Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's Note: This chapter took a while to write, but it's the longest one yet! The story's startin' to get more complex and stuff's actually happening now, and hopefully it'll keep making sense. Anyway, on with the story:
|the Enigma of Flatness|
A second passed...a minute...ten minutes... Nothing happened; Sabrin's mind remained crystal clear. No mass hallucinations, no magnified psychoses, no homocidal episode. He released his breath and relaxed the muscles in his hands, wincing as the flow of blood resumed through the fingers. Behind him both Dreamer and Lirelle looked supremely confident; of course that morning they had ran the shield configuration through a number of simulated conditions and Lirelle had been aware of the psionic field well before it reached the lethal threshold. "Shield envelope stable, psionic field flux at less than 0.1% of critical," she reported precisely.
"Well, most of us're still sane," Dreamer commented redundantly and smiled. "Alright, get us to the Apollo's Arrow." Simultaneously he brought up the relevant displays for the three crew members. "Watch those sensor shadows," he cautioned Tallas. Many ships in both fleets were equipped with equipment and armor designed to defract sensors, whose remains now scattered sweeping scanner beams in a near-random pattern when struck.
Slowly, nervously, Sabrin maneuvered the small craft through the maze of floating debris, his eyes glued to the sensor readouts. His heart skipped a beat every time the display flickered, as the Dream's energy transmissions were disrupted by solar radiation. The interruptions which had partially motivated the Altairan fleet's choice of theater now seemed as the haunted whispers of men long dead, voicing their anguish across the airless void. He couldn't help but feel a slight chill in the presence of so much death, recalling Dreamer's earlier figures: 3,614 ships lost, estimated casualties 1,177,000. Their bodies frozen in the macabre throes of death by the vacuum of space. How many were asphyxiated by loss of atmosphere? Dismembered by shredding bulkheads? Incinerated by unleashed plasma? Murdered by their friends, crewmen, compatriots?
"Watch it!" The ship shuddered from the grazing impact of a hull fragment which had temporarily slipped out of sensor contact. "No serious damage this time, but be careful!" Dreamer admonished the pilot, whose heart was pounding too rapidly to respond. "Damn that's gonna leave a mark in the paint," he said jokingly.
"What's one more?" Tallas said. The android answered him with a rude gesture.
Meanwhile, Sabrin mentally recalled the first ten prime numbers to calm himself and eased the ship away from a derelict passing on the port side. Only its anterior half was intact, sheared neatly from the rest of its body along the middle. The culprit, a wedge-shaped Kinjori combat drone carrier, drifted silently a few hundred meters away. At least the close call had jostled him from his previous ghastly train of thought. "We're coming up on the Apollo's Arrow," he announced after a tense fourteen minutes.
With carefully timed thruster bursts, the farship maneuvered past a discarded jump vane and sighted the massive hulk of the Altairan battle cruiser, a jagged crater torn from its side. The assistant chief engineer of the Apollo's Arrow, having dispatched the rest of his team with a pipe, opened the antimatter injectors and leapt in. The explosion caused by the annihilation of his body with the anti-particle stream ripped through twenty decks, though miraculously the ship was not obliterated as the antimatter storage pods had already been ejected in a previous bout of irrationality. The Dream of Dawn positioned itself along the relatively undamaged port side, matching the velocity and direction of the wreck.
Once their relative vector was zeroed Sabrin set the thrusters to station-keeping and rose from the chair, untangling the knots in his muscles. "Lirelle, prepare to extend shields into the derelict," Dreamer ordered. Lirelle complied while Tallas confirmed their position and nominal status. "Well, we've made it through the first part," Dreamer smiled, "C'mon Sabe, let's go get us some loot."
Sabrin followed the android to the shuttlebay and into Lirelle's spacecraft. While Dreamer flew the delta-winged ship towards the Apollo, Sabrin busied himself with donning the EV suit. The Dream's original extra-vehicular equipment was naturally missing, but given their plans Dreamer had pursuaded Lirelle to exchange hers for a larger-sized model before their departure. Sabrin was thankful he didn't suffer from claustrophobia as he struggled into the flexible one-piece suit and locked the helmet, all the while listening to Dreamer re-hash yet again the task ahead. "You can operate in a vacuum?" he asked Dreamer when he ran through the final checks.
"Yup," Dreamer answered, "I don't beathe, barely anything inside me's that susceptible to pressure, and this ol' skin's tougher than its nubile first impression." The inside of the shuttle shuddered slightly when its landing legs clamped onto the scarred hull of the battle cruiser below. For the ease of transferring materials the entire aft section of the shuttle would be evacuated of air. Dreamer opened the inner airlock doors and motioned Sabrin inside. "I've said all this before but I'm gonna say it again. Don't let us get separated, don't touch anything you aren't sure about, and keep the comn channel open at all times. You got all your stuff?"
Sabrin nodded, gesturing to the hefty pack strapped to his back. At the moment he sincerely wished Dreamer could turn down the artificial gravity just a little.
"Let's go then." The atmosphere was drawn from inside the lock and the outer doors slid open without a sound. Sabrin's eyes caught the glittering shower of ice particles flying out, from residual moisture. Steadily, he and Dreamer descended the steps of the shuttle's aft hatch and onto the gray expanse of the Apollo. Overhead, the field of debris looked like a blanket of nightmarish clouds, and Sabrin forced his eyes to the hull to avoid vertigo.
The two men took a few steps to one of Apollo's airlock hatches, which Dreamer forced apart after ripping open the side access panel with apparently no effort and releasing the lock. Actually getting inside was a bit tricky for Sabrin, since he had to wrap the magnetized soles of his boots around the edge of the airlock. He blushed when Dreamer volunteered an arm to pull him the rest of the way over. "Thanks."
"No prob," Dreamer responded, leading them into the ship. Aside from the shafts of light cast by the open airlock and the floodlights on Sabrin's EV suit, the darkness was almost absolute. Dreamer activated a few flexible light-sticks and attached them to his shoulders, their soft bluish light providing better illumination of their surroundings. Sabrin had expected a mess, but instead the corridor was silently pristine, aside from a few floating items barely visible in the distance. The scene sent chills down his spine.
