
“Oh, I wasn’t done,” Dash said, answering her with a broad and somewhat feral smile of his own. “I don’t want those. At least, not just those. We could use food, and a lot of it. The ability to plant and grow our own, and, frankly, the knowledge that you’re an ally. We’re not going to be alone out there at the Forge. We die in the cold of space if we try to fight alone. The Unseen learned that the hard way, and I’m not just going to make their mistakes all over again.”
Governor Khyber stepped around her desk and put her hand out. Dash took it with a grave expression.
“Absolutely,” she said. “You’ll have food. Assistance. And consider this the beginning of our diplomatic partnership, Dash. I’ve read through the data Leira gave me. I know what the Forge is—what it really is.”
Dash was curious about her take on it. “And what’s that?”
“The first line of defense,” she said. “And it can’t fall.” She sighed, then pulled out a tablet and began to make notes in bold strokes, the screen glowing with her commands. “Freya, do you feel like taking a trip?”
Freya perked up. “A trip? To where?”
“To the Forge. You’re going to do some gardening there. And then some. Get them up and running with every trick you know. I think Dash is right. The stronger we are all over, the better our chances for when the Golden return. Take Ragsdale along, too. He can be my eyes and ears.” She smiled, and it was warm, without a hint of the politician they’d met during their first visit.
“He’s already volunteered,,” Dash said.
“About which part?” Khyber asked.
Dash looked at a display on the wall that depicted the local star systems. He saw beyond it, across the galactic arm. “They’ll be coming back. And this time, we’ll be ready.”
“It’s amazing,” Ragsdale said, “and actually quite beautiful.”
Dash could only nod in agreement. The Forge was a controlled, elegant inferno of heat and colored sparks, all contained inside the massive central smelter. The smelter was constructed from a transparent material that gave everyone a front row seat as the Dark Metal was slagged to a roiling liquid, then poured through the transfer tubes where it sluiced off into specific molds.
“Stay back just in case,” Dash said.
“That will not be necessary,” Custodian said. “This facility, while not at full power, is operating in complete safety at all times.”
The AI sounded miffed, Dash thought. “Are your feelings hurt?”
“I do not have feelings as you would understand,” Custodian replied.
A brief pause. “I simply want to emphasize that you are quite safe here, Messenger, as are your friends.”
Dash winked at Leira, who looked more than a little smug at the idea of Custodian feeling hurt.
“I can see your facial expression, Leira,” Custodian said, “and would like to point out that you’re standing rather close to that transfer tube. Sparks fly. Eyebrows may be inadvertently lost.”
“Hey! I thought you said this place was completely safe?” she shot back.
“It is. For people who do not antagonize the operating system by making faces.”
Dash and Leira exchanged grins with Ragsdale, while Viktor, standing nearby, gave a polite cough into his hand.
“Hey, Custodian? Um, what comes next?” Amy asked, her eyes bright with curiosity. Dark Metal was being spun like thread by a fine nozzle, each microfilament laying down perfectly in the mold. In a moment, there were three nozzles working, spinning a web like robotic spiders who used black, liquid metal that seemed almost alive. She glanced back at Dash and the others. “Kind of weird to think I’ve still got some of that stuff inside me.”
“The process begins with internal circuitry. The second mold will then be filled to fabricate armor segments, joints, and motivators. Propulsion and weaponry will begin after I can verify there is enough material for the project in question,” Custodian said
“And what is it? Other than an Archetype, I mean?” Leira asked.
“You recall the body scan I did in the hallway?” Custodian asked.
She nodded. Dash recalled how the intense light had circled her three times, mapping the contours of her body and some of the internal makeup as well.
“That image is now being integrated into all plans moving forward for the construct—in your language, known as the Mark II Swift. It will be smaller, slightly faster, and comparable to the current Archetype in many ways, although the Messenger and his unique connection will always have a slight combat advantage. You are a natural warrior, Leira, and the Swift will fit your fighting style well.”
“Thank you, Custodian. I hope—I mean, how long will it take?” Leira asked.
“With the current stocks of Dark Metal, I may be able to bring your Swift online in a month, but that would only be a husk. For avionics and weapons systems, we will need six weeks station time, as well as more Dark Metal. The process is exacting and requires every bit of power this station can spare,” Custodian said.
“Can you divert from the upgrades on my ship and the Archetype?” Dash asked. Both the Slipwing and the big mech were being retrofitted for maximum combat efficiency, and the projects took time, energy, and—costliest of all—Dark Metal.
“I could, but the solution is easier than that. You must be at full efficiency in order to fight, and only then can you harvest more Golden technology for our purposes. It is this station’s recommendation that you, as you humans say, relax.”
“Relax?” Conover asked.
“Yes. That is what I said, and that is what I mean. With the addition of botanical elements to this ship, I believe you can produce something known as liquor, which will, according to all data on hand, help you relax.”
“Not with hangovers,” Dash muttered.
“Hangovers. A negative state brought about by the accumulation of metabolic toxins derived from alcohol consumption. Yes, those do not exist here. There is a medicine designed to rehydrate and—”
“Wait, what?” Dash asked, incredulous. “No hangovers? Are you sure this isn’t paradise?”
“No, this is the Forge, and yes, our medical bay provides an intravenous rehydration system designed to overcome any and all toxins you might accumulate from…relaxing.” The certainty in Custodian’s voice was clear.
“Sounds like we’re on vacation,” Conover said.
The rest of them just stared, smiles slowly spreading across their faces. Finally, Dash yelled, “Hey, Freya! Can you make booze out of those plumatos of yours?”
DASH, SENTINEL, LEIRA, VIKTOR, and CONOVER will return in THE SILENT FLEET, coming December 2019.
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About the Authors
J. N. Chaney is a USA Today Bestselling author and has a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He 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 Las Vegas, NV. 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.