"The first thing we should go for are the nanotech repair matrices," Dreamer's comn voice was a welcome anchor in the metallic mausoleum. He began walking down the corridor as he spoke over the comn. "There outta be at least fifteen canisters in the machine shops. That much Altairan military-grade NRMs'll be worth a absolute fortune."
"But we aren't selling them," Sabrin commented, watching his steps carefully and making sure that he could see Dreamer in front of him.
"Hell no. Y'know that stuff pays for itself many times over in ship repairs. No wonder the Altairans kept the fabrication process secret for so long." Dreamer led them through several more corridors and vertical access shafts, bypassing sections which had been sealed off by debris or emergency partitions. Without ceremony he sliced through the locks holding the machine shop doors together with a plasma torch and pushed them open. Sabrin was definitely not prepared for the sight assailing his eyes.
The large room was filled with drifting corpses, all posed like grotesque mannequins by the overwhelming cold in various stages of anguish. They had suffered, slowly asphyxiating as the ship's atmosphere was sapped into space, while their tissues contorted painfully from the drop in external pressure. And even that fate had not dampened their madness. Frozen blood laid splattered against the inert walls and machines; more glistened in the spaces between. There were people impaled by the massive robotic arms employed for construction, others torn open by laser cutting tools. Two crew members were locked in their last fatal embrace, hands around each other's throats. Sabrin had to avert his eyes to the floor and brace his hands on his knees, forcibly suppressing the heaves rising from his stomach. He felt a pressure on his back and realized that Dreamer had put out a comforting hand.
"Sorry, I should've warned ya," Dreamer bore a concerned expression. "You gonna be okay?"
Sabrin coughed a few times and nodded feebly. After a few seconds the nausea faded and he regained control of his senses. Taking a few deep breaths, he attempted to remember his Academy discipline as he straightened and braced himself for another look around him. He took comfort from Dreamer's presence beside him, a reminder that this room had not become his tomb as well. "Alright, what do we do first?" his voice was only slightly unsteady.
"Alright, I'm gonna scan for the..." Dreamer held up a handheld scanner and swept the room. "Jackpot!" He proceeded to a bank of inset cylinders on one wall, discreetly nudging a few bodies out of the way. "I'll have to reset and secure the stasis settings before we pull 'em out." He tapped a couple buttons on top of the canister and then pulled the faintly glowing cylinder out from the socket. Sabrin took the canister, noticing that its inertia was far less than he expected and it contained a gray, silt-like substance.
As Dreamer removed each additional canister, Sabrin sealed the nullification field and clipped it to the articulated framework of his pack. "Sorry about almost losing it back there," he said.
"Hey, don't get down about that. For your first time you handled yourself a helluva lot better than most people I've met," Dreamer said sincerely. "And even for salvaging a dead ship this's pretty bad."
"What about you? Rummagin' around on a ghost ship, surrounded by death...aren't you ever affected by it?" Sabrin asked quietly.
"Not like humans," Dreamer admitted, "The way my systems work is absolute; what I feel has nothin' to do with 'em. So I can never be physically ill from seein' somethin' like you almost were."
"What about being scared?"
"Never for myself," Dreamer's said, "It's not in my programming. I have been 'afraid' for someone else, but I don't think that's the same thing."
"Must be nice," Sabrin said softly, "Never being betrayed by your body; never fearing for what's ahead."
"Y'know, sometimes I think it'd be nice not to know exactly what my potential is; what I can and can't do," Dreamer whispered. "It makes you think you could be more than what you are."
"You don't give yourself enough credit Dreamer," Sabrin smiled, which Dreamer noticed through the visor of the helmet and returned in kind.
"Man, the ambiance of this place's kinda draggin' me down. Let's finish up and get the hell outta here," Dreamer said with a grin. Despite the jarring flippancy of Dreamer's quip, Sabrin found the queasiness in his stomach settling somewhat. He shook his head and chuckled a bit, "You're somethin' else."
"But admit it -- ya love me for it," Dreamer grinned widely and handed over another canister.
While the salvage team was working on the Apollo, Tallas found himself back on the bridge with precious little work to remove his mind from worry. Though nominally critical -- his task was to monitor the feedback from the EV suits and scan for potential dangers -- the thus far unchanging holographic display before him allowed ample opportunities for his imagination to wander treacherously. He fidgeted in his seat, drumming his fingers steadily against the glossy surface of the console. He was sure that by now he was wound up so tight that, should an alarm klaxon sound, he would succumb to cardiac arrest in short order.
"Will you please desist?" Lirelle said irritatedly. Tallas had not realized his fingers, but Lirelle had.
"Sorry," a chastened Tallas responded, withdrawing his hands into his lap. Between the consummately professional Lirelle and the seemingly unflappable Dreamer he felt as though he were the only amateur of the group. Why aren't they the least bit concerned about how dangerous this is? Why am I the only one being strung out by this? The familiar pangs of feeling incompetent and overwhelmed rose in his mind, but Tallas reminded himself that two people were depending on him in the wreck and pushed those thoughts aside.
"Relax Tal," Dreamer's gently smiling face appeared on a nearby monitor. "He's gonna be fine. After all, he's with me." The A.I. flashed his perfect white teeth, as though he found intense amusement in the concept of referring to his currently detached avatar in the first person.
"Aren't you worried?" Tallas asked, trying again to wrap his mind around the idea of Dreamer cloning parts of his personality into his android alter ego and then re-integrating them when they re-establish contact.
"What good 'd that do?" Dreamer said, sounding like he were stating the obvious. "I'll start worryin' after these alerts 'ere start goin' off." Tallas sighed and rolled his eyes, turning to look out the side window at the imposing shadow to starboard.
"C'mon, what'd I say?" Dreamer took on a more serious countenance. "Dude, you're gonna make yourself ill if you don't unwind a little."
"My best friend's over there!" Tallas snapped.
"I'm well aware of that," Dreamer held up the image of his hands, "What I'm sayin' is that you'll have to find a way to deal with situations like this, 'cause this life you and Sabe picked out ain't gonna be easy and fate willin' we're gonna be in it for the long haul."
"Maybe eventually," Tallas conceded the point but maintained his glare, "but not right now."
Dreamer sighed silently, once more prompting Tallas to wonder whether these simulated human mannerisms on the monitor had any reality behind them. "They'll be done in a little while and then we'll be movin' onto the next wreck. Try what I said, 'k? I'm really not pushin' this just to be an asshole, y'know that right? Trust me, I know what it's like." Tal nodded at Dreamer's earnest face. "Lirelle, how're the shields holdin' up?"
"Huh?" Lirelle's brown eyes snapped to them with a somewhat distracted glaze. "Oh, yes. All parameters normal."
"You alright?" Dreamer asked in a concerned tone.
"Of course," Lirelle smiled reassuringly, "I was simply caught up in the sensor feeds. After a few hours they can be almost mesmerizing."
"If you say so," Dreamer said skeptically. "It's all just data to me." He paused for a moment, with an expression Tallas had come to recognize as him receiving some new type of input. It actually looked like the A.I. was listening to something none of them could hear. His excitement level jumped at the prospect of hearing from his beloved. "Oh good, they've finished up and 're headed back to the ship," Dreamer reported. "I assume you're gonna want to meet 'em down there?" He gave Tallas a lopsided grin that was almost a leer, but the blonde man barely noticed, having already left his seat.
Lirelle's shuttle glided through the force-field at the mouth of the shuttlebay and landed smoothly on the floor. Tallas practically skipped to the opening entry ramp, from which a wearied Sabrin and a chipper Dreamer appeared. "I'm so glad you're back okay," he said, unable to contain his enthusiasm at seeing Sabrin's handsome face, "Did you get everything?"
"More," Sabrin seemed just as happy to see his lifelong friend. His eyes sparkled like sapphires as he smiled broadly. "Cargo hold's stuffed full; ship's forward section wasn't as damaged as we thought." Behind the two of them, Dreamer circled to the back of the shuttle and began unloading their salvaged goods, assuming correctly that the two young men needed a moment to themselves.
"What was it like over there?" Tallas asked curiously.
Sabrin barely suppressed a shudder at the mental image of those floating bodies. Nothing they encountered elsewhere on the ship matched that first grotesque scene, but it was hardly pleasant. "Really creepy," he answered honestly. "I'll give you the details if ya want some other time okay?"
"You okay though?" Tallas' dark eyes voiced his concern.
"Sure, it wasn't that bad once I started concentrating on the work," Sabrin reassured him with an almost natural smile, hiding the extent to which spending time on the dead ship affected him. "Besides, it was worth it for all the supplies we nabbed." The absolute truth of that statement had held him steady through the worst of times aboard the Apollo. "What about you? Shouldn't you be watching the sensors?" Sabrin asked jokingly, hoping to steer the conversation away from himself.
"I can access the system from here if anything goes wrong," Tallas responded, then pretended a pout. "You're not glad to see me?"
Sabrin chuckled, ignoring the rush that shot through his chest when he saw Tallas' rosy lower lip protude ever so subtly. He still shivered a bit from what he experienced on the derelict, but looking into Tallas' beautiful face that faded into a distant memory. "I should be asking you that. After all I'm the one who went out there to that space coffin."
"Fine, have it your way," Tallas smiled, looking into the blue eyes he adored. "Yes, I'm glad to see you."
"Good..." Sabrin's voice drifted off as he held his friend's gaze, and suddenly he was discovering it more difficult to breathe. The light-weight EV suit he wore was all of a sudden becoming oppressive and he shifted around in an attempt to allay his discomfort.
"You two, quit flirtin' and gimme a hand with this crap!" Dreamer's voice broke them of their lull. Tallas dropped his eyes abruptly, looking slightly flushed and faintly apologetic. Meanwhile, Sabrin was angry but the last thing he wanted was to incite another debate on that subject in Tallas' presence, so he forced his voice to be normal and shouted back, "Shut up asshole! We'll be there in a sec alright?!"
At the shuttle's rear compartment, Dreamer was lifting one of the massive cube-shaped Altairan cargo containers with a single hand, carrying it down the ramp, and setting it precisely on the stack beside him. Despite themselves, both were impressed by the feat of android engineering. "What'd you need done?" Sabrin asked flatly.
"Could one of you take that first load down to the cargo bay? Whoever's left can help me load this second pallet," Dreamer gestured to their newly acquired second anti-grav pallet. Tallas nodded and took the first job, refusing to meet Sabrin's eyes lest his true self be exposed. "You don't need to sort it or nothin'," Dreamer called out to his back, "Just stack it anywhere and we'll worry about inventory later."
"Why d'you gotta be such a fuckin' prick?" Sabrin hissed at Dreamer once Tallas was out of listening range.
"Stop being so damned sensitive; it was just a joke," Dreamer shot back. "Didn't they have jokes where ya came from?"
"We're not goin' over all this again," Sabrin said agitatedly, setting a crate of sub-micron processor chips on the pallet.
"Man, what the hell's the matter?" Dreamer said incredulously. "Are you mad 'cause I said you were flirtin' with him, are you mad 'cause I said he was flirtin' with you, or are you mad 'cause I interrupted your 'moment' together?" He made quotation marks in the air to emphasize his point.
"What did I just say?" Sabrin said gruffly, then sighed. "I don't wanna talk about this alright? So I'd thank you if you'd just respect my wishes and drop it."
"Alright, okay." Exasperation shone clearly through Dreamer's acquiescence. Inside he was frustrated by the dance of avoidance and denial playing out between his two friends. They're yet too young to realize just how long this road called life can be when you're alone, he reflected sadly, or how abruptly it can all end.
Work inside the battlefield proceeded quickly, necessitated by the fact that the shield could only be maintained as long as Lirelle could stay alert and every passing hour made it that much more difficult. Finally, after twenty hours Sabrin plotted an escape course which would conclude the first day of their mission. With the psionic field neutralized their work was close to any deep-space salvage mission, saved from complacency by a few close calls. While docked at the Firemuse an unstable gravitic mine concealed within an engine cowling drifted to a few hundred meters of the ship before Tallas detected the offense and detonated it harmlessly with a gauss gun blast. While hunting tachyon coils at the Ares Triumphant a series of bulkheads gave way, decompressing four previously sealed decks; thankfully Sabrin and Dreamer were nowhere near the breach at the time despite having applied the stress which triggered it. While obtaining ultra-thin transoptic cable at the Kogamadrak a dozen antimatter torpedoes activated by themselves and locked onto the Dream, forcing Sabrin and Dreamer to manually deactivate them from the launch room.
With short thruster bursts, the Dream came to a stop just outside the field, more than a million kilometers from where they first entered. All of them sighed in relief when they deactivated the shield; their nerves and senses were battered from their constant vigilance. Lirelle in particular was showing the effects of her strain. Dark circles showed beneath her eyes, and barely a dozen words passed from her to the rest of the crew during the latter half of the mission. After reassuring the three men that she was fit to resume her duties the next day, she retired to her quarters to rest.
After a brief meal, Sabrin and Tallas also returned to their respective quarters for a good night's rest, leaving Dreamer alone to begin the process of utilizing their new equipment. Not that he begrudged the task -- far from it -- his ship body had been on the verge for so long that this was practically Christmas morning. All things considered, Dreamer would consider their progress during the day a resounding success -- far exceeding his expectations. Not that he would ever say it, but his previous projections held a significant probability of mission failure. You'd think that by now numbers'd have much less impact on me, he laughed silently to himself. As if any machine, no matter how sentient, could ever escape the reality of numbers. He once ran the probabilities on the crucial events in his own life unfolding as they have, and found that he could almost be quantified as 'lucky'...now that was a bitter thought.
The next day Dream plunged back into the fold, on a course taking them deeper into the psionic embrace of Vesuvius. In the outer limits of the field the crews succumbed slowly over the course of hours, their psychosis consuming their ships and others around them. For those hapless crews closer to the resonators, their minds were destroyed within a matter of minutes, leaving them precious little time to wreak havoc. As such, the most delicate and valuable components were to be found intact aboard those ships.
However, their increased proximity to the field enacted a greater price on Lirelle's constitution, to the extent that by the conclusion of the second day Dreamer strongly suggested that she take at least a 48-hour rest before they returned. Lirelle rejected his assertions vehemently, insisting that "I am perfectly capable of fulfilling my duties."
"Like hell you are." Dreamer returned, "No offense, but you look like shit and at this rate none of us're gonna make it out alive tomorrow."
"How dare you question my competence?!" Lirelle exclaimed, "I think I know better than you what I can and can't do. The longer we sit out here the greater the chance we'll be discovered. Is that what you want? Paint a gigantic pirates' target on our hull?!"
"I'll take the risk," Dreamer raised his voice, "Better than havin' you spaz out from exhaustion inside that field tomorrow. I don't care what you think your condition is; d'you want to see your physiometric data?" He threw up a display of his internal sensor scans. "If you don't let this neurotransmitter activity cool down you're gonna crash, and I'm not gonna let you take the rest of us with ya. Two days' break, period."
"Maybe you should listen to him Lirelle," Sabrin interjected, his calm voice belying the throbbing headache which had developed over the prior few hours and only being aggravated by the current argument. "It's better to be safe."
"What's the meaning of this; both of you against me now?!" Lirelle snapped defensively.
"We're not against you, we're just concerned," Sabrin said.
"I'm not unlocking the engines till 48 hours from now. End of discussion," Dreamer said decisively, betraying no hint of emotion. Sabrin shot him a you're not helping look, which the android seemed not to notice.
"Hell shall freeze before I'm lolling here for another 48 hours like some invalid," Lirelle said with her face merely inches from Dreamer's, glaring into his black eyes. Her fists were clenched, every muscle in her body tensed for the confrontation.
"Twenty-hour hours then," Sabrin said, enunciating every syllable. His own patience was now stretched too thin and his body, aching from the earlier manual labor, cried out for a bed softer for what the Dream could provide. "How about just twenty-four hours. God I'm tired of all this bickering! And Dreamer, only I can lock the engines 'cause I've got the override codes," he shot at the android.
"I'm okay with that if she is," Dreamer backed down with a black look.
Lirelle simply shook her head and disappeared off the bridge, in the direction of her quarters rather than the shuttlebay. After a moment, Dreamer also took his leave, heading for the cargo bay. Gingerly, Tallas approached his best friend and touched his arm with the lightest pressure. "You handled that pretty well," he said softly. "You want to get something to eat? We have a few meals left before we have to start resorting back to those ration cubes." He smiled in an effort to elicit a reciprocal response from Sabrin.
Sabrin sighed tiredly and leaned back against a console, rubbing his hands over his face. He shrugged off Tallas' hand and said, "No thanks, I think I'm gonna go get some sleep." He shuffled off, a bit unsteadily due to the pangs inside his skull. His sleep would be listless, as the grisly images from those wrecks dominated his unconscious. Some of the starships still retained their artificial gravity and onboard atmospheres, and their crews laid where they fell, their dessicated bodies badly decomposed after 23 years. In his dreams they came back to life before his eyes, to drag him into the torment of their final hours.
Back on the bridge, Tallas sank into his chair and against the wall, closing his eyes. Once Dreamer was certain that the young man was asleep, his avatar returned to the bridge, carefully lifted him into his arms, and carried him back to his quarters. After laying the exhausted young man down onto his bed, Dreamer gave in to his instincts and pressed a light kiss on his forehead. "G'night," he whispered and pulled the sheets over the still form.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've saved the best for last," Dreamer announced to the three people gathered in the conference room. His easy smile in no way matched the twisting sensations roiling within his audience. Beside him was a three-dimensional projection of their final target: the Altairan destroyer Telemachus. Its 350-meter-long hull was hardly the most imposing of the wrecked vessels they had thus far visited, but its insubstantial frame held the utmost importance for their future.
Antimatter, the substance whose annihilation provided the massive burst of energy required for starships to jump between systems, was found on virtually every vessel within both fleets, sealed within storage pods. However, without maintenance or replenishment from their parent vessel's main power grids, most of those self-contained magnetic fields have degraded to an unknown degree, leaving them risky to disturb. Dreamer selected the Telemachus due to its relative lack of structural damage; within the first few moments of resonator activation the captain flooded the ship with gaseous counter-incursion compounds, killing the crew almost instantly.
"Remember, we'll have to go through the emergency ejection system shaft to get at the pods. We'll move them out, one at a time, and then transfer the antimatter to our own pods through the conduit on the belly of the ship. We're gonna be much closer to the Vesuvius than we've been before, so that means you're gonna be more taxed," he looked to Lirelle.
"In that case I recommend that I be stationed in the shield control room on deck four. It will be the most insulated compartment from the field and I'll be right there if anything goes awry with the hardware." She said, her eyes daring Dreamer to contradict her judgment.
"Very well," Dreamer's expression was stolid. "I'll go over again what you two'll have to do once we're there. For now let's get movin'."
The three nodded assent and took their respective posts. Compared to his first foray into the battlefield, now Sabrin felt more confident at the controls as he nudged the ellipsoid vessel forward. Perhaps it was his imagination, but his skin tingled when the Dream cruised silently past the farthest ingress of its previous journey. The first two parts of their mission had gone exceedingly smoothly -- enough for suspicion. Sabrin could not shake their impression that fate was preparing the way for something very dire indeed.
"We're approaching the Telemachus," he said, "I'm putting us off the ventral midline." The destroyer's main body was comprised of three slender, spindle-shaped hulls joined together in the back, giving it the shape of a tripod oriented sideways. One of the hulls was shorter and bulkier than the others, beneath which the Dream was now perched. "We're at 75 meters, I'm killing our velocity."
"Alright, let's test out these new mono-molecular tethers," Dreamer said cheerfully. At his command, four magnetic bolts trailing invisibly thin threads launched from the flanks of the Dream and slammed themselves against the destroyer's hull, distributing themselves to trace a tetrahedron between the Dream and the Telemachus. With negligible power, the ship's ventral thrusters fired, pulling the lines taut and keeping the smaller craft in place. "Contact point successful, our position's locked," Dreamer said.
"Tal, once we open up the shaft there shouldn't be any shielding between us and the ship so you'll be able to keep in touch with us. Try not to jostle us or anythin' when we get the antimatter," he grinned.
"I'll try," Tallas responded sardonically. "Good luck!" he called out as Sabrin and Dreamer departed for the airlock.
Sabrin had never before walked on the hull of the Dream itself, and he found the experience slightly disorienting since the curvature of the hull was much greater than that of the wrecks he had visited. With every step forward he felt as if he were on the verge of falling backwards. Finally, he and Dreamer were standing directly on the belly of the ship, craning their necks back to see the Telemachus above them. With precision only a machine could achieve, Dreamer aimed and fired a tether up towards the destroyer's hull, and latched the other end to the Dream. "I wouldn't let go of this," he reminded Sabrin as he clipped the safety line from the EV suit to the tether.
Steadily, he and Dreamer pulled themselves along the tether to the Telemachus, swivelling themselves midway so that they landed on their feet. A short distance from them was the circular, ten-meter-wide outer hatch of the antimatter ejection system. As before, Dreamer pried open an access panel and crossed some circuits, supplying energy from the portable supply clipped to his belt to open the hatch. The inside of the shaft was perfectly smooth, circumscribed with a row of faint rings which Sabrin recognized as a part of a gravitic accelerator. The system operated in essentially the same principle as a modern mass driver, employing those rings to accelerate the pods out of the ship in a fraction of a second.
Carefully, Sabrin pulled himself up the cylindrical passage, finding purchase on the faint grooves of each ring. He emerged into a vacant chamber, containing a number of storage pods lined up vertically above the circular opening like ball bearings. Surprisingly the flickering displays revealed that some systems were still active, and from them a relieved Sabrin saw that the antimatter containment stability was well above redline. "Okay Dreamer, I'm in," he told the comn.
Following Dreamer's instructions, he manually disengaged each pod from the ship with meticulous caution and led it down the arduous sixteen-meter ejection shaft to the android on the other side, waiting to manually take the pods and transfer their contents through the Dream's secured fuel port. He winced every time the pod grazed the side of the tunnel, despite Dreamer's assurances that it took more than that to breach the containment field. Beads of sweat pooled on his skin, both from his physical exertion and the close proximity of the highly dangerous fuel. Sabrin tried his best to focus and ignore the irritating moisture, as obviously he couldn't wipe them off through the helmet. Hoping to calm himself, he kept up a continuous dialogue with Dreamer outside and Tal back on the Dream.
"How're the shields holdin' up?" Dreamer asked after he finished draining the fourth pod into the Dream's reserves.
"Uh, hold on--" Tal paused for a moment, then responded, "Psionic flux's up to 9.2% of critical but it still looks stable."
"No wonder I'm feeling a bit edgy" Sabrin commented.
"Maybe you're edgy 'cause you're sittin' on top of 'nough explosive power to vaporize everything within three hundred meters," Dreamer said, his trademark grin evident in his voice.
"Shut up Dreamer, you're not helping," Tal said sharply.
"Humor is a logical response to alleviate any tense situation," Dreamer said as though he were quoting a textbook.
"Says who?" Sabrin queried rhetorically.
"The Universal Compendium of Dreamer's Collected Wisdom," the A.I. responded facetiously. He pushed the empty pod off into space, watching it drift idly away to join its three companions. "Alright Sabe, send up the next one."
"I don't believe I've read that pamphlet," Tallas commented without missing a beat.
Sabrin chuckled as he gripped onto the circumferential rail of the next pod, while Dreamer snapped a "Quiet you." He thickened his drawl. "I swear you young'uns nowadays have no respect for your wiser and more experienced elders."
"And just how much more 'elder' would that be?" Tallas asked innocently.
"See? No respect," Dreamer pouted. Even though he couldn't actually see it, Sabrin burst out laughing at the faked expression he knew would be on the android's face. He was about to respond when he saw the bright red warning sigils flashing on the displays from the corner of his eye. Instantly, Sabrin's blood ran cold and his breath halted in his throat. "Oh fuck..." he muttered under his breath.
"Sabe! Sabe!" Tal's urgent voice came through the comn channel, "The gravitic coils are charging up! What the hell's goin' on?!"
"Shit!" Sabrin rushed from display to display, verifying the truth. "The ejection system's been activated!"
"How?" Tal asked frantically.
"I don't know!" Sabrin's mind was in a panic, "I must've tripped a test circuit or something--"
"Who the fuck cares how it happened?!" Dreamer shouted. "Tal, release the tethers and get the hell away from the ship! You can come back for us later!" He knew that, if the Dream was still above the hatch when the system ejects a pod, the package of antimatter will slam into the ship like a torpedo.
Trembling like a leaf, Tallas did as he was told. The tethers released and retracted normally, but the engines refused to respond. Tripping over his fingers, Tallas tried the ignition sequence again and again, but the thruster controls remained frozen. He slammed the console in frustration. "Damn it the engines aren't responding!"
"I can't override the command sequences!" Dreamer said, "Tal, get Lirelle, see if she can do anything about this."
"Lirelle?! Lirelle are you there?!" Tallas shouted. "Dreamer she's not responding!"
"What?! My sensors say she's in shield control!" Dreamer said.
"What the fuck's going on up there?" Sabrin called out, stepping back from the charging accelerator. A low but distinct vibration was transmitting itself through the floor to his body. "Tal are you clear? You've only got fourteen minutes till the pods eject!"
"Sabe, my thrusters aren't responding!" Dreamer said agitatedly, "We can't move the ship away! You have to shut the damned thing down!"
"How the fuck am I supposed to do that?!" Sabrin yelled. He frenetically pushed the keys beneath the badly flickering display, biting back screams of frustration. His heart was pounding so thunderously that he feared it would stop. He bit down hard on his lip, drawing blood. The pain helped clear his mind and block out the flashing red klaxons throughout the room. "It's an emergency circuit! I don't know how to break that or even if I can!"
"There's some kind of override virus implanted in the computer," Tallas said, "It's encrypted; I can't bypass it! Can we use the tractor beam to push us away?"
"It doesn't have 'nough power for that!" Goddamn it Lirelle! Dreamer thought to himself as he devoted every resource he could into breaking the lock-out, though it was apparent to him that he would not be successful in time. However, it was critical that neither Sabrin nor Tallas lose hope. "Tal! I'm comin' back to the ship. You'll need me if she won't release the ship willingly."
"You think Lirelle's the one who did this?" Tal asked as he ran for the ladder. He had already came to the same conclusion but a part of his mind refused to believe that the young woman they had talked to just hours earlier would betray them this way.
"That's my best guess," Dreamer said grimly, propelling himself with superhuman speed back to the ship and through the waiting airlock, not bothering to run through the entire cycling protocol. He found Tallas waiting nervously by the ladder on deck four, a plasma pistol in his hand, and together the two of them approached the door to shield control. "I'll take point," he told Tallas. The emitter of his plasma gun extended from the palm of his hand and crackled with suppressed energy. He motioned over his shoulder at Tallas: three, two, one.
The two men burst into the tiny room as the door slid open, and found it empty. Dreamer wasn't really surprised, but he had to be sure. He strongly suspected that if he physically went to the shuttlebay, that he would find it empty. Behind him, Tallas cursed and slumped against the wall. "What now?" he whispered plaintively to the tall android.
Meanwhile, in the antimatter storage chamber of the Telemachus, Sabrin paced anxiously back and forth, rapping his hand against his helmet in frustration as feelings of failure and guilt threatened to overwhelm his consciousness. Finally, he took a few deep breaths and scolded himself: C'mon Sabe, calm down, this isn't helping. You can't just give up and roll over, not now. Everybody's counting on you... He's counting on you...you can't let him down. You have to be worthy of his trust.
Sabrin turned and gazed again at the displays with a new determination. I can't stop the ejection sequence, so what can I do? Think! Suddenly, a flash of inspiration struck him, something so obvious and simple that he almost laughed out loud.
"Sabe, Lirelle's not aboard. She's been sending us false sensor readings for god knows how long," Dreamer informed him.
"Dreamer, I'm gonna fire up the Telemachus' ion engines and get us out from under you," Sabrin said as he left the room and pushed himself at break-neck speeds through the corridor.
"What! Are you insane?! Those engines've been inactive for decades!" Dreamer shouted. "You're gonna blow yourself sky-high!"
"They'll work long enough," Sabrin said grimly, knowing fully well the veracity of Dreamer's warning. He glanced at his suit watch: eight minutes remaining. He flew down the hallway, slamming bodily into the opposite wall and then immediately kicking off in another direction. If he somehow managed to survive there were certain to be some colorful bruising from those ricochets.
"Sabe! Sabe stop--" the comn signal cut off as Sabrin careened into the more heavily insulated sections of the ship. He devoted his entire concentration onto his chosen course of action, worrying that he would be crippled by doubt if he stopped to consider his actions more carefully. Roughly he plowed aside the frozen bodies of Telemachus crew members, barely noticing them in his single-minded purpose. Finally, he reached the engine room of the destroyer and grabbed onto a free-standing auxiliary control station, his gloved fingers almost slipping from the console.
As he scrambled to initiate the pre-ignition sequence with the last remnants of energy left in the reserve cells, Sabrin felt a strange calm he imagined must be the resolution that comes when one's course of action is set. There was a curious lightness in his body, and a tranquil clarity was cast over his vision. If I die now, I will know that I tried to saved you, Tal, he thought, watching the power bars rise past the critical levels. He closed his eyes and saw Tallas' beautiful face smiling at him. His finger descended on the ignition button.
But if I can, I swear I'll survive for you.
A white-hot glow appeared within two of the three powerful ion engines mounted on the stern of the destroyer, growing brighter and brighter. The entire ship seemed to sigh with a groaning shudder that rippled forward from the awakened engines. Slowly, steadily, the spacecraft began to edge forward, picking up speed. Back aboard the Dream of Dawn, Dreamer watched the scene silently, tightening his arms around the distraught Tallas. When they lost the comn signal the young man virtually collapsed into his arms, sobbing against his strong chest.
"Its working," the android whispered. A flash appeared from the belly of the Telemachus as the frame containing the remaining antimatter pods burst outwards, sailing harmlessly past the Dream to the space beyond. "It missed us. He did it."
"Sabe..." Tallas whimpered.
"Don't worry, he'll survive. He's too stubborn not to." Dreamer ran his fingers gently through Tallas' tousled blonde hair, wishing fervently that he was as certain of that as he sounded. His sensors informed him of a power surge building within the Telemachus's senescent engine core, which would in short order destroy the ship. Hurry! he urged on silently.
Ahead of them, the retreating three-armed profile of the destroyer erupted in a blinding flash of light. The explosion ripped through the aft sections of the destroyer, hurling out shockwaves of metallic debris in all directions. The power surge spread forward through the destroyer's frayed power transfer systems in a chain reaction which left little more of the ship than gaseous traces and charred fragments sailing through the black vacuum. Tallas couldn't have witnessed the fiery death of the Telemachus -- his eyes were clenched shut -- but when the bridge lit up in its reflected glory he flinched as if it had physically struck him.
Dreamer refused to grieve just yet and reached out with his sensors, searching the debris for any signs of life. Damn, there's too much interference!
"Don't give up just yet," he whispered to the young man in his arms.
"G-god..." Tallas' voice was barely audible, "This c-can't be h-happening." Tallas almost saw his own life flashing before his eyes. Since his earliest memory Sabrin had been his constant companion, from the gray communal cells of the orphan creche to the metal-framed bunk beds of the ward to the stoic towers of the Fleet Academy campus. To endure life without his best friend...it was unthinkable.
The two continued to stand there on the bridge in each other's arms for an unknown number of minutes, until Tallas finally calmed enough for Dreamer to pull away and meet his anguished eyes. "Lirelle's virus wasn't as clever as she thought," Dreamer narrowed his eyes, "I'm on the verge of breakin' the encryption on it. Then we'll go look for him."
"H-how could..." Tallas trailed off, his broken voice unable to finish.
"Maybe he got to an escape pod or a shuttle," Dreamer said, "We'll never know unless we look."
"I can't imagine him gone. I...I..." Tallas trailed off, unable to complete the admission of something which he had never shown a single soul.
"Love him?" Dreamer finished gently.
The expression on Tallas' face was as clear as any verbal assent he could have issued; for the first time in all those years, someone else knew the secret within his heart. Feeling suddenly exhausted, he buried his face again into Dreamer's neck, barely aware of the man's strong hands rubbing circles on his back. "Good," Dreamer whispered and lightly kissed Tallas' soft cheek. He maneuvered Tallas into a chair with the thoughts, Sabe you idiot, if you ever make it back here remind me to knock some sense into you.
Dreamer successfully unlocked the thrusters a little over ninety minutes later and sent his ship self into the cloud of dust and ashes left by the Telemachus. High-intensity scanner beams swept forth from the lateral arrays, like invisible hands sifting through a sea of sand for a single jewel. Another part of Dreamer's artificial brain worked to resolve a different signal, one which he expected to find.
"I got somethin'!" he said excitedly, causing Tallas' head to perk up from the wall. "Bearing 314 mark 28. Looks like an escape pod."
"Is it him?" Tallas' frayed voice helt a note of cautious optimism.
"Emergency radio beacon's active. I'm tractorin' it in." He wheeled and headed for the shuttlebay, Tallas following closely on his heels. They arrived just as the faint blue beam of artificial gravitons set the off-gray cylinder on the reflective metal floor of the hangar. Both of them also noticed the conspicuous absence of an used Kinjori shuttlecraft, but only barely as the recovered pod was foremost on their attentions.
Sabrin felt sharp pangs shoot through his battered body when the pod touched down. The small vessel was marginally beyond the blast radius of the stricken Telemachus, but the resultant shockwaves sent him tumbling against the cramped metal walls with substantial force, adding more bruises to the ones from his frenzied escape from the engine room. At least no bones seemed to be broken, as far as he could ascertain. The pod's sensors were destroyed in the explosion, so all he could do was watch the moving sunlight filtering through the tiny portal and wait, not even knowing if Dream had indeed been saved. He wanted to jump for joy when the blue glow of the tractor appeared -- were it not for his cramped muscles and sore joints. Instead he simply closed his eyes and imagined the pod being drawn into the Dream.
When he felt the influence of gravity again and the distant thump of the pod hitting ground, Sabrin pushed himself with a groan up into a semi-decent sitting position, facing the access hatch. His breathing was labored, growing more so since the low oxygen alarm appeared some minutes ago, but he dared not chance the atmosphere inside the old pod no matter what the internal meter said. The comn was also damaged, so he had no warning as a bright light stabbed into the dark recesses of his refuge, causing him to reflexively snap his eyes shut. When the throbbing subsided he squinted just in time to see a hazy silhouette slamming against him like a battering ram. Tears rose to Sabrin's eyes and his lips tugged irresistably into a grin when he saw Tallas' radiant face. Watery streaks glistened on his best friend's pale cheeks and his mouth was moving, though Sabrin couldn't hear the words through his helmet. Despite the pain wracking his body he thought he was dreaming, so euphoric and surreal was the scene playing out before him. With a noticeable effort, he brought up his own arms to complete their embrace, grateful for even the faint sensation of Tallas' body that transmitted through the scuffed EV suit.
Hands appeared at the collar of his suit, unlatching and removing the helmet. The blast of fresh air on his face was like a cold shower, sending a pleasurable, tingling rush spreading from his lungs as he took a couple deep breaths. All at once the reality of being back on the Dream arrived at his senses: the subtle vibration of the deck, the faint hum of the ion engines, the distinctive metallic tinge of recycled air. Tallas and Dreamer took hold of his suit and helped him out of the pod, upon which he wobbled alarmingly and had to lean against Dreamer to regain his balance.
"You don't look so good," the android commented helpfully.
"You're welcome," Sabrin croaked. His throat felt like sandpaper.
"Okay, first, thanks for the rescue, it was very chivalrous," Dreamer smiled, and then rapped Sabrin lightly in the back of the head.
"Ow! What the fuck was that for? What if I had a concussion?" Sabrin protested indignantly and rubbed the affected area. Beside him, Dreamer began half-leading, half-carrying Sabrin out of the shuttlebay.
"You don't have a concussion," it was the first thing Dreamer checked for, "just a couple bruises, contusions, and a torn ligament in the left shoulder. And that was for galavantin' off like some gun-totin' vigilante and cuttin' me off mid-sentence. Next time you pull somethin' like that by yourself I'm gonna make you regret survivin'." In spite of his words, a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth betrayed the A.I.'s inner approval.
"Hey, I didn't see you comin' up with any brilliant ideas," Sabrin said pointedly, "It worked didn't it?"
"Beside the point," the three of them exited the cargo elevator at the second deck. "We got only half the antimatter we came for, by the way."
"This mission sure didn't waste any time goin' to hell. You know what happened?" Sabrin winced as Dreamer lifted him off the ground and deposited him on the all-too-familiar center table in sickbay.
"Not on the Telemachus." Dreamer's expression darkened. "But here? Yeah I've got a pretty good idea."
"Lirelle?" Sabrin's mind reeled at the depths of her deception. How could he have been taken in so easily and completely?
"I should've seen it sooner. Her virus started sending me false sensor data days ago, before we even left the second time. I suspect that she was gone way before we reached the Telemachus," Dreamer shook his head.
"How's that possible? We're still shielded from Vesuvius," Sabrin queried.
"She was lying when she said she had to use the direct neural interface to regulate the shields. She's doing that indirectly right now through a tight-beam uplink with the main comn array. The only reason she said that was to gain access to my mainframe and plant her virus," suppressed anger simmered beneath Dreamer's smooth voice.
"I don't get it," Tallas glanced between the two of them, "What's she after? And why keep us alive through that uplink?"
Dreamer snapped his fingers in revelation. "The sensors! My sensor suite's much more advanced than anything the Kinjori've come up with. She needs them to work her shuttle's shields, and so she needs us alive to keep this ship operational."
"Then why sabotage the Telemachus?" Sabrin spat out, raising off the bed, only to grimace and sink back down. Instantly Tallas reached out and lightly rubbed his swollen shoulder, the touch soothing away the pain.
Dreamer shrugged his wide shoulders gracefully and said, "I dunno, but that's immaterial at this point. We need to go after her." He retrieved a cylindrical hypo-syringe from a nearby cabinet and filled it from a package recently unpacked from several crates of various salvaged medical supplies. "I'm gonna give you a quarter dose of triage stabilization serum," Dreamer pressed the fluid-filled instrument against Sabrin's neck and injected the concoction of drugs into his bloodstream. "It's kinda overkill for just a few bruises but we don't have any more time."
"Why're we going after her?" Sabrin struggled to keep his mind lucid while a strange, somewhat pleasant warming sensation was spreading through his body. I feel...drunk, he giggled a bit, unable to help himself. It was little wonder that TS-S is frequently known as "the doctors' booze" -- and the object of addictions in virtually every developed human star system. It was particularly popular in back-alley bars and other social venues of ill repute, where it allowed brawls to occur with far greater frequency.
"Is he alright?" Tallas asked in a concerned voice, watching an interesting blend of expressions play across his lolling friend's face. He'd heard of the effects of TS-S but had never seen it in action.
"Give him a half-hour," Dreamer said, turning to leave the room, "We've got to get movin'. Lirelle's already got a couple hours' lead on us."
Tallas couldn't deny that a part of him burned for revenge against Lirelle. She had betrayed their trust; threatened the life of his beloved. It was as if those transpired events left a dark shadow on his consciousness, tearing against the person he thought he was. What he desperately wanted was to believe that he saw the real Lirelle before and that there was a reason for why any of this was happening, but even to him it sounded like wishful thinking.
Yet, in spite of his urge to charge after his former shipmate and make her regret ever meeting any of them, the rest of Tallas' mind was screaming for him to leave this place and never return. He felt death everywhere here; it made his skin crawl. "Why? I think as long as the shields hold we should get the hell outta here," he argued, remaining beside the bed.
"No can do," Dreamer shook his head solemnly, "We're already near the range limit of the tight-beam link Lirelle has with the ship. It'll break before we can get away from the field. And, there's somethin' else too."
"What's that?" Tallas had an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
"We've gotta stop her from gettin' to the resonators," Dreamer said.
"Resonators?" A shiver rang down Tallas' spine at that bit of information.
"Yeah," Dreamer leaned over the table with both palms flat against the black surface. "Like I told Sabe before, I was keepin' an eye on her. I hid a transponder on her shuttle and now that there's nothin' scramblin' my sensors I've localized the signal again. Her ship's docked to Vesuvius."